We’ve had an early Spring here in Music City, with nary a frost to bruise the jonquils nor storms to strip the cherry blossoms. I have a coating of pollen in my raspy throat but it’s a small price to pay for all this beauty. Baseball is underway. The Masters brought sweet Southern ritual to the airwaves this weekend. And we’ve had two weeks of this balmy air to pause to recharge and take care of housekeeping stuff that gets neglected during the busy season. When we gather on Wednesday at the Factory for our Spring opener, we’ll have a bouquet of musical stylists to share, starting with three of loveliest blossoms in Americana music.
The songwriter/artists who comprise Wine, Women & Song have all played Roots before on their own, but this will be a first time performance for the graceful, irreverent trio of Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss. In a town of great songwriters, this is an elite little sisterhood. Suzy has had a high profile artist career, with top ten hits in the 90s and more importantly, a record as a sublime singer with an interpretive range and the heart of a folk artist. Her most recent recording Lucky took on a new timeliness and poignancy this week, because it’s a tribute to the songwriting majesty of Merle Haggard, who passed away on April 6. A Haggard cover helped kick off Suzy’s career on country radio and all these years later, she brings a glow and interpretive control to “Silver Wings” and “Sing Me Back Home” and many others. She has one of my favorite voices in the genre.
Matraca and Gretchen are best known for their songwriting resumes, while their albums as artists have been cherished by tastemakers and fans of unadorned, poetic music. About ten years ago I worked on a documentary about women in country music and our songwriting chapter was built around Matraca and Gretchen’s vision and recollection. Matraca talked about the hard work that led up to her emotional smash Deanna Carter record “Strawberry Wine” and Gretchen was perceptive about the success of her song “Independence Day” in the hands of Martina McBride. In the film, we quote Trisha Yearwood, who’s cut songs by both, saying “It’s like finding people who think like you, who say things that I would say if I could write a great song.” And that’s pretty spot on. Besides that, they’ve released recent albums like 2011’s The Dreaming Fields (Berg) and last year’s Blackbirds (Peters) – records that will sound glorious and moving in 20 years. They with Suzy tried out the Wine, Women & Song trio concept on a tour of the UK in 2007 and it’s been a regular thing for them ever since, even as they maintained their famous and irreplaceable independence as artists.
If the focus of WW&S is on the song, then Dustbowl Revival is all about the ensemble sound. After they performed on MCR for the first time exactly a year ago, I wrote that “We’ve had big brassy funky vintage soul-meets-country-blues bands before, but none has had more chair-by-chair excellence in musicianship, showmanship and vocal power than The Dustbowl Revival out of Los Angeles.” We heard influence of Beale Street, Congo Square and old Hollywood in their retro funky sound. And they had the crowd in the palms of their hands. If the phrase “Put your lampshade on” rings a bell, then you were there and you know. I see that since their visit they’ve gone global, including a trip to China in November. A travelogue video set to a live on location performance of “So Far Away” presents the band’s enthusiasm and transcendent appeal. We’re excited to welcome them back.
Is comeback the right word for T.G. Sheppard’s recent Legendary Friends and Country Duets album? It’s not as if the country star ever went away, but the artistry and freshness of this project is rare for somebody who could doing just fine on the casino-coaster circuit. Sheppard had no single style or approach in his productive 1970s/80s-centered heyday when he released a long string of number one singles. He could be pop or he could be honky tonk or somewhere in between. But on the new project, he pulled in some real legends (Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Skaggs, Willie Nelson and Conway Twitty) for duets that pop off the record with blues and panache. He even has tracks on there with the late George Jones and Merle Haggard. I’m glad this scheduled set pointed me toward this album, because I’d have underestimated Sheppard’s voice and accomplishments otherwise. He’s making his Roots debut.
And rounding out the bill is a flavor of Americana I’m always glad to see come through, and that’s Tennessee old time music in the riverbed carved by Uncle Dave Macon and the Skillet Lickers. The Glade City Rounders is a trio of guys raised on the tradition and full of tunes. A leading UK roots music website praised their 2014 album They’re After Us thusly: “They have a powerful individuality and an obvious pleasure in playing this music with friends, as well as a total immersion in traditional music, enabling them to imbue every song with a deep passion and vitality.” Vitality? That sounds like spring time music. So let’s make it happen. See you Wednesday at the Factory.