“Think kindly, act compassionately and do something for another living being for which you can be proud.” ~ Pamela Jumper Thurman
I promised more on yesterday’s Outlaw Music Festival at Riverbend, so here we go.
I’d never seen Old Crow Medicine Show before, and let me just say that I hope I haven’t seen the last. This band is everything that’s great about music. They opened the festival, and frankly, they didn’t play nearly long enough. These guys are toe-tappin’, fun lovin’, high-energy Americana-bluegrass-country-swingin’ righteous musicians start to finish. Bruce McCain turned me on to them many, many years ago when he sang Wagon Wheel at Angie Bliss Fanning’s ranch, but for whatever reason, they kept flying under my radar. Not no more! These guys switched instruments as much as Lady Gaga switches outfits, and they played every one of them like masters. They’re great with an audience, they’re great with each other, and they ought to be a lot bigger than they are. I absolutely loved them.
The Head and The Heart played next. They had lots of fans at the festival, and I was glad for that, but they were not my cup of tea. I’m sure their records are lovely, but I don’t want to talk about them. I do want to talk about Sturgill Simpson, the third act of the evening. I became a big fan when Metamodern Sounds in Country Music was released in 2014. This Kentucky boy breathed new life into what passes for country music these days (Chris Stapleton notwithstanding). He was like a big breath of fresh air for me. Didn’t hurt one bit that he was born in Jackson either (that’s Eastern Kentucky not far from where I was born for those unfamiliar with Kentucky geography).
Sturgill did not disappoint, though he did not play a typical country set to be sure. He came out with both barrels blasting Brace For Impact (I’m terrible with titles but I think that was it). He never let up. Seriously – he rocked the entire set, blistering electric guitar in hand. In fact, he played guitar more than he sang. His connection was quite obvious with the other Kentucky home boy, drummer Miles Miller from Versailles (or as Sturgill rightly pronounced tongue-in-cheek, “Vers-eye” lol), and they played off one another to great effect. Perhaps the best of the band was bassist Chuck Bartels. This guy was perfect and it was his melodic solidity that bound the jam all together. It was great to watch them bob and weave around the way the songs were recorded versus the way they were interpreted live. You don’t usually see someone as young as Simpson do this sort of thing because it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t always work. When it does, it’s magic. And it’s exactly that kind of chemistry that makes live performing so important to the creative experience. Players get better and their material evolves and gives way to new melodies, new riffs, new structures, and ultimately, new songs. So, at first I raised an eyebrow at the sometimes stark departure from the song, but ten minutes in, I understood what I was hearing and fell in love all over again. It was gutsy, raw experimentation, and an audience doesn’t always get the opportunity to watch it unfold. It was a real gift, and I respect Sturgill Simpson even more for doing it.
And then came Willie. God bless his 85-year-old heart for hitting the road and sticking to it. Walking is hard for him, that is obvious, but his love for his band, for the audience, and for the music is equally displayed. You can tell that he especially loves his sister, whom he introduced as “my little sister, Bobby.” More than once he tossed the ball into her court and she played it to perfection each time.
I don’t think Willie played anything from his new album, which is completely brilliant by the way, but then, with sixty+ years of hits, he didn’t have to. He started with 1973’s Whiskey River. When released as part of the Willie Nelson and Family Live double album of 1978, it was the track that lead me to becoming a lifelong fan. A lot of people couldn’t believe I’d never seen Willie perform live before this festival, though I kind of had. More accurately, he’d seen me. When we played Farm Aid in 1990, he stood backstage with our manager during our set and remarked, “That’s a girl playing drums. Far out!” There weren’t many of us gal drummers back then. Willie enjoyed my playing, and although I didn’t get to meet him so he could tell me that in person, I was happy enough that he had kind things to say. If memory serves, we had to leave before he played later that night. Hence, I’d never seen Willie perform live.
My favorite part of Willie’s set was Sturgill returning to the stage to play the closing tunes with him. It was like watching the generational torches burn at once. Plus, Sturgill’s playing prowess fit right in with Willie, despite the powerhouse set he played earlier in the evening. He’s becoming the consummate player, that Sturgill. You may have caught him on SNL with Chris Stapleton a few months ago. It was peel your face off raucous, kind of like his set at the festival, though he was much more traditional and in-the-pocket for Willie, and that for me is the mark of an excellent player. He’s going to be around for a long time, and I hope Willie’s able to keep playing as long as he wants, too. I especially hope he’s able to continue giving these young acts the boost they need to be heard by his loyal fans. Willie is one of America’s greatest talents and one of our greatest citizens. He deserves every accolade given him. I’m so grateful I had a chance to see him play live after all these years of loving his music.