Tastebuds and Earbuds: A Spring Feast at MCR

by Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots producer

For me, a great concert lineup is like a great recipe, just the right balance of ingredients and tastes, sweet and sour, rich and spicy. And the really memorable shows, from nights at Bill Graham’s Fillmores to festivals like Merlefest and Bonnaroo, all have shared the secret of mixing it up, enhancing varied musical flavors, keeping that balance, that tension.

But I dare anyone anywhere to come up with a better, tastier, more eclectic lineup than we’ve got at Music City Roots this week.

First, we have two major American bands, reunited and back on the road.

From 1978-1998 Hot Rize was at the forefront of bluegrass music, with a soulful, tradition-based sound and innovative modern viewpoint. Before he became an Americana mainstay, mandolinist-fiddler Tim O’Brien fronted the band and provided the bulk of its original material. Peter “Dr. Banjo” Wernick, one of the music’s foremost experts, was equally adept at traditional bluegrass and newgrass. Charles’ Sawtelle’s rock-solid rhythm and bassist Nick Forster’s duet harmonies with O’Brien made Hot Rize one of the best and most influential bands in bluegrass. Many of their original songs, notably “99 Years (and One Dark Day)” or “Nellie Kane,” both by O’Brien,  have become bluegrass standards. Even more of a testament to their impact, Hot Rize arrangements of traditional songs like “Blue Night,” written by Nashville great Kirk McGee, have been copied by hundreds, if not thousands, of bands. Officially disbanded in 1990, regular reunion gigs kept Hot Rize going until 1998, a year before Sawtelle died of leukemia. Surviving band members pursued high-profile solo careers, but like the Beatles, reunion demands never stopped. In 2002, they enlisted flatpicker supreme Bryan Sutton and resumed a limited tour schedule. But it wasn’t until 2014 that they released When Im Free, the first Hot Rize studio project in 24 years. They’re starting a major tour that lasts much of 2015, but Wednesday, the revitalized Hot Rize will be at the Factory for a night at MCR. Pandemonium will reign.

Around the time Hot Rize was burning up the festival circuit, a young rock band was emerging from Atlanta. Since the ‘70s heyday of Memphis’ Big Star, a lot of the best alt-rock has come out of the South and that continued into the ‘80s with REM, the dBs, and that Atlanta band, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. Powered by the voice and songs of Kevn Kinney, DNC made a name on the college and club circuit. Signed to Island, they broke through in 1991 with Fly Me Courageous, which went gold. But 1991 was also the year of Nevermind, and rock’s short attention span quickly turned to Nirvana’s Seattle, as Grunge became the Next Big Thing.

 DNC kept on rockin’ and building its loyal base, touring with Neil Young and releasing well-received albums, notably 1999’s The Essential Live Drivin N Cryin. In 2001, they were producing demos for their next CD, The Great American Bubble Factory, when 9/11 happened and the project was shelved until 2009. Meanwhile, Kinney had established a solo singer-songwriter career that has included recent stops at MCR. He’s also been on basic cable, creating music for the animated FX series Archer. 

In rock ’n’ roll, longevity breeds respectability. In 2011, the Georgie General Assembly honored DNC for “cultural contributions.” But the band isn’t ready to be musical elder statesmen. For their MCR show they’ve added additional firepower, enlisting Jason & The Scorchers’ lead guitarist Warren Hodges. And Kinney and DNC will make their MCR band debut with new music from their recent series of five EPs, several produced by Paul Ebersold in Memphis (Ardent) and Nashville (Sound Kitchen).  A boxed set is planned. But right now, DNC is back where they started, drivin’ through the South and taking it to the stage.

So okay, Hot Rize and DNC? That’s a monster double bill right there. But as they say on the infomercials – Wait! There’s more!

Nashville’s rich soul music tradition has been largely forgotten by the rest of the world, but it’s been getting more notice since Michael Gray and the Country Music Hall of Fame released the GRAMMY-winning Night Train to Nashville a decade ago. Last July, MCR celebrated that CD’s anniversary with a night featuring some of the best of Music City’s living R&B heritage. The Valentines stole that show, and this week, they return to the scene of the crime.

The quartet of Paul Easley, Frank Howard, James Moon and Charles Myers is coming back hard, with a brand-new CD, Old School Knew, produced and written by the great Mac Gayden (“Everlasting Love,” “She Shot a Hole in My Soul”). The guitarist will be on hand to lead the Valentines’ band, featuring many of the musicians from the new project.

And representing the newest generation of Nashville music makers, our Emerging Artist is a band that measures its history in months, not decades. Daphne & The Mystery Machines features the vocals and songs of Daphne Culver and Jenn Palmer, backed by a rocking, eclectic band that mixes intricate guitar and cello textures with a driving beat. It’s a new group, but members have been around the scene long enough that there’s real muscle under that fresh, new-band glow.

Hope your ears are hungry. That musical feast is ready to be served.

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