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 most difficult trials and adjustments. We wish Wanda and her family well.
That said, we’ve got another senior roots music star on our lineup, along with a celebrated Rounder Records songwriter and a couple of acts that stepped up to the call when we needed to make some late breaking adjustments. It’ll be a blues-heavy affair and an easy come down from the weekend mayhem of Bonnaroo and CMA Fest. It’s a soundtrack for June in the South.
There’s something poetic about having New Orleans stalwart Walter “Wolfman” Washington and East Nashville’s Mark Robinson on the same bill. Because they both represent the same sturdy, all-American rhythm and blues that pre-dates the birth of rock and roll and that still endures because of its timeless hold on our musical emotions.
Washington, with his wiry frame and gigantic grin, has been a crowd-pleasing mainstay for decades. Back in the 1960s you’d have found him living in and being mentored at the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans, a boarding house and music haunt, working alongside Ernie K-Doe (his cousin), Lee Dorsey, Allen Toussaint and others. A long spell of Washington’s career was as guitar player for Johnny Adams and later he set out as a band leader himself.
I kind of figured that Mark Robinson, one of our local experts on the blues, was a Wolfman admirer, so he wrote me back with some great observations: “I saw him several times in the late 70s and early 80s in my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana (with Johnny Adams). He’s a very sophisticated guitar player, with a lot more jazz chording and melodic lead playing than most blues artists. And like a lot of musicians from New Orleans, his style is a gumbo of various styles and influences. I feel like he and I have this in common. And he always grooves hard.”
Not only does Robinson have that eclectic view and that feel for the groove, he’s got himself an inspiring motto that became the title of his first solo album: Quit Your Job. Play Guitar. Sounds like a fantasy, but he made it work, mid-life, in one of the most competitive markets for guitar playing songwriters in the world. His wonderful wife Sue, one of the biggest music fans we’ve ever met, got a job at Vanderbilt Press years ago and he hit Nashville with few connections and just opened himself up to every possibility. Now he’s a respected band leader, record producer and scene maker. On his new album tracking a live residency at the 5 Spot form last Fall, he pushes his band into deeper jam territory than ever before.
“I have been trying to combine our ability to stretch out and jam with excellent, well-written songs,” he told me. “I think The Allman Brothers did this better than anyone. We are trying do something similar, with a pretty broad palette of sonic colors Becoming this kind of band was a natural evolution. Opening up and jamming more just happened.” And I’ll say that parts of the new recording, including Mark’s voice and his interplay with his voluble band mates, reminds me of the dearly departed Col. Bruce Hampton. There’s a wisdom and confidence and trust there that’s not to be overlooked.
Also scheduled for Wednesday night is a very different flavor indeed in the artistry of Sean McConnell. His striking, ultra-melodic and textured self-titled album of 2016 sent me back through his catalog. And there we find a Boston area native who was transplanted to Georgia as a kid. You can hear the natural folkie develop a keen ear for the pop hook and the commercial country scene. He attended MTSU (Go Raiders!) and then landed a publishing deal in Nashville, where he’s had cuts by the likes of Brad Paisley, Martina McBride and Tim McGraw. Since about 2010 he’s been as much a part of the Red Dirt scene as Music Row, which is no mean feat. He’s got a stellar, cutting voice and his recent album could be loved by ardent fans of both Americana and country radio. The hooks are that hooky and the songs that sturdy.
Rounding out this week is the return of Nashville’s striking singer songwriter Adrian Krygowski, only this time as half of his new duo-fronted band Adrian + Meredith. He’s a rocker folkie with a hard-edged croon. She’s a fiddler and clogger from Ann Arbor who joined the band and married Adrian. Their own copy does a good job explaining their pulsing, rocking new album. “More Than A Little, the pair’s debut, finds the East Nashville-based duo putting its own spin on Americana music, roughing up the genre’s edges with the rule-breaking spirit of punk, the vintage twang of old-timey folk, the sneer of rock & roll, and even the frenetic bounce of early Swing and jazz manouche.”
So that’s a lot of influences packed into four artists but that’s how it rolls at Roots. You might howl at the moon.