When Tommy Emmanuel played Music City Roots a little over a year ago, it was a major moment for us, a gripping set by an artist that we’d sought for a long time because he represents the pinnacle of a particular strain of roots music, specifically blues-based fingerstyle acoustic guitar. The Australian-turned-Nashvillian is a bona fide global star – a wizard of not only the six strings, but of stagecraft and performing. Many who are otherwise indifferent to virtuoso instrumental music become putty in Tommy Emmanuel’s hands at his live shows.
I had another coveted encounter with Tommy this spring when I interviewed him for my WMOT show The String and just about the first thing I asked him was how he balances pure artistry with razzle dazzle. It turned out to be something he thinks about a lot.
“I walk a line there,” he said. “Because I still want to play for the people – for the general public. I don’t want to lose anybody with guitar skills. At the same time, I believe that whatever guitar skills I have I can use them in the name of entertainment – and to see where I can take it – make it an adventure. I always play way too much. And my good sense and my good taste will tell me I should back off. But when I’m in front of an audience I can’t hold it back. Because I’m there for them and so I just let it fly.”
He sure does. If you’ve never heard this Chet Atkins-appointed Certified Guitar Player in person, you’ve missed one of life’s mesmerizing experiences. You can warm up for this week’s Roots appearance with his new album Live At The Ryman. Here, in a perfect acoustic space at the most rarified venue for roots musicians in the world, Tommy’s guitar blooms and sparkles and dances. He’s athletic on his speedy work and even more brilliant in his lyrical, moody and melodic pieces. He never neglects the melody, nor the listener. It’s a thrill to have him back.
There’s a lot more this week besides.
I believe that as time goes by and the super-fans and mavens of roots music are able to sift and shake out this overwhelming decade of talent and music making, that Seth Walker will rise like proverbial cream to the proverbial top and enjoy an even wider and higher long term reputation than he does today. There are a lot of reasons I count Seth among my very favorite artists – the velvety voice and phrasing, the inventive, tone-rich guitar and the smart songwriting. But perhaps above all, and to a degree and depth most musicians can’t touch, he freaking swings. I used to think of swing as a genre and a dance style, but as I delved into the writings of gurus like Garry Giddens and Nat Hentoff, I saw that the most profound observers of American music regard swing as a quality and an aspect of musicality. It can be refined but it can’t really be taught. You know it when you hear and feel it, and Seth Walker can’t play a measure with swinging. It’s been true since MCR met him on his tour cycle for his 2009 album Leap Of Faith, and it’s continued though several more exquisite releases, up to last year’s Gotta Get Back. I challenge you to find a full album that’s as easy on the ears with more heart, passion and substance. Seth brings the influences of all the music cities he’s inhabited – Austin, Nashville and New Orleans. For any roots music fanatic of the highest taste and refinement, Seth Walker leaves nothing to be desired.
Bringing the funny will be The Cleverlys, whom we haven’t seen in a while. But this band of bent backwoods brothers has been busy exploring new ways to Frankenstein pop music and string band/bluegrass together. We’ve been moved to ironic tears by the quintet’s interpretation (if that’s the word) of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” On their most recent EP Cash Crop they reach back to the 90s to cover Destiny’s Child, Beck and they mine Flo-Rida’s “Low” for hidden beauty and meaning (spoiler alert: there is none). But the big news in The Cleverlys’ life is they just made their debut at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which is high cotton, so high that Digger Cleverly complained of needing supplemental oxygen. We congratulate them and welcome them for their first Factory appearance on Roots.
This week’s emerging artist Ele Ivory hails from Atlanta but now calls Music City home. She got her start on stage in musicals in grade school, and I’ll refer to her official bio for what came next: “She worked professionally in theatre until returning to the piano and began songwriting at age eleven under the mentorship of award winning songwriter Cindy Morgan. Ele made the move to Nashville in 2012 to be immersed in the songwriting community. While gathering skills as a songwriter and taking her influences, like Alicia Keys, Pink, Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow, Ele has shaped her own style.” Young and ambitious, she’s traveling around the city and region to play wherever folks are willing to listen, and hey, that’s what we do.
So we look forward to hosting them and you as well, for a part transcendental, part instrumental, hopefully monumental experience.