Travelers and Ramblers

By Craig Havighurst

“I’m just a traveler on this earth

Sure as my heart’s behind the pocket of my shirt

I’ll just keep rolling till I’m in the dirt

‘Cause I’m a traveler, oh, I’m a traveler”

Perhaps you can hear Chris Stapleton’s viscous, delicious voice singing these lines from his song “Traveler” of 2015. Even after a century of autos and airplanes and even at the dawn of virtual reality and for all we know teleportation where boundaries vanish and distance collapses, we still take sustenance from the archetype of the pilgrim, the wanderer and the explorer. We can’t claim such grand ambitions at MCR as we continue our Roots on the Road series. Heck, we’re just temporarily homeless and taking up shelter where the rooms are cool, the sound is hi-fi and the owners welcoming. But this journey has been rewarding. We had such a great time at the City Winery that we’re circling back (no we’re not lost) and putting up our sign on May 16 with a lineup featuring ramblers and travelers of the highest caliber.

The Travelin’ McCourys have certainly been on an odyssey. Ronnie and Rob were born into a bluegrass family, but as they grew up, their dad Del McCoury wasn’t the industry leader and Grammy Award winner he is today. As the boys matured into fine musicians and joined the band, they witnessed and enabled Del to transcend his regional base and become a worldwide star and symbol of traditional bluegrass music. But in time, the band, minus Del and plus a guest guitar player (now made permanent with Cody Kilby), began to find places to play that stretched farther out, deepening the bonds to the jam and jazz circuit. The Travelin’ McCourys band was born as chiefly a live ensemble. They made one full length album with jam world collaborator Keller Williams. But only now are they releasing a formal, self-titled album. It reveals all the kinds of material the band favors – a couple of Grateful Dead covers, a Doc Watson and a John Hartford song, some brilliant original bluegrass songs, including several by bass man Alan Bartram and one of Ronnie’s signature mandolin-driven instrumntals. The disc will be released alongside a new Del McCoury Band album on May 25, during the eleventh annual DelFest in Cumberland, MD. May is the Month of McCoury and we’re proud to play a part.

If travel is too big a commitment, maybe you’re more of a rambler, and we’re ready for you with one of the coolest traditional bluegrass bands on the circuit in Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers. I’ve written at length in past years about our kinship with Joe because not only is he a dedicated and skilled musician and band leader, he’s a star broadcaster with a group of radio stations in Ohio anchored around WBZI, an AM signal beaming out bluegrass and classic country. Joe knows what it means to spread the good word about the passionate, old time sound anchored in the original Blue Grass Boys and Stanley Brothers. Joe and his quintet arrange terrific songs too, and their latest collection is last year’s The Story We Tell. I was honored to write liner notes for that one. My key takeaway: “They’ve won some awards that you can look up, though fewer than they deserve and fewer than they will over time. What matters more is that Joe’s steady contributions and excellent performances are accumulating, year in and out. So is a larger story of an artist who’ll tend to traditional music for decades, something we very much need as the genre widens.”

Another of our fine guest artists has journeyed from quite a bluegrassy place in the early years we knew her to a more electrified and eclectic take on country soul. That would be Nora Jane Struthers, the former Brooklyn school teacher who up and moved to Nashville to make country music, encouraged by leading a band that won the Telluride contest in 2010. She’s proven one of roots music’s freshest voices and most nimble talents. Each chapter of her growth has proven fascinating and compelling. She’s had her current band together for four years, including her new husband Joe Overton. Her exceptional 2017 album Champion was a deeply personal set of songs investigating that life-changing experience in all it’s sexy wonder and emotional challenges. It earned some killer acclaim, including NPR’s Ann Powers who wrote: “Champion is beautifully structured, recalling the best work of Struthers’ elders, like Rosanne Cash and Nanci Griffith.” When I caught up with Nora Jane recently she said for her money, the disc “felt like the first record where we’re living in our own sound.” Four years together as a working band can do that.

Rounding out this City Winery bill will be a newcomer to the show and an artist putting her first music out there in the marketplace, Emma Hern. She was raised in Richmond, VA and bywayed through the Berklee College of Music before heading to Music City. And she didn’t come alone. According to a profile in the Lockeland Springsteen blog, her Berklee pals came with and are now her backing band. She seems to have played her opening hand well, earning a slot on the Pilgrimage festival in 2016. The sound is retro soul and rock and roll with liberal dashes of eyeliner. She’s released a debut single “Love Is Killing Me” which will make all but the infirm shake their hips and is planning a full length album.

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