It was September in the Delta, driving down Highway 61 to Greenville, Miss. Most of the cotton had been harvested, leaving just enough to give the drive a dreamy quality in the hazy afternoon. It was 1991, when the Tunica casinos were just getting started, so the road was still a sparsely traveled two-lane. There was a sense of connection to the deepest roots of the blues, buy this wasn’t just a road trip. I was driving to work, in my brand-new job as Music Editor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. In my first assignment, I was covering the Delta Blues Festival and the reunion of two Memphis icons; blues master Albert King and Black Moses himself, legendary songwriter/producer/session-man Isaac Hayes.
When work is that much of a joy, it’s a great feeling, and the reason I’m thinking about that is I get that same feeling every month, as I head from Nashville to Cumberland Caverns and Bluegrass Underground to interview the artists for WSM’s weekly Saturday show from the caves. Combining work with so much great music in such a uniquely beautiful place is a privilege I never take for granted.
But this one is going to be really special. August 11 marks the Fourth Anniversary show for Bluegrass Underground and the band that started it all, The SteelDrivers, is coming back to celebrate.
A lot has happened to the band in the past four years, including a bunch of awards and nominations, notably a GRAMMY nom. Despite some personnel changes (founders Mike Henderson and the atomic-voiced Chris Stapleton have left the band), they’ve maintained their unique, bluesy bluegrass sound and fanatically loyal following (when they play the Station Inn, you better get there in the afternoon if you want a seat). Lead singer Gary Nichols hails from one of the soul capitols, Muscle Shoals, and he brings that sound to his lead singing and songwriting, and, together with bassist Mike Fleming and stellar fiddler Tammy Rodgers, the result is a seamless bluegrass trio with some of the best phrasing and dynamics I’ve ever heard. Richard Bailey, a Memphis boy (I worked with his dad at the Appeal), is one of the only banjo players who can say he’s played with both Bill Monroe and the Rev. Al Green, and you can hear it all in his thoughtful playing. Mandolinist Brent Truitt has an equally diverse resume, credits including touring with James Taylor and engineering Disney film soundtracks.
But sorry guys, to my mind, the real instrumental star is Tammy Rogers. A great session player and veteran of the Dead Reckoning collective from the ‘90s, she lights up the stage whenever she leans on that bow. Why she hasn’t won the IBMA Fiddle Award is a serious oversight. She’s on this year’s short list, so hopefully that will be addressed at September’s awards
The fifth year for Bluegrass Underground is already looking great, as the fall brings the return of Ralph Stanley (Oct. 27) and fellow legend Peter Rowan (Oct. 13). The season opens Sept. 22 with two hot young bands, Town Mountain and virtuoso chef/mandolinist Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen. Watch this site for more info as the season comes together. And of course, the next season of Bluegrass Underground, the PBS TV show, is also being readied, with such acts as Del McCoury, The Civil Wars and a double dose of Vince Gill, with his regular band and the western-swinging Time Jumpers (who just signed with Rounder for their next CD).
So no matter your politics, every bluegrass lover can agree on this. For Bluegrass Underground, Four More Years! (At least.)
But right now, if you were lucky enough to snag a ticket for the sold-out show, it’s all about The SteelDrivers and celebrating the first four years of one of the world’s truly unique concert experiences. And, of course, in this hottest-ever summer, The Volcano Room’s 57 degrees sounds pretty good, too.
I’ll be grinning all the way out US 24.
~ Larry nager