Black Country Showcase – Bluebird Cafe (Nashville, TN)
The night before what was simply called the first black country showcase, the performers assembled for rehearsal at a place called the Woodshed, on Nashville’s East Side. You stand in one of the barren lots in that part of town and look back across the Cumberland River to the sparkle and glow of downtown and feel as lighthearted as a muddy Twinkie wrapper blown against a chain link fence. I guess the most accurate thing you can say about the East Side is it ain’t the West End.
This isn’t what people think of when they think Country Music Capital of the World. And, frankly, the performers in the Woodshed weren’t what the public thinks of when they think country music.
There are any number of explanations for the utterly white face of country music. Few withstand close examination, and simplistic takes (i.e., country is about rednecks for rednecks) are either clearly inaccurate or passively obfuscatory.
When I first wrote this piece, I loaded it with history. Made the point that African-Americans singing or listening to country music isn’t some sort of absurd aberration. I wrote about Deford Bailey and the Opry, of Otis Blackwell and Elvis. I had a few words for Stoney Edwards, Ruby Falls, Bo Chatman & the Mississippi Sheiks. I gave Charley Pride his hard-earned props, but made the point that the story didn’t begin with Charley, and shouldn’t end there. Then I realized I wasn’t writing a review, I was writing a history lesson. That story has already been more ably told, although not nearly loud enough or often enough. But that is changing. So I will simply describe what I saw at the Bluebird Cafe on a February evening.
Frankie Staton has been performing in Nashville for 16 years. When she read a piece in The New York Times describing a dearth of black country musicians, she knew better. “There are a lot of us out there,” she said, kicking off the showcase from the Bluebird stage. “We were bombarded with tapes and calls. We don’t all like rap. I want to sing about my Momma and Daddy, too!” Her thoughts were echoed by writer Pamela Foster, who said, “This is not an anomaly. This is born out of something.”
And then there was music. Staton prefaced her performance segment with a reference to her desire for a publishing deal and the observation that a recording contract wasn’t her first priority: “I’d like a staff!” she cracked. Staton’s working-class lyrics made one of the first overarching statements of the evening: Whether it’s sneaky men or home fires, how can anyone confine “country” trials and topics to the sole domain of white sensibility?
Larry Dawson followed Staton. His sound has been compared to mainstreamer Neal McCoy; he was at his best when he found the balladeer’s easy groove. The next performer, Warner/Chappell staff writer Vanessa Hill, evoked (and I’m sure she’s tired of hearing this) strains of Tracy Chapman, but she projected such soulful resonance with her material that the similarities rapidly became unimportant. Hill has had an album in the offing for some time: based on the songs she performed at the Bluebird, if it is ever released, it’ll be well worth hunting down.
Terry Lee Jones followed and got a roadhouse reaction. His technique would benefit from a touch of modulation, but the way he wrapped himself around classic cornball lyrics like “She must be over me, ’cause she’s all over him,” you knew in a heartbeat that this was a man who grew up listening to John Anderson, Johnny Paycheck and that other Jones.
Speaking of, George Jones was next onstage. Dressed in classic over-the-top Opry style, the man who took to calling himself J.J. Jones years ago to avoid any confusion unleashed a tour de force of traditional country vocals that not only evoked the namesake, but left this particular retro-country (has that one been used yet?) fan very pleased indeed. Jones has been performing for a quarter century and has sung on over 250 Music Row demos. His performance was an encyclopedia of country inflection.
The final performer was Texas native Tammy D. Small. Sweet and beautiful, she seemed tentative on her first two numbers, but when she stepped out into her self-penned closer, the line-danceable “Cowboy Walk”, she transformed into the spunky siren video-friendly Nashville hungers for, and the crowd went with her.
If, as a reviewer, I am expected to render a clear verdict on performance, in this instance I demur. Did the showcase include a blockbuster, sign-’em-on-the-spot performance? Not likely. But these were artists taking chances. And, more to the point, likely taking chances for people yet to be heard from.
Cleve Francis, a black country music artist who understands more than most the complexity of the issues behind this showcase, performed between artists. Signed to Capitol/Liberty for a short two-album stint in the mid-’90s, Francis has been outspoken on the issue of blacks as a part of country music. His songs are remarkable for their velvety precision, for their keening, nuanced upper-register longing. The man can sing.
And yet, he is unsigned. The point? There are a million reasons for an artist to fail in Nashville: wrong timing, wrong song, wrong hat, wrong color. For the most part, the showcase was given over to performers with their eyes on Nashville’s mainstream sound, and while the readership (me included) of this particular publication tends to listen askance for any hint of danceable Top-40, the mix of sounds at the showcase speaks to a much broader and more essential point. From Larry Dawson’s ballads to Terry Lee Jones’ barroom country to Tammy D’s line-dance beat, the range of styles proved that any restrictions on the role of black artists in country music exist only because they are allowed to exist.
I cringe at the possibility of my devolving into aphoristic MTV “Free Your Mind”-type exhortations, but when the entire company assembled at the end of the evening for a raucous round of “Rhinestone Cowboy”, the point was not to break a single artist, but to break an image. Or resurrect one.
(Another black country showcase is planned for June.)