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Americana Late Night


by Derek Halsey
October 2004

One of the cool things about the Americana Music Conference is the nighttime jams that happen throughout Nashville during the week. I arrive on Tuesday night and end up at the home of live bluegrass music in Nashville, the Station Inn. Tonight’s bill features a group called The Sidemen. The lineup of The Sidemen changes almost weekly as the band is basically a group put together every Tuesday night culled from the best bluegrass musicians that live in town. Tonight’s lineup features Mike Compton on mandolin, Kim Gardner on Dobro, Shad Cobb on fiddle, Station Inn owner JT Gray on bass, Rob McCoury on banjo, Robbie Nicolas on guitar and guest Marcie Campbell on vocals. The crowd enjoys their rollicking versions of songs like “Black jack” and “Highway 40 Blues.” The week is off to a good start.

Wednesday night is set aside for the Gritz gang to relax and chill out at the hotel room and have some guests over for a jam. Long time Missouri Dobro player Ferrell Stowe shows up as does Ricky Davis, guitarist for Blue Mother Tupelo. Gritz editor Michael Buffalo Smith has his guitar in hand as songs are quickly worked out. I soon make the right decision and set my axe down as Ferrell, who is playing a 1920’s Oahu slide guitar and a Harlowe Dobro, and Ricky, who is playing a National Steel guitar, figure out some sweet tunes to pick together including Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Kokomo.” Buffalo Smith starts into his original tune “Into The Light,” which turns out to sound as good as the song ever has with tasteful licks played all the way around. 

Thursday night is when the Americana showcases and concerts really start to crank up. The two main venues for the night are to be the Mercy Lounge and the 12th and Porter club. At the Mercy Lounge Jon Dee Graham starts the night off with his rocking originals and good guitar playing, followed by the energetic and lovely Tift Merritt. Tift’s set is a revelation, as she sings her tail off backed by a solid band with a great sound that soon wins the crowd over. She is a girl ready to rock.  Next up is the incomparable Buddy Miller. While many know him from his work as Emmylou Harris’ lead guitarist, his solo band is also exceptional. With Phil Madeira on accordion and keyboards, Rick Plant on bass and Bryan Owings on drums behind him, Buddy brings out two guests to sing with him, Regina and Ann McCrary. These two sisters, who sing on Buddy’s new album Universal United House of Prayer, are the daughters of the late Rev. Sam McCrary, founder of the Fairfield Four. They bring the set to a whole new level and the crowd loves it. Buddy’s guitar playing is great, and letting this soulful music sink in is almost like church. 

Halfway into Buddy’s set I walk out into the night and drive over to the 12th and Porter club where local music entrepreneur Billy Block has a showcase going on. I get there in time to see Melonie Cannon play. Melonie, the daughter of legendary music producer Buddy Cannon, performs a wonderful blend of bluegrass and country music from her new self-titled album on Skaggs Family Records. Melonie’s music is real, not too slick, and is rootsy and sweet. It is a good to hear a good acoustic act amidst all the electric bands. After her set I get back in my car and drive back over to the Mercy Lounge to see some of Dave Alvin’s jam. I feel like I am walking into a rocking house party as Alvin and is band, The Guilty Men, have taken advantage of the energy that Buddy Miller gave to the room and has taken it up a notch. The place is hopping, the crowd is into it, good things are happening. 

As Alvin ends his set and the stage crew gets ready for Delbert McClinton, I get into my car yet again and head back to the 12th and Porter club to see the Sisters Wade band. The sisters, Debbie and Julie, are backed up with a good band featuring Chas Williams on Dobro, David Spicher on bass and Andy Most on guitar. They sing some harmonies that only sisters can sing, well-blended and sweet. The night ends with a trip back to see the always rocking Delbert McClinton. The southern soul legend has still got the chops and turns the Mercy Lounge into a late night roadhouse.

Friday is a big day for the Americana Music Conference as the association’s award show is set for 7pm. I end up running around again but I love it as I get to touch base with many fine musicians along the way. I drive across town to have dinner with the lovely and talented Pam Gadd. Pam is from my home area of Cincinnati, Ohio and we are catching up after not seeing each other for a year or so. Pam is a recording artist on her own as well as currently playing with Porter Wagoner’s band. She has a gig at the Grand Ole Opry in a few hours, but we have enough time to catch up on the news from home before we go our separate ways. The award show is at 7pm but I have yet another stop to make along the way at the Douglas Corner club. I am here to see the Jamie Hartford Band. Jamie is the son of the late musician John Hartford and is a fine musician who is making music his own way, writing his own tunes and playing some rocking guitar to boot. I can’t stay long but I do get a good taste of what these guys can do. I knew from hearing their new album, Stuff That Works, that they were good and they are even better live.

The Americana Awards show ends at a little after 9pm (the awards show is reviewed elsewhere in this issue). After the award show is over I head over to B.B. King’s club for the best and funkiest jam of the week -- and maybe of the year -- with the swamp music legend Tony Joe White. First of all, his new album is excellent. It is called The Heroines and it is an album where Tony Joe rocks out some duets with a few of the great women singers that he has known over the years, including Emmylou Harris, his daughter Michelle White, the hot Shelby Lynne, Jessi Colter and Lucinda Williams. I grab a beer at the crowded club and run into Kevin Dolan of the Sabers and Roses reality TV show and Ron Compton, renowned photographer. We know that we are in for a treat and position ourselves accordingly.  

Tony, known mostly for writing “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night In Georgia,” walks onto the stage a little after 10pm in front of a packed room that is filled with music lovers who know exactly why they are here and who they want to see. He plugs in his old Fender Stratocaster into his old Fender amp, adjusts his harmonica brace around his neck, sits in his chair and tilts his head back with his dark glasses on and launches into his unique low-burn swamp groove. In between his guitar and amp is a simple fuzz box, for that patented low growl, and a wah-wah pedal that Tony Joe kicks in sparingly but powerfully.

Tony Joe recently said to Shelby Lynne when they co-wrote a couple of songs for the new album, “If you didn’t live it, don’t write it.” And that kind of authority is evident in every note he throws down.  Sure enough, Tony Joe calls out from the stage for Shelby Lynne and here she comes, stepping up to the mic to sing the funky “Can’t Go Back Home” from the new album. Tony then calls up his daughter, Michelle White, who also belts out a couple of rockers. Soon, it is Jessi Colter’s turn as she is also in the house. The ladies have shown up to help this party along.

The shouts for “Polk Salad Annie” get louder as the set progresses. Finally, Tony Joe says, “I ain’t playing ‘Polk Salad Annie’ until all of my ladies are up here with me.” Shelby hears it and grabs up Michelle and Jessi and they walk back up on stage and soon that wretched, spiteful, straighy razor-totin’ woman” is in the house. After an encore the folks stream out to go to other clubs and see other jams but this show is the talk of the night everywhere we go. 

But the night is not over. Kevin Dolan and I head over to the Mercy Lounge to see the always entertaining Junior Brown. Junior is at his chicken pickin’ and blues playing best as his guit-steel is cranked up in front of an enthusiastic crowd. After Junior is through, the Texas roots rockin’ and songwriting legend Billy Joe Shaver is next up to close out the night. He is touring to promote his new album, Billy And The Kid, where he has taken the last remaining recordings of his late son Eddie’s guitar playing and adds words to them and brings them to life. Billy Joe Shaver is wonderful to see live, as you get to see what a real gut-level music man can do.  

As the show ends we meet up with some Texans on the production side of the music biz, Jimmy Collins and Art Wilkerson. The next thing I know everyone wants to go and get a meal so we pile into their truck and hit the legendary Hermitage Cafe for a 4 am meal of steak and eggs. It is as classic a late night diner as you will ever find and the talk is lively and the food great. Eventually, I am dropped off at my hotel and I don’t bother to look at the time because it would remind me that as late as it is, it is even later on my eastern time zone body clock. Nevertheless, it has been a wonderful night in Music City. Nashville does not disappoint.  

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