As the (inexplicably) controversial Dixie Chicks took the stage in downtown Nashville for the first time in years and as the campaign trail increasingly resembled a David Foster Wallace novel, a simple man with a simple musical plan took our stage in Franklin TN to play songs off his ironically titled album It’s All Politics. All I can say is thank heaven for Tim Carroll’s sense of humor, because if it was all politics, we’d all be on the train to Crazyville. I admit I’m a lifelong political junkie, but the momentous and absurd media machinations of T vs. C just melt away in the presence of Tim’s electric guitar (through a Vox amplifier), or the bluegrass of Blue Highway, or the varied beauty of The Pollies or Matt Andersen. It was, like all others at MCR, a night of human expression, with no filters. The voice of the people.
Andersen has the voice of several people. Loud luscious lung-fulls of song blasted from his burly body from the moment he stroked his acoustic guitar. He’s a seemingly shy man (he demurred on the interview) with a bold presence when he’s on the mic. The title track of his new Honest Man album paired a soaring confessional vocal with boogie guitar riffs. The song “My Last Day” asked what we’d do if our time on Earth was up in a rolling 6/8 time that reminded me of Darrell Scott. He sang a mournful song about a soldier’s last letter home in striking a cappella style. And his final song began “If I gave you a wish babe, would I be the thing that you’d change?” That my friends is provocative songwriting.
Up next, the Florence, Alabama quartet The Pollies started stirring the air with electric guitar, keyboards, drums, bass and the keening voice of songwriter/lead singer Jay Burgess. It was a case of slowly building musical momentum, with edges of psychedelia creeping in and then blossoming into big sonic ideas. “She” was booming and full with bright major chords, and “My Darling” floated along after. “Good For Nothing” started with a storm of sound and got its groove on with thunderous syncopated drumming. That segued right into set closer “Something New” with a more pulsing feel. These shaggy, savvy young guys definitely bring a fresh view to Southern rock and roll.
Our middle two sets were spiritually contiguous as we rolled into Tim Carroll’s take on the grit and grind. Tim, who’s been in bands since the late 70s, eschews the wires and dials of effects pedal boards and plugs his Les Paul electric guitar straight into his amplifier. Out comes unvarnished, tone-rich guitar music. And his songwriting style is the same way, plugging into the brainstem with clear and honest and often witty statements. I love how he takes a familiar phrase like “kick the can down the road” and spins it into funky, tuneful truth-telling. He hit the home stretch with the mellow, arpeggio-heavy “Not Long” (as in, …for this Earth) and then got borderline punk on “Small World/Big World.” The rhythm section was tight and Luella sang saucy harmonies and shook her tambourine right in the pocket.
It was peculiar hearing a Blue Highway set and not knowing any of the songs. For this is a band whose catalog I know well and whose shows after 20 years are like the best kind of greatest hits. But hey, a band has to present new music some time. And as it turned out, the songs from the upcoming Original Traditional CD felt familiar in that way they need to with all the freshness of catching up with a friend who’s got lots of news. And Blue Highway does have news, as we talked about on stage – Wayne Taylor back from heart surgery and new dobro player Gaven Largent stroking the strings with his steel bar. Jason Burleson’s banjo smoldered on the speedy “If Lonesome Don’t Kill Me” with Wayne and Tim Stafford sharing vocals on the tight Stanley-esque verses. “Water From The Stone” was a mellow gospel influenced number, while “Hallelujah” found Blue Highway tapping the same sacred harp tradition that made their song “Wondrous Love” such a hit. They hit some sweet intervals on this one before bringing the set home with “Alexander’s Run” and helping lead a Nashville Jam on “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Our audience showed a lot of love this evening, standing up for more of our performances. That’s my kind of populism right there.
Photo by Shelly Swanger.