Our East Nashville friends Doug and Telisha Williams showcased their relatively new Americana trio The Wild Ponies this week at Roots and in doing so offered some food for thought. I loved their song “Things That Used To Shine,” which plumbs the appreciating value of once-bright and new objects that have lost their superficial luster, like leather boots and favorite records and a grandfather’s eyes. Then Doug sang lead on a true-story song about a short-track stock car driver from the early 1960s. And that got me thinking about things that used be less shiny than they are today but worse off for the change, like NASCAR and country music. The cars shine. The singers’ teeth shine. The singers’ cars shine, as does their money. But all for meh? Why did forces bigger than us seize control of stuff that used to be done by real people with all their individuality and folkways and transform it into something slick and polished, managed by corporations? How did they so easily make off with so much of our collective soul?
Ah well. That’s why we do this and why we scout for authentic artistry – musicians who would rather dive to the heart of things than seek fortune by homogenizing themselves and flogging a brand. And on this penultimate show of the winter 2014 season, with the first flowers just peeking up around town, we had a grand time basking in just the right kind of shine. We welcomed super-singer John Cowan to our stage for his first turn as guest host. He teamed up with a couple of amazing guitarists to perform a rarely covered Flying Burrito Brothers song called “Why Are You Crying.” Then he brought on Teea Goans, who had a couple ringer guitarists of her own. I mean my word, Larry Cordle AND Carl Jackson? If you don’t know those names you don’t know Nashville country/grass. Their voices, fused with Teea’s bold and clear country call, especially on “I Didn’t Mean To Love You,” was thrilling. She also pulled off a surprise duet with Jamie Dailey of Dailey & Vincent fame that could have been a Louvin Brothers song if they were instead the Louvin Brother and Sister. Sounded luscious.
From that svelte, sweet, Southern female we turned to a burly bearded man with a world weary voice. Don Duprie of Detroit sang vividly of hard times, which he sees up close in his day to day as a laid-off fire fighter. “My MFNJOB” was a clever working man blues, but at least that guy had a job, versus the desperate guy in the very tough “What Am I Supposed To Do?” Talk about your difficult rhetorical questions. Then The Wild Ponies stepped up and delivered their own gritty songs. There’s abuse and revenge killing in “Trigger,” which Telisha Williams sang with fever while keeping things rocking on her big acoustic bass. Doug stuck to his acoustic guitars all the way until the more vintage rocking finale “Truth Is,” which built from a smoldering to slamming and back again.
Then it was on to two very different takes on bluegrass, with the young and fusion-friendly segueing into a veteran who defines the classic sound in the modern era. Cabinet from Pennsylvania grew from a standing start seven years ago, playing instruments they didn’t know how to play. Nowadays they show some real chops. They fly along at incredible speeds with banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle and doghouse bass all supported by a confident drummer. “Wine And Shine” offered a tribute to that other kind of shine, which Myra calls for every show from the front row (“Moonshine!”). And they offered their most melodic tune “Doors” before cranking back up to full tilt railroad boogie on set closer “Old Farmer’s Mill.”
In Rhonda Vincent & The Rage then, we saw what the right kind of polish can achieve. Nothing ragged about these veteran musicians, and that’s the kind of backing that best suits Rhonda’s clean, clear and passionate voice. She took us down the gospel path as well with the waltz-time tale of salvation “It’s Never Too Late” and the a drawn-out a cappella showpiece “His Promised Land,” where the five guys in the band cooed the delicious background oohs and ahs while Rhonda testified on the lead. In audacious bluegrass style she squeezed the death-by-drinkin’ song “Drivin’ Nails” in between those holy rollers. They wrapped with an instrumental medley that let all the band members shine on their instruments. Long-time fiddler Hunter Berry sure is something. Josh Williams showed his guitar god chops. And Rhonda ripped it up on her mandolin to end with a flourish. Roof: raised.
Cowan did a great job in the host spot, introducing everyone with aplomb and rounding up the jam with such efficiency that we’ll lord it over Jim for weeks. The assembled took lingering verses on the wonderful “Bartender’s Blues” in celebration of James Taylor’s birthday. And I’ll drink to that.