As most of you know, we at Music City Roots are about to say farewell to our beloved Loveless Cafe Barn. We have just two more shows before we take our seasonal break and transition over to a new venue at Liberty Hall in the Factory At Franklin. Obviously this is bittersweet, as moves tend to be. But please understand that we’ll be welcome back at the Loveless for special shows in the future, and that will included a tradition we’ve come to cherish – the annual MCR Barn Dance. Because you can’t have a barn dance without a barn.
Such resonance and romance in those two simple words. The Barn Dance has been a staple of folk life and one of the main ways music found its social place in America. Then it became the term in broadcasting behind the genre of shows that cultivated the Grand Ole Opry and a national awareness of country music. More recently, our MCR Barn Dances have distilled the spirit of our show as a community. They leave me feeling transported in time to a pre-digital America and a pre-hype Nashville. The sweep of feet and skirts blends with the night sounds and the breezes that waft in and out of the open building. We’ve been able to feature roots music forms that don’t get enough exposure and feel the magic of a night when the audience is truly part of the show. So if it doesn’t sound too contradictory, come celebrate one of our last nights in the Barn with a Barn Dance that we’ll continue to put on at the Barn.
We’ll sashay through four very different styles to make a well-rounded night of dancing, kicking off with two-stepping honky tonk from Rachael Hester, moving on to square dancing with Appalachee Relay, then to western swing courtesy of the Music City Doughboys. But in our final band, where the dancing will be more free form and the music more jammy, we have quite a booking coup, so I want to start with them.
We experienced Greensky Bluegrass on Roots in June 2011, exactly three years ago, when they were a major emerging artist in new acoustic circles and the festival universe. And their universe has only expanded since then. They’re one of the top draws on the acoustic music circuit. I last saw Greensky entertaining 6,000 people at the IBMA Wide Open Bluegrass festival in Raleigh. As of today, they’re fresh off a big appearance at DelFest and on their way to play at Bonnaroo and Telluride.
The Vermont quintet is a turn of the millennium band, having formed around 2000 when a new wave and generation of bluegrass bands inspired by Del McCoury and Phish in equal measure was taking shape. Greensky won the Telluride Band Competition in 2006, and since then it’s been all momentum. At more than 150 shows each year, they’ve represented the progressive side of the music with distinction. As with with Punch Brothers and the Infamous Stringdusters, they blend their searching ways and danceable vibes with unimpeachable musicianship.
Mandolinist and songwriter Paul Hoffman told a Vermont newspaper last year that Greensky, if cornered on the subject, will self-describe as a “a rock-and-roll acoustic band, with bluegrass instruments.” And I would add to that a passion for the old rhythms and harmonies of bluegrass that always shine through. The band name itself is like a perfect teeter-totter of respect and irreverence. Hoffman said: “I think the implication with Greensky, which is the opposite of bluegrass, it does sort of explain what we mean and who we are. We’re just as afraid of the jamgrass stigma as the bluegrass stigma. I think everyone feels the same way. You don’t want to be labeled or defined. But as much as we don’t want to be any one of these things, we are all of them.”
Greensky fans love to dance, so we’re confident the last set will be a swirling, twirling sea of people. But before that, three bands geared to those who love their steps a bit more formal and proper. So taking it from the top, we’re overdue in having Rachael Hester visit for a set. She grew up immersed in Nashville’s country music and string band world, because her dad Hoot Hester is one of the city’s finest fiddlers, a veteran of the Grand Ole Opry house band and the Time Jumpers, among many other projects. Rachael has become a regular and popular band leader at Robert’s Western World, Nashville’s most important honky tonk. So she’ll set an old-time Opry atmosphere as we get Barn Dance Night underway.
These past two years we’ve been amazed by the participation in the square dance, with most of the crowd forming rows that cycle and snake through the barn in an enthusiastic and space-challenged kind of way. Our hard-driving fiddle music this year will come from Appalachee Relay, a quartet made up of guys we’ve seen in other contexts. Tyler Andal, a championship fiddler, played recently with Roland White, and you can find him at The Fiddle House in East Nashville keeping the world safe for breakdowns. Also in the group: Brian Christianson (former Cadillac Sky), Casey Campbell (Vicki Vaughn Band) and Jeremy Darrow (Erin McDermott). Just hearing those names reassures me that the old-time groove will feel just right.
And on a June night in a barn one must two-step and waltz, so we’ve brought the Music City Doughboys to provide the western swing. They’re a relatively new sextet made of young guys who grasp the timeless musicality and light touch of this special musical tradition. Besides Bob Wills and their quasi-namesake Light Crust Doughboys, they appreciate influences from Spade Cooley, Stephane Grappelli and even Stevie Wonder. Up front on twin fiddles and vocals are Billy McClaren and Brandon Godman, whom Nashville Scene writer Jewly Hight said have a “youthful zeal, singing and playing twin fiddle runs, harmonizing with exciting precision, and writing songs that seamlessly merge classic and contemporary points of view.”
That could be said of this entire evening of dance music held in its natural habitat – a beloved barn