All kinds of weighty things were going on in the world last night, from Kris Kristofferson’s poetry at the Ryman and President Obama’s poetic prose in Congress, but we remained focused on the business of the barn. It was an unusual night of music, and I think we were all wondering whether the pieces would fit together. Would it be e pluribus unum, or a house divided?
I don’t know if he was entirely serious, but lone wolf singer/songwriter Gove Scrivenor told us he was playing with a band on stage for the first time, which might be small news, except he’s been a respected artist on the folk circuit since the 1960s! Anyway our pal and his Guthrie Trapp pulled together a tidy little combo, and Gove’s low, honeyed voice sounded amazing against the minimalist rhythm section. So did his two bookending songs on the autoharp, an instrument he’s developed with such skill and specialty that members of the Carter Family used to refer to him as “Brother Maybelle.”
Nathan Blake Lynn brought sharp songs and a casual air. Chris Scrugss, a young man who could save country music if it only wanted saving, laid some inspiring boogie twang on us, bolstered in sound and spirit by the steel guitar of Billy Robinson. It was quite an honor to have Billy, a member of the steel guitar hall of fame, on our stage. Chris led the band on Carl Smith’s “I Overlooked An Orchid,” a record on which Billy originally played. And even though this guy looks to be about 55, Chris blew our minds with the fact that Robinson was playing in the Opry band, backing up Hank Williams when he debuted on the Ryman stage with seven encores of “Lovesick Blues.”
It was a night of youth springing eternal. No doubt the highlight we’ll all remember was our special appearance by the queen of country music in Japan, Tomi Fujiyama. This darling woman in vintage western wear came out holding a mid 60s hollow-body Gibson guitar and delivered “Your Cheating Heart” with such conviction and elegant phrasing it was simply unbelievable. She picked the f-holes out of her guitar on an old country polka. And she delivered two traditional Japanese songs all by herself that were among the most moving and unusual pieces of music we’ve heard on the show. It was authenticity personified. Her verdict was to recall playing the Grand Ole Opry in 1964 and telling us with a huge smile: “same feeling.”
That was a tough act to follow (how many standing Os did she get? Three?) but Cowboy Jack Clement is no chicken. He brought a nice big band (the Jay Patten Band to be specific) and warmed up the place with a mix of songs from his extraordinary career: the rock and rolling “It’ll Be Me,” and the country purity of “Just A Girl I Used To Know” among them.
There was a thread through it all somehow. Gove and Cowboy go way back as friends and collaborators, and you could hear it in their warm, laid-back approach to loving on a song. Nathan Blake Lynn and Chris Scruggs sounded like the past and the future of this music we love. And Tomi showed us that great American art can travel worldwide and find its way into the hearts of people who weren’t raised on it. I hope our union is strong, though I worry about it sometimes. But our music is in great shape.