Take It Down A Notch

From my late night scan on the DVR, the CMA Awards looked to be their usual tsunami swirl of sublime and ridiculous. It was lovely to see Kacey Musgraves sing with Loretta and win Single of the Year for her brave and original “Follow Your Arrow.” You can’t go wrong with George Strait and Vince Gill. Brad and Carrie were charming and funny. There is a person I should warn you about named Cole Swindell who seems to have done a home study course on hip-hop stagecraft and parlayed that into a country record deal. But it is what it is. I bring up the affair not to beat a dead horse but to point out a contrasting idea about music that may never be reconciled in our fine show biz town.

I realize that the CMA Awards are a televised show and a spectacle. But when every song is its own high-concept Hollywood blockbuster, nothing seems that special anymore. The motto around here is “it all starts with a song…” but for some reason the unspoken conclusion is: “…and it if works out, it’ll be with a light show visible from space and 20 dancers from central casting.” My feeling is, if I indulge in a mega stage show, it had better be Pink Floyd or U2 or Phish. If it’s country music, or its many cousins in Americana, I get a whole lot more out of it if starts with the song and stays with the song, as interpreted by voices and instruments. And little surprise, that’s how it went down Wednesday evening at The Factory where we enjoyed five human-scale performances by honest artists doing close-up, careful work. It’s artisanship versus artifice. It’s the book being better than the movie. I didn’t coin the term, but I wish I had: less is more.

Missy Raines always has her ear to the ground for young talent, and her retooled New Hip band is hipper than ever. There were more crows than an episode of Game of Thrones. “Blackest Crow” is a favorite of mine with its succulent electric guitar wash from Ethan Ballinger and three-part harmonies over a gentle waltz-time sway. “American Crow” found Missy setting her lovely old Kay bass aside to play banjo on a simple and rhapsodic tune. Jarrod Walker is a really crafty mandolinist and his solo on Peter Rowan’s song “Thirsty In The Rain” was magic. Set-closer “Room To Roam” gave him and Ballinger room to solo over a driving bluegrass beat. Missy’s melodies and themes are so folky, but the wrapping is modern. If loving that makes me a hipster, then so be it.

In the emerging artist slot, one week after Caroline Rose, was Caroline Reese, so let’s all resolve to remember the difference. Rose was punky and wry. Reese is as sweet as the peanut butter cup that bears her name. Her smile is bright and her songs are warm. She favors minor keys, clean melodies and rolling, road-worthy grooves, which were sparked up by Mark Watter’s pinging electric guitar and a tight rhythm section. “East of the Alleghenies” mined regional memories from her Pennsylvania home, with Civil War echoes and I’m guessing family history. “What I Did” had the most drama of the set. Reese isn’t a powerhouse vocalist but she’s got the intensity to sell her smart songs and fill the stage. I learned that she just graduated from Princeton, so that explains the smart part. Much more is possible with some post college ramblin’ and livin’.

Tommy Malone IS a powerhouse vocalist, and his New Orleans-grounded roots rock sounded great. The band featured bass, drums and killer keys by Sam Brady, which were the main fuel of opener “Natural Born Days.” It reminded me of The Band with its big fat easy-going chords. Malone’s vocals called to mind so many classic vibes, from Roy Orbison to Dr. John to Delbert McClinton. His electric slide guitar punched up the funk on “Home,” and then he spoke to the homebodies among us with his set closer, a party song that urged us to take off the day’s work clothes and “put my jammies on.” I always did like jammie bands.

I always admire the nerves of those who hit the stage solo after a fiery band set. And Edward David Anderson was calm as a morning lake. He sat behind a big bass drum and thumped it happily while playing various stringed instruments and singing forward-looking, life-affirming songs. His Midwestern locus, powerhouse style and big beard reminds me of Rev. Peyton, and I’d not be surprised if they’re pals. But less gravel and more grace is Anderson’s style. He fingerpicked dirty toned nylon string guitar, which is rare and plunky and cool. “Son Of A Plumber” was a revealing, honest song. I loved his two numbers on banjo, something he’s added in the last few years he said. And he wrapped with “One At A-Timin’” a sincerely fine ode to the road.

I’d offered a lot of build-up for Trey Hensley, and I hope y’all were as impressed as I was. In spare acoustic duo form with dobro magician Rob Ickes by his side, Hensley dove right into Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia On A Fast Train,” one of the finest uptempo country songs ever written. It’s romping tempo let Trey’s voice curl through the tongue twister lyrics and his fingers flay the strings with his flatpick. “Lightning” was a killer moonshinin’ song with a bluegrass speed that fit its title. Trey’s original “My Way Is The Highway” had a clever and original rhythmic feel and an Irish-influenced riff/theme done as a guitar dobro duet. They brought the blues with a feisty take on Steve Ray’s “Pride And Joy” and surprised with a superb “Friend of the Devil” with a free and open breakdown that let both instrumentalists show their gifts. This was even more of a picking set than a singing set for me, but Hensley’s voice is definitely something amazing with smoky colors and mature phrasing. Only Bradley Walker has impressed me from his generation as much for pure country vocal artistry.

The gang worked up “Wild Horses” for the Nashville Jam, and once the big singalong and great night of music was over we dragged ourselves away for another week. I’ll leave you with something Edward David Anderson said, as he explained that he loves his recent study of the banjo for the same reasons he loves music at large – that it’s eternally a “work in progress” – a journey with no end. By contrast (and this is me talking now, not him), The CMA/industrial approach to music tries too hard to force music to an apparent perfection. And the result is that “uncanny valley” they talk about when really advanced humanoid robots or animation kinda sorta fool you but actually just creep you out. Thanks to all our fine, truly human artists who made so much happen by taking it down a notch.

Craig H.

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