We’re never quite sure how the hell we’re supposed to celebrate Labor Day. Generally, we like to spend our three-day weekends in a perma-drunk state of rock and/or roll. But as America’s most socialist of bank holidays descended upon us, insulting our white pants and making us feel bad about the proletariat, Nashville presented us with slim pickings on the “We’ll see you in hell, summer 2012” party front. Sure, we could’ve seen The Maloneys — Cream curmudgeon “Bawston” Sean Maloney and his wife Mandi — terrorize music majors on three separate occasions. But burying this unbearable season requires a bit more pomp than art brut power chords can provide.
As luck would have it, local country chanteuse Nikki Lane must’ve felt the same way. Under the name of High Class Hillbilly, her decidedly Southern vintage boutique, Lane opened her home to the masses Saturday afternoon for a party featuring Promised Land, Hugh Bob and the Hustle, Little Bandit and Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz.
Unwilling to be the chumps that show up first to a house party, we decided to take our sweet time rolling over to Lane’s East Nashville abode. But after with our protracted search for the tallest tallboys available to Labor Day day drinkers, we still showed up way too early. We swear we’re gonna figure this whole “house show” thing out one day. But if you have to mill about somewhere for an hour before the bands start, you could do a lot worse than Lane’s idyllically Nashville place. The “High Class Hillbilly” aesthetic was in full effect: van seats in the lawn, ladies drinking gin out of mason jars, dudes gunning hard for the skinny-jeans Hee Haw look. Also, dogs. So many dogs! If there were mutts running around The End, we probably wouldn’t mind shows never starting before 10:30 p.m. there either.
Around 6 p.m., Ben Swank’s Hate Life DJing (in as much as playing songs from an iPod Nano through the PA is DJing) finally gave way to Promised Land, a band described to us as being the seldom-seen Turkeys, minus JEFF's Jamin Orrall and Those Darlins' Jessi Darlin. Joey Scala and Sean Thompson blazed through the kind of songs you’d expect from a couple of dudes who used to play with PUJOL and maintain affiliation with Denney and the Jets. Raucous and slightly punk-rock, Promised Land roots itself in twangy guitar licks and bluesy progressions. For a band that has apparently only existed for all of about a month, their style is pretty well realized and confident. We’re not always the biggest Southern rock fans, but Promised Land has something worth keeping an eye on. It’s not like those dudes have done us wrong in the past anyway.
Out-of-towners Hugh Bob and the Hustle followed Promised Land, apparently landing the gig after opening for Lane at The Basement the night before — and then raking her lawn and fixing her fence (that’s some real Tom Sawyer shit right there). We can’t help but be naturally suspicious of outlanders appropriating traditionally Southern music, but Milwaukee’s Hugh Bob avoided the pitfalls of the derivative Mumford and Sons bro-grass that has been invading our country by being charmingly sincere. Hugh Bob and the Hustle’s rootsy skiffle-inspired tunes came off as being authentically farm-raised, but with the same sort of Stonesy blues rock that found its way into Promised Land’s set.
That’s all well and good, but let’s get real here: We mostly just wanted to see Little Bandit and Jonny Fritz.
Lit only by a couple of stage lamps, some Christmas lights and a temperamental streetlight, Little Bandit either charmed the hell out of us or made us despondent with heartache. Alex Caress’s “tear in my beer” ballads are utterly wrenching in their execution — it’s a wonder that they don’t occupy the same level of local country popularity that Nikki Lane and Caitlin Rose enjoy in town. There’s something to be said about the kind of resonant emotional power that fuels these songs, making them feel as if they were just written yesterday. It was a sudden, jarring switch from the blues-tinged country-rock we’d enjoyed as the sun set on Hugh Bob, but a hell of a thing to watch. And just when we could take no more sad country tunes, the band hit us with an upbeat one about getting irresponsibly drunk. The American way!
When Jonny “Corndawg” Fritz recently announced that he’d be ditching his deep-fried moniker in favor of his real name — presumably so that we’d stop posting that goofy Daytrotter drawing of him on a stick — we were a little concerned. Would the artist formerly known as Corndawg be taking a break from singing songs about being an undercover dad and fuckin’ underwater? Does the name make the man? Would there be no stopping D. Striker’s assured tyrannical (we’re assuming) reign as Nashville’s new king of cheeky trad country?
All of those fears were immediately assuaged as soon as we heard the phrase “I’m starting all the fights that get started tonight” through the kitchen windows. Sure enough, Jonny Fritz and the once-and-former Corndawgs are still the jokers we remember them to be from the SoundLand opening party last year. And if we weren’t convinced by “Chevy Beretta” and “Shaved (Like A Razor),” we would be by Fritz’s stage-wriggling and propensity for tumbling through kitchen windows.
When Fritz isn’t clowning around (and even when he is), there’s a heart to his songs that you don’t often hear in the sterile pop country national nightmare we’ve been trapped in for the better part of a decade. Fritz and his band are dad-country charmers, at one minute singing about picking up contact solution from CVS and at another praising Tom T. Hall. Even the silliest song has some kind of accessible truth to it, which we suppose has always been the point of country anyway. We’re not the most Americana-literate folks in the world, but even we can admit that rarely are we happier than when we’re watching a Jonny Fritz (nee Corndawg) show. Not just because of the rampant silliness, but because of the honestly great songs.
But, y’know, the silliness sure doesn’t hurt. Watching the band fully lose it as Spencer Cullum Jr. Framptoned his way through a talkbox rendition of “Shut Up” will go down as one of the highlights of 2012. And if that isn’t good enough to come back in two weeks for the next HCH party (which will happen biweekly, “until it’s freezing”), we’re not sure what is.