This weekend I'm in Knoxville, Tennessee. Dear friends lured me down with the promise of a weekend pass to the Rhythm n' Blooms music festival (that and the promise of genuine spring weather - hello cherry blossoms!). We've seen some great, foot-stomping music in the last two days - mad fiddling and luscious pedal steel guitar and everything in between. But for some reason it's the singers that have really captured my heart, the ones that lead the bands and the ones that work magic with harmonies. Humming House's Kristen Rogers is a little girl with a big voice that knocked my socks off (and the band did a cover of Justin Timberlake's "My Love" that can only be described as hot); Dawn Sears of The Time Jumpers had the audience wrapped around her little finger with heart-achingly beautiful country vocals; Vince Gill and Joe Spivey are also in The Time Jumpers and though they are handy on their instruments (BIG understatement) their old-timey singing completely charmed me; and then late one night we walked into a small bar to sit across from a lone woman singin' and fiddlin' and bless my soul if it wasn't Betse Ellis from the Wilders! I'd seen the Wilders at High Noon Saloon in Madison maybe half a dozen years ago, a full tilt, no holds barred show that I still remember, and Ms. Ellis is just as crazy-good now as she was then. Even the younger bands, many of whom tire me out with their endless penchant for wanting everything to sound bittersweet and nostalgic (I call it the Neko Case Syndrome - write it in 6/8 or 3/4 time and find that comfortable, warm balance between minor and major chords and wallow away!) - even these guys had beautiful, mouth-watering vocals and harmonies. The town is awash in talent this weekend.
As for the instrumentalists, I've developed the following theory from this weekend: The more a band-member looks like they just walked out of Urban Outfitters, the less likely it is they know what to do with their instrument. Okay, it's not a strictly linear correlation, and it's a snarky theory for sure, but I will say that all of the dudes in The Time Jumpers - the best players we saw this weekend, you won't find better in the world I'd venture - looked like they could be your grandad just in from mowing the lawn. And there's something really sweet about that.
I'll mention one last vocalist who made himself known to me almost immediately upon my arrival here in Tennessee, on our first walk outside in the spring air. And maybe he blows away my above theory, because he is a smartly dressed fellow in white and gray, handsome as anything: meet Mimus polyglottos, also called the northern mockingbird, and the state bird of Tennessee. You'll find him singing away on nearly every backyard tree here. He knows a hundred different songs, and he sings them all well.