Aaron Benward pulled a slip of paper out of a white cowboy hat. “Here’s a good one,” he roared, and read it aloud. “‘Let Me Wipe the Grass off Your Balls!’”
“Must be a golfer!” chuckled his co-host, singer Brian McComas, who’s best known for his Billboard Top 10 song “99.9% Sure (I’ve Never Been Here Before).” The submission forms for “Songs From a Hat” had been scattered throughout Green Valley Ranch’s 500-seat showroom before the show had started. And fans had been running to the stage and tossing their entries into the hat ever since. Sometimes, they showed each other their song-title suggestions, snickering and nudging each other in the ribs—they’d been here before; they knew the routine.
“What about ‘Slap a Hoe and Go,’ or ‘Open Up Your Barn Door and Let Me Air You Out”? Benward, formerly of the hit country duo Blue County, was on a roll.
Several 10-gallon hats waved in approval as the audience whooped it up wildly, almost drowning out the good-humored exchanges between the musicians onstage. It was all part of the July 29 second anniversary of Nashville Unplugged: The Story Behind the Song, a songwriters night that’s billed as bringing “Nashville’s infamous Bluebird Café to Las Vegas.”
Taking their cue from VH1’s Storytellers and Unplugged, creators Benward, 37, and McComas, 39, aim for an intimate synergy with the audience. They offer an appealing mix of their own material, special guest songwriters, songwriting anecdotes, musings on the craft and some self-deprecating wisecracks about the business. Not to mention “Songs From a Hat,” where the musicians write and perform a song based on one lucky audience member’s title suggestion.
“I was a fan of The Mac Davis Show [1974-76] as a kid,” McComas said after the show. “And Mac would do something that I called hillbilly free verse, where fans would shout lyrical ideas and he would just incorporate them into some melody. I had a feeling it would go over well. Man, the titles they come up with.”
(The winner of that night’s contest was “Mama Liked to Shoot Wild Turkey.”) Benward and McComas had already been performing at Station Casinos as solo artists when they developed the show concept. “When our company, Empire Productions, approached [Station Casinos’ VP of Entertainment] Judy Alberti, we felt good because Judy is open to new ideas and once she gets behind a concept, she gives full support all the way.”
Based on the near-capacity room and the robust audience involvement, locals seem to be embracing the show’s unique format, which has an appeal that transcends the twang of country music. “We’re not just attracting country music fans, but fans of good songwriting,” McComas says. “They’re very sophisticated here, not to mention loyal.”
Guest stars of the July 29 show included Dean Sams, keyboardist and writer for Lonestar, and Ashley Hewett, a popular past contestant on NBC’s Nashville Star. They peppered the proceedings with strong performances and funny wisecracks (Sams shouted a request for “Crown and Coke” that was soon granted). The show’s purpose hit home when Sams read two of Lonestar’s hits, “Walking in Memphis” and “Amazed.” Cleansed of production gloss, his plaintive, effective delivery highlighted the material’s purity and revealed a richer context to the songs.
“We don’t let [guests] get too comfortable backstage.” McComas says. “We want the looseness, that spontaneity and the awkward moments, because that’s real. Anything else that’s too rehearsed works against the concept.”
“We don’t practice before we shoot, and that’s what makes it fun,” Benward adds. “Our guests are such skilled musicians, that they can pull off improvisation like it’s nothing. I can start playing some chord progressions and all of a sudden, someone jumps in and everything starts to click.”
Between the improvisation and the audience interaction, Nashville Unplugged feels less like a Vegas show and more like an Appalachian hootenanny on your country uncle’s back porch. All that’s missing are the crickets and the apple brown betty. And just like family, audience members casually approach the musicians after the show and share photos.
It’s all reflective of a synergy that cannot be contrived, one that has resulted in Nashville Unplugged’s popularity. The show is expanding from two to four nights a month in Vegas. Additionally, Benward and McComas have taken it to five new cities, including Reno and Seattle. Our famously flighty Las Vegas locals can take a bow because their interest in Nashville Unplugged has helped reverse the Everywhere Else-to-Vegas cultural flow.
“The loyalty from the music audience here is impressive,” Benward says. “We see at our shows a consistent fan base. … It’s pretty humbling.”