Josh Farrow makes this list for his AMP session video alone. Not because we filmed it. Because the song was that good. The delicate mournful voice flaring up and down, over groovy and ‘moving somewhere’ blues chords and blues folklore was enough for me. When I saw Josh perform live with a full band it only added to the awe of his music. Josh masters what many singers cannot: an interesting and original emotional tone without sacrificing clarity and annunciation. His part nasal part bottom-up voice cuts through the room, blending softly with the violin players harmonies and brightness before it touches the floor and gets everyone moving. Josh is the perfect conception of the city Nashville: infinitely friendly, hard working, a blue collar kid with Aviators, long hair, a guitar and a job at a local pizza shop and yet he spends his weekends traveling to and from Chicago playing gigs with Shawn Colvin; or on stage singing along with Leon Russell, or at0 major Festivals like Merle Fest and Hang Out Fest. The angel voice singing the devil’s words, a metronome in the toes and a Willie Watson trill, the recent John Lennon Songwriting Contest winner has the spirit and the sound to do anything he wants.
When I first saw the Banditos they were playing a small show under the dim lights of a front porch of a house behind Fond Object. ‘Skynard with a banjo’, I thought, ‘I love it.’ To the right, the only girl of the band explodes before the mic into a furious twister of red hair that whips wincing eyes. Rattle snaking her head, she saws through the kazoo, jumping every so often popping up for the accent. Dead center, the lead singer, with an Undertaker glare, long hair, a long beard and a tall leather hat lurks around the front of the stage with his eyes slowly opening and closing every so often, moaning a soft ‘In The Pines’ Nirvana whisper over pounding blues from his hollow body electric. The banjo player to the left hops about the stage with big eyes and a frumpy hat, tantalizing the goat skin box with his flashing silver fingers, wielding the neck around like a sword. The bass player is behind them in the back of the porch. He is taller than the porch. Like Hagrid he is crammed into the space. He has long hair and a beard but no hat. He nods his head quietly and listens, slowly shifting his gaze between himself and the lead and the floor. At the reins, the singing drummer like a 1970’s Levon Helm keeps his hands tight on the ropes of the gang, checking everyone and playing to each of his band mate’s parts, often smiling suddenly by howls even he’s never heard before. The lead guitar player, with a handle bar mustache, a wide western hat and an embossed leather pick guard on his guitar gallops in the back like a horse stuck in a pen, driving his Tele’ effortlessly into whinnies and whip cracks and pulls. ‘I found the heart of Nashville’, I thought -the redeemers, the last piece of root to a dying tree of sound, a real wild exotic beast a midst all the foam cartoons, manikins, taxidermy and targets on Music Row. Since then I’ve seen the band a few more times and discovered more sides to them still. The whirling storm of red hair, Mary Richardson, the Etta James of the group, can sing -by God can she sing- the tear-jerk Joplin-esque slow soul ballads, while the band clicks away between complex arrangements of augmented and diminished chords and sharp 5’s for a suddenly screaming, suddenly halting “I’m No Good”. The next song the front man, Timothy Stephens Corey Parsons, flares up screaming in a perfect, throaty, grinding, teeth baring, grungy “Leave Me Alone” -an old Levon and the Hawks cut- and shows off a completely different voice and an interesting sign of new direction and more to come. The banjo player, Stephen Alan Pierce II, smiles around the room, flicking his eyebrows and singing a burning dance hit all of his own. Jeffrey Salter jumps up and down for a mesmerizing siren-like solo while giant peace-keeper Danny Vines melds with his bass and drummer Randy Wade gallops the robbers out of sight, into the night, always racing his mates back home or far away from it. This band has the makings of what most great bands have: every player is good enough to have a solo career of their own. They have decided to multiply however, to blossom instead.
Technically The Deslondes are a New Orleans band. But I saw them in Nashville, I met one of the guitar players here, they call this city their second home and, mostly, they’re too good to not add to a list. They come out horizontally arranged so that from left to right every player is front stage in a line, like it used to be, like the old sweeping rows of Mississippi hay cutters. The lead singer, Sam Doores, scuffs on deck like backstage was the Dust Bowl. Ramblin Jack Elliot, Woody Guthrie, Butch Cassidy all rolled into one, he sways and sings his “Depression Blues” at first deadening and morose and suddenly burning and bubbling with fury, harmonica and dance. The other guitar player, Riley Downing, towering above his mates in overalls, an old mechanics hat and clunky work boots sings the rasp of the lay. Grunting “Throw Another Cap in the Fire”, my personal favorite song of the year, in a low unaffected growl and then doing Luke the Drifter type recitations on life and experience it’s obvious that, like The Banditos, this group isn’t hinging on just one talent. The bass player, Dan Cutler, with straight long hair and oval glasses weaves in and out of place and sings harmonies to the heavens. All the while the outlaw fiddle player John James paces in the shadows to the right, rocking on the heels of his army boots, peering in and out of the darkness, jumping to his seat on the pedal steel, saying nothing then screaming to the skies, swaying in his chair, laughing to himself while the others smirk at his wild disregard. To the left is the distant percussion player, Cameron Snyder, in a leather jacket, a tall mesh 80’s truckers hat and a dress shirt tucked into blue jeans. He’s scowling, playing bells, chains, sticks, rods and hand drums with intense concentration, tough feel and immaculate timing. He is the old man of the group, an old delta farmer soul. And I say Delta because half way through the set he stuns and silences the audience with his unprecedented lead vocals on “Low Down Soul”, a chain gang, waving-goodbye masterpiece that he sings with the touch and pain of the great Mississippi country and blues voices. In a few shows he smiled only once. Someone flubbed and the crowd didn’t see and they all winked at each other the way good bands do and the drummer caved and laughed. He is the keeper of the Mance Lipscomb irreverence. This band is more raw and more relic than an American quarry. Americana? “Americana” doesn’t even do this band justice. They sing field hollers and chain gang chants, call and response shouts and moonlight ballads in piercing husky voices and sweep around the stage like mine workers and farm hands do around a big late night Saturday fire. This summer they played Newport Folk Festival for the first time and signed with New West Records (Devil Makes Three, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson). Their recent successes are probably only the beginning of their story. What I know for sure is that last weekend I bought the new Felice Brothers album and the new Old Crow Medicine Show album -two bands I’ve coveted for years- and listened to them both in one sitting and when I was done all I wanted to do was go back to The Deslondes crumby little Facebook player and hear their three songs. Two new major albums highly anticipated and it wasn’t until then that I got ‘that feeling’ again.
She comes on stage in all black with no shoes on. When the band kicks off all other sound, thought, focus blows away like butterflies behind a jet engine. She moves about the stage like something is after her, in her, needing to get out. Neurotic, she stomps two feet on the ground on the stage and pounds her hips with her fists and the vocals tear and roar as the band blazes around her scuffling bare feet on the carpet stage. The loudest, most intense show I’ve seen in this city yet, The Electric Hearts have potential to blast off.
Ben is a singer songwriter from New Orleans, now living in Nashville. Gruff but well-read, quiet but dancing circles on one heel in the kitchen, he is the enigma, the lone picker, the troubadour, the drifter, the one man band. His songs “Babylon” and “Howlin’ Down The Dark” are special gems. Or lines like “The things that we lose are ours for to keep” from “Sobriety And The Woman” show not only a Waylon and Willie outlaw-country sensibility but also a real handle on irony, concision and perception -qualities that make a great songwriter. With a influences like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Steve Earle, a huge passion for writing as well as a natural knack for it, and a deep appreciation for simple salt of earth riddles and nuances -“the beauty in the simple”, he would say- I see Ben achieving great work as long as there’s a pen and a few strings around. He is a revitalizing force, providing the songwriting world with the honesty and emotion, the wisdom and history that is usually lost on singers trying to write the next beer can-blue jean hit. For that the music world says thank you, Ben.
The Vegabonds are the best rock band I’ve seen in Nashville. They are the Led Zeppelin of southern rock to me. With a powerful, wide range lead singer who shuffles and dances his feet around the stage, huge guitar, pounding piano and plenty of funk and soul in the bass and drums this band rattles feet to dancing speed and carries on the tradition of real southern rock. Having recently opened up for Lynyrd Skynyrd along with a host of festivals and major clubs across the country these young men, who I can attest are true gentlemen as well as real long haired rockers, have brilliant colors in their horizon.
I hear the sound from outside the bar and I think, ‘bluesy enough for me’. I walk up the stairs and turn around into the fog of sweat and red lights and beer and this rising sun of sound suddenly comes out away from the cinder blocks, glazes over my face and I’m instantly hooked for the rest of the set. Dylan in Elton John’s clothes, the lead singer comes up in bell bottoms, a blazer, a big white ribbon hat, huge red glasses, one long earring, a slide on his finger and the smiley, goofy kid seers out over the pounding blues then kneels on the floor to pray to his blazing amp and play the fast snapping slide. To the left is the bass player with big hair and a Parliament hat, dancing in place, communicating through looks and guitar signals. Behind is a stalky, bearded, long haired drummer, good enough for an intricate metal band: great fills and perfect time. Dead center, my favorite, is an old black man twice their age, swaying back and forth in long lunges, biting down hard to snarl through the harmonica, cross harping into a Green Bullet. Their show is as good as anyone’s. They carry on the tradition of the 60’s: beautiful wacky outfits, raw rock and blues and a fearless cry of energy.
Punk is easy to find in Nashville. Basement and backyard shows go on every night with the raw guttural sounds of power chords and young politics and thrashing. These guys are different though. First of all they’re old enough to know what punk really means. Secondly, the vocals and arrangement are too dynamic, too good, to write off as simple garage punk. The band is tight, catchy and the lead singer has a magic persona, great rock stances, a sense of humor and a fun wailing, flailing voice. He has great stage presence -emotional without seeming self-indulgent- and the lyrics are funny but still real. The band moves from head banging to grinding. They somehow bash you over the head and make you smile at the same time. The recently transplanted Brooklyn four piece is a refreshing deviation from the always twangy Nashville scene and they’re good enough showman and good enough musicians that you don’t feel like you’re in your buddy’s garage either. You feel like you’ve gone back in time to the original punk rock days, before Green Day and MXPX. They are pure, straight, original rockers, with the glaring eyes, red face and bulging veins of a great, theatrical, 80’s rock group.
*This is by no means a complete or definitive summary of the Nashville music scenes and its various bands and artists. More lists will be created as other artists in town are discovered.