I wasn’t able to get any writing done on Thanksgiving morning, with family arriving and a big meal to prepare, so I’m reviewing this year’s big holiday Music City Roots from a couple of days’ distance. And that works, because over the last three years, the Thanksgiving Eve show has become a warm and emotional extension of my favorite holiday – the one with family and food but without the shopping mall pressure. Music has not traditionally had a big role to play in Thanksgiving, but maybe we’re changing that in some small way by starting a few traditions of our own.
18 South for example has played every one of our T’giving shows, because they bring the spirit of the backporch and the family jam to the professional stage. They’ve been taking it a bit easy lately because married lead singers Jessi and Jon had twin boys just a few weeks ago. And for completely unrelated reasons, Jessi was reduced to a tambourine shaking role this time out because of laryngitis. But the band sounded great, opening with a great old Jon Randall song that I’ve long associated with Jim Lauderdale called “What You Don’t Know.” Jon slowed it all down and sang beautifully on “East Texas Moon,” and Jimi Wallace’s Peanuts-inspired “Don’t Take My Blanket” became a surprisingly effective vehicle for Guthrie Trapp’s guitar jam.
Long-time sideman and bluegrass/newgrass standout Luke Bulla made a sensational debut in the second slot. He can bring championship fiddling and soaring vocals in turns, as he did on “The Valley.” The set mostly featured songs from Bulla’s first-ever recording, a self-titled EP that’s been circulating this year. “Blind” proved how complex Luke can get with a melody and chord changes while still keeping the listener grounded. His take on the bluegrass classic “Blue and Lonesome” brought 21st century groove to an old warhorse. It’s going to be a blast to spectate next year as Luke finishes a full album and takes his gorgeous voice and songs to the people.
Shawn Camp is a venerable favorite at Roots, because he’s a beacon of what country music can and should be in the modern era. Never hidebound but always anchored in tradition, Camp brings rippling rhythmic pockets and aching blue vocals, as he did on the Guy Clark co-write “Magnolia Wind.” Then his great “Traveling Teardrop Blues” and “My Love Will Not Change” delivered full jet thruster energy and twang, with Guthrie Trapp and Jimi Wallace trading leads.
Finally, what better way to end a semi-sacred night than with Mike Farris’s passionate voice and his Roseland Rhythm Revue and the McCrary Sisters. He always brings great bands, and this night he outdid himself with Michael Rhodes on bass and Reese Wynans on the keyboards. “Oh Mary” and “Selah” were the familiar favorites. And a slow, contemplative take on James Taylor’s “You’ve Got A Friend” was a nice surprise. Mike sang the verses and the McCrarys the choruses, with their extraordinary grace and fullness of spirit.
It took a little while for the Loveless Jam to get really in synch, but when it did, the choruses of Dylan’s “Forever Young” rang through the rafters and sent people into the night feeling younger, closer and more grateful. We can’t thank our artists enough. Or our fans, sponsors, crew, bartenders, radio affiliates and friends worldwide. Gratitude and love are the fuel cells that keep our show electrified and amplified. Here’s to more memories in the year to come.