I wrote at WMOT this week about a new business school in Nashville that aims to train well-rounded music industry playas, from how to manage a tour to engineering a record. There’s no shortcut to any of that but there is one essential trick as recommended by a great engineer friend of mine who says it’s all about knowing your benchmarks. If you think earbuds sound good, you’ll never produce good sound. But if you want to know what a great recording of a band sounds like – if you’re searching for a fresh new standard for audio mastery – spend time with Jim Lauderdale’s new London Southern album. Recorded at Goldtop Studio in London with its wise old English owl of an engineer Neil Brockbank (Nick Lowe’s sonic guru as well), Jim’s new opus is open and present, a document of masters performing together in a convivial space. It has some of the sonic signatures and timbres of early STAX with subtle horns and strings. Jim’s vocals are the strongest of his career and the songs are, naturally, hearty and memorable.
This week Jim returns from a month of touring overseas to again host MCR and to perform his first solo set in a good long while. It’s part of a night of sonic splendors that also includes one of the greatest purveyors of Americana gospel and blues, a scion of bluegrass royalty and an emerging country songwriter from Texas by way of Berklee. Before I talk more about Jim and his new project, let’s preview this full, fascinating lineup.
Sherman Holmes is an American master who may not register with you as an individual name, but I do sincerely hope you’ve have a relationship with the Holmes Brothers, one of the greatest all around roots ensembles of all time. This Virginia group, which recorded for Rounder, Real World and Alligator Records between 1978 and 2015, was grounded in the blues and gospel, but they were always searching and eclectic, Americana before there was such a name. They were a power trio with Sherman Holmes on bass, brother Wendell on guitar and Popsy Dixon on drums, but they collaborated widely. And songs? They covered Hank Williams, Paul Kelly and Sam Cooke on one early album. And their originals were classic as well. Wendell and Popsy both died in 2015, marking the end of an important chapter. Sherman had to recover and regroup but he has done so in fine form, releasing The Richmond Sessions last month. it’s his first solo outing, and he’s just 77 years old. And the far-reaching love of music is apparent with covers of Vince Gil’s “Liza Jane” (taken at a stately, inspired tempo) and Dan Penn’s “Dark End of The Street” plus more. Our pal dobro master Rob Ickes participated in the project and he’ll be working with Sherman in this special set.
Bluegrass is a heritage music, passed on through the generations, so it’s natural that people keep a close ear and eye on the heirs of the genre’s founding fathers. It’s not a golden ticket by any means. Red Allen’s son Harley was brilliant but kind of tragic. James Monroe (Bill’s son) has been undistinguished and unpredictable. So there’s some burdens to bear for Ralph Stanley II, son of the greatest mountain style bluegrass singer of all time. Two, as he’s called by insiders and family, has had to find himself through some inconsistent albums, but he’s developed a velvety, bluesy voice that owes perhaps more to Keith Whitley than his dad, and he brings immense respect, even adulation, to the music. The artist opening this week’s show performed as key vocalist of Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys for almost twenty years, so traditional bluegrass fans know him well and wish him well as he gets truly rolling with his post-Ralph The First career.
Up second in our lineup this week is the lovely and talented Catie Offerman. She’s a Texan who started college insanely young and wrapped up Berklee College of Music by age 19. She’s got a powerful attack on the fiddle and sings and writes across the country music spectrum, from trad to pop. The world is still waiting on a formal full length album, but that’s said to be close at hand. We’ll be hearing material from what seems to be a long-planned industry splash.
And we’ll close the night with Jim and his new material. Actually some of the wonderful songs on London Southern were debuted on the MCR stage. We’ll always remember his first take on “I Love You More,” which was heart stopping. He’s performed “Sweet Time” more than once. But to really cop the appropriate sense of awe about Jim’s fine new opus, consider this context. After dropping a long-anticipated duo LP with Buddy Miller, Jim made the bluegrass album Old Time Angels in 2013, followed by a double release a year later (Black Roses and Blue Moon Junction) and then the 20-song country masterpiece I’m A Song. And he wasn’t done. A double Memphis album called Soul Searching came in 2015 with the harder rocking This Changes Everything last year. And all this is just a fraction of the Lauderdale catalog. When we say we feel lucky working with him, this is part of what we mean. He can pull striking melodies out of the air, compose lyrics that feel timeless and true and sing with a range few can imagine. So we’ll celebrate another one with our own King of Broken Hearts on Wednesday night. Hope you’ll join us.