It’s that time of year, when every writer seems to be making his or her Top 10 lists, coasting into the New Year on the fumes of 2012. I’ve always managed to avoid that chore and will continue to do so, but it has been a great year here at Bluegrass Underground, and if you want proof, just listen Saturdays on WSM 650 or on the internet anytime, or watch us on your local PBS station. But hopefully, you know that from personal experience, having made it down to the Volcano Room in person this year. And everyone can still check out a big chunk of BGU 2012 on Season 2 reruns of the PBS Bluegrass Underground TV series or watch archived shows online and on Youtube.
But, instead of recapping, let’s look ahead. As you make those New Year’s lists and resolutions, along with dropping that final stubborn 10 pounds and quitting (insert disgusting and/or annoying personal habit here), why not resolve to make it live and in person to Cumberland Caverns and a Bluegrass Underground show in 2013?
You couldn’t pick a better - or bigger - weekend than March 8-10. That’s when we film Season 3 of the Bluegrass Underground PBS TV series.
Last year featured Vince Gill with both his modern country band and his Monday night band, the GRAMMY-nominated Time Jumpers, along with bluegrass legends Del McCoury and Doyle Lawson, the Civil Wars, Jerry Douglas and lots more.
But Season 3 ups the ante yet again, with a multi-genre, multi-generational three-day lineup that ranges from Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famer Leon Russell to the red-hot Americana/jam band The Wood Brothers to young buzz acts like Johnnyswim.
Russell, who labored for years behind the scenes as a session musician and songwriter before stepping out front in the late ‘60s, leading bands for Delaney & Bonnie and Joe Cocker (the latter immortalized in the film Mad Dogs and Englishmen), has enjoyed a 40-plus year solo career and is enjoying a major comeback that began with his duo album with long-time fan Elton John, produced by T-Bone Burnett.
Appropriately, for his Bluegrass Underground show, Russell’s Saturday performance will be a reunion with New Grass Revival alumnus Pat Flynn in an acoustic band, reviving Russell’s classic Hank Wilson country material, as well as choice selections from his massive catalog of hits.
But the weekend starts Friday with the band that started it all for Bluegrass Underground way back in 2008. The Steeldrivers were the first national act to play the cave for a BGU show and have been back a couple of times, most recently for the 4th Anniversary. Fronted by the soulful voice and solid guitar of Gary Nichols, they’ve kept their unique sound and will release their third hard-hitting Rounder CD, Hammer Down, on Feb.13, just in time for Valentine’s Day (and yes, the CD includes fiddler Tammy Rogers’ crowd-pleasing ode to husband-icide, “When You Don’t Come Home.”).
The Steeldrivers share a bill with two acts that have filled the much larger Ryman Auditorium, unique singer-songwriter-violinist Andrew Bird, and the atomic-powered string band Old Crow Medicine Show, who just this summer drew thousands out to the new venue at Fontanel.
BGU’s founder Todd Mayo has introduced some of the area’s biggest new acts on his Music City Roots show at the Loveless, and he keeps that tradition of innovation alive at BGU with Friday’s opener Johnnyswim, the duo of Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez. They got together here in Nashville in 2005 and married in 2009. Sudano and Ramiez posses a uniquely modern, sensual sound. Most people will come for the bigger names, but Johnnyswim could be the set that folks remember.
Saturday brings the great Leon Russell down to the cave, headlining a stellar lineup that includes Cajun music champs BeauSoleil. Led by fiddler Michael Doucet, the long-running group is a two-time GRAMMY-winning band as well as recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship, America’s top honor for traditional artists. Country fans know them as the band that backed Mary Chapin Carpenter on her GRAMMY-winning “Down at the Twist and Shout” (she also namechecks them in the lyrics). Banjo master (“banjo mistress” just doesn’t sound right) Alison Brown returns to BGU, but instead of the all-star bluegrass band she fielded for this year’s Thanksgiving weekend show, she’ll be fronting her progressive Alison Brown Quartet.
Also in the string virtuoso department, cellist Ben Sollee fills the “new kid you’ll be talking about” slot. Sollee has played with Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Quartet and left jaws dropped all over the Loveless during his recent solo MCR appearance. So pad your chins for this one, folks, that cave floor can be hard.
There’s no day of rest Sunday, as a hot young lineup of jam bands will make you think BGU stands for “Bonnaroo Goes Underground.” Yonder Mountain String Band was a founder of the jam band movement, taking the gospel according to Sam Bush and Colorado’s freewheeling Telluride Bluegrass vibe to rock fests and major venues all over the world. The Infamous Stringdusters are another band that breaks bluegrass boundaries, blending musical virtuosity and acoustic innovation to the delight of fans above(and below) ground.
For blues-rock fans, The North Mississippi All Stars, featuring guitarist Luther and drummer Cody Dickinson, sons of legendary Memphis musician/producer Jim Dickinson, have been at the forefront of the jam-band movement before it had a name. I’ve known them since they were kids in Memphis in the early ‘90s. They were pretty amazing then and have only gotten better. And the “new” guys Sunday are The Wood Brothers. But though Oliver and Chris Wood have played under that name since 2005, they have long pedigrees that include Chris as a founding member of Medeski, Martin & Wood, one of the earliest jam bands, while Oliver played second guitar with southern blues-rocker Tinsley Ellis. As The Wood Brothers, Oliver plays acoustic guitar while Chris plays upright bass and harmonica and they sing duet vocals, creating a freewheeling blues fueled Americana Folk Rockin sound.
Now, that’s a pretty stunning lineup no matter where you put the stage, but let’s show some love to the BGU production down in the Volcano Room. For the TV production, the ordinarily obsessively painstaking BGU sound crew kicks it up several notches. But what really sets the TV version of Bluegrass Underground apart from most music shows on PBS or elsewhere is the lighting. If you’ve seen the show on your HD widescreen you know what I mean, but believe me, live is even more impressive. And unlike a lot of TV productions that stop and start and repeat as they try to erase every real or imagined performance flaw, BGU is pretty hands-off as far as performers go, allowing for the spontaneity and immediacy that makes live music so special.
And best of all, you can still be part of it. Tickets are now on sale and, considering that each of the three days features more than one act that has sold out venues several times larger than the Volcano Room, those tickets will not last long. So OK, you can procrastinate on all those other resolutions, but better get those BGU tickets now at bluerassunderground.com
- Larry Nager