If I had to put together my ideal concert cocktail, the ingredients would include the following: a healthy dose of laughter, a couple tears, a blend of the old and the new, top-of-your-lungs sing-a-longs, and a smattering of moments when the live performance of a song grabs a hold of you in a way that a recording never could. Mat Kearney’s performance at the Ryman Auditorium was quite the perfect cocktail.
I’ve been following Mat’s music since the release of his first album more than a decade ago, and I have most of the lyrics memorized. But experiencing the music live brought something important to my attention: there’s a big difference between memorizing something and truly knowing it. At the time I began listening to his music, I had no idea that I was feeding my brain some of the most raw thoughts on what it means to be human. I didn’t understand that the love he devotes a lot of his lyrics to is not something we can fully wrap our minds around because it’s a love that draws us to a place beyond human understanding.
While watching the rainbow of lights dance across the stage, I found myself being invited and pulled into an experience that wasn’t about Mat at all. He was there as a vehicle for authenticity, humanity, beauty, and truth. He was a thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly hilarious vehicle, but a vehicle nonetheless. And he was okay with that. In fact, I could tell, through his humble posture and interaction with the audience, that he knew his role that evening, a role only he could play. And it was one of those moments when you witness someone being so perfectly settled into the place designed for them that you aren’t envious of their success; you know that place belongs to them and is being filled perfectly so you don’t long for that spot.
I’ve loved listening to Mat’s musical journey unfold through each new release, and I sincerely appreciated that he played music from each of his albums. His music sparks nostalgia in my life because it has provided the soundtrack for many pivotal seasons. Though his party on stage for most of the concert was a ton of fun, one of my favorite moments was when he was alone on stage, sitting at the piano, playing “All I Need,” which is from his first album. When he began playing that song, 14-year-old Jessamyn started freaking out a little because that was (and still is) my favorite song from that album. There was undeniable beauty in the simplicity of that moment shared between Mat, a keyboard, and a startlingly quiet audience in Nashville. That stillness, contrasted with the bright lights and catchy, upbeat tunes, was captivating.
I could write a concert review where I list all the songs he sang and tell you what I like or didn’t like about each one. But at the end of the night, I wasn’t thinking about individual songs. He accomplished so much more than a good show. I was nudged into a place of reflection, trying to ask myself why Mat Kearney’s live music grabbed onto my heart the way it did. Why have I stuck with his music for ten years? Why was I just as drawn to his music in high school as I am now? Why did I view him as a fellow musician instead of an untouchable celebrity on an unreachable stage? To be honest, I’m still working on the answers to these questions, but I’m glad that an artist invites me to ask them, even if he doesn’t know it.
For this is what music is supposed to do. It is supposed to draw us out of ourselves and point us beyond what we can see and understand in our simple humanity. It should beg us to ask questions about our purpose, relationships, and priorities. Good concerts can be ones of laughter and tears and sing-a-longs, but the concerts that tug on our hearts in new ways–those are the ones we remember. And I have no doubt that Mat Kearney’s performance at the Ryman holds a permanent place in my memory.