Loving The Land

These days, in life as in sports, when the improbable and remarkable happens we can quite often go to the video tape. That’s what I decided I had to do for the February 2, 2011 performance at Roots by singer/songwriter Susan Werner. And sure enough, as I remembered, she delivered one of the most intelligent and well-rounded sets we’ve ever had by a solo performer. But this is in keeping with her national reputation. On guitar and piano she made a lot happen musically, and as a lyricist, she left us laughing and thinking about pompous religiosity, difficult choices and other topics. We’re pleased to say that Susan returns to the show this week, and she’ll be turning her attention to things that grow and the people who grow them.

The life, times and plight of the American farmer is the thematic heart of Hayseed, the tenth album of Werner’s prolific career, if I’m counting right. It was sparked by a commission from a Nebraska arts group and a natural resources group but inspired by Werner’s background growing up on a farm in Iowa. And this isn’t one of those earnest, sepia-toned postcards from a mythical better time. As she’s been doing since emerging in the 90s, Werner invests her subjects with humor, humanity and a unique point of view. Against a rootsy, acoustic soundscape, Werner sings cleverly about herbicides, sensitively about the farmer’s pride of place and passionately about stewardship.

“Connection to the land is a kind of tonic for the digital age,” Werner told writer Kim Ruehl recently. “Everything we create – we make websites, we tweet, we post on Facebook – none of this is physical or tangible. Food is tangible. Land is tangible. What comes out of it is not an instantaneous reward. It’s very healing for people.” As she promotes the album, Werner is also promoting sustainable foodways and playing farmer’s markets around the country; we’re thrilled she’s also playing our barn.

And she’s not the only ultra-crafty songwriter/artist on the bill this week, as you’d expect. We’re also welcoming back the smooth yet sharp Randall Bramblett, one of Georgia’s greatest all around musicians. He’s one of those savants whose remarkable if under-publicized career has zigzagged between sideman work for greats like Steve Winwood and Widespread Panic and his own solo work. And that work gets gushed over by ever critic who goes near it, because Bramblett is an astute observer of the world around him and assimilator of the sounds around him. He delivers his insightful songs with a gravel-road voice that feels worldly and intimate. He’s got a new collection as well: the soulful, keyboard and horn-heavy CD The Bright Spots, which stretches the artist in some new stylistic directions. He’s playing everywhere and making the scene at great radio stations around the country as he works the album up the Americana chart. Oh yeah, and one of his songs is the opening/highlight track on Bonnie Raitt’s acclaimed Slipstream album. So it’s good to be Randall and it’ll be good for us to have him on stage.

Just to keep our proceedings from getting too serious with all these artistes in the house, we’ll hear – or rather experience – Chattanooga’s Strung Like A Horse. We caught this five-piece slash-grass band at our Scenic City Roots show, and I’m really happy to report that there’s a lot of musicianship and thought behind their string storm. They thrash around, but there’s a lot of dynamic and rhythmic shifts, tricky arrangements and best of all colorful, soaring vocals.

Also larger than life, from right here in Music City, the duo of Kristi Rose and Fats Kaplin will spin their vintage country/torch threads for us. Fats has been especially busy of late, releasing a double-re-issue of his solo albums and playing all over with luminaries like Jack White and Buddy Miller. Kristi is always a whirlwind of delight and drama, with a timeless and powerful voice.

And rounding out this busy evening will be hot newcomer James Wallace and The Naked Light. Details are sketchy at this time but it appears he was production assistant at Bonnaroo who was outed as a very serious songwriter and rocker. His best stuff is kind of shockingly good in a Leonard Cohen/Townes Van Zandt sort of way, and there’s horns too. In a short time they’ve landed a Daytrotter session, a Vimeo staff pick video and coverage in SPIN. There’s something happening here, even if it ain’t exactly clear. But all will be revealed on Wednesday night.

Come in off the farm and pile into the barn.

Craig H.

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