Two Paths Through The Grass

This week I thought I was going be writing about John Jorgenson the world-traveling gypsy jazz guitarist who’s done as much to enlarge on the glorious tradition of Django Reinhardt style hot swing as anyone. But when I got the memo from our booking star chamber deep inside Cumberland Caverns, I learned John is actually bringing his new bluegrass band to the Barn on Wednesday evening. Which is terribly exciting, and I’ll fill you in on that shortly. But this also means we’ll be bookending the show with two exceptional and unusually creative artists who have made bluegrass their muse, at least some of the time.

Opening the show will be the divine Claire Lynch, a singer, bandleader and songwriter who would be on the Mount Rushmore of women in bluegrass, should an eccentric billionaire show the poor judgment to construct one. Her voice is sweet and sturdy, expressive and adaptable. And that’s why she’s been one of the few people on Earth regularly called on to harmonize with the likes Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Patty Loveless. Her songs have been interpreted on record by Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless and The Seldom Scene among others. In a career that began in the 70s with the famous Front Porch String Band, she’s had her foot on and off the accelerator at various times. But even periods of relative quiet have never dimmed the admiration or loyalty of bluegrass fans and DJs who regard her as staple of the field, and she has two IBMA female vocalist of the year awards more than a decade apart to prove it.

And Claire is back in a momentum phase. Late last year, she won a coveted fellowship grant from United States Artists. She signed a deal with Compass Records and released the album Dear Sister this spring. It’s a deep and delightful project built around her touring cohort of bassist Mark Schatz and versatile pickers Matt Wingate and Bryan McDowell. And it spreads its wings with a variety of moods and vibes. But no surprise there. As Lynch told journalist Jewly Hight recently, “I’m not narrow-minded musically. I’ve never been a straight-line bluegrasser because I was born in upstate New York and I never heard live bluegrass until I was, like, 19.” We’re glad she did.

Versatility and change have been a hallmark of John Jorgenson’s career for sure. Among other highlights, he was a fixture in the LA country music revival of the 1980s. Out of that, his Desert Rose Band with Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen became one of the most surprising hit-making ensembles of a vital, exceptional time in country music. John also did years as a rock star, playing guitar with Elton John all over the world and appearing on some gargantuan records. Amid all this, he formed a twangy shred-fest band called The Hellecasters and worked in studios with a wide range of luminaries. It’s been about as complete a career as a guitar player can hope to have. But then there was another twist – pursuit of a long-time passion for hot swing jazz. John actually played Django Reinhardt in a film, but his commitment to this tricky style was profoundly three dimensional. He’s been playing the finest venues around the world with a quintet that surges with acoustic power and romance.

But you won’t catch Jorgenson standing pat, so he’s added a new challenge, purely for the love of the music he says. When I caught up on the phone with him last week, he said that while he’d never claim to have bluegrass roots, it is a style that’s been part of his life since his teens. “I played bluegrass so much in my earlier life – in the pre Desert Rose Band days,” he said. “The last ten years or so of Earl Scruggs’s life I played with him. And I really missed it. I had to create an opportunity for myself.”

His vision included Desert Rose colleague Herb Pedersen to play banjo. Pedersen last visited our stage in late 2010 in an acoustic duo with Chris Hillman for a memorable set. Also in Jorgenson’s new band is the exceptional Jon Randall on guitar. John and Jon were fellows in the Earl Scruggs band, and of we know Randall from 18 South and other superb Nashville projects. Rounding out this sharp quartet is bassist Mark Fain, veteran of Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. It’s a group that could play basically any style and era of ‘grass, and that’s what they’re planning, says Jorgenson, who incidentally plays mandolin and not guitar in this ensemble. “We’re not trying to go back to 1947 but we’re not trying to be the new jamgrass thing either. Just good singing and playing.”

We have a third band in the middle of the show that’s making their own way through the bluegrass tradition and post-tradition. Making their third appearance at Roots is the wonderful Red June, a tidy trio that excels at songwriting, singing and making the most of an unusual, guitar-free lineup. Their song “Soul’s Repair” wound up on one of our recent compilation albums and we expect to be featuring Red June for many years to come.

The new bands to our stage this week include Texas sibling duo The Oh Hellos, whose debut album Through The Deep, Dark Valley is shockingly good. Meanwhile Daniel Ellsworth & The Great Lakes are rounding up remarkable press and performance opportunities for a three year-old band. You’ll be able to say you saw them when. Come join us for music old and new on Wednesday night. No previous bluegrass experience required to have a really great time.

Craig H.

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