True & Blue

Folks who follow bluegrass even a little tend to know about the International Bluegrass Music Association, which holds its annual convention and Fan Fest every Fall in Music City. But many aficionados of deep, lonesome, hard-core, ultra-traditional, real-deal bluegrass have an even softer spot in their hearts for Nashville’s OTHER big bluegrass gathering – one that kicks off this week and which defines our show’s theme for Wednesday night. The Society For The Preservation of Bluegrass Music In America, abbreviated as SPBGMA (say “spigma”) is a smaller but distilled throwdown that takes place annually at the Sheraton Music City out by the airport.

The hotel lobby and hallways (and even the poolside when the Feb. weather makes a pleasantly unseasonable turn) are awash in the sounds of banjos, fiddles and dobros. Folks wander with upright basses looking for a jam to join. It’s a very happy scene, and the convention and awards shows tend to define the true mainstream of bluegrass music – the tradition as it’s practiced in the here and now. Our bands this week are in town for SPBGMA, and we’re excited that they can play the barn on the eve of the event, which runs from Feb. 2 to 5.

I guess I should begin with the Lonesome River Band, since they’ve been such a big deal for so many years. Granted, the lineup has shifted around leaving only banjo player Sammy Shelor as a direct thread to the band’s origins. But what lineups they’ve been. Perhaps the most historic included Dan “Man of Constant Sorrow” Tyminski and Ronnie “The Man I’m Trying To Be” Bowman, two of the finest vocalists of all time. But today’s LRB lineup with Brandon Rickman in the lead vocal slot remains vital and popular. Their mid 2010 album Still Learning was all over bluegrass radio and the relevant charts. But perhaps most exciting is the recent announcement that Shelor was the second-ever recipient of Steve Martin’s bluegrass banjo prize of $50,000 – an unrestricted grant for simply being a great artist in America’s great folk art form. It’ll be a blast to ask Sammy and the guys about getting that check and performing with Martin on David Letterman’s show.

The other veteran band in our lineup has anchored the bluegrass scene in Chicago, America’s northernmost southern city, for an amazing 35 years. They’ve made a bunch of albums (I’m sure even they’ve lost count) and played all kinds of famous venues around the world. They were also early in the now popular deal where bluegrass bands pair up for performances with symphony orchestras. Like LRB, this ensemble also has been led by a banjo player – the wise and magnanimous Greg Cahill – while a cast of hotshots surrounded him in various configurations, often heading out to become band-leaders themselves.

One of those Special C alums is Chris Jones, a stellar singer and songwriter who’s quietly built a reputation of his own as both an artist and a broadcaster. He’s the leader of the Night Drivers, which is what bluegrass musicians often have to do. And in that band you’ll find my friend and fellow scribe Jon Weisberger (bass), the multi-talented and exceptionally funny Ned Luberecki (banjo) and German born Mark Stoffel (mandolin), who is in fact allergic to actual Kentucky bluegrass. That is what we students of the music call “funny.”

More on the emerging and youthful side of the equation, we’ll be hearing from Darin and Brooke Aldridge, a married duo I had the good luck to hear a couple of years ago opening for Earl Scruggs in Shelby, NC, just down the road from their home town of Cherryville. They presented the whole package of charm, harmony, song selection and song writing. Which may be why they’re up for five SPBGMA awards this year. They were also nominated for the IBMA Emerging Artist award this year, and they have a growing and loyal fan base. They’re an act that will be in the upper reaches of the music before long, I suspect.

Rounding out our evening will be a star of Americana who has never been truly in the center of bluegrass music but who has always been a staple at bluegrass festivals, thanks to his renaissance scope and skill. Darrell Scott is just a roots music polymath: writer of smash country hits and Americana gems, a generalist picker who can smoke most specialists on guitar and steel and even banjo and a voice for the ages. The latest album in his prolific career is Long Ride Home, a collection of songs that grew out of Darrell’s upbringing on classic country music. With shades of everyone from Hank Williams to Charlie Rich, it may introduce new standards to the repertoire. The CD also features contributions from Darrell’s dad Wayne, a remarkable singer/songwriter who was tragically killed early this winter in an auto accident. Darrell’s performance will carry even more emotional weight than usual.

Come join us for a night of grassy lonesome truth. We’re definitely not allergic to that.

Craig H

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