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Before Nashville, I’d never lived in a place where part of the regular conversation and social/cultural goings on was to figure out the essence of that place and to take active steps to get closer to its heart and soul. There was never a big emphasis on what does it mean to be from Chicago or Washington DC or Durham, NC, three of my other home bases. There is such a conversation about New Orleans and Austin. Music cities are like this. But I wonder if there’s any place more probative of its place-ness than Nashville. What I know is that it’s a healthy conversation to have and one that we are good at cultivating. When we partner with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as we did this Wednesday, our city’s essence comes into tighter focus. We’re elevated in our attention and...

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Time’s funny. One minute, the 1970s feel like the recent past represented by pop culture talismans like John Travolta striding along with his paint can to “Staying Alive” and the original Star Wars. Then suddenly, the 70s are a fascinating historic era ripe for scholarship and museum displays. One is tempted to feel old. But more fun than that is to re-visit and re-consider the era of my childhood to discover the cultural and musical tides that were too sub-surface and interesting to make the hit parade then or the oldies stations now. What happened in Nashville around 1970? The answer proves so provocative and wonderful that it became a long-running and popular special exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame And Museum.

This week, MCR partners with the...

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One geeky little game I play is to look for words that mean something good when they’re in one form and something bad in another, like the noun defeat means you lost, but the verb to defeat means you won. And if you “sell out” it means you might have licensed your badass indie rock song to Pampers for a commercial, but “a sell out” is a full house, the best you can hope for in show biz. And this week, we did it! We sold out without selling out. About 700 people were on hand in Liberty Hall to feel the groove of Seth Walker, the smart piano pop of Ele Ivory, the nutbag fusion of bluegrass and Top 40 that is The Cleverlys and finally, the fingers-a-flying guitar virtuosity of Tommy Emmanuel.

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When Tommy Emmanuel played Music City Roots a little over a year ago, it was a major moment for us, a gripping set by an artist that we’d sought for a long time because he represents the pinnacle of a particular strain of roots music, specifically blues-based fingerstyle acoustic guitar. The Australian-turned-Nashvillian is a bona fide global star – a wizard of not only the six strings, but of stagecraft and performing. Many who are otherwise indifferent to virtuoso instrumental music become putty in Tommy Emmanuel’s hands at his live shows.

I had another coveted encounter with Tommy this spring when I interviewed him for my WMOT show The String and just about the first thing I asked...

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Family ties are part of the fabric of American roots music. How often have we read (and for Pete’s sake how often have I written) that Artist X “came from a musical family”? The connection among siblings and the passing of ideas across generations might be the central reason this music sustains, and that in turn sustains us. Wednesday night offered up heart lifting performances by a first son of bluegrass and a first brother of Americana soul, plus a delightful country newcomer and a set by our own soul brother Jim Lauderdale.

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I wrote at WMOT this week about a new business school in Nashville that aims to train well-rounded music industry playas, from how to manage a tour to engineering a record. There’s no shortcut to any of that but there is one essential trick as recommended by a great engineer friend of mine who says it’s all about knowing your benchmarks. If you think earbuds sound good, you’ll never produce good sound. But if you want to know what a great recording of a band sounds like – if you’re searching for a fresh new standard for audio mastery – spend time with Jim Lauderdale’s new London Southern album. Recorded at Goldtop Studio in London with...

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As I grew old and experienced enough to realize that in the wider world around me men had been strutting around for centuries acting like the superior gender, entitled as if by divine right to every possible advantage from “I get to be President” to “make me a sandwich,” I began to feel it must be some kind of cosmic joke subsumed under a grand conspiracy. From my point of view, just observationally and objectively speaking over my 50 years, in the vital human capacities of fortitude, patience, compassion, wisdom and just getting s&!% done without drama, women leave men gasping for air by the side of the road. Don’t get me wrong, my brethren include exceptional people and brilliant achievers. But as the old saying goes, women (when given the chance) match the best of us step for...

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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...

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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...

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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...


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