Dear Coen Brothers, I have this great idea for your next movie. A six-piece itinerant Italian bluegrass/folk band is driving the ribbons of highway and endless skyways of America, in search of their heroes, living and dead. The van gets a flat tire and they’re forced over to the shoulder (many hand gestures). And as the band is rooting beneath the banjo cases and empty beef jerky wrappers for the spare tire, a man appears from nowhere. He’s wearing a Manuel western suit. He’s a man with flowing hair streaked with a color we’ll call “experience,” yet he radiates the vigor of youth. He seems ageless and wise and kindly. Soon the band is rolling on the road again with a working van and an invitation to play for an audience of thousands in Nashville (many hand gestures).
If you weren’t at Roots this Wednesday, you may suspect I’ve lost my mind. But no, dear readers, this is a scarcely embellished account of events that brought Jim Lauderdale and the band La Terza Classe together and the band to our stage. After Jim sang his traditional opening number (in this case the fabulous “I Lost You” from the new I’m A Song album), he invited out his new friends. The shaggy, smiling crew gathered around one mic, said a few kind words and launched into Woody Guthrie’s “The Lonesome Valley.” They sang in pristine harmony (“nobody else can walk it for you/you’ve got to walk it for yourself”) and grooved along infectiously with an upright bass, riffy banjo, snare drum (on a strap), plus harmonica and tin whistle. They brought down the house and set a magic tone for another night of artists who are indeed walking the valley for themselves.
That began with songwriter and singer Ruston Kelly. With our wider stage in the large Liberty Hall, solo artists can seem a physically small up there, but like Verlon Thompson, the first troubadour to play the show in the new venue, the great ones fill the space. And Kelly had the goods. His voice was like a hard fist in a soft leather glove. His songs showed a lively mind searching for unique ways to tell archetypal stories. “Nashville Without You” seemed on the surface a series of striking visuals of the neon-lit downtown and lyric-checks from classic tunes, but really it’s about the fearless attitude that’s made Music City a creative landmark. My favorite was the set-ending “Trying To Let Her” with its crisp wordplay and motive fingerstyle patterns. That is one fine song.
Elise Davis followed with a big old band. Five guys including keys and two guitars, plus a female harmony vocalist all helped Elise, in a gauzy floral gown, render head-bobbing country rock. She does not skimp in her references to booze and smoke, this alt-country crooner. By the time she studies on and empties a bottle of wine in her third song “Never Was, Never Is” she ought to have been soused. A lot of craftsmanship was apparent in “Almost A Woman,” with its cool trip of syllables and the moody musical edge behind some bitter regret in the lyrics. With a glowing, smoky voice, Davis wrapped with “Good Year,” a heartfelt bit of autobiography from a 25 year old. She has much to say for a youngster.
The guys from La Terza Classe sat on the front row way over on stage right, near me. And when Dom Flemons got going with his set, I thought they were going to explode with joy. Dom, the former Carolina Chocolate Drop who really loves to perform solo, simply commanded the stage, engaging his whole body as well as guitar, banjo, harmonica and bones to make his generous, rollicking and thoroughly entertaining music. He declared 2014 the Year of the Folk Singer in the notes to his new Prospect Hill album, and on stage he seemed to prove it by force of will. His original “San Francisco Baby” featured some nice falsetto scoodle-de-do scat and fancy single string banjo picking. “Hot Chicken” told a good and greasy Nashville story with guitar backing that reminded me of the great Blind Blake. Truly mesmerizing was “Too Long I’ve Been Gone” with its flowing finger picking and lyrical, wistful vocal line. His closer was a show stopper with clattering, rhythmic cow bones in both hands, a harmonica on a rack and his tapping feet. The song “Cindy Gal” came directly from key Flemons influence the late North Carolina fiddler Joe Thompson. But then all kinds of ghosts and forebears were present during the set.
There’s not a lot I could add to what I’ve written in the past about Alanna Royale. They brought their signature blend of thumping funk, silky horns and vocal sass. The group is fast approaching release of their debut full-length album, so it feels almost as if we were willing favorites like “Animal” and “18” on to ever larger horizons and worldwide audiences. Alanna herself swaggers and commands attention, but she’s of course got the vocal power to back it up. She and her band anchored and directed the Nashville Jam version of “Hard To Handle,” which like its name is a tricky tune. But Jim and company made it work and brought our night to a close.
Oh yeah, Coen Brothers, in the final scene Jim’s Roadside Assistance service truck pulls back on the interstate and drives into the sunset, looking for the next global folk sensation.