By Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots Producer
Music City Roots is officially eight years old, with a track record of four (or more) artists per week for 44 weeks per year. And what artists they have been. Giants like Billy Joe Shaver, Emmylou Harris, Alejandro Escovedo and Leon Russell. Shining contemporary rocket ships like Sarah Jarosz, Billy Strings and Front Country. And I’m just truly riffing off the top of my head here. It’s been a joy and honor to present this mid-week entertainment and edification, and our vow is to keep the standards high and keep it rolling. This week’s slate more than measures up.
If you follow this column you know that we at MCR adore HoneyHoney, the duo so nice they named it twice. Ben Jaffe and Suzanne Santo met more than a decade ago and found a very specific chemistry of folk rock filtered through Los Angeles style and gritty realism. My favorite HH songs are about, in no particular order, crushing guilt, the aftermath of a shotgun wedding and that one about Ohio that I don’t understand, but it’s kind of bleak. But apparently smilin’ Ben was keeping Suzanne’s true inner downer in check. So she’s gone and made a solo album called Ruby Red that even she describes as dark. But hey, that’s the grown-up (expletive) blues.
Artists of import like Santo do not trifle or waffle. She tells sometimes uncomfortable stories and wraps them in a sexy muslin voice and taught, rocking arrangements. And while I sometimes get weary of every band member ever breaking off to do a solo project, the excellent Ruby Red feels like a personal statement that simply had to be made. Suzanne is a fierce and funny woman, and this tells her truth, unfiltered and unexpurgated. At least that’s what she told the LA Weekly: “I was in a darker place,” she says of the songwriting. “Cathartically coping with some of the more difficult things in life, one of them being myself. . . It’s about mistakes, and learning and growing from them. Just being accountable for them. It’s really important in all aspects of life to do that.”
That’s a provocative setup for what should be a gripping, cathartic set.
Compelling in a different way will be the duo of Mike Compton and Joe Newberry. Mike’s a frequent guest on Roots, because he’s a Grammy-winning Nashville mandolin all-star who gets up to lots of projects. But you may be getting to know Joe, an accomplished banjo picker and songwriter. My first encounter with Mr. Newberry told me a lot about his broad based relationship with music. He performed the venerable old “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still” in a pre-IBMA formal concert with the North Carolina Symphony some five years ago. Then I learned that he actually worked for the Symphony in communications and had a passion for art both fine and popular. Soon after that, he left that job to pursue music as a performer full time, and he’s been extremely visible and entertaining since. He has a duo with effervescent fiddler/singer April Verch. And he’s bringing the old time string band magic with his combo with Compton. In a time where many traditionalists are adding dashes of the modern, Joe and Mike take me back to my falling in love with classic Americana by way of Norman Blake or Dirk Powell.
In these times of abundant talent and prolific artists, great projects can sneak by us, and I love it when this job and our booking team impel me to research and discover recent releases that are right in my wheelhouse. How, for example, did I miss Mike Barnett’s amazing 2014 One Song Romance album? It’s rich with A-listers from modern acoustic music, including Noam Pikelny, Critter Eldridge and Aoife O’Donovan. Perhaps it was because Mike was just emerging as a front man himself after years with the Deadly Gentlemen. And there’s so much more to know about Mike. He was a Nashville-born prodigy who was invited into the inner circle of the Vanderbilt/Blair Music School fiddle program in his teens. He’s toured with Jesse McReynolds, played the Late Show with Jon Batiste and been part of the Bryan Sutton Band. He’s exactly the kind of monster talent the bluegrass world of today is cultivating. I can’t wait to hear what he’s up to as a band leader.
And rounding out the bill this week will be roots music lifer Jason Eady. Raised in Jackson, MS, he was around real and earthy music early and making it on stages by his early teens. I find the most fascinating detail of his bio that after a first frustrating foray in Nashville he joined the Air Force where he says his work as a translator gave him new perspectives and fresh fuel as a songwriter. When he tried his muse in Ft. Worth, things went a lot better and he wound up collaborating with the great Kevin Welch on the breakout album AM Country Heaven. New this year is a self-titled project. It’s stacked with sincere, well-rendered country music that tends carefully to its language and a laid back mood. If you love Darrell Scott you’ll want to lean in extra close for this one.