From the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By James Volpe Rotondi
As anyone who’s hopped a flight to Nashville for a boisterous three-day weekend well knows, Music City almost literally lives and breathes guitar. Is the tip-off the giant Les Paul guitar sculptures that greet you at the arrival gate at Nashville International Airport, or the Gibson and Martin display cases and BMI posters that dot the baggage area? Maybe it’s the legendary Lower Broadway strip, where more than 30 venues proudly host live bands from before lunchtime to well after 1:00 a.m. every single day.
Maybe it’s the (world-class) guitar stores, including the twin pillars of Gruhn Guitars and Carter’s Vintage Guitars. Or maybe it comes down to the rich history of American music that thrives here still; the medial presence of iconic figures from Roy Acuff to Bill Monroe to Hank Williams to Dolly Parton to George Strait to Reba McEntire to Alan Jackson to Garth Brooks to, yes, Taylor Swift, all of whom you can visit in spirit at the Country Music Hall of Fame, on Demonbreun Street. Or you can check out the Musician’s Hall of Fame. Or the Ryman Auditorium. Or maybe wander back over to Layla’s or Robert’s Western World to see the Hall of Fame’s future residents.
Even before Nashville’s huge economic boom began back in the early 2000s, the city had begun a similar expansion of its musical soul. Artists like Wilco, Lucinda Williams, and Ryan Adams, and publications like No Depression and American Songwriter had already put Americana on the map as a genre, tipping their hats to heroes like John Prine, Loretta Lynn, Gram Parsons, The Band, and Kris Kristofferson. But the generation of songwriters who would rise in its wake—including modern titans like Jason Isbell, the Avett Brothers, Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, and Chris Stapleton—would now begin to compete for serious cultural real estate with the likes of establishment country artists like Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, Sugarland, and Kenny Chesney.
Nashville’s thriving traditional bluegrass, soul, and gospel scenes have flourished anew, as well, billowing out of venues like the legendary Station Inn and finding new life in the hands of artists including the Punch Brothers, Alabama Shakes, Rob Ickes, the Dillards, Old Crow Medicine Show, Nicole Atkins, and frequent Music City visitors like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Rhiannon Giddens. Heck, Nashville is even home to a roll call of remarkable rockers, as well, from Jack White and Kings of Leon to the Black Keys and Damon Johnson. In fact, all those threadbare genre denominations are getting thinner and less relevant by the day.
Here we’ll grab a sweet tea with several of the passionate, driven songwriters, performers, and players who are shaping the evolving sound of Nashville now, including Elizabeth Cook, Lilly Hiatt, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Lillie Mae, and Jake Workman. It is only a drop in the bucket, of course, so vast and diverse is Nashville’s ocean of guitar talent. Still, while these acoustic warriors may or may not exactly answer to the name of outlaw country, each one has found a defiantly individual and eclectic pathway through what might simply be called, once again, the Nashville Sound.
Do keep in mind that the venerable acoustic guitar tradition is strong here: Whatever leading-edge production techniques they may tap, or however they may bend genres, each of these singular six-string devotees has made the acoustic guitar their key partner in writing the next chapter of Nashville’s story. If there’s a through line to all of these myriad new directions in country and Americana, you can bet it has a spruce top.
Elizabeth Cook: Strumming Upstream, Not Mainstream
It sure looks like a Martin, but it’s not—it’s a handsome blond Lincoln D699, a now-rare, lawsuit-era Japanese Martin copy made in the early 1970s. Although it’s in disrepair now, with “a completely cracked bridge” that she aims to fix, it’s the guitar that Nashville firebrand Elizabeth Cook first remembers. Indeed, even before she first laid eyes on it, Cook felt it. “That’s the guitar my mother played in the honky-tonks while she was pregnant with me,” recalls the Florida native.
Cook, an outspoken, magnetic personality whose critically acclaimed albums—like her latest, 2020’s Aftermath—along with her fun fishing show Upstream on the Circle Network and appearances on David Letterman’s show, have made her a refreshing if unlikely mainstream heroine. “That Lincoln guitar is an absolute horse of a guitar: big, booming, and well-built,” Cook announces, “and it’d have to be, given the alcoholic rages my daddy put it through. But in my embryonic state, my head would have been right up against it, just resonating with that guitar.”
Even before the Butch Walker–produced Aftermath was released to acclaim, Cook was already a seasoned veteran by Nashville standards, having moved to Music City in 1996, landing a coveted if ultimately frustrating publishing deal, and releasing the accomplished Hey Y’all in 2002 and Balls in 2007, with its striking title track, “Sometimes it Takes Balls to Be a Woman.” “Back then there was no Americana Music Association, no [independent entertainment company] 30 Tigers, or anything like that,” Cook recounts. “There were eight major labels, and that was it. There wasn’t much I could latch onto as a young singer-songwriter, but eventually that started to shift, and I guess I stuck around long enough to walk into that somehow.”
When she landed her first publishing deal, Cook also landed her first guitar, or rather, one that wasn’t associated with her past but her future: a new Martin DM dreadnought purchased at the original Lower Broadway location of Gruhn Guitars. “I got the cheapest Martin they had at the time, only $700 or so, but to me it was special. This was the first guitar that wasn’t connected to my family, wasn’t connected to those honky-tonks—not a good scene for a child—or the gospel services at the Sunset Park Church of God, where I’d sing stuff like Dottie Rambo, Vestal Goodman, and the Gaither Gospel Singers. See, music for me had always been about family or religion—for other people. This Martin DM was the guitar for my journey, for the break I had to make in determining what my music would be about.”
And what is her music about? “My stories are about country people,” says Cook, who also plays a Gibson Dwight Yoakam Honky Tonk Deuce, a Fender PM-2 parlor, and a Fender Acoustasonic Stratocaster. “I often say that my perspective is earnest and my experience is rural.” As ebullient as Cook can be, though, there’s a sense of foreboding, dry humor and eventual deliverance evident in songs like “Dyin’” from 2016’s Exodus of Venus, Aftermath’s fingerpicked “Mary, the Submissing Years,” and the ballad “Two Chords and a Lie,” a waltz-feel stunner with drop-dead lines such as, “It’s a friendly reminder of how love is blind/ You might find her buried alive/ With a hand reaching up at your local dive.”
Nevertheless, Cook has accumulated some wisdom about the vulnerability; the open-book quality she brings to nearly all of her hard-lived songs. “Look, once you finally write that song about something painful, or some loss,” she says, “that’s when you begin to feel fortified that you survived it in the first place. There’s this little resurgence of strength, like a cool drink of water. You feel it hit your body, and then it gently fires you up to where you feel like your engine is at least… humming again. That you’re OK—you’re alive.”
Aaron Lee Tasjan: Cosmic Country-Pop, Reincarnated
Drop the needle on Aaron Lee Tasjan’s latest LP, the wide-ranging Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, and you’ll encounter a voice that evokes Roy Orbison’s liquid vibrato, Harry Nilsson’s purity of tone, and Gram Parsons’ sweetness of delivery. The boy sure can sing. Underneath those sharp melodies and timely productions, moreover, are sophisticated chord changes and a deft acoustic guitar technique that pays homage to Travis-picking; folk music from Nick Drake to Nancy Griffith; the acoustic side of T-Rex’s Marc Bolan; the Eagles; fellow Ohio native Tim Easton; and Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.”
Oh, and did we mention… Count Basie? “My first big guitar hero when I was learning to play was Freddie Green from the Basie Band,” says the 34-year-old singer-songwriter, one of East Nashville’s favorite sons and rising stars. “Now, Freddie’s thing was big heavy strings on a Stromberg archtop guitar, and he didn’t even use an amp—he would just lock in with Basie’s drummer, Jo Jones, and the sound was huge.” At just 16, Tasjan took his love of Green’s two- and three-note voicings to the stage at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington Competition, where, on songs like “Warm Valley” and “Rocks in My Bed,” he’d take the prize for Best Instrumentalist. “I think I was the only kid at the whole festival who didn’t take a solo,” Tasjan smiles.
After living in New York City and plying his trade as an electric guitarist with bands like Semi-Precious Weapons and the New York Dolls, Tasjan moved to Nashville in 2013 and began focusing as much on his songwriting skills as his fretboard mastery. His self-released debut album, 2015’s In the Blazes, he explains, was “a conscious move toward country and Americana, because I wanted to make a record that would be relevant for Nashville, which is such a song-based town. But I also wanted to show that I could play that music—basically, to find some work for myself!”
The album hit home for many of Music City’s songwriters and tastemakers, led to a record deal with New West Records, and inspired Tasjan to up his music theory game in the interest of ever more sophisticated progressions. Take, for instance, the lovely C#dim7–E figure that’s central to his song “If Not Now When.” It’s a smart, slinky riff—doubled in a lower register by Tasjan’s gifted guitar accomplice Brian Wright—that evokes ragtime and Robby Krieger in equal measure. But commercial country music, it ain’t.
“A lot of the more popular country music seems to revolve around the IV chord,” Tasjan observes. “Either the verse or the chorus very often starts on the IV, but it always seems to occupy some central role in the song.” Maybe it’s his admiration of bands like King Crimson and Moby Grape, Tasjan offers, that make him look squarely at “the harmonic landscape of the song and ask, ‘What harmonies aren’t being used? Can I do something with that instead?’”
With his Fishman Infinity–loaded, late-’60s Gibson J-40, a 2018 Gibson Hummingbird, and a pair of Loar LH-250s, Tasjan takes those rich chords into the stereo field during his solo shows by splitting his signal through a Strymon Deco Tape Delay pedal and a BOSS DD-6 Delay—one side hits a direct box before going to the front of the house, and the other gets plugged into a Fender Princeton Reverb amp behind Tasjan on stage. He even close-mics the guitar for good measure. That said, his secret for great live tone is really no secret at all.
“I’ve spent years honing my fingerstyle playing to a level where I can incorporate it into my shows with confidence,” says Tasjan, whose Karma for Cheap: Reincarnated LP is perhaps the best place to hear his unadorned acoustic motifs. “So, while I do use Dunlop Tortex picks for certain things,” he tells me, “even a lot of the strumming I do is with the tops of my fingers. I just like the way it sounds—so much softer than with a pick. Also, for some of the older generations of musicians, if you’re not fingerpicking at all during your show, they’re kind of thinking your whole thing could maybe be… bullshit, y’know?”
Lilly Hiatt: Little Guitars, Big Mind, Restless Heart
“The heart of my songwriting process is intimately tied to the acoustic guitar—it’s such a true friend,” says Lilly Hiatt, the literate roots-rocker whose acclaimed albums like 2015’s Royal Blue, 2017’s Trinity Lane, and her latest, Walking Proof, have made her a favorite of roots cognoscenti and indie-rock tastemakers alike. But while she may frequently sport a Rickenbacker 360 these days, Hiatt’s songwriting muse is channeled through two very special acoustic guitars: a 1953 Martin 00-18 (gifted to her by her father, the celebrated songwriter John Hiatt) and a rare 2007 Gibson J-200M, the coveted limited-edition mini J-200 that Gibson only produces in small batches every few years.
“They’re like little jewels,” says Hiatt of both instruments. “I just love smaller guitars, parlor guitars. They’re very warm, and each just has a ton of character; the Martin being the slightly darker of the two.” While tracks like “Everything I Had,” “I Wanna Go Home,” and “Rotterdam” find chiming Rickenbackers and tough Teles weaving through the mix, the backbone and midrange color for the tunes is Hiatt’s driving, rough-and-ready acoustic rhythm hand. “I do go hard on my rhythms,” she laughs. “I like a hard, tight kind of strumming, but I also like a certain looseness where I allow myself to let open strings ring out, even the ‘wrong’ notes sometimes.”
Hiatt opts for Dunlop .73mm Tortex picks—enough give for acoustic strumming, but enough bite for electric bashing. For acoustic strings, she leans on D’Addario EJ16-3D Phosphor Bronze Acoustic Lights (.012–.053). She owes her fondness for the Rickenbacker 360, she says, to her talented lead guitarist John Condit, who first introduced her to that mighty chime factory.
Along with her cherished small-body guitars, Hiatt’s other song-crafting soulmate is the almighty capo, which she uses not just to find the sweet spot in her vocal range but also to change the character of the instrument for fresh inspiration. She places her Kyser capo on the first fret for the moving “The Night David Bowie Died”; on the third fret for Walking Proof’s opener, the sisterly homage “Rae”; and on the fifth fret for “Drawl,” from that same album. “I sing a lower melody on ‘Drawl,’” she explains, “but putting the capo on fret 5 enables me to do that in a place that isn’t quite so low, where my voice is still at home. Capos are incredible tools: They can really change the way you relate to your guitar.”
Still, it’s relating to her subject matter that has ultimately earned her so much affection among fans. Hiatt is direct, not above tossing a few expletives into her songs, and channels her personal struggles into often stirring self-portraits and odes to the foibles of human connection. “I’ve had a lot of ‘a-ha’ moment with songwriting,” she says. “Maybe because it’s in the act of writing lyrics down that you learn how you really feel. Like, I really love this person. Or, I’m really worried about that person.
“Though I can be pretty wordy at times,” she continues, “I love it when really ordinary imagery and language can carry a song, like in ‘Trinity Lane,’ which is just the main street near where I live. That’s me, sitting in my house, observing what’s around—very straightforward. That approach can leave a little more wonder for the listener to set the scene and find the feelings for themselves.”
Jake Workman: Floating With Confidence
Like other virtuoso players his age, before 33-year-old Utah-bred picker Jake Workman turned his focus to the deep fields of bluegrass, he cut his teeth idolizing heavy metal guitarists like Eddie Van Halen, Nuno Bettencourt, Eric Johnson, and Paul Gilbert, and he still counts that generation of players as among his favorites.
The thing is, while it’s one thing to play those blinding shred runs on a thin-necked electric with low action and a set of .09s, it’s quite another to make them sing on an acoustic guitar strung with .13s with high action. So how does he do it?
“I guess I’m just not willing to sacrifice tone for playability,” shrugs the self-effacing guitarist for bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. “My action at the 12th fret is just a hair under 3mm, and yeah, it’s difficult at times, especially if there’s no capo clamping the lower frets. I admit that’s pretty heavy, pretty stiff, but it’s worth it; I just hate a buzzy tone, man.”
With two of the surest—and evidently strongest—hands in the trade, Workman’s tone is both present, singing, and robust, supported by a premium rig that includes two Collings acoustics: a 2007 D1 A V with an Adirondack spruce top and mahogany back and sides, and a D2HAT with an Adi top and Madagascar rosewood back and sides. Each Collings is loaded with a K&K Trinity Pro System and strung with D’Addario EJ17 Mediums (.013–.056). When he’s flatpicking, Workman likes the snug feel of a Blue Chip TP60 or TPR60 pick, along with an Elliott capo, as required.
Check out the 2020 IBMA Bluegrass Guitar Player of the Year as he positively cooks over a quicksilver alchemy of country, bluegrass, Irish rounds, blues, and acoustic rock idioms on his debut solo album, Landmark. “It’s both a landmark for me in my career,” Workman grins, “and an album of songs that were written largely on the road from towns and cities across the world.” It’s while touring, says Workman, that he really dives into his intensive practice regimen. It’s also where gems like the charmed changes of “Charleston to Dublin” were born. “I just spend all my time practicing and writing when I’m on the road,” Workman says. “It’s my chance to really get it done and get that creative and practice time in.”
Get stories like this in your inbox
It sure pays off. Right from Landmark’s barn-burning opener, “Down in the Dirt”—which also features extraordinary fiddle playing by Jake’s wife, Rebekah—Workman’s enviable mastery of bluegrass technique is in evidence, from dizzying alternate bass patterns, crazy crosspicking, Norman Blake–inspired chord transitions, wicked G runs, and, of course, that cascading Steve Kaufman/Tim Stafford-esque “floating” technique.
“A question I get all the time when I give lessons,” posits Jake, “is ‘How do you transition from a lower position to an upper position?’ I mean, you could just jump from one position to another, right? But to smoothly transition, there are two ways for me: either a slide or a float, or a mixture of the two. Floating is when you introduce open strings into your line, sometimes via pull-offs; the idea being not to play the same string twice in a row for that particular run. It’s almost like melodic banjo playing, and it produces this nice, smooth, waterfall effect.”
With a degree in jazz guitar performance from the University of Utah, it’s perhaps not surprising that Workman has an evolved approach to the art of functional harmony. But while you’ll hear an intriguing blend of unexpected chords in his music—from minor v chords to Lydian augmented sounds—Workman is anything but precious about it. “I never think in terms of scales or modes anymore, actually,” he says. “If you want a flatted seventh in your major-leaning song, just use a flatted seventh. Why suddenly picture the whole Mixolydian mode just for one note?
“The question is: what flavors do you want to give this song? And what notes will function in the desired way over a given chord? If you find a way to balance dissonance and resolution in a smart way, you can get away with a lot more than you think. The main thing is to play it with confidence,” Workman concludes. “Even if you play so-called wrong notes, but you play them with confidence and resolve those tensions to the triad, you can absolutely make those notes sound ‘right.’ That’s my golden rule, anyway.”
Lillie Mae: Guitar and Fiddle with Plenty of Punk Pluck
When most of us were still playing with trucks or dolls, Lillie Mae Rische was already toying with the acoustic guitar, strumming the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” and singing its classic chorus of “I wanna go home, let me go home” at the tender age of four. “I just loved that song,” she recalls. “Acoustic was my first instrument, along with piano, and it remains my main songwriting tool. It wasn’t until I was seven that I first picked up the fiddle.”
While the violin is the instrument she may be best known for—especially owing to high-profile touring gigs with the likes of Robert Plant and Jack White—Lillie Mae is a sophisticated guitarist whose songs betray a grasp of technique and music theory she claims is almost entirely unschooled. That said, it’s hard to miss the clever use of half-diminished seventh chords, mixed fingerpicking patterns, and odd-time arpeggio figures that appear on her heartfelt and musically impressive 2018 album, Other Girls.
With production from Dave Cobb, who’s helped transfigure albums by Brandi Carlile, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, Other Girls has an open and roomy sound—think Pink Floyd rocking a gothic square dance. Lillie Mae’s voice is able to command the entire room, even on a Bluetooth speaker.
“I suppose I started fingerpicking because when I was playing the fiddle, I would often pluck the strings with my right hand, especially when I was singing,” says Lillie Mae. As she held the violin bow between her index finger and thumb, Lillie Mae developed a unique picking style based on the middle, ring, and pinky, an approach she still exploits today, often using a filed-down thumbpick for extra definition. “Thumb-middle-index-ring-pinky is one I’ll find myself using,” she notes, “as well as the kinds of patterns you’ll hear in bluegrass music, like the pattern in the Louvin Brothers’ classic ‘Kentucky.’”
Some of Lillie Mae’s favorite fingerstylists include legends Jim Croce and Jerry Reed, and, closer to home, Nashville pickers like Luke Skidmore, as well as her equally gifted guitar-playing brother Frank Carter Rische. Lately, her love of fingerstyle has led Lillie Mae to fall under the spell of harp players like Joanna Newsom and Timbre Cierpke: “I’ve been trying to incorporate that technique into my playing,” she offers. “Making a harp-like sound by working the strings back and forth, a continuous strumming flow without breaking the sound. The thumb, with a thumbpick, and index finger are a big part of that, but you may need to bring the other fingers in as well. I’m dying to get a harp guitar—that would be so cool.”
For Other Girls, Lillie Mae leaned on a clutch of guitars, including her very first acoustic—a 1970s Harmony dreadnought with tuning pegs so tight she tunes the whole thing down a whole step—as well as a Martin D-18V and a Gibson LG with an L.R. Baggs Anthem pickup, loaned to her by Jack White, who produced Other Girls’ fine predecessor, Forever and Then Some.
Lillie Mae prefers medium or heavy D’Addario phosphor bronze strings and heavy Dunlop Tortex picks. As for electronics in her violin—a rare European model from the 1800s strung with D’Addario Helicores—and her guitars, she says it’s got to be L.R. Baggs: “Absolutely L.R. Baggs across the board. Their pickups are just the best.”
Getting back to her penchant for colorful chords, Lillie Mae says it owes to her earliest and most formative musical memories, as part of the Rische family band with her parents and siblings. “With the family band, we were always arranging classic songs so that they’d be different and not just knock-offs,” she says. “From doing that so early on in life, it’s just ingrained in me to try unusual ways of tweaking a chord progression, or just following the melody I hear in my head and adjusting the chords to make sense with that.
“This is why co-writing can be a little challenging for me at times,” she continues. “I’ll be throwing ideas out there, but no one’s biting!”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.