This week’s show will be epic for all of us and a bit personal for me. Last winter I got a call asking to help out with the press notes for an upcoming album by a musician I’ve long admired and a person I adore, Nashville fiddler, singer and songwriter Andrea Zonn. That led to a lovely lunch and catch up where I heard about her adventures on the road in James Taylor’s band and the latest on her son. He had a health scare some years ago that would test any mom’s faith, and it turned out that those events also became a catalyst for the new project we were talking about, including its title track “Rise.”
We’ve worked on this Wednesday’s show for a long time in tandem with Andrea and her manager/our friend Brian Smith so that the album could be played in its entirety with most of the very special guests who graced the project and who make up Andrea’s world. Setting that up will be three splendid acts from very different places and styles, as is our habit.
When I heard the full Rise album for the first time it was in an early stage known in the biz as rough mixes. The songs were brilliant and bold, and it was easy to feel the vibrancy of Zonn’s voice and the skill of the dream team of players. It wasn’t polished, but it was enough to write the bio and appreciate the effort. Then recently I got to hear to final, mastered opus, and Holy Cats people. The voices of Andrea and her guests now saturate a huge, lush soundscape, and the smart interplay of acoustic instruments with drums, bass and keys really shines. This Compass Records release is going to be one of the finest albums of the year, and it ought to put this hard working artist on everyone’s map.
Normally I don’t quote official press bios, but in this case I think I can indulge.
Zonn knows as well as anyone that the right players and the right chemistry are what elevates an album and serves the songs. The ten tracks that emerged in this case elude any neat genre descriptions – folk-rock suits as well as anything – but they’re heavy on groove, natural tones and spontaneous, transparent beauty.
Those players include long time friends and colleagues including Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Keb Mo, John Cowan, Vince Gill, James Taylor and mega Nashville session guy Mac McAnally. Central to her vision for the project was the rhythm section of bassist Willie Weeks and drummer Steve Gadd. Look these guys up. I loved Gadd from his Steely Dan work and so much more. Gadd can’t make this show but Weeks will be there, and he’s played bass with Eric Clapton, George Harrison and the Rolling Stones. Zonn also has gushing praise for her fellow mastermind and partner behind the album, MCR regular Thomm Jutz, the guitarist and producer we’ve seen with Peter Cooper, Mac Wiseman and Irene Kelley among others.
I mentioned the family health crisis that sparked Andrea. And when you hear the song “Rise” knowing that it was inspired by the confluence of news that her son would need dangerous brain surgery and the Nashville flood of 2010 its spirit and uplift will take on even more shades of meaning. Andrea said this:
“I had always been a bit timid about writing, because I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the greatest writers ever, anywhere,” she says. “I wasn’t writing up to my own standards. Or I didn’t feel like I could.” The experience five years ago became a “catalyst for me learning to speak.”
Andrea’s full back story, mixing classical training and bluegrass fiddle championships, is fascinating and reflecting of the best about Nashville, the creative process and Americana music. I hope you’ll read the whole thing. I felt incredibly lucky to experience a work like this early on. I feel lucky to know somebody capable of this level of musical beauty. I think you’ll feel the same way after Andrea covers the album over two sets.
As for the front half of the evening, these artists could be a show in themselves. We’ll open things up with perhaps the world’s most famous instrumentalist of the YouTube era. And while ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro was one of the very first musicians to go viral when his performance of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” blew up in 2006, he was by then already a popular touring artist based out of his native Hawaii and signed to Sony. Like Earl Scruggs and Jerry Douglas, he’s made over and re-invented a venerable folk instrument, and his virtuosity and spirit have earned him entrée to the world’s biggest and best stages. We’re very fortunate to snag him during this visit to Music City.
Up next is (are?) Gnarly Parkers, a band that continues our run of groups with A) Belmont University ties B) a penchant for classic early jazz and blues and C) shows of consummate musicianship and youthful panache. They dress sharp, play smart and swing hard in a way that mingles barroom and ballroom. And then we’ll experience a return visit from the Honey Island Swamp Band, formed in the Bay Area by a bunch of Hurricane Katrina refugees who then eventually returned to their home city. In 2013 they brought what I scientifically observed as “funky butt sophistication” and killer musicianship. I said “It was a display of versatility and joie de vivre from one of the more celebrated contemporary New Orleans bands.”
So if you’re with us in the hall on Wednesday night (as you should be) get ready for some stellar performances and the warmth that comes from true Nashville musical camaraderie. And be prepared to Rise up out of your seat a few times.