When I visited Nashville, Tenn., for the first time, recently, I really didn’t expect it to be how I imagined. After seeing so many depictions of the city in films and on TV, how could the real thing live up to the idealized, Hollywood version of the Music City?
Turns out, it was exactly how I hoped it would be.
Live music was everywhere. Music Row vibrates with the lingering energy of legends like Elvis. Around Opryland, enduring greats from Jerry Lee Lewis to Asleep at the Wheel and contemporary stars like Brad Paisley could be in the next lane over.
Besides visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and Ryman Auditorium, what I wanted most was to walk into some random bar and hear someone playing original country music. That was easy enough, but I didn’t expect to hear anything as good as what Brandon Maddox was performing at the Music City Bar and Grill one night in July.
One of the great things about country music and its different genres – western swing, the Bakersfield sound, Nashville sound and bluegrass, to name a few – is that when you get to the heart of it, the core ingredients are essentially the same: A good story, some clever hooks and word play, just the right voice inflections and it sounds good unplugged. I love the distinctive sound of fiddles and pedal steel in country music, but if it sounds good with just a singer and a guitar (or piano), then it’s a good song.
Contemporary country may push the envelope a bit more on occasion than in decades past, but like good, down-home cooking, sometimes simple is just plain good, not to mention filling.
That’s not to say Maddox, a prolific songwriter who’s still waiting for his big break, can’t be deep, but he’ll be the first to tell you he’s just a country boy at heart who enjoys life’s simple pleasures. He says he’s written more than 900 songs and the rapt crowd he played to that night just might have stayed to hear every one. At one point midway through his first set, Maddox asked if anyone had any requests and I presume he meant any popular songs he could cover. Nobody did, and that was fine by me. Later, when I heard a recording of Maddox’s song “A Day in The Life of a Guitar Man” from his EP “Weightless,” I realized he might have been making an inside joke.
Maybe not. But the song tells a hilarioustale of a journeyman musician living from gig to gig. It is one of a handful of really fine songs Maddox has released and as good as he sounds unplugged, the studio versions, produced by Reba McEntire band leader Doug Sisemore, make you wonder why Maddox isn’t already on a star trajectory himself. On the EP “The Bigger The Wheels” released earlier this year, Maddox is backed by Sisemore and other members of McEntire’s touring band, including Jimmy Mattingly on fiddle, Jeff King on guitar and Steve Brewster on drums.
Like the tracks on “Weightless,” Maddox channels multiple voices: The good ol’ boy with a little macho swagger in his step; the sensitive romantic; and the carefree country boy just looking to drive his truck down to the lake, unload his buddies and some beer, meet girls and just have some good, clean fun.
On those occasions when Maddox wades into the deep waters, like on the title track to “Weightless” and on “Redemption Road” from “The Bigger The Wheels,” you can’t help but wonder what he’s capable of if he keeps exploring those depths. One of the songs I heard him play live that I really liked, “If I Don’t Do It,” hasn’t been recorded yet, but could be in the mix the next time Maddox goes into the studio, he said. Personally, I think it’s a song that can put him over the top.
Most of the work Maddox has released at this point is upbeat and fun. Rather than dwell too much on love lost, you get some inspired tales of love found – and kept – in “Classic You” from “Wheels” and “ Picture Perfect” and “You Get Me That Way” on “Weightless.” Both EPs are full of songs that, even if they don’t all touch your soul, will stay in your head.
One of these days, there’s going to be a guy playing in a country music bar and when he starts taking requests, someone’s going to ask him to play a Brandon Maddox song.