Every time we land a genuine American roots music master to play our show it’s a victory and a coup for us. Excitement ripples through our team. We see tickets sell in advance at a faster clip. I find it even easier than usual to research and rave about the upcoming lineup. Sometimes those masters are obvious to the general public because they’ve had breakthrough and crossover careers, like Emmylou Harris or Leon Russell. Others are not widely known beyond the Americana inner circle. And I think that’s where we are this week, twice over. It’s one of those things where you have to just get it. But if you get to the Factory, we’re sure you will.
One’s a home act, and one away. One’s a shockingly deep blues man with an all-star Nashville band. The other’s a duo from the top tiers of roots music breaking out like Johnny and June of New York. I hardly know where to start, but being a good Southerner, I’ll greet our out of town guests, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, first.
Campbell is well known to anyone who’s been part of the Americana Honors and Awards at the Ryman over the years. He’s been named instrumentalist of the year and earned a Lifetime Achievement Award in the same category. His resume is just nuts: Sideman for Bob Dylan. Collaborator and sideman with Rosanne Cash, Phil Lesh, Emmylou and more. Producer for many, including guitar great Jorma Kaukonen. And in a capstone stretch of deeply satisfying music making, Larry became music director of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles. All along the way he was making music with his wife Teresa Williams, whom he met in the New York City country music bar scene of the 1980s. She was also part of Levon’s amazing band and Larry’s called that time “the most pure musical experience I’ve ever had.” We experienced it when the Ramble came to the Ryman Auditorium in the late 2000s, which is still among the top five shows of my life.
Campbell and Williams have talked about going out as a duo for ages, but now that Levon has joined the angel band, they’re truly making it happen. And it’s as if one of the greatest acts of our generation just appeared fully formed out of nowhere. Some of the things being said about the couple’s debut album: “44 minute of roots music gold” (AllMusic.com), “A powerhouse country, blues, gospel and honky-tonk singer [meets] a maestro of Southern roots music” (Wall Street Journal) and Uncut gave it 9 of 10 stars. Yes, it’s that kind of great, with visceral rhythms and energy to match the emotion and the heart. To be included on their extensive tour – a coming out party for what should be a vital force in Americana for many years – is a true blessing.
Our other old master HAS played MCR before but in his role as bandleader and songwriter for the first generation of the Steeldrivers. There, Mike Henderson played mandolin and some dobro and was in every way awesome. But pare him down to his primal essence and he’s a blues man and a guitar player as real and gritty as they come. He’s a native of Missouri who came to town in 1985 with a Blind Pig Records release under his belt. Over time, he made the most of Music City’s diversity, becoming a widely respected and wide-ranging musician. He wrote songs for rock and country stars and played his guitar in all kinds of live and studio settings, including a world tour in the band of Mark Knopfler. He helped found Dead Reckoning Records, an early exemplar of today’s wave of indie music companies and deep roots artistry. And while he’s not still involved with the Steeldrivers, that experiment kickstarted one of the most inspiring and exciting bluegrass-meets-soul bands going. Meanwhile and all along, Mike held down the stage at the Bluebird Café on Monday nights. Famous for its hushed reverence for songcraft, the Mike Henderson Band gave the Bird its deep south crossroads credibility with tightly wound, always melodic and rocking blues. He’s made several fine albums of his own music, but the new disc If You Think It’s Hot Here is just explosively great. His guitar tone and his bold voice are like mighty oak trees, planted deep in the Earth, spreading a pleasant shade.
Bringing a cool and glamorous contrast to all that earthy Americana will be Emily West, a torchy pop singer with touches of Patsy Cline country and cutting edge radio sizzle. She’s had a country deal in Nashville and recorded with Keith Urban, but her most recent effort, a passionate and rhythmically grabby single called “Bitter” has arena-scale rock woven in its threads, and it’s gaining radio airplay. Many have found their way to the Emily West fan base via her strong showing on America’s Got Talent last year. She’s a fascinating, lovely singer so it’ll be interesting to see how she frames her MCR set.
And rounding out our masterful night will be MCR newcomers Smooth Hound Smith, the latest in a strong run of emerging East Nashville talent to play the show. There’s just two of them but like our friends Hymn For Her it sounds like more, thanks to Zack Smith’s octopus-like control over guitars, drums and more. Caitlin Doyle sings and stomps and shakes stuff. It makes for some exciting roadhouse style holler blues and rough country. They formed the act just a few years ago but they’ve got many hundreds of shows under their belt already. And that is how you become a master.