Jere Cherryholmes, the bearded and burly dad/bass player/bus driver in the Cherryholmes bluegrass band, said last night that he still thinks of his family’s group the way he proposed it to his kids roughly a decade ago – as an adventure. There’s no fixed star to aim at, no endgame. Just a big, audacious experience with trials and surprising delights along the way. Music City Roots is a lot like that too, and last night, MCR and Cherryholmes merged their adventures together for a little while, and it was fantastic. Departing from our usual formula, we let Cherryholmes curate the evening, and they hosted all four sets, inviting in a range of guests that really told the story of their years in Nashville. Their early neighbors, the Armisteads, came because they form the core of the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band – already alums and friends of the show. They brought some of the best sidemen in bluegrass. And they brought their record label president, who happens to be a future Country Music Hall of Famer named Ricky Skaggs.
Starting things off, it was Cherryholmes straight, no chaser. They were showcasing songs off their new CD, Cherryholmes IV, subtitled Common Threads, which came out officially on June 1. And while there’s a half dozen songs on there that sound like classic Cherryholmes (speedy, minor-key, angsty lyrics), the other half shows new range and variety. Like the first vocal number of the night when Molly C tore fiercely into “I Am Your Conscience.” She brings a rock diva edge into her bluegrass with a voice that as authoritative as her fiddling. And then, in a sisterly contrast, Cia took the lead on “How Far Will You Go,” a really pretty tune with more sweetness and light than most Cherryholmes numbers.
Act two featured the Jug Band, who bring old-time country music to life like few acts in the world. Leroy Troy blasted out “Mountain Dew” in his entertaining, type A way while Lester Armistead sang towering, soaring high harmony above, evoking shouts and gasps from the audience. Then Cia and Sandy (that’s mama Cherryholmes) came out to wish Mike Armistead a happy fortieth birthday. I was actually really touched to know that he’d arranged to be at Music City Roots on such a momentous day. Hopefully he made some memories. I sure did, when Leroy and Sandy matched fiery twin banjos on the good old good one “I’m Going Down That Road Feeling Bad.” Which is a lot more cheerful than it sounds.
The third set opened stark and spectacular with what has become one of Cherryholmes most compelling numbers. It’s called “Weaver of Lies” with Cia singing and playing banjo, with only Molly’s fiddle as accompaniment. They did this together when the band played Roots last fall, and it’s just a stunner. Then those super sidemen appeared, as accordionist Jeff Taylor, banjoist Tony Wray and fiddler/mandolin phenom Andy Leftwich played with the family in various combos. The set took a decidedly jazzy turn with their entrance, and Cia made her sultry side more than known with a righteous performance of the gently swinging “Make Up Your Mind.” This woman really does have a voice for the ages, and it was great to hear a whole new set of colors from it. The instrumental hot-shots took a turn on “Sweet Georgia Brown” and then the family returned for a gospel number and a few more upbeat jazz/grass songs.
Finally we had a rare chance to hear Ricky Skaggs and Cherryholmes make music together, and in a nice surprise, they fired up the burners not with a bluegrass classic but the Western Swing chestnut “Rose of San Antone.” The sweet harmonies from the female side of the Cherryholmes family and the twin fiddles of Molly and Andy Leftwich really made the moment. Then yes, it was off to the races with “Bluegrass Breakdown” which brought out our regular pal James Howarth, the Nashville Clogger, who is undoubtedly in better cardiovascular shape than any of us.
In the final assessment, we were all left glowing by a night of music that felt varied, fun, engaging and serious all at the same time. Cherryholmes is evolving in some nice directions as the offspring grow and change, while Jere and Sandy remain the steady anchors. Theirs is a story of renewal, family, continuity and evolution. And yes, it’s an adventure – one that will have us on the edge of our seats for a long time to come.