There are plenty of ways to burn in music, and the second show in the inaugural season of Music City Roots suggests two of them. Sam Bush is a fiery virtuoso of the mandolin and fiddle, while Mike Farris brings rock and roll fire to gospel music. Together on one stage, they’ll offer modern and very personal interpretations of two great American music traditions, which is precisely what Music City Roots is all about.
Sam Bush just this September was given the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Performing, acknowledging his contributions to both protecting and updating bluegrass music. He was raised in the Blue Grass State of Kentucky, Bowling Green to be precise, and immersed in both traditional fiddle and the rock and roll of the 1960s. An early winner of multiple national fiddle championships, he added mandolin to his arsenal and formed a band in 1971 that – like Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys – gave a name to a sub-genre of music: the New Grass Revival.
Sitting here in 2009, it’s hard to imagine how radical it was for Bush and his New Grass companions to bend and twist bluegrass so far, marrying it with rock and reggae and even the jazz fusion of the day. Over its 18-year run, NGR included amazing players like guitarist Pat Flynn, banjo player Bela Fleck and singer/bassist John Cowan. Some traditionalists didn’t like it, but the band influenced countless young musicians to manipulate bluegrass even as they revered and preserved the pure stuff.
Bush went on to be a huge force in the Nash Ramblers, one of the greatest bands ever to back Emmylou Harris (herself a Music City Roots guest artist). And he launched a string of solo albums that showed his versatility and his skill as a band leader and master collaborator. His long-time association with Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and other legends of progressive acoustic music continues to bear fruit today at venues like the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Bush visits MCR just one day after the release of his latest and most bluegrass-centric album in years, Circles Around Me.
Mike Farris wasn’t born a gospel singer. Far from it. He had a rough adolescence that led him into well-publicized addictions to drugs and alcohol. As lead singer of the rock band the Screaming Cheetah Wheelies, he was known for his powerful pipes and hard-living lifestyle. But a day of redemption came, and when he got sober with the help of friends and the Bible, new musical vistas opened up, and Farris transformed himself into an extraordinary gospel singer and songwriter. His album Salvation In Lights was praised coast to coast and earned him the Americana Music Assn’s New/Emerging Artist award in 2008.
Our newcomer artist this night is Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade, a “modern vintage” band from Boston bringing the roaring twenties into the new millennium. Justin Shatwell of Yankee Magazine writes that “Tess has recorded four albums of standards and original songs, but the best way to experience her is live. As her smoky voice drags seductively behind the rhythm, she transforms even the dingiest barroom into a dance floor and tempts you–for one night, at least–to drift back to a classier time.”
We’re all about a classy way-backy time at Music City Roots. Come join us for the never-to-be-repeated Show Number Two.
— Craig Havighurst