A week ago, our crew emerged from a 7-hour flight from Belfast feeling satisfied and happy to be home after our third annual engagement of Music City Roots at the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival’s gorgeous Empire Music Hall. Each of these visits has deepened our understanding of the Scots-Irish connections to America and reminded us of the fundamental truth that our music is their music – that the country and bluegrass music we cherish and present each week wouldn’t exist without this place and its ancient, carefully nurtured song traditions.
This week at our Wednesday night, pre Saint Patrick’s Day show, we present the flipside of our Empire show, when the festival’s organizers send a half dozen Irish artists our way to perform at several Nashville venues and engage with Music City. Some of them we heard over there and some will be new to us. But here, briefly, I’ll connect what we heard then to what we’re preparing to hear at this week’s show.
We kicked off our Empire show with the now familiar voice of BBC Ulster radio host Ralph McLean and Jim Lauderdale singing a song he had cut by Solomon Burke called “Seems Like You’re Gonna Take Me Back.” And then we inserted a new kind of prologue to our night by featuring two songs by two different configurations of artists who’d taken up the challenge of telling the story of Scots-Irish music’s journey to America and its transmutation into the bedrock of country. Local lasses Brigid O’Neill and Ciara O’Neill (no relation) offered Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” and “The Bard of Armagh,” a 1700s Irish song whose melody became Western song “The Streets of Laredo.” Next Sam Wickens and the golden-voiced Amanda Agnew sang “Nora Lee,” the Irish precursor to the Elvis hit “Love Me Tender” with Everly-esque harmonies. The O’Neill lasses and Mr. Wickens – all working N. Ireland songwriters – will perform this Wednesday in Franklin.
The rest of our Empire show featured full sets in our usual manner. Scott Miller (who can trace his Scots-Irish heritage right back through the Shenandoah Valley where he lives and farms) offered his usual mix of perspective and wisdom. He sang “Is There Room On The Cross For Me,” which I can’t believe is an original song and not an Albert Brumley gospel standard. Brian Houston was a delightfully varied performer who reminded me sometimes of last year’s hero Foy Vance and sometimes of Nick Lowe. Jim Lauderdale did a short set to much rejoicing. Iain Archer, veteran of Snow Patrol and other rock projects came off as lean and emotional, offering his high profile co-write with newly hot James Bay on the Grammy nominated song “Hold Back The River.” The final set came from 1970s folk rock duo Gallagher & Lyle who were delightful gentlemen and keen harmonizers. I recognized “Breakaway” from radio in my youth.
So that brings us to this Wednesday’s stateside edition – an Irish stew of styles and visions that will be revelatory for all of us. I mentioned Ciara O’Neill, who has a lush and lovely voice and who’s just released her debut album The Ebony Trail. I enjoyed her CD release show in Belfast and she’s earning airplay back home with it. The singer songwriter who goes by Best Boy Grip is from Derry, and BBC broadcasters have called his work “genuinely exceptional.” Simon Murphy is a full time nurse whose adult songwriting habit is getting him noticed and awarded. Ralph McLean has been spinning his music and he’s now a Belfast/Nashville Fest veteran. Ryan McMullan is earning Foy Vance comparisons and recently shared stages with Vonda Shepard and Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol.
The Nashville contingent on the night includes Billy Prine, brother of famed songwriter John and something more of a rock and roller who’s pursued a varied career. After some years on the management side of music he returned to recording and performing, and it’ll be interesting to see him perform his own material. He does a mean “Sound of the Speed of Loneliness” too. And The Fells Band is a respected traditional Irish duo based in Nashville that formed in 2009. Travis Johnson is a former rock and roller who went all-Celtic on guitar, bouzouki and vocals. His partner Tom Saffell specializes in his unique 8-string banjo.
So join us on the night before Saint Patrick’s Day as we celebrate the roots of our roots.