NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Artists Such as Little Big Town Trigger Meters

Music Writers Discover that Nashville Cats Are Pretty Good After All

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

You know, I’m a little surprised — and I know I shouldn’t be — by the number of commentators outside our little island nation of country music who have recently discovered what I guess they consider to be the “reality” of country. As in discovering that the singers are (mostly) singing live! And singing live before real live musicians instead of singing to tracks (mostly). And as in discovering yet again that the songs are (mostly) about the real, down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty of everyday life. The songs are real-life stories! And that the pickers are usually amazingly good! Even live!

I personally set my guitar down forever the first time I saw Stevie Ray Vaughan play live in Austin. I have since regretted doing so, but at the time I just thought there was no real point in my continuing to try to play guitar. And I must say that feeling was reinforced when I came to Nashville and saw and heard firsthand the level of musicianship here.

When I first took my Boston relatives to the Grand Ole Opry, my sister-in-law, who plays in an amateur group in Boston, was astonished by the instrumental skills of Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder band members. I told her that was par for the course in Music City. Ever since growing up around a musical tradition in Texas, I have always expected high standards in musicians and artists.

I remember being at a Grammy awards show rehearsal when Vince Gill was running through a song — I think it was “Go Rest High on That Mountain” — and I recall being struck by the fact that everyone in the hall stopped what they were doing and listened, transfixed, as he sang it and picked it. These were not country fans. And when he finished, they applauded him wildly. Like they hadn’t heard anything like that in a long, long time. And I’m sure that they hadn’t. It was real. And live.

It reminds me of the first time I heard Old Crow Medicine Show, when they were scuffling around town and my boss hired them to play a little backyard barbecue at his farm. What a wonderful evening that was. They sang and played till the cows came home, and then they sat around and drank and ate and swapped stories with everyone. You can see the same spirit and some of the same skills in the honky-tonks on Nashville’s Lower Broad any night — or day, for that matter — of the week.

It’s real and live. Most of what goes on in Nashville, whether country or not (and much of it these days is not), is pretty damned real. A lot of writers have seized upon on the fact that our CMT Crossroads series — to plug a show that I am proud of — presents real and unvarnished performances. They often cite Joss Stone and LeAnn Rimes or Little Big Town with Lindsey Buckingham or Elton John and Ryan Adams. The Little Big Town-Buckingham show especially went off the meter in the hip factor of people of who would not expect something like that from country music. And those were exactly the same sorts of comments I heard three decades ago when Willie and Waylon were slashing through the deadwood of then-contemporary country with what came to be called Outlaw Country. They were their own Crossroads in a huge way, merging country with rock and forging a brave new sound.

As modern-day counterpoints to the unexpected in the way of musical offerings, I would offer such Crossroads examples as Ronnie Milsap with Los Lonely Boys or Trisha Yearwood with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds. Or an upcoming episode featuring Robert Plant with Alison Krauss. Unknown expectations often result in very satisfying music.

That kind of musical curiosity and experimentation is gratifying to see and to hear. I hope it stays that way forever.

But you know, real singers love real singing — witness Joss Stone or Pat Benatar on Crossroads — and real pickers love picking. I don’t know exactly how or when rock and pop music got away from that. But I know that Willie Nelson is still glowing on the road, that Eric Clapton sounds as good as ever for an old fart and so do John Fogerty and Led Zeppelin. They’re just not playing for the mega-bucks TV starganzas anymore, with all the glamour and glitz and flesh and flash that they used to. But they still love to play and to sing. Led Zep, I hear, are coming to Bonnaroo for their first North American live performance since the 17th century. Good for them. These days, there’s nowhere else left for them to go.