A little over two years ago, Brandi Carlile played a small show at Nashville’s Basement East for the holiday party thrown by her new producer and label, Dave Cobb and Low Country Sound. It was there that she debuted songs from her album By the Way, I Forgive You, which would be released in a few months and catapult her to international superstar. Since then, she’s won three Grammy Awards, formed the Highwomen, performed a tribute to Joni Mitchell, produced records for Tanya Tucker and the Secret Sisters, hit her $1 million fundraising goal for Children in Conflict through her Looking Out Foundation, and become a leader in the movement to bring gender equality to all sectors of the music industry, from festival rosters to the country airwaves.
Last night at the Ryman Auditorium, Carlile played the first of six sold-out shows at the Nashville landmark, an occasion that felt like both a celebration and a homecoming: a tracing of where she’s been, the songs that got her here, and the ones she hopes will extend and grow into the future — or rewrite the past.
Carlile, in a striking jacket made by country music couturier Manuel, bounded onto the stage with her bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth after a string introduction. But while their fashion might have a little more glitter these days and their platform may have grown, Carlile and the Hanseroth twins kept the show focused on their core: Carlile’s voice, which routinely elicited gasps from the audience, their three-part-harmonies, and their passion for pure, euphoric entertainment. Somehow, Carlile shows are rock & roll fire, pop-pomp, folk confessional, and cathartic campfire all at once.
“The Ryman heals people,” Carlile told the crowd, explaining how it had been eight weeks since she’d last sung in public, after a sudden cold took away her voice. You’d never know it. She hit those uncanny high notes in “The Story,” which the band performed early in the set (“the song that got us here,” Carlile said, talking about the tradition of Opry performers selflessly playing their hit for the delight of the audience), settled into exact harmonies with the twins on an acoustic reading of “The Eye,” and delivered a stunning rendition of Mitchell’s “A Case of You” with humble brilliance, after asking the stage director to shut off the fog machine because she “needed all the help I can get.”
“When I look back on the three of us meeting in the late Nineties in Seattle, Washington, I had a great honor of being the first person to introduce them to country and roots music,” Carlile said, speaking to the Hanseroths, who have been by her side for 20 years and never seem to transmit anything but unfiltered joy from the stage. “I wish I could have told them then that, one of these days, we were going to stand onstage at the Ryman Auditorium for six nights.… Some things have to be seen to be believed, some things have to be believed to be seen.”
Such unbelievable moments were the theme of the evening — from a tender performance of “The Mother” to seeing Tucker walk onstage during “That Wasn’t Me,” the lead single off Carlile’s 2012 LP, Bear Creek. Tucker first sang the song in November, when Carlile was presented with the Founders Award at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, and, just a few nights from her own sold-out Ryman show, Tucker emitted all the grit and country glory that Carlile has said was foundational to her own development as an artist.
Then Carlile did something radical, something that encompasses the way she’s navigated her career these past few years — she took a back seat to let someone else be front and center, accompanying Tucker on piano as the 61-year-old sang her Grammy-nominated ballad “Bring My Flowers Now.” After a triumphant finale of “The Joke,” Carlile did it again, using her time to talk at length about opening artist Kim Richey and invite her back to sing “A Place Called Home,” from Richey’s 2001 album, Rise.
“Somebody gave me Kim Richey’s album Glimmer as a teenager, and I absolutely lived inside of every single one of those songs,” Carlile said. “Not a lot of people know this, but so much of my voice is really influenced by Kim Richey. You know the slow vibrato thing in my voice? It’s not natural. I got that by mimicking Kim Richey.”
Over the next five nights, Carlile will likely make equal space to talk about the other opening acts she’s curated with intent: Lucie Silvas, Lori McKenna, Courtney Barnett, and fellow Highwoman Natalie Hemby (last night Carlile played “If She Ever Leaves Me” solo, but teased a possible appearance from her fellow country crusaders later in the residency). It’s reflective of how Carlile has taken time in the past two years to not only form an all-woman festival, Girls Just Wanna Weekend, but to also cast herself in the supporting role by opening for women like Silvas and Courtney Marie Andrews.
As Richey — who played a stunningly simple set that showcased her crystalline voice and criminally underappreciated lyricism — said, “[Carlile] takes her currency, and she lifts other people up with it.” There were signs of that even in the lobby last night, where multiple volunteers mulled about registering concertgoers to vote, and the sign for Carlile’s charity on prominent display by the merch table.
“We need more forgiveness in the world,” Carlile urged early in the night before launching into “Sugartooth,” a song about the unrelenting horrors of addiction. “If you think I’m about to engage in another hashtag-blessed white-person lecture, I’m not. That’s not what it’s about. Forgiveness is radical, and it’s difficult and it’s messy, and we all say we do it, but we don’t. I write about it, so I can learn how to do it.”
That’s the kind of sermon, delivered from the Mother Church, that Carlile knows we desperately need.