Bluegrass Country Soul, one of my favorite music films, is a time capsule in celluloid if ever there was one. It whisks us back to the primordial days of bluegrass festivals and the grounds of Camp Springs, North Carolina in 1971. In living color, there’s a peach-fuzz young Tony Rice and Sam Bush. And there’s Jimmy Martin at the top of his powers. And the Osborne Brothers, so close you can almost touch Bobby’s mandolin, doing “Ruby” with fireball power. To Bobby’s right is brother Sonny with a hipster goatee and his right hand firing off 10-12 notes a second on the banjo. On the other side is a young fellow wearing an orange satin puffy shirt that would clear a room in 2015 but with a knowing and appreciative expression on his face as he guns the acoustic guitar at feverish speed.
And that guy, Ronnie Reno, is one of our distinguished guests this week on Roots. Supporting the Osborne Brothers was one of his earlier jobs in the biz but just part of a 60 year journey in performance and music making that we’ll be toasting during his set. Ronnie’s dad was Don Reno, the banjo playing half of bluegrass pioneers and Hall of Famers Reno & Smiley. Ronnie jumped into the business at age seven and never let up, first working with his dad’s bluegrass band in his teens. After the Osbornes era he became part of Merle Haggard’s band as well as a long-term opening act. He’d even land his own record deal and pen songs for major country stars.
In more recent years, Reno took his musicianship and his impresario spirit to television, creating Reno’s Old Time Music Festival in 1993. Now shortened to Reno’s Old Time Music it airs weekly on RFD-TV, offering that rare and precious glimpse of authentic country and bluegrass on the vast wasteland that is cable. And of course he’s still kicking out impressive bluegrass music himself, having most recently released Lessons Learned, a retrospective re-imagining of songs that have figured in to his life and work, including a Reno & Smiley classic and the eternal “Always Late” which is a cover of Haggard covering Lefty Frizell. Reno really has been a servant of Americana and he’s shown newcomers a vital lesson in kicking butt professionally in our under-financed music – master many skills and purse a diversified strategy.
Reno’s not the only country music veteran on our bill this week, nor the only son of a famous musical father (nor the only good buddy of our veteran country radio host Keith Bilbrey). We’ve heard Rex Allen Jr. cut up with Keith on stage at Roots before, laying on us the colossally sonorous voice that’s gotten him cast as the narrator of hit films and TV shows. His dad was a big time singing cowboy (“The Arizona Cowboy” actually) who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Rex Jr. made music all his life, landing quite a few country hits on the charts in the 1970s and then becoming a household name as a regular guest on TNN’s Statler Brothers Show. Which might sound to you kind of old and Branson-ish, but I was shocked and impressed to learn that during its run from 1991-1998, that sucker was one of the most watched shows on cable TV nationwide and often number one outright with an audience of like 20-plus million people. Few people appreciate what a force TNN was in national broadcasting, and Rex Jr. was part of that. I’m excited to ask him some questions about those days and hear what he’s got to sing. He is after all a member of the Western Swing Hall of Fame and a super amiable guy.
Our night will close with fire and soul as the magnificently named Carolyn Wonderland makes her MCR debut. Her first album came out in 1993, so she’s not exactly a veteran yet, but she is a blues warrior, and I’m telling you folks we could have built a whole show around this amazing Texan. She’s played and sang her way to a place of esteem in Houston (her native home) and then Austin (her adopted base of ops). She’s been a fixture at Antone’s and she’s played Austin City Limits. She was chased down by phone by Bob Dylan who wanted to meet her. She’s a three-time winner of Austin Music Awards. And she’s earned her way onto Ray Benson’s Bismeaux Records, for my money the most interesting label in Texas. In this fine profile from a few years ago in the Austin Chronicle, we meet a woman who’s been steely enough to persist through living out of her van for two years and whimsical enough to name her first band The Imperial Monkeys. We also read of Benson’s verdict: “Carolyn’s got that unbelievable, incredible voice, one of the great voices of our time, and that’s not an overstatement.” I don’t think the world gives a fair enough due to female blues guitar slingers (see Sue Foley, Susan Tedeschi) but Wonderland is a wonder and we’re excited to see her.
Rounding out the bill and far from the days when she can claim veteran status is the single-named folk singer Bela, who transplanted from Florida to our part of the world a couple years ago. In fact she’s based in Franklin, so it’ll be nice to feature a home gal in Liberty Hall, especially one whose insightful songs have been popular at the Bluebird Cafe. May all these artists be able to celebrate 60 years in music-making some day like Mr. Reno. It’s a hell of an accomplishment.