We’ve lost a heart-breaking congregation of musical greats in 2016 but I’d not want some of the big rock and roll memorials to overshadow the passing of the amazing Jean Shepard, who died in late September at the age of 82. Many artists earn the “pioneer” label in one way or other, but I don’t see how one could face wider, denser uncharted territory than being a solo female hard country singer in 1952. Only Kitty Wells’ success broke the path before Shepard, and nobody in the business thought that women would ever have long lucrative careers as solo singers. Jean became of course a grand lady of the Grand Ole Opry and one of the coolest figures in American culture, a brassy and independent woman whose laments against a steel guitar inspired Loretta and Tammy and all who came after.
I’m thinking of Jean in the context of this week’s Music City Roots because we’ve invited a couple of the most striking and moving female country singers of now to the stage, both with exceptional new projects and increasing attention from the wider world. So I’ll be telling you about Rorey Carroll and Kelsey Waldon here in just a moment. This show also stands out for its concentration of Nashville-based talent. MCR tries to mix the local with the national of course, but something about this date magnetized four-for-four Nashville artists, all with killer albums released in recent weeks or months, and I don’t see how you could improve on the talent level consolidated here.
No surprise that my colleagues and I get a LOT of over-the-transom e-mails about new music and new artists, and part of the blessing of our job is patiently panning that mountain for gold. Well that’s how Rorey Carroll came to my attention. It helped that her story was dramatic. Rorey split out on a Chicago middle class upbringing to ramble and hobo and ride rails. She is said to have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail at age 20, making music along the way. She busked and bunked here and there, including an interesting chapter that involved the illegal carriage of cannabis in a car from Humboldt County, CA to rural Arkansas. I don’t know details yet, but her arrest and skin-of-the-teeth avoidance of prison time made the pages of High Times magazine. All this, plus being a really fine songwriter, made her an object of fascination for Nashville’s own cannabis/music fan Todd Snider. The veteran signed her to his LoHi Records label and put her in coveted opening slots on tours. The album, Love Is An Outlaw is a really magnificent calling card for this new artist. I fell instantly for “By The Banks” with its dark moody thump, shining chorus and crisp poetry. Rorey’s voice is sultry and gorgeous and controlled, and she has a lot to say.
A bit farther along in her career and certainly beloved by many in and out of her East Nashville base is Kelsey Waldon. More country than country she is, to paraphrase Bladerunner. Her family roots in Monkey’s Eyebrow, KY sound like the work of a fabulist factionalist, but it’s the real deal. She took up guitar and song as a way of coping with her parents’ divorce when she was 13. She moved to Nashville “on a whim” and day-jobbed herself near to death while developing her feel and sound and songs. The authenticity of her croon, her twang and her stories is unassailable. Her classic sounding music is comfortable on the surface and more provoking as you burrow into the layers. Her new album I’ve Got A Way has already made one prominent Best of 2016 list. American Songwriter praised its mood and timbres and added that, “while such sonics may be having a moment this year, it’s Waldon’s lyrics that truly shine. Throwback country’s trendy star could fade out in years to come, but Waldon’s, bright and strong as her songwriting voice, will do anything but.”
That would be a fine double bill on its own, but we’re only halfway through. I’m extremely excited about the first Factory appearance by The Tattletale Saints. They seized my undivided admiration when Roots booked them to play our special annual show at Monteagle up on the Cumberland Plateau a year and a half ago. There, in one of the woodiest and most resonant assembly halls I’ve ever heard, the duo of Cy Winstanley and Vanessa McGowan offered up incredibly crafty songs, duet chemistry and musical textures of rare quality. It’s in the impeccable timing of her acoustic bass and his versatile and inventive guitar playing and so much more. How these New Zealand natives found one another and their path to some of the purest, coolest Americana music around is a story I’m still getting my head around, but here they are. They made an acoustic album two years ago that was splendid and the follow-up, self titled CD of this year is an electrified wonder.
Rounding out this talented Nashville set and closing the show is songwriter and rootsy soul man Ron Pope. He’s the relative veteran in this lineup, having put out his own indie Bedroom Demos album in 2008 and thus launching a career that’s seen his albums on the Billboard charts, his songs on television and generally about as hot an indie career as one could ask for. Inspired by Springsteen and the like growing up in suburban Atlanta, Pope seems to have been born to sing, play and direct a band. His voice is cool, strong and contemporary. He slings a mean guitar, it is said. And his shows (he sells out on multiple continents) are fiery, frenetic affairs. As related in the official bio from one of his band mates: “If you see this band and don’t go home exhausted and smiling, you didn’t do it right.”
So with a higher Music City quotient than usual, I expect home-town interest to be strong for this penultimate show of 2016. We’ll have country emotion, a global perspective and a proven house rocker all in two and a half hours. That’s why people move here.