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Nashville's acclaimed roots and Americana variety show

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One of the things I love about the Formula One racing I follow is the heavy British tilt of the television commentary, because the guys are full of expressions we’re not used to hearing. One nice expression of when a driver, team and car are really working well is to say they’re “on song.” This week at Roots, we’re presenting four women who as writers and vocalists are all on song. Their variety and their stories suggest that the larger ecosystem of independent music, for all the lamenting that goes on out there, is also humming along - perhaps not Formula One fast and wealthy, but clicking on all cylinders just the same. These are mostly new artists to me (and all new to the show), so this will be a night of discovery. I’ll offer what I’ve learned about these women in show performance order.

Laney Jones calls her band The Spirits and that feels appropriate given the fun and sprightly qualities of her recordings, which are full of sturdy melodies and passages of...

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There was a festival atmosphere in Liberty Hall on Wednesday night and not just because the crowd was large and loud (though that helped). There was also that ineffable flow and unspoken dialogue among the four bands, softly conveying the spirit of roots music in all its complimentary forms. The timeless but mysteriously innovative folk/gospel flavor of Birds of Chicago gave way to the pure mountain-tinged songwriting of Jill Andrews. The bluegrass second half paired young and hungry Billy Strings with one of his heroes, the sixtysomething but unaware of it Jerry Douglas. His band came with a jazz/grass/rock fusion mode that tickled my every musical nerve ending. Keep on the grass? Good luck with that.

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Bluegrass music and I had to work to find each other. Though I grew up in North Carolina, I did so in a classical music household with enough good indie music on the radio to keep me preoccupied until college. I knew naught of the high lonesome. Then, in Chicago of all places, a couple of cassette tapes and some thread-following from a Grateful Dead habit led me into a torrid love affair in the bluegrass promised land. I say bluegrass met me halfway because of the far-reaching, sophisticated vision and variety of the guys we know now as the Telluride House Band, especially Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas. Their albums with Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor, Stuart Duncan and others brought together everything I loved then and love now about music, from compositional intelligence to emotional expression to groove and improvising. I was smitten, and nobody smote me more than Jerry.

Jerry “Flux” Douglas seemed to be everywhere I looked and listened, from the cerebral massage of Strength In Numbers to the down home bluegrass of Boone Creek to Skip, Hop...

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Like a meal in four courses that compliment but don’t overlap, Wednesday’s Roots delivered exquisite versions of four stages of country music evolution. From the sturdy and often elegant string band sound of Tim O’Brien we hyped things up a bit to a (drumless) electric honky tonk vibe with Greg Garing. Chelle Rose, East Tennessee’s answer to Townes Van Zandt, delivered literate, narrative-heavy songs with drums and measures of grungy power. And while less twangy or bluesy than the rest of the flight, Allen Thompson showed us the chemistry that results from a band of friends singing well-crafted songs that march along in classic Americana fashion. It was the first show of a blazing July, but it was a wry heat.

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The order of a piano keyboard is easy to discern: half steps up and down in a single row, 88 notes wide. A guitar or banjo neck has no less design, but the steps connecting the tones and rows of octaves take more than intuition to understand. But the human voice and human condition? Well you can forget about diagramming that or connecting its dots and lines. We are infinite, and it’s the artist’s job to plum those depths and present something we can grasp and count on and touch and feel. It’s so crazy that it shouldn’t work. But it does, especially in the hands of artists like the ones I’m looking at here in our Summer 2017 opening show. This is a rarified group of roots musicians, each with his or her specific touch and life experience. Artists like these are why I remain utterly wrapped up in this expression we call music decades after I first woke up to it.

Tim O’Brien has been a frequent visitor to our stage over the years as a...

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Little known fact here, but Wednesday June 21 is Make Music Day. Of course we like to think of every day that way, but this event, launched in France 35 years ago and bolstered now in the US by the folks behind the NAMM instrument trade shows, is a global celebration that invites everyone who can and is inclined to perform in public. The official language captures it: “Every kind of musician — young and old, amateur and professional, of every musical persuasion — pours onto streets, parks, plazas, and porches to share their music with friends, neighbors, and strangers.” Naturally, Nashville gets in on the action in a big way, thanks to the organizing efforts of Matt Fox and Alan Fey. Find out more about it and the many performance hot spots around town or just get out on your front porch and start a show. You’ll be joining folks from Detroit to Djibouti in a global Summer Solstice rite of rhythm, and it’ll be beautiful.

And of course we’ll be turning our stage into the front...

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One’s affection for music shifts over the years I think from a rapturous, new-romance phase as a young person to a kind of gratitude and spiritual solace in the second half of life. Now, I only turned 51 on this week’s Flag Day show day so hey, maybe I’m not halfway home yet, but I respect probabilities so, you know… For years I’ve mostly regarded my birthday as a sobering semi-event; I can think of several times each year I’m more inclined to happy dancing. But a lot of nice love and friendship does flow one’s way in the social media era, and one needs to be mindful of blessings at times like this, and I have many. That said, music is my anchor and my scripture, and while every week at Roots is a joy, this week’s hearty blues and passionate songwriting felt especially cathartic.

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I had hoped to be writing prose in praise of Rockabilly Queen Wanda Jackson at this point, but as we all know, some things are more important than music. So I begin this week by sending our team’s thoughts and prayers out to the rock and roll matriarch instead. Wendell Goodman, Jackson’s husband since 1961 and long time right hand man road manager, passed away unexpectedly in late May, just hours after she’d played gigs in Nashville and Birmingham. She’s thus in the midst of one of life’s most difficult trials and adjustments. We wish Wanda and her family well.

That said, we’ve got another senior roots music star on our lineup, along with a celebrated Rounder Records songwriter and a couple of acts that stepped up to the call when we needed to make some late breaking adjustments. It’ll be a blues-heavy affair and an easy come down from the weekend mayhem of Bonnaroo and CMA Fest. It’s a soundtrack for June in the South.

There’s something poetic about having New Orleans stalwart Walter “Wolfman” Washington and East Nashville’s Mark Robinson on the same bill. Because...

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I recently got to work up a story for WMOT about songwriter Jon Byrd’s final shows at Charlie Bob’s, a Dickerson Pike diner in Nashville that’s being torn down, and my emphasis was on the special beauty of country music at “human scale,” when the singer is just a few feet from the audience and there’s a palpable connection that elevates the emotion and the stories. Country music is a chemical fusion of that ethos with sounds and genre signifiers that bond us with each other and with the past. The blue notes and the sonorous and plaintive voice, the twang and yearning of steel guitars are all signals to the heart and mind that all is well, that you’re in familiar territory, if not home. This week’s Roots looks stellar all around but especially because we have Jon Byrd himself, one of Nashville’s greatest country writer/singers and a duo double dose of world-class Three Chords + Truth in the show-closing duet of Daryle Singletary and Rhonda Vincent.

So imagine you’re a wine connoisseur...

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Back when I worked at The Tennessean with Peter Cooper (who hosts this week’s show by the way), I learned that he and I had diverging views on the whole jam band thing. Once he asked me about Phish: “does the good lyric fairy ever visit them?” As if I was prepared to or would ever argue that “Fluffhead” is in the same literary category as “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Well no, it’s not and I wouldn’t. We just generally and temperamentally tap in to different aspects of music. He’s a song guy (as proven by the many excellent examples he’s written) and I’m a sound guy, wired for rhythm, dynamics, counterpoint, dissonance and other musical delights well before I think about the cerebral magic of a great story or message. Americana in general is more song-oriented and ambivalent about the free flowing, dance happy jam band ethos. I see them as utterly complimentary and self-reinforcing, as this week’s Roots will demonstrate.

Jeff Austin, mandolinist and band leader, was a founding member and veteran of arguably the most popular jam-based bluegrass...

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Wednesday night’s gathering of the Roots clan will be an opportunity to reflect on the life and legacy of Cowboy Jack Clement, the kindly and eccentric genius songwriter and producer who passed away in 2013. One of our guests, the songwriting entrepreneur Matt Urmy, was a great friend and protégé of Jack and arrives with an album Jack produced before his studio burned up in a bad fire. For a while, we explored the idea of a night formally paying tribute to Cowboy Jack but the right mix didn’t come together. That said, looking at this week’s lineup, with its variety and individuality, I feel sure Cowboy would have loved this week’s show. And I’m sure you will too.

The full story of Urmy’s new Out Of The Ashes album is quite something, the stuff of song. Matt made a strong debut album of country music back around 2010 as the first artist to record in the renovated Quonset Hut, the original studio on Music Row, a sacred space that sat in mothballs for years before being revived by Belmont University. Not long after that, the multi-faceted Urmy got very...

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As far as I know there’s only one figure in the contemporary roots music community who can pick “Blackberry Blossom” like a boss and also do a tumbling run that ends in a cheerleader split (not at the same time, but I wouldn’t put it past him). If David Mayfield came into your mind just now then you get an Americana cookie, because that’s who I was thinking about! It’s been too long since we saw and heard from the bearded weirdo, but he brings his always explosive sense of entertainment to the Factory this week along with a great roots rock band, a mod folky couple and a quintet from Colorado that split the bluegrass atom. Let’s take them in order of appearance.

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We know a classic when we see one, hear one, feel one. Forgive me for sounding like a Cadillac ad voice over or something, but seriously, sometimes there’s just an ineffable sense that something beautiful and meaningful is unfolding. And while we can’t pull that off every single week, we try to put the pieces in place for a chemical reaction. And this week it happened. There was combustion and satisfaction. We ranged across the country and across roots music terrain with acoustic grand master Tony Furtado from Portland, OR, Texas-raised songwriter Curtis McMurtry, Colorado polyethnic joyride Gipsy Moon and veteran John Jorgenson’s remarkable bluegrass band.

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One of my most diverting surprises along my life’s journey into roots music and bluegrass was discovering the sub cult within Americana that loves the Gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt. It was revelatory to know that decades before Doc Watson and Jimi Hendrix there was a guitar player as fiery and finessed as the three fingered Frenchman, who revolutionized his instrument before dying at the tragically young age of 43. The music had its own remarkable vocabulary and vibe, and more courageous bluegrass pickers and fiddlers love jamming on its repertoire, such as “Minor Swing” and “Swing 42.” One of the most notable contemporary practitioners of the spiky, speedy sound is playing our show this week, and while he’s bringing his bluegrass band to Roots, John Jorgenson is never far from the shadow of Django. We’ve also got a band called Gipsy Moon so, thinking about Wednesday night put me in a mood manouche.

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“Turn On Your Love Light” is a fascinating song that’s been all over the world of music since it was written by Joe Scott and recorded by Bobby “Blue” Bland in 1961. The Grateful Dead made it a core of its repertoire and played on it for 45 minutes at Woodstock. It was a staple of Van Morrison’s first band and was part of what helped Them (the band was actually called Them) get signed. It’s been covered by Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Seger, Tom Jones, Conway Twitty and The Blues Brothers. What a variety show. And it will forever be marked as the song that the great Col. Bruce Hampton was jamming on when he collapsed and died on May 1, 2017. Our final band this week, Great American Taxi, had direct connections to and huge admiration for Col. Bruce, and we have been remembering this musical innovators and risk-taker and guru all week. So “Love Light” became our weekly jam. And hopefully, in these blurry, foggy times, words to live by.

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So did y’all catch that news about the Fyre Festival? As good people, we try not to indulge in schadenfreude, but sometimes man, wow, it’s hard. In short, a rap celebrity and a dudebro with a track record of over-selling and under-delivering promised a glamour-packed, celebrity-stoked par-TAY on a remote island and promoted it by paying other celebrities to post on Instagram about it. It was a fiasco, not because the whole premise was culturally bankrupt and morally suspect (which it was), but because they didn’t PLAN. You have to plan, folks. For example, on the same weekend, two other festivals – much bigger ones – came off without a hitch. Merlefest in North Carolina and JazzFest in New Orleans actually served up authentic music, genuine community, good food and good times for fans who don’t need to feel like they’re winning on a reality show and who aren’t measuring their lives in bikini access and Twitter followers. So for this week anyway, it’s Real Culture: 2. Celebri-crap Culture: 0. Well done, roots music.

MCR had to do a bit of extra...

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It’s not as easy to go to Merlefest as it used to be in my footloose, sleeping-on-the-ground-is-fine days. So it’s wonderful to annually have a mini-Merlefest of our own at Music City Roots. The sampling of Merle-bound artists always refreshes and always seems to spotlight the very best of progressive traditional music. This week’s heavily attended show was no exception.

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