On July 15th, Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium kicked off the first show in a series of six called “Americana at the Ryman.” Slated to become an annual event, the series celebrates the best and brightest in Americana and roots music in the city at the epicenter of the rapidly growing genre.
The first show was an all-star celebration billed as Buddy Miller and Friends, featuring Lee Ann Womack, Tony Joe White, the McCrary Sisters, Elizabeth Cook and Parker Millsap. That show was followed by the July 22nd installment, which showcased roots luminary Jim Lauderdale and folk singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons.
On Sunday night, “Americana at the Ryman” celebrated its third week by hosting Brandy Clark and Mark O’Connor, a double bill that, with its blend of contemporary bluegrass and critically acclaimed country, reinforces Americana’s role as a necessary home base for roots artists whose music falls outside the typical confines of, say, popular country radio.
Clark began the evening with a spirited 18-song set that spanned her two solo albums, 2013’s 12 Stories and 2016’s Big Day in a Small Town. Joined by a three-piece band, Clark blazed through fan favorites like “Big Day in a Small Town” and “Love Can Go to Hell” in the first third of her set.
“How many people are here for their first time at the Ryman?” she asked the crowd early in the evening, receiving a rowdy response. “Thanks for making ‘Americana at the Ryman’ your first time.”
A highlight of Clark’s set came at the midpoint, when she and her band performed acoustic arrangements of several of her best-loved songs. They offered a tender take on “The Day She Got Divorced” (a 12 Stories cut first recorded by Reba McEntire on her 2010 album All the Women I Am), made all the more endearing by Clark’s late-song lyric mix-up, which she laughed off later, saying, “Anytime there’s a major mess-up, the show goes real good. So get ready.”
A stripped-down take on Big Day‘s “Girl Next Door” was especially fiery, while 12 Stories ballad “Take a Little Pill” benefited, as ballads so often do, from the Ryman’s crystalline acoustics and reverent audience. Late-set highlights include a crowd-rousing “Get High” and closer “Pray to Jesus,” that latter of which felt right at home in a room full of church pews.
O’Connor and his family band stripped the stage of everything but a couple of microphones for their performance, which was a homecoming of sorts for the celebrated fiddle player. Accomplished in bluegrass, jazz and classical, O’Connor’s Nashville roots include assembling the truly super group the New Nashville Cats for his album of the same name in 1991. This latest line-up for O’Connor features his own family members, including mandolin player and vocalist Forrest O’Connor and fiddler Maggie O’Connor.
“It’s amazing to be here with this O’Connor band of O’Connor family members,” he told the crowd. “I first played here when I was 12 years old, at the preliminaries of the Grand Masters Fiddle Championship. Roy Acuff was over here giving me tips.”
Highlights from the O’Connors’ set include new single “In My Blood” (the recorded version of which features Zac Brown), one of several numbers that allowed fiddler and vocalist Kate Lee O’Connor to show off her serious vocal range, strength, and sustain. An updated take on O’Connor’s 1992 instrumental track “Jerusalem Ridge,” which also appears on the O’Connor Band’s 2016 debut Coming Home, gave the six players plenty of room to show off their chops.
There are three “Americana at the Ryman” shows remaining in this year’s series. On August 5th, the Ryman hosts Alejandro Escovedo, Caroline Spence and Hayes Carll. August 12th’s lineup boasts Amanda Shires and Caitlin Rose. The series comes to a close on August 19th, with scheduled performers Justin Townes Earle and Band of Heathens.