I’m filing this dispatch from a road trip in the western part of North Carolina, my home state (Jim’s too). I’m doing bits of business and flying the flag for Music City Roots and hoping to build stronger bridges between Nashville and this musically rich part of the world. I visited Echo Mountain Recording, where MCR alums like the Steep Canyon Rangers and Amy Ray have made albums. I toured the MOOG synthesizer factory, where I was reminded that those seminal and seemingly non-rootsy beasts are in fact hand-made analog instruments, not unlike guitars and mandolins. I stopped by the Arden, NC home of Organic Records (Adam Steffey, The Honeycutters) and Mountain Home Music Co. (Balsam Range, Chris Jones and a bunch of great bluegrass). In Shelby, where I am now, I caught up with my friends at the Earl Scruggs Center, the finest little roots music museum you’ll find anywhere.
Along the way, I’m kept company by the legendary WNCW, the greatest Americana radio station on planet Earth. They keep their artists on a pedestal and their listeners informed and edu-tained. Curiously, and perhaps not surprisingly, when I made a Spotify playlist of this week’s artists to get up to speed on my road trip, what I heard was in a similar vibe to the eclectic folky, grassy and rocky WNCW repertoire. Our guest artists are, like me this week, all over the map.
I think Mike & Ruthy will be some of our new best friends. They come from way up in New York state where they live life as a family and a touring group that goes out as both a duo and a full band. Ruthy Ungar is the daughter of Jay, who composed the famous and nourishing “Ashokan Farewell,” the fiddle tune that undergirded the emotion of Ken Burns’s breakout Civil War documentary. They are as a family close to Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora and they were friends with Pete Seeger before he passed. Yet their new album is far from a somber or serious affair. It crackles with beats, energy and exaltation in songs like “What Are We Waiting For?”. They seem enamored of The Band (per their song “The Ghost of Richard Manuel”) but who making folk rock in New York State wouldn’t be? And UPDATE: this will be the five-piece full-on band. Doubly exciting.
From the “long overdue” file we’ll hear from East Nashville “writer, song-singer” Amelia White, whom I discovered during my days of official discovery duty at The Tennessean. Along about 2002 came a disc called Blue Souvenirs that featured a mix of keening country pathos, urban savvy and resonant songwriting. The composition, texture and singing made me think of Lucinda Williams with better diction and range. Amelia was new to Nashville then (following development years in Boston), and I’d soon meet her in the swirl of the neighborhood and music scene. She proved to be a super-cool, positive person and a tuned-in artist who had a lot more in her than just one debut album. Her 2006 project Black Doves won her tons of acclaim and new opportunities. Her most recent project is the impressive and personal Old Postcard. A recent No Depression writeup said that “she puts her heart out for all to experience and loves to connect with her audiences.”
I asked her what’s up these days, and she wrote back that the major themes of now include a new publishing deal that focuses on her TV show placements (her songs have been on Justified and other shows), plus some songs of hers being recorded by others like Anne McCue and Wild Ponies. And she’s readying a new studio album called Home Sweet Hotel for a winter release. “It is dark, moody and rocking, and explores the tug between life on the road, and life at home,” she said. “I look forward to touring the USA and overseas behind it- and know it’s going to open some doors, and keep me chasing the crazy muse that drives me.”
Whenever Reno Bo came up in my road mix shuffle play I thought of Bill Lloyd, the Beatles and ultimately (major compliment incoming) the great Nick Lowe. The new album Lessons From A Shooting Star on hip East Nashville label Electric Western (Los Colognes, Derek Hoke) is a polished pop and roots rock gem. Riffs catch you off guard. He writes lines like “I can’t even believe you’re real, ‘cause baby you’re giving me a sweetheart deal,” which becomes the barbed hook of the leadoff single. That’s how most of these songs sound – like great sides spinning on a 45 RPM player. Reno has earned his stripes as a side musician for the likes of Caitlin Rose, Andrew Combs and more. Now he’s collaborating with Brendan Benson of the Raconteurs and Sadler Vaden and the results are clean, modern, rocking and soul satisfying.
We’re closing this week with a guy who’ll remind you of Elvis. Seriously, without even trying, Ronnie McDowell’s voice has that catch and curl that put you in mind of E. Aaron Presley. That’s appropriate since the artist burst on the scene with a tribute single in 1977 called “The King Is Gone.” No one-hit wonder, he had a long career on CBS/Epic and Curb in the 1980s. Another key influence on his work and life was Conway Twitty. I’ve never seen Ronnie but I’m expecting some of the same balance of smooth crooning heartthrob and southern soul rocker that his late friend and mentor embodied. But the Elvis factor endures. The singer has toured widely with Presley’s original band and vocal collaborators The Jordanaires, and he’s been the Elvis voice in major motion pictures. That’s the coolest form of Elvis impersonation I’ve ever heard about.
So I’ll be home soon. See you at the Factory. If you’re not sure how to get there, use a map.