Wednesday night’s gathering of the Roots clan will be an opportunity to reflect on the life and legacy of Cowboy Jack Clement, the kindly and eccentric genius songwriter and producer who passed away in 2013. One of our guests, the songwriting entrepreneur Matt Urmy, was a great friend and protégé of Jack and arrives with an album Jack produced before his studio burned up in a bad fire. For a while, we explored the idea of a night formally paying tribute to Cowboy Jack but the right mix didn’t come together. That said, looking at this week’s lineup, with its variety and individuality, I feel sure Cowboy would have loved this week’s show. And I’m sure you will too.
The full story of Urmy’s new Out Of The Ashes album is quite something, the stuff of song. Matt made a strong debut album of country music back around 2010 as the first artist to record in the renovated Quonset Hut, the original studio on Music Row, a sacred space that sat in mothballs for years before being revived by Belmont University. Not long after that, the multi-faceted Urmy got very busy launching a company called Artist Growth, setting aside his music career for years. But he made friends with Cowboy Jack and they gradually got to working on the album that would become Out of the Ashes. That was, however NOT the working title. The name came only after Jack’s Belmont Boulevard home studio burned up. What once was lost was then found as Urmy got a call saying that the drives with his album had been recovered. And after getting a lot of ducks in order, Matt finally got the album polished up and ready for this year. It’s been praised by many and it’s indeed a literate, tuneful album that’s got plenty of the all-together-now performance authenticity we associate with Cowboy Jack.
I have to think that Cowboy Jack and Will Kimbrough crossed paths as well, though I don’t know for certain. Will embodies the honesty and quiet power that Cowboy embraced in artists like Kris Kristofferson and Charley Pride. Mellow of voice and effortless on stage or on the guitar, Kimbrough is one of our finest all around musical guys in today’s Music City. His extensive solo and band career (the Bis-quits, Daddy, Willie Sugarcapps) has been bolstered and complimented by sideman/support work for Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, Mavis Staples, Jimmy Buffet and many others. Among his several ventures, Will recently paired up with the fascinating and supple singer songwriter Brigitte DeMeyer to make Mockingbird Soul. Will describes it this way: “a quietly soulful acoustic album of songs mostly co-written by Brigitte and myself, with two extraordinary upright bassists: Chris Donohue and Chris Wood, Micol Davis on gospel soul tambourine, Oliver Wood singing a duet on one song—and Brigitte and me harmonizing over my 1947 Gibson J45 acoustic guitar.” If that sounds nourishing, it is.
Understated acoustic delights also spill forth from Mipso, the string band quartet from Chapel Hill, North Carolina that deftly splits the difference between folk and bluegrass. They were friends at UNC who were all engaged in the state’s old time and bluegrass heritage. They threw a trio together for a fund raiser and then, encouraged from within and without, they added more gigs and started recording. Libby Rodenbough (former MCR intern by the way) was a member from a distance, playing fiddle on the album but not touring with the group until a couple of years ago. When we last saw the band in March 2015, lead singer Joseph Terrell said he’d recommend adding a female voice and presence to any band that lacked it. It indeed has been good chemistry. And man, does that blend sound good on the latest project, a brand new album called Coming Down The Mountain.
Rounding out our lineup this week is the powerful and very creative blues man John Nemeth. His arrival at Roots in January of 2015 was a real ear-opener, an introduction for us to a fellow who’s quietly risen out of his Boise, Idaho home town to numerous nominations and at least one win at the Blues Music Awards. On his MCR performance I noted that “John’s vocals are polished and mighty, and his songs showed signs of bright invention inside a tight form. Killer harmonica throughout as well.” He’s here with a very new album called Feelin’ Freaky that sports muscular soul blues on the interior and a cover that references Andy Warhol’s Velvet Underground art while suggesting a bit of blues-worthy naughtiness. We giggle at the inside jokes but not at the music. It’s seriously great.
So formal tribute show or not, let’s gather to celebrate music made with heart and bravery – the Cowboy Way.