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Bro-Grass – MCR 8.12.15

I used up my legal ration of one “O Brother” headline per year in a recent Doobie Brothers review, but if I hadn’t, I’d have pulled it out for this week’s show – a brother heavy bluegrass spectacular with four exceptional, league-leading groups. Chris Jones & The Night Drivers is a band of brothers in spirit. Our soul sister Sierra Hull is back. And our final two acts of the evening represent genuine genetically generated gentlemen. The Travelin’ McCourys features brothers Rob and Ronnie on banjo and mandolin. And there’s nothing but truth in advertising in the name of two-time IBMA Entertainers of the Year The Gibson Brothers. So because your correspondent is a snarky, world weary crusader for every kind of country but Bro-Country, I can only think to celebrate this week’s lineup under the banner of Bro-Grass. Jim Lauderdale actually invented it, perhaps for weeks like this.

Our August all-grass extravaganza is something we do every year in friendly, informal partnership with the International Bluegrass Music Association. The group will be announcing its nominees for the annual IBMA Awards around noon on Wednesday downtown at the SiriusXM studios. We hope all the writers and TV and radio folks can file their stories and then come join us for a bill that’s simply saturated with IBMA winners and nominees from years past and probably years current and future. In order of appearance then…

The mellifluous baritone of Chris Jones comes in two flavors: his SiriusXM broadcaster’s voice as a long-running host on the Bluegrass Junction channel and in musical form as the lead singer in his band of two decades. He’s described the Night Drivers sound as “elegant yet driving” and that fits, plus I’ll add smartly written. Chris pens about half the songs on his recordings, sometimes alone and sometimes with others. He regularly and appropriately reaches into the Tom T. Hall oeuvre for killer sides like the lovely “Hero In Harlan,” which the band did on a previous MCR set. Then of course there’s his bass player and frequent writing partner Jon Weisberger, who is an IBMA Songwriter of the Year. Three Chris/Jon compositions are featured on the impending new album (release date August 21) Run Away Tonight on Mountain Home Music. It’s as clean and serene as anything they’ve done – a really honest and crafted bluegrass album that would please both neophytes and wise old fans. Rounding out the band is the irrepressible banjo dude (and fellow bluegrass DJ) Ned Luberecki and mandolin man Mark Stoffel.

Sierra Hull’s appearances on Roots over the years have been a bit like a family photo album in that each has been a snapshot of a precocious young artist evolving and growing as if in time lapse. I first saw her when she was a teeny person entering and winning mandolin and guitar trophies at the down home Smithville Jamboree. She got signed to Rounder Records in her mid teens and she and I worked together on a video profile when her debut record came out. Now seven years later she’s played around the world on State Department tours and solidified herself as a top liner at major acoustic festivals. She’s about as deep and sophisticated a mandolinist as there is outside of her idol Chris Thile. She writes and sings lovely songs and brings huge amounts of heart and spirit to her performances. It’s been way too long since her last album, but she just told the Huffington Post that a new and very “different” project is set for a January release. Can’t wait for that or the set this week.

Into bro territory we go with the Travelin’ McCourys, most easily described as the Del McCoury Band sans Dad. But it’s more full explained as the vehicle by which the super hip and musically exploratory boys get to stretch out and collaborate with just about anyone. That’s included Phish, Warren Haynes, The Lee Boys and more. They last visited us during a tour with Keller Williams after conspiring on the great album Pick, and anyone who was there will remember what a danceable free-for-all it became. Lately they’ve been living up to their nomadic name by touring with prog-grass star Bill Nershi and members of Leftover Salmon. Their skills are of course super-polished at all four corners (Jason Carter on fiddle and Alan Bartram on bass round out the quartet) and the singing is spectacular. We’re super honored the in-demand McCourys figured out a way to be part of this year’s IBMA spectacular.

It strikes me that “elegant yet driving” could also apply to the music of the Gibson Brothers, who’ve figure out a unique and robust alloy of Bill Monroe’s heart and soul, the polish of the Everly Brothers and the easy, song-driven comfort of a James Taylor. Eric and Leigh have been singing together since they were of single digits in age and their climb to the top ranks of bluegrass was a long game if ever there was one. They released their first albums in the mid 90s and almost 20 years later secured the top prize in bluegrass – repeating as Entertainers of the Year in 2012 and 13. Now they’ve taken the brother concept to its apex with the album Brotherhood, which covers 15 songs by important brother duos, including the Louvins, the Everlys, the McReynolds and the Blue Sky Boys.

So we’re expecting not sibling rivalry so much as sibling revelry. Hope you’ll join us.

Craig H.

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