When they write the history of roots and Americana music in the 21st century (or maybe when I write it, if somebody gives me funding) I think two broad themes will be front and center. One is the passing of the bluegrass/newgrass torch to a new generation of formally trained, deeply eclectic string bands, i.e. Punch Brothers. The other would have to be Americana’s reconciliation with and embrace of our soul and blues traditions. When I first started attending the Americana conference in 2001, I found common cause with people who felt the format was too white and too narrowly centered on honky tonk and country rock. If you’re going to build a tent for contemporary takes on American roots traditions, it better be big enough to shelter the blues and all that flowed from it. Fortunately, with gestures toward and collaboration with artists like Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint and the Fairfield Four, that really did change, and then next we knew, young people of all colors were forming soul and R&B bands and adapting the sounds of Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Chicago and Detroit to their own artistic ends.
This week at Roots, we’ll welcome back a great Memphis band that’s reaching out across time and genre for years, standing firmly on its established soul foundation but recently arranging songs that have long been associated with Nashville. The Bo-Keys left us breathless and full of heart when they played the Loveless Barn in the summer of 2011. We got to meet and hear the late great guitarist Skip Pitts as he reprised his innovative part on “Shaft.” And we got acquainted with Memphis go-getter Scott Bomar, the bass player and producer who formed the band in 1998.
“There were a lot of great musicians from the golden era of Memphis soul who weren’t really getting the work or attention they deserve,” he says in the Bo-Keys bio. “Stax, Hi Records and American Studios all shut down, and the amazing musicians who were part of those studio bands either moved or stayed in Memphis, languishing in obscurity for the most part. I wanted people to know that those players and that sound were still alive and well.”
Today, Skip is gone, but the group includes legendary Al Green drummer Howard Grimes, keyboardist Archie “Hubbie” Turner and Memphis mainstay guitarist Joe Restivo. And rather than re-tread familiar Stax and Hi Records repertoire for their latest project, they made Heartaches By The Numbers, released just last Friday, a ten-track collection of country hits from the 50s through the 70s. They bring satiny horns and urbane grooves to songs given life originally by Charlie Rich, Hank Williams and Ray Price among others. Freddy Fender’s “Wasted Days And Wasted Nights” is just delicious with its baritone sax and crystalline rhythm guitar. They cover Dylan’s Nashville Skyline too, lending a soft sway to “I Threw It All Away.” Here, the all-American and Tennessee-centered fusion of country and soul – so important and abundant that an entire Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum exhibit was built around it – writes its next chapter. This is the soul of country and country with soul.
A similar modern day remaking of the soul legacy, with a striking strain of gospel, is in play in the music of newcomer Liz Vice of Portland, OR. She was working toward an acting and film career when she was sidelined by illness, and when she came back, friendship with and encouragement of Blitzen Trapper’s Eric Early conspired to put her behind a microphone and on stage. She was such a natural that every gig led to a better one. Her debut album There’s A Light is indeed luminous and has been cited by NPR and the New York Times. But she is nothing but humble about her reach and aspirations. She told Bluegrass Situation: “The whole time I was in the studio I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m an imposter. They have no idea I don’t know what I’m doing. . . Okay, I guess I’ll sing the song like this.’” Her instinct to be herself and only that is paying off, because that self seems to be so joyful and life affirming. Just look at that smile.
Kevin Russell aka Shinyribs isn’t just another bearded troubadour from Texas singing plain-spoken working man literature. He’s actually an unheralded genius, with a mind full of whimsy and wit and the huge heart of a born showman. As founder of and key voice and songwriter in The Gourds, Russell was part of one of the greatest wide-ranging roots cult bands of all time, a kind of Austin, Texas answer to NRBQ. The Gourds went on hiatus in 2013 and since then, Russell has enlarged on that band’s key virtues – biting, funny songs and expertly funky Deep South grit and groove. On his 2015 album Okra Candy he’s by turns allegorical and cryptic, snarky and just plain swept up in life. His song “Donut Taco Palace” has totally gotten under my skin. I want to go to there.
And bringing this week’s blast of youthful bluegrass is Billy Strings, a phenom from Michigan who was, legend has it, born to the sound of a string jam and who got his stage name from an aunt when he was a little kid. Not yet 25, he’s a tattooed hipster who’s sort of melded Doc Watson and Metallica into a feverish, fast and enthusiastic flatpicking style. Northern Express wrote that he’s “blessed with the voice of an old soul from the mountains, a gentlemanly air, and the ability to sling hundreds of notes with razor-crisp precision at the speed of a machine gun.” He just slayed ‘em at Merlefest and he’s set for a summer full of high profile festival gigs. We’re lucky to have him come through at this stage, because we’ll be watching Billy Strings for years to come.
See you Wednesday evening then. Come for the country. Stay for the soul.