Our venue in The Factory has evolved quite a lot since the winter, especially since Monell’s joined us as our catering guys in late January. It took a while to find the best place for everything in the large and flexible Liberty Hall. And with no budget for a Feng Shui consultant, we had to follow the ancient Tennessee philosophy of fried chicken and beer. And it’s ever a work in progress, but now we think we have it. The last piece of the puzzle was to put long tables over near Monell’s like a meat-and-three restaurant. They let folks meet and greet as they eat in an approximation of Monell’s famous family style Germantown dining room. Wednesday night at Roots was family style musically speaking too, with three bands built on the ties that bind. And as a Merlefest-eve kickoff, it satisfied out taste for great roots music as well.
It wouldn’t be Merlefest without bluegrass, and Canada’s Spinney Brothers brought it with classic suit-and-tie integrity and rich sibling singing. Opening song “My Music Comes From Bill” set a tone of both homage and appreciation for great songwriting. Rick Spinney’s original “Next Train Smoking” was swift and smooth, more bullet train than steam locomotive. Rick’s rolling banjo gave the band its foundation, while Gary Dalrymple’s mandolin was smoking too, on tunes like the speedy “Going Down To Charleston.” Watch for the Spinney’s on this Friday night’s Music City Roots on public TV as part of the IBMA Awards highlights show we edited into our series.
Since their last MCR visit, The Honeycutters have galvanized even more clearly around the voice and songwriting of Amanda Anne Platt. There’s a coherence and heart there that explains the excited anticipation of the Me Oh My album the band was debuting this week. There’s no shortage of Americana bands these days embracing classic country sways, shuffles and steel guitar pathos. But Amanda’s band does so especially well, with an easy vibe and sharp songwriting. “All You Ever” gives somebody who needs one a talking to. “Texas 81” saw Smith switch to acoustic dobro, giving the tune a bit more of a dusty blues quality. The “Me Oh My” title track is a rueful meditation on a lost child and life choices. Platt’s music can be sad but it’s reliably insightful. And it just feels great going by – calm as a Merlefest afternoon.
It was a full on family affair in the next set. Baillie And The Boys (plus friends) consisted of Kathie Baillie, husband Michael Bonagura and daughter Alyssa Bonagura, a respected artist from Nashville in her own right. The three singers made an uplifting blend, especially on the group’s 1990s country hit “I Can’t Turn The Tide.” That was also the one where Michael took an especially aggressive and extended acoustic guitar solo over symphonic swells made by the five-piece band. They sounded great on the classic “For A Fool Such As I” with its dramatic melody and specific sentiment. Alyssa took a solo lead on the song “Gold” which ruminated on family, music and camaraderie as life’s ultimate treasure. Set closer “Oh Heart,” one of the band’s best known songs from its 80s/90s run at radio, proved roots can be delightfully pop and vice versa with its Everly Brothers touches. This set grew in intensity and pulled the audience in and along like no other performance of the night. Everyone felt like family when it was over.
The Ragbirds set gradually evolved from a rock solid country train beat in opener “Drive Me Crazy” through ever more groove oriented pieces. Smiling and sweet Erin Zindle led the way with voice, fiddle and accordion. Her family style came from husband Randall Moore behind her on seductive percussion and brother T.J. on electric guitar. His Afro-pop figures added acid to “Lemon Grove,” which ruminated on difficult decisions. The witty “Cosmos” presented a philosophical conversation between a cosmologist and a cosmetologist (and we’d all be advised to know the difference). Erin donned squeezebox for a bright horizons song inspired by the birth of her first baby. And they closed with a full-on drum ensemble, as all five members contributed to an authentic West African beat. The vocalists sang a blend of an African prayer and the American standard “I’ll Fly Away,” with melodic variations. Those who know me may realize how badly I wanted to grab a drum or a shaker at that point.
The Nashville Jam was “The Weight” performed not too heavy and not too light, with the Ragbirds’ percussion instruments adding an exotic touch. It’s always exciting to watch our various bands get to know one another back stage and then accelerate the process as they realize they’re called to perform together with no rehearsal on live radio. In a sense, as I learned attending Merlefest for so many years, all roots musicians are family. We’re just trying to offer a little therapy.