Think Toby Keith has anything to celebrate? Having sold more than 2 million CDs in two months, country’s favorite politically incorrect Okie will swagger into Music City and rally his troops by spouting off about patriotism, vigilante justice, one-night stands and his favorite bars. Since cranking up the guitars and leaving the sensitive ballads in the dust of his Ford pickup, Keith has realized the secret to country success: Forget the rules, display loads of personality and write about what you know rather than what you think the powers-that-be want to hear. Among the more entertaining ditties on his new Shock’n Y’all is an account of smoking weed on Willie Nelson’s bus. For his part, Nelson showed a generation that breaking rules and being yourself could lead to multiplatinum, packed-house glory, even if no one will ever do it with the same mix of grace, talent and laid-back passion as this one-of-a-kind master. Nelson and Family will display their ragged-but-right souland the best songbook aroundas a reminder of country’s earthier, more mystical charms. Gaylord Entertainment Center
Friday, 26th-Saturday, 27th
Opry Nights at the Ryman The Opry brings down its curtain on 2003 by doing what it does bestpresenting a country variety show peppered with acts appealing to virtually every subgroup among the genre’s fans, from mainstream radio listeners to nostalgic seniors recalling the show’s golden era. Actually, the weekend’s a little light on mainstream radio stars, but it has a promising up-and-comer in Kentuckian Rebecca Lynn Howard, whose soaring voice propelled her “Forgive” onto the airwaves, and another strong contender in the doughty Chalee Tennison. Americana touchstone Emmylou Harris, gritty R&B-country blender T. Graham Brown and the elegantly retro stylist Mandy Barnett round out the list of headliners appearing both nights. Friday adds the genial Porter Wagoner, plus comedian Mike Snider, who fronts what is probably the best old-time stringband around. Saturday’s lineup includes Hank Williams’ daughter Jett, the vivacious Jeannie Seely and the debonair Jim Ed Brown. Ryman Auditorium
Disciples of Loud Guitar-slinger extraordinaire Warner Hodges has provided the hard-rock stomp to Jason Ringenberg’s hillbilly soul in Jason & The Scorchers for more than 20 years now. Lately, though, he’s been indulging his inner rock child with some strutting, balls-to-the-wall guitar rawk that harks back to the heyday of AC/DC, Slade and Motley Crue. As the name of his quartet suggests, the longhaired wildman with the kid-in-a-candy-store smile cranks up the volume without a hint of twang. And get thishe’s the lead singer. His peel-the-paint tenor surely has Bon Scott raising a toast from the afterworld. Live, Hodges trades fiercely intertwined leads with guitarist Todd Austin, whose power mullet marks him as a hair-metal survivor who never gave up the faith. Bassist Kenny Ames and drummer Matt Green provide a firm, fat bottom. Exit/In
Susan Cowsill As a member of the ’60s pop vocal group The Cowsills, Cowsill reached the Top 10 with “The Rain, the Park and Other Things” and the title track from the musical Hair, both now considered pop-psychedelic classics. The band’s day-to-day lives were later fictionalized on the hit TV series The Partridge Family. In the mid-’90s, Cowsill, along with then-husband Peter Holsapple, reemerged as part of The Continental Drifters, a sprawling collective consisting of expatriate New Orleanians and post-punks from L.A. Even as a young girl, Cowsill was a soulful singer, but in the Drifters she also proved to be a deft pop songwriter whose best work was tinged with sadness. Especially poignant are ballads like “Spring Day in Ohio” and “The Rain Song,” both of which convey a heartbreaking sense of aloneness. That said, Cowsill’s shows aren’t hangdogher current touring band includes hard-driving Louisiana drummer Russ Broussard (her husband) and former Cowboy Mouth bassist Rob Savoy. Radio Cafe
Paul V. Griffith
Russell Smith & The Amazing Rhythm Aces This classic, unclassifiable Knoxville-born rock band seem to stop by here annually, and it’s always a welcome visit. Back in the mid-’70s, they produced a series of infectious, memorably detailed pop (“Third Rate Romance”) and country hits (“Amazing Grace Used to Be Her Favorite Song”) and racked up awards as “progressive country” leadersthat era’s term for “alt-country.” Disbanded in ’81, they’ve carried on as a lively, undated act since reforming in the mid-’90s. Lead singer and songwriter Russell Smith wrote a string of Music Row hits during the Aces’ hiatus, for Ricky Van Shelton, Randy Travis and John Conley, among others. Today, the band hit harder on the R&B side they’d always shown, but they can sound like everything from lean precursors of Welch-and-Rawlings acoustics to Little Feat-style electro-swamp-rockers. Smith has been writing in a Muscle Shoals soul vein lately, and the newer numbers add breadth to a well-rooted Southern song bag. Bluebird Cafe
Del McCoury Band/Leftover Salmon 2003 was a winner in all respects for daddy Del, his sons Rob (banjo) and Ron (mandolin), and longtime bandmates Jason Carter (fiddle) and Mike Bub (bass). In April, after being courted by major labels and indies alike, they struck out on their own, forming McCoury Music and issuing the Grammy-nominated It’s Just the Night on their own label in August. In October, Carter recaptured the IBMA’s Fiddle Player of the Year award while Bub took a second consecutive honor for his instrumenthis fourth overall. And when Del and the boys took the stage to accept their eighth Entertainer of the Year trophy, the affable singer-guitarist with the expressive eyebrows was offered an invitation to join the cast of the Grand Ole Opry. Underlining their mass appeal, the quintet spent the autumn double-billed at venues across the country with jam band pioneers Leftover Salmon on the aptly named “Under the Influence” tour. The title reflected the bluegrass group’s reputation among jam bands and their fans alike, but the admiration is mutual. On paper, the combination of the McCoury outfit’s precision and tradition-heavy repertoire with Leftover Salmon’s funky drive and modern-day Colorado hippie-isms might seem dubious, but it works, and if the latter threaten to raise the venerable Ryman’s roof, the McCourys ought to keep things down to earth. Ryman Auditorium
BR549 The Honky-Tonk Kings of Lower Broad set back up where it all began to bid “Auld Lang Syne” to 2003. It looks like a promising 2004 for the band, too: A new album for Dualtone Records, Tangled in the Pines, features a tighter focus and fiercer edge while still maintaining the band’s good-time hillbilly-dance-floor élan. More than a year after joining the reconstituted band, new members Chris Scruggs and Geoff Firebaugh are fully integrated into the quintet with ringleader Chuck Mead, steel guitarist-fiddler Don Herron and drummer Shaw Wilson. They’ve stayed busy on the road, meaning they’ll return home sounding as sharp as they look and carrying new gifts to unwrap. As anyone who saw the band downtown in the ’90s remembers, BR549 like nothing better than a packed, beer-stoked crowd that’s ready to rip. Robert’s Western World
Friday, 2nd-Saturday, 3rd
Opry Nights at the Ryman The Opry’s 2004 season gets off to a forward-looking start this weekend, featuring guests whose careers are on a sharp upward swingor, in the case of The Stevens Sisters, ought to be. April and Beth have crafted a sound that both reflects their family bluegrass band roots and reaches beyond them with a little country-rock attitude. Mountain Heart give their bluegrass an appealing jolt with a dynamic stage presence and a sensibility equally at home with hard-core bluegrass and contemporary country material. After a ferociously successful 2003, Joe Nichols is hard at work on a new album that promises to confirm his role as the most fully realized country neo-traditionalist of the under-30 generation. His Opry appearances, where he’s likely to throw in a classic country cover, are always especially appealing. Rhonda Vincent’s Friday show introduces new band member Josh Williams, whose youth is belied by the maturity of his smooth, resonant voice. The vocal trio of Vincent, Williams and bassist Mickey Harris offer some of the strongest harmonies to appear on the Opry stage. Saturday belongs to Vince Gill, whose wide-ranging ability to deliver everything from polished pop-country to bluegrass has earned him a role as the Opry’s youngest elder. Ryman Auditorium
Aniello Desiderio At 7 p.m. on Jan. 6, the Main Library downtown presents its second Virtuoso Showcase, featuring internationally recognized classical guitarist Desiderio. Born in Naples, Italy, in 1971, Desiderio has already been named the first-place winner in 18 international competitions. He’s just released Tangos y Danzas on the German Koch Classics label; the record includes bravura works by the late Astor Piazzolla. Kudos to Friends of the Nashville Public Library and the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee for making Desiderio’s appearance possible in a very good space for his kind of sound.
“Happy Holidays Remembered” At Christmastime, New York City always had Macy’s. In Chicago, it was Marshall Field’s. For Nashvillians, especially during the 1950s and ’60s, there were Church Street department stores like Cain-Sloan, Castner-Knott and Harvey’s, which dressed up their display windows to fit the festive season. Running through Jan. 4, an exhibit at the Main Library recalls those bygone years via an assemblage of photographs from the library’s Nashville Banner Archives collection. The exhibit also chronicles several of Nashville’s Christmas parades and the spectacular Nativity scene at the Parthenon (which was an annual must-see). The exhibit is free at the Main Library, 615 Church St.
Elephant Here’s that holiday heartwarmer you’ve been awaiting: Gus Van Sant’s chilly meditation on the Columbine shootings, which took top honors at Cannes last summer and inspired an equally fervent chorus of boos and outrage. Two boys enter a high school with duffel bags and weapons; the hours leading up to their arrival expand, telescope and double back in multiple perspectives, as Harris Savides’ camera glides spectrally through the empty halls. That Van Sant ultimately has nothing conclusive to say about the shootings isn’t the problem. Far worse is his using the occasion for dumb in-jokes and formal calisthenics swiped from European mastersand then letting the massacre provide the “significance.” But others disagreeincluding Joshua Rothkopf, who weighs in on p. 57. The movie starts Friday at the Belcourt.
Big Fish/Cold Mountain/House of Sand and Fog Sure would be nice to be able to recommend any one of these so-called “prestige” pictures waiting under the tree this holiday season; as it happens, they all suffer from oversincerityan admirable fault, but one not necessarily preferable to the blemishes on summer’s sugary crop. In an odd coincidence of strengths, however, all three boast exceptional paternal portrayals: Tim Burton’s Big Fish (opening Jan. 9)finds the beloved goth-auteur gone depressingly conventional, but Albert Finney continues his spectacular run of late-career deftness as a Southern raconteur on his deathbed. Looming ominously in the distance, Cold Mountain has lost much of novelist Charles Frazier’s pungent voice in exchange for spectacle. But the ever-reliable Donald Sutherland turns in a tasty cameo as a dignified minister fresh in town with daughter Nicole Kidman. Finally, for those who press their way through the oppressively dank mise-en-scène of House of Sand and Fog, a treat is in store: Ben Kingsley’s severe Irani colonel, desperately trying to salvage his exiled family’s pride through a California land grab, is some of the year’s finest work, with an absolutely shattering climax.
L.O.C. Kargil The title of J.P. Dutta’s all-star Bollywood war epic stands for “line of control,” and the director’s large-scale drama (with musical numbers) commemorates the 1999 battle of Operation Vijay between Indian and Pakistani forces during the Kargil conflict. The movie appears in Nashville only a week after its release in India, which is better than we can say for most American indies. Part of the Bollywood screening series that has drawn hundreds of viewers each month, it screens Jan. 3 at the Belcourt.
21 Grams Mexican stylist Alejandro González Iñárritu follows up his kinetic debut, Amores perrosafter a brief interlude making a BMW car commercial and an impressionistic snuff short for 11’09”01with this, his first Hollywood-funded feature in English. The transition has been kind: He’s been allowed to direct a serious, sometimes meandering but never dispassionate picture on matters of fate (the urgency of a heart transplant) and the spirit (guilt over a fatal hit-and-run). His troika of acting leads is a coup, with Benicio Del Toro and Sean Penn turning in typically mesmerizing work, yet it’s Naomi Watts who eclipses them both with that fierce junkie’s gaze still handy from Mulholland Dr. The movie’s opening at Green Hills, along with In America, Jim Sheridan’s disarming, deeply felt Valentine to America as the land of opportunity, warts and all.
Paycheck You mean this isn’t a John Woo biopic about the life of Johnny Paycheck? Guess that means Ben Affleck won’t be singing “Pardon Me (I’ve Got Someone to Kill).” Instead, it’s Affleck on the wanted list in this thriller adapted from a Philip K. Dick story, in which a man whose memory has been erased tries to find out why. Uma Thurman and Aaron Eckhart co-star. Opening Christmas Day, along with Peter Pan.
Stubby’s Place After a year’s trial run on Comcast-Channel 19, this locally produced comedy variety show, masterminded by writer/filmmaker Glen Weiss, takes a leap into the unknown of “real television” when the WB network debuts the first of 13 Friday-night installments at midnight on Jan. 2. Stubby’s Place travels in the comic zone of MAD TV and Saturday Night Live, featuring satirical sketches, stand-up spots, commercial parodies, animated segments and a “man on the street” feature called “Stubby-cam.” The cast consists of 10 talented Nashvillians, including Perry Poston, who stars as schlockmeister comedian Stubby, who has relocated from the Big Apple to Music City, and Leah Adcock as the kitschy comic-book-inspired superhero Thong Girl.
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