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“Let’s Play Two!” A Roots Double-Header

My title this week quotes the immortal words of the late, great Chicago Cub Ernie Banks, whose enthusiasm for his game was embodied in his famous catch phrase: “It’s a beautiful day for baseball. Let’s play two!” It is with that all-American brio that we approach our own summertime double-header, a post-July 4th fireworks show of explosive, multi-colored Americana. On Tuesday, July 7 we gather for a special edition MCR that welcomes guests and artists from this year’s annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society convention, where it’ll be guitars, guitars, guitars and stars. Then on Wednesday, July 8 we officially kick off our Summer 2015 Season with a bill that includes the incredible Pam Tillis. In the spirit of Chet, we’re going for a fusion of country and class.

Guitar Night has been an annual tradition for us, because the guitar is so central to the story of folk, country, blues and Nashville itself. And this year it’s a deep bow to the shrine of Chet Atkins. What a giant. He came out of East Tennessee playing hillbilly music with the Carter Family and without being a wild man or a singer or a teen idol, he picked and innovated his way into people’s hearts around the world. And of course he was as big and influential a record producer as Nashville’s ever known. The Society that bears his name brings together the best finger-pickers in the world for a confab in Nashville every year. Working in collaboration with the CAAS, Artisan Guitars (our neighbors in the Factory) and Maton Guitars of Australia, we’ll be featuring a cross section of those artists, some of whom are Roots regulars and some are coveted first-timers.

Starting closest to the Chet Atkins orbit, you’ll be hearing from the chief curator and organizer of the evening’s special, expanded lineup. John Knowles walked away from a PhD and career in physics and engineering decades ago to pursue what became a robust career as a player and educator in fingerstyle guitar. He became close colleagues with Chet, who granted him the made-up but oh so important title of Certified Guitar Player (CGP). Younger but in the same mold and on the same path is returning MCR artist Pat Bergeson. He was discovered by Chet and invited to Nashville to become part of his circle, touring with the master for years. Now he’s a versatile musician who works on all kinds of projects, including The Hot Club Of Nashville, with his wife, Native Nashville jazz chanteuse Annie Sellick. Fellow guitar master Richard Smith is part of that assemblage, so we’ll hear his dexterous and diverse approach as well.

Opening the show will be fingerstyle icon Thom Bresh. Chet was a big fan and supporter of this 2001 inductee into the Thumbpickers Hall of Fame. But then Thom is the son of Merle Travis, one of Chet’s idols. Bresh’s career took shape on the West Coast, and he’s now one of the best-loved and most entertaining solo instrumentalists in the world. And we round out our evening with some younger players traveling the road paved by the elders. Jonathan Brown is a slick finger picker who plays regularly at Carter Vintage Guitars and the Grand Ole Opry. Younger still is Parker Hastings, a Kentucky teenager who’s been beating the adults at national contests. Plus we’ll have some fancy backing work from the Endless Road Strings and our anticipated giveaway of a hand-made, $2,000 Maton acoustic guitar. Maybe it’ll be taken home by the next artist to support this important and delightful niche of instrumental music.

When we follow up on Wednesday, July 8 for our Summer Season opener, our lineup will return to its usual varied, vocal norm. And we just couldn’t do better than having Pam Tillis as our anchoring star. She was one of the voices that got me excited about country music in the 1990s and in the decades since she’s only enhanced her track record as an intelligent and enchanting interpreter. I got to interview her at length when I was at the newspaper in the early 2000s when she’d made an album covering songs by her dad, the great Mel Tillis. What came through was a passionate love for the songcraft and storytelling inherent in country music, not to mention her father and his legacy. It’ll be a great honor to have her on our stage for the first time.

I’m happy to say I suggested Caroline Spence for a set, based on a couple of experiences hearing her sing both solo and as a support vocalist for our pal Robby Hecht. The Virginian turned Nashvillian has won some songwriting contests and infiltrated Music City’s smart folkie set. Her new album Somehow is a lovely piece of work. Rounding out the bill is a ten-piece funky soul jam band from Hendersonville TN called The Broomestix. The members are barely twenty years old, but with influences like Earth Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and Galactic, they show musical curiosity beyond their years. In the band I’m hearing is Evan, son of mandolin guru and bluegrass superstar Ronnie McCoury. Also young and on the make is 21-year-old Matthew Fowler, an Orlando based songwriter earning raves and faves as he tours on his appropriately named album Beginnings.

So get ready for two nights of summertime tunes and all American artistry. We’ll proudly fly those flags.

Craig H.

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