There’s something to be said for an artist that not only excels as a musician, but also knows how to entertain. After all, making music is obviously important, but connecting with an audience by sharing a personal perspective makes the concert experience all the more engaging.
Billy Droze recognizes that fact, and at last Friday’s performance at The Station in Louisville, Tennessee, he put it in play. That’s no surprise really; although he’s only 34, Billy has accumulated the kind of credits most artists would hope for in an entire lifetime. Having written songs for The Grascals, Junior Sisk, Darryl Worley, Flatt Lonesome, Shenandoah, and Jamie O’Neil — many of which climbed to the top of the charts — while also reaping award nominations from the IBMA and ICMA, he clearly knows what it takes to tap into an audience and gain a ready response.
Droze and his band, Kentucky Blue — which includes stand-up bassist Greg Martin, banjo player Mike Sumner, and the group’s newest recruit, Matt Ledbetter on dobro — proved the point by playing a loosely constructed, seemingly spontaneous set for the 60 or so people in attendance. The Station’s intimate ambiance provided the ideal setting; a converted barn fully decorated with all sorts of musical memorabilia, it offers the artist and audience an ideal opportunity to interact. Droze himself was clearly in a merry mood as well, sipping from a glass of “fruit juice” and tossing out impromptu comments to the crowd, which, in turn, responded in kind. It was also his father, Bob Droze’s, 89th birthday, and like a good son should, Billy gave his dad plenty of time to take the stage and play some songs of his own. After all, the elder Droze is no novice, given that he boasts his own credits as a seasoned songwriter, bluegrass guitarist, and bandleader. All that was apparent on Friday night, as was the fact that he still relished the opportunity to man the microphone, especially while singing Woman of My Life, a song shared on Droze’s latest album, Waiting Out the Storm.
Not surprisingly, many of the songs in the set were culled from that effort, but the set list also included selections from other recent albums as well, among them the turgid ballad When Daddy Drinks, played by request, Till I Get Home, a touching ballad sung in memory of his late sister, and I Wanna Be Loved Like That, which he dedicated to a couple that was celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary at the show. Droze admitted that he had gotten choked up while singing, having reflected on the longevity of that particular love affair.
Mostly though, he was in a jolly mood, especially while cracking jokes that reflected his seasoned southern roots. “How many people like potatoes?,” he queried, probing the pronunciation possibilities. “How many like taters?” When the crowd responded to the latter, he happily responded, “Yeah, this is my audience!” While taking time to tune his guitar, he turned the microphone over to Martin, who, in turn, kept the audience entertained with a series of unabashed banjo jokes. (“What do you call a beautiful woman on the arms of a banjo player? A tattoo.”)
Nevertheless, Droze also shared some serious moments as well, particularly when he paid homage to Shenandoah, the band that took him on the road and offered advice on what he needed to do to find success in his solo career. So too, Droze and company tossed several standards into their set — She Thinks I Still Care, I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water, the George Strait classic Nobody In Their Right Mind Would’ve Left Her, a quick pair of tunes by Johnny Cash, I Walk the Line and Ring of Fire, and a medley of Gospel numbers that included Swing Low Sweet Chariot and I’ll Fly Away. While Droze and the band are naturally adept at bluegrass, he made it clear that he still has a connection with country music as well.
Throughout, Droze proved that he was not only an emotive singer, but a superb picker as well. His acoustic guitar flourishes went beyond what might have been expected in a specific song, and added extra instrumental embellishment. Mostly though, he was intent on keeping folks entertained, especially in a way that allowed him to remain loose and limber.
“I have to have fun,” he insisted as the set drew to a close. “So if y’all ain’t having fun, then I’m not either.”
Happily, there was no doubt that everyone, onstage and off, certainly was.
(For more Billy Droze, tune into the podcast, My Backstage Pass for an interview recorded prior to the show.)