One of the virtues of Music City Roots that we regularly hear and talk about is its discovery factor. Come for one artist you know and experience a nice sampling of artists you don’t, and you’re almost sure to go home as a fan of something new. That may be the case for you as you look over this week’s lineup, and I am completely comfortable admitting it’s the case for me. Other than our friend Greg Reish’s old time string band that’s opening the night, I’m in pure reporter mode. Here’s what my notebook says after several days of listening and reading: We’ve got a sensational young soul/rock band that’s DIYed its way to a thrilling sound, a red-bearded, red-dirt country songwriter, a raspy emotional pop rocker and a self-made YouTube star who can really belt. Let’s just research them one by one.
Greg Reish is the recently appointed director of the Center For Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, one of the nation’s great music libraries and archives. And for scholars and practitioners like Reish, the term ‘popular music’ means something very different than its usual Top 40 implications. We mean ‘music of and by the people,’ and for some eras that means music for dancing and partying without electricity. And that’s what Greg, a guitar player and musicologist, and Matt Brown a fiddler who teaches at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, make when they get together. Their album Speed The Plow is a delightful and yes, danceable duo album of classics and the kind of cool dust-offs that only deep students of the music can pick. And boy can they pick.
After that acoustic appetizer we’ll dive into four hearty courses of band-driven music with Norfolk, VA sextet Major and the Monbacks. Their debut album was cut to analog tape in Nashville last year and it just explodes out of the speakers with vintage tone and sharp performances. I love their autobiography: “The Monbacks began their journey as a loose collective of high school friends with a common interest in late nights and loud music. Desperate to escape the impending reality of the 9 to 5 workday, the group decided to hit the open road and play for anyone willing to listen…No matter how dark the basement or lonely the bar, it was here in the farthest fringes of the music industry that these ragtag renegades would make their stand.” The hard work and thousands of miles paid off. These guys came at the recommendation of soul sister Alanna Royale.
Then we get a bit more emotionally intense and songwriterish with a set by Matthew Mayfield, a well-traveled artist from Birmingham, AL. His former band Moses Mayfield signed to Epic Records in 2005. As a solo artist he’s released a string of EPs, co-written with the Civil Wars’ John Paul White and landed songs on a number of TV shows. He’s a rocker at heart it’s pretty clear, having toured with the likes of Switchfoot and Pete Yorn. His producing partner of late has been Paul Moak, recording maven of Berry Hill in Nashville and a veteran contributor to crossover rockers like Jennifer Knapp and Third Day. Here, the focus will be on Mayfield’s raspy and sincere voice and his large bag of moving songs. He’s been on tour with fellow MCR guest Noah Guthrie, but we’ve got some country music squeezed in between them.
Bart Crow has a open-hearted voice. Given his prominence as a hard-touring self-made artist in the Red Dirt region of the country and his six No. 1 songs on the Texas Music chart, I guessed he’d be a big baritone belter. But he’s got some smart, old school pop colors in there too, and it’s said that he smiles a lot. Sounds like it. His most recent project Parade was cut in Nashville and his enthusiasm comes through in a recent interview with NashvilleGab.com: “This record is extremely eclectic, and man, the production is through the roof. We picked the right songs and, you know, I feel like I made good choices in a couple of my buddy’s songs. I think, in the end, I’ve made the best thing I have made artistically.” I get the sense this guy could wind up having a big national hit – without having to bro up what he does.
Last in the notebook this week is show closer Noah Guthrie, a soul/roots singer and songwriter who, in the fashion of the millennial that he is, blew up on YouTube. The South Carolina native was encouraged to make music in his family and he began posting cover songs. In 2012, he laid his precocious, silky and powerful voice into an LMFAO tune and its zany virality (24.4 million views so far!) earned him a bunch of national TV exposure. Since then he’s opened shows for Ed Sheeran, Ben Rector and other stars. He released his debut album Among The Wildest Things in 2014, but he’s also released several volumes of covers albums, which are a great way to experience the wide-ranging tastes and musicianship of this still very young and extremely promising singer.
I went into journalism so that my life would be endlessly full of learning. Most weeks at Roots offer some novel discoveries. This week more than usual. See you at The Factory.