A great storyteller can make you care about characters you’d overlook or dismiss or disdain in your daily rounds. A great songwriter conjures that empathy and sets it to a smoking groove and a tasty melody. We witnessed this play out magnificently on Wednesday night as Oklahoma artist Parker Millsap delivered a clinic in precocious, literary truth-telling. It was a superb (and surprisingly cohesive) night all around, with four flavors of manly country rock. But Millsap’s “Truck Stop Gospel” was for me the night’s branding iron moment.
My headline is lifted from a song that the Gibson Brothers made the title track of their current album, as well as the final tune of their stylish set at Roots this week. Brother Eric wrote it (helping him earn Song and Songwriter of the Year awards from the IBMA). Brother Leigh told the backstory on our stage: A picker friend spent time jamming on old fiddle/banjo tunes with an elderly musician from the mountains. He asked the old man what “old-time” music was called back in, you know, old times? The reply: “Well son, they called it music.” And there’s your hook.
I may have to go to the video for confirmation. But I believe Jason D. Williams was wearing pink toenail polish on Wednesday night at Roots. While The Barefoot Movement padded on stage with their toes intentionally exposed and I was sitting with Jason D. on stage waiting for our interview to start, he got one of those non-ignorable itches deep inside one of his fantastic, two-tone cowboy boots. So there in the chat room he stripped his foot down and took care of the irritation before our cue for the interview. The boot was back on before I could do the back half of my double take.
Not to just talk about the weather, but it’s kind of the defining reality right now isn’t it? Thick ice is taking down trees and power lines to our south and our East Coast friends are enduring their umpteenth snowstorm of the year. It’s not been so cold so consistently in Nashville in the 16 years I’ve lived here. And we’re all beyond sick of it. No doubt the brief chattering of sleet here yesterday afternoon and the frozen crap-tastrophy just over the horizon kept a few of our friends and supporters home last night.
A fun and fascinating video made the rounds a few years ago that pairs some nutty footage from a music festival with voice-over insights from CD Baby founder and music thinker Derek Sivers. A shirtless guy starts dancing like a lone loon on a grassy hillside. Soon he’s joined by a second guy, who is welcomed into a new, two-man dancing tribe. Then more people join. And within a minute, a huge crowd is dancing together.
The night before Roots this week I attended the induction ceremonies at Nashville’s Musicians Hall of Fame. In a music world with too many awards and honors, this place truly have a purpose: to honor players, including famous artists who are also excellent musicians and little-known side-men and side-women who make records sing behind the singer.
If you want to put up a building you have to dig to bedrock. If you want to bury a body, a not uncommon contemplation in bluegrass, you dig a hole in the cold, cold ground. And if you want to expose the roots of something, ditto. Bring a spade. We dig for information. We dig deep when we commit to getting something right. And when we love something, in a hip kind of way, we dig it. Seems like all of the above applied to our night at the Loveless Barn this week, as our show dug through the layers of roots music, from the busy and stylish to the earthy and simple.
What’s the first song you ever performed in public? I can ask that semi-rhetorically, knowing that a good number among you in the Roots nation have taken a stage or two, whether at the open mic level or as a full blown career. It’s a real memory-buster because it feels like something one ought to remember – a threshold moment of bravery and personal expression. I think mine was “New River Train,” the bluegrass standard that I’d learned off of a Tony Rice/Norman Blake album.
To be a fan of Roots, you’d best be a musical all-terrain vehicle. That doesn’t mean you should plan on loving every artist. But in general, you’ll want to be ready and excited to see what’s over that hill or down that rutted road. And you know how those Range Rover ads always make that particular vehicle look totally at home in some lost back-country but inside it feels kind of posh and civilized?
At Christmas, nothing succeeds like excess, and our final show of the year took it over the river, through the woods and over the top. I walked in for Wednesday’s show and the stage was so bright I had to adjust my eyes. It was all the extra twinkly lights and white trash tinsel, strung with love by our ministress of vibe Laurie. And did Jim Lauderdale merely open the show with his guitar? No, our house band for the night Steelism backed him up, bringing “Holly And Her Mistletoe” to rarified honky-tonk heights.