It was a mashup of two Music City Roots favorites – The Celtic sounds of our annual St. Patrick’s show meeting the fretboard fireworks of Guitar Night.
And luckily for me, the finale of MCR’s winter season coincided with Craig Havighurst and family’s annual trip to China. So I was called up – not from the minors, but from my subterranean gig as host/MC/interview guy for “Bluegrass Underground” at Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville (bluegrassunderground.com).
The night also marked the final local appearance of this year’s Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival contingent, led by the intrepid Colin McGee, who also hosted the MCR gang on their recent Northern Ireland pilgrimage. Colin’s Fab Four couldn’t have provided a better cross-section of songwriters plying their craft in Northern Ireland. Wllfie Gilbert was the oldest of the crew, and his songs and performing style were as no-nonsense as you might expect of an ex-welder. For his segment, he was paired with Triona Carville, an ethereally stunning 18-year-old who’d obviously been listening to a lot of our Taylor Swift-style pop country. The second segment featured the mutual admiration society of Peter McVeigh and Stephen MacCartney. McVeigh’s sweet tenor was the perfect vehicle for his love songs like “When We Kiss.” MacCartney was even more of a Nashville sister city soul brother. Backed by his resonator guitar, MacCartney’s road-weary songs rang with a distinctly Irish take on Americana (“Celtic-ana”? ). Whatever you call it, it would be great to hear MacCartney return to the MCR stage with his band The Farriers.
We take the music industry infrastructure here for granted, but the Belfast crew, all here for the first time, were amazed at the support system they found. Even lacking that, they’ve got some impressive talent developing over there. Next year, Colin’s planning to return with a new batch, an event not to be missed. And of course, Nashville is about to embark on its annual songwriting Mardi Gras, Tin Pan South.
The Guitar Hero segment started the evening, as host Jim Lauderdale introduced Telecaster master Pete Anderson, a GRAMMY-winning producer and, for many years, the Keith Richards to Dwight Yoakam’s Mick Jagger. In the Six Degrees of Lauderdale game, Anderson produced young Jim’s major-label debut more than 25 years ago.
But that night, Anderson stuck with country music’s first cousin, the blues, his specialty in his post-Yoakam solo career, playing songs from his new Birds Over Guitarland (named by his 10-year-old daughter). Anderson’s economical, razor-sharp solos recalled B.B King and Texas/West Coast masters like T-Bone Walker and Pee Wee Crayton. Jim joined in a reunion with his old producer to sing the finale,”Working Class.”
The final set brought it all together, combining St. Pat’s Day with Guitar Night with the appearance of the world’s premier Celtic guitarist, John Doyle. A solo Doyle concert is a major event, but this was made even better by the jaw-dropping all-star lineup organized by banjo wizard Alison Brown, including her husband Garry West on bass, and their very special guest, fiddler Stuart Duncan. Brown and Duncan are recording the followup to Pre-Sequel, a duo album they made many years ago as prodigies of the West Coast bluegrass scene. The new project’s working title is, of course, Sequel.
With occasional irish step-dancing from young Hannah and Brendan West, Brown, Doyle and company did a five-song set that ranged from Doyle’s poignant ballads to lively dances, and Brown’s original, “The Wonderful Sea Voyage of Holy St. Brendan.” The latter is a staple of Brown’s concerts, but, with Doyle’s fluid guitar and Duncan’s expressive fiddle, I’ve never heard it done more majestically.
Then it was time for the Loveless Jam, a take on Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” that let the Irish singers shine, while giving Anderson a chance to channel his inner Clarence White. From Belfast pubs to Hollywood honky tonks, MCR closed the winter of 2014 spanning the world without leaving the Loveless Barn.
April 9, Music City Roots returns to the Barn to kick off its spring season, including a special show on April 16 focusing on The Oxford American Tennessee Music Issue.
And, in one final shameless plug, “Bluegrass Underground” returns to The Volcano Room April 12 with MCR favorites Bradford Lee Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys and Sheriff Scott & The Deputies.