Sunday, October 19, 2014

Working In Nashville

I had to go to Nashville for a nonprofit tech conference. Everything was taking place in the Gaylord Opryland, an outsized human-scale terrarium about 10 miles from the bright lights of Broadway. Since Nashville is Music City and I thought I might have a little time to explore what that meant, I started doing some research a couple of weeks before the trip. Serendipity called when I got an email from Noisetrade offering a free sampler of Nashville indie from Deer Head Music.

I shared it on Twitter and when Deer Head responded, I asked them for some venue suggestions. They came back with The Basement, Exit In, Mercy Lounge, the 5 Spot and the Stone Fox. None of these places are on Broadway, not that I knew the significance of that before I went down there. I Googled each venue, looking for promising bands that I might be able to catch in my limited free time. Mercy Lounge led me to The High Watt, which was featuring a four-act lineup on the Monday, headlined by Wild Ponies. I dialed up their 2013 album Things That Used To Shine and was greeted with the moody and menacing Make You Mine. Opening with a Link Wray-sized chord, this is a concise bit of noir, with spidery guitar from Doug Williams limning his wife Telisha's threats, sung in a crystal clear voice with a bit of twang. The second song, The Truth Is, has Telisha showing a more vulnerable side and is also a winner. Trigger moves at a gallop, with some fine fiddling, intricate picking and Doug chiming in on the chorus.

The whole album is pretty darn good, although I have a definite preference for the cuts that steer the furthest from country and where Doug unleashes the meanest guitar lines. So I had a plan. Strangely enough, no one else at the conference was feeling adventurous and preferred to either stay in the climate-controlled Gaylord, check out the Grand Ole Opry itself or wander the confines of Broadway. The shuttle dropped me off outside The Ryman. I walked down to Broadway and immediately saw why some people call the place Nashvegas. The neon was unrelenting, although some of it was very cool, and there was music blaring from windows and doors on two levels. Nothing I heard was very inspiring and it struck me that the performers in the tourist traps lining the street were little more than props, part of the experience visitors expected but not something you would travel to see, or remember much of afterwards.

I was seeking something more. But before going off the beaten path, I decided to stop into Ernest Tubb's record store, which has been there since the 50's. They had a deep selection of country, including some nice box sets from Bear Family. In the back was a little museum, with cutouts of Tubb, Hank, Dolly and Elvis. They also had Pete Drake's "talking" pedal steel, as heard on Lay Lady Lay and 1,000's of other songs. Since I was there, I picked up Lucinda Williams's fine new album along with an Earl Bostic CD from the bargain bin.

Stepping back onto the sidewalk, I gave myself over to Apple Maps for direction and Hiss Golden Messenger's extraordinary Lateness Of Dancers for musical fuel. As I walked, the sky to the south lit up regularly with cinematic bursts of lightning, lending a sense of occasion to my journey. After about a mile, I found myself at Cannery Row, an historic building that now houses three music venues (at least) and what looked like a gallery. What it didn't have was a restaurant so after paying my $3.00 ("Steep for Nashville on a Monday night," the doorman informed me) and getting my hand stamped at The High Watt, I went off in search of Peg Leg Porker for some barbeque. God, was that good, and perfectly matched by their house-bottled bourbon and a glass of George Dickel Barrel Select for good measure. But I digress.

Taylor Sorenson & friend
By the time I finished licking my fingers and got back to The High Watt, I had missed Lauryn Peacock's tuneful and thoughtful folk-rock but up next was Taylor Sorenson of The Trigger Code, a Nashville band with a big sound that was recently heard on the inaugural season of HBO's True Detective. It's been a couple of years since their last album, however, and Sorenson was here to workshop some new songs with another guitarist. Although he introduced them as acoustic songs, both guys were plugged in and ready to rock. Which they did, with intensity, Sorenson's boot hitting the stage on the choruses. While still ringing out with bold dramatic flourishes, the new songs sounded a bit more personal than their stuff on record, which can strain a little too much for the universal. It's a tough balance, but Sorenson has the grit and passion to find it.

Catherine Ashby
After a short break, Catherine Ashby took the stage, tall and striking in a long white tunic, her red hair offset by glittery eye shadow. Her 2012 album King Of My Sky has a beautiful warmth, reminiscent of Nick Drake and other English singer-songwriters. The songs are well-constructed and can be deeply touching, offering solace and delivering on that promise. Recently she's transplanted herself to our side of the pond, recording her latest EP, Tennessee Tracks, in Nashville, and as soon as she started singing I Tweeted "where Laurel Canyon meets the English Hills," trying to capture the influences she was so perfectly weaving.

The EP was produced by Lorna Flowers, like Ashby an English songwriter drawn to Nashville. In the 10 years since she arrived, she became a nurturing force among Nashville musicians. Unfortunately, that tight-knit community said goodbye to Flowers earlier this year when she succumbed to cancer. She did a beautiful job with Ashby's songs, adding just enough detail to the songs with pedal steel and strings, a restrained rhythm section and a rich sound. Tennessee Tracks is a worthy addition to her legacy and an excellent introduction to Ashby's talent. Performing with just another guitarist, Ashby was a confident and charming advocate for her songs and sang beautifully. I couldn't help but think what those people packing the bars of Broadway were missing, as there were only 20 or 30 people at The High Watt.

Wild Ponies
The crowd might have been small but it was very enthusiastic, and never more so as when Wild Ponies finally took the stage. They came hot out of the gate, Doug Williams spraying shards from his telecaster and Telisha Williams dwarfed by her bass but fully in command. I didn't catch the drummer's name but she was right there along with them, pushing her small kit to the limit. This is what I had been hoping to hear from them and it was fantastic. While the whole set didn't hit me as hard that's only because I like their electric side best. There is no doubt that they can do whatever they choose to do, and in a big way. Doug and Telisha are clearly a force to be reckoned with and when Telisha remarked that this was "an unusual Wild Ponies show because nobody has died yet," I admit to being slightly relieved that she was only talking about singing a murder ballad, which they then went on to do with aplomb

This was Wild Ponies last Nashville concert until mid-December as they are heading out on an extensive tour, including nearly a dozen dates in the UK. I wouldn't be surprised if they inspired a few more musicians to get on a plane and explore Music City. On my way out of The High Watt, I chatted with Doug and he was as friendly as his guitar playing is fierce. Catherine Ashby was also charming, signing my copy of Tennesee Tracks with a flourish. I would've hung out longer but I had to catch the last bus to the Gaylord.

As Hiss Golden Messenger sung me back to my hotel room, I felt that I had drank deeply from a rich source of music. I won't say I found the "real Nashville" on Cannery Row as the rhinestone and neon glitz is just as much a part of that as the simple verities of great singing, songwriting and playing. I do feel I found a corner of town that fed me and kept me satisfied even in the weeks since I returned to NYC - and I'm not just talking about Peg Leg's ribs. Next year's conference has already been scheduled in Austin. I've heard you can catch a little music there, too.

Here's a playlist of some of what I listened to and heard in Nashville.

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