Del McCoury Band / Vince Gill / Patty Loveless / Rebecca Lynn Howard – Grand Ole Opry American Road Show – York Expo Fairgrounds (York, PA)
When Del McCoury introduced his band, he pointed out that his two sons — mandolinist Ronnie and banjoist Rob — had been born a quarter-mile away at the York Hospital. Del then said hello to a dozen siblings and in-laws in the audience, making it clear this was no ordinary show for the quintet; this was a homecoming, and there would be an extra edge to the group’s performance.
York, a small city with a Harley Davidson factory, is nestled amid south-central Pennsylvania’s dairy farms and apple orchards, and it’s here that Del and his two sons lived and honed their picking before moving to Nashville and conquering the world. When the three McCourys, flanked by fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub, bobbed in and out around the single vocal mike, they seemed intent on showing the home folks just how much the band had accomplished.
They played in the Toyota Arena, a misleading name for a cavernous, concrete, old livestock barn, but the site carried fond memories: “It’s good to be back at the fairgrounds where we ate way too much cotton candy as kids,” Ronnie said. In contrast to the studio versions, Richard Thompson’s “Dry My Tears And Move On” and Shawn Camp’s “My Love Will Not Change” now boasted spikier rhythms and pushier vocals, as if this string band were gaining new confidence and urgency with each passing month.
This was especially true of Thompson’s “1952 Black Vincent Lightning”. Del apologized that the motorcycle song didn’t mention Harley Davidson, but the band proceeded to bury their somewhat tentative 2001 studio version with a riveting performance here. Rob’s prickly banjo arpeggios built the tension and Carter’s fiddle fills seemed to grease the story’s accelerating tragedy until Del delivered James Adie’s deathbed soliloquy with a hair-raising, high-tenor cry, “I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome, sweeping down from heaven to carry me home.”
Since Del was made a member of the Grand Ole Opry last October, the group has played the storied Nashville institution as often as possible. So they were happy to sign up for the Grand Ole Opry American Road Show, which brought them back home. Vince Gill organized this revival of the old Opry package tours, and he headlined the current version, which also featured Patty Loveless and Rebecca Lynn Howard.
It was a terrific, two-hour, intermission-less show roughly organized like this: twenty minutes of Gill and his band, followed by twenty minutes of Howard backed by Gill and his band, followed by twenty minutes of the Del McCoury Band, followed by twenty minutes of Patty Loveless with her band, followed by twenty minutes of Gill singing with each of the other acts, followed by twenty minutes of gospel numbers sung by everyone. With the familiar red-barn Opry logo hanging behind the stage, it was almost like being at the Ryman.
Loveless was nearly as spirited as McCoury. Wearing a ruffled, pale-blue blouse and silver-print pants, she belted out rocking versions of Rodney Crowell’s “Lovin’ All Night” and Al Anderson’s “I Wanna Believe” with a mischievous, sexy friskiness that she’s seldom given credit for. She shifted gears for a somber bluegrass version of “The Grandpa That I Knew”, which segued into Charlotte Ramsay’s mournful fiddle version of “Amazing Grace”. Best of all was “On Your Way Home”, which had a new edge; every question the song’s protagonist asked of her wayward husband seemed to demand an immediate, no-bullshit answer.
Gill’s songwriting is underwhelming, but the man has a terrific tenor voice and a fabulous feel for the guitar. Wearing a black blazer over a white T-shirt, he reeled off brisk, fluid guitar solos on country-rockers such as “Oklahoma Borderline” and “One More Last Chance”. When he paid tribute to Johnny Cash and June Carter by singing “Jackson” as a duet with Howard, Gill’s voice soared where Cash’s could never go. Gill reprised his hit duet with Loveless on “My Kind Of Woman, My Kind Of Man” and led the way on the old bluegrass hymn “Working On A Building”.
Gill is one of country music’s most devoted advocates, and he told the audience, “If you can’t get to the Opry, we’ll bring the Opry to you.” If only the real Opry shows were this compact and consistent.