Return of Heavy Wood

How weird is it that trees basically made music possible? I suppose we could have spent all of human history just singing, but in truth, music’s cornucopia of timbres was made possible by timber. Our planet just happened to be full of this renewable natural material we can carve, bend, plane and sand into boxes, pipes, drums and sounding boards that are predictable and stable enough to last many lifetimes. The boards used in some of Stradivari’s violins and cellos were already hundreds of years old when he shaped them into his masterpieces, meaning that spruce and maple trees that waved in the breeze during the Middle Ages can still sing today. And of course most of our music at Roots is made on guitars, fiddles, basses and banjos – instruments that just couldn’t exist without good old wood.

When I wrote about the Wood Brothers on their first visit to Roots I called the column Heavy Wood, because that’s what these cats are – one of the funkiest, deepest small bands in American music. And this week, as the trees begin their annual colorful transmogrification here in Tennessee, we’re welcoming them back to the Loveless Barn. And it’s a heavy show all around, as we’ll be joined by the fantastic songwriter Robbie Fulks who’s in one of his woody phases with a bluegrass heavy new album. Poor Old Shine from rural Connecticut love the hand-hewn spirit so much their logo has a saw in it. We’ll also hear from veteran Indianapolis/Nashville band Shelf Dusters Union and a much anticipated set from A.J. Croce, a remarkable songwriter, singer and instrumentalist.

Taking up Croce first, this is going to be an edge-of-the-seat thing because the stew and swirl of influences and creative ambition in A.J.’s world point in every direction but a predictable one. As the financial statements say: past performance is no indication of future results. He’s been collaborating with Leon Russell. He recently wrapped several years of living the team-based songwriting life so unique to Nashville. And his current project, being released as a string of singles called Twelve Tales, has seen him seek out production counsel from the late great Cowboy Jack Clement, Americana maven Joe Henry and New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint. Croce’s seven albums so far have displayed his diverse flair for folk, rock, pop, jazz and the overlapping netherworlds between them.

Robbie Fulks is an artist I’ve been dying to have on MCR since week one. He helped define my early idea of the Americana movement, in part because he was on the cover of the very first issue of No Depression I ever got hold of. When I then saw Robbie at a live show at his famous residency at The Hideout in his home town of Chicago, it was anything but depression. The guy was as funny as any performer I’d ever seen, and the raw intelligence behind his wit was also there in his more visceral and serious songwriting. Yes, he’s ragged famously on Nashville in “F*#@ This Town” and he’s made searing honky tonk, as in his legendary duet with Kelly Willis on “Parallel Bars.” But he can also cut with emotion and truth. His magnificent 2001 Couples In Trouble album widened his scope well beyond country with such brilliant songs as the horn-hearty “Mad At A Girl.” His new album Gone Away Backwards reunites him with his original label Bloodshot and presents a fresh set of mostly bluegrass tracks, including some high and lonesome duets with mando player Ron Spears, whose voice Fulks (a fantastic prose writer by the way) describes as “intense and accurate and rare and real.” And I could say the same about Robbie’s acoustic flatpicking. I’m pretty giddy about this visit.

And those amazing Wood Brothers have done nothing since playing Roots in 2011 except, oh, blow the hell up, performing widely and taking on a status as one of the hottest tickets in Americana. Their irresistible chemistry derives not only from the merging of Oliver and Chris’s commanding voices, but the way Chris’s world-class bass playing locks in with Oliver’s guitar and the percussion of trio-member Jano Rix to make one of the thickest grooves out there. I’ve been a slavish fan of Chris’s other band, modern jazz stars Medeski, Martin & Wood for years so I was intrigued when he began putting out albums with brother Oliver on Blue Note Records in 2006. But it was Smoke Ring Halo from 2011, produced with sonic wizard Jim Scott and released on Atlanta’s Southern Ground label that really flipped me. The stark naked presence of voice and bass, not to mention incredibly compelling songs, sealed the deal as a year’s best release in my house. Now they’re back with The Muse, released just on the first day of this month, and it’s another step upwards and forwards, made here in Nashville with gentle giant Buddy Miller at the controls. The results are just gorgeous and gripping. We’ll be hearing some exciting new tunes and sharing in the growth of this important band of brothers.

So come join us at the Loveless or tune in your radio phones. Is there really anywhere you wood rather be?

Craig H.

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WEDNESDAY, MAY 24th

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Hosted By Jim Lauderdale

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