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Kix Brooks and the Hit Men storm Tin Pan South

Mercy Lounge, Nashville, April 2, 2009

Reviewed by Jessica Phillips

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Good songwriters will do whatever it takes to get their songs heard - even if "whatever" is busking on street corners, pushing a demo into the hands of anyone on Music Row or braving torrential wind and rain to play in a club for a small crowd of admirers.

Great songwriters aren't any different; the crowds are just larger.

And so we find five of the best country tunesmiths onstage at the Mercy Lounge during the National Songwriters Association International's annual festival, Tin Pan South. Music Row "Hitmen" Craig Wiseman and Bob DiPiero were joined by half of the superstar duo Brooks & Dunn's Kix Brooks and NSAI president Steve Bogard. Another "Hitmen" member, Jeffrey Steele, performed a set later in the evening.

Heavy wind, rain, and a tornado touchdown in east Nashville kept most of the crowd away and left the 500-seat capacity hall half-empty. Several audience members (including this writer) were only able to make the second half of the show.

Brooks and Wiseman passed off jokes and stories while Bogard and DiPiero let their music do most of the talking. Brooks offered You Can't Take the Honkytonk Out of the Girl and their number one single from 1994, You're Gonna Miss Me , while Bogard played laid-back versions of his hits for Dierks Bentley, (Every Mile a Memory ) and Jack Ingram (Wherever You Are).

Wiseman offered a pair of hits for Tim McGraw, the intriguing Cowboy in Me and the mega-hit closer, Live Like You Were Dying. "Tim had an incident involving a horse awhile back. He heard the first line of this song and lucky for me he liked it," joked Wiseman (the first line is, "I don't know why I act the way I do/like I ain't got a single thing to lose").

Around 9:30 p.m., with the rain and tornado threats all but gone, people began to pack out the place for Steele. The talented singer-songwriter-guitar player easily had enough personality and charisma to hold his own as he ripped through a two-hour long set comprised of songs recorded by Rascal Flatts, Faith Hill, Phil Vassar and Montgomery Gentry.

He started off with a few songs off his recent "Hell on Wheels" album, including Scratch Me Where I'm Itchin' and Your Tears are Comin' ; the enthusiastic crowd sang along as if these had been radio singles, even holding up their drinks for his rendition of Drunk Girl.

While his guitar playing sounded a bit choppy at times, his voice powerfully and beautifully mixed country with elements of soul, rock and even jazz. The most startling thing about Steele's singing is the vocal chord-bursting passion he sings with. Listen to Rascal Flatts' version of What Hurts the Most or Faith Hill's When the Lights Go Down; each sounds downright bland and soulless compared to Steele's raw and fervent version - that's how these songs were meant to be sung.

Not that Steele is all pain and anguish, but even his fun side has plenty of attitude; after throwing in a cover of Led Zepplin's A Whole Lotta Love to show off his rock n' roll knowledge, he segued into the sing-song Love is a Beautiful Thing (a hit for Phil Vassar), the fun I Got a Brand New Girlfriend, and the Montgomery Gentry kiss-off Gone. Each song had the crowd sing along loudly - so Steele stepped back and let them sing, accompanying the crowd on guitar, and sometimes taking over the verses.

Later in the set, he brought out the Lo-Cash Cowboys to join him onstage. Not coincidentally, Steele produced their first album. The duo didn't impress as much with their onstage antics (a little bit like Michael Jackson in a cowboy hat) as they did with their vocals.

The lineup of great hits by these singer-songwriters made it easy to forget the reality of rain and bad whether - just like a good song is supposed to do.