Fresh off their night at the Ryman, Cooder, White, and Skaggs rolled in to the Birchmere with a full head of steam and a playful spirit. Not content to merely pay homage to the music that inspired them, they made it clear they were here to celebrate it. And celebrate they did, while poking fun at their own creative process.
“The Family That Prays” started the evening off, with its gorgeous harmony vocals and a deeply spiritual message that set the tone for the night. The seven-piece band featured three members of the White family, a member of Kentucky Thunder, and Ry Cooder’s son, Joachim. The familial makeup of the band testified to the truth in the song, and the joy in the performance was a reward almost as sweet as heaven itself.
Cooder took lead vocal chores on “Lifeboat,” and traded gutty guitar solos with Skaggs’ nimble mandolin picking, eliciting shouts of praise from the patrons. “Sweet Temptation” followed, Skaggs’ switching to fiddle for the Merle Travis classic. But it was Buck White’s sublime runs on the piano that elevated the song to another level altogether. Assisted by the harmonies of daughters Cheryl and Sharon, White’s skill on the keys witnessed to the genetic method, offering irrefutable proof that music is imprinted on their family DNA.
Sharon White assumed lead vocal duties on Hank William’s “Mansion on the Hill.” She was clearly having the most fun on stage, laughing and smiling, and teasing Skaggs between songs. Her joy at performing the old songs was genuine and infectious. And her shining moment was still yet to come.
There was a goofy, oddball sense of comedy apparent in the stage banter that surfaced throughout the show. Skaggs was loose and gregarious, Cooder subtle with his dry sense of humor, as the two made light of their pre-tour brainstorming. At one point Skaggs revealed that Cooder learned to sing bass on the gospel number “Cold Jordan” at an early age in Santa Monica. Cooder responded, “That’s a lonely thing to do in Santa Monica.”
This was followed by Cooder’s exposition on how the band assembled the set list. Comparing You Tube to an archeological dig, he proceeded to explain that CWS researched old country, bluegrass and gospel songs on the video site, sharing them via email. According to Cooder the best material was found in the grainy black and white era. The next best material was found in the mid-color period. Referring to the Hi-Def period, Cooder declared, “I have no use for it.”
Along the way there were tributes to The Dillards, and to Merle Haggard, whose passing was still fresh on everyone’s mind. Surprisingly, Skaggs dedicated “Gone Home” to the passing of Chief Justice Antonin Scalia, a single candle burning in his memory on a table in the center of the dining room.
Sharon White led the band through the best romp of the night. Confiding that she was a big fan of the Delmore Brothers, she discovered a song of theirs on You Tube that she was unfamiliar with. Proclaiming that every good country show needed a proper train song, she led the band through “Pan American Boogie,” the audience and the band clearly thrilled to be along for the ride.
Cooder, White, and Skaggs did more on this night than just play music. They restored to us a sense of place. A sense of our place in both space and time, an awareness that our moment on this earth is not without meaning if we believe in something greater than ourselves. To believe in service rather than selfies, and to desire something more permanent than the broken and impotent politics of both political parties.
They reminded us of our place in the lineage of the human family, with all its inherent brokenness and need for salvation. Our connectedness to the past, our inability to escape it, and our debt of gratitude to the everyday people whose pictures fill up our family photo albums. The songs stirred up a yearning for a time less complicated, a time centered on faith and family, suppertime and song. They pointed us back to a time when people lived their lives without the need to document its every fleeting breath. A time when it was more important to be in the moment than of the moment. And in that instant, to be truly human.