First off, I must say that the Ryman Bluegrass Night concert series is an unbelievable value; $26 to see honest music at an intimate venue. You really can't beat it! The opener, Sarah Jarosz, was a pleasant surprise. I was prepared for your standard singer/songwriter fare until she kicked it off by playing two songs on banjo and then proceeded to jump back and forth between guitar and mandolin. Her originals were pretty good, but it was her instrumental that really brought the house down. Up until that point there were only hints that she was an accomplished musician capable of ripping crazy arpeggio runs. Aside from her originals she also picked some great covers; Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells", Patty Griffin's "Long Ride Home" and fittingly for the Ryman "Blue Moon of Kentucky". All this at 19!
As a precursor to the show I watched a 1972 documentary on Earl Scruggs via Netflix; Earl Scruggs: Bluegrass Legend: Family & Friends. I was hoping for a life story, but it mainly focussed on his attempts to move beyond bluegrass. Much like many of today's documentaries it relied on support from pop stars of the day; Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn. The oddest moment occured when Earl and his son Randy "jammed" with a Moog Synthesizer! It was amazing seeing him play with his two sons in 1972 and then move ahead 38 years later doing just that. They even played a few of the same tunes! Just the day before Randy had been flirting with Joan Baez as an awkward teen, the next he is an aged man playing the Ryman with his elderly father. It was a fake nostalgic moment.
Much like B.B. these days, Earl sat down the entire show. He let his son and bassist, Gary, do all the talking but he still had the umph to kick off every tune with a stampede of banjo flourishes. His timing was rather liberal but he always seemed to realize his mistakes and account for them. For the most part his band carried the weight with Earl providing fills and comping. There were a few odd endings and lost changes but that's what we all expected right? At 86 how can you possibly have the dexterity you had in your early age?
This begs the question how much do you go for the music and how much is it respecting a true music legend for his past achievements? You have to respect the artists that won't exploit legendary status; Robert Plant nixing the Zep tour. On the other hand, as long as it is coming from an honest place, you have to respect the passion of someone who wants to keep playing because that is all they've known and could very well be the thing keeping them going.
From where we were sitting we had a full view of the side stage. For the first half of the show Emmylou Harris sat watching in the shadows until being called upon to sing the Carter Family classic "Keep On The Sunny Side". She joked about having "over 60 disease" and used that as an excuse to read the lyrics off a piece of paper. It seemed as if she was holding on for dear life during the verses until reaching the unforgettable chorus. On the next tune when she strapped on her Gibson jumbo and while more at ease and proved that you can still sound great in your 60's.
The next guest was Vince Gill. Unlike Harris' understated and respectful stage persona, Gill tends to take over the show when he sits in; such was the case when I saw him with the Time Jumpers at The Station Inn. It isn't a malicious thing, the man just loves to play and is infectious. He told a poignant story of his own father cursing Scruggs as he struggled to master the Scruggs banjo style. This was followed by a song about just that, during which Gill gave Earl two solos. No other song that night had Scruggs soloing as much. Gill let Scruggs shine because that was why we all were there.
MC, Eddie Stubbs was the unsung hero of the night. His introduction for Scruggs expertly summed up the legendary figure. Stubbs' knowledge of country music is profound and proves that just because you can become an instant expert on something via wikipedia doesn't mean that you know how to piece it all together. Perhaps his best addition to the night was in trying to coax an encore from Scruggs. After the last number everybody stood applauding. Stubs looked over at the production manager who offstage was signaling furiously to end the show. This went on for a good two minutes until Stubbs expressed that the show was indeed over. In extending the applause, it was as if he was giving a man who first turned so many heads at the Ryman a glorious send off.