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WEST VIRGINIA DREAM

Two years ago to the week, a fresh-faced, 20-year-old dude named Christian Lopez arrived to play the so-called emerging artist second slot on MCR. One notable fact about him was that he was on the bill the same night as fellow West Virginian Tim O’Brien. I figured maybe Christian was a protégé or something because Tim’s so great about bringing excellent young talent along. But no, Christian was as new to Tim as he was to us. And then that thing we all hope for happened. Christian Lopez took the stage with a three-piece band and blew us away.

My review published later that week: “What assurance and skill…His clean, surging vocals were impressive throughout, especially in bright bluegrassy harmony with banjo picking sidekick Chelsea McBee. (He) traded acoustic guitar for an electric on the moody and gorgeous “Take You Away” which produced watery beauty on the verses and then icy power in a fine solo. Then his acoustic fingerpicking on “Will I See You Again” proved concise and elegant.” And that didn’t even cover what became my favorite song with a little time and reflection, one called “The Man I Was Before.” The guy was so good he earned a slot on our American Public Television series.

Lopez hails from the picturesque little town of Martinsburg and despite considerable time spent in Nashville making records and building career, he says in his bio he’s still dedicated to his home town and a future embracing the “West Virginia Dream.” After getting turned on to the storytelling song mastery of Kristofferson, Willie, Waylon and Cash thanks to musical gifts from his dad, Lopez got serious enough about songwriting to make a connection with Nashville’s Dave Cobb. He and the fast-rising producer made Lopez’s first album Onward. Now he’s back with a really strong sophomore effort called Red Arrow, a record that’s landed him in the Rolling Stone Artist-To-Watch column. He’s played AmericanaFest and Mountain Stage and other momentum gigs.

The new project surprised me just a bit in a polish that matched its musical substance. Lopez has a canny sense of pop craft and he lets that dance with his mountain music sensibility in quite a seductive way. The guests on the disc include Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids and Vince Gill, which tells you a lot about Christian’s range and depth. “Say Goodbye” sounds like some of the snappy radio/MTV fare I loved in the 1980s. And his own homage to his own youth “1972” sways over some electric piano and soul stylings. He is an artist to watch indeed and we shall do so in this week’s final set.

What else will delight us on this Autumn Wednesday night? I’m looking forward to my first on-stage exposure to Leah Blevins. She hails from Sandy Hook, KY and has some of the signature blues and twang and lyrical insight that comes from that illustrious musical region. One EP (produced by the immensely talented Ken Coomer) and some singles are in the marketplace so far. With a plaintive voice that sounds here a bit like Dolly Parton and there like Lee Ann Womack, she’s country for sure, with wisps of Joan Baez folky beauty. She’s been in Nashville about five years and gathering steam as she figured out the business. She recently told the blog Now It’s Nashville that “it takes a very tough type of human being to truly invest your entire self into being an artist. I’m a more sensitive human being, naturally. I think a lot of artists are. A lot of it is based on how you carry yourself. What I’ve acknowledged here, there is this prideful way – with regards to cliques – I’d like to break down those barriers. We’re not promised tomorrow, and what else is there to do other than spread love and make people feel comfortable?” I never heard it put quite that way before.

On first impression, I’d say songwriter Lauren Alexander shares some of Christian Lopez’s knack for fusing roots music with a pop sensibility. Her 2016 album debut Smoke Signals blends acoustic guitars with contemporary R&B beats. Her new single “Sleeptalking” is an easy breezy but melancholy tune that would have sounded good on 70s FM radio. She’s gearing up to release new music next year. And rounding out the night will be a fellow named Greg Hall who is both a folk singer and a comedian. In fact he seems to tour comedy clubs with his acoustic guitar doing musical bits and commentary. A gag about performing “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on a cruise ship is very funny indeed. So we’ll open the show with something unpredictable and laughter-inducing. Should set up a good night.

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