Some come to Nashville with dreams of fame and fortune, which makes for good movie scripts but really winds up being meaningless in the long run. Others were drawn here with a burning curiosity and hope that Nashville’s musical community and history are real and knowable and fulfilling – that its mojo still lives and is accessible to those who avail themselves of it, whether as an artist, picker, producer, fan or chronicler. I’ve been extremely fortunate to find that is real, and in my 14 years here I’ve heard and seen moments of musical alchemy and artistic accomplishment that will rank among the most important memories of my life. Last night’s Music City Roots was such an experience. We’ve had many great shows, but something about this convergence of styles, trends, community, venue and sheer unmitigated talent was a true epiphany.
It didn’t hurt that the Loveless Barn looked amazing. Our fearless leaders and our friends at WCTE in Cookeville conspired to shoot the show on multiple HD cameras and then, in an act of 21st century audacity, to air it live on the web. So the place was lit like it never had been, and the stage was bigger and we had a new Roots sign that looked awesome. Then there was the sell-out crowd, including the raucous Brandi Carlile contingent who’d started lining up outside in the early afternoon. By showtime, the place was surging with people and electricity.
So it was like serving up Mountain Heart a big, hanging curve ball that they hit out of the park on their first at-bat. Raging into “Deadwood,” a smoking instrumental, Jimmy, Barry, Clay, Jason, Aaron and Josh set a tone of intensity that would not let go for the next three hours. They ended their set with their signature cover of “Whipping Post” and handed the joyful crowd over to Vietti emerging artist Ryan Cook. Determined not to be the guy who wouldn’t surprise us, he kicked into his first uptempo, country-infused tune with Jim Hoke on clarinet. Cook has a marvelous velvety voice and the songs are there too. We’re eager to hear more from him.
Our crowded and star-studded lineup continued with a performance by Randall Bramblett, the Athens GA master-of-all-trades who’s directed bands for Steve Winwood and made a long string of his own albums that are beloved by those who know them. Blessed with that perfect silk and sandpaper voice, he’s also a thoughtful wordsmith whose songs can sound like soul-satisfying hybrids of Randy Newman and Bruce Hornsby. He offered up “Get In Get Out” from his awesome 2001 No More Mr. Lucky album and a couple new tunes from his stripped down The Meantime disc, including the moving “Driving To Montgomery.” He also built on the night’s trend of leaving me and everyone else wanting more.
It was pretty easy to predict that Brandi Carlile would stir up the crowd. The very mention of her name in the pre-show announcements was enough to make them erupt. She’s loved for the authority of her songs and the soaring beauty of her voice, and her song “The Story” became a pretty significant hit out there on radio and television. Her performance of the song sounded like a power-folk group fronted by a rock star. She said in her interview she was an admirer of Freddy Mercury and it’s clear that borrowing something from his brazen vocal and performance style has made Carlile remarkably compelling. She wrapped with a personal nod to Nashville and WSM by playing a ripping version of “Folsom Prison Blues.”
In a night of tough acts to follow, each act kept upping the ante. Mike Farris brought an even bigger band than he has in the past, an ensemble he calls the Cumberland Saints, with the mando and fiddle chops of Beau Stapleton and Andy Leftwich on stage right and a horn section on stage left. Of course the three McCreary Sisters were on hand. So when they offered up songs from Farris’s upcoming EP themed around the Cumberland River flood, they all made a joyful, cathartic sound.
After Farris, only something very special from the boundaries of known physics could have frosted our cake. Sounds like a job for Jason and the Scorchers. Jason Ringenberg dashed on the stage in a cowboy shirt that looked Cadillac chrome stamped into a paisley pattern and hung with audacious fringe and tore into “Mona Lee” off the band’s new and much anticipated album Halcyon Times. Many have tried to capture the audacious brilliance of this band with mere words, so I can’t say much that would help. But let’s just say that everyone from 9-year-old girls to grandmas were out there in the crowd with wide open eyes and big, gaping smiles. They rock hard but not violently. It’s punk energy shot through with joy and humor. And keeping it all meticulously controlled is the guitar precision of Warner Hodges, who has a huge vocabulary of ideas and licks. And somehow he can rip them off while spinning like some hillbilly dervish. It’s one of the seven wonders of the musical world, and we can’t quite believe we got to feature them on Roots.
When all these supreme, soulful voices, including our own Jim Lauderdale, got up to trade verses on “Goodnight Irene” in the Loveless Jam, the slow, waltz-time tempo was the perfect cool-down to a hot night. The amazing audience stayed late and sang along. It was church and it was a community hall. It was a hootenanny and a picking party. It was everything this show set out to be.