Merlefest V: Revenge of the Pickers

Merlefest V: Revenge of the Pickers

In our spare time, we’ve been studying show business, just in case there are any tips or tricks that could make Music City Roots an even bigger blockbuster than it already is. And we’ve learned something. Were you aware that in Hollywood, they have what one might call a “formula” where popular movies are made and released AGAIN and AGAIN with a slightly new title every year or two, forever? Wow, this is clever! They barely have to do any new creative work and the fans come back, year in year out. I must say I was surprised to learn of this scheme. So simple! So effective!

We’re about to release the fifth edition of our franchise celebrating Merlefest, the Western North Carolina mega-festival, not because it’s good box office (though it tends to be) but because Merlefest speaks to so many things we cherish: top flight Americana talent, the Tennessee to North Carolina connection and the power of the eclectic outdoor music festival to gather the clans and raise new generations of music fans. Our Merlefest shows have produced breathtaking moments with Peter Rowan, Della Mae, The Honeycutters and Sierra Hull to name a few. We’re back this week with another sequel, and if this is a formula, we’ll take it.

The band with the freshest new recording and basking in the hottest media spotlight just now is Front Country, who arrive at Roots with their cracking Other Love Songs album from Organic Records. It’s got a mod, architecture-based cover that tells a story about the mod, carefully constructed sound within. In their recent profile on NPR’s Morning Edition, Nashville writer Jewly Hight quotes bassist Jeremy Darrow on the band’s approach: “I think one of the things that we put on display is [that] rather than an element to be dismissed, the craft of pop music is just as intricate as it is in any other style. And maybe that’s a little clearer to see when we’re playing it on wooden instruments.” This innovative quintet, built on smart musicianship and the vocal gifts of Melody Walker, formed in the Bay Area and moved to Nashville recently. We are glad to have them close by, because they’ve been favorites of our for years.

Similar in several ways is feisty, zesty trio The Stray Birds. The Pennsylvania-bred, Nashville-based band has grown ever more daring over five releases, culminating in Magic Fire, one of the best Americana albums of 2016. Maya De Vitri has a multi-dimensional voice, evoking the folk purity of a Gillian Welch at times and at others a Sheryl Crow brassiness. Longtime singing partner Oliver Craven comes from a family band tradition. Of late the group has scaled up its sound with a drummer and brought in their first outside producer in Larry Campbell, the legendary New York musician and sideman. This makes for a broad palette sonically, but the dedication to songs that matter and songs that resonate stands above all.

Before going any farther, let us do a slow salute to the voice of Chris Jones. I like his recordings in my car, with the road rolling audibly underneath. But I LOVE his recordings at home on the full-sized stereo, where the depth of Chris’s baritone and the timbral nuances of his tone really stand out. One is not surprised to learn that he’s an award winning bluegrass radio host, because that voice is also trustworthy, reassuring and deeply sonorous. Of course we’ve loved Chris Jones and the Night Drivers at MCR over the years as well. He’s a true veteran of the biz and one who may be just beginning to get the credit he deserves for his quiet achievements. The quartet has been recently refreshed with the incredibly skillful banjo of Gina Clowes, and it’s cool to hear a female vocal harmonizing with this particular lead singer. With Jon Weisberger on bass, there’s a whole lot of songwriting talent in this group too, and that’s amply demonstrated on this winter’s splendid Made To Move album.

I only save The Sam Bush Band for my final preview slot here because we’ve been working with the great instrumentalist and band leader since the very origins of MCR. With a legendary story that’s kept him on the cutting edge of traditional bluegrass and newgrass since the 1970s, Sam is one of our icons and exemplars. He is the epitome of a roots musician who needs no introduction. But in new news, Sam’s launched another year of festival shows, including last week at Old Settler’s before next weekend’s Merlefest set, where he is always one of the hallmark experiences of the weekend. We’re excited to add our best wishes to the multitudes that have poured in to the bearded one for turning 65 last week with so much class and enthusiasm. Sam and his crack ensemble will close out the show, with I’m sure a few songs from the recent and exceptional Storyman album.

So now you’ve seen the preview. Get in line and catch the feature. It’ll tide you over until the next Star Wars movie.

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Hosted By Jim Lauderdale


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