Best Local Songwriter: Amy Rigby A New Yorker who relocated to Nashville several years ago, Rigby makes terrific, all-too-overlooked roots-pop records that nail the likes of class, men and “middlescence” with wit, grace and self-deprecating charm. At her quotidian best, though, she sings the song of herself, conveying the blues, as lived by urbanites and suburbanites, like a citified niece of Loretta Lynn. Country radio, are you listening?
Best Music Row Songwriter: Darrell Scott Scott never set out to contribute several of the best country songs of the new century. He just wanted to write the best songs and make the best records that he could. But those independent recordings tended to get passed around by country artists who actually love music as much as they love their fame. As a result, stellar Scott tunes such as “Long Time Gone,” “Great Day to Be Alive,” “Family Tree” and “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” ended up on Music Row records and, to the music’s credit, on the radio. Like others before himMatraca Berg, Jim Lauderdale, Kim Richey, Buddy and Julie MillerScott scored hits without paying attention to what Music Row scuttlebutt said was the hot new trend. Wouldn’t that be a novel direction for Nashville’s professional song squad: ignoring what’s successful for others and writing what’s in their hearts.
Best Country Songwriter Who Should Be a Star: Jeffrey Steele Steele is the perfect example of how country music allows its writers to get better as they mature and gain experience without allowing recording artists a second chance to demonstrate they can improve with age. Steele first hit Nashville as lead singer of Boy Howdy, an entertaining but forgettable California country band. He has since developed into one of the town’s most incisive and successful songwriters. His recent hits include such gems as Trace Adkins’ “I’m Trying,” Tim McGraw’s “The Cowboy in Me,” Joe Nichols’ “That Would Be Her” and Montgomery Gentry’s “My Town,” “Speed” and “Hell Yeah.” But those who’ve seen Steele perform in recent years and those who’ve heard his 2001 album Somethin’ in the Water on Sony Records know that he’s capable of rousing up as big a reaction as any of the stars who record his material. It’s too bad country fans outside of Nashville don’t get the chance to experience the charismatic performer responsible for some of their favorite songs.
Best Veteran Country Artist: Rodney Crowell As spiritual and wholly adult as Crowell seems in middle age, he’s not interested in aging gracefully. Instead, he’s still fighting to better himself and to maintain the fire and passion of his youth. As shown on the searing and searching songs of his recent album Fate’s Right Hand, he’s in touch with his maturitybut only in the way that it can be used to achieve a kind of wisdom that moves beyond vanity and ego, toward the more important qualities of living a full life. He’s still learning how to fly, as he writes in a memorable song, and his words encourage the rest of us to get off the ground too.
Best Country Legend: Dolly Parton Parton could easily coast through her career on the power of her personality. And more than most, she’s earned that right. But despite appearances, she’s always been an artist first and a celebrity secondnever more so than in the last several years. Besides making music that ranks with the best of her career, Dolly is now the subject of one of the best tribute albums ever made in Nashville. The new Just Because I’m a Woman comes out Oct. 14 and emphasizes her songwriting, which has always been the most integral of her many talents. Fortunately, the inspired collection of artists who record her songs don’t follow her lead, instead interpreting her material in ways that reveal how sturdy and meaningful her writing has been.
Best Country Artist/Band: Brooks & Dunn Proof that even boot-scootin’ good ol’ boys can overcome: B&D’s white-hot Red Dirt Road is, hands down, one of the best country albums to come from Music Row in years. It’s also a great rock record and has all the rootsy “authenticity” that card-carrying alt-countryites crave: punch, crunch, attitude, transcendence, musical allusions to Skynyrd, Springsteen, Stax, the Stones and the Shelter People. If grunge-twang standard-bearers Uncle Tupelo had made an album as meaty, beaty, big and bouncy as Red Dirt Road (and as filled with grace, none of it cheap), alt-country might indeed have become the next big thing.
Best Career Move: Allison Moorer Only the most rigid fans believe that quality of music can be defined by the differences between large, major record labels and small, independent companies. Good music can and does emerge from both worlds. But it’s important for artists to live in an environment that nurtures what’s best about them. And by now it’s apparent that Allison Moorer’s overwhelming talents as a songwriter and a lyrical interpreter have not been as widely recognized in the mainstream country world as they should have been. Well, it’s the system’s loss, not hers. Having left Music Row to align herself with the respected North Carolina-based independent label Sugar Hill Records, Moorer will continue to grow, both artistically and commercially. Music Row does need to figure out why it has lost some of its most distinctive talents to the indie world over the last two or three decades, but for Moorer, the future is hers.
Best Old Local Band: Mike Henderson When I have music-loving out-of-town guests, slide guitarist/harmonica player Henderson is at the absolute top of the “must-see” list. In fact, I’ve made visitors extend their stays a day or two solely for this purpose. Despite being an accomplished studio veteran, Henderson has never lost touch with the rawness and immediacy at the heart of the best blues music. Drummer Pat O’Conner and bassist Mark Winchester lay down a shuffle like a runaway freight train, and pianist John Jarvis is a jaw-dropper on his own. But it’s Henderson’s uncanny ability to be at once true to the roots and wildly inventiveand to just plain tear your head offthat makes this group a local treasure not to be taken for granted.
Best Local Band To Finally Hit the Big Time: Josh Rouse/Kings of Leon “Finally” may not be the right word for Kings of Leon, who erupted seemingly overnight after a year of development and woodshedding with cool Music Row tunesmith Angelo. They vaulted to the top of the British music charts, the company of David Letterman and a slot on this fall’s Strokes tour. But their rangy twang, cranked to a fare-thee-well on their long-player Youth and Young Manhood, does proud the city’s tradition of Southern garage rock. (Remember the Allman Joys?) Don’t be surprised, though, if the bigger story by year’s end is Rouse’s breakthrough album 1972with its wonderful Brad Jones-produced evocation of ’70s soft rock (right down to the flutes and the Welcome Back, Kotter background vocals). Whichever record comes out on top, there’s one undisputed winner: Grimey’s, which has sold armfuls of both records since late summer.
Best New Local Band: Green Rode Shotgun This inventively melodic slop-rock outfit from Cookeville started making inroads into the local scene in 2002, but have broken through more decisively this year with the release of their first full-length LP, the rowdy, catchy Bang!. And they’re even better live, where they whip through a tight set packed with tiny explosions. What will it take for Green Rode Shotgun to get their due notice on a national level? They’re certainly as good as any rock band of the moment: If a song of theirs like “Sideburn” made the rounds with the name “The Strokes” on the cover, music fans and critics would surely be taking notice, buzzing about the music’s ferocious energy and traces of rootsiness.
Best Punk Band: On Command Nashville’s punk community, dry and almost inactive only two years ago, is now teeming with bands and shows, as Nashville becomes the hot spot for tours through the South. Impressive local acts like the post-From Ashes Rise/No Parade project Deadly Skies, charged street punks Public Offence and teenage wunderkinder The Sex make the task of picking a favorite a daunting and tricky pleasure. However, it’s On Command’s ’77-style pogo mayhem that proves to be consistently amazing above all others. Frontman Mike Raber, a reserved gentleman by day, succumbs to his inner Mr. Hyde when he takes the stage, demanding attention and reckless abandon from his audience. No newcomers to Nashville, On Command began four years ago as Fuck Fuck Goose, with sole remaining members Raber and drummer Adriane Leonard-Brown seeing the lineup through several changes. Now with William Tyler on guitar, On Command prove to be tighter and more exciting than any act in town.
Best Punk Venue: Guido’s Pizzeria Thanks to the fertility of the Nashville punk scene, choosing a top venue is just as difficult as choosing a best band. Other much larger scenes, such as those in Philadelphia and Chicago, suffer from not having even one solid venue for small punk and hardcore shows. Nashville is blessed with several great spots, such as The Muse and the Red Rose Coffee House, not to mention a handful of basement parties and house shows. But it’s the folks at Guido’s Pizzeria who consistently welcome punk and hardcore gigs while remaining flexible and fair about door percentages. This has allowed touring bands to get paid well on their Nashville stops, while keeping cover charges to a DIY-friendly $5 or less per show. Out-of-town bands spread the word that Nashville is a great tour stop, which prompts more groups to come through, thus keeping our scene thriving. And since Guido’s is a restaurant as well as a music venue, shows remain all-ages while the over-21 crowd gets to enjoy a cold brew.
Best Metal Band: Asschapel Born from the ashes of “hip-shaking asscore” purveyors Boobyhatch, Asschapel’s metal onslaught recalls Reign in Blood-era Slayer spiked with a hint of hardcore punk. With two EPs and two full-length albums to their credit, they’re preparing to take the battle overseas as they embark on a European tour in the fall, making them perhaps Nashville’s most successful metal band since Intruder.
Best Local Concert Series: VoigHt-Kampff Music Surely the rare buried gem in an avalanche of local concert series, Voight-Kampff has brought in a staggering array of world-class, avant-garde jazz and free improvisational artists in the past two years alone, often playing to gatherings of no more than 20 listeners at the ruby green contemporary art foundation or the back room of Guido’s Pizzeria. Tapping into a regional underground circuit of venues for experimental music, series organizer Brady Sharp has managed to attract founding fathers and mothers of the free improv movement, such as guitarist Eugene Chadbourne and violinist LaDonna Smith, who sometimes jam with like-minded local talent. Recent memorable shows have featured British avant-percussionist Chris Cutler ripping through an arsenal of textural effects, and Brooklyn saxophonist Andrew Lamb playing on the outer limits of his trio’s orbit. This fall’s remaining schedule promises to uphold the VK Music tradition of hosting the most challenging, risk-taking performers of their kind while they pass through the region: Guitarist Davey Williams, a mainstay of the Birmingham, Ala., free improv scene for two decades and Denmark-based, found-instrument master Martin Klapper (Oct. 3 at Springwater; see this week’s Critics’ Picks, starting on p. 87); Grey Ghost, a laptop and percussion duo from Chicago (Oct. 4 at Guido’s); and two German reedmen, Bertrand Denzler and Hans Koch, who cover the entire sonic spectrum and grapple with a barrage of mixed genres (Nov. 2 at Guido’s).
Best Free Concert: Centennial Park’s Big Band Series For the past 13 or so summers, the city has sponsored a charming Saturday-night concert series for old and young farts alike. Groups such as the Bill Sleeter Band, The Moonlighters and the Paul Ross Orchestra play to a band shell of dancing seniors and a grassy patch of young couples, panting dogs and frolicking, barefoot children. It’s old-fashioned community fun the likes of which you appreciate more as the years tick by. The series is over for this season, but next year, bring your dancing shoes or just a blanket and picnic (and water for Rover).
Liz Murray Garrigan
Best Classical Music Performing Arts Group: Nashville Ballet/Nashville Chamber Orchestra This was a tough call. But from half a dozen noteworthies, two companies, Nashville Ballet and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, have set themselves apart through their shared commitment to producing fresh work by artists not yet well known. Both Nashville Ballet, led by Paul Vasterling, and the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, led by Paul Gambill, feature talented and disciplined performers. Both include canonized masterworks in their repertories, but these masterworks do not displace or dominate work freshly imagined by composers and choreographers still very much alive. To date, Gambill’s most impressive commissions have been executed by local violinist/arranger/composer Conni Ellisor. Vasterling himself has choreographed impressive new work for his troupefrom Dracula to Robin Hood. Now the companies are joining forces to open the upcoming season with two premieres: Conni Ellisor’s ballet based on the Tennesee legend of the Bell Witch, choreographed by San Francisco-based Anne Marie De Angelo, and Ouroboros, a snake-themed ballet featuring choreography by Vasterling and music by NCO’s current composer-in-residence Mark Scearce. Ballet’s architectonics has music as its foundation; it makes music visible as lithe bodies in motion. And this visible musical athleticism builds fresh, dramatic narratives out of ancient stuff. These two companies, separately and together, bring a bracing sense of renewal to the performing arts in Music City.
Best Classical Music Venue: Ingram Center for the Performing Arts Most “classical music” (ancient or cutting edge) is scored for acoustic instruments. Perhaps its quintessence is best uttered by the steadily bowed, open low string of a fine violin. For some ears, that’s what “classical music” meansthe magical sonority, from solo instrument to full orchestra, that makes the body’s molecules resonate in response. Most local ears have never heard that sound because most Nashville venuesJackson Hall, for instance, or the Polk Theaterdiminish and/or distort it. In our city, the venue that best delivers the real thing is Vanderbilt’s new Ingram Center, located in the Blair School of Music. Seating some 600 listeners, the hall’s inaugural concert in 2002 featured the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Since then, it has embraced soloists and ensembles, ranging from soprano Dawn Upshaw to the Nashville Chamber Orchestra, and from sonatas for piano and strings to a brilliant production of the satirical opera Gianni Schichi (sung almost entirely by undergraduates). This year’s calendar is loaded with attractive diversity, much of it likely to be quite fine. Bookings include the Blair String Quartet and the Blair Brass Quintet, as well as return engagements by Dawn Upshaw and the NCO. If you want to hear classical music in Nashvillewhether again or for the first timethis is the place.
Best Local Art Gallery: none All right, before I piss a buncha people off, lemme clarify: There’s no single “best” local art gallery because there are at least a half-dozen places that, together, represent the growing momentum and crackling energy of the city’s visual art scene. Of the bunch, one of my favorites is Rule of Thirds, if only because it’s the most atypical and the most homegrownliterally. Situated in the front rooms of a house just off Belmont Boulevard, it provides an outlet for a diverse array of local and out-of-town artists who in various ways represent gallery partners Shaun Slifer and Ally Reeves’ adventurous, politically engaged, grass-roots ethos. Indeed, so intimate is Rule of Thirds that the art on view becomes more immediate, more vital by virtue of its setting. And there’s nothing nicer than going to an art opening that involves hanging out in the front yard, taking in the view from atop Bernard Avenue. Zeitgeist Gallery, Fugitive Art Center, Cheekwood’s Temporary Contemporary Gallery, Watkins College of Art & Design and ruby green contemporary art center are all showing inventive, thought-provoking work from local, regional and national artistsand each place has a character of its own, from the more refined, classy but hardly stodgy vibe of Zeitgeist and Cheekwood’s TC Gallery, to the Fugitive’s wide-open urban warehouse space. Finally, TAG Art Gallery and Plowhaus each deserve props for providing relaxed, fun and totally committed venues for art that’s often eye-opening and originaland almost always remarkably affordable. In a city where the visual arts scene long felt incestuous or closed off, all of these gallery spaces suggest that it’s turning into a genuine community, the kind of place where people actually support each other’s efforts, engage in healthy dialogue, and work tirelessly to make good things happen.
Best Local Artist/Designer: Bryce McCloud As a printmaker and owner of a small, letterpress business called Isle of Printing, Bryce McCloud has helped to infuse new life into an art form that was approaching obscurity. By utilizing his late uncle’s letterpress equipment and meticulously carving his own wood and linoleum blocks, McCloud thrives on the idea that his commercial design holds a twofold purpose. “I like that something we print not only informs people about an event, but also serves as a piece of public art.” And while Isle of Printing has earned the respect of No Depression magazine and the American Institute of Graphic Art, McCloud continues to be an active player in the local art scene. He is a member of two local artist cooperatives: Untitled (a 12-year-old organization run for and by local artists) and Plowhaus (East Nashville’s artist co-op, founded by designer Franne Lee). His most satisfying project recently was co-curating a show with Jerry Dale McFadden called “E Posteribus Unum” at TAG Art Gallery, where poster artists were represented from around the country. “I wanted Nashville to see what kind of poster art is out there, so I called up some of my favorite poster artists and invited them to Nashville.” That’s just the kind of guy he is. You can catch a glimpse of McCloud’s newest work at the upcoming Artclectic show at University School of Nashville, Oct. 23-26. For information on McCloud or Isle of Printing, visit www.isleofprinting.com.
Best Original Play: Karla Nashville produces playwrights here and there, but few so far have combined vision and theme with the trenchant dialogue necessary to make something truly original come alive. Singer-songwriter and erstwhile stage writer Steve Earle did just that with this excursion into the life of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker. It didn’t hurt that Earle’s script benefited from Darrell Larson’s strong direction and the darkly effective performances of Sara Sharpe, W. Earl Brown, Julie Rowe, Brandon Boyd and Holly Allen. But, of course, good plays deserve all that. By any measure of local dramatic output, Karla was a major achievement.
Best Overall Production: Waiting for Godot Strange that the winner here is a production seen by relatively few theatergoers. That’s because the Samuel Beckett estate shut People’s Branch Theatre down after one weekend, upon receiving word that director Brian Niece had cast females in the play’s lead roles. Beside being our town’s biggest-ever theatrical cause célèbre, it was simply a shame, because terrific actorsJenny Littleton, Mary Tanner Bailey, Matt Chiorini, Jonathan Root and David Wilkersonwere delivering intellectually challenging, cutting-edge performances in an absurdist classic. Franne Lee’s costumes added a surreal aura to the event as well. Fans of the Rep’s Proof and BroadAxe’s Karla might quibble with this choiceand they might score points accordinglybut Godot gets the nod for “best” because the production pointed Music City theater in a more daring and modern, if somewhat off-kilter, direction.
Best TPAC Road Show: contact It’s arguable that this touring production provided Nashville with its finest theatrical moments of the past 12 months. Innovative choreographer/director Susan Stroman was the brains behind the deft blending of dialogue, music and dance, which boldly told tales of love and communication from different time periods. contact’s thematic sophistication and elegant, high-gloss production values were matched by a seriously talented cast of actors and dancers, such that you had to pinch yourself to remember that this was happening in Nashville, not Manhattan.
Best Local Theater Company: Tennessee Repertory Theatre A no-brainer, really. Despite pockets of excellence throughout the rest of Nashville’s theater communityespecially Nashville Children’s Theatreit is the Rep that has provided consistently high-caliber, professional adult theater in our town of late. The many good productions in the recent term include God’s Man in Texas (set for revival this season), Fully Committed, Proof, Betrayal and The Taming of the Shrew. Even the Rep’s flawed stuff, A Streetcar Named Desire and A Christmas Carol, has featured a lot of creative craftwork and top-flight ensemble performances. Nice to know that the biggest in town is also the best.
Best Performance in a Drama: Amy Tribbey Tough call here. There were a ton of notable acting performances in Nashville theater recently: Jamahl Marsh, Barry Scott and Kenneth Dozier in American Negro Playwright Theatre’s A Lesson Before Dying; Denice Hicks and Jeremy Childs in Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s Streetcar Named Desire; Caroline Davis and Charles Howard in ACT I’s Lady Frederick; Bill Feehely, Vali Forrister and Joe Keenan in Actors Bridge’s Moon for the Misbegotten; Anna Gorisch (Bridge to Terabithia) and Misty Lewis (Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse), both at Nashville Children’s Theatre; Matt Carlton in the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s Romeo & Juliet; the entire casts of BroadAxe Theatre’s Karla and People’s Branch Theatre’s Waiting for Godot. In the area of cumulative work, certainly the versatile Matt Chiorini, Rep favorite Anna Stone and theatrical everyman jeff obafemi carr present strong cases for general excellence. But delivering a fine major performance in a first-rate production of an indisputably acclaimed play counts for something, and Amy Tribbey’s sensitive, earthy depiction of a young woman haunted by ominous family legacies in the Rep’s Proof deserves to be called the “best.” Tribbey’s work combined art and entertainment at an impressive level, and audiences were riveted. (As for all of the above-mentioned: Congrats on a great year.)
Best Performance in a Musical: Lauri Bright The moment she stepped onto the Boiler Room Theatre stage as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, Lauri Bright captured her audience and recaptured the essence of classic-era Broadway musical performance. As gangster Nathan Detroit’s put-upon, long-pining, “Noo Yawk” nightclub-singer girlfriend, Bright nailed the great Frank Loesser songs”Adelaide’s Lament,” “Sue Me” and “A Bushel and a Peck”and offered a touching and hilarious portrait of the marriage-minded female in extremis. Bright also often works as a choreographer for BRTcase in point, the recent production of Chicagobut here she proved she was a star.
Best Theater Director: Scot Copeland There are directors in our town who occasionally hit the professional mark in a big way. But season in and season out, Copeland is Mr. Consistent. Besides serving as artistic director and doing most of the stage directing at Nashville Children’s Theatrea company with national impact and a well-deserved reputation for progressive script development and a courageous approach to actingCopeland has also been a leader in uniting local artists through his work with the Nashville Professional Theatre Consortium. His many productions continue to amuse, thrill, educate and entertain thousands of youngsters every year. Combining the affability of Santa Claus with realistic show-business acumen, Copeland does a lot more than merely mount a full season of plays. And he just happens to do that with creativity and utter savvy.
Best Set Designer: Gary Hoff Few artists get the chance to create with expansiveness as Gary Hoff does. But the great thing is that Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s resident set designer uses his bag of tricks so well and often so beautifully. If he’s not serving up the rich modern classicism of his set for Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire, for example, then Hoff is off to the races with the candy-coated whimsy of his ’50s-inspired design for David Grapes’ production of Taming of the Shrew. And who in the audience at Marcus Hummon’s Francis of Guernica last year can forget Hoff’s replica of Picasso’s stunning painting? Hoff’s got a lot of game, and Nashville is lucky to have him.
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