Tension between the old and new has always been and will always be an important part of bluegrass music. Artists who prove cutting edge and controversial in one decade become legends in the next. This week at Roots, we have two such musicians – trailblazers who have achieved iconic status as both band leaders and instrumentalists: J.D. Crowe and Jesse McReynolds.
Crowe is a giant of the banjo of course, but he’s also a stylistic pioneer. When he formed his own band The New South, after years cutting his teeth with the great Jimmy Martin, he made possible a new sound and a new approach to repertoire that was both inclusive and exciting. The band’s debut album included the guitar and vocals of Tony Rice and the mandolin and singing of Ricky Skaggs. And even though Crowe’s banjo style had been closely modeled on Earl Scruggs, the solid rhythm and bluesy feeling of the New South proved to be one of the most influential records of the 1970s. Their versions of “Old Home Place” and “Some Old Day” became definitive picking circle staples, and many a mainstream bluegrass band sounds like direct progeny of that original New South sound.
Jesse McReynolds is also a veteran, celebrating 63 years in music this year. The mandolinist was half of the legendary duo Jim and Jesse, a Grand Ole Opry act since 1964 and one of the top brother duos in bluegrass history. They had a strong progressive streak too, embracing songs from outside the genre. They made a national standard out of John Prine’s waltzing lament “Paradise” and the country leaning “Diesel On My Trail.” Jim succumbed to cancer in 2002, but Jesse has carried on, continuing to blaze trails. His latest foray is a surprising and spectacular album of Grateful Dead covers. Jesse’s mandolin sounds amazing, and his voice works wonders on familiar and lesser-known Dead songs like “Franklin’s Tower” and “Fire On The Mountain.” It’s proof that the pioneer of mandolin cross-picking has lost none of his sense of adventure.
Our bluegrass trifecta will be rounded out by a newer bluegrass starlet who’s graced our stage before. Donna Ulisee spent years out of the spotlight as a songwriter but a recent push back into the bluegrass recording and touring field has given the music one of its brightest new artists. Her sweet and sincere demeanor pick up where her comely voice and intelligent songs leave off. We’re thrilled to have her back. And rounding out the evening, we’ve got Folk Soul Revival out of Southwest VA. Their name says it all, so we’ll be expecting a wide range of influences and the uplifting sound that’s opened shows recently for Justin Earle, Jason Isbell and others.
It’s our first show of the advent season, and only three more to go before the winter break. Come see what mastery sounds like.