Swamp Grass – Legend’s Corner (Nashville, TN)
Like much of public Nashville, Lower Broadway is a theme park in transition. Soon the Country Music Foundation will move in alongside Planet Hollywood, NASCAR Cafe, Hard Rock Cafe, the Nashville Arena, the Ryman Auditorium, and, around the corner on 2nd, the Wildhorse Saloon (mother church of the line dance). The discovery myth — see tomorrow’s stars today! — is perpetuated in still-seedy bars like Tootsie’s, Robert’s Western Wear (where the sign has been amended to read: “Home of BR5-49”), and Legend’s Corner. The porn stores have been boarded up, replaced by newer neon affairs elsewhere; there’s a brewpub and a good Irish bar across from Hatch Show Print.
Like any good theme park, Lower Broad is filled with tourists and conventioneers. On this bright, sunny March Sunday, they poke their head through the door at Legend’s Corner and blink at the darkness, some listen and smile for a moment, a few walk in and pull up a folding chair, but most walk away shaking their heads at the forms in the darkness nursing their second or third drink of the lord’s day, and so early.
Church is where you find it. Swamp Grass is a cover band, and some days Paul Gammon will hand out sheets of all the songs he knows. Today he just takes requests from the stage, smiles as bills fold into the tip jar, and plays the hits. We are not here for the hits, though, but to worship the finest guitar player in Nashville.
Kenny Vaughan (no relation, that we know of) plays with everybody: Kim Richey, Lucinda Williams, R.B. Morris, lots more. Tall, thin, and in his early 40s, he has embraced his geekdom. Thick black glasses, an odd pageboy haircut, high-waist pants, an oddly mechanical movement onstage that never seems to involve any joint below the hips. And yet his fingers are magic, and there is nothing they cannot play.
Nashville, of course, is full of guitar pickers. Even so, Kenny is in a class by himself. Nobody propels a song so effortlessly, nobody voices their instrument against the singer’s with such finesse, nobody can bring such fire to a twelve-bar break and still bring the song back to the next verse, nobody has such fluid versatility. Nobody. Mostly, though, Kenny has a singular gift for playing with and against whatever vocalist happens to be onstage with him.
Swamp Grass play three sets from 1-5 p.m. (Leeann Atherton handles bass most Sundays, but Fred Martin fills in today; John Routh makes the drums fall down the stairs, as a friend hears it.) Midafternoon, a tall, elderly gentleman dressed all in black and introduced as Country Slim, an original performer on the Louisiana Hayride, moves from the bar to the stage and blows harp for two songs. He keeps handing solos to Kenny, shakes his hand and smiles a big happy smile as he leaves the stage, red in the face from “Kansas City”.
Gammon is a songwriter, sells his own CD for $5 from the stage (and apologizes, later, that he was trying to get mainstream cuts, though it’s not really what he sounds like), but has no special gift as a vocalist. Ah, but he has nerve. A partial set list begins with Merle Haggard, darts to Hank Williams, then knocks off a country version of the Stones’ “It’s All Over Now”, segues into the Doors’ “Love Me Two Times”, then effortlessly jumps to Ricky Skaggs’ “Crying My Heart Out Over You”.
Kenny Vaughan doesn’t miss a beat, talks to friends in the doorway, smiles. Life is good.