Fellow Travelers

To quote my good friend Rick, a roots music fan and barroom philosopher, “Suck it, Winter!” It’s something he is inclined to say or post to Facebook at this time of year, and it’s become my cathartic battle cry against March days that tease you with warmth and flowers and then spit freezing rain at you as soon as you’ve let your guard down. I think we can agree that we are OVER it. And we’re sliding into a final week of our Winter season, so it’s time for a little pause to refresh, but only after a really, really great party on Wednesday night at the Loveless Barn.

How great? Why great? Well because we’ve secured the musical experimentation and exaltation of a potent collaboration between The Travelin’ McCourys and Keller Williams. The McCourys, of course, are the Del McCoury Band without father Del, and Del, of course, is a pre-eminent senior bluegrass singer, bandleader and jam scene crossover star. Musical curiosity runs in this family, and in recent years we’ve seen the McCourys pursue projects with The Lee Boys, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band among other non-bluegrass artists. When the Travelin’ McCourys tour, the guitar player void left by Del is filled on a platoon basis, including stints with Cody Kilby, Jeff White, Dan Tyminski and Josh Williams. Perhaps the most adventuresome and idiosyncratic six-string partner has been Keller Williams. And that’s the combo that’s playing the season finale this Wednesday night.

“We go back a pretty good ways with (Keller) now” said Ronnie McCoury in a phone conversation on Friday. Ronnie, a stunning mandolinist and singer with a voice that favors his dad’s, has – along with his brother Rob on banjo – enabled and encouraged Del McCoury’s rise to rock festival stardom, largely because of their eagerness to take musical chances with iconoclasts and jammers like Keller Williams. The first thing that comes to mind about Keller is his long-running, innovative solo show, in which he builds worlds of sounds with a garage-worth of instruments and a complex looping pedal system. More recently, he’s assembled a six-piece funk band.

“He is such a unique guy to be around and to play with,” continues Ronnie. “His songwriting. His thoughts. Everything about him is special. We’re lucky we have these opportunities. We check things out and get adventurous. When Keller came along, we kind of sat down together and said let’s see what we can do here.”

It was Keller’s idea, says Ronnie, to make an album together, which came out as last year’s whimsical Pick. And the relationship is growing. “This is going to have a good life to it,” Ronnie continues. “He is very spontaneous and wanting to do something different. He likes to keep it fresh. And that is really good for guys like us.” Keller, incidentally, will appear several times and in several modes at DelFest, the insanely popular McCoury family festival on Memorial Day Weekend in Cumberland, MD.

The rest of our bill at Roots this week is wonderful too, with a reach across styles and even around the world. I couldn’t be more excited to welcome Altan to the barn. I listened to this neo-traditionalist Celtic band a lot in the 90s, and I saw a show of theirs that melted my face, or however you say that in Gaelic. They have a new album on Compass Records. Then, with what I like to call warm Jacuzzi roots music, we have the enriched and lovely voice of Shannon Whitworth. The North Carolina chanteuse and one-time bluegrass girl gets electrically moody and honest on her new project High Tide. We’re lucky to have her at this exciting time in her career. Then we’ll hear from new folk duo Great Peacock – a couple of close harmony guys and recovering rockers who have our booking team wildly excited. (They’ve not been wrong yet.) And to round out our eclectic night and season, we’ll dose up on heavier blues rock with Derek St. Holmes. The son of Detroit and now Nashville area resident is most famous for playing guitar and singing for a certain Motor City rock star and political provocateur whose name I do not wish to speak. Derek is an old friend of our show’s co-producer John, and word is we’re in for some serious guitar virtuosity.

As I write this it’s a glorious 72 degrees and I’m out in the sun listening to birds and watching purple blossoms poke up through the yard. I’m sure that means sleet is close behind. But I know I’ll be warm and happy on Wednesday night. Come ring in the spring with us.

Craig H.

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