Nashville’s Music City Roots, a live concert series and radio broadcast held in a converted barn outside the famous Loveless Cafe, usually features a stacked lineup. Last night’s bill, featuring red hot Americana act The Civil Wars and one of the last ever shows from celebrated bluegrass band Cherryholmes, was more stacked than a heap of pancakes. The Civil Wars, who, as the night’s MC Craig Havighurst pointed out, “brought folk rock to VH1 and MTV, no small feat,” were the reason the venue was packed to the rafters, but Cherryholmes’ swan song infused the evening with its emotional resonance.
First, though, the audience was treated to short sets from Jonathan Edwards, The Vespers, and David Vandervelde, high caliber artists in their own right. Edwards you know from his 1971 hit single “Sunshine” (“sunshine go away today, don’t feel much like smiling”). Host Jim Lauderdale introduced Edwards as someone he met back when he was a college DJ in North Carolina — “I gave him a stick of incense, and he was so nice to me after that.” A shoeless Edwards played his big hit, as well as songs from his upcoming album My Love Will Keep, and blew some impressive harmonica runs on the legalize it anthem “Put A Good Buzz On.”
The Vespers are two pretty gals on guitar and banjo and two long-haired musos on mandolin and bass, although they like to swap instruments. The young Music City natives share some interesting blood ties — the girls are sisters and the guys are brothers. They hooked up when they realized that two sets of siblings are more impressive than one. But really, they make beautiful music together, and earned a standing ovation for their spooky, drone-y, minor key romps and sensual roots music. Even the little kids dancing in front seemed to get it.
David Vandervelde and his band brought the volume (and the beards), by plugging in actual electric instruments. They sounded like an intriguing cross between Jackson Browne and My Morning Jacket. Vandervelde is best known for his collaborations with the late Wilco guitarist and singer-songwriter Jay Bennett. The Chicago-to-Nashville transplant performed the Jay Bennett co-write “Beer,” and the ode to the sudsy substance went over like hot sauce with the hooters and hollerers in the audience.
The Civil Wars’ vocal and visual chemistry is undeniable (think an Appalachian Swell Season); both possess voices big enough to rock arenas or late night talk shows. Joy Williams and John Paul White (or Johnny Depp in a bow tie) met at a random writing session in Nashville two short years ago, and released their second ever gig as an album on iTunes. Since then, they’ve been on a wild ride, which included a legendary stop at our SXSW showcase a few months back. At Music City Roots, White coaxed magic out of his Martin and Williams danced in place and smiled, as their deeply felt harmonies intertwined in unusual ways. “It’s great to be back in the city where John Paul and I met and this whole crazy thing started,” said Williams. May the Civil Wars never fight.
Ricky Skaggs, who signed Cherryholmes to his record label, was on hand to introduce the final act. He also presented them with a plaque for all their accomplishments, which include five Grammy nominations. The family band — Daddy plays bass, Momma plays gitter, and the kids play banjo and fiddle, and sing like angels– has decided to pack it in after a 12 year run. When your children want to do their own thing, and attend to their own families, you have to let them, the parents, Sandy and Jere, explained in a pre-show interview. “We decided to disband the band, rather than disband the family.” By now a tightly-polished unit, they’d come a long way from their vagabond days, living in a van and playing for gas money. Their last set in Music City was lengthy; at times emotionally affecting, and at other times fast and furious. For their final song, the a capella “No One To Sing For Me,” they gathered around a single microphone, and blended their voices in six-part harmony, as only a family can.
The parents are off to trapping camp, and look forward to NASCAR and fishing. But is this truly the end of Cherryholmes? As Ricky Skaggs said; “We’ll leave the door open.”
Watch a live stream of Music City Roots every Wednesday night at 7 central here.