Bluegrass and Friends

This week’s Roots features a bluegrass heavy lineup, and where some of our past grassy shows have emphasized top flight bands and band leaders, I’d describe this week’s bill as long on bluegrass instigators. Randy Kohrs, for example, has his hand in all kinds of projects for himself and others. And Jon Weisberger has advanced the bluegrass cause as journalist, bass player, songwriter and board member of IBMA. Both are playing as leaders with “& Friends” groups, those ad hoc combos that are a feature of bluegrass music. Since Jon is a friend of mind, and since he has an expert bird’s-eye view on the music, I offer this week’s show preview in dialogue form:

Craig: Hi Jon. Let’s start with Jon Weisberger & Friends. You have so many friends in bluegrass. Who have you invited to be in your band?

Jon: The band is actually something of a Night Drivers reunion – Chris Jones and Ned Luberecki, who are current Night Driver bandmates; Jesse Brock on mandolin, who was an original Night Driver more than 15 years ago, and Jeremy Garrett of the Infamous Stringdusters, who played with us for several years before the Stringdusters got going. I’ve written a bunch with Chris and with Jeremy, and we’ll be doing a co-write with each of them.

Craig: Yes, your songwriting has truly taken off. Congratulations on last Fall’s IBMA Songwriter of the Year Award by the way. When did you get serious about composing? Inspired by whom or what? And did it grow beyond your initial expectations?

Jon: I started writing songs in the early 90s because I was in a band that needed originals to make records. I got serious about it right around the time I moved to Nashville, ten years ago, because The Chapmans had a pretty sizable bluegrass hit with a song I’d written. I realized it was an additional way to make music and that co-writing had a social element that I really enjoyed and was inspired by. I didn’t expect to have nearly the level of success that I’ve had, though.

As for inspiration, I’m a big fan of the classic bluegrass guys like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Carter Stanley, Don Reno, plus more recent writers like Aubrey Holt (Boys From Indiana), Randall Hylton and Harley Allen. And I’ve been really lucky to get to write with some of the great contemporaries, like Tim Stafford and Mark Simos.

Craig: Nice. So when you look at this MCR lineup, we see a lot of connected threads. Randy Kohrs works with our host Jim Lauderdale. Tammy Rogers of the SteelDrivers is mentoring Taylor Brashears. It’s a nice little cross section of the community. That’s not a question, but how do you see this gang? And if you ‘re aware of who Randy is bringing, that may factor in.

Jon: Connected threads is a great way of looking at the bluegrass musical community. For lots of reasons, including the fact that it’s a music that really requires a band with three or five or more people, everyone comes up building musical and personal relationships. I’ve written with Tammy and played with Richard Bailey and Brent Truitt of the SteelDrivers. Randy mixed the April Verch album I produced with (guitarist) Stephen Mougin. And I’m pretty sure he’s bringing Josh Shilling of Mountain Heart, with whom I’ve both written and performed. If you take any bluegrass lineup and try to diagram out the connections among the participants, it will always look like a spider web.

Craig: A few words about Randy Kohrs. Sometimes I think his production abilities and success are keeping him from being a really famous artist. Same with dobro vs songwriter. His skill set is just overwhelming that it must just be frustrating to be him. Heh.

Jon: I think that’s exactly right in all respects. I have a lot of sympathy for him in that regard because of the struggle I’ve had – fortunately now mostly over – to get people to recognize me as a player and songwriter rather than journalist. I think everyone knows what a great resonator guitarist Randy is, and those who pay attention to album credits know how busy and effective he is as an engineer and producer. But I think he hasn’t yet gotten all the recognition he deserves as a singer, and he’s been writing some pretty good stuff these days, too.

Craig: Well, he’s still easily in the first half of his career. There’s a long road ahead for him.

Jon: Yes, and he’s already been at it for a long time. I’m pretty sure that the first time I saw his name was on one of Rhonda Vincent’s solo albums for Rebel Records, and that was more than 20 years ago.

Craig: It’s always thrilling to welcome The SteelDrivers. They’ve weathered some personnel changes but seem to have come out liberated and motivated. And they generate more excitement among fans than nearly any band I can think of, just because their soul-driven sound is so unique. Your thoughts?

Jon: Yes, I just wrote a Critics Pick on their Station Inn show, in which I tried to make the point that if you just look at the discography, it looks like they went through a double-barreled change that in actuality was serial. (Lead singer) Gary Nichols was fully integrated into the band before Brent Truitt replaced (founding mandolinist) Mike Henderson, so it’s actually been a pretty smooth transition, and they’ve done a great job at keeping a signature sound while introducing some new elements — all with just the traditional bluegrass instrument lineup.

Craig: Indeed. So finally, in the up-and-comer category, we have Taylor Brashears. She seems to love retro country and integrates bluegrass as a flavor rather than her core. Her voice is very sweet. And she seems to be taking her time developing something personal, with Tammy’s help. Are you a Taylor Brashears fan yet?

Jon: I haven’t had the chance to listen, but I’m looking forward to hearing her. And I really enjoy seeing both the young talent that’s coming up in and around bluegrass these days – like Taylor, like the Belmont lineup MCR had last week – and the mentoring relationships that are helping to foster it. To me, that’s a more genuinely “traditional” aspect of the current scene than any particular kind of sound. Mentoring and apprenticeships have been key elements in building continuity in bluegrass and other forms of traditional music – more essential than a lot of stylistic traits, in my opinion. It’s one way you learn the culture and attitude of music-making.

Craig: Thanks again Jon. See you Wednesday. We’re excited to have you on as a leader.

Jon: Good deal, thanks!

So there you go – a teaser for what should be a great evening. And we’re opening the night on a twangier side with the Troubadour Kings, a country band featuring the guy who wrote Dwight Yoakam’s “Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” which is about as good as country songs get. See you at the barn or on the air. Bring your friends.

Craig H.

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