Last Saturday the culmination of the Got Country Class competition was held in the lush surroundings of the Greenbrier Hotel. We from LBSPY attended, and were entertained by the finalists, of which the remaining ten had been whittled down from a staggering 130. After several consecutive evenings of friendly rivalry, the ten finalists were there to bring it on and go home with the grand prize. They brought their best game.
Each contestant/act was allowed exactly 8 minutes to shine, and if they weren’t finished, the main speakers were cut, leaving only the monitors’ sound. This was rare, since they were all very well rehearsed and knew exactly what needed to be done in their allotted time. Sam Cahill emceed the event. After each group or individual was finished, the judges gave their mostly-positive critiques, encouragement, and advice. Judges were as follows: Charlie Lico, a music business veteran and who is credited with helping to start the Christian music industry, as well as revolutionizing the Super Bowl halftime shows. A familiar face and local musician Josh Baldwin, guitarist for the Jarmovers and editor of the Greenbrier Valley Quarterly was also there to offer his guidance. Joining the panel was old buddy Mike Donahue, who has been road manager/producer for George Thorogood and the Destroyers for more than 30 years. Other judges were locally well-known Director of Entertainment for the Greenbrier and Berklee School of Music graduate Jeff Bryant. Rounding out the judges panel was Bill Birdsong Miller, renaissance man and Grammy winner who has toured extensively with Tori Amos. They were all encouraging and fair, and offered invaluable advice to the contestants.
First up was Virginia ’s Common Ground, followed by (almost) home-town girl Alexandra Rose from Covington . She was very sweet. and there was something lovely and fragile about her stage presence and performance. Just 18 years old, she has so much time ahead of her to get better and better. Then taking the stage was a duo and their band from Staunton called Wilson Fairchild, whose ties to the Statler Brothers gave them an advantage in that they came to the contest with more experience and contacts than many of their competitors. Next came Southpaw from Rockbridge , VA , whose fan club was there in full force to cheer them on. Number five was the lovely Julia Matthews, who had an amazing voice, but the performance was weakened by the use of tracks, in lieu of live musicians, which are always preferred by other live musicians, such as myself. Still, she had some great moments.
After an intermission and much milling about by a pretty diverse crowd made up of fans, children, sponsors, hotel guests, and more, the amazing Boatmen were the next up. I cannot begin to tell you how astounding their performance was! While maybe not quite as polished and slick as some of the other bands, I love the rough edges around this band. American Soulgrass is a description that exemplifies their style. With the ever-amazing multi-instrumentalist (and killer singer) Randy Gilkey, guitarist Jonathan Sneed, songwriters Matt Mullins and Nick Durm (also great singers) and the good-time perfection of the percussionist Robert Gross (yes, a singer, as well!), this band was like a breath of fresh air in the contemporary country genre. Their version of The Band’s “The Weight” brought tears to my eyes, especially recalling the recent passing of Levon Helm.
Following the Boatmen was the Katie Admire Band from Nashville . Already pro’s, they knew their way around a stage. Baby-voiced when speaking, that little spitfire brought the vocals from deep within and had a mighty sound. She did a Shirley Bassey song (and mis-pronounced “Bassey” when introducing it, ahhhh, youth!) called “I Who Have Nothing” and it was powerful! “I, who have nothing, I, I who have no one…must watch you go dancing by wrapped in the arms of somebody else, when darling, it is I who love you…”
From “ Nashville , now,” as they put it, was The August, a very professional and inventive group featuring Joplin-esque singer Jackie Dustin. She blew the roof off the place with her rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee”, a song generally over-sung with shades of mediocrity in karaoke bars worldwide, but this was a different story. She owned it, as did guitarist Cameron Clarke. Standing ovation.
Local girl and long-time performer since she was just a little girl, home-town darling Morgan Cornwell and her band of familiar local boys was act number nine. She was amazing, as she has been for years, and her band included her dad Brad Cornwell, guitarist Randy Goodson, bass player Charlie Hatcher, drummer Billy Ayers, and some guy named Don Drummer on pedal steel. Last, but not least, was a 16 year-old (wearing white jeans and carrying a big old red guitar, a lot to live up to from the get-go) whose name was Emily Kinner. After following all those other great performances, it was the bravest thing ever for this girl to perform her heart-felt song, an homage to her grandmother who had turned 100, and to sing it all by herself.
After it was all said and done, the winners were as follows:
The Boatmen, 5th place (though I felt they deserved first or second)
Morgan Cornwell, 4th place
Katie Admire Band, 3rd (winning $1500 and guaranteed Greenbrier performance bookings)
Wilson Fairchild, 2nd ($3000 and Greenbrier bookings)
And the winners were The August ($5000 and the opportunity to open for Toby Keith and Lionel Richie at this summer’s Greenbrier Classic Concert Series).
It was an interesting evening of musical competition, well-organized and seamlessly managed, though the evening was a long one. I was pretty inspired by some of the singers and their bands, and next year I would like to be there again. To quote Harlan Howard, “Country music is three chords and the truth.” And to quote George Bernard Shaw, “Hell is full of musical amateurs: music is the brandy of the damned.”