What does it mean to be a country musician in this day and age? For some, it means singing about souped-up pick-up trucks and red solo cups. For others, it means straddling the past and the present, carrying on a tradition of earnest songwriting and storytelling while adding to it. Gill Landry and Justin Townes Earle, who played the Crowbar this past Monday night, are proudly of the latter variety. [Text by Shae, photos by Brian.]
Dressed in a well-worn felt fedora, button-down shirt with rolled sleeves and scuffed work boots, Gill Landry took to the stage before a sparsely-filled room looking like he stepped out of an old-timey string or jug band, which he basically did. Landry cut his teeth busking on corners in New Orleans before starting the vaudeville-inspired Kitchen Syncopaters with fellow folk-fan Woody Pines and later joined Old Crow Medicine Show on banjo and dobro. With his history and appearance, I thought I had Landry pegged before I heard a note of his solo work. I was wrong, but not by much.
Alone on stage with an acoustic guitar that had seen better days, a few harmonicas that went mostly ignored and a small pedal board, and with a voice situated somewhere between William Elliott Whitmore's husky corn-fed crooning and Tom Waits's smoke-and-gravel growling, Landry began a set that veered away from the slap-happy singing-for-his-supper and closer toward the world-weary confessional. Here was a man who has crossed the country, falling in and out of love, ending up a little worse for the wear. He introduced several songs as being about “a woman from — ” and then naming a different city each time.
The highlight of his set, for me, was what he dubbed his ragtime relief: two songs that showcased his dexterity on the guitar while hearkening back to those old-timey jazz acts his appearance initially conjured up. Before tearing into a Leo Kottke cover, he admitted to practicing the song on the drive down from Tennessee. “They say you can't talk on your cell phone,” he said with a grin, “but they never said anything about playing the guitar.”
As I suspected would be the case, by the time Justin Townes Earle started tuning his guitar, people had flooded into Crowbar, filling up the luxurious personal space I had during Landry's turn at the mic. I had seen JTE once before, when he played the Social in Orlando. By the set up on the stage I knew Tampa would be different: off to my left sat a pedal steel and a Les Paul. One of the things I like so much about JTE's recordings are his backing instrumentation — tasteful yet twangy guitar solos, humming organs and bubbling horns — so getting to hear a bit more of that in a live setting excited me.
I don't want to say I was disappointed, but I was, slightly. Back at the Social, playing solo, Justin's voice and guitar often came across as a freight train straining to stay on track, so I sat transfixed, waiting for a derailing and then admiring the fact that it never came. Here, whether it was because partner, multi-instrumentalist Paul Niehaus, forced him into a steady tempo, or because Niehaus' guitar and backing vocals were a little too high in the mix, I often felt myself straining again — to be able to hear and focus on Justin.
It might have been a conscious decision. His last two albums, Single Mothers released in the fall of 2014 and Absent Fathers released just this year, while still rooted in the country-blues, are the most subdued of his career. The effervescence and countrified jangle of past records has given way to mournful wailing slides and only a hit of percussion, so if he wanted to bring the albums alive on stage, he succeeded. Even older favorites of mine, “Memphis in the Rain,” and “Ain't Waitin',” had me clapping, but not toe-tapping as much.
About the marked change in sound — how much of that was JTE's desire to continue backing away from what he'd done before? The guy next to me called out requests for Justin to play “Yuma,” from his first EP. “I haven't played that song in six years,” Justin shot back, before warning that the quickest way to get him to not play a song was to call it out during the set. And as he mentioned later between songs, “If I kept playing the same thing for years, I'd have quit.” But how much, I had to wonder, was putting those rough-and-tumble years behind him? Off the junk, looking calm and collected, married, with his wife clapping along to his songs on the side of the stage — is Steve Earle's infamous son finally growing up?