You may have seen John Oliver’s profane, funny and cathartic farewell to 2016 on the year-end episode of his HBO series. He let folks on the street from all walks of life vent about stuff that made the year awful for them and the country and the world, from Syria to the deaths of Prince and David Bowie to the bottom-scraping, nationally traumatic presidential campaign. Yet reflecting on our own experiences and efforts, we at Roots must acknowledge a huge, energizing stroke of good fortune in 2016 – partnering with MTSU and radio station WMOT. For this, and the new colleagues and community that comes with it – we are deeply thankful. But as for the year at large? Yeah, it was trying. And so even more than usual, the holiday experience of being with family and friends – of gathering around tables real and metaphorical – will be particularly satisfying. This week marks our annual Thanksgiving eve show, which always calls up large doses of love and good will from the artist community and our team. Welcome one and all.
What’s on tap, as we like to say? Well how about John Oates, our yes-we-did-just-drop-that-name superstar buddy who’s done more to parlay his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame stature into the growth and enrichment of Americana music than anybody this side of Springsteen. It was a lot to get our heads around back in the early 2000s when the mustachioed songwriter of “Maneater” and “Kiss On My List” turned back to his folk music roots and began collaborating with lifer/masters like Sam Bush and Vince Gill. But the results have been superb, led by an honest voice that clearly understands the nature of great songs. Oates grew up loving roots music, and he shared an anecdote about that recently in a songwriter showcase interview. He talked about spending time as a teenager with Mississippi John Hurt when he’d come through Philadelphia to play clubs and the city’s famous folk festival. You can tell he was paying attention.
John visited us twice in 2014 but it’s been a couple of years since we featured him on our stage. He seems to have a new album in the works, so we’ll ask about that. But what he does have is a new Christmas single called “Santa Be Good To Me” recorded with Nashville’s beloved Time Jumpers. Henry Carrigan sized it up really nicely in No Depression: “Andy Reiss’ and Vince Gill’s guitars snake around Paul Franklin’s steel guitar, providing the melodic quilt into which Jeff Taylor wraps his punchy accordion and against which Oates lays his Sinatra-style vocals. It’s a smooth, cozy tune.”
To bring a little glory and hallelujah to our night of togetherness we’ve invited back mighty Mike Farris, Nashville’s roots gospel icon. You know his story by now. He was a rock and roller whose uncanny voice propelled the Screamin’ Cheetah Wheelies to the top of the Nashville club scene and regional fame. His lifestyle spun out of control and when he reinvented and rehabilitated himself, the muses that called him came from Memphis and further south and further inward. He debuted his new outlook and sound with Salvation In Lights in 2007 and it’s been steady growth and evolution as an artist ever since. His album Shine For All The People earned the inaugural Grammy Award for the best Roots Gospel Album in 2015. Every time he sings with us at MCR he’s taking time out of an increasingly busy schedule to do so. He’s also hosting Sunday morning’s Spirit of the South show on WMOT Roots Radio.
If Farris is one of those roots singers who reaches out and grabs us with his intensity of spirit and edge, others seduce us with ease, calm and a self-assured comfort with trailing behind the beat like the laziest marching band at the parade. In this category I’d put Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and East Nashville’s Derek Hoke. We’ve loved this pitch perfect artist over the years as he bid Goodbye To Rock N Roll in 2009 and accompanied us in Waiting All Night in 2012. Now he’s cast the light of a Southern Moon on a 10-song collection that matches variety with quality as they shuffle, swing, stomp and surge. The South Carolina native has a sweet-as-honey voice and a way of writing songs that would have been all over the charts in a bygone age of country radio. As host of $2 Tuesdays at East Nashville’s 5 Spot, he was there from the beginning of the revolution, coaxing it on with a gentle touch not unlike his voice.
Todd Grebe is a more straight ahead country singer with a rasp and a twang and classic sounding songs that could nudge even the most reticent among us around a sawdust dance floor. The “cold” in his band’s name Cold Country comes from Grebe’s origins in Alaska, where he started a bluegrass band in the 2000s and which started getting accolades on the mainland soon thereafter. He met and eventually married fiddler Angela Oudean, and for a good while they were focused on the eclectic Americana band Barefoot. But with that behind them, the couple is back based in the Refrigerated State focused on Cold Country and traveling to Nashville to do things like perform and record, as bands do. The 2015 release Citizen was one of the year’s overlooked gems, with smart songwriting and abundant swing. Recorded at Music City’s Butcher Shop where Johnny Cash’s ghost hangs out, the fine album ends with a gorgeous trumpet section on “You’ll Never Find Me.” (And truly, if you’re always in Alaska that would be the case.) We’re glad they’re showing themselves to gather around our MCR family table for the holiday.
For the first time, I’ll miss this holiday show to be with family out of state, but I know you’ll welcome guest interview guy Jon Weisberger with open arms. I expect a full report when I get back.