Almost Heaven

Until my sister married a Charleston, West Virginia guy and moved there, I admit I didn’t give that fair state much thought. It’s often portrayed as remote and less than hip, but that’s not fair. But browse the relatively new West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and you’ll discover how much has emerged from its misty hills and its legendary WWVA Jamboree radio show, including Little Jimmy Dickens, Hazel Dickens, Hawkshaw Hawkins and studio wizard Charlie McCoy.

I found out about the Hall of Fame reading the blog of this week’s Music City Roots guest artist Tim O’Brien. He was back in his home stage last Fall fall helping with the ceremonies inducting Connie Smith (born in Hinto, WV before finding her muse in Ohio), Billy Cox (bass player for Jimi Hendrix) and Kathy Mattea (who had hits with O’Brien’s songs). Tim is my favorite WV-reared artist and a shoe-in for Hall of Fame status one day soon. He’s also one of the dominant figures of bluegrass music in its last 25 years, virtually peerless in his overlapping roles as band leader, singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and ambassador for the music. Tim was one of my key gateway artists into bluegrass, and ever since my first exposure to his work in Hot Rize and his duo albums with sister Mollie, I’ve been awed by his ability to make fresh, updated music that still feels anchored in American bedrock.

Of late, O’Brien made the wonderful Chicken & Egg album, which quintessentially blended his skills at pure bluegrass, Celtic and country. His blues run deep on “All I Want” and his gift of wit is clear on “You Ate The Apple.” For me it was the finest O’Brien solo album in a decade. Now his newest project, out just this month, reunites him with Mollie and other family members in O’Brien Party Of 7. They’ve made a full album tribute to legendary songwriter Roger Miller called Reincarnation, and one can imagine we may hear one or two of those songs in Tim’s show-closing set.

O’Brien is not the only West Virginian on this week’s bill. We’re looking forward to the songwriting and singing of Todd Burge, a favorite at the stage’s famous Mountain Stage radio broadcast and a regular collaborator with O’Brien. He’s a deeply original, even quirky writer, but his stuff kind of works its way into your skull and improves it. Who better to hear from about him than Tim: “Todd Burge’s new CD, Building Characters, is killer. His music and personality will grow on you. He draws from the same muse as John Hartford and Roger Miller, but there’s something else in there that keeps it all Todd, all the time. The songs make me laugh and then think, and then laugh and think again.”

We hope and expect you’ll think and laugh a lot this week. No doubt Tommy Womack will help you along. The veteran Nashville rocker has recently put out two career-topping albums that capture his candor, his passion and his eye for the interesting and absurd. They were the exclamatory There, I Said It! and Now What! and if you’re in the market for grounded, wise, acerbic, tender, grown-up songwriting and musicianship, these are for you.

Holy smoke what a week. I’ve hardly any space left to remind you that besides all those guys, we’re getting a return visit from Jason Ringenberg, famer and country rocker extraordinaire. Not sure if he’s bringing a band or just a guitar this time, but it’ll be good either way. And finally, we’ll be hearing from Ryan Tanner, a much admired artist in the pure Americana vein of Buddy Miller, Steve Earle and Joe Henry, with as much rock as country as folk in his sound. He’s shared stages with Calexico, Deer Tick, Over The Rhine and Ryan Bingham, so that will give you a feel for who he’s running around with.

So from the Mountain State to state-of-the-art to altered states, we’ve a little of everything. See you Wednesday night.

Craig H.

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