Conventional wisdom says a multi-act show should build from small to big, from intimate to blockbuster. Well, you know how we feel about conventional wisdom. Last night at the Barn, we started at a full-tilt sprint with some of the largest bands we’ve seen, and by the end of the second act 17 musicians had been on stage. When we wrapped up a couple hours later with an acoustic duo, it made a kind of sense. Because from one end to the other, the musicianship was superb and the voices were some of the strongest and most moving we’ve heard.
My old pal Bill, an exceptional photographer and a dedicated student of early recorded music, attended Roots last night in part because he’d become a fan of Frank Fairfield, the solo artist who opened the show with blues and ephemera inspired by recordings from the early 1900s. I asked Bill what he’d ask Frank if he was going to interview him on stage, like I was about to. His suggestion: When you got in the time machine, what was it like? Frank does give that impression, like he’d teleported forward 75 years. But when we did interview, Frank’s attitude was like: What?
If I may wax personal for a second, because I can’t think of anywhere else to go with this, I was quite happy last night to bring our new daughter Jia out to see Music City Roots in person. She’s 11 years old from China and the Roots family welcomed her with open arms (even though she thinks hugging is weird), and she comported herself with grace and charm.
There’s no escaping or denying it. In Americana music, hair is in. Beards have become bear-like among the bard set. Whiskers are as common as whiskey. In recent months we’ve enjoyed the wagging beards of Apache Relay, The New Familiars, Cadillac Sky, Holy Ghost Tent Revival, etc. But last night was something, man. It was a zoo. Allen Thompson’s beard was red and huge. Brian Wright’s was blond – and huge. Kevin Steele’s was more angular and trimmed. Frank Solivan and Ricky Davis were in goatees, but facial hair they had. As far as fur, it was five acts for five.
Soon after I set about wrapping up my interview with trumpet player and singer Joey Morant, I felt like I’d just hotwired a high performance automobile. One minute we were talking about stuff like his home town and the influence of Louis Armstrong, and I swear all I said was, “so are you ready to play?” and next thing I know Morant is working the crowd from the Roots chat room. “Everybody scream!” Scream! And he seems to telepathically launch the band into “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and I’m standing there with two cordless microphones thinking, “my work here is done.”
We at Music City Roots take pride in our eclectic taste and there are sometimes nights where the old Monty Python expression “and now for something completely different” keeps coming to mind. But sometimes, like last night, there are shows that flow and mesh so inevitably and smoothly that one could imagine the lineup going out on a multi-state package show. We enjoyed five acts anchored in country music, each with its own quirky and cool take on the legacy, each straddling the antique/modern divide in its own way.
For a show like Music City Roots—that thrives on spontaneity and going against the grain—last night took things to a whole new level. And there was a full house of folks on hand to enjoy it, a butt in every seat and not a square inch of standing room unoccupied.
Marshall Chapman was born to host just such a night—even though she claimed to have never hosted a thing in her life. She rolled with the punches, got laughs and generally made her way through the show script with untamed rock ‘n’ roll authority.
Whenever you’re at the Loveless Café around suppertime, you know it’s going to be a good night. And when there’s a Music City Roots show at the Loveless Barn, you can count on it. But even after the dozens of memorable nights I’ve spent there since MCR started almost a year and a half ago, I can’t remember one as varied and just plain great as this past Wednesday.
It’s very fitting Music City Roots takes place in the Loveless Barn, since a good MCR show is a lot like a good meal of fried chicken, greens and biscuits at the Loveless Café. You’ve got your sweet, your spicy, your fresh and wholesome and your guilty pleasures. And when it’s done, you are one satisfied customer.
Spend enough time around a real-time production like Music City Roots and you’re bound to hear someone involved drop the phrase, “that’s why they call it live.” Last night, it was easy to see why. With attendees pared down to just a few hardy souls undeterred by what passes for a serious winter storm in Nashville—reports of drives typically requiring fifteen minutes being stretched into three and four hour ordeals were legion—the Loveless Barn could have become a pretty lonesome venue, were it not for the spirit that down-to-earth music can (and did) engender.