MCR’s Guitar Night began five years ago as an homage to an instrument that can do just about anything, and our Guitar Night shows have been built around wildly different picking pathways. This year, our (roughly) annual ex-string-vaganza had a more thematic focus, thanks to an alliance with the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society. And on an extraordinary and unprecedented Tuesday night edition of Roots, we experienced the down home grace and intricate dexterity of Chet inspired and Chet styled playing from some of the world’s experts and up and comers. The diversity came from their ages, which spanned more than 50 years.
We led with the veteran and consummate showman Thom Bresh. I’ve long wanted him on the show, and whether dancing on his strings alone or with the backing of the Endless Road Strings (a wonderful quartet that came on and off all night with various pickers), Bresh proved the joyful virtuoso and general raconteur I expected. Opener “Coupe De Ville” was a Roger Miller-esque rumination on coming to Nashville with big dreams but living, cheerfully, in your car. He offered lyrical lushness in the instrumental “Diana.” Besides getting loads of swing and energy out of his fingers on intricate numbers like “Vermillion” he kept it all easy going and warm with his personality.
John Knowles followed with his more classical approach on a nylon string guitar. His “Happy Again” had a Sunday in the park feeling, like jazz done by Debussy. He called up the versatile Pat Bergeson for a romantic and nuanced harmonica lead on “The Nearness of You.” John spidered his left hand all over his fretboard like tiny game of Twister on a Jerry Reed number, and he sang of Chihuahuas, against mariachi strings.
The next two sets made for a glimpse of the future as we segued from 14-year old phenom Parker Hastings to Nashville cat Jonathan Brown, each playing solo, finger-style flat-top guitar in his own way and salted with his own personality. After a 1960s pop feeling “Music To Watch Girls By” Hastings brought on Richard Smith for a Chet/Jerry Reed duo guitar tour de force. Brown’s playing was a bit more serene and atmospheric. There was still a pronounced thumb pattern keeping a groove, but more dark and dissonant chords in “The Old Spring House” and extravagant arpeggios in “Lillie Mae.” Best of all he played “Mr. Sandman,” which simply had to happen on a Chet night, and he did a great job.
The Hot Club of Nashville is a local institution, but I’ve never heard them sound better than Tuesday. They told me it was their third gig in three days, so the limberness and tightness showed. Guitar masters Richard Smith and Pet Bergeson sat side by side on stage right, each with his own approach. Smith is one of the world’s top fingerstylists on nylon string flattop. Pat plays (in this band) an electric archtop with a pick. The only thing better than their complimentary soloing were their frequent two-part worked out riffs and motifs. Meanwhile, effervescent Annie Sellick sang in the middle with her usual flair and delight. Aaron Till played sweet swinging violin to her left, and he also offered some fantastic vocals. We were all just mesmerized by the sweet and featherweight “Fiddling Around,” which had that June Cash kind of humor and swinging musical integrity that could only, and I mean only, be done this well by folks who live and breathe Nashville music. Richard kicked off the final song with a full, graceful guitar chorus of “You Do Something To Me” with light band backing, then they all swung full on for another duet by Annie and Aaron that could have been in a great 1961 movie.
Cheeky John Knowles must have come up with his concept for the Nashville Jam weeks ago and been busting to let us have it. It’s a Chet Atkins original called “Jam Man” and that’s what they did. A calm two-chord vamp with little high pitched filigree notes gave everyone chances to stretch out. Six stellar guitar players took their turns. It was indeed a jam, man. And all for the gentleman from Luttrell, TN who figured out how to make a band with his right hand.