Saturday, March 29, 2014

'Tin Pan South' Hits Stride on Fourth Day


Day Four: March 28 (Friday)

         "Tin Pan South" hit its stride on Friday night, spotlighting some of the best-known (and close-to-be) hit makers on the planet. Covering shows for MCAU on Day Four were reporters Chuck Whiting and Wil Comstock. They decided to take in the 6:30 p.m. show at the Hard Rock Cafe' (featuring Chris Gelbuda, Stephony Smith, Hailey Steele, Levi Hummon, and Marcus Hummon); and the 9:30 p.m. show at Douglas Corner (featuring Dave Coleman, Ashley Cleveland, Bill Lloyd, and Suzi Ragsdale).

March 28 (FRIDAY):

HARD ROCK CAFE' (Early Show):

         The show at the Hard Rock featured a delightful mix of very talented "songs-on-hold" songwriters, along with masters of the trade. Not that they all didn't fall into the "masters" category (the level of writing, singing, playing and interaction was exceptional). You could imagine listening to most of the tunes on the radio or at least the album of a high-profile act.

L-R: Chris Gelbuda, Stephony Smith,
Hailey Steele, Levi Hummon, and Marcus Hummon
         I love the Hard Rock Cafe'. It's spacious and varied enough to provide an up-close concert experience or an outdoor (but easy-to-hear) experience while chatting on the patio. The staging and sound are always stellar. The food and service are very good. I was fortunate to find a seat on the front row of the lower level.

         The thoughtful and humble Chris Gelbuda (who expressed concern about performing after Marcus Hummon) kicked things off with "Prove Me Wrong", a touching song about a lover's inability to change. Chris's smooth, baritone voice immediately hushed the crowd. Every performance impressed and then some. Stephony Smith made a point to tell him (and the crowd) that he had "a voice like butter". He went on to perform "Parachute", a new song he recently penned with Stephony about having to cut the tangled lines of a former lover's parachute. Chris lamented about the "near cuts" he's had, calling the show the "Greatest Hold Concert". As the audience laughed, he launched into "Groovin'", an upbeat, feel-good number that showed the breadth of his talents. Marcus made a point to congratulate Chris during the show, telling him he had "nothing to worry about".

Stephony Smith
         Stephony, who has written smash hits for Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney and others, used her appearance to perform some of the newer or more introspective songs in her catalog. Of course, for Stephony, that means expertly crafted tunes with a strong message. The crowd (especially the women) cheered when she sang "Drink Up," a song that encourages a distant lover to drink more wine. "We're only strangers when you're sober," she sang. "You only love me when you're drinking." It's rare when a songwriter uses the "F" word at the beginning of a tune, but that's just what Stephony did with her song, "In Paris". Despite her historic surroundings, a woman in Paris is miffed about her former boyfriend's shenanigans back home in Nashville. The woman's heartache continues when she eventually moves back to Tennessee. One of the highlights of the show was her performance of "Where Did All That Go?", a song lamenting the passage of time. She reminded us what this fast-paced world has taken away: women on radio, rock 'n' roll, classic cars, stereos, conversations, saving grace, and breaking up face to face. She begged George Strait (from afar) to record the cleverly penned "These Old Boots", a song inspired during a recent songwriting retreat at the beach.

         Hailey Steele exhibited confidence, grace and beauty during the show, announcing that she's on the verge of releasing her first EP (thanks to a recent Kickstarter campaign). "I don't have any number ones yet," she said with a laugh. But some of the songs she wrote and sang sounded like they were destined to be. "You Ain't Worth the Drive" expresses a lover's realization that, after 700 miles of driving, a relationship is over. "Every exit sign says I should turn around," she sang. Hailey's and Chris's voices blended splendidly on "Diamond", their song about the patience, pressure and time required to fly (or make dreams come true). Her alto/soprano voice soared on "Another Like You" (with Marcus providing delicate guitar fingerwork and background vocals). Heads tossed back and forth (and feet tapped) to the upbeat tune "Down the Line" about a woman who patiently waits for her future prince. Could Hailey Steele (who has a great name, too) be a budding 

Hailey Steele and Levi Hummon
         I admit being a little doubtful about the level of Levi Hummon's talent (before I heard him). He's the son of a legendary songwriter, which can open a lot of doors for budding tunesmiths. That doesn't necessarily mean great talent. But man was I in for a surprise! This guy can write and sing, and he has a unique (and entertaining) sound to match. I guess the "like father, like son" saying is true (at least in this case). Levi's melodic turns on the romantic "Light Me a Fire" were impressive. He used a cleverly arranged vocal motif (a 1/5 interval?) to express a man's "burnin' down with desire" over a lover's kiss. His dad played along on guitar, smiling proudly the whole time. Other songs expressed determination ("Push and Shove") and seductive longing ("I'm Such a Fool for Beautiful"). Levi ended with "Make It Love", a "soon-to-be" classic co-written with his dad (that has "opened a lot of doors"). The song's central message is that only love can mend a broken heart. I love the line, "Let's just take each other's hand while we still can."

         If there's one word that describes Marcus Hummon, it's "amazing". Okay... I know I'm being a little redundant, but how else can you describe him? His ability to masterfully write, arrange and play is beyond words. But I'll try anyway. One can understand why Chris was a little shy about performing immediately after him (even though Chris has tremendous talent, too). The audience was spellbound on Marcus's first song, "You Were Born to Fly" (co-written with Darrell Scott and Sara Evans). With bluesy heart and soul, he made us believe we could do anything. "How do you keep your feet on the ground when you know you were born to fly," he sang. His expressive performance seemed to leap to another level. He used the show to premiere "I've Never Been to Memphis," a song that is likely (he hopes) to appear on the next Rascal Flatts album. A Californian has a lot of good things going for him (sun, beaches, beautiful women, and breathtaking landscapes), but he'd be willing to give it all up and move to Memphis for love. An audience favorite was "Cowboy Take Me Away", a hit co-written with Dixie Chick Martie Maguire. The arrangements were simply brilliant. Before closing, Marcus jokingly lamented about being in Nashville for 25 years. "I'm getting older, and everyone is getting younger."

Levi Hummon and Marcus Hummon
         One of the things I liked best about the show was the camaraderie (and encouraging nature) of the songwriters. Hailey did a great job putting the show together. I couldn't help thinking how special it was to see Marcus encouraging his emerging peers, especially Chris. The show wasn't just about him and his son. It was about every songwriter (at every level) on that stage. That mentoring nature says a lot about Marcus. 
-- Chuck Whiting, MCAU Editor


         Whenever I walk into Douglas Corner, I begin to relax. Is it the dim lighting, the type of crowd the venue draws, or simply knowing it's going to be a good show no matter who performs? I was not disappointed last night.

L-R: Dave Coleman, Ashley Cleveland,
Suzi Ragsdale, and Bill Lloyd
         Dave Coleman from the Coal Men, whom I'd never heard of, started each song with a great groove. Bill Lloyd explained that he had a loop peddle at his feet. Dave would play a rhythmic groove, hit the pedal, and play on top of the continuous loop. Coleman smiled and said, "I'm good at playing with myself." His baritone vocals conjured up the earthly sound of Tennessee and Mississippi Delta blues. I enjoyed his songs, "Tennessee" and the working man's blues number, "Sanity".

Dave Coleman
         Bill Lloyd and his sometime partner, Radney Foster, had a series of hits in the late '80s and early '90s as Foster and Lloyd. Stories seemed to ooze out of him like the song about his childhood, "Boy King of Tokyo". Bill's father, who was in the service, was director of the Officer's Club in Tokyo. Bill was the boy the other kids revered because he looked so different. All that changed when he moved back with his parents to the States. We were also treated to "Picasso's Mandolin", recorded and written with Guy Clark, and "I Like to Watch her Listen to the Radio", a song about an ex-girlfriend who used to flip through the stations sitting in the passenger seat as Bill drove. One minute she was a sultry blues siren, the next an American idol, tossing her hair and smiling at the camera.

Bill Lloyd
         I viewed Suzi Ragsdale on You Tube and was knocked out by her song, "Virginia", about her 70-year-old neighbor who was always happy as she worked in her yard. Suzi, having just ended a relationship, wondered how someone could always be so upbeat. I was not prepared for her intricate chord changes on the keyboard and her beautiful soulful vocals. Suzi, who by the way is Ray Stevens' daughter, seemed to be the kind of person I would want as a friend. Sincere, great sense of humor, and caring, all evidenced by her attention to all of the other writers. Other favorites were "Alone and Waiting to be Found" and "Bonfire", which featured great jazz chords.

Suzi Ragsdale
         Twenty-four years ago, a friend of mine moved to Nashville from New Jersey. That was two years before I moved here. One night, he called excited about a singer he had just seen who blew him away. Her name was Ashley Cleveland. My friend sent me a copy of her first Atlantic album, "Big Town", and I caught the "Ashley fever" myself. Ashley explained a few years back she was excited about taking a road trip... no kids and the CD player all to herself. She brought a stack of CDs from the '70s with her and never got past the first CD, "Aretha Franklin's Greatest Hits". It inspired her to write "Queen of Soul", a gritty plea to all sisters to rise up, pray for one another, and be proud.

Ashley Cleveland
         Ashley spoke of the Africans' bringing with them their culture of singing and how it served them well during slavery. They had no idea this would become an American art form. They were just trying to survive. She was recently asked to record the African-American spiritual "Rock In A Weary Land" for the Oxford American Anthology. Everyone in the room joined in on the chorus. She introduced her last song by telling us she and her teenaged kids often watch "American Idol". One of the contestants started to sing a song she and husband Kenny Greenburg wrote. Her kids looked at her, then at the TV, then back at her. She saw in their eyes that they suddenly realized, "Oh, that's what you do for a living!". She then launched into "That's the Power", and in doing so, empowered all of us.

-- Wil Comstock, MCAU Contributing Writer

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