The end of a season on Music City Roots (we just wrapped our SEVENTH!) is always a catharsis. We know we’ll miss gathering at the Loveless Barn when the next two Wednesdays roll around, but we and the crew are glad to have a break from the hectic duties of staging the show every week. And we always seem to end on a very high note, like this week’s amazing show-closers Sarah Jarosz and Jim Lauderdale. There in two artists you could hear the wide, delightful range of what bluegrass and roots music has become and can be. Jim, our great friend and musical host, has been a ‘grasser since he was a North Carolina teenager, and today his writing and singing is infused with lessons learned through his success in country music. Jarosz, who’s rapidly becoming a national star, merely uses tradition as a starting point and paints with colors that are seemingly of her own invention.
The show started strong as well with a five-song set from Nashville’s Westbound Rangers, a kind of adorably friendly, outgoing quartet that makes a joyful noise at all times. Opener “Pushwater” had a boogie beat and a Subterranean Homesick kind of vocal rap. “Stonewall” was uproarious and wacky. And their acousto-funk take on “John Henry,” with surprise Zeppelin references, was friggin’ brilliant.
Becky Schlegel offered easy melodies in a Dolly-esque voice, backed with soaring harmonies from Tina Adair. Becky’s brand of bluegrass is in line with Alison Krauss – gentle on the ears and a good introduction for newcomers to the genre. Her song “Opry Lullaby” was the set’s standout with its nostalgia and soaring chorus. That led into Tiller’s Folly, a Vancouver trio that brought along a host of Nashville super-pickers to back them up. The guys said they’d been recording with this amazing team, including Josh Shilling (Mountain Heart) on keys, Scott Vestal on banjo and Kenny Malone on drums. So they had a great opportunity to take that studio chemistry and try new songs out on our stage. Tiller’s Folly met these musicians largely through their old friend and ours, singer/bass player John Cowan, but it was a surprise to hear the extensive influence of Cowan’s former band New Grass Revival in the TF music. It was polished and involving and rippling. Wonderful stuff.
Sarah Jarosz plays in many configurations with many different musicians, but this evening she brought her regular trio, comprised of cello player Nathaniel Smith and violinist Alex Hargreaves. These are some of the her fellow young musicians who are making Boston the new hub of progressive string and bluegrass-derived acoustic music in America. Without them, Jarosz would be a masterful, prodigious singer/songwriter/instrumentalist/performer. With them, it’s a rarified, original, daring musical adventure. Smith and Hargreaves wove syncopated parts together like experienced dancers, lifting up Jarosz tunes like “Come Around” and “Run Away,” the first two songs on her awesome new album. For my money, this is among the most exciting music being made today. Hope you feel the same way.
Lauderdale was way more in the standard bluegrass pocket musically, with his always wonderful band. But the songs from his new Reason & Rhyme CD, which he released the day before the show, drew their daring quality from the lyrics of Robert Hunter. My favorite is “The Tiger and the Monkey,” which is positively surreal and wickedly fun. The whole set, right through the jam on good old “Molly and Tenbrooks” was Americana nectar. (No wonder Jim has so many hummingbirds on his record covers.) It brought to a close a season of amazing times and performances. Who could imagine in one season being able to hear such astounding sets from Foster & Lloyd, Rhonda Vincent and Gene Watson, the Farewell Drifters, Patrick Sweany, the Civil Wars, Jonathan Edwards, Jill Andrews, Suzy Bogguss and Scott Miller, plus many many more? We are lucky indeed to have access to the Loveless Barn and to have so many wonderful artists eager to come share our stage and hang out with us. Since the beginning, we’ve felt like we were on a mission to carve out a place of love and support for great artistry and to live large on the great vibes that happen when musicians of goodwill come together. And that’s a dream without an expiration date or a final show. We’ll see you in two weeks!