Darrell Scott, Caleb Klauder, Eilen Jewell Make Waves: Darting through AmericanaFest
The Americana Music Festival and Conference is, it goes without saying, one of the largest and most versatile live music events in America, when it comes to this kind of music, however you might choose to define it — twangy country and bluegrass, navel-gazing folk, ballsy topical music, praise-worthy gospel, old school rhythm and blues, contemplative balladry, foot-stomping old-time, and on and on. If it was born of a specific time and place, from a community gathering together on porches, in churches, around campfires, in moments of need, you will find it somewhere in Nashville during the five days that comprise the Americana Music Association’s annual gathering. Just about every decent venue in town gets in on the fun, after all.
I was only in town this year for two full days, but managed to catch a bluegrass luncheon at the storied Station Inn, with incredible chilli homemade by mandolinist Frank Solivan. Solivan’s band Dirty Kitchen regaled the lunchers with delicious downhome bluegrass music, to boot. I missed the Stray Birds, who were on ahead of him, but could guess they blew the house down. They usually do.
After Solivan and Dirty Kitchen wrapped up, Caleb Klauder took the stage with his crew, including Reeb Willms, who also plays with Klauder in the much-beloved and influential old-timey troupe Foghorn Stringband. The pair and their backing crew delivered a set of bluegrass and folk music that outshone everything else in that neck of the genre, that I saw in my whirlwind.
Later on that same day, the Pine Hill Project (Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell, also known as two-thirds of Cry Cry Cry) devliered a fantastic set at City Winery, followed by the inimitable Eilen Jewell and her crack band.
But, cutting to the chase here, it was Darrell Scott at the Downtown Presbyterian Church, who reminded me what this thing was all about in the first place.
Walking to the piano without hardly even being noticed, Scott sat down and launched into a rendition of his classic “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” It was the sort of moment that could just as well have happened in a living room, it was so casual. And yet once he opened the proverbial door, the song poured out like a river that’s crested its banks. We were all swept up in the tide. When that song ended, there was an almost-chorus of whispered “wows” cascading through the pews, as those assembled took a moment to remember they had hands with which to clap.
He followed with “Satisfied Mind” — the classic country tune that was a huge hit for Porter Wagoner and Johnny Cash. But, instead of delivering it with the twang Scott can so effortlessly unleash, he altered the melody ever so slightly, so that it came off more like a hymn than an old school country radio hit. We were, after all, in a church. The emotional rests and strategic ritards created a tune more contemplative than the vaguely lonesome determination with which previous country crooners have performed it.
Finally, Scott took the actual stage, joined by Kenny Malone on percussion. The pair delivered a set that relied heavily on their stunning instrumentalism, which was so effortless-seeming as to almost look easy.
By now, I know these words may sound somewhat hyperbolic, but Scott was on fire this night. The balance he and Malone struck between their two instruments, was remarkable. The music, for the most part, seemed to make itself.
The folks who program the AMA showcases do so with a close, personal touch, curating every venue as if it was a standalone night of music. The artists on the roster — all eighteen thousand of them (an exaggeration) — are easily the finest in the field. But what Scott was doing at the church seemed to be less about defining a genre or making waves on a scene. It wasn’t about outdoing the other sets that were happening elsewhere at the same time, or showing off his dexterity.
Perhaps the resonance of his performance was about his sheer lack of striving. Here was an artist with nothing to prove, who just wanted to tell some stories and open doors and windows to let in the fresh air. That exacting melodies and poetic lyricism came pouring out, seemed to be somewhat incidental.
I’ve seen Darrell Scott perform a number of times, and he’s usually quite good. But something different was in the air this night. Maybe it was the gauntlet thrown down by his delivery of “Satisfied Mind”:
The wealthiest person
is a pauper at times,
compared to the man
with a satisfied mind.
Or maybe it was just what he referred to as the Nashville muse. Regardless, it was the pinnacle of another excellent week for the Americana Association.