Gillian Welch, Sturgill Simpson, and Jason Isbell Lead the Way: 2016’s Best Photographs
There is nothing finer than Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the Ryman – and no one I’d rather see there. Like the Ryman itself, one does not see or hear Welch and Rawlings; one experiences them. You come under their spell. The spacious stage at the Mother Church can be daunting. There is no escape hatch. However, in the presence of Welch and Rawlings, the stage seems rather small by comparison, and your eyes and ears do not wander. You are transfixed.
Their performance on Dec. 27 at the Ryman began a bit late, with the after-holiday crowd leisurely rolling in, as if fashionably late. But I think the congestion caused by the hockey game was what held a lot of folks up. There was a two-hour wait at Puckett’s, but we lucked out when a family of four invited us to join them at their table for six.
The Ryman show was special in another way as well – with the Boots No. 1 release they did songs they had not done in a while, ones I had not heard in years, plus some essential covers. The banter also included stories behind the songs, tales about when they first came to town, where they first performed, and so much more. The Ryman tends to bring out such things. Even though I have always found Welch and Rawlings to be the most generous of artists on stage, I am constantly amazed at the new dimensions they bring to songs I know by heart. Rawlings always brings something new, exciting, and oftentimes unexpected everytime, to every song, no matter how many times you have heard it.
When they did Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues,” it was a moment you did not want to end. Not only does the song tear your heart out, it took me back to over 25 years ago when I first heard it. Not by Guy, but by Townes. That, too, was such a moment. Welch and Rawlings’ rendition was followed with some stories about Clark, and then they did his favorite song of theirs, the lovely waltz, “Barroom Girls.” I wish I could encase those 12-or-so minutes in amber and carry it it my pocket.
As with last year, I did not want to include any of my own photos in this look back on the year. However, I made an exception, because the subjects themselves are exceptions. When Gillian Welch and David Rawlings came on the scene no one else was doing duos. The duo was dead, the canvas was viewed as too limited. Their significance since Revival was released is far wider and deeper than their singular talent — they re-wrote the book on what a duo was expected to do and what a duo could do. In these past 20 years we have seen not just a proliferation of duos, we have seen the duo established as an art form unto itself.
So many folks have taken it to new and unexpected places, from The Milk Carton Kids to Red Tail Ring to My Bubba to Sugarcane Jane to Hymn for Her, you could book an entire music festival made up of just duos. That said, no matter how many have come on the scene since, Welch and Rawlings remain unique. You could say they a genre unto themselves. I certainly do.
All this is a winding entryway into Through the Lens’ Best Roots Photos of the Year feature. I know, another list, but this one is, obviously, pictorial in nature, with our ND photographers showing off their best work for us. They do all the hard work, setting up the show, getting there, arranging their photo gear for each specific gig, the artists, and the venue. Then, we bring it to the comfort of your recliner, sofa, bed, coffee shop, and even the workplace on a myriad of devices, from phones to iPads to computer screens.
Criteria? Well, when I first did this last year I thought it was bit tough. But that was easy compared to this year. Not only did we have new folks posting photos and about twice as many photos, but every single photographer seemed to have upped their respective games. I wanted a diversity in the type of shots, from close-ups to groups to action-in-your-face, from the comtemplative to the fierce, the static to the fluid. I also did not want to only feature the well-known names, so there is a smattering of lesser-known folks that deserve your time and attention.
From Scotland to Australia, from David Crosby to Margo Price, from Steven Tyler to Kamasi Wahington, from blues festivals to the CMA Festival, from Cyndi Lauper to Ani DiFranco, from bluegrass to zydeco, the ND photographers take you to where the action played out. What a way to begin the new year.