Say what you will about hallowed tradition, but bluegrass is amazingly flexible stuff. In one evening of music last night at Roots, we heard bluegrass bands cover some of the dangdest songs you ever heard. The Infamous Stringdusters tapped U2 for an ethereal acoustic version of “In God’s Country.” Barry Scott & Second Wind, our Vietti artist for the night, opened their set with, of all songs, “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” and then followed it with “Stuck On You” by a guy who, with all respect, probably wouldn’t be our first pick to play Roots – Lionel Richie. And yet given its cool country delivery, if you’d told me the latter had been written by, say, Ronnie Bowman, I’d have believed you. And the coverage continued, with New Found Road offering “Please Come To Boston,” the old Dave Loggins song. And The Grascals, one of the top bands in the biz, ripped it with “Last Train To Clarksville,” their very popular take on a Monkees classic.
What’s going on here? Well, creativity and artistry for one thing. I’ve long thought that covers got a tough rap in Americana music, where songwriting and original material is so prized. And yes, I’d not be very interested in a band that only retreaded old tires, but when artists mix fresh takes on standards or forgotten gems, especially those borrowed from very different genres, it always tells me a lot about where they are coming from and what moved them along their journey.
It was so awesome to have the Stringdusters on Roots. They’ve long been favorites and pals of mine, and I don’t think anyone out there puts on a more involving and dynamic live show. Even though they had time for just four songs, they truly made a set out of it, with an arc and plenty of quality jamming. The tune Black Rock featured astonishing fiddling from Jeremy Garrett, but you just can’t say enough about the musical prowess across all six members of this blazing, 21st century band.
Barry Scott had a great sound. Killer voice and a band with a nice touch. Besides their out-there covers, they wrapped with “My Heart Skips A Beat,” a country songs to be sure (courtesy of the great Buck Owens) but previously grassified by Lynn Morris. That set up Newfound Road, a band coaxed into its current, classy state by Tim Shelton, one of those fellows who didn’t play music until he was like 18 and now travels the land laying down great songs and recording for Rounder Records. Those dang gifted people… He proved his bluegrass cred with a fantastic version of “Lonesome River.”
We took a break from the all grass night to feature only the most famous cowboy band in the world. Riders in the Sky have been icons of Western music for decades and members of the Grand Ole Opry since the 80s. What a treat to have them on, looking amazing and sounding even better. Ranger Doug’s delicate swing guitar is just the perfect backing to the fiddle of Woody Paul and stunning harmony vocals on classics like “Cool Water.” Dreamy.
The Grascals might have opened their set channeling the Monkees, but they brought it home with a long, fast, loud and proud take on the most bluegrass bluegrass tune there is: “Sally Goodin.” For a band arguably best loved for its vocals (Terry Eldredge and Jamie Johnson are wicked singers), it was inspiring to hear fiddler Jeremy Abshire, banjo mistress Kristen Scott Benson and the rest of the gang really blaze on one of the core pieces of music of American life, let alone the bluegrass canon. Speaking of which, Bill Monroe’s “On and On” made a nice Loveless Jam benediction to the night. That’s how the bluegrass torch gets passed – on and on.
So with that great show, we sign off for the season and take a two week break. We’ll be back Oct. 20 with Rhonda Vincent and much more. We’ll also have some big news to announce soon as well, so stay tuned, follow us on Twitter and keep spreading the word about the show. Until next time…