As a staff music writer for The Tennessean in the early 2000s, I got a crash course in the Music City system, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Quite a few publicists could not understand why I did not share their conviction that Shania Twain and Garth Brooks were the most important things ever to happen to country music and worthy of endless coverage and admiration. I was admonished by Toby Keith’s manager for whispering to a colleague while Mr. Keith was speaking to the press backstage at a CMT awards show.
Pomposity and pretention also felt baked in to so many of the records that muscled themselves to the top of the charts and awards shows. The producers had thousands of knobs to turn, so they turned them. Radio seemed to love steroid-enhanced volume, so everything was cranked to 11. But in contrast to all that, my favorite part of the job was to be surprised on a regular basis by the understated, unpretentious albums that came across my desk from superb Nashville artists little-known outside of town.
One of my favorites was called Simple Path by Irene Kelley, who plays MCR this week. Aptly named, it let the songwriting, interpretation and musicianship stand exposed in the foreground without shiny wrapping or body armor. It struck a delicate balance between bluegrass and country, something I came to appreciate even more reading a recent profile of Kelley by Randy Fox in the Nashville Scene, where she recalled that around that time “I was playing bluegrass at The Station Inn once a month, and the advice from everyone was, ‘Don’t play there, you’re going to be typecast.’ Then I signed with MCA, and they told me not to play there at all.” Try to get your head around that, country music lovers.
Anyway, Irene stayed on her simple path and became an admired figure in roots music circles, lending her pure and graceful voice to numerous projects and writing songs cut by country music’s wiser stars. She played our show in late 2011 and, along with her daughters, made a thrilling trio vocal sound against a gentle, involving musical backdrop. So it’s wonderful to see Irene with a new album that fully embraces her bluegrass love and origins. Inspired by her grandfather’s life working in the mines, she called it Pennsylvania Coal. She doesn’t sugarcoat the good old days, but rather ennobles a generation that left something better for its heirs. And across a range of excellent songs written with local friends like Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz, she indulges her bluegrass passion with the support of an all-star cast of instrumentalists (Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan) and guest singers (Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, Trisha Yearwood). It has earned raves from all the top roots music outlets.
Also returning to Roots with new music is Nashville power acoustic band The Vespers. As we launch our new era at The Factory in Franklin, we’re inviting back artists that helped shape our personality and profile in the early days of the show. If there’s a band we feel confident in saying we discovered before most everyone who digs them now, it’s this quartet of brothers and sisters who stumbled into one another’s lives in the late 2000s. If you’ve hung out with us over the years, you know the deal by now: Callie and Phoebe Cryar command the lead vocals while playing a variety of instruments. Bruno and Taylor Jones flesh out the band sound on drums and bass, but anybody might pick up and blow your mind on any instrument at any time. It’s one of the many beguiling things about them. Now they’re on the verge of releasing a third album, funded by more than 800 fans. Their hard touring has paid off, and they’re just growing up and out, and we’re very proud of them. If you haven’t seen them close our a night at MCR, you’ll be stunned by the power and subtlety of their complete attack.
We round out the show with a splash and a double dunk of aquatically named artists from very different sides of the river. American Aquarium hails from Raleigh, NC and through six years and six albums of touring and recording they’ve become quite accomplished in Americana territory. Their new album is Burn. Flicker. Die. and their official version offers provocative background: “After two years of writing, they journeyed to the legendary recording hub which gave birth to some of the greatest blues, country and rock records of all time: Muscle Shoals/Sheffield, AL. Recorded in eight days under the precise hand of friend/tour buddy Jason Isbell, the record is an aptly named milestone for the band, and their most painstaking effort to date.” So yes, please.
Meanwhile Songs of Water has a different kind of edge – a modernist, composer’s intelligence – which it applies to worldly, folky and classical textures. “We’re playful experimentalists,” says band member Stephen Roach, and from what I’ve heard, I’ll be a very willing subject. They use percussion with incredible taste and force. Strings, dulcimer and a variety of surprising instruments make rich and fascinating soundscape. They bring ancient tones from the future, and I’m truly excited to meet this band from Greensboro, NC, just miles from my home town.
So this should be a fascinating array of artists staying absolutely true to themselves, and you can be sure nobody will be putting on airs.