There are those occasional evenings during which Nashville is the only place to be. Nights when you know that it doesn't matter what's happening in New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, because Nashville is unquestionably the center of the musical universe. We had one of those evenings here in town last week. And while the local calendar has become so jammed with "events" that it's hard to know what to devote your time to, I can say for certain that if you missed the Witness History III concert at the Ryman Auditorium, you missed Nashville at its very best.
Produced by Tomkats Catering as part of the Chet Atkins Musician Days, the Witness History concerts have been a real treat for those who have attended. I went to the second installment back in 1998, when the honorees were Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and I must say that it was truly unforgettable. This year, the theme for Witness History was "The Twang Years," and the musicians honored were Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Duane Eddy and legendary sideman Grady Martin. Eddy is best known for being the most successful instrumentalist in rock, with 34 chart records and 15 top ten hits, all sans vocals. Martin played sessions for everyone from Hank Williams to Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, and toured for years with Willie Nelson and Jerry Reed.|
The list of performers for Witness History III was quite impressive, and the show was something I won't soon forget. Here's the scoop on how things went: The Band: Backing most of the artists on this evening was a fantastic band. Standing in front of these guys, I could have probably sounded half-decent. Bass player Dave Pomeroy was the musical director, and he had a band that included Vince Gill on guitar, Steve Turner on drums, Dan Dugmore on steel guitar, Randy Leago and Denis Solee on horns and Doyle Dykes on acoustic guitar. Peter Hyrka led the string section that backed Duane Eddy during some of his performance.
Duane Eddy's Set: Eddy led off the show, and he got things going right away. "Some Kind of Earthquake," which Eddy reminded the audience was the shortest record ever to make the Top 40, was an early highlight. John Fogerty, a great admirer of Eddy's work, joined the legendary player on stage to chop heads on some blues. The exchange back and forth between these two rock gods was downright amazing, and it occurred to me just how distinctive each of their guitar sounds truly are. I closed my eyes for a moment and realized that I would have known who was on stage just by the sounds coming from each of the guitars. How many players can you say that about in Nashville these days?
Once Fogerty left the stage, Eddy continued with a musical journey through his many years in the business. He told stories about traveling on busses with Chubby Checker and Dion & The Belmonts. He played his hits, such as "40 Miles of Bad Road" and the theme from the 1960 film Because They're Young. Then he reminded everyone just how much range he had by doing a rocking send up of "I Saw The Light" and his theme song from the 1990s John Travolta film Broken Arrow, which came complete with a drum machine and strings. Eddy closed with a scorching take on "The Peter Gunn Theme," which featured a Randy Leago sax solo that knocked me off my feet, and his signature hit "Rebel Rouser." Throughout the entire set, Eddy played with style and grace, and it was easy to see why he is such a beloved figure among musicians.
Heartfelt Tribute: As part of the Chet Atkins Musician Days, the artists being honored at the Witness History show get an award called "The Chettie." John Fogerty came to the stage as the presenter for Duane Eddy. He told the story of how he was supposed to be the person who inducted Eddy into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but an earthquake in California leveled his home, and he was unable to fly out and be a part of the ceremony. Thus, Fogerty seemed genuinely proud to be in Nashville last week to give one of his idols an award. "Duane Eddy has the biggest and most powerful guitar sound on earth," Fogerty said in his speech. What a cool thing it was to see an all-time great like Fogerty humbled at the thought of handing a trophy to another guitar player.
Heartfelt Tribute Number Two: When he was talking about event host Chet Atkins, Eddy spoke of his tremendous admiration. "I always wanted to sing like Hank Williams and play like Chet Atkins," Eddy said. "Unfortunately, I wasn't able to do either." And believe me, with the emotion present in his voice, it was clear that Eddy wasn't just making nice by saying this. Biggest Dumbass of the New Millennium: Right in the middle of Eddy's set, some bonehead in the balcony screamed out a request for the song "Rumble." Eddy strummed through a few chords of the classic instrumental rocker, and then politely reminded the moron that it was a Link Wray song. Eddy then kindly suggested that we all might want to go see Wray the next time he comes through town.
Funniest Quote of the Night: "Sometimes I think I might be retired, and I just don't know it." -Duane Eddy -- Second Funniest Quote of the Night: When he was given a proclamation by Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell naming him the "Titan of Twang," Eddy replied "I know you're the mayor because I've seen you on television." -- Most Touching/Humorous Moment of the Evening: Chet Atkins was helped on to the stage by John Fogerty. Atkins spoke briefly to the crowd about the players being honored that night and his recent strokes, which have left him unable to drive. In the process, he talked about a 20-year-old Cadillac he has, which he wasn't sure if he needed anymore. And all of the sudden, you realized that the sly Atkins was giving us a sales pitch. "My favorite thing was Chet trying to sell a car from the stage," Marty Stuart told me with a laugh afterwards. "That was the sneakiest, slickest way to sell a Cadillac I've ever seen." And the funniest, I might add.
Willie's Set: Playing with the all-star band and Marty Stuart on mandolin, Willie Nelson did "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," "On The Road Again" and many more of his classics. He was also joined by Nanci Griffith on stage for a duet. It was an amazing thing to watch. What They Had to Say Afterwards: I spoke with a few of the key participants in the show. Here is what they had to say about the evening: "It was breathtaking. It was just a fabulous thing, and it wasn't nearly long enough." - Peter Hyrka on leading the string section during Duane Eddy's performance. "It was incredible. I did not expect all of that, so it was a big surprise, a lot of it. I just mainly concentrated on my part of the show and playing, but the whole thing turned out to be one heck of a great night." - Duane Eddy
"I enjoyed this night so much because it's the one time of year in Nashville when the musicians are truly in the center of the spotlight. When I first came to town, it was a guitar-loaded town. Everybody had their own identifiable tone. The musicians were the stars in those days, and this is a night where that happens all over again. And I'll tell you, this town can use all of the Duane Eddys it can get right now." - Marty Stuart "I loved it. I had a great time. It was good to be here for Grady Martin, and it was good to be picking with all of that great talent up there tonight. I love Grady and Duane Eddy, and all of those people I got to play with. It was just a great night." - Willie Nelson
Source: Rockabilly Hall Of Fame