In its 130 years standing sentinel in downtown Nashville, the Ryman Auditorium has presented boxing matches, Trigger the horse, presidents and 30 pivotal years of the Grand Ole Opry. Even so, having researched pretty carefully, I can find no previous instance of a Ryman show with no live audience. Songwriter Sturgill Simpson figured out another way to storm into the history books by doing just that last Friday, even as he broke news about his latest passion and pursuit, bluegrass music.
“I think we’ve assembled most likely the finest bluegrass band on the planet tonight for you guys,” he said at the outset, crediting banjo player Scott Vestal, mandolinist Sierra Hull, bass player Mike Bub, guitarist Mark Howard, fiddler Stuart Duncan and drummer Miles Miller, his long-time bandmate and production partner. “I’m very grateful and humbled and honored to be standing here with all these people. This is kind of the band I’ve always dreamed about.”
Simpson and the dream band snapped their way into “Living The Dream” at a tempo about double that of the version on his Metamodern Sounds In Country Music album. That disc proved the deepest well of songs that evening, though he drew as well from A Sailor’s Guide To Earth and his almost-bluegrass 2013 debut High Top Mountain. It was all most adaptable to an hour of acoustic music that fit the Ryman in every way but for the moody silence after each number. The country gospel bounce of “A Little Light” mirrored the original, swapping banjo and fiddle solos for the electric Telecaster. The online audience also heard “Life of Sin” and “Long White Line.”
A few songs in, Simpson offered more details about his foray into bluegrass music, letting it be known that the group had been in the studio in recent days recording “a great majority” of the songs from his four albums so far.
“This is how these songs were originally written,” Simpson said. “And I decided after climbing the ropes of country music stardom and then completely destroying that career to make a rock and roll record (a winking reference to last year’s Sound & Fury), now I have great ambitions of a life of gravel parking lots and port-a-potties. I want to be a bluegrass musician. Because that’s the music of my heart and soul. It’s the music I was raised on.”
Whether we see Simpson in 2021 on a full acoustic run remains to be seen. But he announced the studio tracks would be released in two volumes later this year. And he proved he knows the heart of the music with expressive vocals and band sympatico throughout, plus stirring covers of the Stanley Brothers’ “Pretty Polly” and set closer “Sharecropper’s Son.”
The set continued a fund-raising juggernaut that saw Simpson raise more than $250,000 in recent weeks for a variety of causes, including the Musicares Covid-19 Relief Fund, Nashville’s Equity Alliance and the Special Forces Foundation. Nor did the artist let the historic events taking place outside the Ryman this week go unnoticed. He saluted Shaun King, a classmate of his at Woodford County High School in Kentucky, telling the story of a racially motivated beating King experienced at the time. King is now a civil rights activist involved with Black Lives Matter. “I’m glad somebody’s doing what he’s doing,” Simpson said.
The absence of an audience isn’t anathema to serious bluegrass music by any means. Anyone involved in the lifestyle of picking for fun with friends knows the loose quiet that follows a G-run ending, when folks tape a sip of a drink or crack a joke. That vibe of an easy hang permeated the webcast, helping to dispel the spooky feeling of the silent pews. The sound was solid and the production bare bones. It did feel a missed opportunity to not have an emcee to welcome music back to the historic hall for the first time in three months and set the scene just a bit. But if show business suggests a certain approach, we can count on Sturgill Simpson to do something different, and that’s why we dig him and need him.
You can watch the entire set here: