Holy cats. September? It’s September? I can’t really process that. We were just having our summer barn dance and our spring season opener. Try as we might to fight against it, time and life can be a blur. We at Roots mark our year in weekly cycles of Wednesdays: twenty nine shows so far in 2013 and so many memories among them. From Leon Russell’s historic set to Todd Snider’s surprise walk-on with Great American Taxi to the stunning debut of Luella and the Sun to discovery of inspiring out of town bands like The Oh Hellos and Seryn. Woven inseparably in to that are our relationships and our community – our weekly visits with our friends, supporters, believers, super-fans and alum musicians who come and make up our commonwealth.
I’m put in mind of that exceptional word by the band name used sometimes by our guest this week Scott Miller. He’s from Virginia, one of the four states that use commonwealth in its official name or founding documents. And while these days he’s taking the stage as a solo songwriter with the accompaniment of fiddler Rayna Gellert, I don’t mind borrowing the commonwealth idea as a powerful metaphor for what we do.
Who else is part of our commonwealth? Well Jim Lauderdale of course. Our regular musical host going back to our first show, he helped us find our feet and contributed staggering amounts of music by opening every show with a song while scarcely ever repeating one. Let’s talk about both these guys a little bit.
Scott Miller not only has a new album; he’s kind of got a new life. Through the 90s and 2000s, Miller was an institution in Knoxville, the city where he built his band the V-Roys into a country/rock force. Then he became a solo artist known for insight, crafty hooks and acerbic wit. But for years he’s heard a calling. He told me this week: “I met my wife 20 years ago and in the first five minutes of talking to her I told her I was going to head back to (my family’s) farm. It’s always been part of my plan.” It’s 200 acre place near Staunton, VA in the Shenandoah Valley, where they keep 70 head of future sirloins and fillets. “I love being out there and working those cattle,” Miller says. “Besides playing a good show, nothing makes me feel better than coming home covered in mud.”
On Roots this week we’ll get a preview of the new album Big, Big World. Due on October 8, it will be his first full-length formal project since 2009. And the time and change of the intervening years is expressed in the album’s refreshed and spacious sound. Miller collaborated with guitarist/producer Doug Lancio on songs that dip in the creek of Southern pop as well as Lancio’s passion for Touareg style guitar from North Africa. The ice-pick accurate lyrics are all there of course, investigating big big topics as the title suggests. It opens with a prayer for redemption and insight (“How Am I Ever Gonna Be Me?”) and ends with a final resting place (“Goin’ Home”). In between are loads of wise searching, colorful chords and chiming guitar-scapes enriching it all. It’s exceptional, and it will be satisfying to help give the new opus the launch it deserves.
I have not been able to hear Jim Lauderdale’s new album, but it’s his latest bluegrass project, set to be titled Old Time Angels. As is his habit, he teamed up with dobro player and master acoustic producer Randy Kohrs and cut it live over a couple of days. It sounds hasty, but A) that’s how they did it back before ProTools and B) Jim’s won both of his Grammy Awards with bluegrass albums, so he knows what he’s doing. Lauderdale’s career was sparked by bluegrass music, as I’ve observed before. He played some banjo growing up in the Carolinas, and for a while he thought he was heading in a grassy direction when his songs began to click in country settings. He’s now the ultimate American infielder, able to go to his left or right stylistically at the drop of a guitar pick. A couple of times a year, we invite Jim to step beyond his weekly hosting duties and show-opening song and pull one of his crack bands in for an electric country or acoustic bluegrass set. This one will be the latter, and we’re pretty keyed up.
Bluegrass will also be on display when Rebecca Frazier takes the stage. There’s a connection here in that she’s wife of John Frazier, frequent mandolinist with Lauderdale. And it appears he’ll be there as part of Rebecca’s celebrated Hit & Run band. These guys are quiet achievers having nailed big band prizes in the 2000s. Rebecca’s been on the cover of Flatpicking Guitar magazine for her instrumental prowess; she’s a top-drawer singer and songwriter too. So expect a lot from them. And rounding out the bill, we’ve got Water Liars, a hard touring, super-hip little band out of Oxford, MS and Nashville-based songwriter Adam Burrows. It takes some uncommon talents to make up our commonwealth.