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⚡️ REVIEW: They're pickin' and the audience is a'grinnin'

Eric Scott Anthony sings Dwight Yoakam's 'Turn It On, Turn Me Loose' in 'Pickin' and a Grinnin'' Eric Scott Anthony sings Dwight Yoakam's 'Turn It On, Turn Me Loose' in 'Pickin' and a Grinnin''

I thought I knew what to expect when I sat down for “Pickin’ and a Grinnin’” Saturday night at the Flat Rock Playhouse.
The title suggested to me plenty of banjo and fiddle, lots of country twang and some cornball country laughs a la “Hee Haw.” I was only half right.
There’s plenty of fiddle, lots of country twang and plenty of grinnin’, for sure, as in, every time the inimitable Nat Zegree opened his mouth. But there’s no banjo at all and the closest we get to bluegrass is Alabama’s “Mountain Music” and the genre’s classic, “Rockytop.”
“Pickin’ and a Grinnin’” is better described as classic country revue, with the appropriate visual cue on the mic stands of the Flat Rock Playhouse Opry, mimicking the Grand Ol Opry, the granddaddy of all country stages.
And grand it is.
Co-created by Eric Scott Anthony and Ben Hope, the show is a 2-hour-and-20 minute feast of hits ranging from country’s early days (Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” Elvis’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) to the ‘80s.
Broken up into five acts — really categories— the show brings us Honky Tonkers, Heart Breakers, Love Makers, Songwriters and Outliers and features tributes to 29 performers and their best known or at least better known hits.

If I could feature only one George Strait song it would be “The Chair,” though Anthony and Hope opted for the jauntier “Unwound.” It was an odd choice, too, to cover Emmy Lou Harris’s version of Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town” in the second song of the night, given that Emmy Lou recorded many better known hits and that “Guitar Town” is Steve Earle’s signature record. These are quibbles, though, in a critique of a performance that builds with energy and affection right up to a crescendo of an encore that has patrons hootin’, hollerin’ and stamping their feet. (More on that later.)
Go ahead and toss out your favorite country artists from the Fifties through the Eighties and I’ll tell you whether they’re on stage at the Playhouse. Yep, they’re there. You’ve got George Jones — OK, one last quibble, “She Thinks I Still Care” instead of “The Race is On” — Travis Tritt, Vince Gill, Carrie Underwood, The Judds, Clink Black, Ronnie Milsap, June Carter and Johnny Cash, Randy Travis, Allison Krauss, Diamond Rio, Moon Mullican (huh? Thought I knew ’em all), Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, The Eagles, Alabama. Skeeter Davis and Jerry Lee Lewis.
You don’t have to love country to like this show but if you love country you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. And if you think you don’t know country well enough to get into it, that doesn’t matter either. Most of these songs have been in the cultural bloodstream so long you’ll surprise yourself by humming along and singing the refrain.
The eight musicians cover them all, with three (or more) guitars, Sarah Hund’s fiddle, Paul Babelay on drums and the marvelous Russ Weaver on the essential pedal steel, proving that while you can do a fantastic country show without banjo, you gotta have pedal steel. (I know, I know, Alabama says “If you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the band,” but we were in North Carolina and besides, they had a fiddle.)
Ms. Hund and Katie Barton Hope do a terrific job covering the female greats of country, giving their best shot at the high-level challenges of Dolly’s “Jolene” and Winona Judd’s “Why Not Me.” Similarly, Hope, Eric Scott Anthony and Zegree pay wonderful tribute to the male stars, even when faced with the unmatchable voices of Vince Gill, Hank and Johnny Cash (“like a voice from the middle of the earth” as Dylan put it). But that’s the thing about these singer-musicians. They don’t try to be the country stars they're honoring. They celebrate them by covering their songs with grace and humility and often jubilation.

On a raised platform behind the piano, Nat Zegree is a constant threat to break into some zaniness. The band interrupts his impromptu comic bits. (At Saturday night’s show, when he finally gets to tell his joke, he blows the lead-in, making it somehow all the more jolly.) Twelve songs in, Nat was brandishing a third instrument, this time a tenor saxophone, after banging on the piano and strumming a rhythm guitar. The only staging I would change would be to angle his piano so the audience can see him punishing the keys in the show-stopping finale, “Great Balls of Fire.” Oh, what a Nat!
But wait, there’s more!
The nine-minute encore alone is worth the price of admission. A lightning round of upbeat and fun hits opens with Alabama’s “Mountain Music” (we’re in the mountains, right?) and rips through eight more mega-hits that had the whole crowd stompin’ and hollerin’. I won’t give them all away but — mini-spoiler alert — they’re from stars you know: Willie, Waylon, Tammy, Dolly, Acuff, Garth.
They brought down the barn on Saturday night. There was plenty of grinnin’ as the last twangy note faded into the October sky and the grin stayed with us all the way home.