From Trad to Strad

I’m writing this from the road and an extravagantly happy occasion. My Mom and Dad have just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and a dozen family members have gathered in North Carolina to make a fuss over them and spend time together. They’re doing great, I’m thrilled to say. And I’m certainly reflecting on what a great gift I was given to have them as examples in life and marriage and so many other things.

One of those things, which actually does relate to the topic at hand, i.e. Music City Roots this Wednesday night, was early entrée into the world of classical music. I got violin lessons and youth orchestra and a lot of excellent concerts, plus big doses of Mozart and Schubert on the stereo at home. It’s not the typical story for somebody who now dreams of picking like Doc Watson and John Scofield, but my exposure to the heavenly mountaintop of music back then helped guide me later when I went foraging on my own down the back roads and through the wilderness of American folk and roots music. This week’s show will be something like that journey. We start with a bunch of Bill Monroe purists, move through some folky eclectica and deep songwriting to a group called the Annie Moses Band, which fuses folk and classical more explicitly than any ensemble we’ve hosted since Black Violin a couple of years ago.

It’s never wrong to start a show by tipping the hat to Bill Monroe. He’s anniversary-ready as well, since this December will mark 70 years since the amalgamation of the seminal and historic edition of the Blue Grass Boys in Nashville with Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. The Monroe Mandolin Camp gathers in the summer to learn more about Monroe and the magical miniscule instrument with which he changed the world. Leader Mike Compton has long been one of the Monroe Doctrine’s finest modern day interpreters and teachers, including long stints playing with the Nashville Bluegrass Band and John Hartford. Recently, he treated us to a set by his new Helen Highwater String Band. This week he brings some of his faculty and campers to our stage to dive deep into the music of the guy we bluegrass fans affectionately call Bill.

On a Nashville-heavy night our one out of town act is Bay Area sibling band the T Sisters. They bring verve and many years of harmonic honing to the stage. The San Jose Mercury News recently wrote this about them: “As a snappy stage moniker the T Sisters makes perfect sense for Erika, Rachel and Chloe Tietjen, who perform together as an irresistibly joyful sibling combo steeped in American roots music. But given their far-ranging creative proclivities, they could be more accurately described as the A to Z Sisters.” Sounds promising.

Singer/songwriter Stephen Simmons is returning to Roots during an incredibly fruitful and prolific period, having released by my count four albums and digital collections in the past two years. I rang him up this week and he told me that he’s always written more songs than the typical two-year CD release cycle allowed. So he’s taking advantage of the digital now to put out more music, most recently Silly, Sad & True. Stephen comes from the gritty poetic troubadour tradition of Steve Earle (he gets that one a lot) and Robert Earl Keen. Noting fancy. Just a lot of honest observation and sharing set to sturdy tunes. This has earned him a strong fan base in Europe where he goes often (“I really, really love to travel,” he says). He’s long been associated with East Nashville, but now he’s moved to the Ryman Lofts, the artist housing apartment on Rolling Mill Hill. He likes it, with its thrumming of music at most hours and artists from many other disciplines and media to inspire.

Closing out the night will be the aural equivalent I think of a bow tie worn with overalls, a look sported often by the aforementioned Mike Compton. The Annie Moses Band is a string ensemble from Nashville with more than a few striking features. They’re all brothers and sisters from the Wolaver family (Annie Moses is the name of a family forebear). They all started classical training around age four, and most of them got involved with The Julliard School in New York for some rigorous conservatory training. They all steered away from pretty sweet opportunities in classical music to pursue a family ensemble concept that they call “classical Americana.” And they’ve taken this buttery smooth, bountiful sound to Carnegie Hall and the Grand Ole Opry and a lot of places in between, racking up tens of thousands of fans and an impressive tour schedule. They’re touring in support of their new album American Rhapsody, which, inspired by George Gershwin, arranges standards like “Shenandoah” and “Summertime” in a swirling timbre fest with Annie Wolaver Dupre taking the lead vocals. It’ll be refined and down home at the same time, which as I said at the top, feels like how I grew up.

Craig H.

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