The dictionary defines a maverick as “an unorthodox or independent-minded person” with synonyms including individualist, nonconformist, dissident and free spirit. Isn’t it kind of weird, in a nation built on the ethos of the individual and premised on free thought, that we even need a word for such people? I’ll bore you with my opinions on this in the realm of politics over beers if you like, but here I’d just like to observe that maverickism is pretty much a given in the realm of Americana music. It’s a format born of independent thought and nonconformism and it’s been giving shelter to maverick musicians for 15 years. The band that took the name The Mavericks was fortunate indeed, as it conjures just the right kind and degree of courageous uniqueness, not to mention a certain country/western aura. Now, the sprawling Americana community is gathering in Nashville for its annual festival, and we are proud to be hosting a showcase for the fifth year. The Mavericks may be the best known to us Nashville-based folks, but this will be a night of mighty mavericks down the line.
Opening up will be Whitehorse, the Canadian duo of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland. I got to know this fascinating, always evolving outfit at past AmericanaFests. Then really I fell for them through the 2012 album with an extravagant sound and the extravagant title The Fate Of The World Depends On This Kiss. Whitehorse is indeed romantic, in a film noir kind of way. They’ve grounded a lot of their sonics on unison singing, spooky melodies and Luke’s reverb-drenched Gretsch guitar. And they’re a real life couple who’ve been pictured holding hands on at least two album covers. On the new Leave No Bridge Unburned, they’re running together toward something or from something in animated silhouette. And the music is more intense and textured than ever. The current live show is a complex dance of multi-instrumentalism supported by deft use of looping software. I’m particularly jazzed about this Roots debut.
AMA suggested the West Coast songwriter Joel Rafael for our show, and that one sent me to the bookshelf. What a story! An early artist at the legendary folk clubs The Ash Grove and The Troubadour, Rafael became fully swept up in the tumult of the 1960s counterculture and anti-war movement, staying one step ahead of the draft and making music where he could while plying other trades. He was in a duo with Rosie Flores, to my fond surprise. He recorded for Jackson Browne’s record label, did some theater music and became part of the Woody Guthrie Festival posse as one of the handful of artists entrusted with Guthrie lyrics by Woody’s daughter Nora. That led to a major Kennedy Center appearance celebrating Woody’s legacy. Joel sings in a dead sincere, fibrous baritone and speaks his mind plainly. This will be a gratifying MCR debut by a guy who’s been there and done that.
Shemekia Copeland says she’s “an old soul marching to the beat of my own drum,” and anybody that’s followed her ascent would agree. Most folks know she’s the daughter of Johnny Copeland, the eclectic Texas blues man and rock and roller who made a blazing career out of the New York area. Shemekia was all the buzz by the time she was in her late teens and began making superb, visceral albums in the late 90s on the iconic Alligator Records. Sadly that was about the time her dad died too young after a life of battling heart disease. But she picked up the torch in so many ways, building on the Copeland legacy. She brings to the blues a kind of all-American pride in roots music, with original songs that dig in and draw from soul, gospel, R&B and country music. On her incredible and incredibly new (last Friday!) album Outskirts of Love, she sings a funny, bitter anti-tribute/murder ballad to Nashville and country music, which “ain’t nothing but the blues with a twang.” Oh I hope she sings this one. There’s also a lot of potent songwriting about lives lived on the edge and with resilience. Copeland was handed the crown and named the new Queen of the Blues by the daughter of Koko Taylor, Alligator’s mega-star Chicago-based wonder. So it’s an honor to have her on the show.
The Mavericks have built a world of music and a strong identity that borrows from various pockets and eras of cool but comes out as its own thing. Big broad strokes of Bakersfield country music, Roy Orbison orchestration and 60s Cubanismo all swirl together, bound by the magisterial voice of Raul Malo. The grooves are profound, with drummer Paul Deakin wielding sticks as big as batons and cracking them on the skins from above his head. The horns are sumptuous. Eddie Perez plays the snarliest twang known to man on vintage guitars. And accordion gives the music the ultimate, gliding Latin gloss. It truly is one of the most vigorous and beautiful band sounds ever to make country music, and it’s been a blessing to have them back on the scene after a hiatus.
You probably know the basic story, though it’s hard to believe it stretches back 25 years. Malo and Deakin were original founders of the band, which injected a wildly retro yet visionary sound into the Miami rock and punk scene. Their move to Nashville and success via MCA Records on country radio is testament to the insight and passion of producer Tony Brown, the last man on the Row capable of such bravery. They had multi-platinum albums and won a Grammy and some CMA Awards. After a decade of intense living and music making, they called a hiatus and were gone for a while. The return of the Mavericks brought in classic country guitarist Eddie Perez and brought back long-time keyboard man Jerry Dale McFadden. They satisfied the anticipation with their album In Time (early 2013) and then topped that work with this year’s Mono.
Raul Malo, one of our favorite singers ever, told Glide magazine that everything is clicking with the band and that he expects longevity: “I think everybody is excited to do this. We’ve always been guided by where the music takes us, and I think if there’s more Mavericks records to make than we will make them. I really feel right now that we can do this for the rest of our lives.”
Artists aren’t the only mavericks in our Americana ecosystem by the way. A great music culture depends on fans being free-thinking individuals as well. The pop music business is premised on building herds clustered around a few consensus acts. Americana has its favorites to be sure, but it’s really about finding the sounds and artists that light you up on a deep and personal level and then supporting them actively. I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but we can all do more to evangelize to those around us who aren’t on the path yet. That’s what AMA is all about and it’s why we have a radio tower and a weekly broadcast. We want to make more mavericks.