The four men sit on stools and face the audience, looking like an acoustic-packin’ firing squad.
One pulls a card out of a white cowboy hat set at the edge of the stage and reads, “Honey Boo Boo, Why Do You Do-Do?”
“Maybe a better question is, why does she have a TV show?” one of the guy asks aloud, to a great deal of giggling.
Another card is pulled, “Friday Night Brain.” And another: “Cougar on the Loose.” And still more: “Rednecks and Longnecks,” “Give it to Me Before My Beer Gets Cold” and “Flip You Like a Sack of Wet Cats.”
“I don’t even know that means,” says one of the guitar-brandishing gentlemen.
Finally, there is a phrase that pays: “Drinkin’ Stupid Away.”
This is the night’s great song title, pitched by audience members at the quartet onstage for “Nashville Unplugged.” During the course of this weekly showcase at Rocks Lounge at Red Rock Resort, co-hosts Aaron Benward and Brian McComas, with guest artists Brett James and Tim Nichols will take that simple theme and construct a song. By the end of the night, that song will be performed by the men who wrote it.
This is the organic-yet-daring premise of “Nashville Unplugged,” which debuted at Ovation at Green Valley Ranch Resort four years ago and moved to Rocks Lounge in August. Every Friday at 8 p.m., Benward and McComas bring to the stage one or two songwriters, almost always from Nashville. The $5 cover is ridiculously low given the talent brought into the room. And, in addition to the Rocks Lounge shows, the duo also host a weekly radio show Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KCYE 102.7-FM (“The Coyote,” where you can also find the esteemed Rick Kelly, who possesses one of the great Nic Cage impressions anywhere).
In a format that is entertaining, even suspenseful, at “Nashville Unplugged” the artists sing and play songs written by Benward and McComas, then songs written by the guest artists, then dig into the cowboy hat for the audience’s often goofy song suggestions.
“Studying To Be Single,” for instance.
It takes a capable and confident artist to take the ideas of a commoner and make them something special -- or at least something that can be performed before a couple hundred people on a Vegas stage. Benward and McComas are up for that task.
Benward is founder of the duo Blue County, which recorded three singles that reached the Top 40 on the Billboard country charts: "Good Little Girls" reached No. 11, “That’s Cool” topped out at No. 24 and “Nothin’ But Cowboy Boots” was No. 38. McComas hit No. 10 with “99 Percent Sure (I’ve Never Been Here Before)."
As usual, the guests are accomplished songwriters. James is a monster writer, having written or co-written No. 1 hits by such artists as Martina McBride (“Blessed”), Kenny Chesney (“When the Sun Goes Down,” with Uncle Kracker and “Out Last Night,”), Carrie Underwood (“Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Cowboy Casanova”) and Jason Aldean (“The Truth”). James also wrote “American Idol” champ Scotty McCreery’s debut single, “I Love You This Big.”
Nichols has a similarly chart-topping catalogue, and scored a huge hit for Tim McGraw with co-writer Craig Wiseman on “Live Like You Were Dying,” which spent 12 weeks at No. 1.
“I can’t tell you how many people tell me they have played that song, over and over, for inspiration. One woman just tonight was crying, telling me she had just been diagnosed with cancer,” Nichols says. “I can’t tell you how many have told me they have heard it played during eulogies at funerals.”
And in these doubtlessly adept hands is the song title, “Drinkin’ Stupid Away.” As McComas says, “We usually get silly suggestions. It’s the nature of the crowds we get. They are usually good-time crowds.”
Yes, and the very title – “Drinkin’ Stupid Away” – should resonate to this swaying-room-only crowd.
This song is to take form in about 30 minutes. The “Unplugged” co-hosts and one of the guests leave the stage, which is decked out in red-draped cocktail tables to look like the Bluebird Café, a songwriters’ haven in Nashville. In this instance, Nichols stays behind to sate the crowd while Benward, McComas and James get to “Drinkin’ Stupid Away.”
As McComas strums his acoustic, Benward crouches over a notepad and the lyrics start flying. “By the end of the night, I’ll be feelin’ all right,” he at once sings and scrawls.
The others sing their own ideas, spitting them out as their thoughts take shape.
“You can have old what’s his name, the guy who cut our grass,” Benward says, as James throws out, “He can have your PMS, and you can both kiss my ass!”
“What about, ‘Girl, I’m starting the day, drinkin’ stupid awaaaay.’ ” McComas warbles.
“By the end of the night, I’ll be feelin’ just riiiight,” James brays back.
This is how it goes, as Nichols, totally disconnected, sings a five-song set for the crowd. Then he introduces James, who bolts from backstage, and the project takes on a new partner as Nichols steps into the room.
And Nichols, who has been a songwriter for decades and wrote the anthem of all anthems for McGraw, contributes … hardly at all. He nods and grins, but is largely a bystander in the development of “Drinkin’ Stupid Away.” This song has already grown nearly to a finished product, and as McComas notes, “It is always tough to be the second guest to come into the process.”
Not that it matters. The song is not going to be recorded for commercial purposes. Usually, the finished product is akin to a novelty song.
“We don’t even save the lyrics,” Benward says. “Sometimes, I wish we had. Sometimes we’ll come up with a song and say afterward, ‘That was really good.’ ”
As it is, many songs written by Benward and McComas with their more than 100 guest collaborators are tossed and lost.
What happens if the process stalls, and the song is not finished or suitable for performing?
“We don’t talk about that,” McComas says.
“It’s never happened,” Benward adds.
After the hosts and guests are fully reunited onstage, they cut loose with, “Drinkin’ Stupid Away.” This song has many elements necessary for a great country tavern tune: Drinking. Jealousy. Angst. A "good turn of events." A requisite reference to Jack Daniel's.
Thirty minutes of work produces three minutes of good-time country music, and the crowd roars its delight. “Drinkin’ Stupid Away” is a one-night winner, swift and smart, and would be great on a “Nashville Unplugged” greatest-hits release, if there were such a thing. But that would not be in the spirit of this show, which is like a great country song: Very much in the moment, very familiar, yet never the same thing twice.