Hand-made in a Factory – A Season Review

I believe the word September derives from an old Latin root meaning “over-scheduled.” At least that’s how it feels. The autumnal rush began with AmericanaFest last week and continues next week with the IBMA bluegrass convention in Raleigh, NC. Your faithful correspondent has so far failed even to review our very successful Americana showcase, with its historic reunion by BR549 and its spiritual glow, courtesy of Ruthie Foster. But since we wrapped our Summer season this week, let me look back at these recent shows and our first quarter at our new Liberty Hall home in Franklin, TN.

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This past Wednesday was a sweet and light affair, with no drums, two small acoustic bands and one string quartet. We opened with a set from a legend. Mac Wiseman was more than charming. He showed us how to pare songs to their essence, with deliberate phrasing and loads of heart. Peter Cooper, our guest emcee for the night, conspired with fellow guitarist Thomm Jutz to bring the band they’d assembled to record Mac’s new album Songs From My Mother’s Hand. Personally transcribed from the radio in Depression-era America by his mom, the repertoire comes straight from our national songbook. “Will There Be Any Stars In My Crown” is one of the prettiest gospel songs ever, while “Old Rattler” is feisty like Mac himself.

The rest of the lineup, all Australians in town for AmericanaFest, showed great range and skill. Kevin Bennett brought a rich and rugged baritone and evocative songs that spoke to his rural Aussie upbringing. Brooke Russell sang true country songs in a plaintive voice as blue as her hair and dress were red. The Mae Trio was precise and polished with scintillating three-part harmonies and string arrangements. They were truly one of the folkie discoveries of the season for me. Falls closed the show with refined yet passionate folk pop delivered with a string quartet. This duo has got big label support and ties with big-time bands like The Lumineers, so watch for them to make a lot more noise stateside in the coming year.

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Chuck Mead of BR549 on Sept. 18.

I wrote up the Sept. 18 Americana showcase in some depth in a lengthy festival review for our friends at The Bluegrass Situation, so I’d point you there for deep context. But let’s say here that BR549 lived up to the promise of its historic reunion, playing as if they’d never missed a beat and drawing out a slice of the Nashville community that we hadn’t yet seen much at our new space – veteran supporters and fans who’ve helped the city rise on the kick-off provided by this hillbilly band formed on Lower Broadway.

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We couldn’t go wrong opening the season and inaugurating Liberty Hall with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. They’re American classics. The surprising takeaways that night were the intelligent charm of solo songwriter Verlon Thompson and the vintage-tinged power of Humming House. More than 1,000 fans showed us just how exciting but comfortable the Factory can be when it’s full to capacity.

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Amy LaVere made her Roots debut early in the season.

We’ve hosted Mike Farris a number of times but he’s never sounded better than with his refreshed band singing songs from his new album Shine For The People on July 16. The same show featured a first-time set by Memphis badass, bass-playing torch/folk songwriter Amy LaVere. The night’s discovery was Rachael Davis with her stunning voice and original compositions for big band. The following week paired ethereal Songs of Water (including Ricky Skaggs’ son) with our long-time faves The Vespers, who make their own kind of spirit space. Irene Kelly delivered sweet original bluegrass too.

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The Valentines with Frank Howard (R) brought the spirit and soul of 1960s Nashville to The Factory.

July 30 delivered arguably the most historic and emotionally cathartic show we’ve ever staged as the Night Train To Nashville anniversary celebration featured a dozen or more older acts who made Music City a greater city from the 60s on. The vast lineup included feisty Marion James, gentleman Frank Howard and mysterious Robert Knight, who sang his timeless “Everlasting Love.” It was a show whose logistics and sonic magic we could not have pulled off at the Loveless. The Jimmy Church band surprised us with an encore of “Happy” and we were.

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Michael Cleveland’s award-winning fiddling was one highlight of a bluegrass-heavy August.

The month of August was no dog day slow down. It brought us world-class bluegrass with Michael Cleveland and then an IBMA nominations special with Balsam Range and Sam Bush.

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Vagabond Italian old-time band La Terza Classe was stranded by the road one day and on the Roots stage the next.

A show featuring newly solo folk master Dom Flemons kicked off with a surprise song from an Italian string band discovered literally by the side of the road by Jim Lauderdale. They brought the house down just as surely as Alanna Royale who closed the night.

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The month ended with our annual Guitar Night, featuring New Grass Revival’s Pat Flynn and the most decorated acoustic guitarist on Earth, Bryan Sutton.

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Seth Walker on Roots, Sept. 3.

September saw us welcome back some of the sublime artists who mine the more classic and vintage sides of Americana. Ed Snodderly brought the spirit of his Johnson City Down Home music hall to our stage with superb storytelling and songwriting. Young Corbin Hayslett showed us that old-time mountain music has a bright future. And Seth Walker blended classic blues and swing with refined, Nashville-honed songwriting, all steeped in a few years of living in New Orleans. It was smooth as the finish on a good guitar.

When we return on October 8 for a show featuring top West Coast Americana band Front Country, Nashville song master Jeff Black and bluegrass radio star Joe Mullins, we will be celebrating five full years on the air. That’s quite an accomplishment – one none of us were certain was possible when we kicked off this adventure in 2009. Of course in music and radio, uncertainty is a way of life. We need you guys more than ever to spread the word about the show in its new venue. The AMA conference reminded us how rich and deep this world of music is, and we plan to bring it to you weekly as long as you let us.

Craig H.

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