Last winter, singer/songwriter Tim Easton posted to his web site an open letter to a young songwriter. Distilled to its takeaway points, it urged artists to read and listen voraciously, travel widely and “bring something new to the tradition of your craft.” That’s good advice for anybody, but in music that ethos can elevate a player into an artist. It leaves traces and signatures in one’s sound that can’t be learned, isolated or transferred. By taking his own advice, Easton’s art has been enlivening Americana music for fifteen years.
My excitement about Easton’s performance at Roots this week was already considerable because he’s been so consistently impressive since his 1998 debut, and his new album Not Cool (released the day before our show) improves on the track record. We also had a slate of Nashville standouts young and veteran on the bill. Then recently we were approached by Chris “Critter” Eldridge who asked if his new guitar duo with jazz phenom Julian Lage could squeeze in to our lineup while routing through Nashville. Uh, yes please. You could hardly find two guitarists who’ve brought more newness to their craft, as we’ll see shortly. So for me, and I hope for you, it’s a double rainbow – a show bookended with greatness from two very different fields – folk/rock on one hand and instrumental acoustic on the other.
I’ll start with the Eldridge/Lage combo, because I’m a geek for this stuff – for guitar playing generally and especially for that terrain where jazz overlaps with roots/bluegrass. I became a fan of Critter Eldridge when he was in the first iteration of the Infamous Stringdusters. He had bluegrass in his blood, as his dad is the great banjo player Ben Eldridge of the Seldom Scene. And Critter developed one of the most intelligent and inventive approaches to flatpicking I’ve seen, putting him on par with the greats like Tony Rice to Bryan Sutton. Since about 2007 or so Eldridge has played with Chris Thile and Punch Brothers, where he’s been able to stretch and grow in a super-group of elite instrumentalist.
Julian Lage came into my life in that old fashioned music journalist way – a CD in a bubble pack from a label. The album Sounding Point (2009) became one of my favorites of recent years in any genre, heralding the arrival of a creative and passionate player with a surprising and unique style. It was exciting to hear him collaborating with Bela Fleck and Chris Thile on that disc, a signal that at least part of his work would be in that jazz/string band fusion terrain. That further develops in the duo with Critter. It’s a side project for both, but it’s produced a lovely EP and a short tour. We’re very lucky to be part of that run, because these are history-making guitarists early in their careers.
Tim Easton will be in the all-important opening slot, getting Roots started with some old time rock and roll. At least that’s the cue I’m getting from Not Cool, which you can read more about and stream at American Songwriter. Easton has never settled into any single stylistic groove, but here he offers something new and refreshed by embracing reverberations of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, T-Bone Walker and early Brit rock. “I’d say I let my roots flag fly harder on this one than anything I’ve done before,” he says in the feature linked above. The songs crackle with life and zest, not to mention smart lyrics and Tim’s well-traveled, well-read voice. Easton’s big life news is a move to Nashville after some time in the spiritually potent landscape of Joshua Tree, California. It sounds as if the humidity may be drawing out his blues in the best possible way.
Speaking of the blues, we’re extremely excited to bring to Roots for the first time one of Nashville’s icons of the music – a veteran of the 1960s Jefferson Street scene and Chess Records – the velvet voiced Nick Nixon. He’s partnered with guitarist Andy T (Talamentez) in one of Nashville’s most timeless bands. The producing imprimatur of Anson Funderburgh on their most recent album and a nod on the cover of Living Blues magazine this summer are but a couple signals of their prowess.
And rounding out the bill, two killer emerging acts from East Nashville with very different vibes. The Smoking Flowers are such a close duo they’re doing some hot smooching in one of their PR shots, and their musical outlook picks up, they say, where Gram and Emmylou left off. Sounds smoking indeed. There’s plenty of retro love as well in the sound of Magnolia Sons, a big eleven-piece band that’ll funk up the barn with classic soul and rock and roll. Sounds like everybody’s ready to put their own twist on something proven and golden. We’ll see what that sounds like on Wednesday evening.