Bluegrass music is like alchemy in that it starts with such humble, all-natural ingredients and ends up with something surprisingly complex and beautiful. Materials: wood, wire, brass and bone. Subjects: home, love, God and trains. This week we’ll enjoy the entertainment of a couple of bands who explicitly embrace some of these components in their names. Plus two more artists who may not be bluegrass, but who seem skilled in the art of musical alchemy as well, weaving together influences, time periods and unexpected juxtapositions.
In its name, Wood & Wire directs your attention to the resonating bodies that make up their instruments, and in so doing they may obscure the varied influences and impressive schooling that informs and enables their fresh sound. Bassist Dom Fisher has a degree in jazz studies. Banjoist Trevor Smith studied classical piano before picking up his chosen five-stringed instrument in his early teens. Mandolinist Billy Bright, new to the group since its last appearance on Roots, is a road veteran who’s worked with Peter Rowan, Tony Rice and Vassar Clements. The band formed in Austin, where they leapt to the front of the pack for that city’s acoustic and down home music. They played the Austin City Limits Festival, IBMA World of Bluegrass and Telluride for heaven’s sake. Recently they made a home recording (in Billy’s “mando cave” they told me) of traditional bluegrass classics like “Molly and Tennbrooks” before wrapping work on The Coast, featuring original songs with the W&W treatment. The title track, for example, blends Celtic feel and bowed strings with a kind of sea shanty vibe and a vocal approach that recalls Tim O’Brien. With their skills and varied influences, W&W seems destined for a prominent place in the bluegrass scene of the coming decades.
Complimenting those fellows will be Jim Gaudet & The Railroad Boys out of Albany, New York. Several things struck me listening to Jim’s fourth and most recent album Reasons That I Run. First is the expertly relaxed groove of the band, a quality I associate with the John Hartford, and there’s just little doubt that Jim feels the influence of the late great musician and river boar pilot. Next there’s Jim’s voice, which reminds me of the wry authenticity of Loudon Wainwright III. Jim began performing mid-life, so his approach is rich with experience and he seems intent on singing his truth more than impressing anyone. Lastly, the songwriting is clever and full of sparks. Maybe other bands and top bluegrass artists are already looking at Gaudet’s songs for their own albums; they should be.
Now, I haven’t confessed to y’all yet that I’m writing about these artists with a pang in my heart and a tear in my eye because I shall be missing the last two Wednesdays of this Winter season. My daughter’s spring break and my wife’s planning have conspired to take us out of town, and while I will be truly enjoying myself and my girls in a lovely beach town, I will be sad to miss this week’s artists, because they speak to both my core love of tradition and my passion for crossover. I mean when I read about and listened to Erik Deutsch and the Jazz Outlaws, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t already aware of his vibe and vision. Erik, who spent years in Nashville as a kid, now is based in Brooklyn, where he’s in with some of the hippest folks in the pop and jazz scene: Norah Jones, Jenny Scheinman, Nels Cline and more. He’s an instrumental composer who works with vocalists as weirdly varied as NYC alt-country crooner Victoria Reed and Nashville outlaw Shooter Jennings, whom he knows from childhood in Music City. Deutsch reports that his newest project, titled Outlaw Jazz, is out on a new Nashville label Cumberland Bros that he’s helping to spearhead. It’s another great sign that we here are making common cause with some of the more ambitiously artistic composers of the NYC scene.
This week’s duo Evie Ladin and Keith Terry also draw on varied traditions, but it would seem all in the service of pure entertainment. Ladin is distinguished folk singer, songwriter and banjo player who gets rave reviews from publications like the Old Time Herald. Terry is a body percussionist who beats on everything in sight, chiefly himself, to create visceral energy on stage. And Evie is also a step dancer who synchs in with Terry’s grooves. Our booking mavens have seen them live and they’ve been raving ever since about the fun and fire of this West Coast-based married duo.
So I’ll miss you guys this week and next. My able and gracious colleague Larry Nager will man the interview/chat room and writing the reviews as we wrap up the Winter Season. I’ll see you in April, when we’ve got more epic bluegrass (i.e. Blue Highway!) and lots more alchemy besides.