Some years ago my friend Travis Book, bass player and singer in the Infamous Stringdusters, pressed a point on me like it was an insider investment tip. The future of acoustic Americana and new bluegrass, he said, is brewing in Boston. Mostly at Berklee College of Music, he said, where a bunch of brilliant young talents were being honed with a fusion of traditional musical education and boundary-crossing vision and license. I already knew that several innovative musicians I admired deeply, including fiddler Casey Driessen and banjo player Chris Pandolfi (also a Stringduster), had attended Berklee. And they spoke highly of the program and of the world and jazz influences they were able to assimilate there.
Then in late 2008, Berklee President Roger Brown gave the keynote address at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass convention, and I nodded through the whole speech until I about pulled a neck muscle. He told a story I’d thought about a lot: the parallel and uncannily similar development of bluegrass and bebop in the post WWII years in America. That’s a deep topic for another day, but let’s just say I could tell why Pandolfi and Driessen and everyone else whose ear I bent spoke so highly of Mr. Brown and the Berklee American Roots Music Program. It marks one of the highest level fusions of music education and folk tradition ever assembled. The school’s alums include members of Crooked Still, Della Mae, Lake Street Dive, The Deadly Gentlemen and more.
The “more” includes some of the remarkable artists on our bill for a special Tuesday Night edition of MCR featuring the presentation of Berklee’s American Master Awards to T Bone Burnett and the iconic neo-traditional duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Mr. Brown will be with us for the event, along with longtime faculty member Pat Pattison who’s taught songwriting there for decades. And, to our profound excitement, Gillian and Dave will perform, marking their first appearance on our show, something we’ve long hoped for.
I clearly remember my first inkling of these Americana game changers. I found a seat on a hillside at Merlefest a full set early so I could make sure to see Doc Watson, and that set turned out to be Gillian and Dave. It was kind of shocking to hear such young musicians tap into something so ancient and breathe together so intimately. Just then the debut album Revival was a topic of much discussion and media. I can even recall where I was driving when I heard the NPR feature about the CD, which became an instant canonical album. Since then, Welch and Rawlings released a string of acclaimed albums that updated the atmosphere of Appalachian folk music and participated in key milestones of Americana, including the O Brother, Where Art Thou Soundtrack of 2001. T Bone Burnett, who will likely join the duo on stage and who joins them in receipt of the award, produced Revival, having intuited their depth before the rest of us. It’s one of the great latter day American music success stories and it’s a pleasure to celebrate it.
Other Berklee grads round out this remarkable night at Roots. Liz Longley slayed us when she first played for us at the Loveless Barn. Her crystalline vocals and range were the first thing we noticed, but her songs proved to have staying power too. I’ve loved her debut Sugar Hill album so much over this past year or two. It sounds so good I use it even now to audition headphones. Fellow Nashvillian Sierra Hull is a frequent visitor to our venue, whether performing as a featured artist (her recent preview of her new Weighted Mind album was stunning) or as a side musician wielding her stunningly complete and musical mandolin. Maureen Murphy will be new to us, but my heavens what a resume this power vocalist has. She’s been a featured singer or support for Zac Brown Band, Sound Tribe Sector 9, PHISH, Gregg Allman and many more. Her band for this evening’s set includes the hyper grooving Jano Rix from the Wood Brothers and sought-after country guitarist Tim Galloway. So it should provide a rocking ramp up to the sublime folk of Gillian and Dave in the final set.
Berklee dropped “College of Music” recently and now goes by its sole name. It also recently announced an upcoming merger with The Boston Conservatory, giving it a fully rounded portfolio of music, including jazz and classical, along with dance and other arts. Its long-running Nashville Trip continues as one of the nation’s leading experiences for student songwriters to work and interface with the music industry in Nashville. In fact the Nashville Trip students for 2016 and faculty leader Pat Pattison will be with us for this gala evening. So in this case we are very happy to go back to school.