bluegrass

The Steep Canyon Rangers head down that road again on “Radio” – an album review

Few bands mean as much to me, emotionally and personally, as the Steep Canyon Rangers, so I was excited when the band released their ninth studio album two weeks ago. “Radio” was produced by legendary dobro player and fellow-GRAMMY winner Jerry Douglas, who also plays on the album.

You need to buy this album, if for just this one reason: Graham Sharp’s “Down That Road Again” is one of the best new songs I have heard in a long time. In fact, if you don’t count Jason Isbell’s songwriting, it might be THE best new song I’ve heard in years.

The Steep Canyon RangersThe song, with Graham on lead vocals, feels like someone who is finally standing on firm ground but hasn’t forgotten the pain of the past and uses it to warn himself against an imminent fall. The climax of the chorus particularly resonates with me – “Right now I need the kind of friend / Who won’t let me go down that road again.” I have a few friends like that, and there’s almost nothing in this life that I am more grateful for than them. (Waves at Diana and everyone else.) I also like the line “There is a man who looks just like me… If you see him ’round won’t you stop and say It’s not too late.” It reminds me of one of my favorite Isbell tunes, “Live Oak.” We all have those hollow, moments when we feel driftless and unmoored from ourselves.

Empsall and Sharp

The author and Graham Sharp

The music on “Down That Road Again” is every bit as important as the lyrics. It opens with a slow, moving intro from Douglas on steel guitar and best-in-the-business Nicky Sanders on violin (and it really is more violin than fiddle here). But what really gets you is the tight harmonies on the chorus – the slide on “Right now” takes my breath away every time. Douglas certainly deserves producer props for that, as do engineers Julian Dreyer and Clay Miller at Echo Mountain Recording. While the Steeps’ albums have always been great, like most bluegrass bands, the harmonies just don’t come across nearly as well recorded as they do live. “Radio” starts to fix that, and not just on “Down That Road Again” – though this song in particular is one of those moments that really reminds us why music exists. I’m not afraid to say it: This song makes me cry. Thank you, Graham.

Radio is certainly a good album worth a spot in your rotation. That said, aside from “Down That Road Again” and another Sharp tune, “Wasted,” I think I actually prefer both 2012’s amazing GRAMMY-winner “Nobody Knows You” and 2013’s “Tell the Ones I Love.” But don’t get me wrong! This is a good album, and I’ve listened to it half a dozen times already. Other highlights include “Blow Me Away” (embedded below), “Long Summer,” and, if you’re looking for feel-good nostalgia, the title track.

As with the other two Rounder albums, there’s one upbeat instrumental track written by mandolin player Mike Guggino (“Looking Glass”) and 11 solid bluegrass songs – seven by Graham Sharp, three by bass player Charles Humphrey (including two with frequent songwriting partner Phil Barker of Town Mountain), and one from lead singer Woody Platt and his wife Shannon Whitworth. While Woody’s distinctive smooth voice remains lead on seven songs, Graham takes lead on four (in addition to prominent harmonies), which is more than the last two. Since Graham’s voice is deeper with a bit more edge to it than Woody’s, this makes the album’s sound slightly rougher than fans might be used to.

Woody Platt and the author

Woody Platt and the author

But on the uptempo side, the Platt/Whitworth song – “Break” – was a nice surprise, as Woody didn’t write anything on the last two albums, and it features Whitworth alongside him on vocals. That said, it’s always a little chilling, and intimate in an uncomfortable way, to hear a married couple sing about breakups (I’m looking at you, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis!). But, I suppose that speaks to the strength of the couple, doesn’t it?

There’s one other new thing about “Radio.” Percussionist Mike Ashworth has been touring with the Steeps for a couple of years, but this is the first time he’s recorded with them. While I’m often a purist, I’m perfectly okay with the drums here. The Steeps may have a more traditional sound than some of the other young bluegrass bands out there right now, but Ashworth’s drums, like Woody and Graham’s vocal styles, show that the band is willing to experiment in ways that push the format without breaking it.

4 whiskey bottles out of 5 for 2015’s “Radio.” Given the strength of the last two albums, I might go with 3.5 before 4.5, but I can’t wait to head back to DC and see the band again next month, and if this were a song review instead of an album review, “Down That Road Again” would get 6 whiskey bottles out of 5. You can buy the album on the Steeps’ website.

Nikki Lane and Town Mountain cover Conway Twitty – A Concert Review

Nikki Lane, Town Mountain, and Grand Ole’ Ditch teamed up for a great triple-threat show at Gypsy Sally’s on Friday night. (Town Mountain and Grand Ole’ Ditch are both bluegrass bands; Nikki Lane is country.) The night’s highlight was when a tipsy Lane came back out to join Town Mountain for a cover of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s “After the Fire is Gone.”

This was the second time I’ve seen Town Mountain at Gypsy Sally’s (and I narrowly missed them at Delfest). Pandora brought them to my attention through their cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” and several friends have told me the same. They didn’t play it the last time I saw them, so I was delighted they did Friday. And their fiddler, Bobby Britt, was particularly great on Orange Blossom Special. But don’t think this band is just covers – you gotta love their original song Lawdog. Robert Greer’s award-winning lead vocals are usually more modern – no high lonesome falsetto sound here – but Phil Barker sure hits the high notes on Lawdog. Town Mountain is the bluegrass you’ll ever find at this price point ($18 for three great bands).

Lane was good, too. I like Town Mountain a lot, but I mainly went to see her for the first time, and to round an awesome weekend of great women country artists (along with Brandy Clark and Nora Jane Struthers – reviews coming soon). I was surprised at how free-spirited and bubbly Nikki seemed on stage, given the heartache and struggle present in a lot of her songs. She was pretty rip-roaring on Right Time and Seein’ Double, though – loved those two, and her Waylon Jennings cover. It was fun to hear her tell the story behind “Man Up” (writing it was her passive-aggressive way of telling a now-ex to move out) or talk about setting up “Sleep With A Stranger” and then seeing a nine-year-old with an unhappy mother in the front row (hey lady, you came without listening to the album). She didn’t play my favorite of her tunes, “Love’s on Fire,” but that’s a duet with producer and Black Keys vocalist Dan Auerbach and she didn’t have a male vocalist with her so I guess that makes sense. And as I wondered in my review of her album last year, she is indeed better when her vocals are crisp, not recorded with an intentional muffled vintage sound. I’d love to see her in a festival setting, or at least with a rowdy crowd.

Also, loved this sentiment from her: “Now I’m going to play a brand new song. Or maybe you’ve heard it if you’ve seen me in the last six months – but it’s still brand new! ‘Brand new’ is just various stages of bad, until it’s perfect.

You should also check out Grand Ole’ Ditch, bluegrass out of Maryland. They used percussion and a dobro to create a very forward-leaning sound, their bass player seems like a fun guy, and I like mandolin player Lucas Mathews’ vocals. Here’s a link to a previous show of theirs at the same venue, Gypsy Sally’s in DC.

My list of DC-area Americana concerts through August (Next week: Nora Jane Struthers, Brandy Clark, and more!)

For the past two years, I’ve maintained a large spreadsheet of DC-area Americana/bluegrass/alt-country/etc. shows I’m interested in seeing. I thought I should share it here. I’m leaving DC in late August, but it’ll keep readers in these parts somewhat updated until then.

There are three shows within the next two weeks I’d especially like to highlight:

  • Thursday, June 25 – Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line (opening for Honey Honey) – the Hamilton, Downtown DC – I heard Struthers twice at Delfest last month, and just fell in love with her music. Why is she only opening??? Go to this show. Go. Go. GO. FREAKING GO ALREADY. Let’s get her the exposure and fanbase she and the band deserve! Their latest, “Wake,” will be my first album review in many months some time in the month or two. I’m playing it as I write this post, actually. I am really pumped for this show, and am bringing multiple friends, damn the school night. You should come too. I implore you.

(I might go for four in a row with Robin and Linda Williams at AMP by Strathmore on Saturday, June 27…)

My goal in starting this spreadsheet this was not to make a public document, but just to tell my friends what shows I’m interested in attending, if they’d like to come. Therefore, it’s hardly a complete list of ALL the region’s shows – there are some I miss, some I don’t include because I’ll be out of town, etc. – but it’s a pretty good starting place.

Check out the whole list here, updated through my move in late August but a little skimpy in mid-July due to my travel. (Don’t worry about what’s bold or highlighted, that’s personal coding.) Let me know in the comments if there’s anything I should add through Saturday, August 22!

Punch Brothers are really really great live, y’all!

I got to meet Chris Thile after a Nickel Creek concert last May. It was well after midnight but, unlike the band’s other two sleepy members, Thile couldn’t have been more amped up hanging out with fans by the tour bus. I asked him if the band’s reunion meant no more Punch Brothers, and he replied, “No way, man! I’ve got way too much musical energy to ever have just one project going at a time!”

Nathan Empsall and Chris Thile, the 9:30 Club, May 4 2014

The writer and Chris Thile, May 2014

A fitting self-description, because what a month Thile is having. First, on February 7 and again on the 14th, he guest-hosted for Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion – not the show’s first guest host, but the first time Keillor hasn’t even been present for the show. Then, in the middle of that on February 8, he won the “Best Contemporary Instrumental Album” GRAMMY along with Edgar Meyer for “Bass and Mandolin,” and was nominated for three more with both Meyer and Nickel Creek. Now his band Punch Brothers is back on the road in support of their brand new album, “The Phosphorescent Blues” (vinyl|CD). I was lucky enough to see them their third night at DC’s 9:30 Club for what Thile told the crowd was the first time they had ever played three nights anywhere, adding on the date after the first two sold out.

And you guys, Punch Brothers can PLAY.

If you’re unfamiliar with Punch Brothers, they’re sort of a bluegrass-classical fusion band. You could also call them, although comparison descriptions are almost always unfair, the darker side of Nickel Creek. It would also be unfair to call it “The Chris Thile Show” because the other musicians are also great and are showcased well, but Thile is almost always the lead singer and his mandolin virtuosity does take center stage. This is even more true at a live show, where his raw energy can really take over (heck, even half the fun of May’s Nickel Creek concert was watching Thile rock out to “The Fox”).

Punch Brothers, 02-22-15Punch Brothers’ albums are good, but I absolutely loved Sunday night’s concert. The music, whether recorded or live, is like Nickel Creek bluegrass but with more minor keys and classical influence – co-founder Gabe Witcher plays his instrument as a violin as often as he does fiddle (he’s also the drummer). There are also times when it sounds like Thile’s turn playing on Bela Fleck’s classical banjo album “Perpetual Motion” was a major influence. The difference between the sound recorded and the sound live is threefold. First is the warmth – I can’t explain it, it’s just warmer live, even with all the minor keys. It’s more personal and soulful, not just because the performers are there but the music itself. Second, and this is often the case with bluegrass, the vocal harmonies are just tighter – I absolutely loved the way Thile and Chris Eldridge sounded together live. Third, as I mentioned above and this was true about May’s Nickel Creek show too, is Thile’s energy. It’s not that he jumps around like Garth Brooks; there’s just an irrepressive spirit surrounding every move he makes and infusing every pluck of the mandolin. You can tell this is a man who loves music – you almost expect him to shout at any moment, “Oh boy, I GET TO PLAY ANOTHER SONG NOW! YAY!!!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, ANOTHER SONG!!!” He was good on “Magnet” and “My Oh My” but at his finest for the new song “I Blew It Off,” perhaps my favorite moment of the evening prior to the encore. And oh man, that encore. The band really f***ing brought it for “Heart in a Cage,” their 2006 cover of The Strokes, and another track from the new album, “Little Lights.”

For what it’s worth, if you heard Thile hosting PHC, his stage persona was very much the same with Punch Brothers. The other band members each introduced a song and spoke a little, but it was mostly Thile. Two fun moments showcasing the rest of the band was when banjo player Noam Pikelny introduced the band’s instrumental arrangement of “Passepied” by Claude Debussy (which was what reminded me most of Perpetual Motion). He said that Debussy died tragically – “Tragically in that he did not live long enough to hear our arrangement.” Later, Eldridge announced a tribute to the Seldom Scene – his dad Ben’s legendary bluegrass band, and Punch Brothers did a great straight-bluegrass rendition of “Through the Bottom of The Glass” with Eldridge taking lead vocals and bass player Paul Kowert ripping off a really fun solo.

Punch Brothers, 02-22-15The last thing I’ll note is how amazing the DC music scene can be – I have to imagine that artists are pleasantly surprised by the crowds they find here. Just like Sturgill Simpson’s show at the same standing-only venue a week before, the crowd was a mix of hipsters and country folks in the city with an even broader age spread. And just like with Simpson, they knew how to sing along, which seemed to thrill Thile to no end. The crowd started strong shouting “Oh Boy!” on the night’s third song, Rye Whiskey, and just didn’t let up – nor did the band. I don’t think anyone wanted the show to end. I certainly know I left feeling happy on the inside, even a little transcendent. I’ll review Phosphorescent Blues soon, but what I really look forward to is the next time I get to see Punch Brothers live. I’m really glad Thile is just 34 – this is definitely someone I want to spend the next 50 years listening to.

VIDEO: Chris Thile reacts to Bach and Radiohead the same way

Nathan Empsall and Chris Thile, the 9:30 Club, May 4 2014

A very blurry photo of the writer meeting Chris Thile last month

The other day, a friend told me how surprised she was to find herself enjoying the mandolin at a bluegrass concert. I replied that if you think you don’t like the mandolin, it’s probably only because you haven’t heard Chris Thile yet.

I went searching for some great Thile clips to show her, and came across this one from last year where he jams on multiple genres as part of an interview with the Wall Street Journal. I LOVE this point that he makes: Classical music isn’t any more staid or somber than rock or pop; it’s the AUDIENCES that are more reserved. But not the music or the artists! He compares a riff from Bach to a riff from Radiohead – both on the mandolin – and says they’re both “super intense!” and deserve similar reactions. Sounds good to me! What is music if not a portal into your emotions and your soul?

What do you think?

I see the cornpone, but where’s the beef? – A Concert Review: Dailey & Vincent, 05-30-14

If the Steep Canyon Rangers gave us a great performance at the Library of Concert last night, then Dailey & Vincent put on a good show – and that’s the key difference between the two bands. Performance vs show, an entertaining focus on music vs a musical focus on entertainment.

I don’t say that to sound dismissive. Cornpone and schtick aren’t my thing and weren’t what I was in the mood for, but that’s a pretty subjective statement. I do wish Dailey & Vincent’s show hadn’t overshadowed the music, because there was a lot of talent up there that could have spoken for itself and held its own. But if you like old-timey cornpone fun, you’ll love Dailey and Vincent. The presentation felt like a cross between the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw. Jamie Dailey was an obviously but well-rehearsed (and self-promotional) MC who came across as much the earnest host as he did the star. Sure enough, their very first paying gig as a duo was at the Ryman.

The band is fronted by bluegrass musicians and tenors Dailey and Darrin Vincent. The’ve got quite the credentials: Dailey was the lead singer for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and Vincent was part of Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder. It shows. They’re definitely good musicians – but this is a concert review, not an album review, and music just wasn’t the main focus of their show.

Their bluegrass roots always showed, yet they successfully straddled many genres. There was an electric guitar. The fiddler, BJ Cherryholmes, was very talented, and played as much in a country style as bluegrass. The Gospel influence was felt throughout the show, especially in the a capella quartets. They kicked the show off with a bombastic cover of Phillip Phillips’ “(Make this Place Your) Home” and an audience singalong of John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

The two best things I can say about Dailey & Vincent are first, the band is a worthy musical heir to the Statler Brothers. When all of them sang at once and actually put the emphasis on the music, that’s exactly who they sounded like – and they do in fact have an album of Statler Brothers covers I might well buy.

Second, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard someone sing as low AND as clear as bassist Christian Davis. That young man has an AMAZING voice! And the band knows it, showcasing his deepest notes often (even when it didn’t make sense to do so). Davis gets a lot of credit; I just wish the instruments hadn’t all but drowned out his big solo on the finale.

They were all quite talented, not just Davis. When the front duo of Dailey and Vincent performed a duet – Dailey on guitar, Vincent on mandolin, and both harmonizing as high tenors with some falsetto – it was classic bluegrass and great music.

But it was easy to loose sight of that given the fun, hoopla, and ra-ra jingoism the rest of the show was engineered to get us all caught up in. Take a look at the set they use in this video – that visual captures a lot. Of course I love America, but if every other sentence talks up freedom, praises vets, and gets in your face about red white and blue, it starts to feel forced – more like cheap, jingoistic nationalism than true country patriotism.

It wasn’t all jingoism. Some of it was schtick. Singer and mandolin player Jeff Parker is a real ham – no weight pun intended. He came across as a goofy extrovert who loved to have fun. And that’s not a bad thing, if you’re into schtick! None of this, aside from the nationalism, is objectively a bad thing; it’s just a question of personal preference. If you like cornpone – and I don’t – you’ll love Dailey and Vincent. And if you don’t but you still enjoy Gospel and/or bluegrass, you might still like their albums. There sure was a lot of musical talent up there, and I really look forward to hearing it when there isn’t an act to overshadow it.

Dailey & Vincent are Jamie Dailey, Darrin Vincent, Jeff Parker, Christian Davis, BJ Cherryholmes, and Jessie Baker on banjo, Seth Taylor on lead guitar, and Bob Mummert on drums. They are signed to Rounder Records.

They Tore It Up! – A Concert Review: The Steep Canyon Rangers, 05-30-14

A FREE show from one of my all-time favorite bands just a half mile from my house? Yes, please!!!

Last night, the Steep Canyon Rangers gave one helluva bluegrass performance to close out the Library of Congress’s free concert season. (No, the brilliant Steve Martin wasn’t there, but let’s remember – the Steeps were nominated for a Grammy with him, but won one without him!) Also performing were Grammy nominees Dailey and Vincent, whom I will review in a separate post, and Irish traditionalists Donna Long and Jesse Smith.

Though I’d heard a little from the Steeps before last January, they didn’t really come to my attention until then. I was going through an extremely hard breakup with the woman I thought I was going to marry, and was working about 70 hours a week. I needed an escape – badly – so I threw work in the trashcan for an evening and went with a buddy to see the Steeps at the Birchmere.

For those few hours, everything was okay, everything felt right again — it was the first time in months that I had been truly happy for more than a few minutes. As I noted in the essay that kicked off this blog, music has always been there for me in my tough times – and for their part in that, the Steeps will forever hold a special place in my heart.

This weekend marked my fifth Steep Canyon Rangers show in 16 months, and that feeling of truly being at home during them has never gone away. By that, I don’t just mean it feels comfortable; it’s more than that. It feels right – like coming home after travel. When an SCR show ends, instead of saying “Time to go home!” I say, “But it’s too late to go out again!”

Steep Canyon Rangers fiddler Nicky Sanders with the author, Nathan Empsall. April 2013.

Even with lasting sadly less than an hour, last night’s concert was as phenomenal as ever. The LOC crowd was the first I’ve seen that didn’t laugh at the opening line of the opener “As I Go” – “I always try to do what’s best, I’ve mostly done the opposite.” But by the finale, when Nicky Sanders tears up “Auden’s Train” with the best damn fiddling you’ll ever see, they sure were howling at his classical music riffs. Graham joked that Nicky was going to steal one of the Library’s famous instruments – “Stradivariuses? Stradivarii?” All of the band is amazing at what they do, so I hate to single out any one of them as the most talented – but as grave an injustice as that is to the rest of the band’s superb talent to say, it would be an even graver injustice to Nicky NOT to say it.

There are a lot of great coal songs out there, but “Call the Captain” is probably my favorite – plus it does a great job showcasing Woody Platt’s smooth vocals. Speaking of Woody, his guitar broke a string at one point, but he compensated extremely well for the rest of the song. Bravo, sir.

I’ll even applaud the band’s drums. What? Drums in a bluegrass band? Well, yes – the Steeps are a great cross between bluegrass and newgrass, pushing the limits but still respecting the genre, and in that spirit Mike Ashworth joined on drums last summer. They worked particularly well as retroactive additions to “Rescue Me” and the instrumental “Knob Creek,” and are an integral piece of the latest album’s title track, “Tell the Ones I Love.”

When all was said and done, the Steeps received a thunderous standing ovation that didn’t let up until they all came out for a well-deserved curtain call.

Nathan Empsall and Graham Sharp

The author, Nathan Empsall, with Steep Canyon Rangers banjo player Graham Sharp. May 2014.

I only have two small negative things to say. The first is that I think the bass was mixed a little too loud, especially in the beginning. (Also, it’s just now occurring to me that the Charles, also a prolific and talented songwriter, doesn’t get that many bass solos – hopefully that will be corrected on a future album!) Second, I really wish they had played “Between Midnight and the Dawn,” which was actually a runner-up for the title of this website. But the show was free and those are minor quibbles – the first and perhaps only negative things I’ll ever say about a Steep Canyon Rangers show!

If you’ve never seen the band life, you MUST. Obviously many groups are better live than recorded, but it’s amazing just how true that is for the Steeps. Don’t get me wrong, I love their albums – Nobody Knows You absolutely deserved that Grammy – but the two best things about the band just don’t come through as well in the studio. That’s how amazing Nicky Sanders is on the fiddle, and how wonderful Woody Platt, Graham Sharp, and Mike Guggino’s vocal harmonies blend together. Go. See. These. Guys.

The Library of Congress as a venue was a good thing, too. The band seemed truly honored to be there, including talking in the lobby afterwards. It certainly helped lift my spirits a little bit once I got to thinkin’ about it. By day, I work in politics, and I’ve grown a lot more cynical since moving to Washington. But sitting there in the middle of the Capitol complex, experiencing great American music with a diverse and appreciative crowd right in the historic place, everything that’s wrong with our society ceased to matter for a little while as the best things about what makes us us were put front and center. That’s what music does.

The Steep Canyon Rangers are Woody Platt on lead vocals and guitar, Graham Sharp on vocals and banjo, Nicky Sanders on fiddle, Mike Guggino on mandolin and harmony vocals, Charles R. Humphrey III on bass, and Mike Ashworth on drums.

The Washington Folk Festival is this weekend!

If you’re in the Washington, D.C., area, be sure to check out the 34th annual Washington Folk Festival this weekend, just outside the District at Maryland’s old Glen Echo amusement park! The festival runs from noon – 7 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday. There are all sorts of crafts exhibitors, a storytellers’ stage, and a Spanish ballroom, but more importantly for this writer and website, dozens of musicians stretching many genres, particularly bluegrass and folk. I’ve been before, and it’s a great time.

I was reminded of the festival a couple weeks ago when I walked to Eastern Market after church. I was in a bit of a hurry to get to afternoon events, so I thought I was going to just hit up the butcher counter and get out of there – but then I heard blugrass strains wafting across the plaza from the flea market, and dammit the weather was just so nice. So thanks to King Street Bluegrass, I spent about half an hour longer on 7th Street NE then I intended to.

They played a little bluegrass and a little blues, and let us all know that they’d be at the upcoming Folk Festival. They may not be the Steep Canyon Rangers* (I mean, who is?), but if every city had a bluegrass band like King Street Bluegrass, we’d all be sittin’ a little higher on life’s hog. These are the folks you want playing at whatever event it is you’re holding, so be sure to check them out this weekend (3:15 on Sunday at the Cuddle-up Stage) along with all the other performers at the Washington Folk Festival in Glen Echo.

*Speaking of the Steep Canyon Rangers, they’ll be in D.C. tonight too – for free, along with duo Dailey & Vincent and Celtic performers Donna Long and Jesse Smith! WHY is this not the headline of the post? Because while it’s a sold-out show at the Library of Congress, there is a limited number of FREE rush tickets available at 5pm for the 7pm show – and I don’t want you to beat me there to get them. ;)

What country music needs is another Willie Nelson

In a Texas Monthly cover article devoted to George Strait’s retirement from touring, Craig Havighurst argued that there may never be another George Strait.

George has been my favorite singer since I was 11, so I don’t say this lightly, but I would submit that what country and roots music need is not a new George Strait, but a new Willie Nelson.

Willie’s greatest accomplishment isn’t any one song or album, helping pioneer the outlaw sound, or even managing to make one beat-up old guitar last this long. It was the bringing together of diverse crowds that had always been at odds and finding among them common ground, new friendship, and a powerful movement. Like Bruce Robison sings,

“Like a miracle all those rednecks and hippies // From New York City down to Mississippi // Stood together and raised a brew // When it’s all gone wrong, what would Willie do?”

We need someonImagee to do that again – someone who can unite the red dirt cowboys, the Mumford hipsters and Lumineer moms, and the old singer-songwriter foagies.

Think about it. I went to a Nickel Creek concert earlier this month in Washington, D.C., and the audience was incredibly young – dare I say largely hipster. Now I’m not saying that that’s newgrass’s main demographic. It was the venue, the 9:30 Club, more than anything. Still, it was encouraging to see such a young crowd at a fundamentally bluegrass show.

And take indie folk, definitely a big draw for college students and hipsters. Personally I like Mumford and Sons, but I know a lot of folks find them insufferable. That’s fine, but love them or hate them, there’s no denying the influence folk and bluegrass had on their instrumentation and harmonies. Of course they’re not Americana, they’re British! But while Marcus Mumford, the Lumineers, and their ilk may be more of a response to pop than country, they are still our distant kin.

And yet, I would wager that the Mumford and Nickel Creek crowds of the east coast bear very little resemblance to a red dirt festival in Oklahoma or a Kacey Musgraves home crowd in Texas.

The question is, how can we elevate roots music and take back country music from hick-hop light beer bros? How can we build a coalition large enough to make the record labels take notice, the way they noticed George Strait in 1983 and turned away from Nashville easy listening to the neo-traditionalists? We need some way – someone – to unite the the subgenres and create a movement.

L-r: Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the author, Nathan Empsall

L-R: Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the author, Nathan Empsall

Maybe, just maybe, Sturgill Simpson will bring together the hipsters and cowboys the way Willie brought together the hippies and bikers. He’s a country traditionalist but one who’s not afraid to experiment, and after refusing to compromise with the major labels, his independent second album smashed through and debuted at #11 this month. Who are the crowds taking notice and driving that to the top? He comes from Kentucky coal country but has been featured on NPR; are those audiences coming together to give Metamodern Sounds in Country Music such a big boost? And will radio take notice?

I don’t know. But whether Sturgill is the next Willie or not, he’s at least a herald – if not the roots Messiah, then maybe our John the Baptist, proving that a better future is coming soon. That said, I don’t mean to put pressure or expectations on him; his art is already a breath of fresh air that speaks for itself. I’d say let’s just cross our fingers, but you can’t pick a guitar with crossed fingers. Instead, pour another round, play that Uncle Tupelo album one more time, and we’ll see what we see when we see.

UPDATE: After writing this post, I did some more reading, and found that Trigger over at Saving Country Music makes a similar arugment.