When something works, don’t mess with it. Then it might become a tradition. And we think we’ve found one. It was two years ago that Todd The Booking Guy and Laurie The Backstage Genius conspired to invite 18 South out to play our Thanksgiving eve show, and we’re happy to say that they’ll be back for year three this week. This quintessential Americana sextet folds country, blues, gospel and soul together as well as any band in Nashville or the nation. They are part of our family and their family has gotten bigger (lead singers Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall recently had twins), and what’s Thanksgiving about if not family?
It’s also about praise and communion with the spirit, and nobody helps us feel that connection better than Mike Farris, the rocker turned gospel star whose shows sound way more like Saturday night than Sunday morning. His artistry and incredible guest musicians have been part of every season of Roots, and they return this week to help us celebrate. And in a nice bit of continuity from last year, the great country songwriter and artist Shawn Camp returns, to put some bluesy truth and rocking boogie on our Thanksgiving table.
But I’ve told you all about those guys before. They’re regulars. And so I’d like to share a few thoughts about the fourth artist on the lineup, because you’re going to be hearing a lot about him in the years to come. He’s Luke Bulla, and funny enough, he’s played our Thanksgiving show before, as the fiddle player and second vocalist in the John Cowan Band. And for so many years, his name could have been preceded with “distinguished sideman.” He blazed in full bluegrass mode with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. He jammed in high sophisticated style during a long tenure with the Jerry Douglas Band. And for the past two-plus years, he’s been a key instrumentalist and singer with Lyle Lovett. He’s proven himself stunningly versatile and talented. For those of us waiting impatiently for Luke to step forward and make his own recording, the time has come at last.
Luke Bulla grew up in the music, part of a family band from Grants Pass, Oregon. He and sister Jenny Ann were the youth-grass stars of their day; they recorded an album together for Rounder Records when they were both around 11 years old. And Luke began winning the Weiser, Idaho old-time fiddle championship with such regularity that it must have been kind of tedious for everyone else. He moved to Nashville in 1999 and took the fiddle slot in the on-fire Kentucky Thunder, and it’s been nothing but awesome gigs ever since. I got glimpses of Luke as a front-man through a long-running partnership with fiddling friend Casey Driessen. They formed a funky pop-grass band called Wise Child that gigged around and proved what a superior singer/writer Bulla was.
But as Luke told me this week, “It’s taken a long while for me to figure out what I really want to do” as a solo artist. “Now I have a clear idea.” Years of playing with masters across the board has led him back closer to the traditional sound of his youth, but he’s called on the players who define the cutting edge of bluegrass. On his debut EP, which will be on sale at the show and which recently went up on iTunes, Bulla makes music with guitarist Bryan Sutton, banjo kingpin Bela Fleck, mandolin madman Sam Bush and dobro master Jerry Douglas. It’s the Telluride House Band, for heaven’s sake. I’ve heard a sampling, and all the promise of Luke’s silky soul voice and heavy musicianship is realized here. He hopes to head back into the studio this winter and add six more songs for a full-length album debut next year. Once you hear him this week, you’ll be lined up, awaiting that released as much as I am.
So that’s our Thanksgiving show. And calling us grateful would be an understatement. All of us connected with Music City Roots are inspired and amazed that we’re still on the air and growing after two years and that we’ve been able to befriend and present so many superb musicians. Please come share that holiday joy with us.