Lights, Cameras, Bluegrass!
Season Three of PBS Series Bluegrass Underground starts shooting March 8
Middle Tennessee’s been getting a lot of television facetime lately, with that hit nighttime soap Nashville and all. But if you’re looking for something with a lot more music and a lot less steamy melodrama (although I think there might be some kind of love triangle going on in the snack bar crew), head down to McMinnville’s Cumberland Caverns March 8, as the third season of Bluegrass Underground gets ready for its close-up in Day 1 of a pretty spectacular three-day weekend in the Volcano Room.
Opening night features the band that started it all, Bluegrass Underground’s good-luck charm, The Steeldrivers. That soulful quintet was the first national act on the show back in August 2008, and they returned last year to play the Fourth Anniversary Show. This weekend, they’ll be making their Bluegrass Underground TV debut, promoting a new CD, their third for Rounder, Hammer Down.
The band’s lineup has solidified with singer-guitarist Gary Nichols fronting the group, while Brent Truitt holds down the mandolin spot with a sound that mixes Bill Monroe with West Tennessee blues mandolin riff master Yank Rachell, along with the three original members of the band - fiddle great Tammy Rogers, versatile banjo picker Richard Bailey and genial bassist/MC Mike Fleming. In the highly competitive Nashville bluegrass scene, these guys have maintained their spot as a favorite of musicians and fans alike. If you’ve never seen them play live, this is your big chance.
They’re sharing a very strong bill that includes Old Crow Medicine Show. Few bands in recent memory have done as much to bring new audiences of young fans to bluegrass and old-timey music as OCMS. But frontman Ketch Secor’s fine original songs, including the gold-certified hit, “Wagon Wheel,” and the band’s solid musical chops please more traditional fans as well. Add to that a stage show that’s the musical equivalent of a moonshine-Red Bull highball and you have the makings of a great night in the cave, and one incendiary half hour of TV.
Singer/violinist Andrew Bird is also making his Bluegrass Underground debut on March 8. The multi-instrumentalist has been on the national scene for more than 15 years, first making a name in alternative music with his band Bowl of Fire. He’s packed venues like Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and last year released the acclaimed Break It Yourself. But he’s also gotten some notice on the film festival circuit for the concert documentary Andrew Bird: Fever Year. This looks to be the most unpredictable (in a good way, of course) show of the night.
The new kids onstage Friday will be Johnnyswim, the duo of Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez. Partners in life as well as music, the couple have been showcasing their rootsy brand of pop around the Midsouth for a few years now, but Johnnyswim’s recent Music City Roots appearance created some all-important buzz around one of the better duos on the scene right now.
That’s a pretty good mix of artists, all of whom grow out of very different traditions but have made the music their own, taking their own spins on what a bluegrass band can do with high and lonesome, or what an old-timey string band sounds like in 2013, or how a classically-trained violinist whistles or how a husband and wife should sing together.
Like the man says, it’s a little bit Bluegrass and a little bit Underground, and it’s the perfect kickoff to a very hot weekend down in the Volcano Room, as these folks light the stove for an evening to remember (and relive later on PBS, WSM and bluegrassunderground.com).
So to paraphrase that old joke about lawyers:
Q. “What do you call four great acoustic acts at the bottom of Cumberland Caverns?”
A. A great start.
- Larry Nager