We’ve come a long way and we’ve got a long way to go. That’s how I feel about the world of Roots as 2016 comes to a close. Our show, our new radio partnership and roots music in general are all in promising, exciting places. The mainstream music business is reckoning with Americana in ways it hasn’t in ages, evidence Sturgill Simpson’s Grammy nominations and recent album sales triumphs for the format. And we’re well up the learning curve at WMOT/Roots Radio, so whatever we’ve done on the air so far, 2017 will be better. Thus, this year’s winter break from Music City Roots, while one week longer than usual, will be less of a break behind the scenes than usual. We’ve got plans and we love what we do, so there’s no reason to take our foot off the gas now.
This week’s show will be less of a holiday extravaganza than some years past. It’s a bit more of our regular order mix of the vintage and the new, the twangy and the blue. We’ll rock at show’s end with new music from the Kentucky Headhunters. Conspicuous as well is the couple of musical couples nestled in the middle of the show with two extravagantly different takes on country music.
Somebody recently asked me what happened to the term Country & Western, and that’s a long story, but there are bands and fans who retain emphasis on the Western, with a sensibility that merges classic, swinging musicianship with cowboy/cowgirl couture. Case in point is East Nashville’s The Farmer & Adele, the spirited concept of Keenan Wade and Grace Adele. Grace, who grew up with a burning desire to join the Rockettes, brought a love of theatre and old-fashioned show biz to Nashville seven years ago.
“We discovered the Time Jumpers and Riders In The Sky,” Adele said on the phone with Wade from a venue in Michigan this weekend. “It was the perfect blend of jazz and country music. And it still has that theatrical base to it as well. We dove into music of the 30s and 40s: Bob Wills and Homer & Jethro.” Keenan is a tight mandolin player whose Jethro Burns chops were honed by spending picking time with some of the instrument’s jazz greats. Adele is an effervescent singer and songwriter who studied rhythm guitar and penned a series of songs with the Riders’ Ranger Doug. The new tunes didn’t fit her existing band. So The Farmer & Adele was born, and it’s been the main focus for more than a year now. They’re a quartet in full Western regalia with Chris Bauer on lap steel and Jimmy Sullivan on bass. A debut album featuring the musicians from Riders in the Sky came out last year.
Hymn for Her might be F&A’s punky older counterpart – old time in a way but post-modern in their look and approach to acoustic and electric roots. The married couple of Wayne and Lucy Waxing continue their endless ramble of America in their vintage Airstream camper/home. They’ve gigged relentlessly, culminating recently in playing the venerable eTown radio show with Sarah Jarosz. Also it seems AXS, the live music channel, loves them, naming their album Drive Til U Die as among its ten best Americana albums of 2016, and its hotspots calendar flagged their gig at Music City Roots as among the five “can’t miss concerts in Nashville in December,” alongside Widespread Panic and David Crosby. (We agree!) If you’ve not seen them you’re in for an eye-popping treat. The duo makes hard-edged juke joint music with multiple instruments at once and crackly odd vocal effects.
Closing the show is a return visit from the Kentucky Headhunters, those defiantly independent, improbable hit-makers of the early 1990s. Here’s what I wrote when they performed in late 2015: “They started life as the weirdly named Itchy Brother in 1968, which was on its way to the very not weird move of singing with Led Zeppelin’s boutique label Swan Song Records. But then drummer John Bonham died and that all went sideways. Founding brothers Richard and Fred Young reconfigured the band and released the album Pickin’ On Nashville in 1989. I have to think even Mercury Records was surprised by its performance: double platinum sales, a Grammy Award and four charting hits.”
The Young brothers and company have great news: a new album on Plowboy Records that sounds as fresh and down/dirty as anything they’ve ever done. Kudzu magazine reviewer Michael Buffalo Smith, a super-fan, just wrote that “none of their albums has ever rocked my world like On Safari.” Given that it’s their 12th LP, that’s testimony to the band’s staying power and commitment to the Southern rock and rustic soul that’s driven them since the 70s. Recorded just days after the death of the Youngs’ father, there’s an extra edge of emotion and abandon that will I’m sure infuse the band’s set this week.
And up in the first slot is Australian sibling trio The Buckleys. The teenagers are an award-winning electric/acoustic country outfit that’s throwing down on stages around their home country and the US. Their MCR performance is part of a Nashville stay with multiple gigs and writing appointments with big timers. They’ll be a fresh voice from a country that’s always surprising us on the roots music front.
By the way, as you’ve probably read, our “off season” starts with a special show in Gatlinburg to raise money for the victims of the recent fires there. Come on out on Saturday to catch a day long outdoor show with many of our favorite artists and the Zac Brown Band. Details on our website. As for our wrapping up of 2016, God bless y’all. We thank you for your listenership, indulgence, patience and abundant enthusiasm. We feel a great well of joy for our musical family here at year’s end, and we’re glad you’re part of it.