Show Reviews



w/ Jessica Cayne, James Barker, & Jesse Slack

Thursday December 14, 2023

@ The Listening Room Café in Nashville, TN

(Review Written By: Jeffrey Kurtis)

“It All Begins With A Song!”

A declaration wrapped within the poignant motto of the Nashville Songwriter’s Association International (NSAI), but one that rings so loudly throughout the entire music community that it’s become the very essence of the overall vibe of the city.

The songwriter plays the most important role in providing the fabrication for the songs that become the next big hits, gathering with the ideas that craft into future masterpieces while holed up in writing rooms, on living room floors, or unassumingly over drinks at any given establishment.

Though there are many venues across the city which cater to unique to Nashville songwriter rounds, in the glow of the nearby downtown district only one stands as the top echelon with a stage that a songwriter yearns to play as a career defining moment that tells them they’ve arrived – The Listening Room Café!

With a resume that includes several appearances on rounds at this songwriter mecca, surging country artist Robyn Ottolini coupled her immense amount of talent into an impressive 2023 that’s seen her opening dates for Shania Twain, headlining a sold out tour across her native Canada, and achieving heightened anticipation for her upcoming EP Growing Up To Do (due out Jan. 19, 2024) through tremendous buzz on its hot single releases “Sick of Sex,” “I Kissed Your Boyfriend,” and her tours namesake, “All My Friends Are Hot.”

Flanked by Jessica Cayne, James Barker, and Jesse Slack, Ottolini more than delivered during her first ever hosting role at The Listening Room in front of a solid gathering of friends and music enthusiasts who firmly upheld the venue’s standing policy of minimum table conversations (if any at all) as they soaked in the atmosphere of each song.

As Barker, front man of Platinum selling group the James Barker Band, sat in the first chair and Ottolini took her place in the fourth, the two emerging artists bookended each pass through the round, often allowing the spotlight to shine on the middle-seated songwriters while outlining them with their own hits and a witty, back-and-forth banter that continually arose between the foursome throughout the night.

Cayne highlighted her intricate songwriting approach by painting pictures through melody, relatable emotions, and hometown memories on fresh songs such as “Texaco” and “Tequila Promises,” while offering transparency on the ups and downs of pitching songs, encouragingly sharing with the aspiring writers in the house as to why you should always trust your gut as she held the crowd to a deafening silence with “Stargazing,” a song that not only earned her placement on Darius Rucker’s latest album Carolyn’s Boy but the one which will be the next single released from it. 

Jesse Slack, though he took time over his five selections to showcase his songwriting expertise through cuts that he’s landed, including Jade Eagleson’s “Hackin’ Darts” and Owen Riegling’s “Home Less,” being one of Robyn’s best friends, he masterfully chose to play several songs which he had co-written with her to expertly keep the focal point on our master of ceremonies.

As Ottolini slid into the harmony vocal position on the very humorous “Richard,” engaging the crowd in laughter with a song they announced was getting cut by a major artist (who remained unnamed), a very pivotal, only in Nashville moment arrived when Jesse and Robyn blended their voices on her 2021 hit “Tell You Everything,” which Slack appreciatively told before playing had earned him his first Gold record thanks to her releasing it.

In true Nashville fashion, James Barker offered a full spectrum view of who he is as a songwriter and as a frontman, while keeping one foot firmly geared toward what’s next from he and the James Barker Band.

“Two Broken Hearts” leaned into a softer pace to allow Barker to slide the emotional strain of his vocals into the lyrics as he lamented that two broken hearts coming together as one is better than each of them being lonely on their own, while continuing with a 1-2 punch at the onset of each of the first two passes to preview things still to come with “You Didn’t Hear It From Me.”

With the Matt Stell smash “One Of Us” anchoring the middle of his set, he showcased his ability to swerve away from only writing for his own band and into why he is one of Nashville’s most sought after writers of the current market, while then delivering a piece of his band’s latest output through “Step On His Boots” before rounding out with “Chills,” enticing a sing along with the otherwise quietly observant crowd on the breakout hit that defined his groups career trajectory when it earned them their first #1 in Canada.

“It’s safe to say that all my friends are hot,” smiled Ottolini as she nodded with a wink toward her friends in the crowd while also alluding to the ultra-catchy song that she’d open her part of the night with, raising a wine glass toast to her closest friends and earning hoots and hollers as she slid into the anathematic chorus and hit a sing out loud moment with the rousing hook, “I don't care if I'm not, 'cause if I'm not, well…all my friends are hot!”

Holding tightly to a very strong connection with the audience, she chatted about the hardships of breaking up in a small town as she rolled into the platinum smash that got her to Nashville, “F-150,” while then opening up about her ultra-embarrassing snapchat gaff, softening the pace into the brand-new song, “I Can’t See It,” tugging heartstrings as she twisted through visually drafted lyrics that carried the string of emotions of watching an ex moving on through his social media posts, accenting the relatable notion of not wanting to look but being unable to look away.

“Do you guys like Christmas music?” she asked quizzically as she was showered with cheers from the holiday spirited crowd. “Is anyone here from a drinking family?” she then asked to huge ovation that caused her and the other writers on stage to chuckle as she travelled back to 2021’s “Hangover For Christmas,” festively leaning on its catchy, jingle bell styled melody to get shoulders dancing and heads bobbing across the venue as she floated her Que Sera Sera tone into the hilarity of the lyrics while flipping through the pages of a dysfunctional family photo album.

“Has anyone watched Bridgerton?” she asked as she told of how the inspiration struck when the shows main character proclaimed, “distance is no match for her memory,” enlightening herself to then think about how it’s not easy to forget somebody as she added a bold exclamation point to the already great night of music with her recent hit “Match For My Memory,” igniting one last sing along moment that was packed in unbridled emotion as she closed out the night.

“As songwriters, we learn to write about anything, but it’s the stuff that's really true that resonates most,” James Barker had said earlier in the night as the four performers all crisply uphold that statement’s sentiment during each of the five rounds, hitting on all the feels as their crafted pieces of art strummed the right chords with the audience.

Through the natural telling of the stories behind the songs, we were transported into the writing rooms with them, allowing us to share in their personal stories as they highlighted their small town lives and the life-altering moments that shaped them.

However, though it goes without saying that a night with a lineup as strong as this would produce an hour and a half of solidly written lyrics and melodies, the defining characteristic of the overall vibe came through the on-stage camaraderie between the four songwriters.

Whether it was by sliding into harmony vocals on one another’s songs or by championing each other’s immense talent with an encouraging comment about how much they loved what someone had just finished playing, their tight-knit friendships with one another were on display from first note to last, that when coupled with a transparently humble appreciation for every supportive fan throughout the night, had expertly invited all of us to become a new bond within their friendship circle.



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