My journalist wife and I have conversations and inside jokes about hyperbole and language inflation. We lament that “awesome” has gone from being a rarely used superlative reserved for cosmically consequential things to just another adjective worthy of yummy pizza. And she laughs at me sometimes when I come home from Roots proclaiming that I’d just seen the best show of my life. Which can’t always be true I guess, so, guilty as charged. This is what I got to thinking about when I started processing this week’s MCR lineup. My headline is ironic. But the thought crossed my mind when I saw this ultra-deluxe, five-artist lineup blending righteous original jazz singing, a bluegrass star, a cerebral country songwriter and two flavors of Latin music. These are all artists who are beloved by our Roots family or the Nashville music community at large. Some of them need little introduction. But here are some thoughts on each of our stars.
Raul Malo is Music City’s roots Pavarotti. His voice blew our minds in the early 1990s when he led his band The Mavericks out of Miami and into the Music City fold. The band’s delicious fusions of Latin pop and deep country were a revelation and a hit, scoring success at radio and the Grammy Awards. The Mavericks are going full tilt right now with new albums on a new self-owned label, so Raul has been a busy guy and it’s special he’s agreed to come play for us. As I go to press here, I’m not sure what configuration he has planned for Wednesday night’s show-closing set, but he never fails with a friendly combo or solo acoustic. His albums as a songwriting performer, including the wonderful Today (2001) and Lucky One (2009), display a singer who’s passionate, supple and romantic. One of our finest artists.
Bryan Sutton has made the journey from esteemed bluegrass sideman to band leader in recent years. To be sure, he made a number of excellent guitar albums during the years he was touring with Ricky Skaggs and recording in Nashville with scores of country and bluegrass stars. He’s earned an incredible ten IBMA Guitar Player of the Year awards, including the recent one two weeks ago in Raleigh. And he’s been touring and recording as a member of Hot Rize, the legendary band. But most interesting has been the crafting of the albums Into My Own and The More I Learn. They’re humble album titles for a humble guy who happens to be a musical master. Sutton stepped up as a fine singer and songwriter on the projects, and his band is one of the coolest little combos in acoustic music.
The San Rafael Band is the one gang making its Roots debut this week, but they’ve been making classy, crispy Latin music in Nashville at least since I moved here in the mid 90s. Its leader is Rafael Vasquez, a lifelong working musician from San Antonio and California who, by dint of his work with Sunny Ozuna and the Sunliners earned his way into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame. Vasquez’s band plays everywhere and often, most recently at the Bluebird Café and Jazz on the Cumberland. He’s releasing a new EP on show day called A Nu Latin Breed. I look forward to chatting with him about that.
Speaking of jazz, every Roots head knows how we feel about Davina and the Vagabonds, the suit-wearing, hot-swinging quintet fronted by the dynamic and seductive Davina Sowers. The Twin Cities band has been touring like mad since we first met them at the Loveless Barn about five years ago. Her official bio sums their thing up economically: “With influences ranging from Fats Domino and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to Aretha Franklin and Tom Waits, the band is converting audiences one show at a time, from Vancouver to Miami and across Europe.” One very recent date paired the band with the legendary Taj Mahal, and the photo of Taj getting a vinyl LP from Davina is gold. They’ve got a new project by the way, so we’ll be all ears.
I hate to even have to put these guests in sequence because there is no pecking order at all, so by lottery, last but not least, I announce the return of Paul Burch, who just might be Nashville’s most savvy, consistent, long-running, artistically ambitious practitioner of traditional country music. Not only do his songs ring ancient heartstrings. Not only does his voice evoke a timeless 1940s croon. He and his WPA Ballclub have made albums that tell meta-stories and burrow into subjects. He once made an entire record inspired by Nashville novelist Tony Earley. The most recent is the stunningly detailed Meridian Rising, a song cycle about the life of early country icon Jimmie Rodgers.
So come for a rare five-course MCR and a rare level of talent and accomplishment from open to close. It might be the best lineup ever. It might not. But it sure will be awesome.