“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the undisputed home of traditional country music!” declared Brazilbilly’s Jesse Lee Jones, to wild cheers at Robert’s Western World in downtown Nashville on Tuesday night, September 25. As part of IBMA’s World of Bluegrass week, Martin Guitars conducted its annual showcase at the Lower Broadway honkytonk, which was packed to the hilt with IBMA attendees, locals and a healthy dose of lucky tourists who just dropped in for a great night of music.
They got it; the showcase featured young family band The Moore Brothers, IBMA Award double nominee Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice, Brazilbilly (who is also Robert’s regular house band) and the evening’s main attraction, the Del McCoury Band and Friends. Martin’s Larry Barnwell joined Robert’s in hosting the evening, keeping the music moving through more than four hours of fun and furious bluegrass and swing sounds.
First up were the Moore Brothers, a young trio making their mark across the Southeast since 2008, astonished the audience with their prowess. Isaac, 10, and Jacob, 14, Moore are multi-instrumentalists and vocalists who defy their youth with truly impressive skills, joined by Daniel Perry, 18, on bass and vocals. Jacob donned every instrument from fiddle to banjo to mandolin and back again throughout the set, while young Isaac handled his scaled-down Martin like players decades older than he can only dream of. The trio certainly enjoyed themselves; after each blazing solo, towhead Isaac grinned broadly at the audience, basking in the whistles and cheers directed his way, while the other two handled the emcee duties like pros.
Highlights included a bluesy-jazz instrumental version of the traditional Wayfaring Stranger, and though the gravitas of Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues was a bit lost in the high-pitched voice of 10 year-old Isaac (“I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die…” – really?), he made up for it in enthusiasm, and the crowd certainly didn’t seem to mind one bit. The young band was a welcome way to start the night.
Next up was Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice, who are in the middle of a great year. Just two weeks ago, Junior was inducted into his home state of Virginia’s Folk Music Hall of Fame, joining giants like Roy Clark and Jim & Jesse. He and the band also hold two nominations for this year’s IBMA awards, for Album of the Year with The Heart of a Song and Song of the Year with A Far Cry from Lester and Earl. A special thing about this band is that Sisk is really able to evoke the spare life of the Virginia mountains from which he comes. They’re a fun band to watch, too; you have to smile at Jason “Sweet Tater” Tomlin on the bass as he jumps, thumps, bobs his heads and clearly enjoys himself on the stage. Highlights of the set included Another Man’s Arms and A Far Cry from Lester and Earl.
Then came Brazilbilly. The band is a local favorite and regularly fills the house at Roberts. Let by Brazilian transplant Jesse Lee Jones, the band favors a cowboy swing sound in the vein of Marty Robbins and Riders in the Sky, although Jones himself looks a lot like, as one person in the crowd was heard to say, “what it would look like if Donny Osmond and Elvis had a baby.” They were an enthusiastic bunch, tackling yodels and western ballads with equal ease. They entertained heartily with everything from Roger Miller’s Invitation to the Blues to Doggone Cowboy by Marty Robbins with equal ease, and by the time they pulled out Lefty Frizzell’s If You’ve The Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time, there were people dancing in front of the stage.
By the time the night’s headliners, the Del McCoury Band, took the stage just after nine o’clock or so, the bar was filled to absolute capacity. The quintet started alone for a few songs, beginning with (If You Don’t Want Me) I’ll Dry My Tears and Move On, and perennial favorite Nashville Cats. Banjo picker Rob McCoury got some outright squeals for his hot work on Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Breakdown, and Del always gets shouts when he hits the high note on I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome Too.
Sam Bush was the first guest to appear alongside Del and the boys, and he stayed around long enough to go toe to toe with Ronnie McCoury in couple of hot mandolin rounds. He sang lead on That Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee, which the locals loved. He and Del also talked about their upcoming fall tour, where the two intend to go out and do some shows together, just the two of them, talking about the pioneers of bluegrass and paying tribute to them in song and stories. That should be interesting. It’s still unclear when and where those dates will start, but stay close, as we’ll let you know as soon as they’re announced.
Pure, unadulterated joy. That’s the only way the music of Michael Cleveland and Jason Carter can be aptly described when the former joined the band for the rest of the evening’s tunes. Never have two fiddle players radiated so much sunlight from both their fiddles and their countenances as they took on songs like Roll On, Buddy, Roll On and In Despair. Without rehearsal, the two fiddles played matching twin parts, with each player doing his own share of amazing solo work as well. There’s a reason these two guys are considered among The Best There Is. Time will prove them to be among The Best There Has Ever Been. Words fail.
New IBMA Hall of Fame inductee Doyle Lawson was the final guest to grace the stage, and he “came for business,” as he puts it, with his mandolin instrumentals and duet singing with Del McCoury. High points were Live and Let Live and Ocean of Diamonds, before the ensemble brought the house down with Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.
Throughout the whole McCoury set, Del stood there in the midst of it all, singing his heart out and playing his guitar. He was his usual jovial, accessible self, but there seemed to be something extra special in the gleam of his eye, his smile looked a little wider, his laugh came even more ready than usual. Maybe it was the delight in playing the music he loves so well. Or being there to share it with his family and friends with a crowd that so clearly esteemed the band and what they were doing. Or maybe, as Sam Bush had put it earlier, it was because “bluegrass has a king, and his name is Del.”