Texas and Oklahoma, which spoon together on the map like a couple of adorable brokeback cowboys, have contributed disproportionately and astoundingly to the growth and evolution of music. From Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills through George Strait to the hard-partying Red Dirt scene, something about those windswept landscapes spawned a strain of blue collar creativity and expressiveness that’s central to Americana. Two of our guests this week, Hayes Carll and Parker Millsap, are heirs to the strain of artful songwriting that’s given us Guy, Rodney, Billy Joe and more. I know you always hear how these greats of yore can’t ever be surpassed and that they just don’t write ‘em like they used to. But when you hear the work of Carll, a mid-career veteran and Millsap, a precocious youngster, you have to make a certain kind of reappraisal. This is sheer brilliance, and some time after they display that brilliance at Roots this week, it’s going to take its place in Texlahoma history.
I’ll star with Oklahoman Parker Millsap, because the impact of hearing his work for the first time is fresh for me. It was just last week, and I still have bruises on my chest. Are you even allowed to sing with this much authority and strength when you’re twenty years old? When somebody is this young there’s not much backstory, but this profile in his home state paper does a great job with what there is. Upbringing in the Pentecostal church may have offered a model for fervent intensity and audience connectivity. He formed a blues band and learned to wail on guitar when he was virtually embryonic. His debut album Palisade galvanized his current partnership with bass player Michael Rose and put him on many a radar. Overall it’s a picture of a remarkably prepossessed guy who had a sense of direction even before he knew he had one. Just now, Millsap has released a self-titled album that’s just explosively and obnoxiously good. His ability to grapple with religion with a mix of knowing wisdom and critical distance is especially exciting. I’m obsessed with his song about a Bible-hauling preacher called “Truck Stop Gospel” and I seem to be not alone as NPR picked up on it as well. You’ll be seeing more and more media about this boyish-looking, gravel-voiced songwriting powerhouse.
Hayes Carll, the Texan, also has a chapped voice and a worldly wise outlook, but it’s something fans of songwriting have grown familiar with and fond of over the past 10 years. And it’s a sensibility perhaps more keyed to a wry and jaded view of the world that comes out as humor in a Mark Twain/Roger Miller/George Carlin mashup. In fact Carll’s a freaking genius. He totally went there in “She Left Me For Jesus” on 2008’s Trouble In Mind album. Recently, we loved his riotous duet-de-lust with Cary Ann Hearst in the politically charged “Another Like You” (which made for a legendary video). And the title track of his most recent album, the Americana year-end #1 KMAG-YOYO is a literary and social masterpiece – a portrait of a too-young soldier in a too-insane system who gets in some deeply surreal doo doo. Hayes writes about society and the individuals who people it simultaneously, a special contribution that’s above the ambition level of most songwriters. Then he sets it all to infectious and rocking beats, so it’s no surprise that the new Hard Working Americans super-group is covering his tunes. It’s just a huge and overdue privilege for us to host Hayes.
Irreverence is also a hallmark of Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Canada’s bluesiest and best-dressed country rock band. We’ve enjoyed their company before, so Roots fans may know about the mega-voice of Tom Wilson (aka LeeHarvey Osmond) and the killer guitar chops of Colin Linden. (While he’s a veteran songwriter, recording artist and producer (Bruce Cockburn, of the world is getting to know Linden whether they know it or not through his frequent appearances on the show Nashville.) The trio, rounded out by guitarist Stephen Fearing, plays revved-up, committed and real roots music. Their new album, just released in January, is called South. And while we admire the Kings’ inherent North-ness, we think even they’d say the title respects the birthplace of their deepest influences. I haven’t gotten to hear this one yet, but their own description suggests something we’ll relate to: “The album’s largely acoustic yet reliably punchy arrangements showcase the three songwriters’ multiple strengths, while the musicians’ organically energetic performances maintain the vibrant chemistry that’s kept Blackie a consistently vital and distinctive musical force.”
And rounding out a four-act night is Josh Daniel, a familiar face and voice because he’s visited us before as part of North Carolina’s excellent band The New Familiars. He’s got an eclectic outlook to match his wide skill set, and we’ll be very interested in what he’s cooked up as a solo artist. So come join us. No more Texas/Oklahoma jokes. Maybe.