Dwight Thomas Vaughn
“Dwight Thomas Vaughn & The Missouri Statesmen”
Iridium – April 2 (two shows)
A couple of years ago, Tom Vaughn returned to music full-time after frightening, life-threatening bouts with cancer and heart trouble at a young age. Understandably excited about his new lease on life, the cabaret show he did then demonstrated his puppy-dog enthusiasm for the stage and his emerging talent as a songwriter. However—playing armchair psychologist here—he may have still been too close to the tragic events to take the time to examine who he was as an artist. In his show then, he sang show tunes, pop songs, duets with his friend and director Raissa Katona Bennett, and country numbers. Hailing from southern Missouri, it was in the last category that he made the best impression.
Now, Vaughn has emerged with a new name, Dwight Thomas Vaughn, a new band, a new sound, and a new Nashville-recorded CD, “In These Genes.” It’s all country, all the way, and why shouldn’t it be celebrated in cabaret clubs? If we’re talking about the Great American Songbook, country stands proudly at the top with jazz and musical theatre as uniquely American genres.
Vaughn has found his lane with this material, and he’s in the passing lane, moving quickly toward his destination. He took to the Iridium stage with the sexy, pulsing “Don’t Come a Knockin’” (Vaughn), looking athletic and energetic in his tight jeans and flannel shirt, and he didn’t skimp on the moves, offering pelvic thrusts, rhythmic two-step, and swaying hips. He was confident and delighted to be there, which was infectious. Vaughn’s voice was as big as the Missouri sky and he could throw in the occasional growl or falsetto note for added effect; in a show that ran ninety minutes, his voice never tired.
It is Vaughn’s original songs that will bring attention his way. These are the kind of songs you can hear once or twice and they will stay in your head. The melodies are immediately catchy (especially on the uptempo songs) and the words are full of wit and, often, humor. The aforementioned “In These Genes” is especially clever. The first verse opens with, “Do you like my genes/Do you like the way my genes fit/Do they fit me like they should/make my ass look good/Do you like my genes?” Obviously, the listener thinks the songs is about “jeans” but in the chorus, the secret is revealed: “Cause it’s the genes that make you strong/Got ’em from your Daddy and your Mom/Gave you the one true gift of life/May be old but they fit just right.” An original idea, nicely executed.
Another of my favorite is “Blomeyer Junction,” which Vaughn humorously explained was an actual place in his neck of the woods in Missouri, population nine. There, one will find a café owned and run by Naomi. The foot-stomping song serves up all the joys of a home-cooked meal in such an Americana kind of place. “How to Mend a Cheatin’ Heart” and “Wicked Evil Ways” fill out the detailed canvas Vaughn paints of small-town, rural life. Add to that his tribute to Star Trek (“Live Long and Prosper”) and a woman he met in Hawaii (“Auntie Sheila in Hilo”), and you get some idea of his thematic versatility.
Throughout the celebration (that’s the most apt word for it) at the Iridium, Vaughn welcomed several guests to the spotlight. Bennett (directing again) showed creditable country chops dueting with him on the big hit from a couple of years back, “Need You Now” (Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood, Josh Kear). Musician and Grand Ole Opry veteran Bill Turner sang and banjoed on “Tiger By the Tail” (Buck Owens, Harlan Howard), and Lorinda Lisitza stepped up to sing with Vaughn on “Islands in the Stream” (Barry, Maurice & Robin Gibb), before joining her musical partner, Ted Stafford, to deliver a showstopper, bluesy version of “Rose Garden” (Joe South). Now, all guests were wonderful, and I’d personally walk a country mile across Mississippi asphalt to hear Lisitza, but they were a distraction from the main event, which was the emergence of a blossoming country artist in our midst. This is a time when we want to check him out, hear his songs and stories. By surrendering the stage to others several times, he watered down the powerful effect of his own engaging personality and considerable musical gifts.
One or two well-chosen cover songs to show his interpretive ability were welcome; “Live Like You Were Dying” (Tim Nichols, Craig Wiseman) was especially poignant. However, the Garth Brooks hit “Friends in Low Places” (Dewayne Blackwell, Earl Bud Lee), which has become kind of a redneck anthem, was pointless, and a Glen Campbell medley near the beginning of the evening wasn’t set up well enough for us to see why Vaughn felt compelled to include it, although the lyric from “Rhinestone Cowboy” (Larry Weiss)—”I’ve been walkin’ these streets so long/Singin’ the same old song/I know every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway”—brought a chuckle from the audience.
Vaughn assembled a terrific band for his show (not the same as the Nashville one on his recording): Bill Turner on guitar, dobro and banjo; Kenney Kosec on fiddle; Jacob Silver on bass; Wally Usiatynski on drums, and Caitlin Kerchner and Leasen Almquist on backup vocals. Musical director Sean Harkness on guitar must be singled out for praise. Those of us who have seen him play for so many artists over the last few years were thunderstruck by his ability to dive right into down-home country with such ease and brio.
If there is any justice in the world, Dwight Thomas Vaughn’s recording will find welcome on country radio and his stage game will only keep improving. Vaughn should not look back, but keep moving ahead on the road to his horizon—where the lights will be shinin’ on him.
About the Author
Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.