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A Monday Night Home Win, As East Nash Grass Debuts Album

In 1984, some extremely gifted musicians came together and snagged the miraculously unclaimed name The Nashville Bluegrass Band. They staked out a key place in the Music City scene as regulars at the Station Inn and on The Nashville Network. Then they took their name and sound global with tours and Grammy Awards, telling a Nashville story of stellar musicality, savvy song selection, and a grounding in the old blues and gospel roots of their titular genre, while still sounding of the moment.

In recent years, the city that gave birth to the sound in 1945 hasn’t had a bluegrass band with that NBB hometown pride, that sense of local-ness combined with a national and even international reputation. Great bands and artists live and record here, as they have since Bill Monroe put his stamp on the world’s music. But the Del McCoury Band and Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, to name a couple, feel like they belong to the world and tell a story about America at large. We’d needed that ambassador bluegrass band, one by and of and for the people of Music City, and now we certainly have one with East Nash Grass.

The six musicians of East Nash Grass took the stage on Monday night at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge in Madison, as they’ve done nearly every week for six years. But for a group that usually keeps its sets loose and full of laughs, everything about this particular gig felt more focused and forward-looking. It was a celebration of their second album, Last Chance To Win, which came out last Friday. The bar was packed and almost as hot and humid as the August evening outside, but the Dee’s micro-climate matched the moment. It was among the most intense, thrilling, and memorable bluegrass shows I’ve ever seen.

With their trademark neon lamb logo glowing behind them, ENG got things going with the mid-tempo “I Almost Told Her,” one of the prettier songs on Last Chance. It was written and led by guitarist James Kee with an inventive melody and crystalline harmonies on the chorus, voiced around one microphone by fiddler Maddie Denton and dobro player Gavin Largent. Soon after came another from the record, as Maddie burned up “Jenna McGaugh,” a flashing tune that seemed to fuse her background in contest style old-time fiddling with her impressive newer chops in the freer bluegrass style. With a whip-fast bowing arm, Denton stays immaculately on top of the beat, even on driving numbers like this one. She should also be recognized for her dazzle on stage; where the guys can be a bit chill, Maddie’s unguarded eyes and smile are the band’s emotional beacon.

Gavin Largent indicated that things could end badly for everyone if they didn’t get to a sacred number pronto, and with that, Largent, Key, Denton and mandolinist Harry Clark gathered around the mic for an a cappella “They Won’t Believe” from the Ralph Stanley catalog. So now we’re four songs in and we’ve already heard a train song, a gospel quartet, a fiddle barn-burner, and a modern Nashville song, so our bluegrass Bingo cards were filling in fast! But it kept coming, with “Papa’s On The Housetop,” a Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell song that swung with an expert touch. Clark, with his halo of hair and beard, struck a decidedly David Grisman stance and appearance as he popped off a magnificently dense and woody solo. Later we got to experience yet another facet of the bluegrass gem when Key broke a string and Maddie stepped up to “fill time” in a classic fiddle/banjo duo on “Sally Goodin.” Besides a glimpse of Denton’s contest champion fiddling, it was a chance to focus on Cory Walker’s tightly constructed five-string playing and the vital supportive bass playing of Jeff Picker.

The other band that came to mind as the night unfolded besides the Nashville Bluegrass Band was the Seldom Scene, and I think that had to do with ENG’s sense of humor, which careens from goofy to dry-as-Texas. When James Key introduced “Love Slippin’ Away” as “a song by the late, great Bill Anderson, who’s very much alive,” it conjured the ghost of the Scene’s actually late, great John Duffey. (Duffey would tell the crowd “bless your heart, and all your vital organs,” and I think ENG should revive that joke.) The band also turn the Stanley Brothers’ strange old waltz “Little Benny” into a vehicle for improv comedy about cussin’ and corporal punishment.

They played two sets, as usual, but the special occasion called for a special guest, so Dan Tyminski joined in for three songs in the second half of the show. Dan is of course America’s “man of constant sorrow” and one of the finest bluegrass singers of his time. He’s also the employer of three of the East Nash Grassers - Denton, Clark, and Largent - when he tours and records himself, as I described here recently. So there’s ample chemistry and synergy between and among these practitioners, which showed on standards “Why You Been Gone So Long,” “Whose Shoulder Will You Cry On,” and Bill Monroe’s “On My Way Back To The Old Home,” taken at a scorching tempo that continued to raise the temperature in the crowded, unanimously focused room.

“This band - every time I have seen them, they have taken every town they play in by storm. It is so fun to watch them do it right here at home,” Tyminski said as he stepped from the stage.

By the time it was over, I think they’d played every song from Last Chance To Win, as well they should. It’s a rich and diverse collection from within and without the band. The title track, by ENG friend Christian Ward, has a John Hartford feel. “Magic City Gray” is a graceful number by Cory Walker’s brother Jarrod sung by Kee in his mellifluous baritone. Cory’s pen contributed the geographically appropriate “East Due West Blues,” a slick minor key tune with hot vocals by Gavin Largent. Harry Clark’s “Starlet Iris,” a song inspired by a Waffle House waitress with an infectious drive and a fantastic keening chorus, is one of the new record’s singles. Soaring trio harmony vocals elevated the Texas tinged “How Could I Love Her So Much,” a 1980s hit by Johnny Rodriguez. And they wrapped the night with Largent’s perfect lead on the song that closes the album, the rippling and deliciously rural “Railroadin’ & Gamblin’” from the catalog of early Opry star Uncle Dave Macon. This one was an inspired tip of the hat to where this sound and spirit comes from.

East Nash Grass is a house band that should be a household name, and they’re on their way, with more national tour dates, a commitment to the future, and now two calling card albums full of fresh additions to the bluegrass canon. We’re likely to miss them on some Mondays going forward as they stake their claim on the road, but watch for their sixth anniversary show at Dee's on Sept. 18. It’ll be something to celebrate.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org