The first time I recall seeing/hearing a cello in a roots/Americana band was Lyle Lovett’s Large Band. And then about the same time I got into the old-time duo of Norman and Nancy Blake, where she would bow or pluck to back up Norman’s exquisite picking. That was the early 90s, but these days the cello is quite popular, even fashionable, in the folk world. And a good thing too, because it may have the mellowest, warmest and most intimate tone of any instrument. Crooked Still puts the cello in service of modern bluegrass. The Bee Eaters make chamber folk with it. And The Avett Brothers have a cellist who rocks out standing up.
But the only artist who’s emerged as a front guy singer/songwriter who builds his music from the cello out is Ben Sollee, and we are extremely fortunate to have him as but one outstanding performer on a week at Roots that I predict is bound for greatness. We’ll hear from the seductive Pieta Brown, the moving Pierce and Grace Pettis, the hot-picking Grant Farm and the fast-rising Erin McDermott. But let me tell you a few details about the fascinating Mr. Sollee.
Ben was a college student studying cello at the University of Lexington when he somehow hooked up with Bela Fleck, Abigail Washburn and Casey Driessen in the much admired Sparrow Quartet. (I can’t wait to ask how that relationship came about, knowing and loving those other musicians so much.) They played high-end venues and toured the world for the U.S. State Department while making some of the most complex and daring folk music of modern times. Next thing we know, Ben the solo singer is named as one of the finest emerging artists in the country by NPR and others. His debut album Learning To Bend featured songs from the caustic to the melancholy. His exquisite cover of “A Change Is Gonna Come” showed off his evocative and distilled voice and his abundant heart.
So the cello-playing songwriter thing is no mere novelty. His voice, his phrasings and his ambitious, luxurious use of language conjures up ready comparisons to Paul Simon. His songs begin with ruminations and notions built out of sought-out experiences and deep reading. A lecture he caught about Egyptian pharos being buried with their boats inspired a song about Americans being buried with their cars. An encounter with the notorious Angola Prison begat a song about myriad forms of human captivity. This is sophisticated stuff, and it comes out like musical magic.
There’s also so much more this week. I have no idea if our team curated this night to all fit together, but it does. Pierce Pettis became a favorite of mine soon after being signed to Nashville’s Compass Records in the 90s. His voice is an enveloping, friendly presence and his gifts for storytelling are many. The song “Just Like Jim Brown (She Is History)” blew my mind when it came out and every release since has been a renewal. Now Pierce’s daughter Grace has emerged as a collaborator and a fine, award-winning songstress in her own right. They’ll perform together this week.
Another daughter of folk greatness takes our stage in the person of Pieta Brown, though the acorn has fallen a bit far from the tree here — the tree being Iowa’s literate, husky voiced song poet Greg Brown. Pieta’s folk has an urban grit about it, and her voice will draw you in like a warm bath. Then she’ll jolt you out of complacency with a razor sharp lyric or idea. She routinely works with major leaguers like Amos Lee, Lucinda Williams, Calexico and very recently Mark Knopfler. She’s that good.
Grant Farm picks up the thread from last week’s Leftover Salmon performance, since founder Tyler Grant has played and toured intensively with Salmon’s Drew Emmitt. Grant is a national flatpicking champion and his Colorado-based quartet is capable of top-flight newgrass and what they call Rocky Mountain Rock And Roll. Finally, we’ll hear from newcomer Erin McDermott. The voices championing her online and in press are familiar and trusted to us: Andy Hall of the Infamous Stringdusters, Tim O’Brien and Bryan Sutton among them. Yes, then. Attention must be paid.