It was a grand tour of Dixie on Wednesday night. The bill included artists from Memphis, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina and Nashville, and they brought fiery performances and brilliant songs. Our photographer Tony Scarlati was ebullient afterwards, declaring it the best ever, but we think he was partly just euphoric from how elegantly our new light rig illuminated our performers. To be sure, it was a dreamy evening, with a sliver crescent moon hanging in a cool coral sky just before show time. And the spirit and soul of our varied Southern American sounds surged out of the Loveless Barn.
That first surge you heard was your humble correspondent. Yes, with Jim Lauderdale all geared up to play his first full set on Roots in ages, I thought maybe he’d let me offer the night’s appetizer song, and I went with “I Ask Anyway,” a song I wrote years ago that’s gone over well at several weddings, including my own. Thanks to him for that and to many friends and neighbors for their kind words. Then it was on with the real show, as Jim and his crack band ripped into his bluegrass repertoire. The kickoff was the brisk and rippling “I Will Wait For You” from the I Feel Like Singing Today album, and he slid into the masochistic love song “Iodine” from the very very new Carolina Moonrise album. We must salute the stellar picking of his band, including Ollie O’Shea on fiddle, Randy Kohrs on dobro, John Frazier on mandolin, Jay Weaver on bass and Mike Sumner on banjo. Jim’s set closer was special because he really got the audience singing along on the chorus of “Headed For The Hills.” ‘Twas a moment.
The Blue Dogs built their reputation over 25 years as purveyors of what they call Low Country Rock (they’re from South Carolina, you see, Charleston, to be precise). But last night they presented a pure country/grass acoustic trio with two guitars, an upright bass and strong vocals all the way across. “Cosmic Cowboy” featured a sort of Spanish riff and a breezy feel. Former and once again Blue Dog Phillip Lammonds sang his original “She Ain’t Thinkin’ Bout You,” and it reminded me strongly of Shawn Camp (not in an imitating kind of way but in a kindred soul kind of way), with a rich baritone and sparkling country truth in the lyric. Bassist Hank Futch offered a kind of recitation song in the funny “Bill Bill” about a country boy and his pet pig. They wrapped with a Radney Foster co-write that (like most Radney-touched songs) would sound great on current country radio. As if.
Next came the delicious Honeycutters from Asheville, NC. I was mistaken that they were Roots first-timers, but their previous appearance was one of the few shows I had to miss while traveling, so I beg your forgiveness and theirs. This duo plus three-piece band was just superb, with a sweet toned and melodious aura that put me in mind of the erstwhile everybodyfields. Today’s Smoky Mountain area modern folk thing does have a certain vibe, and these guys are among its finest purveyors. Happily, after three floaty and beautiful songs (well written by lady half Amanda Anne Platt) the band shifted into a hard Memphis vibe with “Fancy Car.” It was a car song disguised as a train song, with a rolling rock beat and a wild and free guitar solo by guy half Peter James. Great stuff.
Jimbo Mathus is a fascinating and very original cat who approaches roots music like an extension of his heritage and geography. I really enjoyed a long interview we did Wednesday afternoon, when he told me about his rambling and remarkable life. The sincerity of his personal journey into the heart of Southern music shows in the gritty and rangy sound he’s developed. He and his four-piece band came out blazing on “Shady Dealin’” and then got into a more Band-ish bottomland groove on the thematically intense “In The Garden.” Yes, that garden, the one with the snake. I simply love Jimbo’s “Tennessee Walker Mare” with its striding melody, and he left us all with smiles evoked by “I Wanna Be Your Satellite,” which sounded to me like Big Star as produced by Bill Lloyd.
Which brings us to Jason D. Williams. One wonders seriously what kind of impression he’d have made as a young guy. Would he have engendered concern among those who were responsible for his safety and well being? Is his moony-eyed, revved-up zaniness real or put on like a cape? I don’t care. This Memphian is funny as hell, weird in the best way and simply unstoppable as an entertainer. The piano pulses. Grace notes are struck with his boot heel. He leads his band over hill and yonder and they follow him to the microsecond. What did he play? I’m not sure, except there was a good stretch of “Crazy Arms” done as an angular hillbilly dirge, a rollicking churchy number (with a great story about the Rev. Al Green) and a very curious segue of Lionel Richie’s “Easy” into “Whole Lotta Shakin’” which felt like coming home.
Jason D. anchored the Loveless Jam’s take on “Hesitation Blues,” which was a great one to finally do. And the various artists got some nice solos in as we closed out the night. I felt like I’d been everywhere, man.