No Country For Young Men

Last week’s show coincided with Game Seven of the World Series, which was unfortunate. Whereas this week’s national media conflict is frankly hilarious. The CMA Awards will be blasting the Bridgestone Arena and millions of American homes with well-financed, badly-realized party rap rock just about the time a young fellow named Trey Hensley steps on our stage to sing. I invite my readers to baste, like a Thanksgiving turkey, in the irony of this situation. The CMA will be in Nashville with stars, wildly expensive staging and an army of uncritical media. We’ll be in Liberty Hall on the Edge of Music City, broadcasting on Hippie Radio and the web, doing more than they will be to honor and nurture the past, present and future of country music. Because we’ll have Trey Hensley and they won’t.

There was a time (like, more than five decades) when A&R staff of the major country record labels would have been climbing all over one another to court and sign Trey Hensley to a deal – to get him on 2,000 radio stations and TV and the Grand Ole Opry. His kind of mature voice and complete talent comes along only rarely. His layered baritone will raise chills on the neck of anyone who ever loved Keith Whitley, Randy Travis and George Jones. It’s got a lot of Merle Haggard in the phrasing, but also a Gene Watson fullness and formality. Hensley’s cheering section and mentor group already includes the late great Mike Auldridge (Seldom Scene), Marty Stuart and Tom T. Hall. But it doesn’t take a legend or an expert to recognize this young man’s musicality.

I’ve been hearing about Hensley around the edges for some time, but it took dobro star Rob Ickes to truly focus my attention. Rob called one day to say he was working with Hensley on an album and that I’d probably dig it. This got started when Trey sang what was supposed to be a scratch vocal for a track by Rob’s acclaimed bluegrass band Blue Highway. If you’ve heard “My Last Day In The Mines” on The Game then you know. They left his voice on the album and started pulling him in to live shows. The Trey Hensley/Rob Ickes collaboration album got picked up by Compass Records and is coming out in January. It features both electrified honky tonk and Doc Watson-style acoustic bluegrass boogie with some killer flatpicking. And above all that enthralling, nuanced singing. We couldn’t be more excited to feature this emerging standout of country music at Roots. To reiterate, that’s the refined, expressive and important American art form, country music.

There’s a lot more to this week’s show besides our CMA counter-programming. We’ve been looking forward to a visit by a fellow who made me happy in the 1990s, only then I didn’t know him by name. Instead I knew him as the hearty and passionate voice on records by The Subdudes. The New Orleans group ought to be written into the history of Americana, because they were so forward thinking in mingling Southern jangle pop with the accordion filigree and pulse of Cajun music and the deep soul singing and writing of leader Tommy Malone.

Recently, Malone has made a deep impression as a solo artist with two rich, rewarding albums that have him in the middle of today’s Americana fray. In 2013 he released Natural Born Days and this year he followed with the brilliant Poor Boy. With a guy who’s been so central to New Orleans music for decades, you expect the funky grit. Nor is one surprised by Tommy’s searing slide guitar and the bold expressive singing that calls to mind John Hiatt or Delbert McClinton. But the songwriting – that’s a revelation, and it’s what’ll keep you coming back to these highly enjoyable projects.

What’s curious about New Orleans is that it’s such a robust market for playing live that its finest artists often don’t get to Nashville and into the vocabulary of roots fans nationwide. But Malone is touring and getting nice support from Americana radio. Still, however, we might look to his hometown press for the knowledgeable assessment of his “eloquent, gut-level storytelling skills” (sayeth the Times-Picayune) or Offbeat magazine’s hope that Poor Boy “should extend his stellar musical reputation beyond the cognoscenti and to the general public, where it deserves to be.”

That’s how I felt anyway, and I did a little bit of personal chair rattling to get Tommy invited to MCR. I look forward to being vindicated on Wednesday night!

The show will open with a band I dearly love for their insight and innovation. Missy Raines & The New Hip isn’t like anything else out there, unless you reach for comparisons with what Bill Frisell and Christian McBride have been doing on the edges of jazz. I’ve written at length about Missy before – her incredible track record in bluegrass music and her explorations beyond it as a songwriter, composer and recruiter of young instrumental talent. It’ll be great to have her back.

I’m in the process of falling for our guest Edward David Anderson, and he’s making it really easy with rich and robust roots rock that folks are comparing to Tom Petty and Wilco. Los Lobos genius Steve Berlin produced this Bloomington, IN artist for Royal Potato Family. There’s much seductive writing and musicianship here, and Anderson performs one-man-band style with guitar and drum kit around him, which should be very interesting. Rounding out the bill will be the fresh voice and breezy sweep of Caroline Reese of Reading, PA. She built on her first two self-released solo albums by forming the rocking little combo The Drifting Fifth and hitting the road. Radio stations in the northeast are getting on board and so are we.

So this looks like another of our signature shows that catches you up on the latest sounds and doings of venerable veterans while exposing the work of excellent newcomers. I’ll DVR the damned CMA Awards because I feel a kind of cultural and business obligation to remain aware of what the format called country is foisting on the general public. But I feel comfortable and confident in saying that if you value lyrics, emotion, instrumental skill, dynamics, tradition and innovation, you’ll be better off with us.

Craig H.

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