A Spiritual Season

Your correspondent regrets being out of touch since our Winter season ended last Wednesday. I hopped on a plane the next morning to spend Thursday to Saturday at South by Southwest, the gargantuan music conference in Austin, TX, where I proudly wore my ROOTS CREW work shirt and tried to spread the word about our show. Talk about feeling lost in the noise. The streets were jammed. Clubs and yards were pulsing with live music. It was both exciting and daunting. We certainly want Music City Roots to be seen as part of the nation’s indie music business revival. At the same time, I was reminded constantly that intimacy and human scale are core values for us, so SXSW is an imperfect place to tell our story.

That said, it was great to see a bunch of MCR alum artists making the rounds like marathon runners with amps. My first show of the weekend was the fabulous Lera Lynn in a typical Austin bar back yard (we need more of those in Nashville by the way). Her new music had more bite and volume than the country music of her debut album. Our friends at the Americana Music Association put on a fantastic Thursday night showcase, featuring our recent guest host Chuck Mead and two-time MCR artist Johnny Corndawg playing by-god country music. Then, two acts we’d dearly love to have: The Little Willies with Norah Jones and Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers. Both were simply awesome. Just off the top of my head, SXSW was also visited by MCR artists the Milk Carton Kids, Henry Wagons, The Steeldrivers, Matthew Perryman Jones, Sugar and the Hi-Lows, Sarah Siskind, The Apache Relay, The David Mayfield Parade, The Defibulators and more. The band I discovered that I most want to recruit to our stage was Sons of Fathers, an Austin-based band featuring the front vocals of David Beck and Paul Cauthen. I enjoyed their superb, thoughtful and surprising stuff at an afternoon hosted by video presenters Music Fog. And on Saturday before flying home I caught sets by Justin Townes Earle and Philadelphia’s amazing folk rock trio Good Old War, whom I can not recommend highly enough.

Back in Nashville, I was better able to reflect on the season we just wrapped up and the sanctified, satisfied note on which the McCrary Sisters ended it. It was a winter of improbable warmth and impeccable artistry. We heard fabulous sets from fascinating Colorado quartet SHEL, multi-faceted multi-instrumentalist Barry Waldrep with friends, the mighty-voiced John Cowan, the tight and classy Chatham Co. Line, the wacky and mesmerizing David Mayfield, the sublime songwriters Samantha Crain and Angel Snow, the piston-powerful Wood Brothers and the hot swinging Humming House. We basked in a night of world-class bluegrass capped off by Darrell Scott in full band mode. We celebrated Belmont University’s remarkable track record in spinning off bands. And in Lilly Winwood, Red June, Leah Korbin and Taylor Brashears, we heard early glimpses of major acts of tomorrow, we hope and believe.

Last week’s show got off to a brisk, dance-with-me start thanks to the full, flowing sound of Paul Kramer and Swing Street. Paul led with fiddle and voice, not to mention five for five original songs in classic forms with sharp ideas and wordplay from the golden age of songwriting. We were thrilled to see that Kramer brought along Rory Hoffman, the uncanny blind musician whom we saw last with the Gypsy Hombres. With his ability to leap from guitar to sax to accordion, as he did on Wednesday, he could be the most naturally gifted and complete musician I’ve ever met. His overhand guitar playing is simply shocking in its complexity and incisiveness. Please come back any time Rory and just sit in.

The middle of the show was a ride through different colors of bluegrass, from the jazz-rock fusion of Nash Street to the Celtic twists of Stephanie Taylor’s Boxty Bluegrass Band to the newgrass punch of the Carter Brothers. All showed virtuoso playing and imagination. But the summery evening and the stunning juxtaposition of Venus and Jupiter in the sky seemed set up for the gospel greatness of the McCrary Sisters. As they expressed in their interview, this quartet of Nashville-reared siblings came from and are fully immersed in gospel, but their vision extends far beyond the constraints that usually attend such groups. They opened with their slinky, slow burning take on Dylan’s “Blowing In The Wind,” and they brought the crowd to their feet emphatically with their interpretation of “Broken Things” by Julie Miller, wife of Buddy, with whom the McCrarys have shared so much stage and studio time. “Dig A Little Deeper” reached way back to the influence of their father from the Fairfield Four. While set closer “Bible Study” was a raging R&B boogie that let sidemen like keyboardist Kevin McKendree really cook. Guest host Peter Cooper made the utterly risky choice of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” for the Loveless Jam and then proceeded to school us by pulling off one of the best jams of the year. It had a New Orleans funk beat, gave everyone a shot at a strong verse and it all ended together. Unbroken indeed.

We’re going to take a couple weeks off at the Loveless, but we’re working on some exciting stuff behind the scenes that will be rolled out soon.

Craig H.

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