The 1980s and 90s were vibrant decades for the imperfectly named, blurry-edged genre of folk music and more specifically the poised, contemporary wing of it known as “singer-songwriter.” While pop and country binged their way through the end of the CD/MTV era and shoved a lot of bad music down America’s throat, a parallel musical universe took shape where a large, attentive audience followed a roster of burgeoning and emerging artists rooted in literate lyrics, attentive musicianship and an empathic relationship with an audience they could see and feel. While Garth flew over his fans and blasted them with floodlights, America’s songwriters sat in footlights and engaged their audience in something much more like a dialogue. And we got to know the enriching, luxurious and intelligent work of Shawn Colvin, John Gorka, Dar Williams, Ani DeFranco, David Wilcox, Greg Brown, Christine Lavin and many others.
This week on Roots, we’ll feature two guys who found their voice and galvanized their careers during that time and who now can be said to be among America’s folk music elite. One’s a Texan who shares vibes and spirit with Radney Foster and Robert Earl Keen. The other is a Philadelphia artist whose career was boosted by touring with Shawn Colvin and who evokes the kindly companionship of Taj Mahal and Steve Goodman. We’ve also got an Indiana rock and roll band that transferred to Nashville, a youth prodigy bluegrass band with a national profile and a songwriter whose experience blends Europe and Americana. But first, here’s a bit about Darden Smith and Vance Gilbert in turn.
Darden Smith is the Texan – a farm country kid who sang in church, got a guitar early and learned his way through the classic Neil Young albums. High school in Houston and college in Austin gave him access to the rooms he needed to hone his craft and meet the songwriting community. New friends like Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith lent their voices to his debut album in ’86, and he parlayed that project into a publishing deal and a time on a major country label. He had some radio action but it wasn’t a fit. He felt much more at home in the contemporary folk scene and pursued a variety of projects that included time in the U.K. working with Boo Hewerdine and composing for dance groups and even a symphony. A string of strong albums on Nashville’s Dualtone Records in the 2000s earned additional respect and admiration, and he added educational work to his pursuits as well. Darden’s new project, Love Calling, was recorded here in Nashville, with production help from Gary Paczosa and Jon Randall Stewart. It begins with a song we’ve heard at Roots before, the brilliant and moving song “Angel Flight,” which he wrote with his friend Radney Foster. By the time you’re through the disc you’ll have heard abundant heart and grace and an overall effect that Roughstock, among others, hailed as a top release of 2013.
Vance Gilbert visited us in 2011 and completely charmed and disarmed us with his charisma and his magnificent voice. A born showman and gatherer of people, he cracked jokes about Ray Charles, sang poignantly about planetoid Pluto, moved us with his ballad “Unfamiliar Moon” and busted our guts with a satire of songwriting clichés. The Philly-reared artist began his music career as a sideline to his job teaching art, and his club appearances were so compelling that Shawn Colvin invited him to tour with her. He released three albums on the prestigious Rounder/Philo label in the 90s, sealing his reputation. The Boston Globe, a big supporter has called Gilbert an author of “literate, heartfelt, rippling…emotionally resonant songs.” He’s also gifted as a finger-style guitarist and an interpreter of cover tunes, even as his mere presence is uplifting. We’re excited to welcome Vance back to the barn.
More folk/songwriter music – with a transcontinental flair – will come from Piers Faccini. Where many of our Americana-making friends live here and tour energetically in Europe, Faccini has spent most of his life in England and France while finding a wider circle of fans and touring opportunities stateside. His globe-spanning vision embraces Delta Blues, North African music and British Folk and he’s generating delicious music. So this will be a welcome dose of international flavors.
And then to ensure the requisite round of Music City Roots eclecticism, we’ll touch both poles with a set of bracing rock and roll and a set of bluegrass music made by some hot young prodigies. The former is MODOC, a four-piece that’s being hailed as fully part of the Nashville rock revival and mentioned alongside the Black Keys and JEFF The Brotherhood as acts that match fire with songwriting prowess. And we’ll open the night with a band that’s small in size but big in impact for string band music. The Sleepy Man Banjo Boys, because of their precocious talents, have landed them on Late Night with David Letterman, The Today Show and other high profile settings where bluegrass is rare. Tommy, Robby and Jonny Mizzone are gifted musicians and savvy ambassadors for the music.
Some come see us on Wednesday night. That’s all folks.