The Hello Strangers, Old Salt Union and Blackfoot Gypsies

By Craig Havighurst, Music City Roots Producer

Last week one of our dear older fans tapped me on the arm and complimented the show, including very specifically its gentle volume level. She was on to something. So far this winter, Roots has been acoustically easy. It’s been solo songwriters and banjo-driven folk. Western swing and classic country. Sure we’ve had guns-a-blazin’ bluegrass with Doyle Lawson and funky, twangy soul with Greyhounds. But so far no big amplifiers, muscular drummers or that essential, glorious American contribution to world music known as rock and roll.

But this is Music City, base for Jason and the Scorchers and Jack White, just as surely as it launched Hank Williams and Sturgill Simpson. Rock has roots. We’re selective and judicious in our indulgence in the loud and the heavy though. We love Drivin’ N Cryin’ and Derek St. Holmes for example. Well this week dear Roots heads, the pussyfooting ends. You’d best come loaded for bear on the wild frontier. Nashville’s hottest new roots/garage/blues rock band, the Blackfoot Gypsies, are set to play, and to cite the title of a great documentary about some guitar gods, it might get a little loud at the Factory.

But that’s just the closing set. On the way there, an evening of diverse, superb, increasingly amped Americana will unfold.

The Hello Strangers is a duo of sisters Larissa Chace Smith and Brechyn Chace named after a Carter Family song. So their outlook includes the classic, but their up to date sound draws on Austin, Nashville and their current home region of Pennsylvania/Kentucky. Just one pass through their debut self-titled album reveals reverence and creativity in equal measure. For instance they do a radical treatment on Jim Lauderdale’s “What You Don’t Know,” slowing the tempo to a brooding, spooky march, and they weave Jim’s own voice into their braided duo of sisterly beauty. (We can perhaps expect an on-stage collaboration.) Their featured single “What It Takes To Break A Heart” is a snappy country blues with organ, Telecaster and crafty drumming. This has been an easy album to fall for. The songs and the singing are equally strong and nourishing.

Just three years old, the progressive bluegrass/newgrass band Old Salt Union is following in the footsteps of Del McCoury, Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon. Indeed they frequently share stages with those very artists. Their second album Bridge came out in 2014, and the title suggests something about their hopes for spanning an audience already into bluegrass and another audience who don’t yet know they latently love banjos. Based in downstate Illinois, they’re in the St. Louis orbit where they won top awards for bluegrass and country band from the city’s weekly, and they’re just coming off a hot, sold-out show at the 30A Songwriters Festival. The Union’s intelligent use of mandolin melodies, steel guitar and engaging, sing-along friendly tunes could make them bridge builders in the years to come.

The intensity and volume will continue to climb when John Nemeth takes the stage. I’d not caught on to him, but I’m already pretty carried away about his power and finesse. His unlikely story includes parents from Eastern Europe, growing up in Boise, Idaho and singing his way to admiration in the Bay Area and then Memphis. His turf is classic blues and chitlin circuit soul, and he juggles covers with original songs. Commentators put him in the “top echelon” of today’s blues performers and he has a Living Blues top male vocalist critics’ award to prove it. In Nemeth’s performances, I’m reminded of the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson when he struts in his suit and plays harmonica. In Memphis he’s been working with The Bo-Keys, and Roots fans will remember how much fun we had with them. This should be a blues spectacle.

The Blackfoot Gypsies made the news just prior to their date at Roots. They kicked it old school and signed an ink-on-paper record deal with our pals at Plowboy Records, the label that collaborated with us on an Eddy Arnold tribute night. Of course they did so (according to Facebook photos) with members of the band wearing furry buffalo horns and feathered Indian headdresses. I don’t know if any of the band have any genuine Native American connections or if they’re part gypsy. I’ll leave it to others to rule on their cultural ambassadorship. My own impressions come from tracks and videos that present a fiery, funky Southern rock band with a high fun quotient. The Nashville Scene jokingly called them “Flat White Creedence Key Bombs,” if you can follow all those references. No Country for New Nashville reports that the band is built around the duo of Matthew Paige and Zack Murphy and that they’re close with MCR Alums Alanna Royale and the Black Cadillacs. “These gentlemen are rebels with top-notch musical discipline,” they say. “You are going to hear serious texture and versatility. Matthew is the master of string instruments, harmonica, and vocals, etc. Zack is the rhythm monster. There is a lot of Nashville spice in their sauce.”

So to my friends and our fans who love the easy-going lilt of acoustic folk and plunky banjos, we love you back, but this may not be your week. To those who’ve been sitting on the sidelines waiting for this season to fire up its engines and amplifiers, come on down. We don’t go to eleven, we think you’ll rate this one a “ten.”

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