Lexington’s Southland Jamboree, Live Music, & Community

 “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.” – Andrew Lytle

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It’s hard to beat live music, especially summertime outdoor live music. Make it neighborhood summertime outdoor live music and you’ve reached live music nirvana (confession: I never actually saw Nirvana live).

That brings us to Lexington’s Southland Jamboree. During my decade of exile from Kentucky I rarely got to see live Bluegrass music. I was overjoyed to find that in my absence a weekly neighborhood summer Bluegrass concert series had sprung up on Southland Drive. The better news is that’s only a few blocks from our house.

Southland Drive 1

The series opened the Tuesday following Memorial Day on a grassy spot behind the bowling alley with the eponymous local band Southland Drive. Last week was the more youthful Velvet Blue (who did not perform a Bluegrass version of ‘Blue Velvet’). Tonight is the band Newtown (see the full summer schedule).

Velvet Blue 02But Bluegrass is not simply a spectator sport. After an hour listening to the evening’s scheduled entertainment, the natives get their turn as audience jamming begins. This is in keeping with Andrew Lytle’s admonition in I’ll Take My Stand, “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.” Sometimes we need the right nudge to do just that.

What are building blocks of community and culture? It’s a complex question, but I would argue that two elements are eating together and making music together. The Bluegrass Jamboree is the sort of local project that promotes local culture and true community. Our folding chairs are in the trunk, and an evening picnic will be ready for tonight’s show.

Southland Jamboree


Concert Review: The Secret Sisters at the Ryman

“If your music doesn’t make you feel bad then you’re not listening to country music.”
~ Laura Rogers, The Secret Sisters

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As much as I enjoyed the Nickel Creek concert at the Ryman on Saturday (read my review), it wasn’t only the headliners I wanted to hear. The Secret Sisters were slated to open the show. I’ve wanted to see the harmony duo for a couple of years now. Its hard to imagine if you could put together a more solid opening and headlining act than the Secret Sisters and Nickel Creek.

Like Nickel Creek, the Secret Sisters have released a new album to coincide with the summer tour. Their show opening set were all songs from that just released album, “Put Your Needle Down.” It was a home run set–about 35 minutes of harmony goodness–and I have no doubt they made plenty of new fans.

Highlights performed off the new album included the power charged “Rattle My Bones,” Everly Brothers tinged “Black and Blue,” and girl-power anthem “The Pocket Knife.” The murder ballad “Iuka,” inspired by their grandparents’ young marriage in the Mississippi town, tells the tale of young lovers who meet a tragic end.

What would have made their warm-up perfect for me? An encore performance of “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder,” their tear-jerker written in response to the 2011 Alabama tornado outbreak. The song was featured on The Hunger Games soundtrack. Alas, the Secret Sisters did not return for an encore Saturday night.

Laura and Lydia Rogers grew up singing a cappella harmony in churches of Christ around their native–and legendary–Muscle Shoals. The obvious comparison is to the Everly Brothers, but a more apt comparison might be to Alabama’s Louvin Brothers. Certainly the Louvins’ album title “Tragic Songs of Life” coincides with the Rogers’ stated philosophy that country music ought to make you feel bad.

Picture courtesy of Beth Pontal of Love You Muches

Picture courtesy of Beth Pontal of Love You Muches

But the Secret Sisters aren’t simply channeling the 1940s like a harmony version of Gillian Welch (that’s no knock on Gillian). Songs like “Rattle My Bones” make you want to turn the volume all the way up to eleven. They clearly feel as comfortable with a single acoustic guitar as with having Jack White (or The Punch Brothers) back them up on “Big River.”

I have to admit that one of the reasons I feel an affinity for the Secret Sisters is the guitar they play. On the Ryman Saturday night they used a D-28 style acoustic made by Athens, Alabama’s Jim Hays. Jim is a good friend, and has been quietly making some of the best guitars out there. After the show when I mentioned Jim Hays to the Rogers girls they brightened up and began raving about him and his guitar. For me, it makes their music even more special.

Whether with Nickel Creek or on their own, run, don’t walk, to hear the Secret Sisters perform live. You won’t be sorry. These gals are doing country music the right way, and they showcased that at the Ryman on Saturday night.


Concert Review: Nickel Creek at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium

Nickel Creek group

[Spoiler Alert: Details of the night’s set lists are discussed below. If you don’t want to know, don’t read it.]

I’ve never been to a concert that opened with a standing ovation, that is until Saturday night at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium. Before Nickel Creek played a note, the sold out crowd of over 2,300 took to its feet and welcomed the trio back from their over six year hiatus. It was an expression of joy and relief from dedicated fans who feared such a day might never come.

Nickel Creek HatchComprised of siblings Sara Watkins on fiddle and Sean Watkins on guitar plus mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, Nickel Creek was a juggernaut of New Grass, a blend of Bluegrass instrumentation and more pop sensibilities. The group split up over six years ago to pursue other projects. But now on the band’s twenty fifth anniversary—amazing considering the oldest member is only 37 years old—the trio released a new album, “A Dotted Line,” and announced a run of shows for the spring and summer. This was only their fourth show in the tour.

In expected Nickel Creek fashion, the concert was a high energy blend of new songs and old favorites backed up by Bluegrass bass legend Mark Schatz. Highlights from the new album included the Sara Watkins vehicle “Destination,” and the Sean Watkins song “21st of May”, a humorous—and catchy—take on the Harold Camping failed rapture from three years ago.

One of the fun new songs featured was “Hayloft,” a cover of a song by Canadian pop group Mother Mother. “Hayloft” demonstrates Nickel Creek’s great skill at playing pop-rock with acoustic instrumentation, a talent demonstrated on the last tour with their tongue-in-cheek version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”

NC - Anthony 2(Nickel Creek performs “Anthony.” Picture courtesy of my friend Beth Pontal of Love You Muches.)

A favorite for my wife and me was Sara’s song “Anthony,” which is remembered by us as the only song that would stop our then-infant Claire from crying in the car. We’ve heard it hundreds of times, surely, and still love its catchy humor.

A question going into the concert was how—or whether—Thile would treat early flagship songs like “The Lighthouse’s Tale.” He had publicly distanced himself from “Lighthouse,” and was no longer playing it at all. “The Fox” also became a signature live piece for Thile as he incorporated Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” into it along with increasingly complicated instrumental sampling in a jam band style. Like “Lighthouse,” the song clearly became more of a burden than a pleasure for him.

One advantage of being away from the Nickel Creek spotlight for a few years is the ability to hit the reset button, and that’s exactly what a more mature Thile was able to do. He poked some fun at “Lighthouse,” but then played and sang a beautiful version. Likewise with “The Fox,” Thile embraced the original album version during the encore, with no Dylan or Mario Brothers theme to be found. Fans appreciated both.

And this marks the real change in Nickel Creek. Age has, unsurprisingly, matured them. The time with other projects has exercised musical muscles that might have been left to sag with Nickel Creek alone. Sarah Watkins is a stronger singer, and I think they’re less interested as a group in pushing to impress.

Twenty five years of Nickel Creek has brought us the best of all possible worlds: a better Nickel Creek than ever while its members are just hitting their musical prime, poised for another twenty five years. If you get a chance to catch them live this summer don’t miss the opportunity.

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[Later this week, a look at Nickel Creek’s opening act The Secret Sisters.]

Nickel Creek Back in Business On the Tonight Show

After a seven year hiatus Nickel Creek is back with a (great) new album, a new tour, and last night, an appearance on Jimmy Fallon performing ‘Destination’:

Nickel Creek performs ‘Destination’ ~ Jimmy… by HumanSlinky

I’ve seen Nickel Creek far and wide, and am excited have tickets to see them at the Ryman later this month. Stay tuned.

Dr. Ralph, The Ryman, & the Redneck Taco: Martin’s BBQ Joint of Nolensville, Tennessee

Ryman Auditorium

I finally made good on a trip I’d wanted to make for some time. I headed north to Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium for one of their summer Bluegrass Nights. The equally legendary, and nearly as old, Ralph Stanley was headlining in possibly his last full concert appearance at the Mother Church. A farewell concert by a first generation Bluegrass legend at ground zero for Bluegrass music was a recipe for success.

Always on the lookout for new places to eat, I noticed that Southern food guru John T. Edge had listed something called the Redneck Taco at Nolensville’s Martin’s BBQ Joint on his Garden & Gun 100 Southern Foods. There’s not a better combination than barbeque and Bluegrass, so I put Nolensville onto my travel map and started toward Nashville.

Martin's BBQ Joint

Martin’s apparently used to be a bit more of a hole in the wall (which I enjoy), but the new place is a stand alone building in nicer shopping area. Good sign number one: smoke was billowing out. The smell of pork filled the air.

Martin's PigThe inside is properly porky, signs and artifacts cover the walls. The restaurant was busy, but there was no wait time when I was there. You walk by a very large menu board that highlights “The Notorious Redneck Taco.” There are several meat options, each with its own sauce recommendation. I went with the basic pulled pork with  Sweet Dixie Sauce. I gave my order to the young lady at the order window and waited for my taco to be brought out.

The Redneck Taco is a hoecake covered in meat–pulled pork, in my case–then a layer of slaw, finally topped with barbeque sauce. The hoecake is similar to a regular pancake, slightly sweet. I found the pulled pork tasty and moist (tried alone without sauce). The slaw was finely chopped. The recommended sauce, Sweet Dixie, lived up to its name. It is tangy, a little sweet, with good flavor. The beans were likewise tangy, and although I liked them at first, later, I wasn’t entirely sure if I did or not. I will say this, I appreciate a place that doesn’t just give you warmed up beans from a can. I want them to at least do something to make them their own. Martin’s fulfills its responsibilities to the beans.

Martin's Redneck Taco

You really need a little more sauce than they put on it, so ask for more or it gets a bit dry. In what may be a barbeque restaurant first for me, there was no sauce readily available. You have to ask for extra in which case they’ll bring you a small paper cup with sauce. Maybe Martin’s will find some squeeze bottles and put this stuff out for their patrons. BBQ Joints shouldn’t be stingy with the sauce.

Having Martin’s Redneck Taco was a great experience, one I recommend. The atmosphere is right, service is solid. Now I want to go back to try their ribs and other sauces. Speciality items are one thing, but ribs are where an establishment can stand or fall.

With the Redneck Taco behind me, it was on to Dr. Ralph and the Ryman.

Bluegrass MarkerRalph Stanley is probably most known to modern audiences as the voice behind the song “O, Death”, featured in the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? Stanley is really the last of the true old guard in Bluegrass music. He began his career as half of the Stanley Brothers in 1946, and even toured with Bill Monroe. When Carter Stanley died in 1966, Ralph retooled and began his solo career using the Clinch Mountain Boys as his back-up band. Ralph hired teenagers like Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and Marty Stuart over the years, giving the future stars their starts.

The show opened with co-headliner Jim Lauderdale and band who did a fantastic job. Lauderdale and Dr. Ralph did a couple of albums together, and have toured extensively. Lauderdale has written a great bit of material for Stanley, some of which Lauderdale performed during his set.

Dr. Ralph Stanley came out with his Clinch Mountain Boys for the second set, and I wondered how well he would hold up. At 86, he’s understandably slowing down a bit. He’s no longer playing his banjo, and had a chair on stage to rest.

Ralph Stanley O Death

But although Stanley started the set a bit slow, he nailed the a cappella “O Death” (capping it with a sung, and sincere, “thank you”). From that point on, Ralph Stanley seemed only to pick up steam getting stronger with each song. My only disappointment: there’s no mandolin in the current iteration of the Clinch Mountain Boys–what?!

I wasn’t sure how long Dr. Ralph would be able to keep going, but they did a 90 minute show, which was amazing. Stanley was spelled with lead singing by his grandson and various instrumentals. A highlight was Jim Lauderdale joining Dr. Stanley onstage for a song.

It was a great way to begin seeing shows at the Ryman. And I was glad to have the opportunity to have Dr. Ralph Stanley sign my official Hatch Show Print for the summer Bluegrass Nights.

I should have asked Dr. Ralph if he had ever eaten a Redneck Taco.

Ryman Hatch Print