It’s safe to say we’ve never had a seasonal break like the last three weeks. It feels like an age ago that we wrapped up Summer and broke the news about our new programming partnership with MTSU’s College of Media and Entertainment and the birth of the new WMOT/Roots Radio 89.5. It is truly hard to find words to convey the emotion, the fulfillment and the work behind this, the biggest development in the history of Music City Roots. At a time when we so often are lamenting the loss or end or death of this cool thing or that in our over-cranked world, here we get to be part of a new source of culture and community. It’s a time none of us will ever forget – a huge privilege and responsibility.
Our show this Wednesday night is thus a landmark – a return to the FM airwaves and a solid partnership that lets us truly integrate what we’re good at with a powerful, venerable public radio station. And this week’s program is tailor made, a nod to a moment in history and a recording project celebrating it called Orthophonic Joy: The 1927 Bristol Session Revisited. The album is an all-star affair produced by Carl Jackson featuring Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Keb’ Mo’, Ashley Monroe and many others. Marty Stuart’s “Black Eyed Suzy” is a fireball of a performance. Carl’s own duet with Brad Paisley on “In The Pines” is a landmark track that will tickle fans of deep old bluegrass and Grisman/Garcia hippie swing as well (it’s nominated for an IBMA Award by the way). Each song, drawn from those cut by RCA Victor A&R man Ralph Peer in those historic recordings, is given a detailed audio introduction by WSM DJ Eddie Stubbs and an updated treatment by the musicians. The performances offer a fine window through which to size up this week’s guests on Roots.
The Church Sisters are all about mesmerizing, velvety harmony vocals. They recorded an old hymn from the Bristol Sessions called “Where We’ll Never Grow Old.” It opens with really challenging chord ideas (for a folk gospel song anyway) and then settles into a warm, tender and holy performance. Twins Sarah and Savannah hail from coal mining and bluegrass loving eastern Virginia. They’ve been audience and regional radio favorites since they were little kids, and of late they’ve been out touring with IIIrd Tyme Out and Delta Rae. The Church Sisters have sung at Roots before, but not since the Thanksgiving show of 2012. We’re thankful they’re returning.
Next up will be Corbin Hayslett, an exceptional Appalachian talent who came to light specifically because of the Orthophonic Joy album. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which instigated the CD project, held a nation-wide contest in which unsigned musicians submitted performances via social media. Hayslett, the judges’ favorite, came from right there in the area. He’d been given his first banjo in 2003 and in the intervening decade he’d become an admired area performer and teacher. He’d won picking contests before, but none that let him be on an album beside Dolly Parton. His version of “Darling Cora” on the CD is a blazingly original interpretation with a dynamic new twist on clawhammer banjo. It’ll be great to have him back at Roots.
Debuting at MCR will be Ashley Campbell, an artist in the middle of a life-changing discovery and development process. She’s performed widely and proven her musical bona fides as a key band member with her dad Glen Campbell (maybe you’ve heard of him?). She’s played her bluegrass leaning country music on stages all around the nation and she’s danced with at least one major Music Row record label. It would seem she’s patiently pushing forward, looking for the right mix of time and project rather than the easy, early opportunity. Carl Jackson, her mentor and producer, says it’ll happen when it’s right. “She’s an artist,” he says simply. Campbell’s track on Orthophonic Joy backs that up. Her banjo is crafty and silky on the opening of the tragic broadside “The Wreck of the Virginian.” Her vocal performance is bell-toned and aching. If you’ve not seen I’ll Be Me, the film about Glen’s final tour in the wake of an Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis, do so. Ashley proves a sturdy, lovely (and highly musical) presence amid a sad and challenging situation.
Our venerated veteran of the evening is the great Jesse McReynolds, the innovative mandolinist and singer who was half of the longest running country/bluegrass brother band in history, Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys. In a world that routinely salutes Jerry Douglas and Earl Scruggs for their innovations on their stringed instruments, Jesse ought to get more credit for his unique and influential approach to his instrument. He could have just copped Bill Monroe and had a career, but he took his own path, developing cross-picking and single string ideas that got him invited to collaborations like working with The Doors in the late 60s. On Orthophonic Joy, we hear Jesse play the fiddle, and not just any fiddle but the instrument that his own grandfather played on the original 1927 Bristol Sessions.
The night will conclude with a set by Carl Jackson himself, in concert with all of the other night’s guests returning to the stage – a true variety celebration of not just a big historic event but of the whole tradition and legacy that those epic sessions begat. They don’t call it the Big Bang of Country Music for nothing. If we and our new radio partners can be a little solar system in that universe, than who could ask for more?
REMINDER: The incredible Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion takes place this coming weekend, Sept. 16 to 18 with dozens of top-tier Americana artists, including Buddy Guy, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Houndmouth and Marty Stuart. FULL INFO HERE.