During a week that already has experienced the second straight year of a canceled Bonnaroo and a still-struggling nightclub scene, Nashville music fans are overdue to celebrate some good news.
Such good news came in big doses as longtime Middle Tennessee State University-based public radio station WMOT celebrated its fifth anniversary in a roots music format — after many years of struggling with a jazz/classical mix — with a triple-bill station fundraising benefit show Thursday night at City Winery.
Carlene Carter and Rodney Crowell, roots royalty both, were joined by Americana blues veteran Shannon McNally for the concert, broadcast live on WMOT’s FM-89.5 and streamed on its website.
Appreciative fans in attendance — City Winery was one of the first local clubs to require proof of vaccination or a clean recent COVID-19 test for entrance after the ongoing pandemic’s delta variance raised its ugly head — were treated to three excellent 45-minute sets that adeptly showed the many sides of American roots music, and its history.
The evening-closing Carter is case in point.
Daughter of country singers June Carter Cash and Carl Smith and granddaughter of one of the early architects of country music, Mother Maybelle Carter, Carter is blessed with the spittin’-image beauty of her mother, as well as her feisty comedic spirit.
“We’re gonna rock like hell!” she vowed after hitting the stage, and doing just that on her self-penned “I Love You ‘Cause I Want To” with backing from her The Lucky Ones band, which includes Lower Broad honky tonk vet Chris Casello on lead guitar, standup bassist David Spicher, and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Al Hill.
Missing in action was fellow Lower Broad ace John McTigue III on drums, who was under the weather, “but not from COVID!” Carter noted.
Carter touched various stages of her long, 12-album career. Highlights included her set-closing 1990 career topper “I Fell in Love,” her Susanna Clark co-write of the Emmylou Harris hit “Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town,” and her earlier turn on the autoharp, as identifiable an instrument with the Carter Family as a fiddle to Roy Acuff and a banjo to Earl Scruggs.
“My grandmother loved this thing, I love this thing, and my mom was really good at it,” she said, launching into her self-written “Foggy Mountain Top.”
Not so sure Mother Maybelle ever displayed her undergarments on stage, however.
“I was sittin’ at the pool this afternoon … see, I still have my swimsuit on!” Carter said, pulling down her blouse a smidge to reveal a swatch of hot pink, to the audience’s delight.
“That’s OK,” she said. “It’s not wet.”
At one point in her set, she referenced Crowell, a revered singer-songwriter and a former husband of her half-sister Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash. (The limbs of the Cash-Carter family tree covers a lot of roots music acreage, for sure.)
“I met Rodney when I was 20 years old,” Carter said. “He can still take my breath away.”
Indeed, the 71-year-old Crowell still possesses the lean, matinee-idol looks of his youth, although he’s as aw-shucks about looking in the mirror as fellow songwriting icon/one-time movie star Kris Kristofferson.
Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, Crowell’s jazz-inflected band featured Grand Ole Opry staff fiddle player Eamon McLoughlin. True to the show-must-go-on nature of the evening, the band was missing its bass player, who was stuck in Boston, presumably because of the remnants of Hurricane Ida causing death and destruction from as far south as Louisiana to the Northeast Coast.
Set highlights included “The Houston Kid,” the title track from his acclaimed 2001 semi-autobiographical album, and set closer “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” his Donivan Cowart co-write that topped the charts for The Oak Ridge Boys after its release in December 1979.
Evening opener Shannon McNally, who counts her frequent writing collaborator and producer Crowell among her mentors, began her set with the Waylon Jennings standard “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” the opening track from her recently released The Waylon Sessions album.
The album is described as a “decontextualization” from a female voice rather than a straight tribute of the rough-and-tumble hard-country great Jennings.
Backed by a muscular band that included Nashville all-stars Kenny Vaughan (of Marty Stuart’s Fabulous Superlatives) on lead guitar and drummer Bryan Owings (Emmylou Harris’ Red Dirt Boys), McNally’s husky, soulful voice also aptly captured the intensity of favored Jennings songwriter Billy Joe Shaver on Shaver’s “Black Rose.”
To read more about WMOT and its five-year anniversary in the American roots format, visit the Roots Radio News.