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Concert Reviews

Abigal Washburn, Corb Lund and The SteelDrivers Shine Bright on a Gray Day in Nashville



Nashville’s sky was overcast and depressing on Wednesday, but the day was brightened by the legions of roots music artists who brought their varying strands of traditional country, folk and bluegrass to Music City—all under the big tent of Americana.

Wednesday marked the opening of the Americana Music Association’s annual festival and conference, an event so jam-packed with panels, seminars and artist showcases that it’s literally impossible to see more than a sliver of what’s on the schedule. Indeed, the most difficult part of attending this event is deciding what to skip.

There were a couple of captivating panels to start the day off. Jay Frank, author of the must-read book Future Hit DNA, gave a presentation that I’m sure was just as great as his published work, and what blogger wouldn’t love to sit in on a panel called “Social Media Strategies That Build Your Fan Base?”

Unfortunately, both of those events conflicted with my “must see” event of the day. So, after checking in at Nashville’s Sheraton Hotel, the headquarters for the event, I headed a few blocks south to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for “Right By Her Roots: Singer-Songwrtiers and What Lies Beneath,” a discussion and songswap hosted by the impeccable Jewly Hight which featured Elizabeth Cook, Mary Gauthier and Abigail Washburn.

All three artists—each of whom come from vastly different social backgrounds—are featured in Hight’s upcoming book, Right By Her Roots: Americana Women and Their Songs. During the 90-minute discussion and performance, the women talked with Hight about how each of their backgrounds influenced their musical development and affect their musical present.

After answering a couple of questions, each artist was given the chance to play a song. Cook, who said that music and family were intertwined when she was a child (she got her start by playing traditional country music on the central Florida craft show circuit with her parents) started off the day’s music with a spot-on rendition of “Heroin Addict Sister,” a moving song from her latest album, Welder.

Next up was Gauthier, a folk-oriented artist who said that her goal as a songwriter is to “get beyond the me, and get to the we.” Gauthier—who was given up at birth and then adopted—played a stirring rendition of “Mama Here, Mama Gone” from her album The Foundling, and later performed the exquisite title cut from her 1999 album Drag Queens in Limousines .

It was relative newcomer Abigail Washburn, however, who stole the show. The 32-year-old banjo player—who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese—talked about growing up in an affluent suburban household where things were always good, but “weren’t always all right.” She had planned to be a lawyer in China, but scored a record deal after learning just two songs on the banjo.

She knows more than a couple of songs now, of course, and she demonstrated a clear command of the instrument, as well as of her own powerful voice. Her version of a Chinese folk song—delivered in Chinese as Washburn stood at the microphone and stomped her foot to the rhythm, while the crowd of a couple hundred people clapped along—was a remarkable sight to witness.

After stopping off at the downtown Panera Bread for a quick coffee, I headed back to the Sheraton to catch a charter bus (graciously provided by the AMA) for the 45-minute trek from the middle of the city to the Loveless Café, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

There were a number of outstanding showcases on Wednesday night, but I chose to forgo the opportunity to see Hayes Carll, Elizabeth Cook, Guy Clark, Holly Williams and Raul Malo—whose performances were scattered across various venues around the city—in favor of the stellar setlist at the Loveless.

On the bill were Chuck Mead (formerly of BR549), Manda Mosher, Madison Violet, Corb Lund and The SteelDrivers. Hard to beat that lineup, huh?

The loveless ‘showcase’ was actually a regularly scheduled episode of WSM-AM’s “Music City Roots” radio program, which is hosted by Jim Lauderdale. Lauderdale kicked things off with one quick song, but left the rest of the evening to the scheduled artists.

First up was Mead, backed by a three-piece band that featured an electric mandolin. Few people do honky tonk better than Mead does it, and tonight was no exception; it was a rousing performance that was capped with a stellar take on his song “I Wish It Was Friday.”

New artist Manda Mosher, who is from Los Angeles and said she’d never played Nashville before, was the only disappointment of the evening. Introduced by Lauderdale as having been compared to Lucinda Williams, Kasey Anderson and Sheryl Crow, Mosher lacked the charisma, deft songwriting or vocal prowess of any of those three venerable artists.

Fortunately, the follow up act was a surprising treat. Canadian duo Madison Violet wowed the crowd with a series of twangy folk songs that were capped with a fiddle-driven mashup of “Where’d You Get Your Whiskey” and “Movin’ On Up.” Though few in the crowd knew who the duo was, or were paying much attention when they started playing, all were appreciative at the end; that appreciation was demonstrated by raucous applause and one of only two standing ovations doled out on the night.

Next up was Corb Lund, and the intensity in the room increased dramatically as soon as the lanky Canadian took the stage. Lund has a focus in his eyes that draws you in when he sings; he’s a gripping performer with outstanding stage presence.

Lund kicked off his set with “Devil’s Best Dress” and finished it with a killer take on “We’ve Been Drinking Beer All Night,” but it was his second song that stood out as the night’s greatest moment. Supported by a talented band, Lund’s performance of “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier” was simply off the charts.

As good as Lund was, however, there was no doubt who the crowd was there to see. The SteelDrivers took the stage to thunderous cheering, and launched in to the title track from their new album, Reckless.

Relative youngster Gary Nichols replaces Chris Stapleton as the band’s lead singer, and what a lead singer he is. Nichols has a powerful, gritty voice, and he sings bluegrass like it’s pure rock and roll.

It’s almost impossible to imagine The SteelDrivers without Mike Henderson’s slide guitar. It’s such an essential element of the band’s current sound, and it almost doesn’t seem real that there’s none of it on the group’s first record.

Between Nichols’ aggressive singing and Henderson’s infusion of the blues into bluegrass, this band so lauded on its first effort for pushing the boundaries of bluegrass is actually doing so now. They may have been good before, but they’re great now, thanks to a sound that’s fuller and more dynamic.

Jim Malec is a journalist whose work has appeared in American Songwriter, Country Weekly, Denver Westword, Slant and others. He is the founder of American Noise and former Managing Editor of The 9513.

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