With all respect to the talented guys on this week’s show (and I’ll talk about them in a second) Wednesday night is shaping up to be a little bit Lilith Fair. We’ll hear from a trio of sisters and a pair of Amys, one of whom is an Indigo Girl. The other is an empowered indie artist who quit a job to give her music its best chance at getting out to the people. There won’t be go go girls, but there will be girls on the go.Amy Ray, the brunette half of the Indigo Girls, has a track record of making solo music, but where her early statements showed her edgy and punky side, her new Goodnight Tender is a stellar country/roots album. She says she’d been filing songs away for years that didn’t fit her famous duo with Emily Saliers or her rocking alter ego. When the time was right, she settled into Asheville’s charmed Echo Mountain studio and made live, bright, player-oriented recordings that really showcase her rich and assertive alto voice. The soundscape shakes with happy mandolin and surges with steel guitar, as on the cool honky-tonker “More Pills.” The rhythm section is top notch. I love “The Gig That Matters,” which updates the Carter Family feel with partners like Justin Vernon (Bon Iver). In fact guests abound on the CD, like the great Kelly Hogan and Susan Tedeschi, with whom Amy sings a song of homage to hero Duane Allman. I’m excited about how the album is growing on me.
Amy, a famously out lesbian, told a Chicago writer recently that she’s spending more time in Nashville and warming up to it because at last it’s warming up to her. “It used to be, 12 years ago, if I played in Nashville, there were always derogatory remarks from the bartenders and even the club-owners. It was hard. I had a hard time and I was always surprised by it. That was when I first started touring solo, and I have seen a noticeable difference. The contrast is stark. The last time I played there, people and the club-owner were super-friendly and I had a big crowd. I didn’t expect to have a crowd at all.”
I think that’s one pretty fair assessment of some of the evolution in Nashville that goes beyond the superficial new buildings and the great food. We are certainly looking forward to welcoming Amy Ray with open arms.
The other Amy, the terrific Amy Black, is making a return visit to Roots from her Boston base and bearing a new album called This Is Home. This latest release was recorded in Nashville at Ben Folds’ studio and produced by my old pal Lex Price, whose work with Mindy Smith and Robbie Hecht have made him a go-to guy for natural, unforced and musical recordings.
While Black has made a strong name in the busy northeast, her roots are in Muscle Shoals, so her flavors of blue-eyed soul and emotive country have depth to it. At the heart of her new album is the song “Alabama” which she says she wrote for her family – “specifically for my granddad, a very special person in my life who passed away a few years ago. He rarely left his small town in the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama and when he did, he couldn’t wait to get back home.” As with everything Black has done – three studio albums, an EP and some live releases – she’s in touch with something centered. Praise has been effusive. The Boston Globe cited its “sultry confidence” and American Songwriter granted it four out of five stars.
Voices joined in sibling harmony is one of the things to like about The Bankesters, a family bluegrass-plus band from Southern Indiana that honors the influence of The Isaacs and The Cox Family, among other grass/gospel groups. The IBMA has a two-year-old thing called the Momentum Awards for emerging talent, and sister Emily won the first one ever given for a vocalist. When she locks in with Alysha and Melissa, it’s glowing and exciting. Mom and dad Phil and Dorene play guitar. Melissa’s husband Kyle plays banjo and other stuff. So it’s truly a family affair. They’ve been working their way up the bluegrass ladder for some years now, earning both respect and affection, because they’re excellent musicians and kind of adorable. Their newest, Love Has Wheels, is stocked with original songs and some choice covers like their breezy and brisk cover of “Cups (When I’m Gone).” Both album and song are smoking up the bluegrass charts.
Now, the gentlemen. I saw The Farewell Drifters first at the IBMA convention five or six years ago, when they were a young new folk group seeking a sound and making all kinds of fun and involving music as they searched. Their shows were always a blast and we were excited to host them several times on Roots. We’ve watched them develop and refine their music. They’ve added electric instruments and drums to their stacked harmonies and acoustic purity. They’ll tell you they’ve been aiming for a fusion of roots and polished pop. Brian Wilson’s genius gets cited frequently. And indeed on their new Tomorrow Forever album we hear beautifully wrought studio creations that still have solid songs at their core. I’m excited to hear the latest in their fascinating journey.
We complete our lineup with an artist I’m just getting to know, but what a first impression. Jim Bianco was a driving force behind the Hotel Café scene in Los Angeles, a haven for creative songwriters and musicians. He’s toured with Shelby Lynne and Squeeze and been featured by NPR. My sampling started with a song called “Elevator Operator,” and while I was dazzled by the video animation of Caroline Attia Larivière, the song itself had blazing intelligence, quirky rhythm and every signature of a great record. And there’s lots more where that came from. This should be a fun and engaging set.
So we hope all you boys and girls will gather at the barn on Wednesday night or gather round your radios for another edition of Roots.