Prized Bluegrass

After several months of relative banjo silence on Music City Roots, bluegrass comes rolling back this week and next. It’s kind of a coincidence, but it worked out that two of our bluegrass-heavy theme nights fit back-to-back. But that’s all right with us, because bluegrass is kind of the anchor of modern day roots music – the sun around which the other rootsy genres revolve. It’s got everything one looks for in organic, down-home, hand-made music: the virtuosity, the vocals, the harmonies, the meaningful lyrics and the ensemble cohesion. It’s not that there aren’t any bad bluegrass bands out there, but in general I know of no music scene more shot through with integrity and timelessness.

This week will be our third annual special edition Music City Roots pegged to the International Bluegrass Music Association’s announcement of the nominees for the IBMA Awards, which take place every Fall. It’s pretty cool. Late in the afternoon, we open the doors to the long-running bluegrass trade association, invited guests, artists and music press. Leading bluegrass musicians do some performing and then tell the world who is in the running for the most prestigious prizes in the music. Then we kick off the show at 7, per usual, featuring those same star performers live on the air. (Full disclosure: I’m on the board and executive committee of the IBMA, so I’m a true believer.)

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver have become regulars at this event, and well they should. The band leader has enjoyed an illustrious career that took him from apprenticeship with Jimmy Martin to the legendary Country Gentlemen in the 1970s, when bluegrass was blossoming into the mainstream. Since starting his own band in about 1980, Lawson’s ensemble has netted seven IBMA Vocal Group of the Year awards and quite a few more for their gospel recordings. They’re tight as a drum, fast as fury when they want to be, and the vocals are as uplifting as they are sincere. But we knew that already. DL&Q played Roots as recently as May.

New to Roots is another band that’s held fast to tradition and sounded great doing so. There is no “hardly” before the “strictly bluegrass” in the music of Junior Sisk & Rambler’s Choice. Their new album on Rebel Records, The Heart of a Song, kicks off with “A Far Cry From Lester & Earl,” which laments the emergence of that newgrass stuff. “Stay down to Earth and don’t get above your raisin’” they sing, in pristine high harmony. I need not debate their musical philosophy, because I love the music they’re singing about and the music they’re singing. Sisk has had a distinguished career because of his catchy, slightly raspy voice, and he’s become a favorite in the industry, so it’s likely he’ll be named for some nominations on Wednesday.

We’re also lucky to get a debut performance from The Isaacs, one of the most celebrated bluegrass gospel groups there is. With loads of awards and regular spots on the Grand Ole Opry, they’re a family band that’s stayed committed and vibrant through many changes. The lineup today consists of guitarist Rebecca, mandolinist Sonya, who has had a fantastic career as a solo artist and duo partner for giants like Vince and Dolly, and bass player Ben, a prominent record producer. Then there’s matriarch Lily, whose story is just fascinating. Born in Germany, her parents were Holocaust survivors. Living in New York in hear early years, Lily got swept up in the 60s folk revival and played Gerde’s Folk City where she learned about bluegrass music. Long story short, she converted hard to Christianity, causing a huge rift with her parents in the process. She’s still making folk music, but for years it’s been music with a ministry. Whatever your own beliefs, you won’t believe the soaring purity of their four-part harmonies.

And our star-studded lineup is made complete with a return engagement form the Lonesome River Band. One is never lonesome around banjo player Sammy Shelor, a friendly gent and winner of last year’s Steve Martin bluegrass prize. The LRB has been through many changes since its break-out years with Dan Tyminski and Ronnie Bowman. But even with some refreshing of the personnel, it has remained on let’s call it the cutting edge of tradition. Without much explicit borrowing from other styles, they still make a bluegrass sound that tests the edges. I just hope they don’t upset Junior Sisk

That’s bluegrass – always in flux and always fretful about it. For those whose tastes run a little more to the future than the past, we’re setting up a somewhat progressive lineup for next week. But there’s no doubt that this Wednesday will stir something in your soul. That’s what this music is famous for.

Craig H.


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