When the Americana Conference has hosted Bonnie Raitt, Richard Thompson, Don Was, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell, the Civil Wars and Emmylou Harris as part of the Mercyland show, Chris Stamey, Casey Chambers, the Wallflowers, Billy Joe Shaver, Jim Lauderdale and the North Mississippi All-Stars, the BoDeans, Jim Dickinson and John Hiatt, it’s hard to close down the festivities. So the smart money takes something incredible – something like Buddy Miller and grafts something special and unexpected – like Lee Ann Womack – onto it.
So with Rodney Crowell and Marvin Etzioni one-two punching the crowd at the Station Inn and Texas’ wonderful all-girl Trishas holding down the Rutledge, the Mercy Lounge played host to a death-defying all-request country classics set from the quintessential Americana artist/producer/songwriter and the 6-time Country Music Association Award winner. Grounded by an amazing band of musicians – including Hot Band vet Steve Fishell on steel guitar and John Prine vet Dave Jacques on upright – the band sweltered their way through a collection of George and Tammy, Porter and Dolly and yes, Loretta and Ernest Tubb, plus Loretta and Conway.
It was that kind of night: where true country found the perfect intersection with authentic Americana. Kitsch replaced with love, reverence and the kind of passion you don’t want to light matches around. Even the slowly undulating ramble through Sam Cooke’s “Really Got A Hold On Me” with its perfect two part harmony was an incandescent merging of want and surrender.
Still, to hear Lee Ann Womack sing “Burning The Midnight Oil” is to hear the white hot pilot light of grown-up desire. Once upon a time, country music was fraught with hormones, back alleys, forbidden love and the kind of sex that exists beyond PG-13 movies. Bordering on irrational need and want, when delivered in Womack’s silvery soprano, the juxtaposition staggers… and with Miller’s burlap and warm bourbon tones, it balances the flash with something grounding.
That has always been the secret of great country duets: the opposite elements creating something else. With Miller and Womack, the template was more than realized. Indeed, it was ignited.
Dan Penn’s “Dark End of the Street” became almost volcanic, with a build of the love that can’t quite be which is denied and pushed to the shadows until the need explodes. With staunch denying one’s want, the pair know the only relief can be found… at the dark end of the street… They leave a puddle of yearning that can’t be swept up, but rather will drown both of them.
Obviously, Miller and Womack are not having an affair. They’re not paramours. They’re not even likely to look at each other with a “want to” in their eyes. Each is happily married, yet they share a hard passion for classic country, and they each being their fervor for the music to the cannon of soiled, spoiled love.
On the Parton/Wagoner “If Pennies Were Tear Drops,” the innocence of heartbreak shines with a bottomless ache and yet, the hope of the impossible love. Having the wonder in the pain is one of the nuances that elevates great Wurlitzer country from the scenery chewing bathos that defines so much modern emotionalism.
Even a song that borders on cliché like “Golden Ring” enjoys a new vitality through the sheer love they bring to the song of a pawn shop ring that brings a couple together, then returns to a pawn shop as it all falls apart. With a band that plays these songs from the inside out – rather than working the arrangement by chart or notation – there is a buoyancy to the musicianship that lets the songs breathe, shimmer, have that emotional current that feels right, not wrought.
In some ways, harkening back to the authenticity of old school country package tours, in others suggesting the militance of the LA cow-punk scene in its regard for the traditions and forms, Miller and men created a world where the songs are traditionally-based, yet rock just enough.
With a string of ad hoc jokes – perhaps the best being the request “from Otis for Ozzy,” prompting Miller to look dubiously at Womack and says, “I don’t know if Lee Ann knows any Ozzy” and the diminutive Texan replied, “Well, I might… but that’s not what we’re here for” – there was levity to the hardcore country. Not quite Sonny & Cher in their prime, but the tug and tartness provided a break in the sad, sad songs.
And it wasn’t all very old country. As the set came to a close, Womack and Miller talked about her trip to South By Southwest several years ago… about dating a young publishing exec/A&R man who had a huge record collection, one that opened up vistas the girl raised on real country music had no idea about… and then she confessed to learning a song to impress then her new boyfriend.
Without much fan fare, Fishell unraveled a pool of the saddest steel guitar and Womack’s voice floated up from the mix, sad and true and still in love. “See the lonely girl… out on the weekend…” she started, and then whole band offered up an almost prayer-like rendition of Neil Young’s Harvest opener.
“Out on the Weekend,” though a hippie alternative to hard working class country music, seems a perfect compliment to the night’s repertoire. Again a song of love that can’t be, the hollowness of knowing what’s gone and the lies we tell ourselves to get by, it was every bit as plangent as any of the vintage country that had come before.
If not of the same era, it was of the same spirit. For Womack, in her beige top and turbo high heels, and Miller, in vintage flannel and ball cap, it was the common ground of the broken heart and the unrelenting pain and loneliness that comes with it.
Always ready to find the deepest veins of the human condition, the pair excavated history and emerged with something so alive, the belly-to-belly, don’t-tell-the-fire-marshall crowd wouldn’t stop applauding and whistling for an encore. For whatever reason, the extended response was met by music over the sound system being played at increasingly louder volume, because the fans refused to take the hint.
Not a bad way to close out the 11th Annual Americana Music Conference. Indeed, it’s also the perfect siren song to set the tone for next year.