The anniversary tour, in which artists perform a popular or seminal work start to finish, has become a solid moneymaker for musicians over the past decade. For the artists, who’ve seen the industry implode due to downloads and streaming that pays pennies on the dollar, it is a drawing card in a clouded and crowded marketplace increasingly reliant on ticket and merchandise sales to make a living.
This week alone, three such tours are crossing through the Washington, D.C. area. First was Dave Alvin, revisiting the acoustic “King of California” on Tuesday at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va. The next night, Lori McKenna kicked off her “Return to Bittertown” tour in our nation’s capital. And on Saturday night, Hootie and the Blowfish will continue their 25th anniversary tour of “Cracked Rear View” at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow.
While every anniversary show is an opportunity for nostalgia, allowing the artist and audience to relive a moment in time, the best ones also provide us with insight into the creative process thanks to between song stories and anecdotes.
The cumulative album sales from both Alvin and McKenna still don’t come near those of “Cracked Rear View,” but in low-key and intimate settings in small clubs, both artists showed why they are two of the best songwriters working today. And the albums they played from start to finish were, for both, game changers.
Somewhat ironically, “King of California” and “Bittertown” were the fourth albums for both Alvin, who had gone solo after co-founding The Blasters, and McKenna, who was at the time pregnant with her fifth child.
For the first 15 years of his career, Alvin was known for smoking guitar work and ability to cross genres with groups such as The Blasters, X, and The Knitters, and as a solo artist. Released in 1994, “King of California” remains a stunning and evocative disc, one that allowed Alvin to recast and reinterpret several of his songs (along with a few well-chosen covers) in a stripped-down acoustic setting. On Tuesday, multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz, who produced "King of California" and other Alvin releases, provided lovely support, as did Christy McWilson on vocals.
Ten years later and three days before her now 15-year-old son was born, McKenna released “Bittertown.” Faith Hill famously stopped recording her multiplatinum album “Fireflies” after hearing it, opting to cover three of McKenna’s songs from the record. The support of Hill and her husband, Tim McGraw, helped McKenna launch a career as one of the most in-demand songwriters in Nashville.
Here is a brief look at some of the stories behind both albums, among other anecdotes:
• Alvin, who played the album in order, filled his set with vivid memories and language. After opening with the title track and “Barn Burning,” he noted that albums usually are sequenced differently from live shows. The label wanted the “hits,” in the front, while concerts usually keep the biggest songs for the end if not the encore.
“So this is coming really fashionably early,” he said before launching into “Fourth of July,” a song he has played in most shows since it was released by X in 1987. “If this is the one you came for, you can leave afterward. I don’t mind.”
No one left.
• McKenna, who is known for writing sad songs, made note that her career falls into two distinct stages: before “Bittertown” and after “Bittertown.” To mark the anniversary, on Wednesday she released a 12-inch vinyl with two re-recorded classics from the album — “Bible Song” and “Stealing Kisses.”
“I want to assure you that I’m happier in real life than I was when I wrote this record,” she said, noting that she had to relearn many of the songs before playing them live again. “… There are a lot of words in these old songs. We played them so much faster and I had much more lung capacity.”
• Shortly after going solo, a record label contacted Alvin and said George Jones wanted to record one of his songs. But shortly before he flew to Nashville for the session, the label called back and said recording “Every Night About This Time” would not happen.
“It turns out this song was too country for George Jones,” Alvin said with a laugh before playing the beautiful ballad.
• “Stealing Kisses,” one of the songs Hill later covered, was the last song written for “Bittertown,” McKenna told the audience on Wednesday. The song, like many of McKenna’s, is about the challenges and rewards of “living with one man.”
“It was my first single on country radio, and it got to #28 on the charts, which was a failure then,” McKenna said. “But hey, it was the first time I released something that had a number attached to it.”
McKenna said the Bittertown song “Lone Star” was written about Beck, but she soon realized “this is not Beck’s story whatsoever.” In fact, Beck’s father did the string arrangements for Hill’s “Fireflies” and “he confirmed this,” McKenna said with a shrug. “It’s not his story at all.”
• “Songs are like your children,” Alvin said in introducing “Bus Station,” a vivid yet devastating profile of a couple on the outs. “Some are extroverts and beg to be performed. Others are introverts who never want to leave their room. I care so deeply for this song that I never play it live.”
Alvin said “Bus Station” will be part of a book he “will write … am writing.” And it’s easy to see why, given lines like, “She lies to him/he kisses her/getting tired of love.”
• McKenna’s opener was Hailey Whitters, who has spent a dozen years in Nashville after moving there when she was 17. Whitters, whose second album “The Dream” will come out later this year, was frank about her struggles to make it to Nashville. Still not signed by a label, her self-financed album will feature the beautiful ballad “Ten Year Town,” about a songwriter who has to decide between her dreams and making a living.
McKenna’s fondness for Whitters is obvious, and she brought her on stage for the encore of “Girl Crush” and “Happy People.” In 2016, McKenna became the first woman to win the Country Music Association’s “Song of the Year” award two years in a row for “Girl Crush” and “Humble and Kind,” both of which won Grammys as Best Country Song.
“After this record, I sort of got the golden ticket and they said you can do this now,” McKenna said of “Bittertown.”
“Hailey showed up it my door at 22 and told me she wanted to write a song called ‘Happy People,’ and so we did. That’s what I can do now. She’s just a magical person and I’m so glad we get to share the night together.”
• Toward the end of Alvin’s show, he performed the beautiful ballad “Border Radio,” remarking that it’s “always weird when one of your songs become culturally irrelevant.”
“Now we have iPhones, laptops, even fax machines,” he said. “When I was growing up, 50,000-watt radio stations were a means of communication in a very, very strange way. When I was a kid, I had to go to bed about 8:30 at night, but even at 8 years old I had a secret weapon, a 9-volt transistor radio that could pick up the border radio stations. I was too young to know what poetry was, but I knew that was poetry. I knew then that all I wanted to do was grow up and live this kind of life.”
Today, McKenna and Alvin — songwriters from different coasts with much different career trajectories — are living proof that you can capture lightning in a bottle. And thankfully, audiences in the greater Washington, D.C., area had anniversary tours on the same week to see them relive that time.