Big Top

In the beginning, there were fiddles and banjos, instruments with hundreds of years of tradition, radically transformed in America, before records and radio, before cars and highways. In the age of media and mobility, string band music was transformed anew and energized as something that would be called bluegrass. And in the wild, magical late 20th century, that branch became its own trunk of its own tree with many branches and stems. Out there you’ll find Yonder Mountain String Band, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers and just a whole lot of other great music.

Younger and less proven than those star-level acts, but very much in this tradition of progressive thinking and expression with old-time instruments is Rockin’ Acoustic Circus, a quintet making its second MCR appearance this week, albeit after some pretty significant changes. The band recently announced that it was relocating from its Tulsa, Oklahoma base to Nashville and shifting personnel. Gone is elder member/mentor Rick Morton, who helped the young band find its identity and get on its feet. Also departing is “bluegrass cellist” Emma Hardin. The band has added another string-playing female in the person of 5-string fiddler Rachel Baiman, a state champ musician from Illinois. Also new is flatpicker Dillon Hodges, a wunderkind who won the Winfield, KS guitar prize at age 17.

Original members Eric Dysart and Sterling Abernathy are still part of the Circus. Eric pairs his fiddle with Emma for what must be an enthralling string ensemble sound, while Sterling is the group’s founding mandolinist. Rounding out the band is bass player Adam Chaffins. Among their many admirers is fiddle innovator Byron Berline who enthuses about the band doing things “their own way.” Elmore Magazine named them an artist to watch in 2011. That may be even more true in 2012.

Also up this week, a favorite returns in the willowy figure of Sarah Siskind. I’m in the original Sarah Siskind fan club, so don’t get me started on her remarkable and original contributions to Americana music. Her new album Novel continues a string of gorgeous and enthralling recordings. We’ll be delighted to see her too, because she’s a lovely person, and you won’t want to miss our interview, as well as her set. Also from Nashville’s elite of female singer songwriters, the delightful Irene Kelley. Her greatest hit perhaps is “A Little Bluer Than That,” a song spotted on WSM and recorded by Alan Jackson on his great Drive album. But she has a basket of beautiful songs that have been covered by Loretta Lynn, Trisha Yearwood, Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch and many more. She has a pure as springwater country voice too, so we’ll be excited to hear her MCR debut. Too long coming.

Rounding out our acoustic circus will be eclectic folk ensemble Girlyman, which has ten years under its belt as an audience dazzling, hard traveling ensemble. And newcomer Sam Lewis will bring soul-saturated roots music from his debut project, which knocked out hired musicians like Kenny Vaughan when he took to the studio with this young singer/songwriter.

We don’t have a big top, but we have a big barn. Jim won’t be in a top hat, but he’ll likely have some rhinestones. I’ll be the one with the chairs but no whip. So no clowning around, this is going to be a good time for children of all ages.

Craig H

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