Bluegrass Underground Returns to the Fall TV Lineup.

New Season runs from hardcore ’grass to spaced-out jams.

Fall’s coming. Kids back in school, Halloween candy in every store, and a new TV season set to begin. Sept, 6, BGU VII – the lucky seventh season of superlative subterranean sounds live from The Volcano Room – will begin being beamed to PBS stations around the country, the latest batch of shows from our 13-time Emmy-winning series Bluegrass Underground.

This season features a huge variety of great artists, from our premiere performers, The Mavericks, to newcomers like rising Americana star Parker Millsap to ‘60s Memphis soul veteran Don Bryant, Australia’s Pirate Queen of Alt-Country Kasey Chambers, the sanctified soul of The McCrary Sisters, blazing country-rock from Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, world-class bluegrass by Rhonda Vincent & The Rage and Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, and so much more. I served as host for every single one of those upcoming Bluegrass Underground performances, so I saw all of them. And I have to tell you, I am still really, really excited to see them again on TV.

Nothing beats the in-cave Bluegrass Underground experience, but director Jim Yockey and co-producer Todd Jarrell take those live performance, which usually clock in around 45-50 minutes, and edit them down to fit our half-hour format. So our artists, some of whom, like Stuart or Bryant or even Chambers, have decades of material to pick from, have already whittled it all down, choosing their absolute best of the best to fit into one set. Then Yockey and Jarrell take that and further refine the show, double-distilling it down to the most intense, life-altering pieces, editing it into one non-stop, half-hour thrill ride.

And of course, there is always the unpredictable. Stuff happens, especially when you are deep within the earth. When the cave works its magic on the artists, they play it forward to the audience and, with cameras rolling, viewers at home. I’ve seen it over and over again. The Civl Wars, not long before they called it quits, smoldered with more than the usual heat in the Volcano Room, while Ketch Secor drove his Old Crow Medicine Show to full blaze, in the hottest performance I’ve ever seen from the band. Then there was the time Jerry Douglas spontaneously duetted Amos Lee on “A Change Is Gonna Come’. This year had several little miracles. One that stands out was Kasey Chambers’ “Ain’t No Little Girl” that built from a smoking ember into a full-blown inferno. Sweet surprises included Mavericks frontman Raul Malo’s mom, Norma, performing during his show. I don’t want to give too many details. You just need to see it.

And you don’t have long to wait, The Mavericks kick off BGU VII. Every time we bring an artist down to the cave, some kind of alchemy occurs. I can count on one hand the performers who weren’t visibly moved and inspired by being there, amid the state-of-the-art sound and lights, in an acoustically perfect, surreally beautiful setting. Somehow it all bubbles up into something magical.  Experience the cave for yourself!

That happens even when the TV cameras aren’t rolling, of course, but the additional tension of creating a TV show tends to lift that already heightened intensity into something that anybody who cares about great music simply should not miss.

Here’s the exclusive preview of Bluegrass Underground Season VII:

The Mavericks – This is the Mavericks time. They’ve survived ups and downs of all kinds to take their place as one of the great American rock bands. The group has never been happier or more cohesive and their BGU show proves it. Their first time in the cave, with a brand new album (Brand New Day) on their own label, of which they are justly proud, and with their first trip to Cuba planned a few weeks after taping (where singer Raul Malo’s mom and dad were born and where the band filmed a PBS Great Performances, coming Oct. 6) – their appearance captures a very special moment for The Mavericks, turning their set into an infectiously joyous celebration.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Fronting a great band that features guitarist Neal Casal, the former Black Crowes frontman Robinson led a psychedelic sonic expedition, deeply rooted in American blues and folk, but with the spacey atmospheric vibe he’s known for.
Kasey Chambers – Another cave debut, Chambers was so thrilled to be at BGU, she almost giggled during some of her saddest songs in a fine set showcasing her recent Dragonfly project. But there was no giggling during her devastating, unforgettable “Ain’t No Little Girl.”
Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives – Awed by the setting, Stuart went off-script to sing Merle Travis’ “Dark As a Dungeon,” but most of his show was culled from his superb tribute to the country and country rock of California, Way Out West. His first BGU performance was truly inspired.
Parker Millsap – Hank Williams-meets-the-Ramones. Parker’s show kicked off the second day’s taping in style, This is the reason that those first Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys records with Flatt & Scruggs were so hot; why Elvis’ Sun sides still burn; why Otis Redding’s music is so timeless. Parker follows that tradition of deep rural roots powered by youthful, hormonal enthusiasm. A star is born.
Rhonda Vincent & the Rage – I’ve seen Rhonda many times. She is dependably great, but when a special occasion demands something more, she always rises to it. She did it again, in her first time in the cave, with her long-running lineup of The Rage, arguably the best she’s ever fielded, filming it all for a national TV audience. The Queen of Bluegrass left nothing on the table and just burned The Volcano Room down.
Conor Oberst with the Felice Brothers – The singer-songwriter and ex-Bright Eyes frontman brought his special occasion with him, his “Salutation” Tour featuring The Felice Brothers as backup band. They provided a solid foundation, from gentle folk to straight-up rock, as Oberst hurled head-first into his set packed with songs from his Salutation project. Folk-rock for the 21st Century, it felt a bit like seeing Dylan go electric at Newport.
Don Bryant & the Bo-Keys – I met Don Bryant more than 20 years ago as the business partner and supportive husband of the great Ann Peebles (“I Can’t Stand the Rain” etc.), one of the true queens of Memphis soul. When Ann suffered some health problems, Bryant reached back to his early days as a Hi Records recording artist and hit the road with producer/bassist Scott Bomar’s classic Memphis soul band The Bo-Keys, featuring original Hi session greats Howard Grimes on drums and Archie “Hubby” Turner on keyboards. Back in the spotlight after so long, Bryant took none of it for granted as he stood in front of his powerhouse band and turned the Volcano Room into a Beale Street Time Machine, taking us all back 50 years to the Golden Age of Memphis soul.
Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors – Another Memphian, the eclectic singer-songwriter has written songs in the classic Southern soul style, but he took the “bluegrass” part of Bluegrass Underground seriously, as he and his fine band unplugged, offering a rare, acoustic look at one of today’s best performing songwriters.
The McCrary Sisters – Nashville’s first family of Southern Gospelmade a return appearance on BGU. In Season I, they backed gospel powerhouse Mike Farris. This year, they returned with their own show, featuring some of Deborah McCrary’s fine original songs, as well as traditional fare. With three exceptional lead singers in Regina (who toured with Bob Dylan throughout his gospel music period), Ann and Alfreda, and the shimmering group harmonies that have made them first-call backup singers here in Nashville, the McCrarys take gospel music to new directions.
Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out – You can read their bio, which includes such highlights as seven awards for Vocal Group of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association, or lead singer Moore’s five IBMA Male Vocalist awards, but you really have to see them. This is why we love bluegrass – soulful singing, death-defying high lonesome harmony and instrumental wizardry to blow your mind.
Blues Traveler – BGU VII ends the same way the weekend taping ended, with the full-tilt jam-rock of John Popper & Blues Traveler. Sure, everyone knew they’d wind up with “Run-Around,” but it was how they got there that kept the crowd on its feet, working through a bluesy set of rock showcasing Popper’s ability to blow through his harmonicas like a human hurricane.

So set your DVRs, but while you’re at it, make plans to join us in person, whether for the next taping or for one of our regular shows. Either way, we’ll see you Underground.

-Larry Nager

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