Artists evolve. It’s part of the job description. There’s no alternative really. Like the shark that must keep swimming to breathe, musicians have to develop, at least subtly, to remain relevant. My friends the Dixie Bee-Liners are a perfect example. When I met founders Brandi Hart and Buddy Woodward five or so years ago, they were basically a duo with hired sidemen and a pretty straightforward bluegrass album to their credit. Now they’re a settled, coherent band with an ensemble feeling and a range of new music that truly takes bluegrass music in new and exciting directions.
So when they kicked off Music City Roots last night with the droning earthy dulcimer into to the song “Heavy” it created a wonderful, fresh ambience. It sounded timeless and American, but not saddled by form. And the whole set was wonderful and showed off the talents of the full band. Fiddler Rachel Renee Johnson took the lead on a reworking of the Carter Family classic “Single Girl.” New member Sav Sankaran delivered a funky touch on the bass, especially on the bouncy “Truck Stop Baby,” while somewhat less new but still pretty new member Casey Henry offered a banjo attack that fell somewhere between standard Scruggs-style and mod folk rhythm chunking. Best of all was “Restless,” which shimmers like hot asphalt and explodes with daring harmonic shifts and intervals. Make a bee-line to a venue to see these guys.
Vietti artist Kara Clark brought a rocking roadhouse vibe to the stage before Suzi Ragsdale pulled the proceedings back into songwriter territory. Long noted for her harmony vocal chops, Suzi should be better recognized as a songsmith. In “Virginia,” a profile of an older neighbor, she sings “she turns off the sun and turns in for the night/ Holding fast to tomorrow when she’ll wake it up early and bright/ While the moon, she is holding herself in a sliver of light/ Me, I’m just barely holding myself upright”. And that gets a big ‘wow’ from the song maven in me. She must also be thanked for bringing Nashville veterans Kenny Malone (percussion) and Alison Prestwood (bass) out to the barn as her rhythm section. That’s Music City in a nutshell right there.
We moved on into the future and the past with Christabel and the Jons, that swinging, happily retro band from Knoxville. These fine musicians are led by singer Christa DiCicco, whose charm, command and phrasing make this a group to see. They got several couples dancing (which rarely happens in Nashville) and they even uncorked a jazz drum solo on “Back To Tennessee” which believe it or not is also a rarity in this town.
That set the stage for the great Kim Richey, truly one of the divine artist/writers from the land of Americana. She bookended songs from her new CD “Wreck Your Wheels” with standards, the roiling “Those Words We Said” from her debut album and “I’m Alright” from 1997’s Bittersweet, with Jim Lauderdale up harmonizing with his old friend. Kim’s music isn’t complicated. If you looked at her chord charts you might think you’d be snoring. But her bold melodies and serene, sparkling voice create a whole atmosphere. Her stuff is about evoking a feeling, and few do it as seductively.
The gang cooked up some Hank in the Loveless Jam with “Hey Good Lookin’” and since we were all well fed already, we just took it as a compliment and thought about just how good looking we really are. That should tide us over until next week, when we have our season-ending bluegrass blowout. See you then.