My wife says I hyperbolize and that I’m ALWAYS coming home from Roots proclaiming it the BEST SHOW EVER, which isn’t really true, but yes I do tend to gush. But she and the rest of the family were there last night so they know what transpired. I’ll never declare any show best ever again, because it’s silly, but I can say confidently that we’ve had no show in our two-plus years that better captured our interwoven loves and passions: Nashville’s legacy, our community and music itself. The Red Beet Records Tom T. Hall Songs of Fox Hollow night was much anticipated, and it will be remembered in reverent tones for years to come (at least by us). So here’s an inadequate rundown of the night’s events.
I began a new habit of arriving mid-day, so I saw sound check for the first time in a while. Peter Cooper and Eric Brace, who’ve become special friends of the show through sub hosting duties and some terrific performances, calmly led their assemblage of professionals through the night’s flow, which would be a departure from the usual. Instead of four or five distinct acts, the plan was for the house band from the album to play behind a cast of guest vocalists as they played the tribute album around which the night was centered. And before I get to them, check out this band. Bassist Mike Bub is the go-to guy for acoustic and bluegrass in Nashville. Mark Horn used to drum for the Derailers and last night he drummed for us. Jen Gunderman, Brace’s long-time comrade on keys, played piano and accordion. Richard McLaurin laid down bedrock with banjo and guitar, and Michael “Supe” Granda was the night’s mandolinist. Solid.
And then there were two older gentlemen stage right who merit special attention. Who gets to have Lloyd Green and Duane Eddy in their house band? We’re talking about one of the top pedal steel players in the history of country music and the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer who shocked the world with instrumental guitar smash hits in the 1960s. But these are guys whom Peter Cooper has befriended in his years as a journalist and musician and coaxed into his universe as burgeoning producer. My agenda in arriving early was to start conducting on-camera interviews with special Roots guests. So after we worked out the logistics of the one and only place we could set up away from the sound of sound check (the women’s lobby restroom!) I got to have 15 minute conversations with both Green and Eddy, and they were extraordinary. We’ll post those somehow soon.
The show itself got going with essentially Side A of the Songs of Fox Hollow album, with enough sequencing license to start with (what else?) “The Barn Dance.” That song of cows and roosters having a party was performed by country torch-carrier Gary Bennett, who knows a good barn dance. It was kind of shocking to see the iconic Buddy Miller just milling about back stage; we’ve been wanting him to perform forever. And so he did, offering his updated version of “Sneaky Snake.” Peter led on “Everybody Loves to Hear A Bird Sing” with bird whistles from Fayssoux “Starling” McLean, and Eric delivered one of the best vocals of the album or the night singing about the “Mysterious Fox of Fox Hollow.” The ethereal Patty Griffin wasn’t on hand to sing her album take on “I Love,” but Matraca Berg stilled the room with a clear-toned, heart-felt rendition. Oh, and I can’t forget some other non-album guests, Doug and Telisha Williams, who brought infectious spirit to “I Wish I Had A Million Friends.”
In the second set, Mark Horn got to step out behind the drums to sing about a one-legged chicken with Supe. Brace and Cooper sang about a basset hound. Bennett returned to sing about communing with baby goats. And Fayssoux, with a flower in her hair, sang about making friends with a flower in one of the night’s prettiest performances. Only Tommy Womack, Bobby Bare’s “hip replacement” on the song “I Care” got to step away from the anthropomorphic farm situations in one of Tom T.’s most empathic and tender kids songs.
Set three turned the focus on some of the songs that made Tom T. Hall the legend he is. Cooper, who said a couple times during the evening so aptly that Hall had “changed the language of country music” in the 1960s and 70s, sang the complex and subtle song about the price of war called “Moma Bake A Pie.” Buddy Miller showcased his leather and lace voice on a solo rendition of “That’s How I Got To Memphis,” which he called a “touchstone” song for him and one he’s done in virtually every show for decades.
All this time, Tom T. and wife Dixie were sitting in the front row, taking everything in, enjoying themselves it seemed. Hall did come up a couple times during the show for a quick walk-on verse with Fayssoux and an interview with me that was a brilliant experience. But set number four was reserved entirely for the man himself. No band. Just a guitar, which he holds up to the microphone without a strap, and an easy rapport. The Storyteller, as he’s been called, was in fine form, setting up his songs with dry humor, context and commentary on the characters involved. “The Year Clayton Delany Died” took on even more vivid lines after hearing his memories of the actual guy. And following his funny and tender story of a trip to Miami that led to the song “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine,” his centered, beatific performance had the Loveless Barn as quiet and reverently attentive as it’s ever been. When Tom T. acknowledged the standing ovation by saying “I wish that you all could have had as much fun as I did,” I think we all wanted to contradict him, but not really. Validation is a divine thing.
Everybody jammed on “Harper Valley PTA,” which simply had to end the night. The fine band, which had been trading restrained licks all evening in deference to the words, got to stretch out more. Lloyd Green’s tone and boundless ideas are just astounding. Duane Eddy’s solo down there on those low strings he plays so well was an oh-hell-yeah moment. The afterglow was palpable and there were many hugs and high fives, and truth be told I’ve never seen our Twitter stream so full of excitement from inside and outside the barn. It comes down to great songs well sung and suffused with love. Tom T. wrote the words as usual: “I love winners when they cry, losers when they try, music when it’s good, and life.” Yes, yes, yes.