I didn’t hear him say it first hand, but two trusted sources tell me that was Rodney Crowell’s verdict on our new home. It sings back to you. That’s a beautiful way to put it. And a little mysterious too, because it’s not as if Liberty Hall rings or echoes. It has a sound-settling quality, which one acoustic test likened to the Bluegrass Underground cave. But I suspect Mr. Crowell, one of our distinguished guest artists on our opening night at The Factory At Franklin, had something more abstract in mind. Something intangible and close to the heart of music making.
I sure felt it. Not only was the amplified sound superb (yay, team!), that same attentive and fascinated audience that’s been part of our show’s family and magic for years was on hand, taking everything in. Pin-drop quiet? With 1,000 people on hand, no, it was not. And we’ll work on that. But the empathy and connection were definitely there, and that’s a nice way to sing back, even if your lips aren’t moving.
And the room sure sang to the eyes. What a space! We’ve traded timber and rafters for steel and trusses and brick. In what was once a factory for stove-building, one of the overhead conveyor belt tracks is still mounted in the ceiling. There’s a grand, modern balcony, where the view and sound got raves. Even the I-beam columns, deep red and lit from below, looked great. But there will be ample time to dwell on the esthetics later. Let’s look to the music.
There was a moment early on in MCR’s life when roots rocker Will Hoge sang of his radio dreams on “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” and it felt like a blessing over our show – an affirmation of the commitment and faith it takes to find a place in peoples’ musical hearts. Well wouldn’t you know that the opening song of the this special show, sung solo by its writer Verlon Thompson, had the same sanctifying effect, encapsulating so many values we embrace and tradeoffs we understand.
He sang in rich autobiographical detail about getting established in Nashville to get his “honky tonk diploma” in “the show we call the business and the business we call show.” He takes a journey to which many aspire, but he finds he “just could not kiss nobody’s a** to get my records on the charts.” That’s what they call playing to the base in politics. We cheered (both for the sentiment and for the fact that he self-bleeped on live radio). Verlon, whom you may have seen as Guy Clark’s right-hand guitar man (which he also sang about in “We Ain’t Been Everywhere Yet”), is a magnificent solo performer. He picked his acoustic flattop clean as country water and wild as mountain dew. His voice was well-traveled with an undiluted drawl from his small town Oklahoma roots. He sang about his momma and his daddy. And he sang about Johnny Bench, legendary catcher, who just happens to come from Verlon’s hometown. The tune was called “Oklahomagain,” because he’s a linguistic genius. What a satisfying, pure and country way to start our night.
There was no drum kit set up for last night’s acoustic evening (that changes weekly at Roots by the way) but Humming House brought bags and bags of groove to their spirited set. Lending just the joyful and full-hearted feeling we expected, the Nashville quintet played songs already recorded for a new album coming shortly. Opener “Run With Me” took flight on a solo violin fanfare by Bobby Chase. They stayed in the air with “Fly On,” a dreamy song of optimism in love with danceable vibes and an arrangement that pushed and pulled the energy levels. Up front Justin Wade Tam and Leslie Rodriguez make a striking two-wave vocal attack. He’s bold and clear. She’s a beam of light. And when all the band’s voices join in as on the background chants of “Gypsy Django,” it’s an infectious invitation to join in, as most of our audience did.
Until a couple of days before showtime we didn’t know exactly what Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell had planned for us. We expected some duo singing, because they’ve been touring together behind their acclaimed and award-winning Old Yellow Moon album. Little did we dream they’d do two full duo sets featuring songs from all stages of their careers and phases of country music. Opener “Wheels” is a song I fell in love with when Harris sang it on the Seldom Scene’s live Kennedy Center 15th Anniversary album. It tied back to her relationship with Gram Parsons as well. They did two Townes Van Zandt songs, saluting the greatest lost songwriter of his generation. Emmylou’s lead vocal on Rodney’s “Leaving Louisiana In The Broad Daylight” gave us a taste of her early Quarter Moon album.
The songs, nearly all classics from the catalog, were like old friends, and how delightful it was to have their old friend Guy Clark (who wrote the song “Old Friends”) in the audience. After a break for some commercials and our interview, they were back at it with their tidy ensemble of support: Byron House on bass, Jedd Hughes on guitar and Chris Tuttle on keys. Tuttle’s accordion was like a bed of fresh, green grass on “If I Needed You.” The leaders traded leads on two red dirt songs: her “Red Dirt Girl” and his “The Rock Of My Soul” and the material grew ever-more contemporary until they finished with the title track to Old Yellow Moon – a subdued and elegant finish.
We staged our first “Nashville Jam” as we welcomed the sponsor of the same name to our fold. (It’s very nice to already be a fan of this company and its products; your correspondent is enjoying their Peach Brandy jam on toast even as I make final edits on this account.) Jim Lauderdale, one of our steady points of continuity amid all this change, led the gang on Hank’s “Jambalaya,” which felt like an invitation to the Saffire after-party, where a small gang of locals played tasty blues and bluegrass. And we wrapped without a visible hitch or glitch.
This debut – this re-boot of Music City Roots in a new home – is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I had high expectations and, speaking for myself, they were exceeded. Our friends and guests seemed happy. The musicians seemed happy. This has gone too long, but I must express my appreciation for the efforts of so many people who took this move in hand and owned it. When you do something on a weekly basis, one can get complacent and settle into ruts. But moving to The Factory has been a chance for all of us to re-think and re-engineer all the parts of our production, and I’m just in awe that our leaders and our crew made last night so grand and seamless and auspicious.
We’ve been given the gift of Liberty. Long may she sing.