Welcome to 2016 and Happy New Year from Music City Roots!
We’ve rousted ourselves from holiday slumbers, indulgences and contemplations to face the year ahead with redoubled determination to promote great music and cultivate a world attuned to it. I don’t know if you think of it this way or not, but when I see nonsense, duplicity or paranoia spew forth from the world of politics and power (that is to say every dang day), I often think of folk and roots music as the Americana antidote – as a dose of humanity and the most widely accessible and excellent expression of what makes us real – blues, love, striving and self actualization. Out there it may be the Silly Season, but in our venue it’s time for a well-planned, talent-rich Winter Season. And to kick it off, our team has brought together four marvelously complimentary artists, including two beloved MCR alums and two fascinating string bands.
One of the first things I free associated to when I looked over the lineup was that stunning performance by Chris Stapleton at the CMA Awards. Because we fans have a strong neural connection between Stapleton and our show-closing band and great MCR friends The SteelDrivers. Is it insensitive to introduce the SteelDrivers with a guy who USED to be in the band? No, because to grasp the magnitude and depth of the SteelDrivers and their place in Americana history (a work in progress) you’ve got to understand that their formation and evolution are bound up with an intelligence and commitment shared by all the members past and present. Their trajectory tells their story. And they embrace the history in the notes to The Muscle Shoals Recordings, released halfway through 2015.
Briefly: bluesman Mike Henderson co-wrote some bluegrassy soul songs with Stapleton, and they pulled together old friends Mike Fleming, Tammy Rogers and Richard Bailey to play bass, fiddle and banjo in a shockingly original group that was quickly signed to Rounder Records. The vibe of Wilson Pickett fused with Bill Monroe was radical. The execution – big blue harmonies and driving instrumentation – was flawless. And the songs were just sensational. So they became one of the most in-demand bands on the circuit. But that success made Henderson and Stapleton’s lift harder, since they had hot careers in Nashville too. When the time came to make a change, the SteelDrivers did the seemingly impossible and found a singer in Gary Nichols who embodied the extant sound and added his own colors. He’s from Muscle Shoals, and his magnificent voice embodies that area’s rich history from its sky-touching gospel sweetness to its muddy river silt. And he’s a killer guitar flatpicker as well, adding yet another bullet to the SteelDrivers’ gun. That lead vocal transition was well along when Mike Henderson passed the mandolin torch over to East Nashville maven and record producer Brent Truitt. Here came a more striking personality shift, toward the easy-going and understated. But one only needs to spend time with the two albums made by this current team to recognize the continuity and commitment of vision. This band could blast a tunnel through a granite mountain.
Shock and awe has also been a common reaction to songwriter Parker Millsap who returns to Roots for the first time since his March 2014 debut when he shared his jaw-dropping self-titled first album. With songs that seemed to offer entirely new angles on classic subject matter and a voice of salty power, the very young artist just tore through the Americana world landing all the big gigs right up to the Grand Ole Opry, where his blunt commentaries on middle America’s religious life must have been controversial. He was seemingly born to be a truth-telling musical artist, having done his guitar slinging apprenticeship in his very early teens and then letting his songwriting voice come to the fore with scary perspicacity. It was as if Jason Isbell was that good ten years younger. When exactly did he accumulate the experience necessary to create the sardonic but sympathetic “Truck Stop Gospel” or the romantic, economical “Disappear”? It’s one of life’s beautiful mysteries. Now Parker seems to be prepping a new album called The Very Last Day. Its bio notes promise “gospel-tinged rock-and-roll poetry” but dagnabbit I haven’t seen a copy of this volume and I can’t wait. We’ll have details on release of the project by show time.
The first half of MCR this week will showcase a couple of sublime string bands with that global outlook and that care for tone and timing that I so dearly love. Opening the show will be Taarka, a trio-plus out of the musically charged town of Lyons, CO, home of Rockygrass and other festivals. Over more than a decade the husband and wife team of David and Enion Pelta-Tiller have steered projects with glowing, woody sound, contemplative songs and great titles like Even Odd Bird and The Martian Picture Soundtrack. The current album Making Tracks Home is graceful and progressive with massive appeal for anybody who ever swooned over Nickel Creek and Crooked Still. Rather similar touchstones help contextualize the sound of The Ransom Notes. They also have roots in the Front Range of Colorado, but they’re in our area now and playing all the hip venues, from Bristol Rhythm & Roots to our sister show Bluegrass Underground. It appears to be three siblings with Michael Ransom on cello and sisters (?) Amanda and Amelia on fiddle and/or mandolin, and the sound draws on bluegrass, classical, old-time, Celtic and gypsy jazz.
So resolve to spend more time with great music in 2016 including frequent visits to Music City Roots, starting with this week. It’ll steel you for the year ahead.