Rank #1: March 15, 2016 w/ Gillian Welch, Liz Longley, Sierra Hull, Maureen Murphy
Tuesday’s show was bound to sell out because Berklee forces arrived with a couple hundred students, faculty and alumni and because their very distinguished alums Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings asked if their performance and award presentation could be nested in a special Roots show. That means a lot to us, and both parties pulled out the stops to create one of the finest and most meaningful shows we’ve ever put on.
Liz Longley has a song with a chorus that starts “You’ve got that way…” and wow, so does she. Armed with an acoustic guitar and her cool, smoky and nimble voice, she took the stage for our first set. The songs have become hits for me from repeated listening to her debut album. “Memphis” and “Bad Habit” are new soul folk standards. “Skin And Bones” has a darker Appalachian edge. Then it was on to a very different voice in Sierra Hull, with her musically entwined new string trio and songs from her fascinating new Weighted Mind album. After the title track we heard the baroque and intricate composed interplay of “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” (thank you Berklee training) and the silk pillow of a song that is “Lullaby.”
We were only one song into Maureen Murphy’s set when Photographer Tony whispered to me that we were experiencing the finest singer in the show’s history. There’s a case to be made. I’ve rarely seen so much refinement and technique mingled with so much power and passion. Murphy delivered four very different songs with a rocking, versatile quartet, but the capstone was her ode to her singing idol Lisa Fisher “How Can I Ease The Pain.” The song’s free form gave Maureen ample ways to shape and craft and massage and emote. It was simply breathtaking in its range of textures, from delicate to forceful. And she got to hit a classic money note in Martin Sexton’s “Smoke.” It would have been difficult to pack more musical range or magic into 20 minutes.
I’ve been watching Gillian and Dave perform for twenty years, and it’s always riveting. Certainly, seeing the MCR logo behind them was extra inspiring and gratifying. They opened with spectral unison singing on “The Way It Will Be,” making the harmonies of “The Way It Goes” and “Miss Ohio” all the more bloom-like. When Berklee President Roger Brown presented the school’s American Master Awards to them (as individuals by the way not a group), he cited Dave’s harmonically rich and inventive guitar playing. And yes, that’s one thing I’ve always loved about it – close, dissonant intervals delivered with bebop command and a staccato attack, like Bill Monroe downstrokes on Eddie Lang’s guitar. And on this night I got to be about 20 feet from his shredding solo on “Red Clay Halo,” one of my favorite Gill and Dave songs. Their final number “Everything Is Free” includes the line “we’re gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay,” and that’s how GW and DR always sounded to me. Their old friend T Bone Burnett, who collected the night’s other Master Award, played amiable electric guitar strokes and sang a bit on that final tune before adding a whole new verse about a certain orange presidential candidate in the rollicking Nashville Jam on “I’ll Fly Away.”
Rank #2: Oct. 12, 2016 w/ Raul Malo, Davina & The Vagabonds, Bryan Sutton, Paul Burch, San Rafael Band
It must be October. A day after the Chicago Cubs pulled off a four-run ninth-inning comeback against the Giants to secure their Division title (rock!), this week’s Roots featured: a band called the WPA Ball Club, Aly Sutton dressed like a cast member in A League of Their Own and four basses (we pun out of love). They were all acoustic upright basses belonging to four very different and thoroughly wonderful bands. Then we capped the night off with a solo performance which I can in no way force into my baseball metaphor. Except to say that we won. Our seventh birthday show looked really good on paper and it sounded amazing in actuality.
Rank #3: Feb. 1, 2017 w/ The Isaacs, Lonesome River Band, Foghorn Stringband, Joe Mullins
We at Roots probably have you conditioned by now so that when we say “bluegrass” you know we mean the whole range, from roots to branches. Our all-bluegrass shows generally include a Greensky or a Sam Bush Band, because one of the greatest things about the field is its freedom. It’s one of the ultimate artist-driven, innovation-friendly genres and we’ll always celebrate that. But this week was different – a turn toward bluegrass fundamentalism if you will. It was all trad. No rad. And boy was it excellent. Lineup in order:
The Lonesome River Band
Foghorn String Band
Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers
Rank #4: Rewind: Great MCR Guitarists
We rewind our way through the years of great performances by the best guitarists from and passing through Music City. It's a tribute to the instrument that made Nashville possible, drawing on electric and acoustic masters. Featured are bluegrass rising star Molly Tuttle, the jazz ease of Pat Bergeson, country twang from Kenny Vaughan, plus all around mastery of Jim Oblon and the always in-demand Guthrie Trapp. The show closes with a full set by the fiery young Englishman reviving 1970s blues rock tradition, Davy Knowles. Guitar geeks will love it but all are invited.
Rank #5: MCR 11/18/2015 Moe Bandy, Christian Lopez Band, North Mississippi Allstars, Jim Laurderdale, Tim O'Brien
Setlist 11/18/2015 - Jim Lauderdale - Let's Have A Good Thing Together
Bandy The Rodeo Clown https://youtu.be/qPEdlrklqsI
Picture In A Frame
It’s A Cheating Situation
Till I’m Too Old To Die Young
Christian Lopez Band
Man I Was Before
Leaving It Out https://youtu.be/1ji4_CRouGk
Will I See You Again
Take You Away
I Gotta Move
Whatever Happened To Me
I’m A Mess For You
The Water Is Wise
North Mississippi Allstars
Up Over Yonder https://youtu.be/jonlayXYmj4
Mean Ol’ Wind Died Down https://youtu.be/z6Oippvcejo
Never In All My Days
Roll N Tumble
You Were Here
Black Widow Spider
There’s A Storm Out There - not played
Sad Bell https://youtu.be/Wl28VmPOrzA
Worth The Wait https://youtu.be/0OoW7BzjpxM
Rank #6: May 3, 2017 w Great American Taxi, Dori Freeman, Colter Wall, John Carter Cash
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), but because they didn’t PLAN. You have to plan, folks. For example, on the same weekend, two other festivals – much bigger ones – came off without a hitch. Merlefest in North Carolina and JazzFest in New Orleans actually served up authentic music, genuine community, good food and good times for fans who don’t need to feel like they’re winning on a reality show and who aren’t measuring their lives in bikini access and Twitter followers. So for this week anyway, it’s Real Culture: 2. Celebri-crap Culture: 0. Well done, roots music.
MCR had to do a bit of extra planning and demonstrate resilience in the face of challenges as we had more late-breaking lineup shifts this week than maybe ever before. Here’s the superb final tally: Rising Virginia-based folk star Dori Freeman makes a long-sought MCR debut. John Carter Cash brings a family music legacy that’s second to none. Colter Wall is our deep voice of hard country. And we welcome the return of one of the most fluent, flexible roots rock bands in the good old USA.
Rank #7: August 23, 2017 Mandolin Mania w Bobby Osborne, Andy Statman and more
This week on MCR, it's Mando Mania as we assemble a multi-generational gathering of some of the finest mandolin pickers on Earth. Nashville native Casey Campbell, who grew up at and around the GOO and the elite of bluegrass curates an evening of mando solos, duos and full band performances. With Tim O'Brien, Sam Bush, Mike Compton and the man who brought us Rocky Top, Bobby Osborne.
Also an extraordinary ensemble set on a rare visit to Nashville by the one and only mandolin stylist Andy Statman. It's a small instrument that punches above its weight. Join us for a season closing special edition of MCR.
Rank #8: July 19, 2017 w Jerry Douglas Band, Billy Strings, Jill Andrews, Birds of Chicago
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 young and hungry Billy Strings with one of his heroes, the sixtysomething but unaware of it Jerry Douglas. His band came with a jazz/grass/rock fusion mode that tickled my every musical nerve ending. Keep on the grass? Good luck with that.
Rank #9: Jan. 11, 2017 w/ Travelin McCourys, Greyhounds, Piers Faccini, Mulligan Bros.
An extraordinary night of music with a travelin’ kind of vibe began with a foreign visitor who traffics in global sounds. Piers Faccini has one of the most imaginative musical minds I know in his ability to layer (and he was explicit about this in our interview) British folk tradition, Delta and Hill Country Mississippi blues and North African sounds.
The Mulligan Brothers presented the most straightforwardly Americana/roots set of the night with a quartet featuring acoustic guitar, fiddle, electric bass and drums.
In truth, the guys in Greyhounds didn’t really need my help to put on a spectacular set of shoe sliding soul anthems. Trube kicked things off with the wiry twang of his vintage guitar before Ferrell took the lead voice on “A War Is On For Your Mind,” the hot political take from their current album. Ineffable chemistry and a taste for what’s cool is what makes this band tick.
It’s never a surprise when the Travelin’ McCourys put on a great set, but my god, I was pinned to the wall by the power of the band this time both musically and vocally.
Rank #10: Sept. 14, 2017 AmericanaFest w Ray Wylie Hubbard, Angaleena Presley, Cactus Blossoms, Pony Bradshaw, John Paul White
This week on MCR, our 2017 AmericanaFest showcase from a one-time only pop up venue in the heart of downtown Nashville. It's a five ring circus under our own big top with a sampling of what's going on in the Americana field today, closing out with the fiery, funny and fatalistic songs of Ray Wylie Hubbard.
The bill kicks off with newcomer and Rounder Recording artist Pony Bradshaw from Georgia. Angaleena Presley brings unbridled, insightful songs from her acclaimed Wrangled album. The Cactus Blossoms reinvent the classic brother duo form for a new age. And we hear John Paul White, refreshed from some time off in his Muscle Shoals home wiht stunning songs that brought a rowdy crowd to a standstill. It's big tent music under an actual big tent.
Rank #11: June 21, 2017 w Delbert McClinton, Danny Barnes, Quiles & Cloud and a Mac Wiseman tribute
This season closing show brought together all the vibes and individual craft that makes Music City Roots go, with a new folk discovery, a heartfelt bluegrass tribute and two true icons of American roots music. We start with the moody beauty of Bay Area folk group Quiles & Cloud. An all-star gathering of Nashville pickers pay tribute to Mac Wiseman, including Sierra Hull, Shawn Camp, Justin Moses, Thomm Jutz and Peter Cooper. Next, Danny Barnes performs solo on the banjo, showing what a unique genius he is. And the show wraps with the fire and thunder of Texas master Delbert McClinton.
Rank #12: Roots Rewind - Jamgrass Special
This new Roots Rewind show features the best in newgrass and jamgrass, from founding fathers to favorite sons. Sam Bush and John Cowan were in New Grass Revival together in the 70s and 80s. We'll hear from their respective bands, Cowan in 2012, Bush just last year. Leftover Salmon shows how far other bands took the newgrass idea in Colorado. And we close the show with second generation superstars the Travelin' McCourys.
Rank #13: MCR 10/07/2015 Trout Steak Revival, The Lowest Pair, AJ Ghent Band, The Kentucky Headhunters
Setlist 10/07/2015 - Jim Lauderdale - Way Out Is Fine
Trout Steak Revival
You Are Not Alone
Spirit To THe Sea
Brighter Every Day
The Lowest Pair
Minnesota Mend Me https://youtu.be/R7O5uL-IbWg
Magpies at Sunset
AJ Ghent Band
Watch What You Do
Can’t Be Your Dog https://youtu.be/5CcVJd6B5AE
99 ½ Won’t Do https://youtu.be/BUY_b-b-RZs
The Kentucky Headhunters
Walk Softly On This Heart Of Mine
Shufflin’ Back To Memphis
Have You Ever Loved A Woman https://youtu.be/UlEaQ8RW3xg
Walkin’ With The Wolf
Dumas Walker https://youtu.be/UXqOiluhK6o
Rank #14: MCR 8/26/2015 Jake Shimabukuro, Gnarly Parkers, Honey Island Swamp Band, Andrea Zonn with Vince Gill, Keb Mo, Mac McAnally and Trace Adkins
Setlist 8/26/2015 - Jim Lauderdale -
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Spin Me, Minnie
Big Ass World http://youtu.be/xGQeD6RnZFc
Dream Of You
Honey Island Swamp Band
How Do You Feel
Head Highwater Blues http://youtu.be/jMBM-xTMVZI
Ain’t No Fun
Andrea Zonn - Set 1
Another Side Of Home (Mac McAnally) http://youtu.be/o2IxC_SFQWo
No Reason To Feel Good (Keb Mo) http://youtu.be/B7dnmjPLiAA
Crazy If You Let It (Vince Gill)*
I Can’t Talk About It Now
Let Them Go (Mac McAnally)
Andrea Zonn - Set 2
Where The Water Meets The Sky (Vince Gill) http://youtu.be/e4974nmHoOY
Another Swing And A Miss (Alison Brown)
You Make Me Feel Whole (Vince Gill)
Ships (Trace Adkins - Allison Brown) http://youtu.be/fPn51uD33p4
Rank #15: MCR 7/29/2015 Crystal Bowersox, The Revelers, Sarah Potenza, AJ and the Jiggawatts
Setlist 7/29/2015 - Peter Cooper - Nobody Knows
Crystal Bowersox No Time Sunshine Brighter Bite The Bullet Farmers Daughter Dead Weight http://youtu.be/MfThDlMjd7o
The Revelers Asteur je peux voir If You Ain’t Got Love Please Baby Please In The Proof Toi, tu veux pus de moi http://youtu.be/P6WhezIVlSo
Rank #16: Sept. 22, 2016 - AMA Fest w/ Del McCoury, Timothy B. Schmit, Willie Watson, Sean Watkins
AmericanaFest 2016 may be wrapping up, but more than ever, we took this year’s gathering as a battery-charger and an inspiring star map for what lies ahead. Hearing kind words about our new Roots Radio initiative on WMOT 89.5 FM certainly helped rev our enthusiasm from high to higher for the prospects of sharing and spreading the music and the stories of its makers. I had an interesting but sobering experience on the weekend teaching a seminar about the origins and legacy of Music City to a group of 50 adult learners enrolled at Bethel University. These were folks from outside our industry/music nerd circles, but I was surprised to survey them and learn that ZERO of them had heard of the concept of “Americana” music. Yet this is music for everyone. It’s our shared, connecting heritage in a divisive time, so I took this as a personal challenge.
Due to the unique time crunch of AMA week, I offer my annual condensed survey of last week’s action and this week’s show, which looks just splendid with an MCR debut by Austin “Ameri-Chicana” fiddler/singer Carrie Rodriquez and a celebrated blues guitar slinger. But as I sit quietly thinking about these recent days, I’m swimming in the echoes of some absurdly excellent performances: William Bell singing “The Three of Me” at the Honors & Awards show with staggering grace and candor, Aaron Lee Tasjan’s psychedelic country glam and River Whyless (MCR alums) playing sparkling, surprise-filled alt-folk.
And of course we threw a showcase on Thursday and couldn’t have been happier with our roster.
Rank #17: April 19, 2017 w Sunny Sweeney, Rev Peyton's Big Damn Band, Blackfoot Gypsies, Bella Hardy
Historians can and do debate the circumstances under which rock and roll was born, but there’s no debating the fact that modern-day rockers who capture the excitement of that initial blast are rootsy as all get-out, nor that said beginning was propelled by a mix that included plenty of blues and hillbilly progenitors. This week’s show covered a couple of bases with Sunny Sweeney’s nothing-but brand of country and Bella Hardy’s evocative British folk, then took a turn into the front porch blues shouting of Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band before landing in Blackfoot Gypsies’ primal rock and roll. Lineages notwithstanding, it was roots everywhere you looked.
Rank #18: Oct. 4, 2017 w Cooper/Brace/Jutz, Iron Horse, Charley Crockett, Blue Side of Lonesome
This week on MCR, two wildly different takes on bluegrass from two sides of the world. The show opens with The Blue Side of Lonesome, a quintet from Japan that's become a shining example of that country's love affair with sound birthed by Bill Monroe. They're really good. And we close with a long running group from Muscle Shoals that's made its name and living giving the bluegrass treatment to favorite rock and roll songs and albums. Iron Horse.
Also on the bill, Charley Crockett brings us a magnificent hybrid of classic honky tonk and swamp pop from Texas. While guest host Peter Cooper's latest musical excursion is a trio with Eric Brace and Thomm Jutz, featuring great songs and sweet harmony.
Rank #19: MCR 11/11/2015 John Conlee, Peter Case, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, The Infamous Stringdusters
Setlist 11/11/2015 - Jim Lauderdale - Honky Tonk Haze
Miss Emily’s Picture*
Backside Of Thirty
Bread & Water
Rose Colored Glasses*
Water From A Stove
House Rent Party
All Dressed Up
So Glad You’re Mine
Ain’t Gonna Worry No More
Horseshoes & Hand Grenades
For A River
Old Man & Me
The Infamous Stringdusters
Let It Go
Peace Of Mind
Rivers Run Cold
Nashville Jam - Sitting On The Top Of The World
Rank #20: Nov. 29, 2017 w/ Cordovas, Darrin Bradbury, Alex Williams, Lost Hollow
Hard core country music is finally back on the radar of at least some of the major labels on Music Row, and we'll open this week's show with discovery and Big Machine Records artist Alex Williams. We'll close the show with decidedly indie, Grateful Dead inspired country rock by Nashville's much admired Cordovas. In between, the rough hewn, sardonic and evocative songs of Cafe Rooster recording artist Darrin Bradbury plus the refined, stage-honed sound of some Music City veterans - husband and wife duo Lost Hollow.