Tyler Grant and his band Grant Farm play a lot of hippie fests and jam band congregations, and the same was true in his former life as guitar star during five years with the Drew Emmitt Band and the Emmitt/Nershi bluegrass outfit. But don’t let the twirly-swirly nature of his most supportive audience lead you to believe that Grant is some self-indulgent noodle bar of a guitarist. He’s one of the most highly decorated contest acoustic flatpicking guitarists in the nation, and before that he earned a degree from the California Institute of the Arts in guitar performance. Dude has credentials, and his band will cap off our 200th episode of Roots on Wednesday.
I revisited an interview I did with Tylerfor Acoustic Guitar magazine in 2009, where he kind of blew my mind with the comprehensiveness of his training and his wisdom about how to apply the school of Andres Segovia and Julian Bream to the world of Tony Rice and Doc Watson.
“I got sucked into the classical guitar and thought of it almost equally as a blessing and a trap. Because you have to devote several hours a day to the technique. But once I started doing that it was so fun and so rewarding that I kept on that trajectory,” Tyler told me. Ultimately he decided that the life of a classical recital guitarist was not his path of destiny, so he gravitated to acoustic flatpicking, with his classical technique and concentration skills as key ingredients in his playing. He toured with some MCR Alums we love, including Adrienne Young and Abigail Washburn. Then he took his guitar to the contest circuit where he soared, winning Rockygrass in 2003 and the National Flatpicking Championship at Winfield, KS in 2008, among many other trophies.
After years on the jamgrass circuit and recording some acclaimed albums with Drew Emmitt, Grant created his own band, marking yet another turn. Instead of a flattop, Grant is wielding a Telecaster, sometimes with the edgy country finesse we associate with Vince Gill or Albert Lee and sometimes with the borderless freedom of Trey Anastasio, with whom he shares some resemblance in voice and visage.
This week we get to help Tyler celebrate the release of Grant Farm’s second album, entitled Plowin’ Time. It’s got some of the Bakersfield country that distinguished that first disc, but it’s also more diverse and complex. “Gospel Road” sounds like a Grateful Dead/Steely Dan mashup. “Grant Green” revels in the slippery instrumental soul funk pioneered by its namesake. The title cut is a reggae soother. This variety shows all sides of these guys’ killer musicianship and makes the album worth repeated listening. It’ll be a lot of fun toasting the release in our final set.
This is not the only album release week debut we’ll be enjoying on Wednesday night. I’m incredibly excited about Willie Watson’s performance so we can hear what this well-traveled member of ultra-successful Old Crow Medicine Show is up to on his own. His voice tunnels through time to the early days of American rural blues and hillbilly music. He’s a wise songcatcher and a fine songwriter, as well as a skilled and subtle instrumentalist on guitar and banjo. The Bluegrass Situation called Watson one of his generation’s emerging Pete Seeger figures and predicted this album would be a “game changer” for folk music. It’s spare and solo, produced by David Rawlings at the famed Woodland Studio in East Nashville, site of the historic Will The Circle Be Unbroken Album in ’72. Watson is living proof that the circle is indeed holding strong.
And in a segue-rich week I can exclaim that we have another wonderful Watson heading our way in the person of Kellin Watson, rootsy and jazzy singer from Western North Carolina. She earned her way onto one of our compilation recordings with her infectious song “Swagger” when she first visited us. Then she had a very hot band that elevated her fascinating songs, but she’s also extraordinary with just her voice and guitar. I’m not sure what configuration she has planned this week, but I think Kellin is one of the most under-rated and classy female singer songwriters out there.
I must pass on congratulations to a fellow you’ll meet on our stage this week named Colin O’Brien. I met Colin a couple of years ago at Roots. He was making the scene a lot and let it be known that he was a performer who loved old time country and fiddle/banjo music. He struck me as almost slavishly under the influence of John Hartford (certainly a paragon worth following) but he has accomplished something mighty and impressive, which is to launch the Nashville Stringy Band with some of the most accomplished pickers in the field. Matt Combs is my old buddy who A) played in Hartford’s last band, B) heads the fiddle program at Vanderbilt U. and C) just got the gig fiddling for the Grand Ole Opry. Wow. Mike Compton blew our minds on solo mandolin just a couple of weeks ago at Roots, and he’s a bluegrass legend. Now I see that folks like Tim O’Brien are praising Colin’s skills as a performer. So this looks a good dose of the traditional sound I always love to see on our show.
I’ll be experiencing Matt Anderson for the first time, but what a track record he brings from his native Canada. Roots buddy Colin Linden (Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Bruce Cockburn) produced his new album. Anderson has worked with The Band’s Garth Hudson and Levon Helm’s amazing daughter Amy. He’s won a satchel full of awards andhis earthy blues and folk music has a strong following up North. But most important, his voice is vast and moving. This guys seems like a force of nature.
So as I said, this is going to be our 200th show. We humans love numbers ending with multiple zeroes, so even though it’s a little arbitrary, we’ll take some pride that if nothing else, we’re still here! Thanks for helping us stay on the air, promoting and evangelizing for great hand-made music.