One rough but plausible take on the story of American roots music might be that old time fiddle and banjo dance music evolved into bluegrass while a bunch of other interesting and important stuff related to blues and songwriting happened at the same time. That’s the bluegrass-centric view, and like I said it’s incomplete and crude, but that was my path. I got into bluegrass and traced it back to its old time roots while learning about the rest of the spreading tree branches along the way. And that’s sort of how Roots played out this week, with the Whiskey Bent Valley Boys opening the night in high clawhammer style and Blue Highway closing the show with the precise and passionate sound that is their signature. In between was a crafty songsmith and band leader and some funky reggae rock music. It was mighty close to the quintessence of the Music City Roots approach to programming.
It began with an extraordinary opening song. I love it when music and baseball come together (see Steve Goodman’s “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request”) and our guest host for this Spring season opener, Mr. Peter Cooper, performed “715 (For Hank Aaron)”, a song/story I regard as his masterpiece. It not only celebrates Hank’s historic career and home run record but puts it into context of Peter’s growing up in the South and trying to figure out the gulf between Hank’s grace and steadiness and the racism provoked by his overtaking Babe Ruth. On the anniversary of home run 715 and the dawn of a new season, it was an epic indulgence.
One is tempted to look for wrinkles and gray hairs on the members of the Whiskey Bent Valley Boys, but none are to be found. Behind their long beards these guys are young dudes from rural Kentucky who took musical cues from their parents and grandparents as a guide to deeper digging. And they’re not only speaking to older generations either. As they swung into their first tune, a whole section of teenagers – the Marist High School Choir I later learned – popped up out of their seats, found a big stretch of floor and lit into a spirited country line dance. As the old Kentucky people don’t say, it was totes adorbs. Then the WBVB offered a mournful “Darlin’ Corey” and a pile-driving “Mississippi Sawyer” before closing with more frailing and raking on “Ole Whiskey.” Toe tappin’ is a cliché, but it was happening throughout our very non-cliché audience.
I checked out Scott Mulvahill’s original music online a few months ago after meeting him at Roots and learning about his life as a hard-traveling bass player for Ricky Skaggs. And I quickly felt like he’d make a great MCR guest. Then, without me having to say a word, he popped up on the calendar. Scott showed up with a fascinating, spot-on band that crossed new acoustic with Steely Dan jazz pop. It was the Rhodes piano, Telecaster guitar and dobro that did it, offering up a blend of textures I’ve never quite heard before. Scott’s bass playing was amazing – thick and tonal and woody and rhythmic. And he’s got a silky-cool voice too. Opener “Top Of The Stairs” had an easy swing and groove, plus a striving message. With due credit, he borrowed Bruce Hornsby’s arrangement, done with Skaggs so well, on a slow burn version of Jimmy Martin’s “20/20 Vision” and it was just luxurious. Scott’s own “Fighting For The Wrong Side” was performed solo with voice and bass and its exquisite melody has literally been stuck on repeat in my head since driving home from the show. So yeah, I could see this guy and this band and these songs on some very big stages.
The Get Right Band was super chill, at least at first. The Asheville trio offered sunshine mellow party soul on opener (and theme song?) “Get Right.” Then as the songs unfolded, they found a bunch of ways to project sharp, clean grooves that made a good bed for Silas Durocher’s companionable singing. It was a voice and they were a band designed for the long hang, and I can see why they do well on the island/beach circuit. So they did admirably compressing what they do down to a mere 25 minutes. The finale was my highlight. “Treat You Like” ran through a list of metaphors that are supposed to inspire care and consistent attention but that the singer confesses in all honestly can get neglected – houseplants, car, pets, etc. Instead he vows to treat her like a song, which one can tell he takes seriously. And then they stretched out on a nice juicy guitar jam. Bring me a Corona; I’d like to be here a while.
I’ve long dreamed that Roots could regularly feature the biggest bands from the worlds of Telluride and Merlefest, and here we are with Hot Rize one week and Blue Highway the next. I’m stunned and overjoyed by this. To know that we were heading toward a finale set by a band that’s had respect cranked to 10 since its founding 20 years ago and that played such a big role in my bluegrass education, well, this was special. They came out spraying banjo bullets in a song of violence and cards called “The Game,” the title track to the most recent album. That was a Shawn Lane lead vocal while the next (“Talk Is Cheap”) passed it over to Wayne Taylor for that inimitable Blue Highway sound. The show stopper for these guys is often a gospel song, and here it was one I hadn’t heard in ages, the ancient and sturdy “Wondrous Love.” It opened spare and lonesome with Lane’s mandolin carving out the melody. Wayne started the a cappella vocal and each guy added a layer patiently, the harmonic intervals sounding all lost and haunted. It built to a fugue that was dark and light and aged and new at the same time. Awe inspiring.
So Spring has sprung. Music is in the air. The Masters is on TV. And I don’t care about no Barry Bonds. Hank still the home run king.