The count-down to and start of every Music City Roots is always a pulse-quickening experience. Especially for those who are taking the stage as musicians or announcers. But I have to say last night I was actually kind of nervous. I hadn’t felt quite this antsy since opening night one year ago, when we literally had no idea what it would feel like to put on a live radio show. So much was new tonight that it felt like an audition or a maiden voyage of some kind. We knew that in kicking off our new season and our second year on the air, we were presenting ourselves to thousands of new listeners, most of whom probably had no idea that we were about to invade their radio station.
Let me say straightaway and with no prodding, payment or pressure that we love Lightning 100. This station has spent two decades riding that ultrafine line between financial viability and cultural integrity with a finesse that’s ridiculously rare in commercial broadcasting. They’ve championed local artists and helped mint stars. They seem to get what we’re doing at a visceral level, and we could not be prouder to be where we are. Fred Buc and the good folks at WRLT-FM were there for a fellow Nashville musical troupe when it needed them and we could not be happier about that.
All that said, one reason for my nerves is that while I was excited about the night’s lineup, I thought that for a first run on “Nashville’s Progressive Radio” we were definitely dealing in the down home end of what we do. It was family bands and kids on the make. It was gospel and grass. But man, it was a joyful noise, as our pal Sam Bush says. I was flabbergasted by the Harpers’ take on a song I can only assume is called “He’s In Control.” (And yes, if you were wondering they meant God, not Todd Mayo.) The very young Hannah sang lead against a really fresh and clean guitar part by her older brother Dalton, and in a three part harmony that was searching and soothing. Gave me shivers.
In general the barn felt like a Sound of Music convention, Midwestern bluegrass style. The next band up was called the Huntley Sisters, and they too had mom on bass and dad on a stringed instrument, in this case guitar. Solid fiddling from Tori Huntley anchored the sound, opening with good old “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” and moving on to some bouncing bluegrass. They brought in more singing shortness with their pal Isaac Moore, a wee lad who sounds mysteriously old and who has completely caught the bug for way old school country music. He sang the Stanley Brothers’ “Don’t Cheat In Our Hometown,” prompting Jim Lauderdale to remark on stage that he was sure Isaac was singing about math homework or baseball or something like that. This was somewhat funnier than his joke about bats after my conversation with Corey Holliday, the top bat and cave guy at The Nature Conservancy, to whom the show was dedicated.
Up next, more family. Rhonda Vincent’s daughters Sally and Tensel formed a duo called Next Best Thing while studying music at East Tennessee State University, and they brought a bright, dynamic sound, along with polished stage presence clearly copped from their very poised mom. They say they’re the sixth generation of Vincents to be music makers, and it sounds like they’re well on their way to keeping a major legacy alive. The girls came back on stage during Rhonda’s set to offer supporting voices on “When The Bloom is Off The Rose,” completing the Will The Circle Be Unbroken vibe.
What can I say about Rhonda? I’ve written a good deal over the years about her lifelong commitment to the music, her interesting and instructive foray into country music, her return to bluegrass and her umpteen awards. She’s just this fireball of intensity who always has a great band and keeps bringing along new material. Last night she featured mostly stuff off her very new “Taken” CD, and it’s the usual well-chosen repertoire. They’ve even cooked up a song about the band itself (“Raging Live For You Tonight”) with name checks and big solos. Hunter Berry used the opportunity to show us what a superb fiddler he is. And the Rage encored with their own twist on “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” with a spontaneous buck dancing demo by Kati Huntley on the pine boards of the interview porch. Of course, what it is with Rhonda mostly is that voice, a luminescent sound with spot-on pitch. Every time I hear her I’m in awe, and last night was certainly no exception. The audio was just fantastic, so she and her band couldn’t have sounded better in the Loveless space.
By the time all the bands were trading verses on “Uncloudy Day” during the Loveless Jam, there was no question that we were on Cloud Nine. The show had crackled along, capped off by one of the finest artists in roots music. Our Lightning 100 pals seemed happy. Hope the audience out there felt the same way. Next week we’ll be as “progressive” as you could ask with Jerry Douglas and modern gospel rocker Mike Farris. And hopefully we’ll capture lightning in a bottle.