It’s a challenge, sitting here in a red and green, sparkle/twinkle themed Starbucks – to turn down the noise of Christmas and focus on the sweeter, subtler holiday at hand: Thanksgiving. Somewhere on the journey, I outgrew Christmas, and it outgrew me. Thanksgiving has been more my thing for years, because it’s food and family with little baggage. And I am indeed thankful for my family (and for food), and once again I anticipate a gathering of the clan. They’ll be at Roots on Wednesday night and then hanging around the house the next day, cooking, talking and eating. I hope you can look forward to something similar.
I never imagined I’d add a new Thanksgiving tradition to my life in my old age, but Music City Roots has made it so. As I’ve been noting over the five years we’ve been at this, our first Thanksgiving eve show was such a sweet and spiritual affair, that we’ve used it as a model ever since. Often that’s included the rhapsodic voice of Mike Farris, and he’ll be back, though in a fresh setting. John Cowan, another one of our T’giving All-Stars is returning as well. But we also have some new folks on hand. A bluegrass guitar duo with some lesser-known masters who ought to be in the spotlight more often. And a country band that has a lot to be thankful for, in that their lead singer and fiddler are newlyweds with a recently announced bambino on the way.
Let’s start there, with Todd Grebe and Cold Country. We got to know Todd soon after he moved to Nashville in 2010 and became part of the band Barefoot. Cold Country, a side-project whose name was inspired by his home state of Alaska, has morphed into Grebe’s main event. It’s a fun ensemble that splits the difference between bluegrass and classic country. Todd and fiddler/singer Angela Oudean got married this summer and a little turkey’s in the oven, so that’ll be good for our Thanksgiving karma. Word from friends is that Cold Country is in the studio working on some more electric leaning Americana and preparing for a move back to Alaska. Nevertheless, they’ll always feel like Nashville home folks.
Lending some acoustic virtuosity to our evening will be the first bluegrass guitar duo we’ve featured in a long time, and it’s a pairing that I’m particularly interested in hearing. Wyatt Rice has been in my record collection for a long time, because he was a big force in his brother’s era-shaping Tony Rice Unit, not to mention a couple of Rice Brothers albums. Wyatt, as I understand it, wrote the tune “Crazy Creek” and that key-shifting corkscrew of a tune is reason enough for a place in the guitar pantheon. I know less about his partner Richard Bennett, but he’s been a guitarist for J.D. Crowe, Lou Reid and other notables. Both musicians, no surprise, are heavily influenced by the great Tony Rice, so we’ll see some of the jazz influence that’s made that school of bluegrass flatpicking so intriguing. They’ve been touring together, so their duo sound is well honed.
Mike Farris and John Cowan are more than familiar to us and our regular crowd. More like family. In a city full of great voices, they are near the top of the mountain. So passionate and clear and almost operatic quality, they both deliver chills and tears. And each has released an exceptional album in recent months. Mike’s Shine For All The People became the worthy successor to his solo rock/gospel debut Salvation In Lights. With this impressive batch of original songs and cosmically touched recordings, Mike proves he’s more than just a natural voice; he lifts people up.
Cowan’s opus is more of a life’s journey album, encompassing the many styles and friends who’ve made his career so persuasive and vital. On Sixty, he pairs up with Chris Hillman on the beautiful “Why Are You Crying.” He invites Bonnie Bramlett and Sam Bush on for “Happiness.” He delivers a completely original and brilliant “Devil Woman” in a wild reinterpretation of Marty Robbins. I love this album for its variety, its one-of-a-kind performances and its heart.
Farris has alerted us that he’ll be performing stripped down with a piano, and that’s exciting for those of us who saw him first singing acoustic without a band. There’s no loss of power. I think we can also anticipate some kind of duo with Mike and John. That’s the kind of togetherness we believe in at this time of year. Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at Roots.