For anyone paying attention, the two nights of music at KNCI’s Golf & Guitars 2014 at the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento told a story about Nashville.
It was a story of young Logan Brill, a Knoxville native who graduated from Belmont last spring and had her debut album Walking Wires out by October. Teamed in a Night One songwriter round with Matt Jenkins, Matt Ramsey, and Trevor Rosen – three guys who came to Nashville from Texas, Virginia, and Michigan about a decade ago and have finally started making some headway with hits for The Band Perry, Keith Urban, Chris Young, Dustin Lynch, and Craig Morgan – Brill lacked their familiar songs but none of their passion or talent. Charged with following up Rosen’s crowd singalong of “Better Dig Two” to wrap up their portion of the show, Brill did something daring and idiosyncratic – she sang a song not only unfamiliar, but also entirely in French. At this point, why not?
It was a story of Eric Paslay, another Texan who has done his decade in Nashville and only now seems to have come out of nowhere with chart-topping hits for Jake Owen (“Barefoot Blue Jean Night”), Eli Young Band (“Even If It Breaks Your Heart”), Love & Theft (“Angel Eyes”), and Rascal Flatts (“Rewind”). His own debut album finally came out on EMI Nashville in February, and his single “Friday Night” climbed as high as #2 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. In a testament to his sudden ubiquity as songwriter and singer, Paslay was this year’s only participant to play sets on both nights.
It was a story of guys like Rhett Akins and Ira Dean, guys who’ve been through the industry’s wringer, seen their stars rise and fall, and come out the other side. For Akins, this meant early success and then diminishing returns as a hat act in the ’90s followed by an unparalleled second act as a songwriting Peach Picker with a virtual stranglehold on the top of the country charts starting around 2004. For Ira Dean, a Nashville veteran of 25 years, it means plenty of songwriting credits but no #1s and greatest visibility as the bass-slapping crazy man of Trick Pony. Trick Pony is back together now after a five year hiatus. Like Akins, Dean is in his mid 40s, still leaning on a song: Night One ended on a high note with his “I’ll Keep the Kids,” a song written for and with one of Night Two’s headliners.
If the first night of Golf & Guitars is about song, the second is about song and celebrity. It caps a day in which many fans have come out hours before showtime to bid on autographed memorabilia and watch performers golf. These fans enjoy supporting worthy charitable causes and are enthralled by watching live golf, to be sure, but are also eager for any opportunity to see what Thomas Rhett looks like on the greens – very green, as it turns out – and snap new Facebook profile shots with recent “The Voice” graduates The Swon Brothers. This is the day general admission tickets are sold for (watching golf is free), the day of people lining up early and racing each other to the lawn for the best view of today’s hits being performed by today’s hit-makers. A day of much excitement.
And so the story continues. At this stage of the music business game, the songs are still there. You can even hear the same songs in different versions, as was the case with Ira Dean’s “One in Every Crowd” on Monday and Montgomery Gentry’s “One in Every Crowd” on Tuesday.
But the Big Show – the one that brings the fans out and makes events like this popular enough to be successful – is largely about something else. Montgomery Gentry, the biggest of the event’s big acts, offered up a strong set. Eddie and T-Roy stayed on-key and uptempo, capturing all the energy of their records and keeping the entire crowd on its feet. But theirs was a show that wouldn’t have worked as it did without Montgomery jumping around in his American flag jacket, mugging for the front row, spinning his mic stand. Good as it was musically, their performance was about outsize personality and big hits – Montgomery-by-God-Gentry, don’t you forget it. They promised to rock us straight through to the morning, then wrapped up just shy of 10pm. Eddie Montgomery didn’t sing “I’ll Keep the Kids,” even though some of us had recently learned that it was very specific and personal to him. That version of Eddie Montgomery would not be on display here. Just hell yeah, right on, let’s party Eddie.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my favorite acts were those whose presence and bearing suggested it might be possible to make it to the Big Show without all the spectacle. The Cadillac Three brought all the party with none of the shtick, tearing through three southern rockers (including their “Days of Gold,” covered by Jake Owen) with minimal fuss and plenty of raggedy charm. Frankie Ballard took the main stage with just a voice and guitar, trusting mightily in the power of some rasp and some chords from atop a stationary stool to entrance the crowd. David Nail, with percussionist and keyboard player, offered four note-perfect vocal performances with no banter, then disappeared almost as quickly as he could utter his first non-sung words: “I’m David Nail. Thank you. Goodnight.”
Contrast that with amiable Dustin Lynch, who hammed it up on a cover of “Friends in Low Places” interspersed with a drinking challenge – he wanted all plastic cups emptied by the end of the song – that culminated in him singling out one particular person in the crowd who had to finish a drink before the song could continue. All in good fun, I’m sure. Dustin Lynch should do fine. The cops stationed around the parking lot as fans stumbled out at night’s end might have wished he’d tone it down a bit.
The Outlier: If there was anyone at no stage of the trying-to-make-it-in-Nashville game, it was wonderfully oddball Night One inclusion Jason Eady, who kicked off a writers round with a winding murder ballad (“Promises in Pieces”) and used one of his two other turns on the event’s only bluegrass song, a duet with wife Courtney Patton on “Man on a Mountain.” He sang the latter with Patty Loveless on AM Country Heaven, his independent album that improbably cracked the Top 40 of the Billboard Country Albums chart in 2012. Sometimes good music will find its own way.
Golf & Guitars is an annual charity golf tournament and concert put on by Sacramento’s KNCI 105.1 and the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex, with 100% of proceeds benefiting the Morton Golf Foundation and other charitable organizations. Always a good time, it will celebrate its eighth year in 2015.