I love it when my evening at Roots begins with a comfortable sit-down interview with somebody who’s been around the musical block and who has wisdom to share. That happened Wednesday afternoon when I did a half hour on Roots Radio with musical guest Ronnie Reno. He’s a guy after our hearts with his loyalty to classic bluegrass, old school country and his track record of sharing them on stage, record, radio and TV screen. And yet he was also the kid who encouraged the Osborne Brothers to plug in their instruments and scale up their drum set, setting off a family feud in bluegrass that persists to this day. That kind of iconoclastic thinking helped frame this week’s show, with its traditional cowboy songs, its high lonesome grass, its songwriting and finally some blowtorch blues from a fire-haired guitarist and smoking singer who visited us from Texas.
Rex Allen Jr. came out of the chute at a nice canter with the imperative and upbeat “Ride Cowboy Ride.” It was like the opening theme of a western before the drama starts. And this is what Rex knows. He wore a wide black cowboy hat but with his spectacles and twinkle you knew right away he was the good guy. And the music, delivered solo with guitar, was good too, featuring radio hits from the 70s that sounded a world away from the non-melodic hip thrusting that is much of country music today. He also sang “Liberty Valence,” the curiosity of a song written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for the similarly titled movie. It never made the soundtrack but it was a hit for Gene Pitney and it sounded great coming from the big baritone of our singing cowboy.
Reno’s set was as clean and supple as leather seats in a new Cadillac. I feel like this band should be better known and compensated. Because there was clarity and muscle and precision coming from every one of the five members, and because Ronnie’s songwriting is really strong. Opener “Lower Than Lonesome” was full of major/minor, happy/blue contrasts. “Sweet Rosa Lee” had zip and the shapes of ancient mountains built right into its gently rising and falling melody. The band also took on two cracking instrumentals, the old world “Sugar In The Gourd” with Steve Day’s fiddle and Mike Scott’s banjo in the spotlight, while “Reno’s Mando Magic” sounded bright and brilliant with its stylistic nod to Bill Monroe, pairing Ronnie and John Mayberry on twin mandolins. To close, Reno called up David Frizzell, brother of the late great Lefty, to sing a bluegrass take on “Always Late,” a song about kissing and punctuality. They don’t write ‘em like that anymore.
Then a couple of women who couldn’t have been more different. With Franklin’s Bela (full name Bela Kawalec) we enjoyed seeing one of our own (she’s been a part-timer for the show for a while) step into the spotlight and perform. With a nice crisp backbeat coming from her right hand on her acoustic guitar, she rendered a moody and very pretty “Picture On The Wall.” Her voice reminded me of Feist and the vibe was framed best by her lyric “I wear my heart on my sleeve.” Yep, and it earned her a standing ovation for a set of five well crafted songs.
Carolyn Wonderland proved to be one of those artists who’s gentle and sweet off stage and fully alive and electrified on it. Her opener “She Wants To Know” started in a summertime jam mode, set up by tricky fingerstyle licks on a Telecaster. Her smoky voice started measured and confined but then cranked up to a sudden money note that let everyone know to buckle up for the roadhouse set to come. She did a strutty “Come Together” – not the Beatles but her own co-write with Ruthie Foster. A couple of her tunes rocked pretty hard over Zep-like blues riffs, but she was always able to keep her vocals dynamic and controlled and colorful. Maybe the highlight was how she maintained a blues chant while she switched from guitar to lap steel, as if to keep the radio audience in the zone. Then she just tore it up with a glass slide on that devilishly simple but infinitely expressive instrument. I’ve heard about Wonderland for years due to her huge stature in Austin, and to finally hear her play and sing was indeed a wonder.
Guest host Peter Cooper opened the night doing one of his awesome duets with musical partner and our pal Eric Brace. And he closed by partnering with Wonderland for a well orchestrated romp through “Down By The Riverside” and thus baptized we called it a (wonderful) night.