This week on Music City Roots, get your weekend started bright and early with a special Merlefest Theme Show, headlined by sets from Sierra Hull, Town Mountain, Josh Farrow, Roy Book Binder, and Mike Compton. Jim Lauderdale hosts.
About the artists:
A good chunk of popular music’s real estate has been carved up along lines of age these last half-dozen decades, and we’re used to seeing young musicians aim exclusively for young audiences then flounder as they outgrow teenaged listeners’ tastes and concerns. Pan-generational mentoring and mingling has done much to insulate bluegrass from this coming-of-age quandary. Still, Sierra Hull is the rare soul to make it through these years entirely unscathed.
Secrets—the debut album she recorded at 15, and released at 16—struck the ear with sensibilities that seemed both seasoned and fresh; kids’ stuff this was not. Three years and a move from her family’s home in tiny Byrdstown, Ten. to Boston’s Berklee College of Music later, she’s followed with one of the most surefooted transitions into early adulthood put to record. Thirty seconds into the opening track, she sings a line that puts a fine point on it: “I’m not a child anymore.”
Of course, the evidence of Sierra’s uncommon maturity—musical and personal (one might say she embodies the perfect balance of humility and capability)—has been there all along, and won her formidable fans: by age 11, Alison Krauss had called with an invitation to the Opry stage; by 12, Rounder was expressing interest; first Ron Block and now Barry Bales have served as co-producers, and her studio bands have featured the cream of the contemporary bluegrass crop—Stuart Duncan, Randy Kohrs and Bryan Sutton this time, alongside members of Sierra’s own crack band. Then there’s the fact that Berklee gave her the school’s most prestigious award, the Presidential Scholarship, a first for a bluegrass musician; her choice to accept it, to delay her dream of hitting the road full-time after high school in favor of expanding her musical worldview, was hardly a light one.
If ever the “child prodigy” label did Sierra justice, its usefulness has completely fallen away and a distinctive new identity emerged. What you hear on Daybreak is one of bluegrass’s few full-fledged virtuosic instrumentalist/singer/songwriters, and one who’s gracefully grown into her gifts. While her mandolin playing has always possessed clarity and fleet-fingered precision, here she attacks her solos with newfound spontaneity and depth of feeling; she calls it “playing with a point to prove.” Her singing—always straight and true—has more heartfelt power behind it, to results Bales describes, simply, as “doing the songs justice.”
As for the songs, Sierra’s first album held just a few originals, but she wrote seven of these twelve, a collection that stands up quite well next to the outside material. There’s a pair of sprightly instrumentals, her first-ever western swing number and several that show her emotional sophistication: in songs that fall squarely in the bluegrass tradition, feelings are out in the open; during country-leaning compositions, she ponders relationships from more introspective angles; and the title track—a breathtaking pop ballad—is the most ruminative moment of all.
Boundaries—age, genre or otherwise—don’t hamper an artist like Sierra. She’s already earned considerable respect in the bluegrass world, the IBMA’s voting members having nominated her for no fewer than five awards over three years—there’s a good chance she’ll be the first woman to win the mandolin category. But as a player, a singer and a songwriter, she also has remarkable range, the potential to win over ears unfamiliar with Bill Monroe and give performances of broad cultural importance, as she’s done at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and the National Prayer Breakfast. Matt Glaser—head of Berklee’s American Roots Music Program—put it this way: “She has no limitations as a musician.” Daybreak is certainly a noteworthy arrival; you can’t help but feel it’s also just the beginning.
“Centered around strong, soulful vocals, and poised to stay put. Town Mountain are true to bluegrass in all the right ways and this new project keeps them firmly connected to the traditions of the genre, while also allowing them to reach out into the broad horizon of string band music. Leave the Bottle comes highly recommended.” –Woody Platt of the Steep Canyon Rangers
“Town Mountain is not reinventing the wheel, but taking the wheel in their hands and driving the music down both familiar roads and out to new territory.” –Mike Bub
“There’s a new mountain in town – Town Mountain – and they get down with heart, grit, soul, and drive! They’ll get you moving!” –Jim Lauderdale
Asheville, NC’s Bluegrass Band Town Mountain is excited to release their fourth album, Leave the Bottle, September 4, 2012. Town Mountain is Phil Barker on mandolin & vocals, Robert Greer on lead vocals & guitar, Jesse Langlais on banjo & vocals, Bobby Britt on fiddle, and newest member Jon Stickley rounds them out with his steady bass and rock-solid guitar & vocals. They share the kind of easy-going friendly bond that relays itself through their music. One listen to their instantly memorable songs, and it’s plain to see why Grammy-winner Mike Bub would align with the group to produce Leave the Bottle as well as 2011’s Steady Operator, both through Pinecastle Records. Banjo player extraordinaire and longtime member of the Sam Bush Band, Scott Vestal, also joined the team by engineering the new album, which was recorded at Digital Underground Studio in Nashville, TN.
Town Mountain’s years of touring have created a mature well-traveled sound, a telepathic pickin’ style filled with mesmerizing interplay, and intoxicating rhythms that energize every tune. You hear it in Greer’s straightforward and genuine delivery of vocals that bear the burden of life, love, and loss in every lyric. “His voice has that hint of an edge to it that lends intensity and vitality to what he’s singing,” writes Bluegrass Unlimited. On Leave the Bottle, the band presents 11 original band-member written tunes and one cover (“Loaded” by The Wood Brothers.)
They head straight for your heart on hard-driving songs like “Run Junior Run” and “Don’t Go Home Tonight” (one of two tracks co-written with the Steep Canyon Rangers bassist Charles Humphrey III) as easily as they do on diverse numbers like “Greenbud on the Flower” (a song about cabin fever) and “Leave the Bottle”, which was written by Langlais about being away from the ones you love for long periods of time while on the road. The free-spirited nature of the band’s members running on the proverbial “treadmill of life” is what inspired Greer to write “Up the Ladder”. Another song from the road, “Lawdog”, sung and written by Barker in the manner of Jimmy Martin, is relatable to to anyone that inevitably gets pulled over while trying to make good time traveling. “Four Miles”, written by Britt, is the only instrumental track. What bluegrass album would be complete without its share of love and cheatin’ songs? Town Mountain holds this tradition, while adding funny twists to the story with Langlais’ double murder ballad “Away From Home”.
Thanks to their relatable, unforgettable lyrics along with their arresting stage presence and swagger, Town Mountain manages to rise above the seemingly bottomless canyon of bluegrass bands touring today and, inevitably, they will be traveling close to you sometime soon!
Josh Farrow is an American singer/songwriter living and writing in the heart of Music City. Farrow uses his compelling, soulful voice to tell tales of the country life, ballads of the heartache of city life, and daunting visions of life on the road. Josh Farrow’s 2011 debut solo album Southern Drag is an excellent culmination of his refined writing styles. Not only does he blend contemporary styles of Folk and Blues with great homage to the classic elegant Country and Western sound, Josh Farrow continues to stand out in the popular wave of new-age tribute to rich American musical roots. Veteran producer and long-time musician Michael Omartian was quoted on Nashville’s Lightning 100 broadcast Music Business Radio referring to Josh Farrow’s single “Tijuana Gal” as “Absolutely perfect, I wouldn’t change a thing.” Josh Farrow has paired himself with some of the most talented and influential musicians in today’s thriving East Nashville music scene. He’s since become a driving force in one the most respected and talked-about towns in the country, Music City.
Born in 1943, in NYC, Roy started pickin’ the blues while sailing around the Mediteranian with the US Navy ….. Ever since, Roy Book Binder has been rambling around the world. Performing his Ragtime country Blues guitar licks and singing the songs learned from the masters of the 30’s.
Book Binder travelled with the legendary Rev. Gary Davis in the late 60’s….. Recorded his first solo acoustic Blues album in the 70’s, which was the first to receive 5 stars in DOWNBEAT magazine!
In 1973, Roy joined up with Fats Kaplin, recording 2 albums for Blue Goose Records and touring for the next 3 years up and down the East Coast, including appearances at The Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1973 and 1975.
In the 1980’s ‘The Book’ was part of Bonnie Raitt’s East Coast Tour, which included an appearance on The Grand Old Opry which eventually led to almost 30 appearances on NASHVILLE NOW’s, Ralph Emory Show! At this time ROUNDER RECORDS signed The Book and Jerry Douglas produced his first album for them. Bookeroo! was a hit and Roy recorded 3 more CDs for the label.
Settling in Florida, Book Binder began to concentrate on writing his own “old time” songs. Roy met JORMA KAUKONEN who recently recorded two of Book’s songs on his last 2 solo albums.
Last Aug. 19th, THE GOOD BOOK, Roy’s latest release of all original songs, reached #3 on AirPlayDirect’s Americana charts! #1 was Guy Clark & #2 was the late Townes Van Zandt.
Mandolin Magazine calls him a player with “a worldwide reputation as one of the modern masters of bluegrass mandolin…one of the most recognizable and respected mandolin voices anywhere”. He’s Mike Compton–Grammy and IBMA award-winning recording artist; solo, duo and band performer; and as passionate a teacher and advocate for the mandolin as you’re ever likely to find. The New York Times calls Compton, “a new bluegrass instrumental hero.”
Born in Meridian, Mississippi (hometown to the legendary Jimmie Rodgers) in 1956, Mike grew up hearing old-time country music, and took up the mandolin as a teenager. Drawn to the powerful mix of old-time fiddle stylings, blues influences and pure creativity embodied in Monroe’s playing, he moved to Nashville in 1977 and quickly found work with veteran banjoist and former Monroe sideman Hubert Davis. Compton made his first recordings with Davis, but by the middle of the 1980’s, he was recruited by Pat Enright and Alan O’Bryant to help found the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and the group quickly became one of the most prominent and admired in bluegrass. In four years of wide-ranging tours that covered the globe, the quintet recorded an equal number of acclaimed albums before a bus accident prompted Mike to reconsider his career and leave the NBB for a year of quiet work and introspection in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
Returning to Nashville, Compton soon joined the legendary John Hartford, recording a half-dozen albums with the Hartford String Band and touring extensively until Hartford’s death in 2001. At the same time, he began to develop collaborative efforts in recording, performing, and teaching with other masters such as guitarist David Grier, with whom he has toured and recorded the IBMA Album Of The Year-nominated Climbing The Walls; renowned mandolinists David Grisman and Mike Marshall, at whose invitation he participates in the Mandolin Symposium in Santa Cruz, California; producer T-Bone Burnette, for whom he not only performed as a Soggy Bottom Boy on 2001’s Grammy Album Of the Year, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but on the following Grammy-winning Down From The Mountain soundtrack and tours, and on the Cold Mountain soundtrack and tours; and, most recently, with up-and-coming mandolinist David Long, with whom he recorded Stomp, nominated for the IBMA’s Recorded Event Of The Year in 2006. Adding to his full schedule, Mike was invited to rejoin the Nashville Bluegrass Band in 2000, where No Depression magazine noted in a 2004 review that “his contributions notably enhance one of the band’s greatest strengths: its uniquely precise take on the blues.”
Honored in 2002 with a special resolution by the Mississippi State Senate for his accomplishments, Mike Compton is in demand today at every level, from solo tours, treasured performances with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, appearances with Grier, and other duet partners, to instructional settings like the International Bluegrass Music Museum’s wildly successful Monroe Mandolin Camp, to studio recordings with bluegrass legends such as Ralph Stanley and country stars like Faith Hill. In the end, there’s no better way to say it than in the words of Mandolin Magazine–Mike Compton, is, simply put, “a certified mandolin icon.”
Wearing his signature pressed blue overalls and rocking and weaving with fluid body motion, Compton stuns not by tricks or artifice, but through his singing, his ability to engage a crowd, and through decades of honing his technique into the unique, one-of-a-kind Compton signature mandolin sound. With his Gilchrist mandolin, this is a perfect match of a musician and his instrument. As a recent April, 2013 reviewer wrote in Bluegrass Today, “go see Mike Compton’s solo show and prepare to be gobsmacked. There are powerful people in every walk of life. Mike Compton is the General George Patton of the mandolin. Breathtaking is the only word.”