Two of Nashville’s exciting young songwriters delivered an intimate acoustic show Wednesday night (Jan. 23) at the Stone Fox, a small new venue on the city’s west side. To say the least, the night was encouraging for roots music lovers.
John McCauley, front man of the garage-rock philosophers Deer Tick, and Robert Ellis, a Music City transplant whose quiet contemplations feature shades of Townes Van Zandt and Paul Simon, kept the crowd hushed and engaged throughout their hour-long performances.
Speaking with Ellis beforehand, the Houston native told CMT Edge the show had been put together by American Songwriter magazine as a quiet night in celebration of song craft.
Ellis is a natural choice for that purpose, as his 2011 debut Photographs showed a thoughtful writer with a sensitive side. On this night, songs from that album like “Westbound Train,” “Two Cans of Paint” and “Photographs” related his personal experiences with love and friendship, all backed by Ellis’ nimble finger-picked acoustic guitar.
But for fans already familiar with those early tunes, Ellis offered up a slew of new ones that tell much different stories.
“Just as an exercise, I really enjoy writing,” Ellis said. “Not just stuff that I’m emotionally attached to. And here lately things have been really good, so I haven’t had as much bad shit to write about. I’ve had to push myself in different directions.”
Some of those new directions revealed themselves in “The TV Song” (about a couch potato who lives his life through the characters on his favorite shows), “Only Lies” (about living in denial) and “The Lights From the Chemical Plant” (about a fictional couple who grow up, get old and pass away in Ellis’ hometown). The latter song features the weighty lines: “My heart is like an orphan/Your words are like a home.”
But highlighting the set was a new tune that just has to come straight from Ellis’ inner-monologue. “Home Again,” a heartbreaking song about a touring musician who wonders if living his dream is worth the price, simply stunned the crowd. Bartenders had to wait until after the song to mix drinks for fear of disrupting the moment. With no real chorus to speak of, the story plays out in a series of nowhere bars, dirty backseats and 10-hour drives as Ellis imagines all the reasons his woman has to move on.
In a crowd full of musicians, that hits pretty close to home.
The song, along with around a dozen others, is ready to be recorded, according to Ellis, but he hedged that promise by mentioning it might take a year to get another record out.
Closing the night was the charismatic McCauley, who brought a much different vibe to his set.
The boozy rock ‘n’ roller from Providence, R.I., started off by grabbing a bottle of beer and prying the cap off with his silver tooth. Then he sat down and hunched over an acoustic guitar for a bunch of covers, Deer Tick originals and fresh songs only recently written.
Much looser in style than Ellis, McCauley writes and sings from his gut — whether it’s full of his mama’s Sunday dinner or a toxic concoction of liquor and God-knows-what. The stories unfold in vivid, plainspoken language that connect with listeners eager for adventure or those who simply relate to McCauley’s hardscrabble world view. To that point, the respectful crowd swelled with what looked like college underclassmen, identifiable by the giant black X’s on their hands.
Kicking off the set with “Baltimore Blues No. 1,” he quietly advocated giving up your heroes since they’ll no doubt sell you out for the drop of a coin. “Make Believe” confronted a lover who wouldn’t commit, and “Houston, TX” found the songwriter seething after being dumped over the phone on Valentine’s Day.
New songs also left a mark on the audience. Especially one dedicated to McCauley’s parents, who he said had a seemingly-perfect marriage until his dad was sentenced to two years in jail. I didn’t catch the name, but the pain this caused his mother apparently really hurt McCauley, too, and he wrote this song to map out the changes he saw.
Another interesting new track was called “Mirrored Walls.” It’s a straightforward documentation of the grossest motel McCauley ever stayed in, where instead of wallpaper the entire room was covered in mirrors. This happened to be in Reno, Nev., and you can use your imagination from there.
Personal highlights included Middle Brother’s “Mom and Dad” (“Mama gave a camera to her little star/All she gets is pictures of hotels and bars”), Deer Tick’s “Diamond Rings” and “Art Isn’t Real” from their 2007 breakthrough album, War Elephant.
Clearly, Nashville’s new generation of songwriters have some things to say. The future looks bright for Music City.