In the 1990s when I was avidly exploring country music, I sought it wherever I could find it. Marvoni and I made a number of trips to Nashville where we had begun our survey in 1988. Ultimately, what we found in Music City led us to explore other geographic areas where music was deeply embedded in the firmament and from where it flowed: Appalachia and the Delta primarily. But that’s another story for another day. Today’s story starts in Nashville and follows a winding path to Holland Street in Somerville.
I followed a similarly winding path to arrive at my love of country music. That love started in my subconscious and took root serendipitously when we found ourselves on vacation in Nashville in the late 1980s. I was exposed to country & western music in the kitchen of a childhood friend’s home. His mom listened to a local C & W radio station playing both hard honky tonk and the smooth countrypolitan sounds of the early 1970s. Despite the musical stylings of George & Tammy, Charley Pride, Lynn Anderson, et al, flowing through my ear canal straight to my brain, nothing gained a toe-hold that would cause me to even acknowledge its existence in my consciousness. Or so I thought.
Fast forward 15 years and Marvoni and I are in Nashville on a trip having nothing to do with the signature industry of Music City. We arrived in town from Memphis, where we chased around that town’s musical heritage, chiefly, Elvis and the rest of the cats recording at Sun Studio in the 1950s. When we hit Nashville, on a lark, we leaned into the music. We tuned into local radio and started listening to top-40 country and the chart-toppers of the minute. Nothing more than a ‘when in Rome’ move. As luck would have it, at this very moment in time, a portal opened in commercial country music and a bunch of genre-bending, roots-influenced, and other actual country-sounding acts came flooding through. For a brief sliver of time these guys fared well in the commercial realm. Rodney Crowell, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, K.D. Lang, and others got significant airplay not just on commercial country radio but on my turntable, too. I slightly digress. The point I’m trying to make is this: on this brief three-day visit to Nashville, through the briefest exposure to the hits of the day, I had a real eureka moment. One that has lasted to this day. I fell in love with what I was hearing. I fell fast and hard. At Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop I loaded up on country music. At the Country Music Hall of Fame I binged on country music history. On Music Row I basked in the story of this company town.
I was hooked. That’s a lot of words to make a small point. My love of the genre was so all-encompassing I sought to consume country music wherever and whenever I could.
Fast forward seven years from discovery. Marvoni and I are couch-bound on a random week night watching Crook & Chase on the Nashville Network. The Crook & Chase show was a country music talk show, totally generic in presentation, but incorporating acts of all stripes and sizes: commercial Hot Countryacts, old-timer acts, roots-acts, etc. On any given night you might see a guest combo of Trisha Yearwood (contemporary hit-maker), Merle Haggard (classic country artist), and Hot Rize (repping No Depression acts.) On this particular night—and this recollection is crazyvivid 24 years later—Crook and Chase were spotlighting Kieran Kane and Tammy Rogers. Kiern Kane was best known as the former partner of Jamie O’Hara in the well-regarded O’Kanes (early practitioners of sub-genre Americana – though not yet dubbed such,) and Tammy Rogers was a session fiddler. Together with Kevin Welch (singer-songwriter), Harry Stinson (session drummer), and Mike Henderson (blues-rock guitar slinger), Kane and Rogers formed an independent record company called Dead Reckoning Records. They made this move after being dropped from their respective labels, and—going forward—desiring to create music not product. They did two songs, the first of which, I believe was Dirty Little Town, and the second was a stripped-down, exquisite cover of the Hank Williams tune Ramblin’ Man. Both were eye-opening in their simplicity and beauty. When the interview wrapped, the production crew posted a graphic showing upcoming shows by the Dead Reckoning Records roster. One of the shows listed was Johnny D’s Boston. After taking righteous umbrage at the dis to Somerville, I immediately pursued tickets to the show. If you were on the ball getting tickets for a Johnny D’s show, you also reserved a table for dinner, thus guaranteeing a prime seat for the show. Tickets and table in hand, so to speak, Marvoni and I walked the three blocks from our Somerville apartment to the venue on a beauty of an early August night. We had no clue what we were in store for.
There was a warm up act, the Swinging Steaks. They were pretty good, not terribly memorable, outside of their name. As the Steaks finished up, there was a restless energy shooting around the room. I can’t really say if that is just a nudge of nostalgia, but I remember a palpable buzz going through the crowd as the Dead Reckoners took the stage. Or it could be that the energy exploded the second they started into their first song. This Night of Reckoningwas just the five principles of the record label. They were out on the road to introduce themselves and their brand. They had this new collective and they were bringing it to the people in loud and fiery fashion. They fucking rocked this room to its core. Everybody got their turn as they cranked out roots-rock, blues-rock, bluegrass, country … beautiful, late 20th century country music. For real, this audacious brand of country music laid to waste the sophisticated Somerville throng. This crowd was impressively receptive. We were gripped, and rowdy, joyful, sweaty, and bouncing off one another.
I don’t think I’ve ever said this out loud, but these guys blasted their way straight into my country-loving heart. I’m pretty sure I was not alone in that emotion. When the show ended, the crowd milled around for a long while, not sure what to do; we didn’t want to leave because then we’d be leaving behind that euphoria, we’d be leaving one another—we couldn’t do that so soon after this perfect show. Gradually we cleared out, we were chatting and smiling and recollecting. I’m pretty sure Marvoni and I drifted home on air.
Right here I just want to say, musicians/bands/acts aside, Johnny D’s was a spectacular venue, wicked conducive to this very sort of show. A small, intimate space, a too-small stage overflowing with players, great staff, flowing libations, crazy, riotous crowds. Perfect.
Dead Reckoning left its mark on everybody in attendance that night. A straight-up unexpected, fortuitous happenstance. A cosmic merging of artistry and energy. In a perfect setting. Once-in-a-lifetime.
Except it happened again three months later, in November 1995. They came back. It turns out that little go-around-and-introduce-themselves-to-America tour had the same effect on every audience as the Johnny D’s show. How could they then not give the people what the people wanted? The second show was almost as mighty as the first—they brought a band this time: drummer, steel player, bass. Beefed up the sound and overcrowded the stage! The wow-factor, while still impressive, didn’t quite pack the same wallop as the first show, but it stood as a solid reminder of this group’s power and virtuosity.
There’s no disputing my memory when I say, the first Dead Reckoning show at Johnny D’s Somerville landed squarely in the top-5 all time concerts I’ve attended. TOP-5! That’s some powerful music.