Archives for category: Emmylou Harris

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, Mercy Lounge – Photo/ Brad Hardisty

Thursday night would mark three years since the first time I saw Jason Isbell (former Drive-By Truckers) and his then “new” band, The 400 Unit in 2009.  Jason was at Mercy Lounge last night at what he called his first “hometown” gig, I might be wrong, but, I think he said since he moved here.

Whether or not that is correct, Jason was playing a Nashville “insider” guitar, a session guy’s new secret weapon, a Duesenberg Gold Top with the futuristic looking German engineered vibrato arm. The retro looking euro-high tech guitars were first popularized by Mike Campbell (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers) but are making their way into Nashville via Rock Block Guitars in a big way.

Jason has always been known for tasty guitar licks, but, he has really developed some deft country licks without going pure Brent Mason. It still has that Muscle Shoals “where Soul meets Country thang” going on.

I was excited to see where he was at since hearing his new project back in 2009. Back then, it was like he was excited to kind of graft in the family tree of Muscle Shoals legends with something akin to The Band or The Heartbreakers (Tom Petty not Johnny Thunders) but now, three albums in and four years on the road, The 400 Unit (named after the former Psychiatric Ward at Florence, Alabama’s Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital) is a crackerjack five piece band, tight and lucid like the heir apparent to The Decoys, that features classic Muscle Shoals players, David Hood, Scott Boyer, Kelvin Holly and sometimes even Spooner Oldham on keys.

Jason has put a lot of weight on his shoulders by putting himself squarely in the middle of a heavy tradition with writers and players like Eddie Hinton, Dan Penn and Donnie Fritts. I have to say it is working out much better than the first time I heard him.  The set was great, the tone, the crowd and the band. I’m glad that he is doing what he is doing. He has refined the dynamics and is now digging a little deeper than the Gibson Les Paul into a Fender thing.

In fact, he pulled a 1970’s era classic Muscle Shoals tune out of his hat as well as a little “Stone Free” on the bridge of the last song before the encores. There was even an ounce of continuity or deja vu for me between that 2009 set at The State Room in Salt Lake City and the one in Nashville the other night.

Justin Townes Earle, The State Room, Salt Lake City, 2009 – Photo / Brad Hardisty

Justin Townes Earle opened for Jason Isbell back on that tour as he was taking off with The Good Life   then Jason Isbell played on Justin’s Harlem River Blues and  Justin was their last night for Jason’s set just catching it from the back.  It’s hard to miss Justin, he’s a tall presence, back then, he had a little Hank Williams style going on, now, it was an overcoat and fedora flair.

Hey, but, let’s get back to Jason. The Country music business is going about creating their own brand of country while there is this parallel universe where most of the Country Artists out of Texas, as well as newcomers, the august, and independent folks like Adam Hood and Jason Isbell pack them in when they come to Nashville.

Jason is some country, some soul and some heart wrenching lyrics, in reality, it’s all about Alabama, with a nod to Hank Williams-style sad lyrics, Duane Allman style ( Jason rocked on this, sometimes with a slide on two different fingers)slide guitar and a country boy from Greenhill, Alabama telling life stories that makes this worth listening too.  He has some solid fans in Nashville.

Dead Fingers, Mercy Lounge, 2012 – Photo / Brad Hardisty

Openers, Dead Fingers, Taylor Hollingsworth and Kate Taylor from Birmingham, Alabama got the invite and as Taylor said, “Alabama, represent!” Taylor has some of his own style going on, incorporating some Mississippi Hill Country Blues and rawhide Country into some Indie folk goings on.

Kate sang probably the strongest set I have heard her do so far; a real standout and an accomplishment at six months pregnant.  Kate has a great mix of Emmylou Harris and sixties vibe queens like Elaine “Spanky” McFarlane of Spank & Our Gang somewhere in that voce bella.

Dead Fingers were just at The Basement two weeks ago. Nashville is looking forward to hearing some more tracks in the future. You could say they are Birmingham’s Civil Wars, but, that would put them too much into a box after all the true Mississippi connections Taylor has made as well as his work with Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band.

Taylor’s slide playing was a standout last night. One of the fun things about Taylor’s playing is when you know his songs, you know when he is experimenting or seeing if the band will go wherever he wanders off too. He didn’t too much of that last night, but, he still looked like he was having fun and there were plenty of Nashvillians and probably some Bowling Green patrons wandering south for the night in the audience when they went on at 9 PM. 

Great Alabama-centric night at Mercy Lounge!

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN

Hayes Carll Americana Fest 2011 Mercy Lounge

After the Americana Music Association Carnival pulled out of Nashville, the big question is, what does Americana sound like? A friend of mine said that it would have at least one acoustic instrument in the mix, to give it that authentic roots thing. Jim Lauderdale as he hosted the Americana Awards did a spoof show tune, “That’s Americana!” It was hilarious and it was great because Americana is not a particular sound.

Americana is one of the strangest music references ever, at least when the word “grunge” came along, it meant one of the bands that came out of Seattle at a certain time. Americana is like a radio format for everything that doesn’t fit the current formats, yet, it is getting some of their artists like Mumford and Sons into the mainstream. Not to mention Will Hoge.

A mention was made by one of the show reviewers in Nashville Scene that they were glad that the “old farts in flannel shirts singing post Grateful Dead stuff” were gone and they could have the Exit/In back.

I get the feeling that a lot of people are stumbling onto Americana artists and not even knowing it, in Rolling Stone or when their friend says “listen to this” and pulls up something on their IPod by The Civil Wars or The Avett Brothers.

If you haven’t heard about these artists in the last year, then you live in a bubble. Americana is not only an award at the Grammys now, but, a launch pad, much like Indie format radio, where artists can get their “legs” as they mingle with legends like Gregg Allman and Robert Plant who are flying the banner.

One thing that Americana is not is electronic. Americana may have some roots in any American genre such as Blues, Soul, Gospel, Country, Folk and on and on, but it is definitely not about Kraftwerk or the modern Pop that is all made up on an Apple computer.

Blind Boys of Alabama Americana Fest 2011 Cannery Ballroom

Americana is as much about Red Dirt singer/songwriters like Hayes Carll as it is the roots gospel of The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Blind Boys of Alabama, Alabama Music Tribute at Cannery opening night

I guess if you are looking for a root to Americana you would probably have to go back twenty years in Nashville when about sixty California transplants started gathering to Nashville. Some of them became mainstream songwriters like Jeffrey Steele or Darrell Scott (most recently, Robert Plant & The Band of Joy). The one thing that did happen is they shook up the system.

Kenny Vaughan Americana Fest 2011 Mercy Lounge

Back in those days, Rosie Flores and Lucinda Williams would hang out all night, shutting down two or three bars only to meet up with Billy Block for breakfast.  A good chunk of these people bucked the Country music machine at the time or made some changes to it. They stayed true to themselves and this whole Americana thing has kind of caught up with them and now they are riding a jetstream of new found respect and popularity.

People like Jim Lauderdale who can go from playing straight up bluegrass to roots country to writing Robbie Robertson style music with a Grateful Dead lyricist represent the diversity of what is currently happening. It’s like the alternate universe of “the music business as usual” with a handmade vibe.

Most of what Bob Dylan does nowadays such as Modern Times could be classified Americana.  Many of the Americana Artists really jump from box to box, especially Mumford & Sons and Justin Townes Earle, who have as much Indie respect as they do Americana clout.

Kenny Vaughan packed it in then packed it back up at Mercy

The most interesting thing is that the genre has strong roots outside of the U.S. in places like Australia and Europe. Many of the artists make more money over there when they tour. This is nothing new, we as Americans many times pass on what is really cool about our culture and opt in for the corporate sell, “the spin.”

Americana is mainly artist and fan driven; it is really Indie at its core. If you like the Muscle Shoals era Dan Penn written songs alongside The Avett Brothers, more power to you. It really is the old saying, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”

Robert Plant, Entertainer of the Year, The Ryman acceptance speach

You don’t have to buy into acoustic singer/songwriters or flannel shirts and old farts to find something there for yourself. Chances are you are listening to some Americana format music without realizing it. If you’re not sure where to start then it might as well be Buddy Miller, Robert Plant said he heard Buddy the first time when he toured with Emmylou Harris a few years ago and he seemed to embody everything American music, blues, gospel, rock, you name it. Robert said that Buddy will always be a part of whatever he does in the future. Emmylou Harris, at this year’s awards at The Ryman, said, they should call the Americana Award “The Buddy” because he has won so many of them.

By the way, a note to the Nashville Scene writer, when you refer to a group of music fans as old farts, just realize that you are probably being referred to as an old fart by somebody, it could be an 11 year old on a skateboard listening to some punk band out of California and thinking the same about you.

 – Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN

Keynote Speaker Sam Bush

 Sam Bush set the mood for the 2010 World of Bluegrass giving the keynote Address on Monday night with reminisces of Bill Monroe.  As Sam noted many young players go back maybe as far as Sam or some of the other mid generation players and don’t remember the root of it all. A genre of music that began with one man.

Growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Sam was aware of Bill Monroe’s music through his parents and he could remember as a young boy, Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys rolling into town, not how it is now, the day would start with a Baseball game against a local pick up team, followed by jamming while the “venue” a big tent was set up for the nights festivities. Sam remembered being intrigued by the playing and the music that really cross genred mountain music with room for jazz style improvisation.  If you can play Bluegrass you can play anything.

Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys

Finally, when Sam was thirteen his family travelled down to Nashville to see the Grand Ole Opry. Bill Monroe and the band were not scheduled to perform but as the show was wrapping up Bill Monroe and band showed up instruments in hand ready to play and the show didn’t end for a while, in fact they brought the roof down. Sam was hooked, as he headed back up to his home in Kentucky he woodshedded many hours on the Mandolin as he also picked up the Fiddle.

He kept his keen interest in Bluegrass music from his teen friends, because after all it was the Sixties and it was only cool to be into rock and roll and not old time music. He went to the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest in Weiser, Idaho at the age of fifteen and he realized there were other Fiddle “geeks” like him.  It was at this time in his life that he had his first brush with the father of Bluegrass Music.  He was playing Mandolin during a jam when somebody went up to him and said “play somethin’ on this” and slipped a 1927 Gibson F5 into his hands. He had never played such a fine instrument. The person who lent him his instrument just happened to be David Grisman, a great player who would become a lifelong friend.  He noticed somebody peering over his shoulder and we glanced back he realized it was Bill Monroe. He dug in and played hard, Bill then said, “Keep playin’ that fiddle”. Sam said “I don’t know what he meant by that. Maybe he was needing a fiddle player in his band, but, it inspired me to be the best I could on that Mandolin.”

As he was increasing his ability on the Mandolin and Fiddle he got a call from the biggest Bluegrass group in Louisville, Kentucky, The Bluegrass Alliance.  The only problem was he was invited to join the band as a guitar player. He said sure and there he was in his first professional band as a guitar player.

Newgrass Revival

He was often encouraged as other musicians were by Bill Monroe to keep playing, at least until the big “shake-up” of 1971 when there were defections from one band to the next. The Bluegrass Alliance was not one to be left out. When all the members decided to fire Lonnie Peerce, he told him that they couldn’t do that because he owned the rights to the name The Bluegrass Alliance.  It turned out to be true so all the other members said in that case we quit. Sam and the others went on to form Newgrass Revival.

Unfortunately, through unproved rumors as well as the non- traditional long hair jam style they were not invited to be on Bill Monroe’s Festivals but performed on Bluegrass alternative festivals with forward thinkers such as The Country Gentlemen.  They were out to push the boundaries of traditional Bluegrass.

Things began to come full circle when Sam had a bout of cancer in the mid 80’s. While he was in the hospital, one night his wife answered the phone and quietly saying “yes Mr. Monroe.” when Sam realized who was on the phone he wanted to speak although horse and severely out of it.

Bill Monroe told him to beat the cancer he knew what it was like and Bill knew Sam could beat it. He also offered generously to perform at any benefits that were needed, which Bill did among others in the music business.

Later on, Sam performed with Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers.  While on the road, one day he heard some stuff going on at the front of the bus and rolled out of bed in nothing but cut off shorts with his long hair to find Emmylou talking with Bill at the front of the bus.  He felt it was typical, Bill was there when he least expected it.

One of the crowning moments of his career was when Emmylou wanted to record an album  live at The Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman was not in the greatest of shape in 1991, there were holes in the ceiling and in the floor; only about 300 people were allowed in at a time. He told Emmy Lou that they shouldn’t do the live album there that is was condemned Emmylou thought, hey only the better.  What a cool idea.

So the night came to perform and it was being videotaped for a live concert release and there was a part in the show where Emmylou had a guest to dance with her while the band performed. On this special occasion, they had invited Bill to dance with Emmylou which he graciously accepted.

After the “dance” The mobile recording truck was busy changing the big analog tapes which would take about ten minutes. One of the other band members said to Sam, “Why don’t you jam with Bill?” and there during the taping break, was Sam jamming with Bill Monroe on the stage of The Ryman. It was a moment that Sam had dreamt about all his life, something he had hoped for, but never thought possible. It was a moment etched forever.

It was the “olive branch” moment when Sam was welcomed back into Bill Monroe’s world.

Bela Fleck / Sam Bush

Finally, he talked about the death of Bill Monroe. He said there were two times in his life that he could remember exactly where he was, the death of Bobby Kennedy and the death of Bill Monroe. Interestingly enough, he was at the time playing with another genre stretching band, Bela Fleck and The Flecktones and The Flecktones on the fateful day of September 9th, 1996. Here was the man that began a type of music that influenced his life’s ambition from the time he was a little boy when The Bluegrass Boys’ tent “venue” rolled into town.

Sam has become a part of that legend, the growth of the genre known as bluegrass while forging ahead to find new ways to explore beyond Bill Monroe’s Legacy. Sam related the story of another Bluegrass Artist who wrote a song specifically with the style of Bill Monroe in mind. He finally had the opportunity to play it for Bill. Bill just said “it sounds great; now let’s see what you can do”.

Sam made a point that although there is tradition and structure to Bluegrass music that even Bill himself enjoyed what others could bring the table and how they could leave their mark on his legacy. Sam has continued the genre bending style that pushed the envelope with Newgrass Revival back in the early Seventies.

 He can play traditional with the best of them , in fact he is one of the best Mandolin players ever, a product of his Kentucky upbringing a bridge to the past, knowing Bill Monroe himself as the next generation were able to glean from his memory and understand the charisma of Bill Monroe, a Pioneer of a new style that is now bigger than it has ever been with national exposure and now being celebrated with the twentieth year of the IBMA World of Bluegrass that originally started with a few outdoor tents and now is hosted in Nashville filling the Convention Center.  

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN,