The order of a piano keyboard is easy to discern: half steps up and down in a single row, 88 notes wide. A guitar or banjo neck has no less design, but the steps connecting the tones and rows of octaves take more than intuition to understand. But the human voice and human condition? Well you can forget about diagramming that or connecting its dots and lines. We are infinite, and it’s the artist’s job to plum those depths and present something we can grasp and count on and touch and feel. It’s so crazy that it shouldn’t work. But it does, especially in the hands of artists like the ones I’m looking at here in our Summer 2017 opening show. This is a rarified group of roots musicians, each with his or her specific touch and life experience. Artists like these are why I remain utterly wrapped up in this expression we call music decades after I first woke up to it.
Tim O’Brien has been a frequent visitor to our stage over the years as a solo performer, a duo partner (his country “brother” act with Darrell Scott is legendary) and as a member of blockbuster bluegrass bands Earls of Leicester and Hot Rize. He’s even come out as a sideman for other artists he believes in. This offers but a glimpse of Tim’s multi-faceted and scarcely paralleled contributions to American roots music. I spoke with him this spring for my weekend show The String on WMOT and we talked a lot about his roots in
West Virginia. His newest album Where The River Meets The Road pays tribute to his home state by including some covers of WV greats like Bill Withers and Hazel Dickens and his title track is an original song about how his grandfather made his way to Wheeling where he started the O’Brien clan as Tim knows it. I expect we’ll be hearing some music from that project with a stunning band that features banjo master Noam Pikelny, fiddler Stuart Duncan, bass player Mike Bub and Tim’s partner in life and music Jan Fabricius.
My eyes popped when I saw Greg Garing added to our lineup, for several reasons. For one thing, I knew he’d been struggling with health issues and took time away from performing. But a quick look at his Facebook page reveals that he’s back at it for real, with shows in and out of Nashville and apparently a head of steam. But more significantly, Garing is an elusive legend and a mercurial genius whose contributions to Nashville and the salvation of country music should be written on stone tablets. While BR549 was the most visible and charismatic face of the mid 90s Lower Broadway revival, Greg Garing was its fiery hillbilly heart. In his stylishly disheveled sound comes a collision of Hank Williams, Robert Johnson and Lou Reed. I was also thrilled to see that he’d made new album recently. Am I Even A Memory snuck out in early 2016 without much comment, but it’s spot on, truthful and tuneful. So we’ll welcome Greg with open arms at Roots as the icon he is. He’s more than a memory with us.
Moving along in show order, we’ll be hearing from another deeply authentic and powerful artist, one from the TN/NC border region who’s made nice contributions to and in Music City over the years. Chelle Rose is a classic mountain country songwriter who is remarkably good at telling her own stories and her people’s stories in song. Her most recent, the 2016 album Blue Ridge Blood, has not only an epically great title but songs that live up to it with tales of family, isolation and personal repair. There are good reasons that Rose has been compared to Lucinda Williams and Mary Gauthier. The deal is real.
And we’ll round out this deep and diverse evening with something that moves and grooves and should send you home on beams of light. It’s the Allen Thompson Band returning to our stage to shake and shimmer in the tradition of the bands Allen loves and channels so well – the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers and Sea Level. The latter is an influence I learned about recently when Allen wrote some moving words in memoriam of his friend Jimmy Nalls, the legendary rock and jam guitarist who helped found that short-lived but influential Southern super-group. It makes sense. Sea Level was distinguished by thought out arrangements that also rocked hard. That’s one aspect of the ATB. The last time Allen played he was still getting over a pretty serious spinal injury; he’ll be 100% and fit to jam this week.
So get set to enjoy the flow and growing energy of four perfectly fitting roots music puzzle pieces. You’d think we designed it that way.