The Honeycutters return to MCR this Wednesday. Photo by Scarlati.
I was raised on National Public Radio. From the time I was in middle school, All Things Considered played quietly on the kitchen counter while dinner was being prepared. Almost as soon as I was driving I was having “driveway moments,” when some narrative story was too compelling to stop in the middle. Later on I worked for NPR as a freelance producer and reporter, and I’ve always valued both local and national public radio for its calm, reasonable tone and fact-driven reporting in a world going media mad all around it. Now we at MCR are involved in the life of an NPR network station in WMOT, and that’s exciting, opening up new avenues for distribution and hopefully some street cred among public radio listeners nationwide.
NPR played a central role in bringing our week’s show-opening artist to us as well. Until a few months ago Gaelynn Lea had a local and regional following as a contemporary fiddler, songwriter, violin teacher and lecturer in Duluth MN. Remarkably, she pursues this artist’s life from an elevated wheelchair and a tiny body that adapts to the violin by playing it like a cello. Then at the urging of some students she entered an original song (a haunting and irresistible melody called “Someday We’ll Linger In The Sun”) into NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert open-call contest. When she won, chosen by jury from about 6,000 entries, she and her new husband Paul and her musical collaborator Alan Sparhawk (of the band Low) flew to Washington to play Bob Boilen’s Tiny Desk. (See the video here.) And suddenly many more people in the world knew about Gaelynn Lea. Including us. So far, I’m feeling her music as coming from avant-folk territory where we find Sam Amidon or Iron & Wine. There are strong Celtic influences and she plays traditional tunes, but she seems more about a fine arts take on the song. It’s strong coffee and she seems like a strong and fascinating person.
Our other newcomer this week to Roots is Vandaveer, the flowing musical vehicle for Kentucky based songwriter Mark Charles Heidinger and his collaborator Rose Guerin. I’m kind of flipping out about this and I’m shocked I wasn’t on the Vandaveer train before this. The music is so varied and rich, and the lyrics are of the sort that make one repeat them and turn them over in the mind’s ear as the songs flow. They feel good in the mouth. “angels and demons all play the same parts… just smokescreens and snake oil… a little balm for the heart… it’s a charming offensive on a well-worn arc,” sings Heidinger in the title track of 2016’s The Wild Mercury. The overall musical and lyrical effect led me to spin the track over and over. Across the Vandaveer catalog are tracks that sound very different and yet of an artistic piece, including an album of old traditional folk songs like “Pretty Polly” and “Omie Wise.” I’m singing up for the newsletter and buying the t-shirt even before Mark and Rose take the stage.
Returning to Roots, triumphantly I predict, is the fabulous Asheville country band The Honeycutters featuring the voice and songs of Amanda Anne Platt. She’s soothing (even in the hurtin’ songs) and sobering (except for the drinkin’ songs) and nuanced in a way that I think tops even those rather famous ladies of the moment named Margo and Kacey. We’ve had the pleasure of hearing this band evolve and grow deeper through the albums When Bitter Met Sweet (2012), Me Oh My (2015) and this year’s On The Ropes. I’d be hard pressed to find a finer string of recordings from any band working in the classic country/mountain tradition in these last five years. And I love what Platt said in an interview with AXS.com during AmericanaFest: “I think both punk music and country music are music of the people, as well as early hip hop. When music becomes more polished and pop, it’s removed and now there are eleven steps between the front porch and the radio.” I knew there were a lot, but now I know. It’s eleven.
Closing out the night and closing out this dispatch will be our favorite mountain of a man from the ATL, the tall and talented Barry Waldrep. He’s the kind of figure that makes American music so deep and wide – a journeyman who develops projects and cultivates greatness more than putting all the emphasis on having that marquee solo career. Barry always comes to Roots with a musical partner or five, including that first visit when his companions were an unknown band called Flatt Lonesome. Now they’re the hottest award winning band in bluegrass. This week’s guest of our guest is Kelli Johnson, an award winning songwriter and a singer who follows the path of the pure-toned songbirds like Dolly and Alison. Barry’s years of working with his early jam grass band Rollin’ In The Hay plus sideman work for Zac Brown, Joey & Rory and others have made him a great Southern mentor and producer. His sets never disappoint.
They always tell you on public radio that it’s “listener supported” and so is anything good and worthy that’s not slick and big-time enough for those mega corporate dollars. We know you support us by listening and we’ll all be listening together on Wednesday night at 7.