Dear Mother Maybelle,
You were in our thoughts the Loveless Barn Wednesday night, throughout an edition of Music City Roots where your legacy just kept coming up. Virginia artists bookended the show, and the first ones sang about your guitar. Tiller’s Folly presented a song inspired by your first recording sessions in Bristol. Tomi Fujiyama, country music matriarch of Japan, picked the “Wildwood Flower.” And the night ended with one of your greatest hits. And as for the rest of you, perhaps you already love Virginia, or else maybe last night made you even more of a fan of the Old Dominion. It’s produced a lot of presidents and a lot of great musicians.
Robin and Linda Williams have lived in the Shenandoah Valley near Staunton, VA for going on 40 years, and their musical approach of spare, honest folk puts them squarely in the state’s legacy, which of course includes the Carter Family, as well as Dock Boggs and the Stanley Brothers. The Williams’ song “These Old Dark Hills” from their new album of the same title spoke directly to the ancient landscape they inhabit and love. Then Linda sang a lovely lead on the early and authentic version of “Wildwood Flower” entitled “I’ll Twine Mid The Ringlets.” Was there ever a sweeter melody? Then came I think their hit of the night, the joyful and swift “Maybelle’s Guitar and Monroe’s Mandolin” celebrating the amazing juxtaposition of those two iconic instruments at the Country Music Hall of Fame. If you’ve never seen the exhibit, you must. And if you’ve never heard Robin and Linda in person, well that too. Their energy is easy but potent. They are sticklers for perfect intonation (pay heed youngsters) and they eschew ornamentation. They are one of the template bands for and exemplary bands of Americana, and this was I hope the first of many visits to Roots by this remarkable duo. Kudos too to their Fine Group, with Chris Brashear on mandolin and fiddle and the veteran Jim Watson on bass and vocals. This was what mastery sounds like.
Gears were shifted pretty hard, as they often are at Roots, as the Whiskey Gentry took the stage. A big band with a voluminous sound they are, starting with a black-bearded drummer who whanged the skins with borderline menace behind hard core country songs. The six-piece launched with an instrumental riff that grew into a thunderhead, as “Eula Mae” got underway with punky energy. The voice and presence of Lauren Staley and her co-front-human Jason Morrow are at the core of the band’s appeal. Together or separately they pierce the fog and deliver blue honky tonk truth. One friend felt a Natalie Maines kind of vibe from Staley, and I’ll buy that for sure. Meanwhile Morrow also wields a feisty, icy Telecaster to complete the twang.
Dylan LeBlanc is a young artist who’s made some strong impressions on some music biz luminaries, leading to his association with Rough Trade, the historic British label behind The Smiths, Arcade Fire and much more. Looking like a mysterious fellow from the set of Deadwood in an overcoat and wide brown hat, Dylan brought only his guitar and the awesome Pete Finney on pedal steel as accompaniment to his voice. And a Barn-filling voice it was, with a throaty, powerful tone and ladles full of emotion. I have to be honest, it’ll take consulting of his two acclaimed albums to discern the lyrics and the intent of songs like “Innocent Sinner” and “Ties That Bind.” But there was no shortage of sonic beauty in this calming set.
Next came the charming and inspiring Tomi Fujiyama, returning for her second set on Roots. She’s a torch bearer for classic country music in Japan and there’s something about seeing somebody who was utterly converted to the music to get your own enthusiasm re-engaged. With an expert Nashville band behind her, the sparkplug-ish Tomi sang a rousing “Jambalaya” and then picked the fire out of “Country Polka” on her envy-making 1963 Gibson electric (segueing for a bit into “Wildwood Flower,” you know, just because). Then she held the stage alone for the awesomely titled “Ringo No Hana” which opened with dramatic solo guitar (this woman is GOOD by the way) and led into a sad, misty Japanese folk song. Gorgeous. Then the band came back to let Tomi sing her favorite song, and folks, I’ve heard many fine versions of “Tennessee Waltz” but never any better or more engaged. Somebody compared her take on the song to Connie Smith. Connie Smith! Yep, it was that fine.
Bruce, Nolan and Laurence of Tiller’s Folly were in fine spirits last night, and as always their personalities shone through their acoustic merry-making. Their opener “Death And Taxes” was fiery and dark, but consider the subject matter. Bruce Coughlan’s fingerstyle guitar was potent on “Closing In On Midnight.” Then the boys invited up guests Jerry Salley and Lachlan Davidson to flesh out their co-written song “Coming Down.” LOVED this one, with its rich chord changes. The instrumental fireworks really got going on that Bristol-inspired tune “Old Hank” and reached a crescendo on the set closing “Lonesome Fiddle Blues.” The standing O was exactly the right affirmation of a terrific performance.
After a long-ish night and after all this ensemble sound and exotic innovation, Scott Miller and Rayna Gellert bravely closed out the sets as a duo – he on guitar and she on fiddle. The opener “Lo Siento, Spanishburg, West Virginia” is a little slice of genius, with its unblinking documentary eye and its enthralling, breathless one-note rap of a lyric. Miller’s got flow, yo. “Leaving This Town” was a cool little rock and roller with cutting country harmony from Gellert and an uncanny twinning of fiddle and harmonica that was a new sonic experience. What a simple but novel idea. Of course they did “I Made A Mess Of This Town,” because that’s the essential Scott Miller song. And just all around, what a great pairing of musicians, with Rayna playing a core role that really made a duo. That was the last stop before the Loveless Jam train rolled by, picking up everyone for a finale sing-along of “Across The Blue Ridge Mountains,” with a brilliant triple fiddle solo and a very well arranged a cappella ending that filled the barn with warmth.
Virginia is for lovers – music lovers.