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A Lively Musical Conversation - Rachael Davis, Valerie June, Yasmin Williams, and Thao

As we walked in the door of the CMA Theatre in downtown Nashville, we could hear the crowds screaming about a block away. The big stars were arriving on the red carpet in front of the Bridgestone Arena, where the Country Music Awards were being held. Our show was a lot less sparkly, which was fine with us.

To locals it looked like another songwriter’s “in the row” event, with chairs and microphones set up for the four pros to go down the line, each sharing songs they’d written for other artists – like the people across the street at the CMA awards.

But Valerie June, Rachael Davis, Thao, and Yasmin Williams are established - if less-known - recording artists with powerful voices of their own. They met when they performed together at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival last year. And Davis said the combination of the audience response and the fun they had playing together, along with the enthusiasm of a promoter, lead them to take the show on the road. The result was breathtaking array of song-styles and talent, laid on a foundation of instrumental virtuosity and passionate singing.

Rachael Davis is the most traditional player on the bill, offering old-timey, folksy songs on the banjo. I associate songs like hers with the thin, reedy tones of most Appalachian singers. Davis has a hint of that quality, but with an extra dose of power in her voice. The result is simple songs that occasionally soar.

Valerie June is a Grammy-nominated artist from Tennessee, with a Minnie Pearl-meets-Rita Marley stage presence. The juxtaposition between her soft, gentle, pre-song banter and her sharp, bluesy style, give the songs a jolt. She makes you want to hear more.

Yasmin Williams first threw us a curveball when she talked about learning her percussive guitar style when she was 12-years old and mastering the Guitar Hero video game. Her lively instrumentals, on both banjo and guitar, reveal a talent that’s gone far beyond the toy. She uses a number of techniques, from alternative tuning to lap tapping to percussive hits, to create a fresh, exciting sound.

Thao – her given name is Th o Nguy n – is the most seasoned performer on the bill, having been a touring musician for many years. Her searing rendition of “The Temple” took our collective breath away. Her mother was a refugee from the Vietnam War, and the song tells the story of revisiting the country years after the war ended.

Nashville usually turns out for top-notch musical talent. But this show was unfortunately up against the CMA Awards, which were so close that the streets in front of the theatre were literally closed to traffic. Our crowd was small but very enthusiastic.

Here’s hoping the crowds are bigger in upcoming cities on the tour, including Chicago.

Date: Nov. 8, 2023

Venue: CMA Theatre, Nashville

ENQ Mini-review: We wish we'd known about these women sooner, and will seek them out in the future. Unique and powerful voices.

(Editor's note about the variable quality of our pictures: We try to take decent photos at the events we attend. But we don't want to be "those people" who are constantly holding up their phones at shows. We snap one or two, then put away the device so we can more fully enjoy the moment.)

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