Our foreign-born daughter’s seventh grade social studies class recently took its first pass at Tennessee history, and so my saintly wife spent hours helping her sort out Andrew Jackson from Andrew Johnson, and midwifing her first encounters with slavery and the Civil War. I interjected that she ought to also know that Tennessee is where Sam Phillips opened Sun Records and helped Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis invent rock and roll. Two females stared blankly at me, nonplussed. But that’s important isn’t it? I mean, is there a Tony-Winning musical about the Nullification Crisis? I didn’t think so.
Sun will shine some light on this week’s Roots as it happens. The show opens with Julie Roberts, the country/soul singer who last year released the first album under the famous yellow Sun Records logo in decades. And we’ll close with our zany friend Jason D. Williams, whose piano-pounding musical persona owes a good deal to Memphis, Sun Records and particularly Jerry Lee Lewis. In between, we’ll hear from artists hailing from all over the South who I can say with 100% certainty had their lives changed by Sun Records, whether it’s explicit in their music today or not. That’s Athens, GA for Shonna Tucker and her band, East Tennessee in the case of The Barefoot Movement and Willie Sugarcapps, a new Americana super-group with it roots in south Alabama.
Julie Roberts earned a lot of attention in the mid 2000s when she released two albums on Mercury Records. She had a great story in that she’d taken her business degree from Belmont University to become assistant to Luke Lewis, the top guy at Universal Music. Lo and behold he discovered she had a rich, commanding voice that evoked Sammi Smith and Shelby Lynne. So she got a record deal and things launched really well. Critics raved. Her first single “Break Down Here” cracked the top 20 at country radio and her album went gold. Unable to repeat the trick, even with a strong single you may remember called “Men And Mascara,” she was set free and began releasing her music independently. Things got even more complicated for Roberts when she A) lost her home to the 2010 Nashville flood and B) was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. But she’s a fiery, faith-driven optimist and she was rewarded with a rather remarkable opportunity in 2013 to release a new album on a revived Sun label. The company has been chugging on in Nashville as a licensing agency for its classic catalog. But the music enthusiasts there wanted to put out the disc, titled Good Wine And Bad Decisions. It’s not as honky tonk as it sounds, with more of a soul and countrypolitain texture. It ranked up with the best stuff released in a very strong 2013. Julie is a sensational singer, so we’re excited to welcome her.
Jason D. Williams isn’t on Sun, but he might well have been had he been born a generation earlier. This mega-Memphian is a brilliant showman, and his past visits to Roots have been marked by tumbling runs off the piano, pounding boogie-woogie numbers and surprises – like when he broke into “Easy” in between barrelhouse blues tunes. His most recent recording was a collaboration with Todd Snider, who found himself in the unlikely but inspired role of producer. Oh to have been a fly on the studio wall for those sessions. And in a way you can be, because many of the songs on the resulting disc, Killer Instincts, were written by Williams and Snider on the spot in stream of consciousness rambles between two industrial grade southern characters.
This show is just strong all around. Willie Sugarcapps released an album that many authorities named in their Americana top ten last year. But then look at the musicians involved. Will Kimbrough is the multi-faceted guitarist, songwriter and singer who tours and records with Rodney Crowell. Grayson Capps is Mobile, Alabama’s roots kingpin whose gritty sets have been highlights at the AMA festival, not to mention a previous MCR. Those guys gathered regularly for hangout shows with the duo Sugarcane Jane, and the rambly, shambly ensemble cohered as a band with truth-telling songs and soul satisfying music. We’ll be asking them about their origins at a magic place called The Frog Pond At Blue Moon Farm.
There’s impressive lineage behind Shonna Tucker and Eye Candy as well. She was the bass player in the beloved and now canonical southern rock and roots band Drive By Truckers from 2003 to 2011. Now she lives with chickens on a farm near Athens and leads this rocking soul band with fellow former Trucker John Neff. Can. Not. Wait.
And in the emerging artist slot this week a band I’ve grown very fond of called The Barefoot Movement. Singer/fiddler Noah Wall anchors a quartet that knows its bluegrass, its old-time and its contemporary. I’ve been watching them grow from their origins as undergrads at the East Tennessee State University bluegrass program through last year’s silver medal at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest. A tour in 2013 with the Milk Carton Kids put them on the Americana map, and we’ve been looking for a chance to feature this band-you-need-to-watch.
It hasn’t been very sunny in Tennessee of late, but perhaps the spirit of Sam Phillips will smile on us and warm us up this week. Come bask with us.