In showbiz, the audience is known as the “house” and while showbiz people are always hoping for a full house, certain nights bring more gravitas and anticipation than others. As a team and a Roots family, we were certainly hoping for a good crowed for our first Thanksgiving Eve show in Liberty Hall. Would the magic of our late November homecoming tradition translate? Would command performances by John Cowan and Mike Farris have the same hearth glow?
Well I’m very happy to report that not only was the house full, but so were our hearts and speakers. Four artists meshed together to craft a diverse and meaningful night of music and camaraderie. Then we enjoyed the sweet segue from Roots Wednesday to Thanksgiving Thursday, from “house” to home, from musical cornucopia to family feast. It felt as real and rewarding as ever. If gratitude was gravy, we’d be pouring it on thick.
Because Thursday found me happily wielding knives and trying to keep up with my household’s chef de cuisine (i.e. my fab wife) from morning to night, this week’s dispatch combines some brief reflections on the show past with some brief teasers about the coming Dec. 5 broadcast featuring Margo Price, Kevn Kinney, Cory Branan and Tumbleweed Company.
The acoustic guitar duo has been one of my favorite formats for bluegrass/folk music ever since I was turned on to Tony Rice and Norman Blake (you need to own THIS), and so what a treat to kick this show off with Tony’s brother Wyatt and his long-time musical compadre Richard Bennett. They integrated two lacy lines of flatpicking into a breezy tapestry, and Bennett sang in a cool, pure baritone reminiscent of Tony and his hero Gordon Lightfoot. Then it was on to country music made in a warm family way from Todd Grebe and Cold Country. The singer/leader and fiddler/vocalist Angela confirmed on stage that they’re indeed pregnant and that just added to the glow of a set already rich in strong songs and comfortable twang. “Luckiest Man Here On Earth” showed his witty, spirited side. “Criminal Style” had murder and prison. And “Here’s Wishing To You” was more character driven with lines worthy of John Prine. AND they brought along Roots MVPs Mike Bub to play bass and Larry Atamanuik on drums. All in the family baby.
Mike Farris is usually a maximalist, having fielded some of the larger bands we’ve seen at Roots, but this year he’s been working on a duo with an acoustic guitar and organist/keyboard dervish Paul Brown. The interplay between them was magical and subtle. Mike, who usually strides around, gave off more energy seated with his six-string than most artists do standing. Yet his performances evoked multiple standing ovations. Same for Cowan. The audience was just completely with him, but hey, in addition to John’s clarion tenor, which goes higher, louder, longer, clearer than most anyone, he brought a shockingly great band with Rory Hoffman (guitar, keys, harmonica) and Stuart Duncan (fiddle). They seemed to hit every genre imaginable in six songs. The melody against the complex groove of the Darrell Scott co-composition “Six Red Birds In A Joshua Tree” just slays me. He let Rory take charge on the instrumental classic “Avalon,” and between him and Duncan soloing, it was as fine a jolt of jazz as we’ve had on the show. Then, for his final song, John sang “I Feel Like Going Home,” which has one meaning, but the hand-off to all of us as we headed home for the homiest of holidays was too perfect.
As for this coming week, we’ve got a hot night planned with some cool young guns of Americana music, including two who, by a very nice coincidence, were flagged in a recent Rolling Stone Country list of must-hear new artists. We’ll be welcoming back to the show singer and songwriter Margo Price, but while her last time was with hippie-shakey Buffalo Clover, this week she’ll be fronting her country band, The Price Tags (was there ever a nicer, subtler nod to Minnie Pearl?). This vivacious East Nashville talent was cited by RSC for her “deeply personal and painstakingly crafted tunes, evoking the weeping willow vibe of Hank Sr. but pairing it with the realities of modern life.” Meanwhile Cory Branan earned plaudits for his “left-leaning roots music that owes more to the rhythmic whiplash of Memphis’ Sun Records than the poppy, polished twang of Nashville’s Music Row.” His debut album The Hell You Say turned my head in the early 2000s, and his 2012 release Mutt proved a really infectious, curious and enthralling listen. Now he’s back, on the Bloodshot label, with No Hit Wonder. Is he quietly suggesting that maybe the world pay closer attention to his music? Or is he happily proclaiming (as he is with his kick-back snoozing album cover photo) that he’s happy in the slow, smart lane?
Another songwriter returning to Roots without the band that previously backed them is Kevn Kinney, long-time leader of Southern rock stalwarts Drvin’ N’ Cryin’. His raspy voice can be muscular or tender, and he writes about quirky subjects as well as the holy trinity of love, politics and the road. In the cryptic, poetic notes to his most recent solo album, 2012’s A Good Country Mile, Kinney writes of his mission: “We show up for the show and wade through a crowd as diverse as the music we’re gonna play tonight.” Whether with D&C or as a solo artist, Kinney’s been doing that very thing for decades, and he’s one of the sharpest and most unassuming artists you can see. He’s a living tribute to the timeless value of the gig, the fan, the drink and the venue. And when he blends country music with his deep-down passion for rock and roll, great things happen.
New to me this week will be Tumbleweed Company, a large-ish band from Music City that claims inspiration from The Band, Dylan, Wilco and Radiohead. (I love contrasty mash-ups.) The core folks met one another while attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston and their new project Village was produced by local hero Ken Coomer. So with the harvest feast behind us and a few weeks of jingle jingle ahead, come dive into the holiday spirit with us. We’ve got the Blackstone beer and some great music. Oh, and we’ve got a new BUS that can deliver you Nashville-bound folks who’d rather not drive I-65 to our door step. No excuses now! See you at The Factory.