A Saturday night/Sunday morning dichotomy is oft cited as one reason why country and roots music so effectively captures the human condition. Artists from Hank Williams to Marty Stuart have been hailed for being reverent in one song and rascals in another. They sing of sin and its atonement. People are shown loving their families and their maker but straying into self-indulgence and self-destruction too. Because people are complex. And so is this week’s lineup at Roots, with artists who’ve embraced earthy soul and down-home fun as well as music as a vehicle to reach spiritual heights.
It’s been two full years since we got to feature and enjoy the music of Seth Walker on our stage, and that’s too long. Because his gliding but gritty Southern soul blues goes with our vision of roots music like sweet tea next to catfish. But then he’s not as close by as he once was. After moving to Nashville from years in Austin and making himself beloved by Music City stalwarts like Gary Nicholson, Seth slipped down to the third major roots music city of New Orleans and set up shop there. I can’t wait to find out how he’s feeding off the Crescent City’s history and vibe. He’s written about it recently on his blog, saying “This whole city runs through you; it has a rhythm and beat all its own.” That’s for sure. And in working on his new Sky So Blue album with producer Oliver Wood, he says he’s let the city’s “gristle” and jazz work its way deeper into his ardent, tuneful, soulful music.
The world of Christian folk and pop is complicated and full of issues for me, which I won’t get into now, but the progressive side of that world had produced some excellent, humanistic, relatable music. That’s where Andrew Peterson comes from. It says a lot that he was discovered and helped to the limelight by the always provocative and iconoclastic Derek Webb, then of Caedmon’s Call; his art is not an evangelist’s proselytizing so much as a magnetic call of an open, vulnerable heart. Peterson is a big deal in his world (he’s headlining the Ryman Auditorium in December), but his songs transcend any specific format or faith. He just sings movingly about real, relatable hopes, beliefs and fears. He’s also an author of young adult fantasy novels. I feel a kinship to C.S. Lewis here, and that’s always a worthy thing.
The spiritual inklings of guest artist The Whistles & The Bells are harder to discern, because instigator Bryan Simpson loves to be a bit opaque about his calling. The former vocal powerhouse in front of progressive bluegrass experiment Cadillac Sky, Simpson had his world flipped in 2008 when he committed deeply to his Christian faith. Of his new direction he writes that he’s striving for something “Violently delicate and poignantly excavating. And that’s what I want to be when I grow up. A soul with a peep hole. This is my best attempt towards that kind of transparent liberation. I sincerely believe ‘The Whistles & The Bells’ is the sound of something stranger and stronger than me prying the plywood off the windows of my little frame house.” See what I mean? But he’s sought out production help from a guy who’s recorded music for Jack White and Chris Thile and made a new project that feels packed with ideas and receding hallways with many doorways. We are all ears.
Friends of the show from Michigan have written us to cheer the booking of local heroes Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys, an increasingly popular bluegrass and Americana band from the mitten state. One great recent review of their new Here Between LP “puts them more into the contemporary stringband field, like Joy Kills Sorrow or Crooked Still. Lindsay Lou’s vocals are as heavenly as usual, but the songs have a wicked complexity that shows the group maturing to their new sound.” We know band member P.J. George from a couple other MCR album bands, and whatever’s happening with the Flatbellys, it’s apparently a lot of fun and very healthy for beard growth.
The great thing about Wednesday nights is that it’s historically devoid of symbolism or obligation. Neither Saturday night nor Sunday morning, it was just boring old Hump Day – an evening famous for its lack of famousness. But of course now that’s all changed. It’s Roots day. And we hope to see you then.