We like to say that Music City Roots presents outstanding artists working in or passing through Nashville, and last night couldn’t have been a better example. We were visited by a West Coast twanger who’s lived here a year, a soothing songstress who’s logged six and touring artists from Austin, Oklahoma and Toronto. As for the Cleverlys, they tell us they moved as a clan from the Ozarks of Arkansas, but then they say all kinds of things. We’re not sure if anyone still arrives at the Greyhound station with nothing but a guitar and a change of clothes like they did in back in the day. But the point is there are as many roads to Nashville as there are individual voices.
Our survey of the new Nashville Sound bookended the night with (insert drawl here) cooooountry music, with a serious honky tonk outfit up front and a nutty send-up bluegrass/country band in the enviable caboose position. And where the latter sported ginormous hats and over-the-top threads, Dave Gleason and his band – borrowed bass, drums and guitar from hillbilly fashionista Marty Stuart – wore spiffy, understated suits and silk ties. They were the Reservoir Dogs of twang, and they sounded clean as well. “Neon Rose” was a two-step to paradise kind of a song, with all the Telecaster bends and steel-inspired guitar licks we crave. It’s quite cool that guitar master Kenny Vaughan (who also joined Gleason on his last Roots appearance) isn’t brought along to cover any lack of chops on Gleason’s part. No, the set is a great twin guitar romp, made most clear on the shimmering instrumental “The San Joaquin” which made two guitars sound like ten.
Loves It!, out of Austin and on the road for a marathon 80-date run, was not what I was expecting. We’d seen half of this duo – Jenny Parrott – as part of the band Shotgun Party. But this was no swingy dingy country jazz act. Instead, cooing vocals floated in keening harmonies over tremolo banjo and minimalist guitar. The songs had cool shapes and ideas. They’re just getting started, it seems.
That led to an artist who is by any estimation complete and ready for her prime time moment. Samantha Crain’s bold, fascinating voice and her thoughtful, poetic songs make for a stirring combination. Her band, lovely ladies on drums and bass, couldn’t have fit together better. They launched with the majestic and atmospheric “Lions” and moved into sweeter folkier territory with “Scissor Tail,” a song inspired by the state bird of Crain’s native Oklahoma. “Santa Fe” is a new favorite of mine, with its pure lyricism and arch beauty. “It’s Simple” brought the snap and crackle of folk pop, with a killer weaving bass line that really elevated the music.
The parade of fasincatin’ women continued with the duo Dala, pronounced like Dallas without the S. Cute without being cloying, Sheila Carabine and Amanda Walther show their many years of experience blending their voices. They pulled off a catchy idea with a duet with four hands seated at the same piano. Then they nailed a pure aching ballad called “Horses.” The finale was a stripped down “Moon River” accompanied only with a uke.
As you may have gleaned from my preview, I was really looking forward to Angel Snow, and it was a gorgeous set. Our video director Jim said well after the show that from his view in the truck, Angel’s truly special – and NO not just normal special but REALLY something. And he’s directed some of the best music TV ever. I think he’s right. Her music blooms like a blush on a cheek, from a simple strum to a rush of warm sound. The songs, best exemplified by “Lie Awake,” her big Alison Krauss cut, have dynamic, interesting melodies that keep running in your head. Two new tunes, I think flagged as “Photographs” and “These Days” were wonderful, so the sophomore album coming this summer from Angel is something to look forward to.
After all that serenity and sincerity, it’s probably best that our sixth and final act kept things light and weird. The Cleverlys are relentlessly entertaining, playing off each other as well as the audience. “Hocus Pocus” was a heavy metal send-up with Spinal Tap references. They reworked Bruno Mars’s reggae-feeling “Lazy Song” and wrapped up with a sky-high and lonesome take on “She’s Not There,” which of course in Cleverly fashion came out “She Ain’t There.” It was credibly bluegrass too, with Monroe-esque falsetto on the chorus. It was bonkers, but it won a standing ovation. Host Jim Lauderdale, back after a short hiatus, took us all the way into bluegrass territory for the closing Loveless Jam and a tune we’ve never featured, to my recollection – “Salty Dog Blues.”
Other highlights included handing out an awesome gift package to the winner of our Spread Your Roots contest/campaign. Nashville’s Fred Hibbert joined me on stage at the top of the show to accept our thanks for being such an involved fan. To folks like him who are spreading the word about our road to and out of Nashville, thanks eternally.