Real As Dirt: James Apollo, Helen Highwater Stringband, Kai Welch and Doug Seegers

By Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots Producer

The preoccupation with authenticity in roots music is not just some trope. It’s not a game or a cliché that we writer types dwell on because we can’t think of anything else to talk about. It’s as close to the heart of what matters about folk music as redemption is to religion or improvement is to sports. Authenticity is the highest, best calling of the art form. But what does it mean?

That’s a big subject of course, but one test is to ask whether an artist would do it the same way for an audience of a thousand or of a million or of two. Would they do it with no expectation of return, simply because they had to? And when you’re listening, can you feel screens and filters and mediators, as with country radio? Or does it feel like a human being speaking in words and musical gestures so vivid they could stroke your cheek or shove you in the chest?

I’m dwelling on this as I contemplate the “sudden” success of country singer and songwriter Doug Seegers, who plays a Roots bill this week loaded with authentic visions and talent. All four artists are worthy of deep attention, but Seegers piques the imagination because his story is so dramatic and because you can hear his complex experience in every well-wrought phrase and every wise, timeless song.

If you followed roots music this year then you’ve probably heard this by now. After a long life of ups and downs that included making music with Buddy Milller decades ago in Austin and raising a family in New York state, Seegers found himself homeless and busking on the streets of Nashville. He sang favorite old songs and originals for passers by downtown, and it’s likely more than a few of Music City’s discerning music fans stopped to remark how much better he was than most street musicians. Yet this went on for years. And in a strange turn of events, it took a Swedish film crew and a popular Swedish TV host to create the unlikely vehicle for Seegers to earn a buzz. Fist it was Sweden, where he’s now a genuine star. Then in Nashville. Rounder Records released his moving, fascinating debut album Going Down To The River.

I first read about Seegers by way of Peter Cooper’s Tennessean story, and then suddenly he was everywhere – in the Wall St. Journal and on NPR. A recent interview with radio show On Point is a great vehicle to hear Doug’s mixture of humility and artistic confidence. During that session, host Jane Clayson brought in Emmylou Harris by phone to testify to Doug’s importance and, yes, authenticity. Harris proclaimed that he lived up to the old Southern compliment “as real as dirt.” Harris, who sings a duet on the album, admired her friend as “somebody who has survived with his artistry, his voice and his soul in tact and then to be discovered and embraced by people.”

Then Doug sings and makes the host cry. Don’t hear that very often.

What surprised me about the Seegers album was that it has more layers than a simple three-chord country album. His songs have interesting structural ideas and sophistications that suggest some behind-the-scenes pro with years of Brill Building experience. But nope, these are Doug and Doug is these songs. The real deal, as they say.

It’s a four-for-four week of Roots debuts, and I don’t know which has me most excited. Kai Welch has been a prolific collaborator, including playing with The Greencards, producing the cool new Front Country album and writing/recording with Abigail Washburn, which is where I first heard of him. He’s a native of rural Oregon who somehow made it to Nashville and into the good graces of some of the more sophisticated and searching roots musicians in the country.  I could tell from his prominent role in Washburn’s City of Refuge album (a huge favorite of mine) that Welch has a keen pop sensibility to go along with his folk background. The title track of his debut EP Perpetually Out Of Fashion confirms it with interesting vocal doubling and carefully wrought electric guitar.

The members of the Helen Highwater String Band have all played Roots before, but as leaders and side musicians. Now they’re a band, and what pedigree they have. Mike Compton is the long-time mandolinist for the Nashville Bluegrass Band and a top-flight traditional artist. Missy Raines, leader of the New Hip, brings her award winning acoustic bass to the mix. Fiddler Shad Cobb does more singing in this band than in some of his past projects like the John Cowan Band. And on guitar, one of my all time heroes of acoustic mastery, the idiosyncratic and brilliant David Grier. As I noted upon catching them at World of Bluegrass this Fall, they put more emphasis on vocals than you might expect for such instrumental virtuosos. But I have little doubt we’ll hear their string-picking expertise on display as well.

Wild card of the week for me will be James Apollo, an on-the-go bandleader and songwriter out of Seattle who seems to be earning the love of indie rock bloggers. He represented his home town at a big SXSW event last March. He’s quite young but he’s been touring since age 16, so he’s got a lot of miles on him already. He says he moved from Brooklyn to the West to be near deserts and to be able to get off the grid easily. He must like dirt.


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