Nashville visitors usually expect to find good country music everywhere they turn. They expect to find big-name entertainers popping up in several hot spots, and little-known but memorable musicians showing their stuff in every out-of-the-way corner. As area music fans know, that’s not the case. Rock bands, string bands and songwriters abound, but there’s precious little mainstream, modern country music.
The exception to this rule is the week of Fan Fair. I spent last week scooting around town nightly, catching as much live music as possible, and I still missed out on performances by Johnny Paycheck, Lynn Miles, the Whitstein Brothers, Philip Claypool and others. The bountiful, lively twang resonating through the night air suggested what Nashville could be if the city and the performers who make it famous put a concerted effort toward staging live country music shows in Music City USAnot just at Opryland, along Music Valley Drive, and in hidden hole-in-the-wall honky-tonks, but in major nightclubs in the central part of the city.
The new weekly Music Row concerts, which present Nashville recording artists in the parking lot between Barbara Mandrell Country and Shoney’s, is a move in the right direction. But Music Row needs to encourage its artistsfrom newly signed fresh faces to up-and-coming performers to established starsto become more of a presence in the city where they cash their checks. This activity would energize the city, for sure, and it would give tourism a boost beyond the bright-lights and big-buck attractions. For visitors, catching Wade Hayes smoke the Ace of Clubs would strike a more impressionable chord than chowing down a $7 burger at Planet Hollywood or standing in line for a fancy roller coaster. As American entertainment becomes more genericHard Rocks and theme parks are everywhereNashville stands out by virtue of its musical connections. Right now, we offer out-of-towners trinkets and historical exhibits, but tourists can buy only so many Conway Twitty ashtrays before the thrill wears off. Give them good music, and they’ll take home a memory that will bring them back, instead of one that they’ll eventually ditch in a yard sale.
The payoffs of a livelier country music scene wouldn’t just benefit fans. Getting out in front of a hometown crowd would energize performers and put flesh on all the marketing meetings and song-pitching drills that go on daily across town. Instead of afternoon cocktail celebrations with their obligatory back-patting, why not host early-evening performances where music takes precedence over deal-making? Instead of stiff, formal showcases for nervous new artists, let the hopefuls parade their talents while opening for a performer with a recording contract.
The Mavericks, who took the opportunity to perform a surprise date at Exit/In last week, have proven the worth of connecting with Nashville club audiences. During their first year or two in town, while still struggling to establish a presence on radio and in sales departments, they performed at the Ace of Clubs or the Exit/In every couple of months. The marathon shows always turned into lively parties for the crowd, and band members bonded with music executives and town folk in a way few ’90s artists have. The band draws support from the alternative music community as well as from Music Row, and they’re on a first-name basis with a much larger group of locals than bands who don’t venture beyond the recording studios and song publishing offices. This support has paid off, and the Mavericks relish it and keep feeding it. It may be one of the reasons they seem to be having more fun than most country performers.
Singer Raul Malo also recently treated his record company and a handful of diligent fans to a swing band performance at 12th & Porter, providing a memorable evening of classic pop songs that those in attendance will be talking about into the next century. The same goes for the Mavericks’ June 12 appearance at the Exit/In. An overflowing crowd watched the band and several famous guests kick it up joyously through several hours of cover songs and loose, spirited takes on a few of their own hits. The band refueled its creative tank by rollicking through covers of “Oh, Lonesome Me,” “Dream Baby,” “Cracklin’ Rosie” and other unexpected delights. Steve Earle joined them for covers of his “Guitar Town” and “My Old Friend the Blues,” as well as a rough take on the Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” long an Earle favorite. Other guests included Mark Collie, producer Tony Brown, Mickey Raphael from Willie Nelson’s band, and Al Anderson (ex-NRBQ guitarist and current hot Nashville songwriter).
The most memorable part of the evening came when Trisha Yearwood joined Malo for a series of duets. “For the Good Times” was strikingly beautiful, even if Malo changed the lyrics to say, “Let’s just be glad we had the time to spank each other.” The song showed off the strength of both singers’ voices, with Yearwood’s tender restraint underscoring why she’s such a treasure. Most vocalistsespecially modern stars with powerful voicestend to use any chance to show off their strength and technique. Yearwood, however, concentrated on the emotion of the lyrics, keeping her sweet tone soft and ripe with gentle heartbreak. The pair’s version of “Blue Bayou” had a Latin tinge, while they turned “Your Cheatin’ Heart” into a swinging shuffle.
At the end of the latter song, Malo goaded Yearwood into trading off imitations of other singers. He sang a verse as Tiny Tim, and she came back with Ethel Merman. He did Willie Nelson, then pressed her into doing Reba McEntire. When Yearwood tried to do Wynonna, she stopped after a line and said, “That sounded like I was doing me”; she then dropped into a more emphatic growl. Malo mimicked Waylon Jennings, then offered a profane take on Frank Sinatra as a lounge singer. Yearwood closed it out with a rousing Patsy Cline imitation that brought down the house. At 1 a.m., the band was still playing and bringing up guests, and the club was still packed to capacity.
It was that way all week. Gail Davies provided a triumphant performance at the Bluebird Cafe on Monday, blending remarkable stage savvy with committed attention to the articulate emotions of her potent songs. On Thursday, Jeff Black made his live premiere with instrumental support from three members of Wilco, who are currently working with him in the studio on his upcoming Arista Texas debut. The show revealed how the alternative country band adds a dynamic yet sympathetic punch to Black’s lyrical strengths. Among those enjoying the show were Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn, and their spouses, who were sharing tequila shots and obviously enjoying the music. Later, at Dancin’ in the District, Dunn and Lee Roy Parnell joined Jonell Mosser, Gary Nicholson and their band in a revved-up version of Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This.” The same night, Fred Eaglesmith provided a ferocious and funny acoustic set at the Sutler. The small but rowdy crowd didn’t want his trio to leave the stage, despite the late hour and long week.
For five days, the music of Music City actually spilled out onto Nashville’s streets instead of being sent out in carefully plotted promotional campaigns. If only it were that way more often.
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*Alexandra Grace, not Alexadra Grace