Have banjos, will travel.
Last night’s Roots was an object lesson in the radical and magical flexibility of bluegrass and its signature instrument, from home ground to the outer planets. From the Scruggs style rolling riches of the Larry Stephenson Band’s Kenny Ingram, to the adorable banjo uke of Supple Station Trio’s Taylor Brashears, to the newgrass energy of Mike Sumner with the Randy Kohrs Band, to the jamming and free-wheeling chops of Split Lip Rayfield’s Eric Mardis, it was a full spectrum of plectrum.
It seemed wise to start rooted in tradition, and there aren’t many on the circuit as equipped to lay it down in classic style as Larry Stephenson. He told me he was especially influenced by the Osborne Brothers, and that shone through in his set on both the secular and gospel material. They wrapped with Bill Monroe’s “Muleskinner Blues,” which soared on Stephenson’s clear, sky-high voice.
The Supple Station Trio, a find of our own Jim Lauderdale’s I’m told, showed skills beyond their years and a connection to juke joint blues of the 1930s one wouldn’t expect form folks still in high school. These guys offered graceful melodies, a tough edge and the powerhouse vocals of Taylor, which is funny because that’s not a phrase that’s been on people’s lips since the Grammy Awards on Sunday night.
Randy Kohrs shook the house with a fantastic seven-piece band and a full-force attack of country, blues and progressive bluegrass. From Kohrs’s voice and world-class dobro chops right through the locked in rhythm section, this was as sharp and powerful a group as we’ve had on the Roots stage. They offered a jaggedly cool, richly rhythmic instrumental called “Instrumental Case” where master guitarist Josh Williams just tore my head off. Randy sang the bejeezus out of a re-worked Del Reeves song called “This Must Be The Bottom,” that I’m very glad to add to my mental catalog of great country songs. Nashville vocal star Scat Springs joined the band for a bluesy number. And Jim Lauderdale, who’s had a great run working with Kohrs as his producer, just nailed the heady duets of “Can We Find Forgiveness” with Randy. Kohrs told us he started getting calls to open for some mainstream country acts. Hell, they should be opening for him.
And rounding out our grassy night was the legendary Split Lip Rayfield. I’m so glad to finally see them instead of hearing about them, because they were a lot more nuanced and multi-faceted than I imagined. Where I thought I was going to see shaggy old-time played at punk rock speed, this Kansas trio had shapely songs that shifted time and fantastic harmony vocals. Jeff Eaton’s famous one-string gas can bass was stunningly on key and in the pocket, and Erik Mardis and mandolinist Wayne Gottstine were super-solid pickers. They drew their own dance-happy crowd, which always lights up the barn.
Then they joined perhaps the biggest Loveless Jam we’ve had on “Nine Pound Hammer,” just in case we hadn’t already hammered home the bluegrass theme. So it was awesome, and we were not sad one bit to have special guest Gwyneth Paltrow in the barn, fresh from a day on the movie set, to see our little spectacle. Come back and sing a few!