I had just unloaded my gear at the Loveless for an afternoon of artist interviews when our producer John Walker came up to me with a big smile on his face (not unusual) and holding out a CD. Ahhh, the long awaited Music City Roots Season One compilation! Cuts from Jim Lauderdale, Sam Bush, Mike Farris, Miss Tess and many more recall the Fall of 2009, when we went on the air with hopes, dreams and the goodwill of a bunch of wonderful songwriters and musicians. This collection comes out officially on March 1, and we hope it becomes a calling card for the show and the first in a series that shows off the excellence and variety of the musical artistry we try to present weekly.
Case in point: last night’s show. We had a wild man stomping in the aisles, a dazzling young R&B/folk artist with a rock star on keys, a buttoned up bluegrass band, an Atlanta jam band and shape note singers. Let’s see Prairie Home Companion do that!
Sometimes at Roots, with all our progressive-leaning ways, we need somebody to come along and keep us really rootsy, and as Chris Moore said of his band Kindling Stone, their take on Americana reaches back well before the 20th century. This trio did us right, opening the show with a serene, uplifting sound built on three voices and the light instrumentation of a banjo and mandola. The remarkable thing was as archaic as the music sounded, most of it was original, written by Moore. The harmony lines and bouncing flow “Orchard” were inspiring. They sang in a woven fugue on “Broken Racers.” Like a perfect, simple soup before a rich meal, Kindling Stone lit our fire.
If you’d only listened and not looked, the idea that Lilly Winwood is but 16 years old would have seemed impossible. Her voice, while still finding itself, is amazingly rich and nuanced, and her show was full of surprise. The first two tunes were minimal, with just a fiddle to back up her voice and guitar. But the melodies and chord changes on her openers were very fresh and connecting. Then she brought on a drummer and this electric piano player named Steve Winwood (ahem) and the fiddler took on an electric bass (never seen that switch before). And the mod folkie turned into an R&B soul rock diva who would be a perfect opening act for Grace Potter. Her closer “Makes Me Want To Pray” was a sincere smoker, and hearing it backed by Winwood’s perfectly timed riffs was quite something, evocative of another era.
I was expecting something a bit wild and wooly from Henry Wagons, based on reputation and video clips. And yes, he’s that guy – gently eccentric with his sweatband and gargantuan glasses – uproariously engaging with his feral stomp and audience participation. During “Man Sold,” a dark kind of Marty Robbins-like song, he carried his mic into the audience and sang atop a bench. Ultimately it’s his cavernous baritone and quirky songs that draw you in. He got everyone singing together on “Willie Nelson,” which turns out to be a really fun name to sing aloud.
The Mosier Brothers are a bundle of positive energy, good karma and beatific vibes. Brother Jeff on electric banjo and lead vocals can hardly stop smiling, and bother Johnny cut it up on both acoustic and electric guitars. Much of their full sound and jazzy interplay was there from their days as Blueground Undergrass, but so was some uplifting songwriting, full of good news and tributes to the healing force that is music. I especially enjoyed talking to this Atlanta-base duo, because they’ve been in the vanguard of bluegrass fusion for decades and they’ve given the scene and the art a lot of thought. I need to see these guys perform outdoors in the summer. That’s how their stuff sounded.
Then all you need is a closer that puts all this tradition and innovation, all this borrowing and inventing, together in an airtight package. And that’s Chatham Co. Line. Inspired by the Del McCoury Band more than a decade ago, they have – along with the Steep Canyon Rangers – come to define hip tradition and a new bluegrass voice for the 21st century. Their presentation is exceeded only by the quality of the songs and their delicious harmonies. “Wildwood,” the title cut to the current CD, is neither high nor lonesome exactly, but it is steeped in the blues and sits naturally on the banjo and mandolin. “Clear Blue Sky” was a swift, banjo-driven instrumental that evoked the rock and roll intensity of real bluegrass. And “Crop Comes In,” one of my favorite CCL songs, has a mellower folky quality and a simply beautiful vocal arrangement. All those folks going bananas over Mumford & Sons should be required to check out CCL, because I have to think 98% of them would love them at least as much.
Thanks to guest host Webb Wilder for standing in for Jim Lauderdale and leading the night’s Loveless Jam. Inspired as he always is by a keen knowledge of rock history and situational awareness, he suggested Buddy Holly’s “Well All Right” as interpreted by Blind Faith, one of Steve Winwood’s first bands. Nice call Webb. Well all right.