BGU Season VII Taping: Magic and Mavericks, Hippies and Honky Tonkers

We have emerged from the cave, squinting, following our three-day BGU marathon taping, and we didn’t see our shadows, so spring is on the way. While it’s a little early for a Fall 2017 TV preview, here’s an advance DVR alert – whether you like hard-driving bluegrass, dreamy hippie rock, funky Southern soul or hard-core honky tonk, it’s one-stop shopping at BGU VII, the next season of PBS’ Bluegrass Underground TV show.

It’s a pretty simple formula – take an absolutely unique, breathtakingly beautiful and sonically pure setting, add a dozen performing artists who pay attention to both the“performing” and “art” parts of their job description, and then mix in a sold-out, demonstrably appreciative audience from throughout the US and beyond. Add that special magic that only the Volcano Room can provide and you’ve got the seventh season of Bluegrass Underground.

There’s an old music industry story about Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler, listening to a Tony Joe White record as Phillips says excitedly that it sounds “so good, it don’t sound paid for.” Legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson often told that story as an example of the generally larcenous bent of music producers, but I knew Sam Phillips in his later years and I see it differently. If you look at both their careers, Phillips and Wexler were always on the hunt for the genuine, the authentic, music by people compelled to make music, regardless of whether they were getting paid or what it did for their careers, doing it simply for the sheer joy of the doing, the thrill of feeling that music move through them and out into the world.

I thought of that more than once during PBS weekend. From Russell Moore’s opening show Friday night to Marty Stuart on Sunday afternoon, just about everybody on stage that weekend would be doing this for fun if it wasn’t their living. This was music as a force of nature, not a product.

We kicked things off with longtime BGU friends, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, making their fourth trip to The Volcano Room. They’ve been at it 25 years, winning Group Vocal IBMA honors seven times, while Russell picked up five Male Vocal awards. They cover a lot of acreage in bluegrass and beyond, with a deep catalogue from standards like “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight” to their tribute to Glen Campbell and John Hartford, “Gentle on My Mind,” to their opener, “Brown County Red,” my new favorite bluegrass murder song. They pushed tradition with Wayne Benson’s electric Mandocaster on a couple songs, but never strayed far from Mr. Monroe’s original vision of timeless mountain soul and jaw-dropping instrumental virtuosity.

Conor Oberst followed with his “Salutation” tour, a collaboration with The Felice Brothers. It’s an exciting combination on record with both factions freely mixing tradition and innovation, but it was even better live, as Oberst threw himself into every song, creating instantly classic, edgy, folk-rock.

Next was The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, which uses the bluesy roots of his old band The Black Crowes as a launching pad into Grateful Dead-influenced explorations. Fueled by the guitar heroics of Neal Casal, the set moved from atmospheric originals like “Forever As the Moon” to the Dylan/Dead classic “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.”

Three hours into our Underground journey, the evening was just getting started. Friday closed with The Mavericks in what had to be one of the single best performances in seven years of PBS tapings. The band is enjoying a renaissance, launching their own label, Mono Mundo, and their brand new CD, Brand New Day. Since they were closing, they played almost twice the allotted 45 minutes, in a non-stop country-Latin-rock hoedown that included Malo’s mom, Norma, jumping from her seat at the side of the stage to dance with her son on “Dance in the Moonlight.” “Raul sings, but I love to dance,” she said after the show. She wasn’t alone, as The Mavericks worked their songbook, including recent favorites like ‘Come Unto Me,” “Back in My Arms Again,” the Cuban ballad “Si Tierra” and their traditional closer, the rocking “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down.” I’ve seen the Mavericks and Raul Malo solo many times, but the cave worked its its spell on them that Friday night. That is why we leave our houses to see live music. And it should make some really great TV.

Saturday

Less than 14 hours later, we were all back at it, happy, bleary-eyed and well-caffeinated, as Parker Millsap opened the day like a Red Bull monsoon, combining punk-rock energy with fiddle-driven classic country, sounding simultaneously brand-new and vintage, working through originals like his showstopping “Hades Pleads” and paying tribute to pioneer country outlaw Charlie Poole on “Hesitation Blues.”

Australia’s pirate queen of country music Kasey Chambers followed in a stripped-down trio packing more than 20 years of songs, from the heartbreaker that introduced her to America, “The Captain,” to freshly-minted material from her just-released double-CD Dragonfly. She joked that no one wanted to hear her “whining” through that much music, but she left the crowd wanting more. I’ve never seen anyone happier to be in The Volcano Room, grinning through a great cover of “Willin’,” and her jaunty “Pony.” She got serious for the weekend’s single most powerful performance, a raw, visceral “Ain’t No Little Girl,” that earned the longest standing ovation of the three days from the visibly stunned crowd.

The McCrary Sisters then took us to church with a set of classic and contemporary Southern gospel. including a rousing take on The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.” Regina showed off her tambourine chops , but the biggest applause went to Deborah, who overcame two strokes to sing again and contribute some of the group’s best original material, including “Let It Go.”

Memphis native Drew Holcomb closed Saturday with a set featuring the acoustic version of his band The Neighbors. He’s a singer-songwriter in the mold of Springsteen, Van Morrison and Mellencamp, with thoughtful lyrics set to a wide range of styles, played by his, versatile longtime band. Like the best of that genre, he writes personal songs with universal resonance, whether celebrating his daughter Emmylou on “Mama’s Sunshine” or his home state on “Tennessee.”

SUNDAY

If the McCrarys’ gospel turned Saturday afternoon to Sunday morning, Don Bryant & The Bo-Keys transformed Sunday afternoon into Saturday night with a skin-tight, horn-powered, Southern soul revue. Bryant was an early star of Memphis’ Hi Records (the label of Al Green, O.V. Wright and others) and was lead singer in label head Willie Mitchell’s band, but he’s best known for working with his wife Ann Peebles, co-writing her classic, “I Can’ Stand the Rain.” Impeccably dressed and in command of the stage and audience, Bryant repeatedly brought people to their feet, buoyed by producer/bassist Scott Bomar’s slow-burning band, including legendary Hi Records sidemen Howard Grimes on drums and keyboardist Archie “Hubby “ Turner.

Rhonda Vincent & The Rage followed, and though I’ve seen her many times before, from bluegrass festivals to The Ryman, this was by far the best to date. She and her group have never sounded better and she’s crafted a show that seamlessly moved from country classics like “Jolene” and “Beneath Still Waters” to a showstopping instrumental medley and a showcase for her singer-guitarist Josh Williams, who earned a standing ovation for “Freeborn Man,” the only one earned by a “sideman” that weekend. Vincent closed with the song she’s been doing since she was the child star of her parents’ Sally Mountain Show, a high-energy “Muleskinner Blues.” If Sunday was typical of Rhonda Vincent & The Rage in 2017, she’s a shoo-in for IBMA Entertainer of the Year. I haven’t seen a big bluegrass show this exciting and satisfying since the early days of Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder. Again, folks, set those DVRs.

The hot picking continued with Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, a band whose name is actually an understatement, especially with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Chris Scruggs (BR-549) on bass. Stuart and company focused on songs from his fine new album, Way Out West, throwing in Superlatives evergreens like their “Country Boy Rock n Roll,” featuring Stuart and Kenny Vaughn on twin Telecasters, Stuart playing guitar legend Clarence White’s iconic axe. But the highlight came when Stuart, inspired by The Volcano Room, went off-script with a masterfully understated version of Merle Travis’ “Dark As a Dungeon.” As Sam Phillips might have said, it didn’t sound paid for.

But we weren’t through yet. The Volcano Room morphed into an arena rock concert for Blues Traveler, the harmonica-driven jam band known for their 1993 hit, “Run Around.” The BGU crew – the unsung heroes and heroines of PBS weekend – set a new land-speed record setting them up in less than half the allotted time, at which point John Popper proceeded to blow apart a few harmonicas as he and his four-man band ran through a set of instrumental showcases broken up by his clever lyrics, until they got around to the one his fans came for, “Run Around,” a song as insidiously catchy today as when it first hit the airwaves during the first Clinton Administration.

And before we knew it, BGU VII was over. But the memories will last longer than the cave dust on our shoes. And I’ve still got dust on mine from BGU I.

Not everything will show up on your TV this fall. You won’t see Marty Stuart’s mom sitting just off camera, proudly watching her boy as I interviewed him. And you won’t see Raul’s mom Norma walking out of the cave under her own power, never even thinking of asking for special treatment. And you won’t see enough of the audience. Depsite the rain and some delays, our BGU crowd was never cranky, always friendly, polite, appreciative and very discriminating. When something cool was happening onstage, they immediately responded. I was proud to be amongst them.

And I heard something new this year. Director Jim Yockey is a genuine living legend in video production in Tennessee (and beyond) and he has played a huge role in the 15 Emmys we’ve won. But for the first time, people came back from his production truck raving about what he was capturing. “Yockey’s on fire this year,” was something I heard more than once.

I never got to get up there and see him in action, so, like you, I’m just going to have to wait for fall. And I have to admit, even though it’s barely spring, the most beautiful time of the year in Middle Tennessee, I’m kind of looking forward to September.

Of course, we’ve got plenty of live music planned for Bluegrass Underground before then, so watch this space. Great TV is great TV, but nothing beats being in the middle of it all in real time, live and in person.

For that experience, I’ll see you Underground.

– Larry Nager, Cave Host