Before Nashville, I’d never lived in a place where part of the regular conversation and social/cultural goings on was to figure out the essence of that place and to take active steps to get closer to its heart and soul. There was never a big emphasis on what does it mean to be from Chicago or Washington DC or Durham, NC, three of my other home bases. There is such a conversation about New Orleans and Austin. Music cities are like this. But I wonder if there’s any place more probative of its place-ness than Nashville. What I know is that it’s a healthy conversation to have and one that we are good at cultivating. When we partner with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as we did this Wednesday, our city’s essence comes into tighter focus. We’re elevated in our attention and admiration. We heard a distillation of what it means to be a Nashville Cat. Can you sing? Write? Play? Cooperate? We know this when we hear it. We’re cat people and we’re into cat power.
On a night celebrating an exhibit about studio and side musicians, it was no surprise to see some of the city’s best pickers on stage from the outset, backing up the magisterial voice of Tracy Nelson. I thought she was going to blow our hair back with blues and soul, but she decided to recall her early days in Nashville in the early 70s and play classic country music. With members of the Long Players (Bill Lloyd, Brad Jones) backing her up, she sang “I Fall To Pieces” and “You Win Again” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” with full throated emotion. Jenni Obert’s fiddle lent a Cajun dance hall zest to a couple tunes. Jim Hoke played classic pedal steel. It was a joy to hear and to speak with Tracy about her early Nashville days with Mother Earth.
Charlie Worsham took the stage with no extra cats at his side, just an acoustic guitar and a banjo. And he gave a master class in country music stagecraft. He kicked with the Grand Ole Opry song from Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Then he donned the banjo for a story about Earl Scruggs and he played that legend’s take on “Home Sweet Home” followed by a banjo-based “Dance Dance Dance” that did indeed swing. Back to guitar he went with the
syncopated groove that supported “I Ain’t Going Nowhere.” I was flabbergasted by the set closer “Southern By The Grace of God.” I love the song on the record, but this one guitar arrangement was enthralling.
There’s no instrument on Earth like the pedal steel guitar, a contraption largely invented and perfected in Nashville and mastered by Nashville musicians like Lloyd Green and West Coast counterparts like JayDee Maness. To have both of them side by side on our stage was a joy, and the silvery slippery cascades of tear drops that flowed from those instruments was transfixing. The repertoire came from the Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, on which they played. “I Am A Pilgrim” has always been a favorite of mine and here it had a jazz swing. The strong melody of Gram Parsons’s “Hickory Wind” stood out. Where Charlie Worsham sang “I Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” these guys did Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” as both an instrumental and a show closing Nashville Jam with all the guest artists taking verses. We didn’t want to go anywhere else.