The Soul of a State

I was never more proud to be part of Music City Roots or more fulfilled in our mission of making fellowship and living culture around great music than I was late Wednesday night as our show wound to a close. The stars aligned on a clear, cool Spring evening, and tidings of history swirled around the Barn. Every artist conveyed the loose comfort and focused passion that epitomizes Americana at its best. You can’t touch every tone and style of roots music in one show, but between the twenty-something freshness of Lilly Hiatt in our opening slot to the earned wisdom and command of Percy Wiggins fronting the Bo-Keys at night’s end, with an historic reunion in the middle, there was a completeness to this show that’s hard to contrive. Certainly our partnership on this show with the Oxford American magazine – its great creative people and its place at the pinnacle of quality journalism and music commentary – helped galvanize a special line-up and elevated everyone’s game. It enabled the improbable.

Jim Lauderdale offered a surprise and a little peek ahead at the night by inviting John Oates out for a song they’d co-written. John played deft jazzy chord changes while Jim sang, and it was transfixing. Then I took a little extra time at the top of the show to visit on stage with Rick Clark, the music editor of the Oxford American and the guy who puts together the impeccable CD anthologies, including this year’s 50-song Tennessee music sampler. He’s one of the greatest music enthusiasts I know – someone who distinguishes excellent from blah by saying it “has hair on it.” He was personally responsible for rounding up the reunion set by The Bis-quits, which was as hairy as it gets. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Lilly Hiatt’s voice and vibe reminded me of innovative alt-country artists Laura Cantrell and Amy Allison, but that’s not to say she was all New York-y . No, she and her band poured on the classic Nashville, helped enormously by the sweet pedal steel guitar of Brett Resnick. Lilly’s songs had lofty, pretty melodies and propulsive rhythm. She seems to sing most effectively about vulnerability, apologizing to a wronged friend in the opening lines of “Let Down” for example. “Far Away” had a wordless, cooing chorus over a tasty beat. Throughout the set, Hiatt’s musical partner Beth Finney offered anchoring energy and strong solos on electric guitar. It was definitely a lift to have Lilly’s dad John Hiatt on hand in the audience. Maybe a turn on our stage some time soon sir? It’d be our honor.

I’ve seen Jim perform numerous times, but something about Wednesday’s set – previewing his upcoming I’m A Song album – transcended the rest. Warmed by footlights, fronting a really strong country band and utterly in command of his emotional intent, Jim struck me as a giant of country music – as vital and electrifying as Waylon or Buck or Jones. His voice has grown ever-more complete and interesting over the years, and his sense of melody is stunning. Opening songs “Let’s Have A Good Thing Together” and “Past It” rolled and crackled with crisp rhythm. Things took a more romantic turn on the slow-dance-worthy “You’ve Got A Way Of Yours.” Jim sang an ode to “Bakersfield” and brought some dark country noir with “Neon Hearts.” We on the team have big neon hearts full of love for Jim, and never more so than this week.

Then came the center of the show, the pivot point on which it was possible to heap the heaviest load of history. As a Nashvillian since only 1996, I missed the glory years of The Bis-quits, but I’ve heard legends, and I could feel the pre-show giddiness of those who had been there, like music and media maven Pat Embry and our own Ms. Laurie, who seemed to travel back in time as Tommy Womack, Will Kimbrough, Mike Grimes and Tommy Meyer took the stage. The quartet was immediately en fuego as if no time had passed as they pulsed their way into their most potent song, “Betty Was Black (And Willie Was White)” with Womack singing lead. Two songs later I was truly in sonic heaven as as the dense, colorful and crunchy chords of “Cold Wind” chimed out of the amplifiers. What an ethereal, gorgeous song and what a great showcase for how Kimbrough and Womack weave guitar parts together into a seamless whole. Grimey took a stellar rocking turn on guitar himself in “Blues and Wine.” They ended with their famous ode to Yo-Yo Ma, in which the great cellist is profiled in rock and roll as if he were Johnny B. Goode. We’re big into biscuits of course, but never was there such as standing ovation as for The Bis-quits.

Then on came John Oates to smooth out the sound and contribute some smoky folky soul to the well-rounded evening. An opening road song (“Let’s Drive”) gave way to a slinky and darkly grooving take on “Maneater.” The Hall & Oates hit was so reimagined in the hands of the expert band that it took a while for the crowd to recognize it. I’ve had a pleasant earworm for a day from John’s “Pushing A Rock Uphill,” a secular spiritual from the new Good Road To Follow album that marries an easy listen with a motivating message. It all wound up to and with “Stone Cold Love,” which featured spooky beats, lush chord ideas from our fave guitarist Guthrie Trapp and space for some jamming by Guthrie and keyboardist Kevin McKendree. It was also really exciting to talk to John just days after his induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And it’s great, as Jim will remind you, that he’s our “CLOSE-PERSONAL-FRIEND.”

And how better to wrap a night celebrating the music of Tennessee than with the sounds of Memphis and the soul music that has arguably been THE most influential and beloved worldwide genre to come out of this state. The Bo-Keys, coming up on its tenth anniversary, is a band mixing veterans of Memphis soul with younger musicians eager to cultivate the tradition. So back on drums, Howard Grimes kept time while Archie Turner played keys. Up front, magnificent Percy Wiggins sang with greasy grace in a pristine white suit. The repertoire mingled vintage tunes, like one that Wiggins had recorded in ’69 at Bradley’s Barn here in Nashville, with new compositions written by band leader Scott Bomar and the band. The horns stabbed and rolled. The beats were deep and motivating. It was a brilliant reminder of how wide the roots grow and how broadly the branches spread in Tennessee music.

It was inevitable that the musicians would end with the blues, the common tongue that lies behind every mode of music performed on our stage. A huge crowd of artists shuffled along on “Rock Me Baby” and took incredible turns on vocals and instrumental solos. It was the soulful sound of Tennessee in all its multi-faceted glory.

Craig H.

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