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Nashville's acclaimed roots and Americana variety show

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How was your AmericanaFest 2017? I’ve scarcely opened my laptop for days so it feels good to sit here on a lovely Sunday morning basking in the afterglow of a stellar week of music and camaraderie. Most impressive was seeing the united Roots crews – radio and show – work together to pull off an audacious and inspirational series of shows and a fabulous party in challenging circumstances. I will have much more to say about all this on WMOT.org early this week, but for now let me just...

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On or about September 1, the morning air got cooler and fresher. And we heard, over the horizon, the approaching thundering hooves of the Americana Music Association Festival and Conference. AmericanaFest, our annual rite of Fall and musical family reunion, is set to be the biggest ever with nearly 300 artists performing across about 50 indoor and outdoor venues around Music City, from the funky American Legion Hall in far East Nashville to the Ryman Auditorium to the clubs in the Gulch. And...

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Each of the bluegrass instruments has a particular story that connects the world with America. The banjo might be the most weighty, arriving from Africa as a direct result of the slave trade. The double bass came from the royal parlors of Europe’s baroque period. The mandolin is perhaps the most unusual. It’s derived from the lute and has been used by troubadours, chamber groups, full-on mandolin orchestras and, most pivotally for our story today, Bill Monroe. The mandolin found its way into...

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Before Nashville, I’d never lived in a place where part of the regular conversation and social/cultural goings on was to figure out the essence of that place and to take active steps to get closer to its heart and soul. There was never a big emphasis on what does it mean to be from Chicago or Washington DC or Durham, NC, three of my other home bases. There is such a conversation about New Orleans and Austin. Music cities are like this. But I wonder if there’s any place more probative of its...

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Time’s funny. One minute, the 1970s feel like the recent past represented by pop culture talismans like John Travolta striding along with his paint can to “Staying Alive” and the original Star Wars. Then suddenly, the 70s are a fascinating historic era ripe for scholarship and museum displays. One is tempted to feel old. But more fun than that is to re-visit and re-consider the era of my childhood to discover the cultural and musical tides that were too sub-surface and interesting to make...

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One geeky little game I play is to look for words that mean something good when they’re in one form and something bad in another, like the noun defeat means you lost, but the verb to defeat means you won. And if you “sell out” it means you might have licensed your badass indie rock song to Pampers for a commercial, but “a sell out” is a full house, the best you can hope for in show biz. And this week, we did it! We sold out without selling out. About 700 people were on hand in Liberty Hall...

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When Tommy Emmanuel played Music City Roots a little over a year ago, it was a major moment for us, a gripping set by an artist that we’d sought for a long time because he represents the pinnacle of a particular strain of roots music, specifically blues-based fingerstyle acoustic guitar. The Australian-turned-Nashvillian is a bona fide global star – a wizard of not only the six strings, but of stagecraft and performing....

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Family ties are part of the fabric of American roots music. How often have we read (and for Pete’s sake how often have I written) that Artist X “came from a musical family”? The connection among siblings and the passing of ideas across generations might be the central reason this music sustains, and that in turn sustains us. Wednesday night offered up heart lifting performances by a first son of bluegrass and a first brother of Americana soul, plus a delightful country newcomer and a set by...

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I wrote at WMOT this week about a new business school in Nashville that aims to train well-rounded music industry playas, from how to manage a tour to engineering a record. There’s no shortcut to any of that but there is one essential trick as recommended by a great engineer friend of mine who says it’s all about knowing your benchmarks. If you think earbuds sound good, you’ll never produce good sound. But if you...

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As I grew old and experienced enough to realize that in the wider world around me men had been strutting around for centuries acting like the superior gender, entitled as if by divine right to every possible advantage from “I get to be President” to “make me a sandwich,” I began to feel it must be some kind of cosmic joke subsumed under a grand conspiracy. From my point of view, just observationally and objectively speaking over my 50 years, in the vital human capacities of fortitude,...

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One of the things I love about the Formula One racing I follow is the heavy British tilt of the television commentary, because the guys are full of expressions we’re not used to hearing. One nice expression of when a driver, team and car are really working well is to say they’re “on song.” This week at Roots, we’re presenting four women who as writers and vocalists are all on song. Their variety and their stories suggest that the larger ecosystem of independent music, for all the lamenting...

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There was a festival atmosphere in Liberty Hall on Wednesday night and not just because the crowd was large and loud (though that helped). There was also that ineffable flow and unspoken dialogue among the four bands, softly conveying the spirit of roots music in all its complimentary forms. The timeless but mysteriously innovative folk/gospel flavor of Birds of Chicago gave way to the pure mountain-tinged songwriting of Jill Andrews. The bluegrass second half paired...

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Bluegrass music and I had to work to find each other. Though I grew up in North Carolina, I did so in a classical music household with enough good indie music on the radio to keep me preoccupied until college. I knew naught of the high lonesome. Then, in Chicago of all places, a couple of cassette tapes and some thread-following from a Grateful Dead habit led me into a torrid love affair in the bluegrass promised land. I say bluegrass met me halfway because of the far-reaching, sophisticated...

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Like a meal in four courses that compliment but don’t overlap, Wednesday’s Roots delivered exquisite versions of four stages of country music evolution. From the sturdy and often elegant string band sound of Tim O’Brien we hyped things up a bit to a (drumless) electric honky tonk vibe with Greg Garing. Chelle Rose, East Tennessee’s answer to Townes Van Zandt, delivered literate, narrative-heavy songs with drums and measures of grungy power. And while less twangy or bluesy than the rest of...

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The order of a piano keyboard is easy to discern: half steps up and down in a single row, 88 notes wide. A guitar or banjo neck has no less design, but the steps connecting the tones and rows of octaves take more than intuition to understand. But the human voice and human condition? Well you can forget about diagramming that or connecting its dots and lines. We are infinite, and it’s the artist’s job to plum those depths and present something we can grasp and count on and touch and feel....

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Little known fact here, but Wednesday June 21 is Make Music Day. Of course we like to think of every day that way, but this event, launched in France 35 years ago and bolstered now in the US by the folks behind the NAMM instrument trade shows, is a global celebration that invites everyone who can and is inclined to perform in public. The official language captures it: “Every kind of musician — young and old, amateur and professional, of every...

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One’s affection for music shifts over the years I think from a rapturous, new-romance phase as a young person to a kind of gratitude and spiritual solace in the second half of life. Now, I only turned 51 on this week’s Flag Day show day so hey, maybe I’m not halfway home yet, but I respect probabilities so, you know… For years I’ve mostly regarded my birthday as a sobering semi-event; I can think of several times each year I’m more inclined to happy dancing. But a lot of nice love and...

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I had hoped to be writing prose in praise of Rockabilly Queen Wanda Jackson at this point, but as we all know, some things are more important than music. So I begin this week by sending our team’s thoughts and prayers out to the rock and roll matriarch instead. Wendell Goodman, Jackson’s husband since 1961 and long time right hand man road manager, passed away unexpectedly in late May, just hours after she’d played gigs in Nashville and Birmingham. She’s thus in the midst of one of life’s...

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I recently got to work up a story for WMOT about songwriter Jon Byrd’s final shows at Charlie Bob’s, a Dickerson Pike diner in Nashville that’s being torn down, and my emphasis was on the special beauty of country music at “human scale,” when the singer is just a few feet from the audience and there’s a palpable connection that elevates the emotion and the stories. Country music is a chemical fusion of that ethos with sounds...

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Back when I worked at The Tennessean with Peter Cooper (who hosts this week’s show by the way), I learned that he and I had diverging views on the whole jam band thing. Once he asked me about Phish: “does the good lyric fairy ever visit them?” As if I was prepared to or would ever argue that “Fluffhead” is in the same literary category as “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Well no, it’s not and I wouldn’t. We just generally and temperamentally tap in to different aspects of music. He’s a song guy...

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Wednesday night’s gathering of the Roots clan will be an opportunity to reflect on the life and legacy of Cowboy Jack Clement, the kindly and eccentric genius songwriter and producer who passed away in 2013. One of our guests, the songwriting entrepreneur Matt Urmy, was a great friend and protégé of Jack and arrives with an album Jack produced before his studio burned up in a bad fire. For a while, we explored the idea of a night formally paying tribute to Cowboy Jack but the right mix...

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As far as I know there’s only one figure in the contemporary roots music community who can pick “Blackberry Blossom” like a boss and also do a tumbling run that ends in a cheerleader split (not at the same time, but I wouldn’t put it past him). If David Mayfield came into your mind just now then you get an Americana cookie, because that’s who I was thinking about! It’s been too long since we saw and heard from the bearded weirdo, but he brings his always explosive sense of entertainment to...

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We know a classic when we see one, hear one, feel one. Forgive me for sounding like a Cadillac ad voice over or something, but seriously, sometimes there’s just an ineffable sense that something beautiful and meaningful is unfolding. And while we can’t pull that off every single week, we try to put the pieces in place for a chemical reaction. And this week it happened. There was combustion and satisfaction. We ranged across the country and across roots music terrain with acoustic grand...

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One of my most diverting surprises along my life’s journey into roots music and bluegrass was discovering the sub cult within Americana that loves the Gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt. It was revelatory to know that decades before Doc Watson and Jimi Hendrix there was a guitar player as fiery and finessed as the three fingered Frenchman, who revolutionized his instrument before dying at the tragically young age of 43. The music had its own remarkable vocabulary and vibe, and more courageous...

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“Turn On Your Love Light” is a fascinating song that’s been all over the world of music since it was written by Joe Scott and recorded by Bobby “Blue” Bland in 1961. The Grateful Dead made it a core of its repertoire and played on it for 45 minutes at Woodstock. It was a staple of Van Morrison’s first band and was part of what helped Them (the band was actually called Them) get signed. It’s been covered by Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Seger, Tom Jones, Conway Twitty and The Blues Brothers. What a...

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So did y’all catch that news about the Fyre Festival? As good people, we try not to indulge in schadenfreude, but sometimes man, wow, it’s hard. In short, a rap celebrity and a dudebro with a track record of over-selling and under-delivering promised a glamour-packed, celebrity-stoked par-TAY on a remote island and promoted it by paying other celebrities to post on Instagram about it. It was a fiasco, not because the whole premise was culturally bankrupt and morally suspect (which it was),...

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It’s not as easy to go to Merlefest as it used to be in my footloose, sleeping-on-the-ground-is-fine days. So it’s wonderful to annually have a mini-Merlefest of our own at Music City Roots. The sampling of Merle-bound artists always refreshes and always seems to spotlight the very best of progressive traditional music. This week’s heavily attended show was no exception.

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