Walter Tunis: Clay City's Meadowgreen Park the perfect setting for wintertime bluegrass

Contributing Music WriterJanuary 10, 2013 

Marty Raybon headlines Saturday's lineup at Meadowgreen Park.



    Nellie McKay at Natasha's Bistro & Bar: There are few greater exhibitions of pop music contrast than a show by Nellie McKay. Similarly, this unaccompanied return concert at Natasha's offered a perhaps ideal way of examining — and enjoying — the opposing styles, themes and performance strategies behind her songs.

    For starters, McKay has the vocabulary and confidence of New York's finest cabaret singers. That translated into sterling readings of compositions by such disparate greats at Fats Waller, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Shel Silverstein and The Beatles. Topping the list of favored stylists, though, was Doris Day.

    A brilliant case in point was a stark reading of Jobim's Meditation based far more around Day's worldly but wide-eyed American version than the composer's Brazilian-swept original.

    As with so many of the tunes offered during the 80-minute show, McKay's affection for the Day sound was remarkably complete. Her singing was stately at times, coy at others, and sounded surprisingly vulnerable during the more sensitive passages.

    But vulnerable was about the last tag that applied to McKay's original material, whether it was the animated canine love offering The Dog Song ("that's what it all a-bow-wow-out"), the wildly tongue-in-cheek referendum on sexual politics that fueled It's a Pose ("Honey, your arrogance is what makes you special") or the hysterical right-wing view of feminism at the heart of Mother of Pearl ("I'm Michele Bachmann and I approved this message").

    Musically, the show seemed almost contradictory at times. McKay's fingers were more than up for the swing-style piano joy ride of the '20s-era classic Crazy Rhythm. But twice during the program, after she switched to ukulele, McKay became flustered enough to abort songs. There were no noticeable technical gaffes. Instead, she simply appeared deflated and disconnected. Those moments were brief, though, and the recoveries were immediate.

    There was certainly no disconnect in the show-closing encore of Dave Frishberg's Listen Here, a personal affirmation prefaced aptly by a New Year's toast. The song's sense of celebration seemed modest by design. But in McKay's hands, it grew like a winter flame: a contained, beckoning flash of color and warmth.

Marty Raybon and Full Circle

8 p.m. Jan. 12 at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall, 303 Bluegrass Ln., Clay City. (606) 663-9008. $12.

It's time for an annual reminder. It comes along every January, just as we settle into the dead of winter. It's a reassurance that bluegrass, long thought of as a sound of the summer, doesn't go into hibernation. It remains vital, vigorous and very much in action at one of the most inviting concert venues of the region.

We speak, of course, of the annual series of Saturday concerts at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall, about 45 minutes down the interstate in Clay City.

Bluegrass festivals are fine and fun during the summer, but there is simply no better way to experience live string music than within the cordial setting of Meadowgreen Park. The concerts have been running since mid-October and will continue through early April. But it is during the heart of the winter that the venue's charm is at its peak. Imagine listening to expert bluegrass in a log cabin. That's what an evening at Meadowgreen Park is like.

Saturday's entertainment comes from Marty Raybon, the Alabama-born vocalist and guitarist who spent more than a decade as frontman for the contemporary country group Shenandoah before establishing a solo career in the mid-'90s that edged him steadily closer to bluegrass.

He is touring this winter behind a pair of fine 2012 albums, Hand to the Plow and Southern Roots and Branches. The Mountain Connection will open.

Kenny Vaughan Trio, Sam Lewis, The Northside Sheiks

8 p.m. Jan 11 at Willie's Locally Known, 805 N. Broadway. $10. (859) 281-1116.

Coralee and the Townies

8 p.m. Jan 12 at Willie's Locally Known. $10.

Miss out on the most recent Last Waltz tribute, which made its seventh annual round last month?

Perhaps you caught it but now seek a more concentrated and specific listen to a few of the acts featured at the performance. If so, you're in luck this weekend.

Willie's Locally Known has two of them presenting headlining concerts: a Nashville pro who is fast becoming a Lexington regular and a pack of longtime local favorites.

Friday marks the return of Nashville guitarist Kenny Vaughan, who should look into renting a home in the region given his frequent visits. But don't take his numerous shows at Willie's for granted. Vaughan is a powerfully versed guitarist adept in all kinds of roots, country and Americana styles. A world-class instrumentalist, he sounds great when picking away during his regular gig with Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives. On his own, he is a musical riot.

As with his previous Lexington appearances, Vaughan's trio will perform one set of its own and a second as a backing ensemble for Nashville songsmith Sam Lewis.

Then Saturday, we have a full evening with Coralee and the Townies. Going on about the band's peerless and learned honky-tonk sound seems to be redundant at this point. So allow me to share an experience of watching the Townies open for Chris Isaak at the Singletary Center for the Arts in November.

I found myself, seated next to my ophthalmologist. He had admitted a few months earlier — while he was shooting lightning bolts through my eyeballs — to being an Isaak fan. But after Coralee and company wound up a typically engaging set of country comfort before Isaak's show, the doctor asked me where the band was from. You could almost sense he expected the answer to be Nashville or, perhaps given his fascination with Isaak, Los Angeles. He was properly dumbstruck when he was informed that the Townies were locals.

So, there you go, Waltzers: two nights of out-of-town country-and-more picking and homegrown honky-tonk. That should shake the winter blues from your bones.

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