Every new year is a renewal and a chance to head in new directions. This year, for some reason, feels particularly auspicious. The holidays were warm and nourishing, just as they are supposed to be, and everywhere I go I feel like folks are full of ideas and energy. How to keep this torch lit? I’m resolving to consume less political news, because it’s the same old farce, less business news because it treats us like sheep and less “entertainment” news because it’s obsessed with celebrity nonentities. Let us, dear Roots community, bail on Buzzfeed, upend Upworthy and veto the viral. I’m not saying abandon Facebook and Twitter altogether (we’ll still be there heaven knows). But let’s all retune our BS meters, calm our twitchy clicker fingers and reclaim our precious TIME for the authentic and the artistic. Life’s too short for bad music, as the old saying goes. And holy smokes as I look ahead to what the booking team has assembled for our first quarter of 2014, I see no danger of a wasted set or song at our Loveless Barn Wednesday nights. Indeed our opening night is a staggering cornucopia of contemporary Americana’s finest.
When you’re taking a new trail, it helps to have a ranger, and on our season-opening night (another fund-raiser for the Nature Conservancy of course) we have not one but two sets of rangers who know how to ride the ride. The Steep Canyon Rangers are right there at the top of today’s bluegrass scene, and not just because they tour with Steve Martin. They’re perhaps the finest band to emerge from the early 2000s bluegrass renaissance, when Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs and the O Brother soundtrack inspired young folks, including this bunch of then-UNC students, to pick up instruments and start picking. Their self-study and dedication is a remarkable DIY story. Their skills got them signed to Rounder Records and picked up as Steve Martin’s band. But they don’t depend on Steve. Their album Nobody Knows You won the bluegrass Grammy in 2013, and they did a great job hosting the 2013 IBMA Awards. Their current album Tell The Ones I Love is a year’s favorite, reaching #1 on WNCW’s taste-making best-of list, as well as many others. With brilliant musicianship, killer vocals and a bag of smart original songs, The Steeps are tops. We’re lucky to have them at our barn closing out our broadcast.
And in the night’s opening slot, we’re featuring the Westbound Rangers, a band I hope you’re familiar with from past MCRs. They were also college pals, in this case at Belmont University here in town, and they’ve ranged over some of the same territory as The Steeps, where hints of good time jam band and the ghost of John Hartford mingle with the spirits of the founding fathers of bluegrass. The Westbounders released the full length album Gone For Way Too Long last June and I’m enjoying catching up with it.
The heart of the show is rangy too, in the stylistic sense. Joy Kills Sorrow is a band too long in arriving at our stage, in that we’ve had many of their contemporaries and colleagues from the amazing Boston string-band scene where they were born, such as Sarah Jarosz, Annie and the Beekeepers and Lake Street Dive. JKS is among the most instrumentally rich and involved of these innovative acoustic bands, with a Winfield flatpicking champion on guitar (Matthew Arcara) and a Berklee College of Music mandolin master (Jacob Joliff). Singer Emma Beaton has a velvety, nuanced voice that reminds me somewhat of Maura O’Connell. Their current EP Wide Awake was a big favorite of mine in 2013 for its rushing, robust sound. Arcara says, “We want the epic sound of an indie-rock band plugged in, but on acoustic instruments.” And that’s what you’ll hear on Wednesday.
With Ashley Monroe, we’ll experience nothing less than a young woman whose Like A Rose album made every single country music top ten list for 2013 that I laid eyes on, and I saw a lot of them. This Vince Gill-produced project is not technically her debut recording, but it’s the one that will forever herald her arrival to the top ranks of today’s torchy, traditional singers. Her throat, heart, gut and brain are all deeply engaged. We get cheeky songs like “Weed Instead of Roses” and the deep azure honky tonk lament “She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind.” The artist takes what we love about Lee Ann Womack and Dolly Parton and puts personal and insightful twists on it.
And I can only justify Ben Sollee being here in the last paragraph by pointing out that ever since he played Roots in May 2012, we’ve been jumping up and down about this Kentucky songwriter who wields a cello instead of a guitar. I interviewed him for our Connect series and we put him on our songwriter compilation this spring. Here’s what I wrote about his last appearance: “This was a set that I’ll always remember as one of our best. . . .His voice is a natural gift. But my wonder and delight came from the fully realized musicality of the set. In his balanced fusion of jazz’s improvisatory freedom, classical music’s structural integrity and pop’s shimmering sense of melody and beat, I hear rare greatness.” So I don’t have much more in me than that. It will be a joy to welcome Mr. Ben back to MCR and to Scenic City Roots the next night in Chattanooga, where Ashley Monroe will appear as well.
We wish you the happiest and brightest possible New Year. Let’s all head down some new roads together.