I’ve written in this space before about how the guitar changed my life and gave me an instrument I could make my own after getting started in a more traditional classical way as a kid. For a time I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the guitar, until I was introduced to the bluegrass styles of Tony Rice, Norman Blake and Doc Watson. I discovered there was a thing called flatpicking (though Doc called it a “straight pick”) and that the flimsy picks I’d used to that point were useless to bluegrass pickers, who obsessed over the thickness, feel and edge of their plectrums, which were often made of exotic materials and not trivially priced. This was the train I caught — passage to a lifelong relationship with Americana music.
So I’m excited that Guitar Night – our beloved tradition now in its fourth year – has taken on a strong acoustic vibe. It could be an induction ceremony for a Flatpickers Hall of Fame.
Making his MCR debut as a featured band leader is Pat Flynn, the low-key grandmaster who made his name as guitarist, singer and songwriter in the 2.0 edition of New Grass Revival between 1981 and 1989. Contributing songs like “On The Boulevard” and “Do What You Gotta Do” as well as flaming guitar and a vocal that paired up beautifully with John Cowan, Flynn helped NGR achieve radio success that was remarkable for a progressive string band. Frets magazine voted him best acoustic player in the land five years running. And then when Garth Brooks became inspired to record some of NGR’s material for his own country music global domination program, Pat contributed guitar. In fact Flynn has been a major studio picker, contributing to at least 30 gold and platinum albums. And recently he’s been a collaborator with Michael Martin Murphy and the great Leon Russell. It was through Pat’s kind brokering that Mr. Russell played MCR a while back.
The news lede on Pat today though is his new, independently made CD called reNew. He slipped me a copy a few weeks ago and I’ve been stunned at how good it is, from both a guitar fan’s point of view or anyone who loves songcraft and skilled ensemble work. It starts with a rush of rocking gospel and the support vocals of Sonya Isaacs. It ends with an epic super-jam on a Flynn original called “Take Me To Forever.” Guest musicians include John Cowan, Darrell Scott and Rob Ickes, so this is the kind of musical company Flynn keeps.
And to put this thing over the top, Bryan Sutton is back after playing a featured set at our first-ever Guitar Night. I’ve been lucky enough to follow his career and write about him extensively since he emerged out of his Asheville, NC home town as the young phenom in Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. Baby faced and imperturbable, he shocked audiences by being able to command his instrument at incredible speeds and high volume amid a big, forceful band. I think the bluegrass world had been waiting for a new guitar hero for a time, with the masters like Tony and Doc well established. Sutton won his fist IBMA Guitar Player of the Year Award in 2000 and he’s taken six more since, including 2013. When Bryan moved to Nashville he became a go-to sideman for a range of country and Americana projects, including a memorable stretch with the Dixie Chicks on their refreshing Home tour. He supported Dolly Parton in her bluegrass comeback. And for the past decade he’s been part of the increasingly busy revival of Hot Rize, taking the chair of the late Charles Sawtelle and even donning the role of bass playing mystery man Slade in the alter ego outfit Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers. A new album is imminent from this greatest of all 1980s era bluegrass bands.
Bryan visits with a very new solo album – his fourth – entitled Into My Own. Never mind that he came into his own as a musician years ago, it’s a purist’s showcase of bluegrass flatpicking in many tones and tempos. And it features more Bryan Sutton vocals than ever before. Nice to see him add that to his kit bag. No doubt he’ll bring a hot band along.
Two other awesome artists round out Guitar Night this year. Megan McCormick has played a featured set on Roots before, and I wrote about her journey in some depth back then. I can’t wait to catch up with her to see how life’s been going since the release of her acclaimed Honest Words album. I do know that the Alaska born, bluegrass-schooled, eclectic rocking chick has been touring in the band of indie star Jenny Lewis (gorgeous new album by the way) and she seems to be heading out with Beck. And she’s been all over the band scenes in ABC’s Nashville. And she has a lush new EP out. Wowza. Megan is doing us a great service by squeezing in this MCR appearance.
And so not least but last in my list today though he could have been first is the astonishing, bewildering, ridiculous talent of Rory Hoffman. We’ve seen him on Roots as a sideman, and I truly have never seen anybody who could do more on more kinds of instruments. In one set with Carolyn Martin’s swing band, he played world-class guitar, mandolin, accordion and clarinet. Blind since birth, he figured out his own way of doing everything, and part of that is playing stringed instruments in his lap, overhand like a dobro. This gives his guitar playing advantages of reach and bold new voicings like I’ve never heard. Details on his life and the admiration he’s gotten from folks like Keith Urban and Brad Paisley are described in a Peter Cooper profile. We’ve been trying to get Rory to come as a band leader forever and it’s finally worked out. You’ll be flabbergasted.
Even somebody pretty picky about picking would pick this show. Hope to see you there.