By Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots Producer
I’ve been reading a lot lately about “disruption.” For the most part, optimists and utopians have celebrated the creative destruction of old power structures with democratizing technologies. But recently, more observers than ever are asking whether we’re losing more than we’re gaining, as middle-class culture jobs vanish, as record and book stores close and as speedy Twitter feeds compete in our heads for actual reading and thinking. It’s too much to get into here of course, but I can offer one takeaway: There is much baggage from our collective past that needs to change and some great virtues that we change at our peril, and can be extremely hard to tease them apart or tell which is which. Caution is recommended.
Music, however, is a space where disruption can be low-stakes but high-reward. Traditions thrive because new generations engage in them, often by chopping them up, comingling and even violating them. For a very few fans, that’s a kind of sacrilege but for most, the roots are a start and not an end. Creativity on the borders doesn’t threaten the core. And my favorite thing about Music City Roots is its track record of presenting the reverent and the rebellious in a healthy mix.
I think for example about how Austin duo Greyhounds approach blues, soul and country music. Andrew Trube and Anthony Farrell clearly have a clear love for the styles and sounds underpinning Americana from the 50s and 60s in Texas, Memphis and Bakersfield. But with their electronic textures, drum loops and sometimes manipulated vocals, they achieve a rarified modern funk that I cherish in the music of say Medeski, Martin & Wood or Galactic (with whom they’ve worked). I can’t tell you how excited I am to have these guys on the show; they’re my kind of disruptors. And as long as they’ve been collaborating (about fifteen years), this may be their national moment. They’ve written songs for Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi. They’ve honed their live show over years and balanced Greyhounds growth with a busy life playing in the beloved Southern soul/jam band J.J. Grey & Mofro. But a series of events led them to a duo deal on the revived Ardent label, which made Memphis history by releasing the music of Big Star. The first of three planned projects came out last Spring. Entitled Accumulator, it remixed and remastered some of the guys’ best work so far. I look forward to asking them about the all-new projects in the works.
Chuck Mead is an example of adjusting to disruption. Nearly ten years after the breakup of the stellar, soaring hillbilly band BR549, the Nashville stalwart is making the best music of his career and enjoying a whole new chapter of life working with musical theater. It’s inspiring I tell ya. I’ve profiled Chuck in some detail in this column, and when we last checked in, our hero had released Back At The Quonset Hut, his classic covers album featuring his road band plus key A-Team legends like Pig Robbins and Harold Bradley, working in the Music Row studio they’d made famous. Since then, Chuck has released a live session from Nashville’s famed United Record Pressing. And he recently issued his first studio album on the new Plowboy Records label, a jaw-dropping ode to his home state of Kansas called Free State Serenade. It’s got tales of darkness and murder, true love and UFO sightings, set to tunes that snap, crackle and pop. Critic Alan Cackett proclaimed that “It sounds like the South. It sounds like country music ought to sound.” Besides the vital new music, Mead has been instrumental in the success of the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, where he’s been responsible for casting and directing musically convincing Elvises, Cashes, Lewises and Perkinses. There’s no one I’d trust with that job more than Chuck.
It’s a sign of the abundance of fine American music being made that Eliot Bronson’s self-titled album didn’t become more of a breakout project in 2014. It certainly earned glowing reviews from national media and observers closer to his Atlanta home base. One song that grabbed me hard experiencing the album for the first time was “Just Came Back To Tell You I’m Leaving” with its proud striding tempo, clean melodic guitar riff and snappy hooky chorus. The whole project, produced by Americana superstar recordist Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson) is wonderful.
And in a contrast to all those dudes, our emerging artists are sisters who make up the contemporary country vocal trio Michaelis, because that’s their family name. Hailing from Sugar Land, TX, there is indeed a sweet aspect to their glowing harmonies and broadly appealing songs. But there are also streaks of complexity and bluesy grit. They’ve been featured on the Troubadour, Texas TV show and opened for Radney Foster at Gruene Hall. They’ll fit right in to a lineup that nobody will want disrupted.