Wagon Masters – MCR 8.3.16

Every week I rifle through the catalog and web histories of our upcoming Roots guest artists looking for connections, themes or trends that might help all of us better prepare for the music ahead. Sometimes it’s something historical or regional or genre-based, but this week it’s just a hilarious and frankly meaningless coincidence. The same week that we’re welcoming back the Melbourne Madman Henry Wagons, our own Jim Lauderdale – who’s playing a full set as a leader – got the news that in September he’ll be receiving the Americana Music Association’s Wagonmaster Award, a lifetime achievement honor named for the late great Porter Wagoner. So this week’s show is a bandwagon, and you’d better be on board.

Jim’s award is exciting news for all of us, because we love him. And the kicker is that George Strait, the iconic country star who’s recorded more than a dozen of Jim’s songs, will present the Wagonmaster trophy at the Ryman Auditorium on Sept. 21. I helped the AMA out with language for the announcement so I don’t feel bad quoting myself here, as the words are heartfelt: “Jim Lauderdale is the most prolific and consistently excellent performing songwriter in Americana music, having released nearly 30 albums since his debut in the business in 1991. He’s an artist who has helped define the Americana format as much as anyone while adding significantly to the larger legacies of the Country and Bluegrass genres. He was a child of the Carolinas whose first loves were the banjo and Bluegrass music. As his unique songwriting voice emerged, it became clear that he was bound for success in a wider musical scope.”

Jim’s role on Music City Roots as musical host has been invaluable to our success and our show’s personality. He’s been loyal and uplifting at every turn, through two locations and on overseas trips to Australia and N. Ireland. We’ve seen him collaborate on our stage with Donna the Buffalo, the McCrary Sisters and the North Mississippi All-Stars, among others, and we’ve seen him join little-known artists on stage for vocal support just because they asked. We’ve seen him perform songs he wrote just hours or minutes before the show. And we’ve been with him for album releases that sprang from country tradition, bluegrass and southern soul. This week, we think he’s bringing his country band for some “honky tonk mood” and some “twang,” the title subjects of some of his finest songs. The hits just keep coming, and Jim Lauderdale is a Wagonmaster indeed.

As for Henry Wagons, he’s the Australian singer, songwriter, bandleader, raconteur, provocateur and borderline surrealist who has become a rather big star Down Under. The best music journo description I’ve seen of him is a blur of Nick Cave and Johnny Cash. It’s in his brazen baritone and his yin-yang personality in which you can’t have the light without the dark, the sweet without the bitter. He’s an artist who sizes up his audience and the room itself and then figures out a way to dominate it, in the nicest possible way. Do not be afraid to be sung to one-on-one and at close range. Our buffer zone between stage and audience means nothing to this bearded, bespectacled bard. The great news is that for all the zaniness, he is a gentleman, and a talented songwriter and performer too. His very new project is called After What I Did Last Night… and it’s a burly country rock collection with songs about quirky things and characters and background vocalist that sound like a gang of Vikings. Best of all we get to hang out with Henry, who is a bundle of fun.

Also up this week a return by the saucy, slightly twangy Elise Davis, a young artist who defiantly moved from her home state of Arkansas to Nashville, where she knew nobody, and immediately rounded up musicians and recorded. She won a big American Songwriter prize and it’s been off to the races. Of her August 2014 set I wrote: “She does not skimp in her references to booze and smoke, this alt-country crooner. By the time she studies on and empties a bottle of wine in her third song “Never Was, Never Is” she ought to have been soused. With a glowing, smoky voice, Davis wrapped with “Good Year,” a heartfelt bit of autobiography from a 25 year old. She has much to say for a youngster.” She’s a bit older now and continuing to grow. Her new project is The Token, a potent and multi-shaded word wielded by a multi-shaded songwriter.

Rounding out our foursome is a fascinating duo called Granville Automatic that has a stacked songwriting resume, a thought out esthetic and a drive to perform. In the last few years Vanessa Olivarez and Elizabeth Elkins have performed at World Café Live, Woodsongs, Daytrotter, Sun Studios and Thacker Mountain Radio. (We feel like we’re just catching up!) And they’ve won numerous awards between them including a John Lennon Grand Prize and their songs together and individually have landed on dozens of TV shows, movies and major label albums. Yet the heart of their art seems to be in developing a vision rooted in American history. Their new project, a warm analog 70s country album called An Army Without Music: Civil War Stories from Hallowed Ground is, according to the group, “a collection of songs inspired by American Civil War stories from lands that have been lost or threatened by urban development or industry.” We love an act that reaches for something higher and deeper, and these women are just that.

So get in your station wagon or your covered wagon and roll over to Liberty Hall on Wednesday night for a night of prize winning music. You might get carried away.

Craig H.

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