To launch this new season and new year, I started a new tradition yesterday at Roots. We set up a small studio at the Loveless Café during the day, and I interviewed some of our artists after sound check. They’re hanging around before the show and we’ve felt like the five minutes on stage just isn’t enough. So I’m excited to have more time to really figure these folks out, and we’ll begin sharing these longer conversations soon. Yesterday I spoke with singer/songwriter Julie Gribble and modern-day blues man David Jacobs-Strain. You could hardly imagine two more different personalities. She’s an effervescent gal with a deep background in theater. He’s a level, thoughtful guy who began trying to play guitar like Robert Johnson as soon as he discovered him, before his 13th birthday. He’s an ultra-skilled, daring and dynamic guitar player. She uses the guitar as a strummed underpinning to her songs.
Even this one pairing of artists reminded me again of how many ways there are to approach music. And over our 100 shows and what must be about 500 artists, we’ve seen that range in striking relief, from Riders in the Sky polish and dazzle to Dex Romweber’s detached trance, from Brandi Carlisle’s warm embrace to Ryan Cavanaugh’s cerebral focus on his instrument and ensemble dynamic. These artists – Roots artists – have just two things in common. One is a basic indifference to Top 40 trends or the desire to make regular appearances on Entertainment Tonight part of their career plan. The other is a simple human desire to communicate and be understood and appreciated. After that, it’s pure individual.
Last night’s wonderful range and span began with a honky tonk vibe provided by Derek Hoke and his fine band. The opener “So Quiet” put all of the Hoke feel on display: an easy breezy pitch perfect voice, a graceful swing and delicious riffs pairing steel and guitar from magic fingered Grant Johnson. Hoke spoke yesterday of a broadening sound on an upcoming album, and one song from that collection certainly did shake things up. “ Running Away” had softer chord voicings and a California touch. Then “Sweetheart” closed the set with a train-beat electric bluegrass sound. Hoke is for my money the new mayor of East Nashville’s country music scene, so check him out.
Anderson East reached the crowd with understatement, but a kind of elegance that will be pleasing to fans of Bon Iver or Bret Dennen or the like. Performing alone with a tinsel-toned electric guitar, East set a melancholy mood that was leavened by the groovy, soul-inspired “Flowers of the Brokenhearted.” Then Miss Gribble spiced up the mood with a tight band and a sound that fused country, folk and pop. I’m sure she’s heard the ‘you sound like Natalie Merchant’ thing too many times, so I’m sorry, but it’s an apt comparison. Although it must be said she has WAY more charisma than the 10,000th maniac.
The night’s biggest surprise I think came from the Snyder Family Band. Mild-looking kids and dad from Lexington, NC come out looking like they’re about to earnestly render a safe bluegrass gospel set. But nope. They rip into a hot modern instrumental featuring 16-year-old Zeb Snyder (can’t top that name for a new bluegrass star). They follow with “Stages” an original by sweet-singing 13-year old sister Samantha. She fiddles her tail off on “Sally Goodin,” while Zeb takes an epic solo at high speed. They did a spot on cover of Skynyrd’s “They Call Me The Breeze,” a blues that I haven’t heard since loving the original in 197something. How DOES so much music come out of a TRIO anyway? This is absolutely a band to watch.
And how does one guy with a guitar and a stool close a big show by himself? By being David Jacobs-Strain, who’s proven his ability to reach out to audiences on more than 60 opening dates for Boz Skaggs. That means: big crowds who don’t know you or have any pre-built-in passion for old blues. Show me a guy who can take those people on a journey, and I’ll show you a guy who can easily bring the Loveless Barn down. His opener “Broken Bell” was built around a wild and elegant guitar riff. “Try To Break My Heart” was an epic tour de force with mood changes, hard-edge guitar slamming and an underlying delicacy. DJS exhibits a passion and command on stage that’s been won by starting his crazy career at 13 years old and working at it relentlessly and thoughtfully til now (age 28). This past year may have been his breakout year. We’re proud to have been a part of it.
And then the night ended as it began – in a honky tonk – with the gathered singing “Swinging Doors.” And then the doors swung open into a cold, clear night. And another season was set in motion. Dozens more folks joined the Nature Conservancy (more than 800 have joined so far at the Music City Roots booth we learned last night). And we heard still more of that crazy range of ideas that can be found under one convenient banner of roots/Americana music. Happy 2012.