by Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots Producer
One of the toughest (and greatest) challenges for a show like ours is balancing the new with the familiar. How often should we invite back favorite artists? Should there be a “cast” that defines the ethos of the show? We’ve never wanted to be Opry-like, with some artists appearing most weeks. But more or less without trying we’ve collected a group of Americana stalwarts who embody what we believe in, and any regular fan will recognize them: Sam Bush, Mike Farris, John Cowan, 18 South, etc. This week we’ve invited back two more – an enthralling songwriter/storyteller and an icon of traditional bluegrass music.
Chip Taylor proves that adage that people may not remember what you tell them but they remember how you make them feel. Because Chip always leaves us feeling elevated. Whether in the Loveless Barn working with his fiddling protégé Kendel Carson and a full band or solo at the Empire Music Hall during our Belfast Nashville Songwriter Festival special edition, he’s always been a guy who could make us laugh and cry in the space of a few minutes. He delivers his hits (like the wildly different “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning”) with great context and humility. He’s always bringing in new material that shows an empathic relationship to people. His song cycle reflecting on a terrible mass killing of children in his beloved Norway called Block Out The Sirens Of This Lonely World is one of the bravest and contemplative albums I know. And there are of course his classic mid 70s albums Last Chance and This Side of the Big River. They were a glancing blow at country music stardom but keepers anyway. He was close to becoming another Kristofferson, and in many ways he did, with scads of cuts by legends and a catalog of great recordings as an artist. Our musical hero Buddy Miler has said “Chip Taylor could’ve rested on his laurels years ago and still been way ahead of everybody else today. Lucky for us he didn’t, and he’s making some of the most relevant music out there.”
Our other returning MVP this week is Doyle Lawson, whose induction to the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2012 was a landmark in a fascinating, unpredictable career. He came from Kingsport, Tennessee and took his first instrument – the mandolin – into the top tiers of the professional world when still a teenager. He worked for the demanding, irascible Jimmy Martin (the greatest singer in bluegrass history in some people’s estimation) and with J.D. Crowe, the great and open-minded post Scruggs banjo master. In the 70s, Lawson was a member of the Country Gentlemen, a band that set the table for the progressive bluegrass movement without upsetting the core fans much at all. I have a favorite piece of video from the documentary Bluegrass Country Soul in which that great quartet rehearses for a set in the parking lot of a 1971 North Carolina festival. Wearing wild pink silk shirts with gigantic collars, they run through the unlikely mountain climbing ballad “Matterhorn” with Charlie Waller singing lead. It’s just one of those perfect moments.
Lawson became a band leader in 1979 and he’s been one of the great ones, mentoring and graduating major bluegrass talents and honing a sound that’s precise yet undeniably soulful. Especially through gospel music, Lawson has established Quicksilver as a beacon of traditional bluegrass. But within the stretched canvass of the music, there are many surprising lines and colors for those listening closely. Or you could just dance to the driving grooves, which can be some of the fastest in the business. The newest album of Lawson’s ultra-prolific career is coming out this week with the title In Session. The cover is a school chalk board that reads “33 Strings + 6 Pickers + 6 Voices = Reading, ‘Righting and Rhythm.” That’s new math we can get behind.
Doyle Lawson is also the producer of another one of our acts this week, the very exciting Malpass Brothers from Goldsboro, NC. Christopher and Taylor are hot items among the cognoscenti of classic country music right now. Their updated Louvin Brothers sound is striking, soulful and infectious. They’ve opened for Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Marty Stuart and many others of that ilk. With fabulous hair and a timeless formality of presentation that evokes the best of the 1960s, this is retro-cool at its finest. And rounding out the evening we’ll hear from Kristin Andreassen, a widely traveled and highly regarded multi instrumentalist and songwriter in the old-time and neo-folk music community. Her band resume includes the cherished all-female string band Uncle Earl and innovative trio Sometymes Why. She’s a working colleague of such greats as Dirk Powell and Aoife O’Donovan, and she has a couple of fine solo albums under her guitar strap. This will be a Roots debut for the brothers Malpass and for Kristin and we’re excited to hear them both. They may well become MCR stalwarts.