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The Milk Carton Kids Were Made for the Ryman Auditorium

Updated: Feb 13

You know you’re going to hear beautiful music at a Milk Carton Kids show. But there is trepidation when they are the headliner. A small dose is breathtaking. But a two-hour show of just two guys and their acoustic guitars singing plaintive harmonies? (Nervous smile emoji.)


They pulled it off at the Ryman Auditorium with a combination of musical guests, their trademark dry humor, and the fact that when they sing, everything stops.


Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale are most often compared to Simon and Garfunkel. But I’d throw in the Everly Brothers as well, with at least a helping of Tommy and Dick Smothers.


They are musical purists, with a sound and style that seems made for the Ryman’s long history and rich acoustics. Look up pictures from the Ryman’s days hosting the Grand Ole Opry, and you’ll see the likes of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson singing in front of the single WSM microphone, like the Milk Carton Kids.


That Ryan and Pattengale play acoustic instruments is not unusual. But most modern acoustic performers plug their instruments to an amplifier in rooms of any size. There’s only one wire on the stage at a Milk Carton Kids concert – a single cable attached to an old-fashioned looking microphone. (It’s actually an Ear Trumpet Labs Edwina Condenser mic.) It means they have to stand in close to sing and play together, and the result is a clean sound that emerges all together rather than relying on someone getting the various levels right.

They are also known for playing vintage guitars - Ryan plays a 1951 Gibson J-45, and Pattengale plays a 1954 Marton 0-15. (I was curious about Pattengale's handkerchief on the neck, so I looked it up. He ties it above the capo to avoid fret buzz.)

Their between-song banter is an essential part of the show, with Ryan leading the way. At the Ryman he noted that the band was nominated for a Grammy this year, which drew applause. Then he noted that it was their third nomination, and that this year they likely will get even better at saying: "It's an honor just to be nominated." This drew a laugh, whereupon Ryan noted that something new this year was they had "the opportunity to lose to Joni Mitchell, which is something." You get the idea.


Our favorite Milk Carton Kids song is “Michigan,” which is also probably the closest thing they have to a hit. It’s a painful look back at a relationship.


“Michigan's in the rearview now

Keep your hands where I can see them

You took the words right out of my mouth

When you knew that I would need them

What am I supposed to do now

Without you

Without you”


Another highlight of the show was when they brought out Alix Page, one of their warm-up acts and a young singer who seems to have a bright future.


“It seems only fitting at the Ryman to sing a John Prine song,” Ryan said as she walked on.


Any mention of Prine gets applause in Nashville. And it struck a particular chord with us, since we last saw them in Chicago in 2018, opening for him. It was the last time we saw Prine, who died of Covid in 2020, and I didn’t know what to expect from him. He had been battling cancer in his throat for years, and I also hadn’t heard his new album, “The Tree of Forgiveness.” That night was one of the best concerts I have ever seen. (Of course YouTube has a video from it - Prine's "Paradise," his trademark show-ender. Ryan and Pattengale join him onstage.)


At our show, they sang harmony while Page took the lead on Prine's “Summer’s End.”


Another highlight was a guest appearance by Grammy winner Joy Williams. They sang one of her new songs, "The Trouble with Wanting."

Both Ryan and Pattengale made it clear that playing at the Ryman as a headliner was the high point of their career. It was also the end of their current tour, and the show had the feel of a culmination.


Pattengale gave a long introduction to the last song of the show, which is also the last song on their newest album, “I Only See the Moon.” The band has been playing together since 2011, and he described their career arc like that of a couple's relationship, with its ups and downs. The last album was hard work, and felt unfinished even though they had none songs. That's when Ryan wrote "Will You Remember Me," which Pattengale described as "perfect."


Before he began the song, Ryan stepped up and talked seriously about the difficulty of leaving a family behind for life on the road. He dedicated the song to his wife, who was in the audience, and choked up before the first verse ended, asking to start again. With the trademark Joey Ryan humor, he then rededicated the song “to wives everywhere,” as if that might help him get through it without a tear.


“You kissed my hand, leaned over, said let's call it a night

Twice a day even a broken clock's bound to be right

I followed you inside, watched as you turned out the light

I'd never loved anyone so bad I'd put up a fight

You're always forgetting everything you've done in your life

You say I won't remember this morning by tonight

But I remember you smiled at me one time in the rising moonlight

I never saw anything wider, or shining so bright

Will you remember me?

When we were young?

When we had nothing?

When we had nowhere to be?

Will you remember me?”

They walked off the stage like a band that was ready for a rest - good friends who maybe needed a little time apart.

"I wonder," I said to Mary, "if we saw the last Milk Carton Kids show."

Let's hope not.


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