It may all start with a song but I think we can all agree that at some point a singer becomes somewhat crucial. And while I’m a music/sound guy more than a song/lyric guy at the end of the day, I can not deny the human truth that we’re wired to relate most powerfully the voices of our fellow men and women – be it a lullaby from our mama, a tear-jerker on Broadway, a hymn in church or a smoky monologue from Billie Holiday. It’s an aural infinity. A song well sung is the most elemental and approachable form of musical communication there is.
Of course songs and singers are at the core of Roots, and in terms of sheer vocal skills, we’re on a roll. Last week we heard from some of the best dude singers in the world working in a blues, soul and bluegrass vein. This week Music City Roots is bookended by torchy, bluesy babes.
Opening the show will be Bonnie Bishop, an artist who grew up in Texas and Mississippi who’s settled in Nashville with a debut album called Free and a bunch of adoration, including from that other Bonnie (Raitt) who calls her “an amazing presence.” Her voice sure is. Rich and willowy, edgy and emotional, it’s a sound that has paired up successfully with kindred spirits Lee Roy Parnell and Delbert McClinton. The best way I can introduce you to Bishop is to point you to this fantastic blog post she wrote about an epiphany moment. She’s new in town in Starkville, MS and trying to find her feet in middle school. She grows fascinated by a circle of girls who sing together between classes and lurks about, trying to listen without attracting attention. Until one of them hollers “Hey, white girl!” Bonnie gets a “Who? Me?” look on. She picks up the story:
“Come sing this high part girl,” she shouted. My heart was racing as I walked over to them. I recognized all their faces from choir, but was too intimidated to say anything while they looked me up and down skeptically. I was just as unsure of my being able to offer any assistance to their group as they were, but I knew this was my opportunity and I was determined not to blow it by being a moron. Or a white girl. “Ok,” Shantae began seriously, “here is your note.”
You’ve gotta read how this turns out. It’s really well written and will take you inside a real deal moment of musical discovery and revelation. It was a turning point, she says, that helped her find her path to today, where she’s shuttling between Music City and Texas, singing with heart and soul.
Then in the show’s final slot, we’ll hear from a vocalist who also shares a first name with an iconic female singer and who came to Nashville some 20 years before Ms. Bishop. Etta Britt is her name, and if you’ve followed Music City’s talent pool at all, you’ll know that she’s a powerhouse with the respect of everyone who works with her. She got into the Nashville scene by winning an audition to be part of popular early 80s vocal group Dave & Sugar. After that she became a studio singer and joined up with soul sisters Vickie Carrico, Sheila Lawrence and Jonell Mosser to form the funky/rootsy band Kentucky Thunder. But Britt never got to make that long dreamed-of solo album – until last year. An encounter with an entrepreneurial associate led her to sign with the new Wrinkled Records (putting a new wrinkle in the story of recorded music, they say) and released Out Of The Shadows. Since the intent of the album is made blazingly clear in its title, I’ll tell you that the project itself is an amalgam of churchy soul, barroom grit and showroom balladry.
Etta Britt comes with the endorsement of the legendary Bekka Bramlett: “This lady has supreme talent along with naked soul and heart. . . I am never short of being moved watching and listening to her sing.” And check this out. Americana star Paul Thorn, for whom she’s been opening dates and singing duets recently, says “whenever she gets behind the mic I just step back. There is no better singer and performer in the whole wide world.” So there you go.
Our lineup is rounded out by manly men who play all manner of rootsy music. Jerry Joseph is a catch for sure, with more than two decades of track record playing gutsy and diverse music that has engendered loyalty from the jam band audience. He’ll be carrying his 2012 double album Happy Book and trying to make you happy. Also on deck LeeHarvey Osmond, AKA Tom Wilson, who has played the show as part of his usual band Blackie & The Rodeo Kings. With a oceanic baritone/bass voice and an exceptional case of tallness, he casts a mighty figure, and the music sounds like spooky country/rock. Finally we’ll enjoy newcomer Cody Diekhoff who plays as Chicago Farmer. Cody grew up on a farm in a farming town and now calls Chicago his home, and he works the ground there very much in the tradition of folk greats of that town like John Prine and Steve Goodman. His very new album Backenforth, IL is quite arresting and engaging.
So we stride on through winter, staying warm whatever way we can. This week, it’ll be a couple of torches.