Just days after she was nominated for three Americana Music Awards, Margo Price began a three-night run at the Ryman Auditorium. Landing even one headlining show at the Mother Church is part of the holy trinity of country music career landmarks, falling in stature and difficulty between playing the Grand Ole Opry and induction into the Hall of Fame. So when Price said “I feel like I’m dreaming” early in the show, we understood. This is an immense accomplishment for an artist who was playing the Five Spot in East Nashville and worrying about making the rent as recently as 2015. She’s representing Nashville and authentic country music to the nation with integrity and intelligence, and this was a chance for a mutual love-in, complete with roses, back in her adopted Music City hometown.
Saturday night’s show was vivid and varied and celebratory. Price strode the stage in a white western suit with a microphone on a long chord, lending her the air of a 1970s Opry star. Twice she played the drums. She took a turn at the piano singing the title track to 2017’s acclaimed All American Made, a revelatory piece of folk poetry that laments our stressed out rural/urban divide as well as anything out there. But it was the totality of this May night in 2018, including its special guests and opening act, that told an important and encouraging story about country music right now.
Americana was born in the mid 1990s as a reaction to the lame state of country radio and thus largely as an alternative country music format. To be sure, it was also a shelter and platform for country hybrids, refugees from punk rock and bluegrass and acoustic folk. But at least part of what we fans wanted was a lifeline for the soul of country music, the great American genre, including its iconic figures and their latter day heirs. The category matured and broadened to encompass a full spectrum of American roots, including blues, soul and gospel, and that’s wonderful. During those years though, traditional country music got a bit lost in the shuffle, so to say.
Honky tonk and twang were vital parts of the mix, but the new and emerging stars in Americana were from other schools. Younger Americana acts who did or could have headlined the Ryman since I’ve been covering this music have included The Avett Brothers (folk), Nickel Creek (new-grass), Mumford & Sons (folk), Old Crow Medicine Show (old-time/jug band), Gillian Welch (old-time/folk) and The Lumineers (folk).
Meanwhile, country music’s truly popular propagators were the veterans, such as Emmylou Harris, Marty Stuart and Rosanne Cash. The younger artists – Moot Davis, Sunny Sweeney, Jesse Dayton, Sarah Gayle Meech come to mind – didn’t get written up and promoted much beyond the Americana and niche-country press. A few exceptions came along to be sure, including Elizabeth Cook and Jamey Johnson. But those examples enjoyed time on major labels with their promotional boost to CMT and the mainstream press.
But now we have an actual contingent, a mini-brigade, of hard core country singer/songwriters who cherish the tradition, who are selling some serious concert tickets and who are under 40 years old. And quite of few of them were there on Saturday night.
Start with the guy who opened for Price and the audience reaction to him. When Kentucky’s Tyler Childers (age 26) hit the stage, I feared for the historically correct ceiling. It was probably the loudest and lustiest welcome to an opening act I’ve ever heard at the Ryman. A good portion of the crowd sang along with songs that haven’t been in the marketplace more than a year. When Childers nodded to Eastern Kentucky in “Honky Tonk Flame,” the place erupted as if they’d been bussed in from Harlan County.
Oh, and he invited a guest out. “Ladies and gentlemen, Sturgill Simpson” he said about halfway through. Simpson (age 39, at least until June 8), who produced the Childers debut, played lead guitar while Childers sang his absolutely outstanding “Whitehouse Road” and “Universal Sound.” Simpson wasn’t there to upstage but to bolster and support and silently testify to a larger scene and trend. Childers, with his flashing, wild eyes and grungy gravitas, is a talent for the ages, a true arrival for roots music. Team Ryman is probably already looking at dates for a top line billing for this guy.
Price’s set began with an elegantly lit stage and her band, including a three-woman string section, setting the tone with the countrypolitain vamp of “Hands of Time.” She deserved more passion from the crowd than she got at first, given the aforementioned rhapsody for Childers. But the artist wound them up and reeled them in with muscle and soul of “Tennessee Song” and “A Little Pain” where she put down her guitar, crisscrossed the stage, and stretched her pipes with big notes and crackling pathos.
Price’s first guest was yet another member of the new country contingent, albeit a guy with a head start. Thirty-nine-year-old Lukas Nelson (whose own music toggles between pure country and heartland rock) sang the duet part on “Learning To Lose” that had, on Price’s recent album, been sung by his father Willie. Where I thought that track was a weak spot on the recording - with vocals that didn’t feel in synch in time or in tone - this live performance lifted the song to its melancholy potential. A bit later, Price had Sturgill Simpson join her for another vocal pairing, a soul-satisfying take on the Loretta Lynn/Conway Twitty hit “After The Fire Is Gone.”
Other highlights included a walk-on chorus of harmony singers dressed in gossamer white, an extended, pulsing jam on “Cocaine Cowboys” (with Price at the drum kit) and a smooth segue from her career-making song “Hurtin’ (On The Bottle)” into Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink.” Later, she sent a jolt through the crowd by coming out for the encore wearing a shimmering silver Tina Turner dress, singing “9 to 5” and throwing flowers into the crowd.
It was a night to look forward to the trajectory of the artists involved and to look back at a cascade of events that have blown up Music Row’s monopoly on country music career-building. Price got to the Ryman by way of the digital tidal wave, the vinyl revival and the tenacity of roots music programmers, organizers, bookers, journalists and fans. Others, including Canadian Colter Wall, who’s set to open for Price on her third night, plus Joshua Hedley, Cody Jinks, Angaleena Presley and Ashley McBryde, are coming on strong. Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell’s astonishing success at the edges of pure country music fit in this picture as well. In its 20 year run, Americana has supported traditional country music and Americana has broken new stars but not quite both at the same time. Now that it seems to be doing so, it’s fulfilling a promise that was central to the scene’s origins.