Nashville is 108 miles from my apartment — always has been, too, unless you're one of those pesky geology majors who wants to tell me tectonic plates are somehow moving Huntsville and Nashville closer together or further apart.
On Wednesday, Nashville was 108 miles and seven decades from me. You can't get to Loveless Cafe and Music City Roots by traveling I-65 North; you have to travel through a portal to a time when radio shows were live and commercials were done live by an announcer with one of those preposterously deep voices and barbecue and fried chicken were homemade. You can get there from here but you need more than Google Maps.
Of course it's not just the food that takes you back. Music City Roots is a weekly live music program broadcast by legendary country station WSM-650 from The Barn at Loveless Cafe, but you aren't going to hear Lady Antebellum or Garth Brooks. You might not hear country music at all. As the name suggests, MCR brings performers of American roots music to the stage for two-and-a-half hours each week, finding bands and artists who incorporate elements of bluegrass, country, blues, and other styles housed under the nebulous heading of Americana.
The evening opened with Knoxville-based The Black Lillies (Facebook) and a set of bluegrass-inspired Americana. I don't know if the Lillies brought an entourage west with them or if the audience was otherwise familiar with them but the band seemed to connect with the crowd during their set, drawing material from their acclaimed 2009 debut, Whiskey Angel. The band's sound comes primarily from the harmonies of frontman Cruz Contreras and Trisha Gene Brady and the guitar/pedal steel of Tom Pryor. Whether playing uptempo or more contemplative fare, those components went down smooth. I wasn't familiar with their songs but they had a pleasant sound and I enjoyed their set.
After a brief set by Doug and Telisha Williams, we were treated to an unannounced visitor in the form of Roger McGuinn, former co-frontman of The Byrds. He coaxed the crowd into a loud singalong and brought everyone to their feet at the end of his three-song set. It was a marvel to hear him pluck the strings and produce that inimitable, vital sound of the 12-string Rickenbacker guitar that has become one of the signature sounds of '60s folk-rock. McGuinn was in great voice as he opened with "My Back Pages." He then told the story of how WSM wouldn't play "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," another Dylan song the band recorded, in this case for their classic Sweetheart Of The Rodeo LP with Gram Parsons. All these years later, McGuinn finally got that song on the air and the crowd was eating it up and singing along. He concluded with "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man," a song written about the DJ who wouldn't play his song.
A legend like Roger McGuinn was going to be a nearly impossible act to follow and that task fell to the duo I'd actually come to see, Peter Karp and Sue Foley (Facebook). I didn't envy them but these are two veteran performers who have played before, alongside, and after great talents more than once.
Peter and Sue gave a little background on their new album, He Said She Said, before performing the first of four songs from it. They opened with "Dear Girl," a song made special by the way Karp chronicles the 'moments that make up the dull day,' if you will, after which he asks how this life became his life. Those unfamiliar with Sue Foley were quickly put on notice that she is one hell of a guitarist and the crowd came to life after her solo. Having gotten the audience's attention, Foley talked some more about the record she and Karp worked on together, its origin, her first face-to-face meetings with Karp, and the first time she got a snippet of the song "Scared." With Karp now on piano, Foley moved to center stage to handle lead vocal and lead guitar. She was magnetic.
She gave a brief intro to their third song, "MmHmm," which has been generating a lot of radio airplay. "MmHmm" is easily the most sexually overt song on the album, which probably has plenty to do with why it has attracted the attention of programmers and listeners alike. Before delivering a smoldering version of the sensuous song, Karp quipped that Foley's mom has renamed this song "Nuh Uhh." The give-and-take in the vocals were spot on before the two exchanged quick guitar solos. From the intimate chemistry of "MmHmm" came a song about a knockdown, drag-out fight called "The Rules of Engagement," topped with some sweet slide Dobro from Karp.
Dread Clampitt (Facebook) and Sam Bush were the final band to perform and their mix of hard-and-funky, rhythmic bluegrass and Americana was clearly a hit with the crowd. They were energetic and the instrumental interplay was outstanding, particularly between mandolin/vocalist Balder Sanders and guest fiddler Sam Bush. Dread Clampitt peppers their choruses with tight harmonies in addition to some masterful musicianship.
At the end, members of all the bands on set returned to the stage for one final number. After some discussion amongst the musicians and some help from the sound crew to get mics and instruments plugged in, the assemblage of talents offered up a fun, rollicking performance of "Wabash Cannonball."
All of this was broadcast live and streamed on the internet, creating a modern version of the old radio variety shows so long ago forgotten I didn't realize anyone was actually still doing them. In between performances, Craig Havighurst interviewed performers and Eddie Stubbs did live commercial reads from the stage, broadcast over the airwaves and online while host Bill Cody kept the evening moving along.
My GPS navigated me the 108 miles back home and to the year 2010, but I didn't leave empty handed. I left with my ears ringing from an evening of great music. I also left a few dollars lighter, having picked up a few souvenirs: Peter Karp's impossible-to-find Roadshow and Sue Foley's Love Comin' Down, both of which made for great highway companions. I also headed out of town with a full stomach because, in case you were wondering, yes, that fried chicken was really good.