The historic Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, Tenn., reeled with the “high, lonesome sound” of bluegrass last weekend, May 7-9. The Ryman Bluegrass Festival, emceed by WSM Radio Program Director Kyle Cantrell, was a treat for young and old alike, and the appreciative audience erupted in applause and rose to its feet over and over during Friday’s performances. This was the first such event in the Ryman’s 100-plus year history, and there was no shortage of talent; the venue’s amazing acoustics were a natural marriage with bluegrass music. The first evening’s lineup included The Lynn Morris Band, ace Dobro player Jerry Douglas, vocalist Tim O’Brien and headlining act Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.
Reigning International Bluegrass Music Association female vocalist of the year Lynn Morris was the first performer and a real crowd pleaser. She and her husband, bass player Marshall Wilborn, both hail from Texas. Wilborn, who won the 1998 IBMA Song of the Year award, provided harmony and occasionally lead vocals, while trading humorous anecdotes during their set. They played several songs from their 1999 album, You’ll Never Be the Sun, as well as others from her previous three albums. Standouts included “Twister,” an original instrumental piece by fiddle/banjo player Ron Stewart, the George Jones classic “The Likes of You” and “Seventeen Cents,” the song they performed for their encore. Mandolin player Jessie Brock sang “She’s No Angel.” The band also did a rousing rendition of their public service announcement, “Take Your Pet to the Vet,” which encourages the spaying and neutering of family pets.
Dobro player Jerry Douglas wowed the Ryman crowd continuously during his set of mostly original songs, demonstrating why Life Magazine named him one of the “Top 10 Best Country Musicians of All Time.” Douglas joked often with the crowd, saying, “I play this funny looking instrument called the Dobro. The Dobro is a useful instrument at festivals — you can cook your breakfast on it!” The band, including Bryan Sutton on guitar, Aubrey Haynie on fiddle and Byron House on bass, positively sizzled on the Josh Graves’ song “Fireball,” for which Douglas won a Grammy Award. “Grant’s Corner,” a slower, introspective song that Douglas wrote for his son, featured the sweet, pure tones of Haynie on fiddle, and from the Haynie/Douglas album they performed “Tobacco Patch,” with Haynie on mandolin. The band did a moving encore with the song “For Those Who’ve Gone Clear.”
Former Hot Rize bandleader and noted songwriter Tim O’Brien got back to traditional Irish roots on his set, performing his new song “Lost Little Children,” about the immigration of Irish children to the United States during the potato famine who were lost at the port. He and bandmates Dirk Powell and Darrell Scott alternated selections from their new albums, with Scott singing bluesy renditions of his humorous songs “Family Tree” and “My Father’s House.” O’Brien and Powell performed the selection “A Mole in the Ground” from their new release Songs from the Mountain, to accompany the book Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. O’Brien also performed several of his older originals, including “When No One’s Around,” the song that Garth Brooks covered. The audience audibly held its collective breath during a powerful rendition of the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger,” with just O’Brien accompanying himself on the fiddle.
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder opened their set with a blistering rendition of the traditional standard “Little Liza Jane.” Backed by his stellar band including noted fiddler Bobby Hicks; Mark Fain on bass; Darrin Vincent and Paul Brewster, guitars and harmony; Smilin’ Jim Mills, banjo; Clay Hess, guitar; and 19-year old fiddler Luke Bulla, Skaggs had the crowd eating out of his hand from the get-go. They performed several selections from their new album, Ancient Tones, including “Mighty Dark to Travel,” “Connemara” and “Carolina Mountain Home” as well as the Bill Monroe classics “Uncle Pen” and “Send Me an Angel for My Darling.” Paul Brewster contributed amazing tenor harmonies, most notably on Monroe’s “A Voice from on High.” Skaggs also did the song “Gone Home” from his forthcoming gospel album.
Festival revelers were encouraged to jam in the Ryman alley as Grand Ole Opry performers did in the past, and businesses across the alley including Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, The Bluegrass Inn, Legends Corner and Robert’s Western Wear featured bluegrass entertainment during the weekend. A carnival-like atmosphere prevailed in the alley, with games, vendors and food stalls like Jack’s Barbecue providing eats for hungry patrons.