12:30 PM Dr. Mark & the Sutures

This suburban band was formed in 1987 by “physicians and businessmen who enjoyed and played music as a hobby” to provide entertainment at a neighborhood block party.

2:30 PM Jon Langford & the Pine Valley Cosmonauts featuring Kelly Hogan

A fitting choice to kick off the tribute to western swing pioneer Bob Wills. Langford & the Cosmonauts recorded one of the more lively and entertaining homages to the maestro a couple years ago–The Pine Valley Cosmonauts Salute the Majesty of Bob Wills (Bloodshot)–with a vast and swell array of guest singers, including Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Robbie Fulks, Alejandro Escovedo, Edith Frost, Sally Timms, and Kelly Hogan, who went on to release an acclaimed recording of her own with the band this year. It wasn’t a particularly accurate rendering of the Playboys sound, but it certainly captured their freewheeling spirit.

3:45 PM Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys

With its forthcoming Night Tide (Hightone), the world’s greatest rockabilly band gets even better. Perhaps emboldened by his 1998 solo album, an homage to 50s R & B called Dedicated to You (Hightone), leader Robert Williams, aka Big Sandy, sings more expressively than ever, finding new emotional shadings between Elvis and Hank and injecting a restrained soulfulness into the Fly-Rite Boys’ killer swing. The band, featuring guitarist Ashley Kingman and steel ace Lee Jeffriess, whose lines cross expertly on everything from the Latin-tinged “Tequila Calling” to the dreamy instrumental “In the Steel of the Night,” can do it all, and though they’ve never explicitly mimicked Wills’s Playboys before, they can play western swing in their sleep.

5:00 PM Hot Club of Cowtown

Straddling the line between western swing and le jazz hot, this scrappy Austin trio makes up in exuberance what it lacks in substance. Though the singing is so soulless it makes the Squirrel Nut Zippers sound like the Grand Ole Opry all-stars, Billy Horton’s chugging two-beat slap bass and Whit Smith and Elana Fremerman’s respectable knockoffs of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti (on guitar and violin, respectively) allow for the necessary suspension of disbelief. On their latest album, Tall Tales (Hightone), they tackle Wills gems like “I Laugh When I Think How I Cried Over You” and “Jobob Rag”–where Fremerman, imitating Wills’s notorious wordless vocal eruptions, sounds like a dying cockatoo.

6:30 PM Playboys II

Concluding the Wills fete is Playboys II, an inelegantly named combo featuring various members of Wills’s legendary backing band–most notably guitarist Leon Rausch. Rausch joined Wills in 1958 and played regularly with him until his death in 1975; he also sang with a similar band called Bob Wills’s Original Texas Playboys, put together by Wills’s widow, Betty, a few years later.


5:00 PM Ty Herndon

Faintly twangy soft rocker Ty Herndon is Nashville’s current pinup boy: his airbrushed look is a composite of male soap opera leads, and his music suffers from a similar lack of personality. Most of the press I’ve seen for his latest album, Steam (Epic), has focused on the dance moves in his videos and how he’s toned up his body. The title track, which is begging to accompany a Chippendales routine, uses radiator steam as a metaphor for sexual tension–whew, that’s hot! Everyone should pack an extra pair of underwear.

6:00 PM Randy Travis

In the mid-80s Randy Travis spearheaded country music’s “new traditionalist” movement, but in this year’s festival lineup he’s the token Nashville vet. His excellent voice remains undiminished on his latest album, A Man Ain’t Made of Stone (Dreamworks), but it’s wasted on subpar songs produced in assembly-line fashion. From heartland corn pone like “The Family Bible and the Farmer’s Almanac” to the antiprogress love song “I’ll Be Right Here Loving You” (where he enumerates contemporary distractions like “Economics, electronics, atomic, supersonic / Savin’ whales, crowded jails, America Online, Internet, E-mail”) it’s depressing proof that, sooner or later, Nashville neuters everyone who lives there.


12:30 PM Patty Jo Timmons Band

These locals haven’t had much luck infiltrating the Nashville machine, so when it came time to record their debut album–the imaginatively titled Debut (Clique)–they hired a gang of Music City professionals, including regulars from the bands of Trisha Yearwood and Suzy Bogguss. To their credit, the results sound just as bland and overpolished as anything on one of those big Nashville labels. Timmons can’t afford to use those musicians live; her working band features Jonny Picchietti, a former member of an Indiana rock band called Leather Teddy, on guitar.

1:45 PM Hazzard County

I haven’t heard or heard of this local combo, but their press kit assures me that they are one of the area’s “top rising” acts.

3:00 PM Chicago Bluegrass Band

Although they’ve only been a group for a couple years, the Chicago Bluegrass Band boasts decades of experience. Most impressive is the resumé of mandolinist Red Ratliff, a Kentucky native who worked as a session musician in the 50s for legendary labels like Rich-R-Tone–the first to record the Stanley Brothers–and Starday. Their self-released debut, Steel Rails in the Tennessee Night, is a mix of decent originals and classic material by Bill Monroe, Merle Travis, and Norman Blake. The vocals are the weak link, but they’re passable enough not to distract from the fine work of Ratliff, fiddler Brad Kennedy, banjoist Jeff Krause, guitarist Peter Nye, and bassist Chip Covington.

4:15 PM J Juliano Band

This young Nashville combo claims to mix traditional country with modern pop; leader Juliano cites Buck Owens and Daryl Hall as key influences.

5:30 PM Lush Budgett

Fronted by singer Lisa DeRosia and guitarist Greg Schultz, Lush Budgett emerged from the forgettable alt-rock combo Eden Deluxe, and doles out the country equivalent of that band’s uninspired, cookie-cutter guitar pop.

6:45 PM Wayne “the Train” Hancock

Austin’s Hancock updates the slap-bass honky-tonk of Hank Williams with the energy of early-60s skiffle combos. He recorded his latest album, Wild, Free & Reckless (Ark 21), in just 16 hours, yodeling, crooning, and wailing about trains, the bread his girl bakes for him, and having a good old time. He’s the perfect antidote for the musical travesty that is Petrillo’s schedule today.


3:00 PM Travis Tritt

Few acts have done more to crossbreed country music with southern rock than Travis Tritt, but back at the start of his brief, meteoric ascent, in the early 90s, there was an undeniable streak of honky-tonk in his style. As dopey and hokey as his 1991 Grammy winner “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin'” was, it had a whiff of traditional appeal. But such surprises have been few and far between since; his biggest accomplishment at the moment seems to have been blazing a trail for acts like this evening’s meatheaded headliners.

4:00 PM Montgomery Gentry

The Kentucky duo Montgomery Gentry are a Saturday Night Live skit waiting to be written. These buff caballeros, who look like they’ve borrowed George Michael’s electric shaver and spend more time at the gym than at the roadhouse, write about their deep-running “roots” on their earnest anti-urban-sprawl anthem “Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm” (which opens, “His cows get loose and run right through the fast-food parking lots / And Daddy gets calls from the minimalls when they’re downwind from his horse”), but from what I can tell their most important influence is .38 Special. Their big, dumb debut album, Tattoos & Scars (Columbia), has been a fixture on Billboard’s country album chart for more than a year, and in January they were named favorite new country artist at the American Music Awards. Social critics are fond of citing hip-hop lyrics as proof of America’s cultural disintegration, but this group’s appalling degree of success speaks much louder to me.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Dietz.