Master Grass

I don’t suppose August is anybody’s favorite month, whether it’s blazing hot or damp and fetid, as it is this year here in Tennessee. But it does come with a few perks. Congress goes home where people yell at them. That’s nice. Baseball races get exciting and football gets started. And we at Roots get to throw one of our favorite happenings of the year, as we invite the bluegrass community out to the Loveless Barn for the announcements of who’s nominated to win IBMA Awards when they’re handed out on September 26 in Raleigh, NC. That special press conference, featuring Sam Bush and Jim Lauderdale, will go out over our webcast at 5 pm central time on Wednesday. Then at 7 we host our biggest bluegrass themed show of the year, with a simply stellar lineup of old friends and favorites.

In every way, the Sam Bush Band and the SteelDrivers embody the Music City Roots vision of a robust and fruitful dialogue between the old and the new, between the core tradition and the wider world of musical influences. Both have played the show numerous times, and it always feels natural. Our fans are familiar with the back stories of these innovative, trend-setting artists, so I’ll focus on some recent news.

Sam Bush has had a banner summer and year. His historic duo shows with fellow grasstronaut Del McCoury have been huge hits at major events including Bonnaroo. He got to throw out the first pitch at a home game of his beloved St. Louis Cardinals (the only thing Sam’s ever been misguided about). And he played a variety of sets at the 40th Anniversary edition of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where he has played every year for 39 years running and where he was long ago crowned King. “I’ve grown up with the Bluegrass Festival,” Bush told Telluride Inside this summer. “I’ve watched it grow and change as I have grown and changed. But one thing remains the same: In Telluride, the crowd is still up for anything.” That would extend to Sam Bush fans everywhere, including ourselves, with our passion for the trad and the rad in equal measure.

The SteelDrivers have been enjoying acclaim for their Hammer Down album, which dropped in February. GAC hailed its “masterful playing” and Tammy Rogers’s “dagger-filled fiddle.” Ann Powers at NPR said the album’s leadoff single “I’ll Be There” is “as energetic and scary as roots music gets.” That song by the way became a long-standing favorite video over at CMT too, so they’ve touched a lot more mainstream fans this year, adding to the army of “Steelheads” who follow and adore the band. Gary Nichols has emerged as a great figurehead for the band with his check-in road videos and, of course, his steam locomotive of a voice. The personnel shuffles of last year are behind them, and this is the leanest, tightest and most adventuresome Steeldrivers to date.

We’ll also be welcoming back the vocal magnificence of Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out. Talk about bluegrass royalty, the band has earned as many IBMA awards as anybody ever, including Moore’s five Male Vocalist of the Year trophies, including each of the past three years. They released a varied collection of “bluegrassed” country and vintage pop cover tunes through Cracker Barrel and followed it up with a winter, spring and summer of heavy touring. They picked and signed at the CMA Music Festival and the wonderful Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival in Bean Blossom. They’ll also, incidentally, be part of our public TV series this Fall. You can’t follow bluegrass without knowing this venerable band. Nobody’s ensemble vocal attack is sweeter.

Roots has also been fortunate to have a long-running fling with singer, songwriter and bandleader extraordinaire Donna Ulisse. Once a promising country artist, she remade her career mid-life around bluegrass and gospel, and her success in doing so is inspiring at many levels. She introduced a prolific catalog of thoughtful, story-rich songs over five albums in five years. And last year’s all-original Christmas concept album called All The Way To Bethlehem was called a masterpiece by more than one magazine writer. I’ve been singing Donna’s praises for some years now as one of the hidden gems in the Americana universe, for her striking voice, both as a writer with something to say and a singer with sweet, fruitful and emotional tones.

Our fifth band has played the show before as well, believe it or not. Flatt Lonesome is a young six-piece that came as part of a Barry Waldrep & Friends feature set a while back. You might call this ensemble precocious. Their first gig ever was taking part in the band competition at a winter bluegrass convention in Nashville. They placed third. And a year later, they won the same contest. Their debut album asserts the same kind of authority, so it’s no wonder they’re filling their calendar with prominent festivals. They do a mean Buddy Miller cover too, so I hope they play that.

So not only do we have great music, we have suspense! Join us to see if our guest artists – or your favorites – landed nominations for IBMA Awards at 5 pm, and then kick back at the regular show time for our IBMA Music City Roots special. And make plans to attend World of Bluegrass and the Wide Open Bluegrass festival in Raleigh in late September. It’s going to be a whole new scene and you’ll want to see and be seen. It would be lonesome without you.

Craig H.

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