My journey into and through roots music has been influenced by hundreds of people and records and historic facts and happy accidents. But none comes close to my fascination with the guitar. Here I am, more than 30 years since I first noodled around on one borrowed from a friend to see what it could offer me, and I’m more inspired by its possibilities than ever. And no matter how many guitar players I learn about and admire, there’s always room for another one with a fresh sound and approach.
So given all that and given the guitar’s central role in Nashville’s music culture since the 50s, we at Roots take a night every year to celebrate this incredible instrument and the artists who wield it. This week is Guitar Night, and we’ve got another varied slate of pickers who’ll show off the guitar’s beauty, versatility and power.
If you know our show at all you know our night’s show closer and co-curator Guthrie Trapp. He’s been featured not only at Guitar Night in the past but he’s played our stage countless times as a sideman to guys like Shawn Camp and in his own Nashville super-group 18 South. Over the years, I’ve sought out chances to see Guthrie more than any other instrumentalist in town. Not just because of his technical facility, but because of the endless ideas that pour forth from his hands. A born musician, this native North Floridian was being noticed on guitar and mandolin when he was barely in double digits of age and has been playing in bands since his teens. He settled in Nashville around 2001, and he took a seat in the Don Kelly Band on Lower Broadway, launch pad for the very best guitar pickers in town. Then I had a jaw-dropping Guthrie moment at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass when he was in his long stretch with the Jerry Douglas Band. At long last, Trapp composed and produced his first solo album. That project, Pick Peace, needs to be part of any collection of great contemporary instrumental music. Like the player, it transcends genre while scratching every itch a fan of country twang and jazz fusion might have, which is to say, me.
Then while we guitar nuts were going nuts over Guthrie, a new name surfaced in the last year or two. And we at Roots are very proud to be opening our show this week with Guitar Town’s most extraordinary newcomer Jim Oblon. When he began playing a Tuesday night residency at East Nashville’s wonderful, divey FooBar, word spread fast about a Telecaster master who could nail all the hard country and rockabilly machine gun twang you could ever ask for, with extra washes and spikes of creative jazz-influenced ideas. Plus he was a great singer who could re-animate vintage rock and roll and blues tunes as if they were new. Folks were trying to figure out this mystery man’s story too; there were rumors about his being Paul Simon’s drummer. Huh?
Well it’s true, and as Jim himself said about a dozen times as he related his story on the phone this week, “it’s kind of crazy.” He grew up in a musically saturated home in Connecticut, where not only was there a menagerie of instruments, but he was encouraged to take wide-ranging lessons, from keyboards to classical guitar to Indian percussion. The teacher of the latter became a pivotal figure. Jamey Haddad is a globe-traveling world-music and jazz drummer who taught at Berklee College of Music and who plays percussion to this day in Paul Simon’s band. Through Haddad’s recommendation, Jim began teaching guitar lessons to Simon’s oldest son, which led to a long-running casual friendship with the family. At last, an opportunity came up, and Jim wound up playing guitar, bass and drums on Simon’s stunning 2011 album So Beautiful Or So What? Soon after that, when the drum chair opened up in the touring band, Oblon took over in probably the most subtly and magnificently rhythmic band in American popular music. Jim’s first and central love is his guitar however, and he’ll lead a band of his own to open the show that’s well-practiced from many nights at FooBar and elsewhere in town.
Guthrie and Jim both play a fiery electric flavor of guitar, so we’ll fill in the middle of the show with mellower contrasts. If you’ve ever set foot in the Country Music Hall of Fame (and I sure hope you have) you’ve encountered David Andersen. He’s the roving guitar player who fills the atrium with warm sparkling country jazz. He’s got an uncanny ability to chat with visitors while he plays Carter Family and Chet Atkins classics, a skill so prolific that he’s become known as the Ambassador of Music City. But when he can focus his mind exclusively on his picking, his decades of experience as an L.A. studio musician, a recording artist and a featured jazz performer at storied Nashville venues really shines through.
Our youngest performer has played our show as a member of Missy Raines & The New Hip, and Ethan Ballinger is hip indeed. He also had roots music flowing through his family and the big shots were calling him one to watch early on – on mandolin. And he plays a lot of everything, including virtually ever part on his most recent solo album – an atmospheric songwriter project – Don’t Lose It. Ethan has also played in support of Megan McCormack, Alison Brown, Jill Andrews and more. We invited him to cook up a set that reflected his guitaristic imagination.
Let me also acknowledge the many superb guitarists who’ve played our show in recent months, including Julian Lage with Chris Eldridge, Rebecca Frazier, Robbie Fulks, Dave Mason, Trace Bundy, Jon Randall, Chris Luquette (of Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen), James Nash (of the Waybacks) and Derek St. Holmes. It’s almost always some kind of guitar night at Roots. But this week, it’s really Guitar Night. Come see how much six little strings can say.