One of my go-to beers these days, a delicious IPA from Georgia’s Sweetwater Brewing featuring a leaping trout on the label, has a slogan: “Don’t Float The Mainstream.” That sounds in tune with my philosophy, but the word is tricky isn’t it? Early on I grew suspicious of industrial-scale mainstream culture, where pop stars, bestsellers and blockbusters accumulate fortunes in a feedback loop of money, marketing and familiarity. And “mainstream” country music is a case study in how a myopic focus on scale and numbers can create an ecosystem where musical values shrivel; it’s everything we at Roots don’t want to be.
On the other hand, mainstream appeal and quality are not mutually exclusive, if I may state the obvious. American pop culture has been astandard-setter, from the Wizard of Oz to Elvis to Prince to The Sopranos, we have made mainstream art for the ages. Yes, we’ve manufactured enough empty suits, talking heads, jiggling models and celebri-bots to populate a moon of Jupiter (and I wish they’d go there), but as long as the mainstream is giving us Bruno Mars and Game Of Thrones, I can’t say all is lost.
The subject is too huge to get into here, but this week’s Roots lineup has me thinking about artists who balance mainstream appeal with creative integrity, because we have some guests who’ve been there. For one thing, we’re welcoming the wonderful Suzy Bogguss, who was a mainstream country star, albeit at a time when there was no “alt” because country music in the 80s and 90s was rich with fulfilling choices. And we’re hearing from Angie Aparo, a pop and rock artist who was signed to Arista by the legendary Clive Davis and who’s written hits for Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Meanwhile Liz Longley isn’t on a major label yet, but her appealing and accessible sound would have every chance of success there. This should mix into a night as contemporary as last week’s was classic.
I opined at length on Suzy Bogguss when she was scheduled to play Roots in February. She and her band were waylaid in New York by ice and snow during release week for her album Lucky. This week is her makeup date and she will close the show, so let’s move on and talk about Liz Longley. She’s a songwriter with a silky voice and a sensitive ear from Nashville by way of Boston’s Berklee College of Music and a hometown near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her life-changing influences include Joni Mitchell and Eva Cassidy (the late, great D.C.-based jazz singer you need in your life). And as she’s written and recorded her way through five albums since 2006, she’s accumulated a hell of a reputation and track record, especially for an indie artist. She took first place in the BMI John Lennon Songwriting Scholarship Competition and at the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival. The Washington Post hailed her as a rising star. And she’s shared bills with Amos Lee, Shawn Colvin and just lately our pals in Johnnyswim. Her new single “This Is Not The End” has found a big and appreciative audience in a poignant TV placement on Lifetime’s Army Wives. There’s lots of emotion and empathy here in a sonic package as palatable as gelato.
Angie Aparo is an interesting cat whose pop/rock success I remember from my days writing for the Tennessean in the early 2000s. It was hard not to notice the immaculately bald guy with piercing eyes who was blowing up out of Atlanta with a passionate tone in both his crunchy electric rock and his acoustic balladry. He scored hits for himself and others, and these days he seems to be doing what he feels like doing as an artist. The lead story on his website is about his new venture writing a “sci-fi rock opera,” in which he’s quoted on the upending of the music business that’s coincided with his career: “I kind of love the crumbling of everything because it shakes loose the bullshit.”Heh. Another venture is touring and recording with electronic music artist McKenzie Eddy, which is what this Wednesday’s slot is all about. Eddy is based in New York, but she told her hometown newspaper in Charleston, SC that Aparo has “such an involved process, more so than anybody I’ve worked with” and that their recording is “definitely the most artistic thing I’ve ever done.” So we don’t have any idea what this is going to sound like, and it may be far from our rootsiest fare, but bring it on I say.
The rest of our bill will flow in more typically Roots tributaries, with the up-and-coming, old-time-loving country singer Sam Outlaw from Los Angeles and East Tennessee’s Amythyst Kiah, a folk fusion artist whom I can’t wait to see. I actually met Amythyst four years ago working on a film about the bluegrass music program at East Tennessee State University, where she was a student. We did a fascinating interview where she talked about taking a role in the revival of African-American folk music. Her bio now says she’s “found a way to fuse traditional roots music with a contemporary style that does not take away from the integrity of the original songs (but) transforms them” and her online performances suggest she is indeed carving an important path. Or should I say finding new streams.