Photo by Madison Hurley

Autographs and pictures aren’t my motivation. They aren’t bad things. There’s no slight intended. When going to a concert at a smaller venue, where the odds are higher to meet someone who’s spent immeasurable time writing music, practicing music, and driving to perform said music, I’ll sometimes try and meet the artists to thank them for putting on an unforgettable performance.

Willi Carlisle and his band had that kind of show.

Friday, Carlisle played a sold out “happy hour” show at Rumba Cafe. Starting at the peculiarly early time of 5:45 pm, supporting act Golden Shoals, led by duo Amy Alvey and Mark Kilanski, kicked the night off with their Old-Style/bluegrass music, rooted in a modern lyrical focus. Tackling that early might-still-be-office-hours start time, Kilanski gave good advice for people torn: “just quit.”

Listening to Alvey and Kilanski, you wouldn’t know that there’s a short 2,500-mile trip between their Vancouver and Tennessee residences. The pair’s on-stage chemistry’s built over 10 years of playing together.

The duo played songs from their 2020 self-titled LP. Songs like “Everybody’s Singing,” which included a challenge to the audience to find seven country song lyrics embedded in the track. Also, Golden Shoals included a few new songs that the band will record this month.

Included in upcoming recording is 2023 single “Bitter,” co-written by Alvey and fellow folk musician Rachel Baiman. Alvey and Baiman both play the fiddle and have long brunette hair, causing some to think they’re the same person.

“Bitter” is about being in the music industry, especially focusing on Spotify. Before playing, Alves shares their motivation: How Spotify fired employees, pay artists less and stopped paying at all if a song misses play minimums. All that on top of Spotify CEO Daniel Ek telling musicians to make music more frequently. The song shares the struggle of trying to make it in a streaming “playlist” culture.

“Rolling Stone said that I would go far, but the dog still needs feeding and with ends hardly meeting, stuck counting on my lucky stars. Now I’m bitter. Bitter as they come.”

Baiman has a version of the same song on her March 31, 2023 release Common Nation of Sorrow. Along with the new track were actual bitters for sale at the Golden Shoal’s merch table, offering fans to not only listen but taste the song itself.

On the original idea of leaving work behind, unreleased track “Five-Day Weekend” was a crowd favorite. The track is exactly what it sounds like, forgetting a two, three or four-day weekend in favor of five days of work. Unless they’re on vacation, Kilanski adds.

Before Carlisle and his band took stage, a thought running through my head was the concert immediately following his own. That night, a yacht rock cover band had an advertised start time of 8:30 p.m., with doors opening at 8:00 p.m. I did the math, thank you anxiety, and I expected close to an hour of music.

Around 7:00 p.m., Carlisle walked out alone with the top of the north of six-feet tall Arkansan’s hat almost touching the safety padding on the support beam that cuts Rumba Café’s ceiling in half. By the end of one of Carlisle’s story-driven tales “What the Rocks Don’t Know,” fiddle player Sophie Wellington and guitarist Grady Drugg joined Carlisle on stage for the start of a set going beyond the scheduled 8:30 yacht rock ship departure.

Playing in front of a themed backdrop based on the Jan. 26. 2024 “Critterland” release, Carlisle and company played over 20 songs stretching from throughout his catalog. The selections stretched the emotional spectrum of his folk and country styling. Between songs, lifting his hat in appreciation, switching guitar to banjo, and telling either background or stories behind the musical narratives. Included in the stories was his last trip to Columbus that featured a bullet going through the wall of his AirBnB, not believed to be for Carlisle and his fellow tour road warriors, cultural appropriation in Sweden and more.

Carlisle balanced performing his music with a comedic stage presence that kept the crowd that went from the bar to wall and stage to the entrance captivated.

Playing through the first half of the set, Wellington combined fiddle playing with flat footing on a wooden board while Drugg brought the lone electric guitar of the evening, swapping with Carlisle when the front man picked up the banjo. Nearly halfway through is when Carlisle began hinting at a sing-along part of the night. Before he got there though, he ripped out hearts.

“The Arrangements,” a song about bad fathers that starts with the line “He was dead inside my head long before he died/so making the arrangements felt natural, felt nice.”

Full disclosure, I didn’t know Carlisle existed until a week before the concert. I grew up in a pop country house featuring a heavy rotation of Alan Jackson and Garth Brooks, mixed with classic rock and dysfunction. Last year, alt-country bands like Wednesday and Florry grabbed my musical attention, with a southern music historian like Nick Shoulders joining the fold with his release “All Bad.”

To start 2024, focus took a sharp turn towards the growing indie country movement. Desiree Cannon’s “Beach Sleeper” grabbed my attention. I’m mad at myself for not hearing Pearla’s 2023 “Oh Glistening Onion, The Nighttime Is Coming” until January. On a weekly basis, I get lost in The Lostines.

The first time I heard the closing of “The Arrangements.” Carlisle closes with “I’m my own father now.” I had to start the song all over again to experience it for a second time. Then a third time, fourth time, you get it.

All night, songs that already featured recordings full of emotion grew with Carlisle and his band. “The Arrangements,” a song that Carlisle shares with the crowd afterwards as an awkward one to share with his quite alive dad, leapt off the stage into anyone who cared to listen.

That song was a springboard into the final half of the night, including a solo moment between Carlisle and the crowd. On the LP version of “Critterland,” Carlisle tells the story of a northern hippy who moves to Arkansas with the not-so-revolutionary idea of beginning to grow and sell weed. That Michigan native turned Arkansan begins working with corrupt Sheriff Ralph Baker.

I’m baffled as this true story comes alive, for two reasons. First, Carlisle remembers every single word of the song. Better yet, the added emotion of performing it live makes it feel like Carlisle is David Mac himself.

When Drugg and Wellington return to the stage, Carlisle politely asked everyone to put away their phones for the next part, while Drugg takes a displayed scroll from the side of the stage to the front, and the lights in the venue began lowering. Wellington sits on the floor, crocheting, as Carlisle picks up a concertina and goes into “Two Headed Lamb.”

Not to give the whole experience away, the song gets new life that I didn’t pick up on listening to the recorded version. While I was watching Carlisle play, a story unfolding visually and audibly, my mind went to Tom Waits. Maybe it was because of the accordion or the tale of a disfigured creature who doesn’t survive too long in the world, but it was a moment that honestly defined the night for me. A moment of somebody going beyond writing music for people and sharing it but making a lasting impact.

Carlisle used his platform to encourage people to make music of their own, creating their own platforms. Before the set ended, not bothered at all by the time, Carlisle shared two vastly different tones of a similar story. “Cheap Cocaine,” a story Carlisle said came mainly from his cell phone texts to his mom after an arrest, came first.

Between songs, Carlisle shared a story about “Cheap Cocaine.” After opening for fellow country artist Sierra Ferrell, a concertgoer asked about the song. The concertgoer wondered who he was covering.

Quick sidebar, that was the second time Ferrell came up that night. Golden Shoals referenced the country singer in an upcoming song.

That interaction promoted the next song, “When the Pills Wear Off.” Carlisle admitted he himself wasn’t an addict. However, he confessed his own co-dependency struggles with addicted friends, some having lost their lives.

“So selfish to fall for yourself in someone. I know that I want him and always will. I don’t think he could have known that it was fentanyl but the only time I get these guilty thoughts is when the pills wear off.”

That hard truth wasn’t how Carlisle left things. The final two songs, from the sophomore “Peculiar, Missouri” LP, brought the vibe of the crowd towards acceptance and action. “Your Heart’s a Big Tent,” featuring Wellington and Drugg holding up cloth signs with the sing-along components. Ending the evening with a bit of advice before “I Won’t Be Afraid:”

“Singing together isn’t solidarity, but it’s a start.”

After the concert, after buying records to catch up on what I’ve missed, I wanted to thank Carlisle. Also, I didn’t want to bring him down with another dead dad story, which I’m sure “The Arrangement” has brought him many. Instead, I simply wanted to show appreciation for the creation and publicly sharing his craft.

Due to my own life’s story, I couldn’t stick around to share those thoughts while groups of 50/60-year olds filed in for a night of Steely Dan covers. Make sure you see Carlisle, and the Golden Shoals. You won’t regret it and they may even sign a record or join you for a selfie.