With a mischievous half-smile, Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner cut right to the point: “Why the long faces?” Why indeed. The capacity crowd on this Friday night was there to mourn the passing of Lucy’s Record Shop, the all-ages venue that for six years made Nashville a stop on indie rock’s underground railroad.
In 1992, when the Ryman was vacant and Lower Broadway was still a haven for coin-op porn, a relocated New Yorker named Mary Mancini opened the tiny record store in an empty Church Street storefront. Though her pickings were slim (disco singles, Pavement EPs, the odd Yo La Tengo), Mancini quickly attracted the disenfranchised from all walks of Nashville’s music community. Before honky-tonk music made its resurgence on Lower Broad, many of the key players in its revival — the sterling bandleader Paul Burch, BR5-49′s Smilin’ Jay McDowell — were playing in bands in Mancini’s back room. Her clientele were mostly teenage punks suited up for fashion war, but in Lucy’s heyday, you could spot honky-tonk revivalists alongside headbangers, or the likes of Nanci Griffith exchanging appraising glances with a rip-kneed skatepunk.
So what was cool about the final Lucy’s show, especially if you’d kept track of the changes in Nashville over the past six years, was seeing how the lineup of bands — from artless noise to full-throttle punk to sweet back-to-the-barrooms country to some futuristic hybrid of all three and more — mirrored the progress of the city’s underground music scene. For the Jan. 30 farewell concert, held in Lucy’s narrow back room, Mancini assembled some of her favorite groups from a half-decade of shows and made genre distinctions irrelevant.
The audience was no less organically diverse, a jostling mix of sexagenarians, kids, college professors, indie rockers, even Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson, all wedged onto the stained gray carpet flanked by gray band-stickered walls bedecked with a yard-sale Mona Lisa. You couldn’t call the evening closure; such a clinical term could never sum up the recombinant, shambling organism that was Lucy’s lifespan. Instead, it was more like the bittersweet slow-motion dissolving of a wonderful house party, the kind of event that starts to end just as you realize how special it truly is.
The contradictions that are Nashville’s music scene were evident from the arrival of CYOD, a four-piece noise aggregate led by caustic frontman Marky Nevers. By day, Nevers works for hire as a mainstream country engineer for the likes of John Anderson. By night, he fronts this spectacularly assaultive garage-collage combo, part seminal Northwestern/Motor City punk, part art-terrorist prank, with rotating players ranging from My Dad Is Dead’s Matt Swanson to Wilco/Courtesy Move drummer Ken Coomer. Some late night in the studio, Nevers definitely needs to surreptitiously swap his backing tracks for Swangin’ John’s, because America desperately needs Mr. Anderson to record “Rock ‘n’ Roll Pussy”.
Paul Burch, the proudest next-generation upholder of stone country in Music City today, was in Greg Garing’s band when the honky-tonk renaissance exploded on Lower Broad. These days he’s got his own outfit, the WPA Ballclub, and he plays beautifully modulated, lilting country swing that practically sawdusts a floor all by itself. At Lucy’s on this night, his fluid oldtime-country-in-the-here-and-now songs were more jarring to CYOD’s devotees than CYOD’s had been to his, but the dogfighting interplay of George Bradfute’s daredevil lead guitar and Paul Niehaus’ exuberant steel on Carl Smith’s “Baby I’m Ready” made even jaded artpunks nod coolly.
Burch served double-duty by playing in Lambchop, the sprawling bowling team of a band that probably best represents bohemian Nashville in the years after the country boom. Think about it: a community of working stiffs who muddle through day gigs, who love country and soul in a town uncomfortable with the burden of both traditions, who blow off steam by drinking beer and hanging out beneath the radar of Music Row’s guard towers and crafting the most remarkably individual personal sound nobody ever set out to create.
The forthcoming songs leader Kurt Wagner unveiled sounded startlingly candid and direct (for him), with few of the dense, cryptic pronouncements that make his work so tantalizing and inscrutable. The band has absorbed R&B as effortlessly as it has AM-radio hillbilly music, and on songs such as “The Distance From There To Her”, Lambchop achieves an enveloping sound that morphs Nashville’s unheralded soul tradition into the country that people once played on porches to unwind, creating some science-fiction landscape of urban longing and rural regret. This isn’t the sound of country music’s future; this is the future.
If the group’s ever-strengthening chops and newfound brassy punch have clarified Wagner’s muse, they seem to have positively galvanized Vic Chesnutt’s. Backed by all 11 members of Lambchop — who serve as his band on his upcoming album for Capitol, the home of Garth Brooks — Chesnutt bayed the most revolutionary white blues music I’ve ever heard, music that doesn’t sound at all like twelve-bar boogie but unlocks the same raw heart-to-mouth emotional catharsis.
His scarifyingly honest dispatches from the crossroads of aching romanticism and goddamn fury may have mellowed since the artless yawp of 1990′s Little, but the pained beauty of “Bernadette” and “Duty Free” shone brilliantly, enhanced by sensitive backing that encompassed mournful a cappella whistling and full-band cacophony. This child fathered by Charles Bukowski and Robert Johnson and outsider mystics can make the phrase “Use up your old currency” sound like the most sadly hopeful refrain you ever heard, then hang ten on a wicked, roiling Lambchop groove that refuses to crash.
Then the band left the stage, and the audience shuffled out, and the next night the door of Lucy’s Record Shop closed for good. But this visionary, wide-ranging night of music showed that outbursts of creativity and cultural cross-pollination, however doomed to fade, are possible even in a town as hidebound and industry-corrupted as Nashville. Live music in hole-in-the-wall clubs will always be the city’s salvation: It either flourishes in the moment or it falls apart, and it can’t be spun, it can’t be bottled, you can’t even kill it if you try to ignore it. The moment has passed at Lucy’s, and that leaves Music City’s disenfranchised underground with the prime conditions for an explosion: nothing to do and nowhere to play and a seemingly endless stretch of Friday nights to fill. The next time somebody lights the fuse, make sure you don’t run.