I’m six feet from the stage left front of house speakers but the sound is a pleasant volume and crystal clear. The generosity of the gentleman to my right has me transplanted from the back balcony to third row floor. His name is Judd and his wife was unable to attend. With the opening song the crowd immediately jumps to their feet; Sturgill is in his home state and tonight’s attendees see him as their own. Being on the outside edge of the seating, Judd is conscious of obstructing the view of a gentleman in a wheel chair behind him and sits. I check my proximity and am given the go ahead to remain standing. I acknowledge Judd’s compassion with a fist bump. He excited to receive the hip gesture and pounds back with force. He pulls my arm down so I’m leaned over level with his sitting, he points through the clear pathway to Sturgill. Judd’s a considerate and content man.
Simpson’s opening number “Life of Sin” is followed by “Living The Dream”, another Metamodern cut. He goes back a record for “Water in a Well”. Another recognizable guitar lick has the crowd screaming. “Long White Line” becomes a long wild jam. With a stage plot resembling the fermata music symbol, Sturgill is the dot and his seven-piece band makes up the semicircle that hovers above it. The band is in a full on musical moment and Sturgill is at it’s epicentre tuning his Martin. Melanie echoes Carolyn Mark when tuning on stage, ‘I tune because I care’. Sturgill cares.
Simpson’s guitar brings in a 4/4 shuffle, The Lefty Frizzel hit, “I Never Go Around Mirrors”, later repopularize by both Whitley and Haggard. Again the crowd recognizes the first line keeping them on their feet. Judd bursts out with his approval of ‘a waltz goin’ on’ – I don’t have the heart to tell him it isn’t a waltz. He’s emotional. It tears me up to see a grown man cry. I’m feeling the moment and look to the ceiling. Brass lighting fixtures amid painting of bounding gazelles and what seem to be Aztec designs. A visual that distances itself from the more expected regional motif…say horses, or hills. An Egyptian Deity is center above the stage looking into the crowd and surrounded by other forms of Egyptian art. Sturgill wants to ‘play some bluegrass for y’all’ and does so with “Railroad of Sin”, his flat-picking holds its own among the chosen group of musicians.
Judd loves the covers. Sturgill gives us Willie Nelson’s “I’d Have to be Crazy”, finishes and asks how everyone’s phones are doing. I love well placed cynicism. “Sitting Here Without You” and “Some Days” from High Top Mountain. The hit, “Turtles All the Way Down”. A stumble on the song’s third line, a wince.
Brad Walker has had much opportunity to flaunt his saxophone. “A Little Light” gives him this chance. Again, with a Metamodern favourite “The Promise”. Simpson admits not taking music too seriously when on Joe Rogan’s podcast months ago, even poking fun at the Metamodern album cover. The blazing saxophone solo in “The Promise” paralleled with a Sturgill smirk convinces me it’s an effort of irony. It’s over the top and frankly, quite great. The crowd is split between jaw drops and outright laughing. “It Ain’t All Flowers” is reworked for the live show.
Sturgill’s ear for the interpretation of cover songs is an art in itself, with the most recent, “In Bloom”, off of Sailor’s Guide, he’s played When In Rome’s “Promise” and my favourite, the unrecorded, “You Don’t Miss Your Water”. The later being his choice for the fourteenth song in his Ashland setlist. A bridge into the eight-piece group finishing the show by playing A Sailor’s Guide to Earth in its entirety. He responds to a fan expressing their love with a ‘thumbs up’. “Welcome to Earth” is excecuted perfectly, the opening key tones to the new record and the soul transition half-way through.
He’s come to my side of the stage and I lift my hat off my head and give him a nod. To my best of knowledge, he responds. Is this all a dream? I’m thousands of miles away from home following instinct, being true to a quest – it doesn’t feel real at all. I’ve witnessed Lucky Tubb take a soundguy out back, met a bizarro version of myself in Chicago, had a bible passages fingered into the dirt on the back of a FedEx truck as an answered prayer, found the perfect place in East Nashville, hung with Sturgill in a Starbucks, and by attending the concert alone have been rewarded by being moved to third row in a seat that has BB on a golden plate. This is all a dream.
Sturgill sings “Breakers Roar” repeating the final line of the song at the top of his lungs.
“I’m telling you it’s all a dream, it’s all a dream, it’s all a dream, it’s all a dream…”
He introduces his band. “Keep it Between the Lines”, “Sea Stories”, “In Bloom”. Following Judd’s lead as he’s just returned with a couple LPs from the merch table I make off to grab a print of the show poster to take home to Melanie. I listen to “Brace for Impact” from the exterior lobby. Big brass chandeliers everywhere. I make my way back to my seat past the Art Deco stylings. “All Around You”. “Oh Sarah”.
Reiterating BJ Barham’s sentiment, Sturgill finishes the night with a song about American complacency. Truthfully, a national quality I’ve seen since crossing the border. It’s easier to be blind to the issues than face them head on. It’s taking Real Country Artists to drive the point home.
“Call to Arms”.
“…son I hope you don’t grow up believing you’ve got to be a puppet to the man…
…nobody’s looking up to care about a drone, all too busy looking down at our phones…
…Bullshit on my TV, Bullshit on my Radio…the Bullshit’s got to go.”
Sturgill means business and he’s recognized his calling. Final point made. No encore. Lights up.
Judd is up and out. He offers a fit bump and I spare him my force. W.B. stretches and lands his arm around his buddy Justin. I’m introduced to Melissa, a photographer friend of W.B.’s and a fan of mine through his radio show. She snaps a few pictures and follows the crowd out of the building.
Concert goers are swarming outside the front entrance of the Paramount. The street is lit by the marquee. The tilt-a-whirl is almost assembled. W.B. and Justin make way for their return to West Virginia. The pony-tailed red-head is back to having his picture taken. I bounce from group to group making small talk and having my accent pointed out. ‘Where y’all from’ even though there’s no ‘all’ just ‘me’. With no plans come morning W.B. suggests a small festival outside of Irvine, Kentucky. “Kickin’ It On The Creek”. It’s sold out. W.B. says to ask for Byron and mention he sent me. Hm, could make for a good venture.
The van is hot and muggy. I sleep on my back in my underwear.
“…it’s all a dream, it’s all a dream, it’s all a dream”.