The night before Roots this week I attended the induction ceremonies at Nashville’s Musicians Hall of Fame. In a music world with too many awards and honors, this place truly have a purpose: to honor players, including famous artists who are also excellent musicians and little-known side-men and side-women who make records sing behind the singer. On Tuesday night for example, Neil Young himself came to pay tribute to and induct his late friend Ben Keith, the steel guitarist whose swelling silver wash made albums like Harvest so magical. Rhythm guitarist Velma Smith, the only woman working in the studios of Nashville in the 1960s, was also inducted, along with more familiar folks like Barbara Mandrell and Peter Frampton.
These musicians are in the latter miles of their journeys. They’ve participated in the wild ride of popular music as it evolved from 45s to digital streams, from the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and Town Hall Party to YouTube. But on our show this week, we got to hear from a bunch of players who are just setting out. All the rules have changed, except for the abiding requirements of excellence and dedication. These kids (I have the years on me to say that now I’m afraid) had little in common other than roots in Nashville and at school at Belmont University, our partners for a special night. I’d give everyone involved an A.
First, a special nod to our host Jim Lauderdale. I don’t typically note his show-opening solo performances in this chronicle, because their excellence is a routine part of our show. As a fan of 20 years (dear god) I love hearing, from my fortunate vantage point, his catalog and his new work as it comes out of the writing room. But seriously, I think last night’s performance was the finest he’s ever laid on us. A slow and passionate love song that seemed to channel Donny Hathaway, it hushed the crowd and produced a vocal of amazing tenderness and subtlety. We were blown away. Then we chatted with Dr. Bob Fisher, president of Belmont, about the school’s deep and rich music program. And then it was on with our bands. (Just in time for the fourth paragraph!)
First on deck was hearty traditional country music from Williams & Co., a four piece stacked with talent and twang. Americana music has birthed fewer honky-tonk ready bands than it did in the 90s, but add these guys to a new surge distinguished by folks like Sturgill Simpson, Daniel Romano and Ashley Monroe. Leader Alex Williams has a bony baritone, and his sensibility is informed by Waylon, Willie and Billy Joe Shaver. In performing the single they released that very day, “Discount Country, Half-Price Rock n Roll,” the Company offered a veritable manifesto. They seem dead set on bringing sliding, blue, edgy old-school country to unsuspecting audiences. The caliber of picking and inventive ideas from the band, particularly nimble electric guitarist Sam VanFossen, should ensure an enthusiastic hearing.
Up next came Robert Shirey Kelly, whose personal ease and charisma translated into tuneful, embraceable songs. In bright pop pieces like “Matches” and “We Are Poetry,” he discoursed on inspiration and the well-lived and richly-loved life. He brought another sharp guitar player as part of his five-piece band – one Dan Fernandez – who made savvy use of his many effects pedals.
Then came a band who might have left the loudest buzz in their wake, as apparently they’ve been doing wherever they’ve gone. The Lonely Biscuits have a name ideal for the jam band circuit and Music City Roots. And I thought the song that was easiest to find online, which they put at the top of their set, “Casual Vibes” was kind of a pleasant trifle. But as they got deeper into their performance, I grew increasingly excited about their musicianship, their ensemble smarts and what the academic musicologists refer to (not really) as their THANG. And that THANG is a twin vocal attack in which John Paterini sings with soul/funk conviction and Grady Wenrich raps with mellow hip-hop flow. The trade-off is seductive. “Pool Day” began with a clean, deceptively simple guitar riff and a tick-tock hi-hat but grew into a minimalist but lovely musical swirl with edgy rhythm and a sweet chorus. And “Butter” spoke to us at Roots for sure with rap lyrics that included “I’m wishing that the radio would add more creativity/I guess I’ll take it on as my responsibility.” That’s the spirit boys.
With Striking Matches we were in more familiar territory, in that Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis had performed on roots last summer and on Scenic City Roots just last month. Their wonderful songs like “Miss Me More” and the elegant ballad “When The Right One Comes Along” were still swimming in our heads. At Scenic they’d added “Make A Liar Out Of Me” to their set, and this one has a blend of integrity and radio friendly that could be big. Country radio, the clue phone (once again) is ringing. Now bluegrass, as we know, hasn’t been on country radio since 1964, but by golly it’s on Hippie Radio thanks to Roots. And we sent some sweet, salty, soaring bluegrass over the airwaves last night as Sister Sadie took the stage for a show closing set. Dale Ann Bradley and Tina Adair joined voices together in immaculate conviction, while the band’s ensemble feel and timing was pristine and precise. On a night of mostly youngsters, these were the experienced, mid-career professionals, making it look easy. Even though it’s not.
The jam simply had to pay homage to Pete Seeger, whose legacy I processed here on my own blog if you’re interested. We sang “This Land Is Your Land” at the top of our lungs. And as the night’s impressive, emerging talents try to make this land their land and travel its ribbons of highways and endless skyways, we wish them good luck and fair weather.