“Sometimes the Redneck Angels Aren’t Fair”

Matraca Berg and Lori McKenna

Lori McKenna (profile) and Matraca Berg at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville on 14 January 2011.

So a week ago, Heather and I went up to Nashville’s Bluebird Cafe for a singer/songwriter “In the Round” concert, featuring Kim Carnes, Matraca Berg, Barry Dean, and Lori McKenna, whom I think I may have mentioned on this blog once or twice.

Rather than trying to write any sort of coherent or cohesive review, here are some thoughts from notes I took, first on a napkin, until I spilled Heather’s Sprite on it, and then in a notebook she loaned me.

• It was my first time at the Bluebird Cafe, which is the pinnacle of intimate venues. For the In the Round show, the performers were in a circle in the middle of the room, and the audience sat at crowded tables or in pews in a corner, all packed together. If anyone’s ever been to one of our packed-out Face2Face improv show at Sam & Greg’s pizzeria in downtown Huntsville, it’s like that, but on a larger scale. (And if you haven’t, go soon.)

• Lori was third in the circle, and started with “The Luxury of Knowing,” from her new album. I’m biased, but I was amazed at the power of her voice. I’ve seen her live once before, but it was different in a smaller venue and being closer up. To me, her voice was the strongest of the circle, to the point that at first I though she was more mic’d or something.

• Most of the circle was from Nashville, with Lori, from outside of Boston, being the exception. There was still a good bit of ice and snow on the ground, and one of the other performers thanked people from coming out in the blizzard. To which Lori replied, “That was a blizzard? We have 16 inches of snow and my damn kids went to school.” Welcome to the South.

• Lori’s second song was the only one she did that night that wasn’t off of the new album. Instead, it was newer than the new album; she’d written “Sometimes He Does” three days before the concert. It was a great song, devastating and beautiful; a happier companion piece to “Lorraine”‘s “If He Tried.” It was a little depressing; I want to hear it again, and don’t know when or if I will. Lori does so many great songs that don’t make the albums, and I would hate it if “Sometimes He Does” becomes one of the ones that disappeared. (She told me her manager wouldn’t let it.)

• Kim Carnes was the celebrity of the group, best known for “Bette Davis Eyes.” (Her celebrity status was clear from the fact that she made up half of the circle with her two accompanying musicians.) Although I’d never heard most of the material she did Friday before, and really only knew her from the one song, it was funny how her voice would have moments were it was just so familiar (enhanced perhaps that she sounds a bit like the child of Bonnie Tyler and Bob Dylan, with some notes sounding exactly like the latter).

• Matraca Berg’s guitar wasn’t working so her husband went home and got her a new one. When he got back, she asked him to sit in and do a song. He played one he’d written, “God Bless The Broken Road,” known perhaps best as a huge hit for Rascal Flatts. A nice added bonus; and the first non-Lori song of the evening that I actually recognized. Heather saw Rascal Flatts last year, and we’ve talked about trying to see them together but haven’t been able to make it work for their current tour, so it was neat seeing that song together in that way.

Matraca commented that she writes songs pretty much every day, and he takes the time maybe a few times a year, and writes stuff like that. Commented Barry Dean of the country-music inspiration process: “Sometimes the redneck angels aren’t fair.”

• So Lori gets ready to do another song at one point, and asks Kim Carnes if she would be willing to join her. And I’m hugely disappointed that I don’t have a way of recording this, because the idea of a Lori McKenna/Kim Carnes duet is rather awesome. So she starts singing, and it’s “Sweet Disposition,” one of the “Lorraine” tracks that Lori had released a while back as a preview of the album, so one I’ve known the longest. It turns out that Kim Carnes sings back-up vocals on the album track, and I never knew it. I was a little amused because I loved the idea of the two of them working together, only to realize it was one of the songs on Lorraine that speaks to me personally the least. That said, I think hearing it like that gave me a new appreciation for it. Cool how concerts can make songs literally come alive for you.

• Barry Dean and Matraca Berg both did songs that they had cowritten with actress Mary Steenburgen, who was in the audience. Dean’s was not half bad, and Berg’s was incredible. It’s going to be on her new album, which comes out in May, and which will be purchased by me. Berg, by the way, is best known for her songwriting work, having written hits for other artists, including “Strawberry Wine,” “Wild Angels,” and “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today.” She recorded some of her own albums, but never had as much success singing her own material; May’s album will be her first in well over a decade. After the concert, I ordered one of her older albums, and am very much looking forward to the new one.

• The artists all seemed to be having fun. It was a great format for the show, and it was cool watching them interact and enjoy themselves. Lori was introducing a song that she wrote driving her kids to school (by recording it while driving — “Thank God for the iPhone,” she said) and talked about how she figured out she can get away with wearing her pajamas to take the kids to school if she wears yoga pants to sleep in. People see her, and figure she’s just on her way to work out. And when she’s wearing the same thing to pick them up, they just think, “Damn, she works out all day. Not doing anything for her, though.”

• For her last song, Matraca Berg did “Strawberry Wine” and the applause started from the first couple of notes. It was only the second non-Lori song I knew. I loved that she had changed the lyrics by a decade — “I still remember when 40 was old.” The whole singer-songwriter thing is interesting; how some songs are more successful by some people. I like Lori’s versions of the songs Faith Hill recorded on “Fireflies” better than Faith’s, and Matraca’s version of “Strawberry Wine” was at least as good as Deana Carter’s.

• It seemed random, at first, when they had Matraca’s husband come out and do another song, and he chose not to do one he wrote, but one he wished he’d written. Why is this guy doing “Mr. Bojangles”? I mean, it’s a good song and all. Well, thanks to Wikipedia, it’s because Jeff Hanna was a founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. You know, that’s kinda cool, too. Another little bonus I wasn’t expecting going into the night. It was one of a few times during the night when other artists just sang along for the fun of it, and I also wish I had those recorded.

•Kim Carnes wrapped the whole thing up with, of course, “Bette Davis Eyes.” Which, it turns out, ironically, she didn’t write. Something else you may not have known about “Bette Davis Eyes” — according to Billboard Magazine, it was the second most successful song of the 80s. Which, really, is kind of crazy. Also crazy was the idea that I’m listening to this huge hit of the early 80s, sung by the original artist, at a cafe, 30 years after it came out. Wouldn’t have seen that coming. Cool getting that opportunity, and cool hearing such a big song in such a small place; very intimate. It took me back to being a kid, when, having not yet heard of Bette Davis, I thought she was saying “She’s got better taste, besides.” It was a great performance; Kim Carnes’ voice is a very unusual instrument, but she uses it flawlessly.

• Perhaps most cool of all, though, is that I went up and introduced myself to Lori to thank her for her part in my Christmas presents, expecting to have to explain that I was the person who she’d let write an advance review of “Lorraine” and sent the signed LP to. I went up and said I wanted to thank her for my Christmas presents, and before I could even introduce myself, Lori asks, “Are you David?” Um. She knew who I was. That was kind of cool. So she has me meet her manager, and she knew who I was. And her producer (the aforementioned Barry Dean) and he knew who I was. It was rather surreal, and incredibly flattering. I ended up talking to Lori for a while and Barry for possibly even longer, and really enjoyed it.

Oh, and, hey, by the way, earlier, when I mentioned that Mary Steenburgen was there? With her was her husband, Ted Danson. Really did kinda feel like a concert where everybody knew my name.