It’s hard to even begin to talk about the wide and weirdly named idea of “world music” without taking way too much of your time. It’s a fascinating and frustrating topic that gets into why cultures have such strong biases toward their own sounds and styles and why world music was packaged and presented for years as something super geeky rather than a sumptuous feast of sound. David Byrne, one of the greatest-ever advocates for the music of the world, wrote a must-read editorial in 1999 called “I Hate World Music,” where he teases out the problems inherent in the term (“It groups everything and anything that isn’t “us” into “them,” he says) even as he extols the wonders and delights of great artists from everywhere.
Putumayo World Music was exactly the re-think and refresh the “genre” needed. It was founded in the early 1990s by Dan Storper as an offshoot of his successful clothing company. Not long after, he sold the clothing business and has focused on the record label ever since. You’ve no doubt seen and I hope bought some of their beautifully packaged, carefully chosen anthologies. They’ve released Nuevo Latino and Sahara Lounge and collections from Greece, France, Congo, Cuba, North Africa and of course musical Brazil. They’ve been good to America’s “world” music too, releasing CDs of folk, zydeco, blues and even a collection of Americana music. But until this year, the venerable label had never delved into bluegrass. Now that they have, with a cool survey released May 22, we really wanted to celebrate that fact with a special themed show that in part says thanks to a great label for supporting organic, real deal music from around the world.
Several of the artists from the compilation have been with us before, but the newcomer of the bunch is Town Mountain, an exciting band out of Asheville, NC. They’re buddies with the Steep Canyon Rangers, whose lead singer Woody Platt praises their “strong, soulful vocals.” Bluegrass Unlimited magazine calls them “a standout” in a crowded scene. And they’re about to drop their fourth album on Sept. 4 on Pinecastle Records. I’ve heard it, and it’s great. There’s always room in town (or our barn) for another mountain, if it’s a good mountain, and this is a very very good mountain.
And while she’s not new to Roots, our friend Alison Brown will present a new configuration when she builds a band around her banjo and the fiddle of the wonderful Andrea Zonn (Vince Gill, James Taylor). Rounding out the band will be guitarist Ethan Ballinger, mandolinist Matt Flinner, bass player Garry West (Brown’s husband) and drummer Larry Atamanuik. Alison was kind enough to write that Roots and Putumayo are “two of my favorite music brands – both forward thinking and bringing roots music to the masses.” We could and have said the same thing about her record label Compass and her searching, jazz-infused approach to the bluegrass banjo.
Also returning to the show will be Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, that dynamic and adventuresome quartet based in the nation’s capitol. Frank’s got a great story – raised in Alaska, served in the Navy (and in the Navy’s bluegrass band, just so you know a few of your tax dollars are being awesomely spent), and he hooked up with banjo legend Mike Munford to form FSDK. Frank’s also a bon vivant who took his love of cuisine into musical territory. And if you so desire, he’ll come to your place of living or lounging, cook a full-scale, beautifully presented meal and then play a night-cap show for you with the full band. Fortunately this is no gimmick to paper over weak music. These guys were just nominated for an IBMA Award as Emerging Artist of the Year. From songwriting to expert band execution, this is one of the bands you need to know about in bluegrass.
Our show will close with a man who needs little introduction to anyone who is remotely aware of our show. Sam Bush has done more to carry bluegrass music from the past to the future than just about anyone. His infectious energy and searingly expert mandolin and fiddle playing have livened up decades of festival main stages. And his songwriting and song interpretation skills have grown and grown, and his most recent album Circles Around Me was a triumph, form the title track he co-wrote with longtime song source Jeff Black to the old timey Diamond Joe to the poignant “Ballad of String Bean and Estelle.” We adore Sam and if we were this excited to see him included on the Putumayo Bluegrass collection, we’re this plus that excited that he’s part of our show this week.
So be a good global musical citizen and come out or tune in to this night of current and cutting edge bluegrass, in partnership with Putumayo. Dan Storper will be on hand for an interview and we’ll explore why part of their stated mission is “to connect the traditional to the contemporary.” That’s music to our ears, as they say.