When I started digging deep into Americana and what was then called alt-country in the late 1990s, No Depression magazine was the go-to source of information and inspiration. So imagine my surprise when a cover story decreed that Alejandro Escovedo was the “Artist of the Decade” for the 1990s. WHO? I’d made a vow never to be embarrassed about not knowing an artist, but how HAD I missed the artist of the DECADE? Well it turned out the founding editors of No Depression had, like many fans of independent country and old-time, come from a punk rock background, and their passion for Escovedo dated back to his days in Austin’s Rank & File, a band of former hard core punk rockers who embraced country music and thus were pigeonholed as cowpunk. On record they sounded like a mellower and countrier version of X or The Blasters in Los Angeles, bands I knew and loved. On stage they flared with fire and distortion and had a lot in common with Jason and the Scorchers. But they were short-lived, and guitarist Escovedo lit out as a solo artist.
Flash forward to this past March. I was in Austin taking in South by Southwest 2012, and I roamed away from the industry showcases to see what was going on along famous and bustling South Congress Avenue. Just after sunset, in a vast parking lot packed with people, was Alejandro Escovedo and his big band, blasting a beautiful and propulsive sound into the night sky. Playing for free before his hometown crowd, he was at the top of his game and it’s always an elevated game. Like Bruce Springsteen, a friend and fan, Escovedo has exuded integrity and intelligence and energy through a long and fruitful career. His lyrics and melodies feel like they’ve always existed but they hold your attention too. He’s not world famous, but he’s taken a special place in American roots rock that parallels Los Lobos and Lucinda Williams.
So to have Escovedo and The Sensitive Boys playing Roots this week – just prior to the release of a hotly anticipated album called Big Station – is a particular honor. We’re trying to tell the story of modern roots-infused artistry with no boundaries, and that’s Alejandro up and down. In a fascinating interview at Slate.com, he recently expressed dismay that the “alt-country” label still follows him around, and sure I get that. The term is dated to a particular counter-revolution when it was badly needed, but I don’t think in an Americana scene today as wide ranging as Pokey LaFarge and Rubblebucket, Escovedo has anything to worry about viz a viz pigeons and holes. We’re not interested in that. We’re interested in getting the sound right on stage and radio so he and the boys can do whatever they want.
Also on our exciting bill is the return of Tristen, that elusive and fascinating starlet of roots pop from Nashville who made national noise with her debut LP Charlatans At The Garden Gate. NPR and Rolling Stone dug it. SPIN called it “addictive” and named this Chicago-reared lass a major artist to watch. We’ve been watching, and her tuneful but mystical songwriting will be a great match for Alejandro.
Rounding out the bill, a friend of all that is acoustic and great in Nashville, musician/photographer Scott Simontacchi. He’s been more of a bluegrasser, but he reports that the band he’s bringing this week is electrified and heavier on the beat. Can’t wait to hear what he’s got in store. Then there’s a guitar virtuoso whom Keith Bilbrey is all lit up about named Trace Bundy. His instrumental excursions come out of the Michael Hedges school of full-contact finger-style, including heavy use of fretboard tapping. He’s been hailed by the guitar press and his videos show him to be crazy good. Finally, our Vietti Emerging Artist of the Week is East Tennessee native Josh Oliver. He’s yet another former member of the everybodyfields who’s out as a solo artist. He covers the Carter Family and calls his own music “classic, easy Americana.” Sounds good to us, but man, nothing about this is easy.