When Lucero announced a new show opening for Steve Earle at the Ryman Auditorium, I knew I had to be there somehow. Two of my favorite artists playing in an historical venue that I always wanted to visit. Plus, I’d get to visit Nashville.
The Ryman (aka The Mother Church of Country Music) started as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892 and when the United Confederate Veterans added a balcony in 1897 the seating capacity was 6000. That was lowered to about 3000 when a stage was added in 1901. Non-religious events were booked to help pay off their debt and eventually it became known as “the Carnegie Hall of the South.” It became the home of the Grand Ole Opry (debut 1925) in 1943 and was its home for 31 years. The Ryman was neglected for many years until renovations began in 1989. The Opry returns every year for three months and it is one of the best sounding venues in the world and is a tourist destination in addition to being a local favorite.
There are beautiful stained-glass windows and wooden pews inside. When I sent photos to Peter, his response was “‘Saturday night and Sunday morning’ are very Christian.” There were statues of Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff in the lobby, a gift shop off the lobby, and Café Lula (in memory of Lula C. Naff, the first booker for the auditorium).
The venue was quiet until about 7:45pm when music started playing through the sound system. At 8pm, we heard Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” and knew the boys would be coming out. Lucero entered to big applause. I don’t know what the split was – those to see Lucero; those to see Steve Earle; and those to see both – but it sounded like much of the crowd was there for the band. The band launched into “Texas & Tennessee” and we were off. Since they were the opening act it was an abbreviated set but, as always, they played their heart out for us. After singing “the only girl a boy can trust is his guitar,” Ben said, “It sounds a little silly but I meant it when I wrote it. It’s an old song.” Later he told us they’d never played the Ryman before and the crowd stood and cheered (two idiots up front threw their beers in the air. I was glad I was sitting a few rows from the stage and avoided getting splashed). During “Throwback No. 2” Ben broke out into a big smile when singing “Oh darling marry me.” After singing “Loving” solo, Ben switched from acoustic to electric guitar and, as always when they make that switch, the energy level in the room shot up even more than it was. Taking a sip of whiskey, Ben said, “If you were playing the Ryman for the first time you’d get a little wasted.” When he said he didn’t know what to play and the crowd shouted out requests, Ben said, “Can’t hear you. I’m a professional musician and I’m deaf.” He noted that nobody yelled for “Nights Like These” (always a crowd favorite) before the band played it and I got chills during the bridge. The set ended with Ben and Rick (on accordion) for “The War” and Ben thanked us for being so nice.
Besides being lucky enough to usually see Lucero at least twice a year in NYC, I’ve traveled to Little Rock, Memphis, and now Nashville to see them and I’ve never been disappointed. For those still not in the know, the band is Ben Nichols (acoustic/electric guitar and vocals), Brian Venable (electric guitar), Roy Berry (drums), John C. Stubblefield (electric bass), and Rick Steff (keyboards/accordion). I don’t know what else I can say about them. I love how they perform without a net. Ben’s lyrics and vocal delivery make me cry (in a good way) and Brian’s guitar playing is perfection. Roy’s drumming is light and powerful at the same time. John C can make the crowd rise to their feet and control them with just one look. And Rick – Rick is a musician’s musician.
Texas & Tennessee
Last Night in Town
My Best Girl
Ain’t So Lonely
Union Pacific Line
Throwback No. 2
Loving (Ben solo)
Downtown (intro)/On My Way Downtown
Nights Like These
The War (Ben and Rick)
During the break, I wandered out to the lobby to see if I could spot any of the band outside or at the bars. I didn’t see them but it was very crowded and I figured it was unlikely that I’d be able to talk with any of them or any performer after the show.
Back in my seat, I heard Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and just before Steve Earle and the Dukes came on stage, we heard Johnny Cash’s version of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.” A Dobro was among the many instruments on stage – and it stood there unused for the entire set. Earle played songs from his latest album (a country album influenced by Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes) throughout the set but also included songs that the audience wanted to hear like “Guitar Town” (which has one of the best guitar riffs as far as I’m concerned) and “Copperheard Road” (which brought the crowd to its feet as they sang/yelled out the lyrics – in fact they went crazy as soon as they heard the intro). The band started with “So You Wannabe an Outlaw” and like every song that night when Tennessee was mentioned a big cheer went up. During “Lookin’ for a Woman” when I saw one of the musicians motion to the monitor engineer, I realized that I didn’t see the sound board in the audience and was wondering if it was up in the balcony.
Earle said that his niece Emily was in the crowd. She’d been on The Voice and managed not to end up in Cee Lo’s hot tub. She wrote a song with Earle’s ex, Allison Moorer (when Earle said she was not in the crowd, we laughed) and Earle kept walking in and out of the room while they were writing (this was, of course, before the split) and finally he had to intervene and he helped them finish the song which is “News from Colorado.”
This was the first time that Earle was headlining the Ryman. He had a few stories. The last time he played there was for a tribute to Guy Clark. Earle said he had good teachers. He met Townes Van Zandt when he was 17 and then met Guy. Townes would give you a book and tell you to read it. He also would tell you to put the cap back on the bottle before someone tipped it over. Guy would take the time to show you the process. A bunch of the performers took Guy’s ashes to Santa Fe for Terry Allen to include in one of his sculptures. There was the beautiful New Mexico sunset that Earle was sure Guy had provided and Earle wrote “Goodbye Michelangelo” when he got home.
Before “Jerusalem” he said lines like “I don’t believe in nationalism. I believe in justice. I don’t believe that anyone should go hungry in the richest country in the world.” “Transcendental Blues” wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Harrison album or maybe as George’s contribution to a Beatles’ record.
He proudly displayed his bouzouki (octave mandolin) and told us that he’d played Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnic for the first time this year. Everyone was playing patriotic songs and, for him, the most American word is immigrant and then he played “City of Immigrants.”
His mother was from Nashville (Earle grew up in Texas) and when they visited his grandmother, they also visited the Ryman. He saw Bill Monroe when he was 7 years old and later saw Tammy Wynette. By the time he moved to Nashville, the Ryman was dark.
The crowd kept yelling out requests and Earle said that with 17 albums he can’t play all the songs. But the band did play a cover of “Hey Joe” that rivaled Hendrix’ version.
Before the encore, Earle said that early on in Chicago he ran out of songs to play at a gig. He realized that when your dreams come true you have to find another fucking dream. An interviewer once asked Earle to describe himself in one word. His first thought was, “Isn’t that your job?” but he decided to do it – the word was romantic. He’s Don Quixote romantic – big dreams and keep on keeping on. And he’s intimate romantic. He’s pretty good at his job but has fucked up everything else he’s done. He just wanted what his parents had and what Guy and Susanna had. He thought that there’s got to be someone out there for everyone. You can’t say that he’s afraid of commitment [laughter]. Now that he’s older, he’s considering that’s not true. And he likes sitting where he wants to at the movies. And watching all the baseball he wants.
The Dukes are The Mastersons, Chris Masterson (guitars/backing vocals) and Eleanor Whitmore (fiddle/mandolin/keyboards/backing vocals); Kelly Looney (electric and upright bass/backing vocals); Brad Pemberton (drums); and Ricky Ray Jackson (pedal steel). Earle complimented Whitmore on her playing, singing, and her intelligence. He said she brings up the bus IQ 20 points, which is what happens when you let a woman on the bus.
I couldn’t have been happier with the set unless he had played “My Old Friend the Blues.” The band is so tight and the new members (Pemberton and Jackson) fit right in. My love for Steve Earle knows no bounds and I’m so happy to have seen him and Lucero in such a beautiful looking and beautiful sounding venue.
As we left, Justin Townes Earle’s “Harlem River Blues” played on the sound system. I wondered if that was Earle’s choice or venue’s.
So You Wannabe an Outlaw
Lookin’ for a Woman
The Firebreak Line
Walkin’ in LA
News from Colorado
I’m Still in Love with You (co-written with Del McCoury)
You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had
City of Immigrants
You Broke My Heart
The Galway Girl
Acquainted with the Wind
Hard Core Troubadour
The Week of Living Dangerously
If Mama Coulda Seen Me
Fixin’ to Die
Hey Joe (The Leaves cover)
Desperados Waiting for a Train (Guy Clark cover)
The Girl on the Mountain
My hotel was right across the river near the stadium and they had a shuttle to take you downtown. I was surprised when I got to Broadway. I wasn’t expecting Bourbon Street on cowboy boot steroids. There were party bikes, party buses, and party barges. Bar after bar with live music blasting. And street musicians on every corner. And lots of homeless people.
I managed to visit some of the bars, restaurants, and the halls of fame and museums in just a day. You can read about my visit to Nashville here.
By Carene Lydia Lopez