In a recent episode of the WMOT/Roots Radio/Bluegrass Situation show and podcast Hangin’ and Sangin’ (Sun. at 6:30 am and Tues. at 9 pm), country artist Sunny Sweeney tells host Kelly McCartney that she’s been on a ten year quest toward full control over and full understanding of her method, her art and her message. At least that’s my interpretation of her remarks about self-starting as an indie Texas musician, getting signed to a major Nashville label and pivoting back to an indie posture (via Thirty Tigers) where she’s in charge. In that episode, Sweeney talks about her “introspective” new project called Trophy, telling us that “there are songs and subject matter on there that I have not and would not have talked about until now.”
Sunny’s courageous personal candor and full throated twang will make for a tangy contrast to the earth-moving, swaggering blues and rock of Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band and The Blackfoot Gypsies this week at Roots, but that’s what this four ring circus on Wednesday nights is about. No ring is too much like the other. Though I’d say this week even more than most, it’s good advice to brace yourselves against whiplash.
There’s been a great reckoning going on for the last few years viz-a-viz women and country music. While the big box radio and label world has been investigated, indicted and convicted of gender bias not unlike what Tammy and Loretta faced in the 60s, indie country and Americana are supporting a wave of bold voices and insightful songs. And while you’re listening to and loving Natalie Hemby, Angaleena Presley and Margo Price do not by any means fail to include Sunny Sweeney in your pantheon of contemporary awesomeness. After almost impulsively diving in to the country songwriting field in the mid 2000s, she’s toured like crazy, grown with every album and dark-horsed her way right to the front of the field for those of us who love our country music strong and strident, not to mention the AMA chart where she’s in the top 15 and climbing.
The title Trophy put me in mind of the country music awards her integrity may not allow her to win (she was nominated as ACM best new female artist when she was briefly on Big Machine Records, because that’s how these things work). The title track is, however, kind of jaw droppingly not about that. Instead a new wife sings bitterly to the ex-wife about being tarred as a trophy spouse; now there’s a point of view we’ve never heard in a country song before. Also among the ten gems, a wry but sad look at prescription addiction (“Pills”), a rapturous love song (“Let’s Grow Old Together”) and the driving Americana single “Better Bad Idea.” It’s a very good idea to have this Texas mainstay and Grand Ole Opry veteran play Roots for the first time.
Also arriving with a spanking new album and a lot of media love right now is Nashville boogie blues and hard rock and roll outfit The Blackfoot Gypsies. The throwback-looking and sounding To The Top is the quartet’s second project for Plowboy Records. And it surges with Keith Moon heavy drums and the voice of Matthew Paige, which I called “innocent and sleazy” upon their first MCR set in the winter of 2015. Paige and his mates embrace and embody the stylings of the 1970 rock star cavalcade while blendering together aspects of the White Stripes, the Alabama Shakes and T. Rex.
Dylan Whitlow told Susan Hubbard’s Mother Church Pew blog that the new album revealed itself during casual and enjoyable sessions in the Electric Kite Studio in Madison, TN, the new, new East Nashville. “We’ve been playing these songs live for a very long time,” explains Whitlow. “We thought they were all settled, but they continued to change and morph when we recorded them.” “Then, when we get onstage, the song just becomes a guideline, and we can try some new s*!t every time, mix it up in the middle for our sanity and the crowd’s.”
If the Gypsies resemble the British Invasion’s rocked up interpretation of the old country blues, Indiana’s Rev. Peyton’s concept of the music never left the Delta. The blues of Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band are bold, semi-electrified and as barrel chested as he is. He’s a character, but his commitment to the music and to writing new songs for the idiom is completely real. When they debuted on Roots in the summer of 2012, I wrote that “most of the music is driven by the pulse and drone of Mississippi-meets-Piedmont blues guitar, and Rev’s voice above is a deep and husky pile-driver that often doubles the melody being made by his bottle neck slide.” Now the Rev., with wife Breezy on washboard and Ben Bussell on drums, arrives with a fifth album hot off the presses and released by the prestigious Yazoo Records. It was Rev’s favorite label growing up, he says, his education in the blues. How sweet to wind up as an artist under that very banner.
Newly added to our quartet of artists this week is English standout folk singer Bella Hardy. In fact she was named Folk Singer of the Year at the 2014 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, having previously won the award for Best Original Song in 2012. The press in the UK reaches for words like “masterpiece” and “shining star” in describing her work and place in the scene there. Her bio says: “Bella grew up in Edale in the Peak District, and now lives in Glasgow. Although the Hardy family sang in the local choir, it was a combination of her childhood love for ballad books and visits to local folk festivals that decided her future. At 13 she began performing at Cambridge and Sidmouth festivals and in 2004 reached the final of the BBC Young Folk Award, having taught herself to fiddle sing. Following a BA in English Literature and a Masters degree in Music, Bella released her debut album Night Visiting in 2007.”
Hardy should add a dash of rarified grace to a night otherwise thumping with drums and shuffling with steel.