Renewing Our Vows

I remember how nervous I was on October 14, 2009. All the planning and scripting was over and we – a small band of eager music lovers – went live with a new show on a historic radio station (WSM-AM) with a new concept. I’d done a few interviews in front of audiences, but never with the pressure of a formal broadcast. And I was gonna sit down with Emmylou Harris for heaven’s sake. Nothing was routine. We were all just feeling our way and acting on instinct.

That night, we launched a collective adventure. We put forth the proposition that roots music is something valuable and spirit-enlarging and important to our community – in Music City and nationally. And now here we are preparing to recapitulate that opening night at a fine new venue called Liberty Hall in a cool, past-meets-future facility called The Factory At Franklin. And again, I have butterflies. After all, I’m gonna sit down with Emmylou Harris for heaven’s sake.

I think you’ll agree that after nearly five years, there’s nothing repetitious about inviting Emmylou back to play. Nor could any fan of songwriting or Americana have any objection to a set by Rodney Crowell. Speaking as a writer who follows Americana and country music, those two names and influences pop up in my work like the names Lincoln and Roosevelt in the work of historians. There’s no escaping their aura or the intimidating challenge of putting their work in context without fawning. There are many reasons that we music journo-types approach myth-making when it comes to Harris and Crowell. Here are a few.

Emmylou Harris helped pave the way for the new traditionalist movement at country radio by recording covers of songs by The Louvin Brothers and Buck Owens early on. She elevated the careers of numerous songwriters by recording and championing their work, including Rodney Crowell. She did the same for up-and-coming artist/musicians like Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill. She performed in the film version of The Last Waltz and helped the modern roots revolution with her performances on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Her live album At The Ryman in the early 90s helped inspire the renovation of the now revered Nashville landmark. And she cares for abandoned dogs (our show will benefit her Bonaparte’s Retreat shelter). I mean do I need to go on?

Rodney Crowell is such an interesting story, but we only learned how interesting when decades into a fantastically rich recording career he published a memoir of his early years and his parents’ complicated relationship, set in his home town of Houston, TX. Chinaberry Sidewalks showed us a resourceful, scrappy kid who was bequeathed a love of music by his incendiary father. I got to write a couple of bios for Crowell recently when he put out his newest Tarpaper Sky album, and here’s a sample of how I summed up his story:

Crowell’s work and career sets a benchmark for commercial success and lifelong artistic ambition and integrity in country music. His compositions, including “Til I Gain Control Again,” “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” “Song For The Life” and “Ashes By Now” have been widely and successfully covered by legendary singers. But he led the way as a recording artist, achieving a dazzling run of radio hits in the 1980s, followed by a series of more personal albums in the 2000s that secured his place as much more than a chart-topper.

And of course Rodney and Emmylou, friends and colleagues for decades, recently teamed up for their first ever duo album Old Yellow Moon. It was rapturously received. We got to hear the pair speak with insight and affection on shows like Fresh Air and play together magnificently at dozens of venues around the country. I heard them at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and it was pretty much transcendental meditation. We are expecting solo acoustic performances by each at Roots, with some duo moments as well.

Thus the show will have a strong emphasis on the purity of the song, so Verlon Thompson will fit in magnificently. Talk about a classic Nashville story and a life marked by self-made luck. He was raised on pure country music in a singing, picking family in small town Oklahoma. A friend painted a dazzling picture of Nashville, so he up and came in about 1980. Verlon thrived, landing a songwriting contract with Loretta Lynn’s company and then a string of cuts – for Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travis, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and more. Most folks know Verlon as the multi-decade sideman of Texas legend Guy Clark, and indeed that’s where I first saw him. I fell for his sorghum drawl, his lustrous voice and his fleet fingerpicking. Thompson’s recent projects on his own include a gorgeous traditional song cycle called Find Your Angel and an upcoming album of harder rocking material. He’s too little known, and we’re excited to share his artistry with you.

We totally needed a rousing band to make opening night at Liberty Hall complete, so we called on beloved Nashville ensemble Humming House. Their mostly acoustic swirl of Celtic, Gypsy and American styles carries a lot of power and joy. The recent addition of vocalist Leslie Rodriguez has sparked some new chemistry, and they’re apparently getting ready to launch a new album. We’ll catch up with the news and dance a bit as well.

So think of this week, with its echoes of Show #1, as a renewal of our vows. We vow to treat artistry with reverence and artists with respect. We vow to put excellent music and the Music City spirit on a pedestal. We vow to listen to our community and welcome in all kinds of music fans. We’ve never believed more in what we’re trying to accomplish or that the country is hungry for hand-made, honest human music. It’s enough to make a body nervous.

Craig H.

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