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                           Muses on The Music

Nashville Byline, Part I

December 20, 2018

        Following up on this blog’s previous post, our visit to Music City USA spanned several genres, and uncovered some interesting items.

        As noted previously, Nashville, Tenn., is intimately associated with country and western music, with good reason. But how many people know why it is called “Music City”? According to an exhibit at the Musicians Hall of Fame, it can be attributed to no less than Queen Victoria, empress of “the sun never sets on the” British Empire.

        Fisk University, a Nashville center of higher education founded in the wake of the emancipation of America’s African slaves, early on had a glee club that toured the world and performed before the crowned heads of Europe. Old Queen Vic, on hearing them, observed that whence they came must be “Music City.”

        Those African-Americans who sang to the monarch of (then) much of the world performed “slave songs,” among other styles. The music of today’s Music City is definitely influenced by that style, but has other influences as well.

        An obvious influence, if you saunter — whether or not you’re wearing “manly footwear” — down Broadway in Nashville, is alcohol, and the having of a good time. The honky-tonks and bars start belting out live music before noon.

        Walking down said street can be disorienting then, and for the next 12-plus hours: every-other storefront is a one-story, radioactive sound-delivery device. In many cases, the second or third story is a “rooftop” — a proper noun there, it seems —  some of which were occupied even going into the second week of December. (It’s warmer in Tennessee this time of year — but certainly not balmy, and hanging out al fresco, good music or not, must be a challenge.)

        We went into several of those storefront “honky-tonks” — in quotes for reasons explained hereafter — with interesting outcomes. One, I think it was named Layla’s (an homage to the Derek and the Dominos album would be odd, but not inexplicable), seemed to be the norm — perhaps 25 feet wide, with the band with its back to the store front.

        We weren’t there that long, enough time for me to have one drink. The band sounded good, but the only song I remembered was decidedly not country; the next number, or perhaps the one after that, found me wondering what had happened to the lead singer/guitarist. As I wondered about that, he materialized before us, carrying what is (apparently) omnipresent tip bucket. 

        Nashville Underground no longer was serving food at 10 p.m., despite what was alleged on some website, but that was apparently not uncommon; it was mid-week, and no longer tourist season. (We ended up dining in an [almost] all-night diner, which was a non-musical experience of another kind entirely.)

        The Underground had live music, though. Although I don’t remember it being particularly “country” — a rather skinny young lady in a tube top held forth, alternating with a dude who was also 20-something. They performed well enough — although not exactly as an ensemble, the bartender telling me that they actually had never played together previously.

        What stuck in my mind, more than their musical interaction, was their fellow stage presence: another young lady who banged randomly on whatever she was seated upon, which I did not recognize as a musical instrument. My impression was that her problem was more chemical, and less keeping time with the music. But I’m not supposed to judge …

        I should back up here, to the first show we saw/heard, out of the 20-plus hours of live music we experienced in three days or so. It was the raison d’etre of our trip there: my beloved’s long-time wish to attend Vince Gill and Amy Grant’s annual Christmas concert, at the “Mother Church of Country Music,” Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, home for many years to the Grand Ole Opry.

        That concert is wonderful. There no doubt were some — I think a few in close proximity to me — who gnashed their teeth over the obviously religious character of the show. Grant established her reputation as a “contemporary Christian artist,” 30-some years ago, and she is expressly, earnestly and honestly Christian.

        But that is what the oncoming holiday is about, and the fact that an adherent of that faith would celebrate it in concert should not be a revelation to anyone. Amy perhaps doesn’t quite have the voice she did decades ago, but she still sounds pretty good.

        Her husband is an amazing musician: a multi-instrumentalist who can cover multiple genres — rock, country, bluegrass — and go from one to another seamlessly. He handled the Christmas chestnuts well, but also rocked out — in some cases, boogied out — on the non standard songs. His picking on the Tractors’ “Santa Claus Is Coming In A Boogie-Woogie Choo-Choo Train” just blew me away.

        I’d be remiss not to mention Vince and Amy’s “opening act,” singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who apparently was there promoting a new Christmas album. Crowell, formerly Mr. Rosanne Cash, is a prolific and award-winning songwriter in pop and country — and a former member of Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band — and most of the holiday songs he did in the abbreviated opening set were his compositions.

        What impressed me more were the other musicians on stage with him that night, one in particular. Rory Hoffman started out playing baritone (I think) sax, then went to a keyboard instrument that sounded like an accordion, then to acoustic guitar played lap-style.

        That latter description immediately makes you think, “National steel guitar,” or dobro, something you see quite often in country music and bluegrass. No, Rory was playing a regular acoustic six-string, left-handed — and upside down!

        Jeanne and I sat separately — those were the only tickets available when she ordered them — and when we met after the show, I commented upon that musician (didn’t catch his name at the time). My gal asked if I was aware that he was blind; she reached that conclusion because the stage crew kept bringing him his instruments.

        Roadies often do that, but s’truth — doesn’t say it on his website, but Hoffman is blind from birth. He was a multi-instrumentalist by age 10; he now plays more than a dozen stringed, keyboard and wind instruments. 

        The rest of Crowell’s band was nearly as impressive. John Jorgenson doesn’t play quite as many instruments, but he did mandolin, guitar and sax that night — and he’s backed up everyone from Dylan to Pavarotti to Streisand.

        The vocalist who joined them later isn’t named in the online accounts I found about Crowell’s appearance with Amy and Vince, being a recent arrival in Nashville (according to Rodney). But she pretty much ripped it up, including one number in a convincing Emmylou style.

 

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