A little known fact: the first big Nashville star to attend Belmont wasn’t Brad Paisley or Trisha Yearwood (famous alums both) but Minnie Pearl. Back then (the not-so-roaring 1930s), it was called Ward-Belmont and it was a finishing school for proper Southern ladies. Young Sarah Colley really wanted to study theater in New York or at a major drama program, but the Depression had taken a toll on her family’s finances, and she found WB an affordable local option. She performed Shakespeare there and went on to run touring theater troupes before creating her famous character Minnie Pearl and taking her to the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw.
The alumni list of modern day Belmont University in recent decades is a who’s who of Nashville’s country and gospel music industries: Josh Turner, Lee Ann Womack, Sarah Buxton and Melinda Doolittle among them. But the SOUND of Belmont of late ranges much wider than the mainstream. It has turned into something of a band incubator. I rang up Sarah Cates, senior director of initiatives for the Mike Curb College of Music Business, and she said “we’re really a microcosm of the music industry in Nashville” with young folks who enter the business at an entry level or who start companies or bands. On this week’s exciting edition of Music City Roots, we’ll hear a survey of outstanding bands with Belmont backgrounds, from the down-home to the post-modern.
From the overalls-and-workboots side of the ledger we’ll hear from the Westbound Rangers, a repeat visitor to Roots that always leaves us happier than when they arrived. The quartet features Graham Sherrill, Mike Walker and Read Davis on vocals plus banjo, mando and guitar respectively. Wes Burkhart thumps the bass. The guys are just getting set to release the album that may truly put them on the map, a classy looking, hunger-inducing package called Southern Bread And Butter For It. If you catch the elegant pun in there, you’ll be hip to the sly humor that ripples through the Rangers’ music, and they have an affinity for the late great John Hartford that further backs up their penchant for wit and whimsy. They have a theme song for heaven’s sake, and that’s just another reason we love them.
Three other bands on our bill have had more of a chance to make noise and attract attention on a national scale. Shirock is a pop/rock quintet with a passionate sound that evokes classic U2 and Coldplay. They may define the less-rootsy side of the night, but their successes with TV placement and with their Everything Burns charity, a youth-and-communities non-profit, put them on the map. They shall rock the barn.
In one of two return engagements, Apache Relay is blowing up among the crowd that digs the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons on the strength of Michael Ford Jr.’s passionate voice and their punchy, rocking (mostly) acoustic attack. They had a big 2011, releasing a rapturously received American Nomad album, playing at Bonnaroo, touring with G. Love and kicking out a Daytrotter session at year’s end. Also coming back to my great delight is the delightfully unique Kopecki Family Band. Like Shirock, they may fall musically a bit outside the Americana tent, but there’s a folky strain behind their arty pop that feels enriching and grounding. Among their 2011 kudos was being tagged as one of the nation’s 25 best live acts by Paste magazine. The feature said, “Everyone in the band seems to play everything, trading keys for guitars, guitars for percussion or percussion for strings. Attending a Kopecky show feels like a warm welcome at a family reunion, if your family was a multitalented, show-stopping rock band.”
Family it is then. That’s the way we like to think of it at the Loveless. Come see these diverse talented artists, plus singer/songwriter Leah Korbin, and remember that students and those under 19 get in for just five bucks.