America has invented and instigated many seminal beats and grooves over the musically magical past century, but one makes me want to dance above all others – like viscerally and right now. It’s the Louisiana-born backbeat of zydeco and its even rootsier forbear, Cajun music. On the surface, it’s the same dang two-and-four snare drum smack that’s in every kind of rock and roll and pop. But behind that is a zigga-zigga sixteenth note pattern that counterpoints the basic boom-chick, boom-chick. Done well, it’s weirdly rock steady and syncopated at the same time, a rhythm that loops and pulses. And lord when it comes off a the bandstands of the Louisiana prairie country or the Rock & Bowl in New Orleans, dancing is less something you do and more something that happens to you.
Donna The Buffalo is from central New York state, not Louisiana, but this widely loved quintet has woven that joyful, hip-shaking zydeco pulse into the DNA of its sound, and leaders Jeb Puryear and Tara Nevins have wrapped that core vibe with hopeful, mellow lyrics. And because most Louisiana bands work close to home, Donna The Buffalo is the only band that I’m aware of that carries that Cajun/zydeco heartbeat all over North America reaching nice big crowds and stirring up dust in dance pits everywhere. And they’ve done so for a hard-to-fathom 25 years now. The band visits Roots this week as part of its touring in support of Tonight, Tomorrow and Yesterday, its first new disc in four years.
I first encountered DtB at Merlefest in the late 1990s. They were to me an unknown band with a weird name in the dance tent. I got seduced by Tara Nevins’s accordion and swishy beats and next thing I knew I was soaked with sweat and losing myself. They’re the EDM of Americana. At that point they were still a young band, just getting started with Sugar Hill Records after a couple of indie releases. When their label debut Rockin’ In The Weary Land came along with signature tunes like “Funky Side” and “Tides of Time,” I was hooked. So were thousands of others, and they formed a loyal fan base they called The Herd. The band says thanks to those long-timers and to old friends in general in the new song “I Love My Tribe,” which they made into a fun new video. With cameos by our friend and their collaborator Jim Lauderdale, as well as MCR Alums The Believers, it depicts the therapeutic effects of a house party in the country, again over that zigga-zigga back beat.
Peter Cooper knows about zigga-zigga too, in that he’s constantly zig-zagging among his various roles as songwriter/artist, music columnist and Vanderbilt professor of country music history. Mr. Polymath has been a friend of mine for more than a decade now. We worked together at the Tennessean for almost four years, where we divided up our music beat pretty easily. If it was trippy with hippies, it was mine. If it had lineage to Jason and the Scorchers, he rode point. I learned a lot from his musical mind, especially a very clear picture of the songwriting genius of Tom T. Hall and the steel guitar genius of Lloyd Green. In the years since, I’ve learned that Peter is a fantastic songwriter himself, with a special gift for story songs that visit real times and places. His “715 (For Hank Aaron)” is a masterpiece of social history. It’s been fun to watch Peter not only take inspiration from his heroes, but work with them over his projects on East Nashville’s Red Beet Records.
Peter was with us recently to celebrate his newest duo record with Eric Brace, but this week the focus is on Opening Day, Peter’s new solo disc. He’s released several special projects since his 2009 debut featuring collaborations, including with Lloyd Green, but this is really the first since then that’s solely under his own name with the focus on his musicianship and songcraft. No surprise that his beloved baseball would feature prominently in the title track, a tune about the renewal of hope and clean slates. Also wonderful on here is “Quiet Little War” about the creepy banality of high tech combat, set in American generica. It’s another impressive project, sure to further bolster his performing life.
The song-driven beauty of Cooper and the sweaty boogie of Donna The Buffalo will bookend the night, and in between we’ll hear from Asheville purveyors of “folk-rock nature-pop” and a Nashville songwriter who embraces “secret sophistication.” The former is River Whyless, whose name is I assume adapted from the wonderful David James Duncan novel that deeply affected me and many fellow tree-huggers of my generation. The co-ed quartet formed in 2009 and have been plying the roads and rivers ever since. And we’ll also hear from Nashville’s Korby Lenker, a great guy with a stylish flair, a ready smile and a way with hooky, luminous and infectious songs. He’s taken prizes for writing at Merlefest and Kerrville, among other places. I last saw him on stage at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, singing his entry in the Troubadour Contest where he was named a finalist. He also makes videos as Wigby, featuring cool performances by cool folks.
Hey, we do that too. Come experience these cool folks on Wednesday night and be part of our tribe.