Music Row has often been called a “campus” for its walkable intimacy and collegial atmosphere. But in modern times, it’s more literally true, thanks to the influence of Belmont University. Belmont itself overlooks the Row from its southern terminus. And then there are outposts along the way. Belmont’s Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business moved into the old Sony/Columbia building on 16th Ave., where new generations are schooled in the arts of recording, songwriting and publishing. It includes a renovated and revived Quonset Hut studio, where Owen and Harold Bradley established the first music business in 1958 in what was then a residential neighborhood. And over on 17th Ave. is Belmont’s amazing Ocean Way Studio in a century-old church. Belmont, which has graduated Nashville notables Brad Paisley, Trisha Yearwood, Josh Turner and Melinda Doolittle, is perhaps more than ever central to Nashville’s new directions.
So that’s a big reason that over the past few years we’ve partnered with Belmont for a special night at Roots featuring artists and bands that have in some way been nurtured by the school. It’s allowed us to get familiar with standouts like Apache Relay and The Kopecki Family Band. This year’s lineup, curated by our long-time friends and faculty members Dan Keen and Clyde Rolston, features a range of styles, from bluegrass to funky soul.
The most experienced and decorated of those groups is paradoxically the newest, but we must look at the component members of Sister Sadie to understand. A one-off gig among friends at the Station Inn blossomed into a side project for five busy bluegrass women. Dale Ann Bradley should be familiar to our listeners as a beloved MCR alum but more pointedly as a five-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year. She’s joined by banjo standout Gena Britt, fiddler Deanie Richardson, bass player Beth Lawrence and mandolinist Tina Adair. Adair, who’s an accomplished band leader in her own right, is the group’s Belmont connection. She graduated from the music business program and, as it happens, went to work for them right away, founding the academic advising program at Curb. “Our school’s motto is ‘From here to anywhere,’” she told me with bemusement. “And for me it was ‘From here back to here!’” She says to expect a classic bluegrass feel, plenty of original songs and a few choice covers of classic pop songs, which is something Dale Ann has experience with.
Also familiar to our barn is the duo of Striking Matches, comprised of Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis. We’ve loved them on Roots and we caught them just recently at our sister show Scenic City Roots, where they showed their intensity, their close harmony passion and their major chops on guitar. They actually attended Belmont as guitar majors and were paired up randomly in a class where they had to play extemporaneously in front of their peers. That went so well they began singing and writing together, and now they’re on a rocket ride. Several of their songs have been picked up in ABCs “Nashville” series. They’re popular on the Grand Ole Opry. And they’ve been signed to a revived I.R.S. Records, where they’re planning a major 2014 release.
The rest of the lineup are emerging artists, some of whom are still students even now. The Lonely Biscuits came up with a great name and they seem to come up with fresh and funky beats and effervescent, hip-hop inflected pop. After only a brief time playing together they won a promising MTV award and they’ve landed a coveted spot on the bill at Hangout Fest in Gulf Shores, AL. It must be more than the name. Robert Shirey Kelly is a slick, soulful songwriter who got a publishing deal with Razor & Tie, so he’s off and running. And Williams & Co. is a four piece from four different states who have united in pursuit of a vision for country music that’s old school and new world at the same time.
We would also be remiss not to mention that Belmont has partnered with Music City Roots as a primary underwriter of our series on American Public Television, so we are deeply grateful for that. Come out for our 2014 Belmont sampler and graduate to a higher understanding of what’s going on in Music City.