by Jordan Green
The billing for the free Saturday-night-before-Christmas show in a storefront in the Winston-Salem Arts District mentions only the three songwriter-stylists anchoring the concert: Stephen Corbett, Richard Boyd and Dan Dockery.
But the semi-annual event has come to be known as the “holiday hootenanny” or “honky-tonk Christmas” show. And hootenanny is a good word for an event that’s less a showcase for talent than an informal gathering of friends, with ample opportunity for guest duets and instrumental assistance, and an expectation that there will be plenty of flubs. There’s tremendous mutual respect among the musicians, including singer Emily Stewart and harmonica player Danie “Big Hope” Jones. The venue shall go unnamed to prevent certain music-industry vultures from exacting their infernal tribute.
Seated in a chair in a faded flannel shirt and engineer cap on the corner of the makeshift stage in the storefront establishment, Richard Boyd is the éminence grise of this scene. Todd Eric Verts, who plays clean, Bakersfield-style honky-tonk on a Canadian-made, hollow-body Godin guitar, has been practicing Boyd’s material in preparation for the opportunity to accompany one of his heroes.
After Corbett makes an entrance in a shiny black suit with swooping line detail, Boyd summons him to the stage. Corbett gives him a quizzical look.
“Your name is Stephen, and you do sing, don’t you?” Boyd deadpans.
After a quick huddle, Boyd says, “I’ll be Merle, you be George.”
The first verse of “Yesterday’s Wine” runs into the ground when Boyd finds himself out of his vocal register.
“You pick a key, and we’ll go with it,” Corbett says.
Later, on another vocal duet of the George Jones classic “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Corbett steps back from the mic after singing his line with a huge smile on his face that could be mortification or exhilaration. Each in their own way, they toy with the lyrics of a song that has become the stylistic signature of the genre since its release in 1980.
When Boyd delivers the line, “This time he’s over her for good,” Corbett quips, “Or is he?”
Before Boyd retires from the stage, he delivers a heartfelt rendition of the lead track of his band the Bo-Stevens’ most recent album, Your Crazy Heart. As Boyd sings, “Your crazy heart is killing me, your crazy heart is thrilling me,” the seasoned owner of the establishment can be seen leaning in to kiss his wife, as the two sit on folding chairs near the door and in front of a Santa Claus mannequin.
Corbett and Verts have been recording together over the past year or so under the name Stephen Corbett & the Three Fifths, with a pending album called Debris, although they haven’t rehearsed or played live much in advance of this performance.
Corbett’s set focuses squarely on his own material — a fairly deep catalogue that reaches back at least a decade. He mixes newer songs, including one called “Rest Assured, It’s Probably My Fault” that was inspired by a conversation with his friend, the honky-tonk artist John Howie Jr., with material recorded with the Radials before his departure from the group.
With Verts’ able accompaniment on lead guitar, many of Corbett’s songs match the relaxed pacing of Waylon Jennings during from the early ’70s outlaw-country golden age with a vocal style inspired by George Jones’ emotionally wounded warble.
In keeping with the spirit of familial fun at the gathering, Corbett name-drops his girlfriend, who’s watching from the back of the room, in a lyrical substitution.
“I see Erin coming, she’s got a hammer, Lord, she’s got a nail,” he sings. “That woman studies evil, she’s looking….” And then, for comic effect and to save his ass, he ad-libs in a meek voice: “… Really nice.”
Danny Dockery, a longtime songwriter and journeyman musician, closes the night with a set of finely curated original songs. A natural storyteller, his banter between songs is almost as enriching as his music. His stories ache with flawed humanity, frank honesty and humor, belying the exquisite craft and lyrical economy of his music.
“All This Missing You,” with its forlorn image of a single cup beside the coffeemaker, is the mature testament of a seasoned soul stirrer. The cocky wordplay and sinewy rhythm of “Superman” projects a country R&B sound that Delbert McClinton could easily inhabit, while the foreboding minor-key tonality of “Lying Still” tells a story of murder from the perspective of a jilted lover.
Introducing “Heartbreak in G, C and D,” the one song in his set that fits the honky-tonk idiom, Dockery pays a compliment to his fellow troubadours.
“I love country music,” he says. “I think it’s the last honest soul music around these parts…. It’s about real life. That’s what you get with Richard Boyd and Stephen Corbett.”
There’s a kind of secular, or at least ecumenical spirituality in Dockery’s message — a gospel based on country songwriter Harlan Howard’s axiom about “three chords and the truth,” if you will.
Introducing a song about unconsummated sexual attraction, Dockery preaches, “You never know who your next dance partner’s gonna be. You never know who’s gonna be your next friend. You never know who you’re gonna need to depend on in life. So before you leave here tonight, turn to your neighbor and give one another a hug. Shake someone’s hand. It is Christmas, after all.”