That tricky, backhanded word diva comes from Latin, meaning divine or like a goddess. And like the Southern bless her heart, the word’s implications depend on context and inflection. It can refer to a grand and gracious opera star or an arrogant prima donna who thrives on making everyone else around her feel inadequate. Neither sense applies however to this week’s exciting Divas Of Roots Music show. Roots ain’t opera. And I’ve met insufferably bossy female roots music singers exactly, uh, zero times. So revel in the irony and enjoy a night of vocal virtuosity that welcomes back some old friends and debuts some MCR newcomers, including one of the most remarkable women in the history of rock and soul music.
The night’s powerhouse concept began with our friend Sarah Potenza. She’s been part of Roots since visiting with her Chicago-based country band in 2013 and moving here shortly thereafter. Since then, we’ve followed her through her fascinating adventure with TV talent show stardom as a popular and successful contestant on The Voice. She certainly has an extraordinary voice, with a marbled grain and huge reserves of power. She’s getting ready to release what will be her proper debut LP this summer, and she admits it’s been a long time, but she told me she’s taken great care and patience in setting this release up so it’s not just a flash in the pan. She deserves a very wide hearing.
Some years ago, Sarah met the flamboyant soul-rock singer Christine Ohlman at a festival where they had back-to-back sets. They hit it off immediately. “I thought she had a lot of awesome advice,” Potenza says. “She’s been a great mentor and role model to me, with the longevity she’s had, keeping it so real and cool.” Ohlman is known as the “Bee Hive Queen” for her tall, tall hair and retro pastiche style. But it’s her voice that earned her the job singing for the Saturday Night Live band (she came up with that band’s guitarist G.E. Smith) and her voice that’s landed her collaborative roles with a huge range of stars, including Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal. She’s just a fascinating, original artist and we’re glad Sarah’s pulled her in to the MCR fold.
But there’s much more. Ohlman is friends with Bonnie Bramlett, and while we’ve long hungered to have this rock and roll icon on the show, Sarah and Christine’s invitation finally sealed the deal. It’s safe to say that nobody who’s ever played Roots has had more stage time and more deep personal connections with rock royalty than Bonnie. Her voice has taken her everywhere. She was a teenage singer in Memphis who landed a gig supporting Ike and Tina Turner. A move to Los Angeles led to her love affair and duo success in Delaney & Bonnie. During that stretch and in the years since, she’s toured or collaborated with (deep breath) George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Dave Mason, Stephen Stills, Little Feat and The Allman Brothers (she’s an honorary Allman Sister). Bramlett has been one of Nashville’s gems in the decades she’s lived here. She’s deeply respected by the musical community and she pops up on stages regularly where she invariably blows everyone away. Now that will include MCR.
Last invited but so not least is the mighty sibling team of roots anti-divas known as the McCrary Sisters, which is probably the most literal name they could have gone with. We’ve covered their story in depth in the past, and they always leave us breathless, whether interpreting Bob Dylan or singing original material. They were last on our stage in the summer of 2014 as part of our Night Train To Nashville extravaganza. I guess we wouldn’t throw an extravaganza without them.
“They’re the keepers of the flame of this kind of music,” says Potenza summing up the night, noting that Americana’s divas, the women with ginormous soul-based voices, can get overlooked in the songwriter-centric musical format. “We haven’t had our Chris Stapleton yet, but we will.”