Surprise Package

We had a guy who was big in the 70s and some guys who were born in the 80s. We had the biggest band we’ve ever had on Music City Roots and the funniest artist we’ve ever had. Naturally, we had some bracing roots rock and a mod mountain-inspired songstress. That’s par for the course. But in general, for a random Wednesday in June, it was quite the night of firsts and surprises.

So savor the irony of getting started with a band called The New Familiars. They’re familiar to us because they played a great set on the Loveless stage last fall. And they’re new because they’ve figured out a way to crank the intensity of their bluegrass instruments up to about 9.5 and lace it with dirty blues and sound fresh and different. They really made their set a show, with an involving, spacey intro that cracked into a country bouncer with searing slide guitar. And then they surprised (see, I was getting to that part) with a totally re-imagined cover of “My Girl.” Yes, The Temptations song. The bearded ones gave the old warhorse a new lease on life. They are a magnificent band.

Next, we might have surprised Brigitte DeMeyer by giving her the Vietti “emerging artist” slot. She’s pretty familiar in Americana circles having released four albums, but hey in the greater scheme of things, that’s still new-ish, right? She’s got a rich voice influenced by gospel and other southern sounds, and she certainly kept up her habit of working with superb musicians, as Al Perkins took dobro duties and the great Brian Owings back on drums.

Then I surprised Jim Lauderdale and producer John by screwing up the order of the show and turning up to interview Tommy Womack and Will Kimbrough a whole set too early. Everyone rolled elegantly through my mistake, so thanks for that. Jim was trying to introduce Nora Jane Struthers, a newcomer with a debut album about to be released who does the old-time country meets urbane, aware songwriter thing very very well. Kicking off with “Greenbriar County,” she showcased a song that will likely be a signature song for her as her career develops. She has a lot of nuance in her voice and, as she noted in her interview, her background as an English teacher makes her alert to the persuasive power of narrative. That’s a fancy way of saying she tells good stories. And on her own “Cowgirl Yodel #3” she feminized the Jimmie Rodgers vibe and swung her way, with fab fiddle and vocal accompaniment to the end of her set.

No amount of surprises could prepare us for the walking, talking, singing surprise factory that is Steve Poltz. Like a blend of late-night TV host Craig Ferguson and folk ranconteur Steve Goodman, this wide-eyed character transfixed (or completely puzzled) the audience during his time on stage. He sang an autobiographical song about his boyhood migration from Canada to Palm Springs, of all places, his encounters with Liberace and Elvis and his love of baseball announcers, complete with sampled audio on his iPhone of Toronto Blue Jays sportscaster Tom Cheek calling the climax of a World Series victory. And he offered a hilariously annotated version of the monster hit he co-wrote with Jewel, “You Were Meant For Me.” And now I can finally say I heard a version of that song I like.

We knew we’d lose our hearts to DADDY, the band combining the talents of Kimbrough and Womack with the rocking rhythm section of Owings and bassist Dave Jacques. Both guys had performed on Roots individually, but this combo thing really works for them. You get Womack wit and power blended with Kimbrough’s sincerity and blazing guitar chops. We want to be adopted by them. My favorite tune, Womack’s “Early To Bed, Early To Rise” with its crazy brilliant valedictory address from hell, apparently delivered by the type of guy who told Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate about “plastics.” They gave Will a great guitar showcase on the Bo Diddley beat infused “Wash and Fold.” No surprises here. They were great.

Wrapping up the night was something a bit unusual for us, but it was a classic and very canny choice for acknowledging the kickoff of what I will always call Fan Fair. Con Hunley, one of the great voices of country music circa late 1970s and early 80s, brought a vast 9-piece band with horns and steel and backup singers to the stage for a sort of Roots meets Ray Charles in Vegas kind of set. He sang “Oh Girl,” one of his biggest hits and his large posse of fans swooned. He did “Georgia On My Mind” and everybody swooned. They funked up the old blues number “Big Boss Man,” which was another highlight. Dude can really sing, and the band rocked and rolled admirably. Then Con set the tone and led the band on a gospel rave up version of “Rolling In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” to close out the Loveless Jam. That’s right, the Flatt & Scruggs song of forbidden hillbilly love done like it was church. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

Craig H

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