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HI: 78.6 LOW: 51.8
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Jason Petty strides onto the stage of the Flat Rock Playhouse looking like Faron Young and sounding like Willie Nelson.
He’s “On the Road Again,” with co-star Gail Bliss, in Classic Nashville Roadshow, a rousing run through the iconic hits of country music, delivered through Petty’s versatile vocals and Bliss’s covers of the biggest female stars, plus Willie Nelson. (Last weekend Bliss performed as stand-in for Katie Deal, who’s back on stage for the final performances through Saturday.)
Willie Nelson becomes a running gag for Petty and Bliss. She loves Willie Nelson. Petty can’t help but making jokes about Willie’s age, his affinity for pot or his trouble with the IRS. Willie received a medal for his contributions from the president — George Washington, Petty jokes.
If the jokes are groaners, the music is serious and, as advertised, real country.
We get narration between songs and some surprising details of the performers who made the most lasting impact on country music from its roots to the Seventies. We learn that those gaudy rhinestone-covered suits favored by Porter Waggoner and other crooners were called Nudie suits, for Nudie Cohn, a Ukrainian-born designer whose birth name was Nuta Kotlyarenko.
We learn that Roy Acuff was a gifted baseball player whose career was cut short when he suffered a heatstroke on the diamond. Recuperating at home, he picked up a fiddle and the rest is the “Wabash Cannonball” and other hits from the King of Country Music. On that familiar song and lots more, Petty comes very close to matching the tone and style of the original artists, channeling Acuff, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller and yes, even George Jones.
If they were not the originally cast co-stars, Petty and Bliss reveal no lack of rapport in their duets, delivered in a spirited and fun way. They team up on a call and response, with Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life” answered by Kitty Wells, the female trailblazer, in “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” Petty and the tight Nashville band behind him crank up the theater with the foot-stompin’ “If You Got the Money” from the Lefty Frizzell discography.
Both singers are equal to the biggest challenges on the bill — Bliss singing a Patsy Cline medley, Loretta Lynn’s “Coalminer’s Daughter” and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man,” and Petty conjuring Merle Haggard in “Momma Tried” and Miller in “King of the Road.” In “Tiger By the Tail,” the Tennessee native matches the distinctive long i of Buck Owens. We know Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is on the song list and any fan of country music is just itching to see how Petty sounds on what many regard as the best country song of all time. He does it justice, hitting the Possum’s notes with impressive vocal reach.
The singers keep it light through most of the show. Bliss does a turn as her fave Willie Nelson and has fun reviving one of Nashville’s sharpest social commentaries, Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA.” Petty tells the stories of “all your radio heroes,” as the song says, and, on Saturday, adlibbed a bunch of cracks about the snow forecast. “Go buy some bread!” he admonishes. “No one eats bread until the first flake of snow. Then we go out and buy six loaves.”
The Nashville band is a huge contributor to the show’s success. The gifted and versatile Eric Lewis plays pedal steel and lead guitars, joined by the expressive Steve Sensenig on piano and keyboards, Mark Baczynski on fiddle and guitar, DB Woolbright on drums and Jimmy Sullivan on bass.
The set features images of the iconic arched windows of the historic Ryman Auditorium and signs for Nashville country music shrines Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop (though, a bit surprisingly, the Texas Troubador’s “I’m Walking the Floor Over You” doesn’t make the cut in this show).
Petty and Bliss end the show with George Jones again, who in 1985 asked, most fittingly, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”
Who’s gonna fill their shoes?
Who’s gonna stand that tall?
Who’s gonna play the Opry
And the Wabash Cannonball?
Who’s gonna give their heart and soul
To get to me and you?
Lord I wonder, who’s gonna fill their shoes?
Petty and Bliss have just spent the past hour and a half answering the question.
They’re big shoes to fill, to be sure. Thanks to the singers’ heart-and-soul effort, we walk out of the old barn confident that classic country is alive and well.