I moved to Nashville in the fall of 1996 and on the Sunday that I drove here to close on my cute old East Nashville house, the New York Times Magazine ran a big feature about Music City’s renaissance (yep, even then). It was quite exciting to read it aloud to my traveling companion as we drove. My new neighborhood was said to be a hive of musical revivalism. Dead Reckoning Records was putting out quality, progressive music with deep roots. And Lower Broadway was humming, thanks to a renovated Ryman Auditorium and the nightly performances at Robert’s Western World by aclassic country band with the quirky name BR5-49.
The air was rife with possibilities and prophecies. A new Nashville was on the make and something was certain to happen to purge the bilge from corporate radio. Real country was a-comin’ back. A few years after I settled in, the Americana Music Association formed to coax the movement along. It created the annual convention and festival that arrives this week like a gathering of the clans. And a decade unfolded that in most ways made good on the predictions, though perhaps not in the way folks thought. The internet blew up, giving us choice as listeners, fans, artists and producers. Radio got even worse, but now we could just ignore it.Music found its way.
So that’s just a bit of the context for this year’s Americana showcase at Roots. The original lineup of BR5-49 has reunited. It’s not clear how many shows they might do, but it’s clear it won’t be a lot, so to have them on our stage is very special indeed. For me, they are a symbol of Nashville’s promise and the Americana prophecy fulfilled. And they’re also a cracking band that knows how to write, play, sing and ultimately present real-deal country music with the bluesy pathos and vivacious fun of the music’s golden age.
BR5-49 embraced the campy corny side of 1960s and 70s country music when it pulled its name from a Junior Samples sketch on Hee-Haw. But the committed performances, the deep knowledge of the classic country catalog and its influence on their original songwriting left no doubt that they took hillbilly music seriously. And with that, they won over thousands of converts. After nearly two years of Robert’s shows, the industry and media caught on and the band got to release major label albums and tour the world. Their ascendancy helped fuel and compliment the growth of the Avett Brothers, Old Crow Medicine Show and many others as Americana grew into a viable, vibrant sector of art, commerce and culture. Band members Chuck Mead, Gary Bennett, Don Heron, Jay McDowell and Shaw Wilson are each doing their own things these days, but these rare reunion shows are a chance to celebrate all that’s transpired in Nashville since those heady days on Lower Broad.
The rest of this year’s AMA Showcase lineup is every bit as exciting. I fell for the music of Chris Smither in the early 90s as my passion for the blues and songwriting sent me hunting through the layers to some of the hidden gems of acoustic music.Turns out he wasn’t hidden to the very famous Bonnie Raitt who recorded his songs, including hits “Love Me Like A Man” and “I Feel The Same.” The album that hooked me was 1991’s Another Way To Find You, which was a no-retakes studio album before a small audience. It was riveting for both his fine singing and elegant, elaborate guitar playing. Turns out he’d already been recording for 20 years by that point! And he’d keep going for the next 20, adding all kinds of laurels to his bio – songs for films, the Monsters of Folk tour with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Folk Alliance awards and Americana charting records. Just now, he’s celebrating the release of a 24-song retrospective and a book of his lyrics going back to 1966. This is a veteran song master, and we are lucky to have him.
In more blues news, we are thrilled to welcome Ruthie Foster, a guitarist and singer who’s been honored multiple times in recent yearsby the Austin Music Awards as the city’s finest vocalist. With a varied background and just the right amount of schooling, she brings a fusion of precision and passion to her music. For her very new album Promise of a Brand New Day, her eighth overall, she enlisted worldly bass playing songwriter MeshellNdegeocello as producer. It’s quite a distance from her coffeehouse folk origins, characterized by a nicely orchestrated, jazz-inflected sophistication. She told CMT Edge that she sought a new degree of social relevance and point of view on the project.
And just as BR5-49 reunites the core duo of Chuck Mead and Gary Bennett, The Duhks return with the core musiciansthat brought such a fresh, global and funky sound down from Winnipeg Canada upon the band’s formation in 2002. Back then we were astonished by the vocals (and tattoos) of powerhouse Jessee Havey and the neo-tradbanjo and band-leading of Leonard Podolak. The band swapped Havey for Sarah Dugas for a while and then went on hiatus. Now Havey is back and the band has issued its beautiful and typically eclectic new Beyond The Blue album on Compass Records. With fiddling from Rosie Newton andpercussion by Kevin Garcia, plus guitarist/bouzouki player Colin Savoie-Levac, the reconfigured Duhks seem ready to fly through some new chapters of global folk fusion.
Americanalaunched with a focus on country music, as BR5-49 illustrates, but over these years of sharing, strategizing, enthusing and informing, the formathas widened to include many roots genres and expansive visions. And on it goes.Predictions are for others to make. Our job is to keep coming up with and nurturing new Music City dreams.