A happy scene from our last visit to Belfast. The show previewed here is a special edition of Music City Roots, which will stream live on our website on Friday, March 4 at 1 pm from the Empire Theater.
In their new book Wayfaring Strangers, radio host Fiona Ritchie and historian Doug Orr tell the story of how music came from Scotland and Ireland to America on a “carrying stream.” They write that “The Scots-Irish brought their fiddles and jaw harps, adopting the lap dulcimer and, of course, carrying their cache of beloved songs. Old ballads and fiddle tunes were adapted to their new landscape. For those hardy settlers moving into the mountains, the isolated coves were a natural habitat for their evolving customs, vernacular and music. Old World oral tradition ensured those were conscientiously handed down; New World encounters enlivened the repertoire with fresh ideas and influences.”
It’s a rich and detailed history, but there it is in a nutshell, and it led directly to country and Americana music in all their diversity. And this is no small thing. No other art form or written medium has so completely reflected and amplified the American story – the versions we tell ourselves – as roots music. And the Scots-Irish folk repertoire gave that story its oral tradition, its archetypes and its instruments.
So it’s with great pleasure and pride that we bring Music City Roots back to the American music motherland for a third year in a row. In year one we met and heard the great Donovan and basked in the spell cast by “Wild Thing” songwriter Chip Taylor. Last year we got goosebumps from the angelic Cara Dillon and wrapped an epic night in a heart-rushing sing-along with Foy Vance. We embark again with no way to imagine what the show will be like. But we have history, the proven curatorial power of Colin and Anne Magee and the wonderful, enveloping Empire Theater on our side.
For those new to the Music City Roots experience, we are a weekly live show featuring outstanding roots music and Americana music from and passing through Nashville. Founded in the Fall of 2009, we’re at heart a radio show that pays homage to the live radio tradition that helped build Music City USA in the 1930s and 40s. So it’s a real joy to be able to bring the show’s essence overseas and to share it with Nashville’s sister city of Belfast. This year more than ever we’re looking at the theme of how Scots-Irish music infused America, and vice versa.
We’ll open the night with some songs that can be directly traced to the Carrying Stream. Ciara O’Neill and Brigid O’Neill, joined by John McGurgan, will perform “Beautiful Dreamer” by Stephen Foster, whose parents came from Ireland and who became America’s first identifiable national treasure of a songwriter. Their second song “The Bard Of Armagh” had its melody lifted to become the cowboy standard “The Streets of Laredo,” and you’ll hear just how that worked out.
Then Sam Wickens, Amanda Agnew and Andy Whitaker will play the traditional song “Nora Lee,” and we’ll leave it to you to identify the Elvis standard that it inspired. Another icon, Johnny Cash, will come up in this musical conversation. These threads are everywhere one looks.
Then we’ll get into formal sets by the songwriters and artists we’ve assembled in cahoots with Panarts. We always bring a ringer from the U.S. to contribute to this intercontinental feast, and this year’s guest of honor is Scott Miller who’s not just a “Scott” but a true Scots-Irish descendant who hails from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, a wellspring of folk tradition. Miller is one of the most insightful and acerbically truthful songwriters at work today, and he has been through the two big chapters of his career: leading roots-rock band The V-Roys and touring as a solo songwriter who makes exceptional, varied albums like his most recent Big Big World. It’s rare that he’s not making you laugh or think.
Next comes Brian Houston, whose voice and approach to gospel music and soul will remind any MCR fan of Nashville’s Mike Ferris. But he’s also got a touch for timeless pop/rock. Houston is a Belfast native who seems too young to have contributed to more than two dozen albums and performed on bills with Van Morrison and Elvis Costello. Music press like MOJO have sung his praises. Recently he made Songs From My Father, a collection inspired by his oldest influences and Irish music history. So this will fit into our theme nicely.
Iain Archer must be a guy after our hearts because his fine 2009 album is called To The Pine Roots. The native of Bangor, Northern Ireland has a Nick Drake-ish voice that’s delicate and evocative. He’s a former member of arguably the country’s most famous indie band Snow Patrol, and he’s written with them extensively, including the widely covered hit song “Run.” He’s also been a member of supergroup Tired Pony with members of R.E.M. and Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody. This diverse background suggests something unique and memorable.
And the night will close with the longstanding duo of Gallagher & Lyle. They’re new to me, but what a couple of careers, individual and jointly. They were signed to Apple Records in the late 60s by the Beatles, for one thing. They made a string of albums in the 70s that feel to me like breezy, smart folk pop with heart. The duo dissolved around 1980, but they’ve both worked and written extensively since then. Lyle co-wrote “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and more for Tina Turner, plus songs cut by Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and many more legends. Gallagher has been a major performing rights executive. They reformed the group in 2010 and have seen their work memorialized in British pop culture. I’m expecting a throwback feel, expert musicianship and some nice sing-alongs with that particular Empire Theater BelNash enthusiasm.
So again we gather together in the spirit of looking backward as a way of looking more vividly and clearly at who we are today and will be tomorrow. Because that stream never stops running.