On Friday night I made my way to the Station Inn to see the wonderful duo 10 String Symphony play a CD release party. Christian Sedelmyer and Rachel Baiman are both alums of MCR in various bands, and they have honed something very deep and refined and original.
I bring this experience up because it stirred my passion for the kind of serious string music we’ll get to see on this week’s Roots. My first instrument was violin and my first “band” was a youth orchestra. Since then I’ve loved music made on strings bowed and plucked, and I try to encourage people to listen for the nuances of tone and timbre that are the hallmarks of individual style, which all of these artists have certainly cultivated. This stringy terrain is not only where American traditional and classical forms meet, there’s a global reach as well. Our show will be a veritable world of strings.
Our show closers are both the best known and most conventional of the week’s string slingers. But that’s okay because the expertise of these pickers and singers defines success in bluegrass music. The Band of Ruhks is a supergroup featuring songwriting master Ronnie Bowman, mandolinist Don Rigsby and award-winning guitar flatpicker Kenny Smith. Bluegrass mavens will recognize that union as having been the core of an amazing run of success by the Lonesome River Band (which rolls on under the leadership of their banjo playing former colleague Sammy Shelor). The Ruhks (a name drawn apparently from old Persian, go figure) do play clean and mellow modern bluegrass, but with enough of a singer/songwriter kind of approach to distinguish them from the LRB. Ronnie has a huge, emotive voice that should be all over country radio. Don sings more in the old mountain style. Kenny on guitar can shred with taste and heavy tone, and those who set out tonight to focus on the stringband magic would do well to watch his supple right hand.
More experimental and right up my alley in every way is another guitarist out of Asheville named Jon Stickley. Namechecked by Bryan Sutton at the IBMA Awards and praised widely by his peers, Stickley has built the most interesting new instrumental group in acoustic music in years. The Jon Stickley Trio began as a side project with fiddler Lyndsay Pruitt and drummer Patrick Armitage and grew into the ideal vehicle for Jon’s wide-ranging tastes and skillsets. On the celebrated debut album Lost At Last, the incredibly efficient and resourceful group plays jazz fusion versions of fiddle tunes, all acoustic heavy metal funk and lovely, ambient breeze. I was enjoying all this in my car one day when the album came to a cover of “Never Stop” by my favorite current jazz trio The Bad Plus. I about drove off the road at the canny choice and the post-modern electricity of the performance. All three musicians here are virtuosos, and that they can stitch so much sound together without a bassist or keyboards is testimony to their ability to play selflessly and listen to the whole as well as its parts.
The night’s most exotic and searching string textures will come from new Nashvillian Wu Fei. Raised in Beijing, China, she mastered the traditional, table-sized zither instrument called the guzheng, which is plucked with picks and uses left hand techniques to stretch the string a bit like a pedal steel. Fei moved to the US during her college years and has had a globe spanning career. She’s worked with some of the premiere avant-garde composers in the world, including John Zorn and Fred Frith. She’s worked on PBS documentary soundtracks and played at Paris Fashion Week. She came into our world through her bi-continental collaborations with star banjo player and folk singer Abigail Washburn, who will join her in this set. They’ve found gorgeous confluences of technique and sound between the guzheng and the clawhammer banjo, and I guarantee this set will carry you to a magical, mythical place.
Rounding out our bill is a dude from our more usual world of singing songwriting troubadours. According to a nice feature from a year ago in his hometown (Northampton, MA) newspaper, Jamie Kent relocated in late 2014 with the classic dream of stepping up a thriving career with new challenges and opportunities in Music City. Chief among them was a wider range of songwriting. “You can’t get a big reward without taking a big risk,” he told the paper. “It’s time to take that leap of faith.” His rocking take on roots music has earned comparisons to Springsteen and Steve Earle. He’s wrapping up work on a new album for early 2016. We look forward to the preview.
So yes we know the holidays are busy and fast moving, but we hope you’ll include this week’s show in your plans. The Factory makes a great holiday visit for shopping and eating and the show might just round out the perfect December day. No strings attached.