Roots Watch: New Year’s Beginnings, Middles, Endings, and Post-Mortems
It’s beyond me when a new “musical year” begins these days, but happy New Year. The start of a new calendar year here in Nashville does have a certain distinctive local flavor to it; performers who’ve been out on the road, suddenly back home for a Christmastime break, show up at events and get-togethers around town, and shows announced and unannounced reflect that. Reunions get started even as others are preparing to take to the road.
It happens that 2012 began with an ending here, the sad but triumphant final appearance of Glen Campbell at the Ryman, not the last stop on his “Goodbye Tour,” but certainly a poignant one. While Nashville was never really home base for his extraordinary career, he and the assembled audience (which included Tanya Tucker, Ricky Skaggs, Jeannie Seely and Larry Gatlin) were all very well aware of what the Hall of Famer has contributed to country music—and beyond. That he chose to perform a souped up “Lovesick Blues’ right where Hank got those historic first Opry appearance ovations, and also Conway Twitty’s rockabilly period dramatic pop ballad “It’s Only Make Believe” neatly summarized Glen’s own understanding of his deep connections both to hardcore country traditions and the Conway-Roy Orbison-Elvis sort of lavish, dramatic pop. The latter Nashville product was as much of an influence on the music he made as straight country, and helped make him the thrilling, popular singer and picker who topped pop and country charts alike, and who brought plenty of twang and rock both to prime time TV. Nobody, I’d note, much worried about his definition in the day—or doubted, or could doubt, his profound impact on the possibilities for popular roots music although he was never, mind you, any sort of songwriter. That’s not, as his astonishing career now drawing to a close reminds us, a requirement.
On January 9th I got a chance to check out up close a new kid in town with the potential to be something like a 21st Century Campbell. Like Glen, Hunter Hayes started in hardcore rural roots music early enough to be thoroughly immersed in it, became an accomplished instrumentalist early (in this case, on a reported 30-plus instruments) and is today, at age 20, a full menu polished performer—a smart, nuanced, singer with range, versatility, and the taste to avoid mere showiness, a guitarist whose solos are equally engaging. Hunter is also a songwriter who knows how to express straightforward emotion simply and freshly with hooks and without irony—mostly, on his first major label CD, out since October, in songs about the relationships of men and women. Many of you will already have seen this native Cajun country Louisianan on video singing “Jambalaya” and playing squeezebox with Hank Jr. at the age of four. This “new boy” has some 16 years of experience under his belt, mainly playing for demanding audiences in Louisiana and Texas, in places his parents could get him to on a weekend in time to be back to school on Monday. His first single, “Storm Warning,” is #15 as I write, and he’s about to be the opener on a Rascal Flatts arena tour, heady size venues for his age, but he’s even done those before. (The January 9th event was a closed dress rehearsal for the tour.) He’s working a knowing border-crossing country-pop style, as Campbell did, and is as at home in a studio as well; he co-produced that album, which Warner execs tell me is already doing quite well among the young as an album; kids growing up on Taylor Swift have apparently been prepped to look for full varied CDs of work by a singing songwriter, unaware of the conventional “wisdom” that they’re only supposed to be interested in single downloads now. It’s been a long time since anybody showed up in Nashville so young with so many tools, interests and, to my ears and eyes, talents at his disposal.
Of course, not every performer that matters and pleases plays arenas, or is likely to—nor, for that matter, is just starting out, breaking out, or finishing up. A few days earlier I got the chance to catch a show by new American citizen, and engaging, smart, feisty performer, Australian-raised Audrey Auld, at her gig at a new, modestly-sized but much needed Lower Broad venue, The National Underground. Alt.country and Americana acts such as Audrey are being booked here along with indie rock, and you can get a pretty good burger and a drink and see just this level of performer, with a sustaining if not (yet) enormous career, but very notable talents. There’s always room for places like that. (Stringed instrument whiz and versatile singer-songwriter Annie McCue, also from Oz, backed Audrey on some fine electric guitar, as she did the very different, contemplative singer-songwriter Amelia White moments before; McCue’s also been appearing weekly on her own.)
If you haven’t caught on to Ms. Auld, you should. She held the stage for nearly two hours and interest did not flag. Again, the choices of songs by others say a lot—in this case, songs by Fred Eaglesmith, Paul Thorn, but also Ernest Tubb . Auld is deeply knowledgeable in traditional country of varied flavors, and it shows; she most often writes and performs songs in honky tonk mode, her most singular suit being witty takes on the genre expectations, comparable to, say, some of the best of Lyle Lovett. Sunny Sweeney’s recorded her “I’m Gonna Be the Next Big Nothing,” and the evening’s set list included such Auld originals as the Loretta-like “Ball and Chain,” “Darlin’, You’ve Got a Drinkin’ Problem—It’s Me,” and a new, blatantly truthful one called “I’m Forty.” Auld sings with finesse, lustily, and effectively. I recommend her CD.
By the way: Two new offerings from those no longer with us: Rocky Hill, older brother of ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill, who died in 2004, was a Texas Guitar Legend, and producer John Lomax III has recovered a 1977 set of recordings of his, master tapes long lost, with screamer blues rock takes on Townes Van Zandt , David Olney, and Rocky himself. It’s available at multiple download sites, including Amazon. And I highly recommend the just-published Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers, by the late Charlie Louvin with Benjamin Whitmer. The title may suggest something preachy, but it’s not. Like Charlie, it’s sharp, spiky, often four-letter profane, and it offers pointed memories of everyone from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley, and, in particular, a brutally honest portrayal of his life with his difficult, gifted brother Ira. It’s the true voice of a singular character and talent who is very much missed. A favorite comment: “A big part of my youth was spent standing in the corner when everyone else was dancing and having fun. If you make music, you have to make it when the people want it, and if the fun is all over by the time you get through playing, that’s just tough shit.” That’s the true voice of a singular character and talent who is very much missed.
- bob: Thanks Barry. Just reserved the Adam Gussow book. Sounds interesting.
- Barry Mazor: It may be over-stated, in arriving at practically a single explanation of everything, but Adam Gussow's book on lynching and …
- Leeann: Wow! Heavy topic and horrifying indeed! "Beer for My Horses" was all fun and games until that reference, I'll have …
- Barry Mazor: Everything else aside, the way that reporter fills us in, with must-have, pointless generational snark included, about who this "Little …
- luckyoldsun: "The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia" seems to be about a lynching--even if there's something about a judge …
- Arlene: Sorry. I meant to give the link for "Supper Time." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZ58Kfe41kI
- Arlene: Another song sung by Ethel Waters: Irving Berlin's "Supper Time"
- bob: Powerful songs. I read the book "A Lynching in the Heartland" by James H. Madison about a dozen years ago. …
- Ron: Sky Above, Mud Below by Tom Russell is another.
- Jack Williams: Another Othis Taylor song from White African is "My Soul's in Louisiana."