by Music City Roots producer Craig Havighurst
One of the coolest Christmas present we received in our family was my wife’s copy of Sean Brock’s gorgeous new cookbook Heritage. In case the name’s unfamiliar, Brock is the chef and mastermind behind Husk, the celebrated restaurant that opened first in Charleston, SC and then in Nashville in 2013. Our Husk, in a stately 1880s home on Rutledge Hill overlooking downtown, is an amazing dining experience, and Brock is regarded as one of America’s great culinary artists.
I bring this up here as I welcome you to a new year and a new MCR season because Brock’s philosophy of food is so very close to our show’s beliefs about music. You could almost swap the words throughout his opening essay. “Southern food has enough soul to transcend region,” he writes. Southern music has of course done that, spreading from our hallowed ground to the whole world. And this: “I am lucky enough to enjoy both the sophisticated foods that challenge me professionally and the comfort foods that nurture me on a regular basis. I appreciate and crave the best versions of both things…highbrow, lowbrow and everything in between.”
Amen brother. That’s how we see our world too, extending invitations to modernists, traditionalists, and yes, everything in between. But what they have in common is they all know where their music comes from and the giants on whose shoulders they stand. They know their native soil and their heritage.
You’ll find nobody in roots music more dedicated to those principles than this week’s opening guest Leroy Troy, the banjo spinnin’ side-splittin’ songster from Goodlettsville, TN. Heck, he won the prestigious Heritage Award at Uncle Dave Macon Days in Murfreesboro, one of the nation’s iconic events for old-time music. That’s what Troy does and where he comes from, having grown up around Roy Acuff, Brother Oswald and many other giants of the Grand Ole Opry and Middle Tennessee classic country music scene. We’ve hosted Troy before as a member of the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, but this week we’ll get to experience the solo show, which draws a direct line of mentorship from Uncle Dave Macon, the Opry’s first big star. I got to know Leroy years ago and was struck to see a guy exactly my age so completely immersed in the sound and soul of the pre-War era, not to mention an avid collector and curator of historic artifacts. He’s never wavered or watered it down. He’s one hell of a hillbilly, and yes, I’m smiling as I say that.
The Howlin’ Brothers do in band format a lot of what Troy does on his own. It’s driving and forceful, propelled by fiddle, banjo and guitar. Plus they sing original songs that sound like they’ve earned their place in the American song book. We enjoyed their foot stomping commitment at a Loveless Barn show a while back, but that was well before the release of 2014’s album Trouble, produced by Jack White collaborator Brendan Benson and praised by Rolling Stone. It’s got some nice fresh directions on it, including some electric honky tonk and Cajun two-step. Ben, Ian and Jared have a loose-limbed chemistry that doesn’t quite fit the formulas of bluegrass or country or rock and roll. But in that, they’re very Nashville.
Also on the bill is a songwriter who came to my attention thanks to enthusiast friends at the Americana Music Association. Caleb Caudle writes movingly and wraps his story songs in the muslin and canvas sound so core to the careers of Steve Earle, Chris Knight and others. He claims proud influence of Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac album, which should influence us all. And a recent move from his native North Carolina to New Orleans suggests a provocative musical/spiritual journey in progress. There are two albums in the catalog at this point: Tobacco Town and the new Paint Another Layer On My Heart. Both are great projects, and hundreds of dates around the country are building a bond with a public that likes tuneful poems, sung with grit and sincerity.
And we’re further excited to feature new, fast-rising, buzzed about Nashville ensemble Johnny Appleseed. With shades of Bob Wills and Haggard’s swinging side, they’re reframing a heritage that binds Music City to Texas and California, even going so far as to embrace the good old term Country & Western. When they played Americanafest last Fall, the Nashville Scene praised their “killer and remarkably tight performance… Those dudes make true-blue American country music in the classic sense of the term.” Sounds like they’re sowing something good as they ramble the land.
And as usual, this week’s season opener is a Nature Conservancy benefit show, supporting a great organization that certainly knows the importance of heritage when it comes to our natural resources and our landscape. We hope you’ll join us in the Factory this week and many times to come in the new year. There are many Wednesdays ahead to celebrate the best of the past and the artists who know that they can only look forward thanks to what they’ve inherited.