The Power Of One, Plus Bluegrass, At WMOT’s PRMD Party
Some folks, myself included, love a full band sound. We can get hung up on the idea that more parts and more sound energy is better. But when a solo performer has total command of their instrument and its relationship to their voice, with a unique point of view and excellent songs, the emotional impact can be as large as a symphony. For Public Radio Music Day 2023, our super savvy Program Director Jessie Scott had the confidence to book three out of four artists who’d stand alone on stage, and they affirmed her judgement by blowing away a sold-out crowd at Riverside Revival on Wednesday night. The transparent individuality of Phoebe Hunt, Molly Tuttle, and Darrell Scott made the keening harmonies and whipping energy of the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys all the more exciting as they teamed up with Jim Lauderdale for a set in the middle.
Phoebe Hunt knows bands and has been in some great ones, from her first project the Belleville Outfit out of Austin to her worldly and technically gifted Gatherers ensemble of recent years. But her move to Nashville and the pandemic opened up a new path for the singer, songwriter and fiddler. She worked with producer Lawson White to craft a new album that as one sharp review put it “doesn't just cope with the necessities of solo recording but leans fully into it.” Nothing Else Matters came out in late July and defied expectations of how much music one singing instrumentalist could make. Hunt laid many of those songs bare on stage with a finely tuned conversation between her vocal, her fiddle (bowed, plucked and chopped), and the ambience of the still room. She opened with the spiritual song of resilience “Carry On” and closed with the suddenly popular title track. In between were songs that she said were about welcoming in the power of inquiry. There’s no question though that Phoebe Hunt owns a stage and writes a gorgeous song.
Molly Tuttle has been touring for two years now with the incredible chemistry of her bluegrass band Golden Highway, and I’ve never seen her do more than one song at a time by herself. So her 45 minutes (mostly) alone on stage was a revelation. We could truly hear the tone of her guitar and the balance of lead attack and her dancing harmonic support. The state of the art for solo guitar and voice bluegrass is Tony Rice’s 1983 album Church Street Blues, and Molly’s command reminded me of those arrangements powerfully. I hear clear influences of Norman Blake, Doc Watson and Mother Maybelle Carter in her right hand. It all came together on the character-rich song “El Dorado” from this year’s City Of Gold album, with a hefty thematic riff, rolling rhythm and fleet and spidery solos over the song’s minor tonality. Tuttle’s friend and collaborator Ketch Secor made a surprise walk-on to play harmonica and sing on “Yosemite.” The two of them wrote the entire new album together, and the songs have a ton of clever wordplay. I don’t know how often Molly performs like this, but it made the crowd mental, so maybe she could tour opening for her own band?
At this point a band sound was welcome, and that sound was an acoustic, organic goodness that evoked the close harmonies of the Stanley Brothers or the Blue Sky Boys. The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys have become leaders of a new traditionalist movement in today’s bluegrass scene, and they make a perfect plug-and-play partner for Jim Lauderdale. And after a series of shows in the past couple years, they teamed up for an album of Jim’s songs called The Long And Lonesome Letting Go. They got my yee-haw attention right away with the waltzing and lonesome “She’s On A Different Train” and motored on through the album’s sprightly title track. Jim gave a shout out to the PRB’s guitarist Josh Rinkle who was too sick to make the gig by way of explaining that he and Josh had written about half of the album’s songs, including the honky tonkin’ confessional “I’m Only So Good At Being Good,” sung with fiddler Laura Orshaw. They wrapped the set with the album’s closer, the hard driving “Drop The Hammer Down.”
WMOT’s PRMD show promised a surprise special guest, prompting much speculation. But that all ended about 9 pm when Jessie made the big reveal that it would be songsmith and master musician Darrell Scott. The set's full potential came bubbling forth on his opener, the classic “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive,” with an electric guitar backing that kept our ears alert to reharmonized chords and richly melodic lead ideas. Musicians as assured as Scott or Tuttle or Hunt can put a lot of trust in the audience to hear parts that aren’t there when they set up songs this well. Also from Darrell were songs from his new Old Cane Back Rocker album, including “Kentucky Morning” and the lifelong relationship song “Charlie and Ruby.” Plus there were classics such as Scott’s co-write with Guy Clark, “Out In The Parking Lot" and his set closer, the big Dixie Chicks cut “Long Time Gone.”