There was a lot to turn one’s head last night at Music City Roots, but at one point I did a double take. Ben Sollee was early on in his truly epic set (more on that later), playing his cello like a clawhammer banjo and singing sweet tones, when I noticed that his cello wasn’t resting on the floor like every cello player I’d ever seen. The endpin, that little pole that extends from the bottom of the instrument, was retracted and he had the cello cradled between his crossed ankles. It underlined the Ben Sollee story: seemingly NOTHING this guy does is conventional, ho-hum, expected or written in the rule books. That’s a hallmark of many of the artists on Roots and of artistry itself, but it’s great to see such a boldly different, boundary-less artist who succeeds so completely. Because rule-breaking is a risk. The heights are potentially greater but the fall can be farther.
Anyway, on to the night, which veered between laid-back and loud, even as it remained thought-provoking. Openers came from the duo of Pierce and Grace Pettis, and it seemed clear that when this veteran folk songwriter and his newcomer daughter perform together he’s quite content to showcase her and let her take the lead. The pair did duet on the opening “Nothing But The Wind,” a song by Pierce’s late hero Mark Heard, but then it pretty much became Grace’s set, and graceful it was. Her voice is luxurious and sweet, and her dark-edged song “Murder of Crows” really pulled me in with its creative chords and haunting imagery. We got to hear Pierce’s woody, wonderful voice and signature fingerpicking at last on the set-closing “Veracruz.”
Then some more emerging artists. Vermont to Nashville songwriter Erin McDermott brought a high-caliber band of Nashville bluegrass pickers and then earned every bit of that support with an assertive, expressive voice and well-written songs about real-feeling characters. Very, very nice. Following up on that was Grant Farm, a band I THOUGHT was going to kick the bluegrass but only because I was not paying close enough attention. Guitarist Tyler Grant and drummer Chris Misner set out to play heavy electric country music, and Grant’s biting Telecaster confirmed the promise. “Tell Me, Tell Me” was a punchy boogie (original too, as were all the songs) and the finale “Engineer” was a sensational locomotive of a train song that started strong and grew to a fiery conclusion.
The sublime Pieta Brown came next, taking the stage with a lone accompanist, long-time guitarist and musical partner Bo Ramsey, who looked cool and lean in a white cowboy hat and a pinstripe jacket. Pieta is deceptively fragile in voice and demeanor – a self-described shy person who nevertheless writes lines like: “Hey hey, 1,2,3 / I’m on fire like my favorite trees / Maple, willow and oak / But you won’t catch me by the smoke.” That cool quatrain came from “Mercury,” the title track to her latest project, which she performed. And I liked very much how it stepped delicately out of moody songwriter territory and put a toe or two in pop-land. It made for a feel-good melody, even as the lyrics remained a little mysterious.
And finally, this young, on-the-make artist by the name of Ben Sollee. I’m gonna be guilty here of unequal treatment, because this was a set that I’ll always remember as one of our best. I’d seen him several years ago, but he hadn’t consolidated his style like he has now. I expected to be impressed, but there were enough layers of what was working about Ben’s performance to fill five of these blogs. His voice is a natural gift. A young white Kentucky guy is not supposed to sing with richness comparable to Sam Cooke, but he can, and his songs are simply fascinating in their breadth and candor. But my wonder and delight came from the fully realized musicality of the set. In his balanced fusion of jazz’s improvisatory freedom, classical’s structural integrity and pop’s shimmering sense of melody and beat, I hear rare greatness. Close your eyes and there’s no way this is a DUO, but it was Ben with cello and Jordon Ellis on drums and percussion, and the dialogue between these imaginative, attentive musicians was the very essence of what I think music is about. When we get it posted, you must check out (or review) “How To See The Sunrise,” which evolved through many moods and passages. It led to a mid-set standing ovation that merely previewed the ovation at the end after the powerful and hopeful “Only A Song” and an encore – the witty, funky “Bury Me With My Car.”
The whole gang rattled the Loveless pots and pans with its closing jam on the old standard “Hand My Down My Walking Cane.” Grant Farm’s keyboard player surprised us with an accordion solo. But then I’ve come to expect surprises when this much talent gets together.