Rootsapalooza is upon us. This week marks the return of the AmericanaFest (the 17th if you’re counting) followed immediately by World of Bluegrass in Raleigh and if you are particularly jet set, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass affair in San Francisco. For those who love the down-home, hand-picked and far-reaching visions of folk and country music in their myriad 21st century forms, there is no holier or more hellbent time of year. It’s nice that round one is right here in Nashville, where so many of us have our own beds, though they will get used less than usual in the days and nights to come.
You’ve perhaps seen the buildup and checked out the schedule for the showcases and special events running Tuesday to Sunday all over Music City. (Definitely get the Americana app; it’s more essential than ever.) My job here is to let you know about our 2016 AmericanaFest showcase show, taking place on Thursday, Sept. 22, the night after the Americana Honors & Awards. We’ve got another killer lineup. I will acknowledge that as the dice rolled this year, our slate is atypically 100% white and male. Nevertheless, we’re set up for a great evening.
My fist-in-the-air headline this week comes from a deep place and profound excitement that we’ll be featuring our first ever set by the full Del McCoury Band. We’ve had Del as a guest, sitting in with Ricky Skaggs. And we’ve had sons Rob and Ronnie in their Travelin’ McCourys outfit a couple of times. But the best bluegrass band in the world complete with suits and envy-making hair? This will be an MCR first.
Del McCoury is the singular icon of bluegrass music as I’ve known it in my thirty years of loving the music. There are older greats from closer to the first generation founders. But something about Del and his sons and their approach to the stage and to choosing songs and venues has been transcendent and era-shaping. Some years ago when Del was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, I wrote an essay of appreciation that dwelled on Del’s uncanny ability to straddle the traditional/progressive divide in the music and how that became the secret to his unparalleled influence.
“Without his searching musicality and, truth be told, his liberal outlook on his art form, bluegrass would be much less energetic, diverse or exciting today. There have been many large, bridge-building careers in this era, but I believe the Del McCoury Band is responsible for more new young bluegrass fans and bands than anyone else.”
The most recent chapter in the journey of this timeless artist is a collection of original musical settings for previously unpublished lyrics by Woody Guthrie.
The music scribe is often torn between wanting to grant breakaway solo artists their due for putting their name and artistic statement out there and recognizing the importance of the bands that brought them to public awareness. And with all three of the solo guys playing on the show this week, the bands from whence they came can’t help but color how we hear them today. Because they’re all historic bands, frankly. Nickel Creek, Old Crow Medicine Show and The Eagles shouldn’t be elephants in the room. Instead, we should appreciate what Sean Watkins, Willie Watson and Timothy B. Schmit contributed to those marques and what they carried away. We’ll see them as their own artists, but we’ll listen with context.
Willie Watson confirmed my sense that he’s a dedicated and defiant folk singer by titling his debut solo album Folk Singer. And just to convey that this is not a lark, he added Vol. 1. Watson grew up in Watkins Glen, NY and had an epiphany over his father’s Leadbelly records at 12 years old. He plunged into old Americana and met kindred spirits to form Old Crow in 1998. It takes courage to step away from the energy and success of a band like that to stand solo with a guitar and harmonica, but that’s what Willie does, and he does it with enough magnetism and emotion to get David Rawlings and Gillian Welch to release Folk Singer on their Acony Records label.
Sean Watkins was in a band that was A) smaller and B) more refined and pop-aware than Old Crow, even as it made use of the same instruments and traditional influences. Nickel Creek was a staggeringly original and influential band whose impact will be felt for ages to come. Sean and sister Sarah knew Chris Thile as little kids in San Diego, CA, playing for fun. But their skills on guitar, fiddle and mandolin began to really cohere. The songwriting, musicianship and stagecraft of the young band took leaps forward every year for a decade, and by the time they signed off they’d made a massive statement for creative acoustic music and reached millions of ears and young people. All three Creeksters have had thriving solo careers in recent years. Sean’s is focused on his deft flatpicking and his song sense, which owes as much to Toad the Wet Sprocket as to Bill Monroe.
A cool factoid about Timothy B. Schmit is that he was, according to my reading, the only member of The Eagles who was actually a California native. He is also in all likelihood the one with the most credits to his name as a sideman and songwriter for others. Instead of being that marquee rock star, bass player and vocalist Schmit has been a musician first – one who’s been part of tours and records by the likes of Steely Dan, Jimmy Buffett, Boz Skaggs and Crosby, Still & Nash. He sang on “Southern Cross” after all. Holy smoke. He joined POCO first in 1970 where he wrote and sang their hit “Keep On Tryin’”. He signed on with the Eagles in ’77 and went on to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with them. Schmit will release a new album of his own called Leap of Faith this week, but it’s far from his first rodeo as a solo artist, having put out five prior discs starting in 1984.
So we hope you can join us for a very big Thursday edition of Music City Roots. Come with a band or come solo. We’ll show you equal respect.