Even sports-impaired folks like me have been watching the Rio Olympics, amazed at all the amazingness of our American athletes and the sheer dedication it takes to be that good. From the newest household names like Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky to veterans like Michael Phelps and old man Anthony Ervin, 35, the Rio games made us all a little prouder to be an American and put the lie to anyone who thinks we’re no longer a winning nation.
And I have to say, from the vantage point of 333 feet underground, all that talent and teamwork gathered in one special place for an intense, multi-day experience took me back to The Volcano Room and the April weekend we taped Season VI of Bluegrass Underground for PBS. And, continuing this seamless segue, those shows will start airing nationally in September. You had better set your DVRs now. Can’t wait? Neither can we, check out this preview video!
At first glance, Olympic athletes and bluegrass/roots/Americana musicians may seem to have little in common. Especially, those struggling musicians will tell you, when it comes to million-dollar endorsement deals.
But both involve thousands of hours of preparation, relentless practice, dedication to perfection, an almost supernatural ability to focus and a willingness to abandon anything resembling a “normal” life. And there’s one more thing they share; the best of the best all have that little extra something that catches fire when they step into the spotlight and their moment begins.
Season VI is packed with folks like that. But they have something that even the best athletes usually don’t, an artistry that sets them apart, a creativity that makes them, not just great, but uniquely great. For Season VI, we even have a bluegrass version of Simone Biles, mandolin whiz Sierra Hull. Sierra’s been a bluegrass star since she was about 9, long before she became the first bluegrass artist to win a Presidential Award Scholarship from the renowned Berklee College of Music. That sounds high-falutin’, but she never got above her Tennessee raising and you can still hear that Bill Monroe drive in her playing. She has played Bluegrass Underground with her bluegrass band, but her BGU PBS episode showcases her critically-acclaimed, IBMA-nominated album,Weighted Mind (Rounder), a solo project that took her in adventurous new directions, produced by Bela Fleck, a man who knows how to get off the grid. Seeing her perform those songs in front of the cameras, I got the same feeling I got seeing Simone win her gold medals – this is a person doing exactly what she was meant to do.
You’ll have to wait until our 10th show of the season to see Sierra, but we’ve got a lot of great music before then. Here’s the rest of the lineup:
Dave Rawlings Machine: We open with a band that personifies Americana, drawing on an array of vintage acoustic music styles to create something original and utterly contemporary. Multi-Instrumentalist Rawlings and hislongtime musical partner GillianWelch front an all-star post-modern stringband with former Old Crow Medicine Showman Willie Watson on guitar and fiddle, fiddler Brittany Haas and Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert. Their set closed Saturday’s taping and it felt like an excitingly satisfying finale.
The Suffers, a soulful 10-piece band out of Houston (once home to the great R&B label, Duke/ Peacock), brought that Texas Thunder down Under, rocking the Volcano Room with funky beats and the megawatt vocals of Kam Franklin. They came to us from high-profile appearances on David Letterman’s Late Show, the Austin City Limits Festival and The Newport Folk Festival, and they came ready. They’re longtime performers but have only been fulltime for a couple years and they are a perfect balance of professional skill and amateur passion.
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen – If they had a Bluegrass triathlon, Frank would win the gold – building his mandolin, playing the heck out of it and fronting his superb progressive bluegrass band Dirty Kitchen. An accomplished chef and songwriter as well, this guy’s got a seriously versatile skill set. His BGU show features his latest album, Family, Friends & Heroes, a timeless collection of songs, including a showstopping version of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.”
Hurray For the Riff Raff – If you think you know this band but haven’t seen them in a while, prepare to be surprised. If you never heard them before, you need to, and their BGU show is the perfect introduction. Alynda Lee Segarra’s folky little New Orleans street band has grown into a very muscular beast, with a seriously atmospheric sound and tightly-crafted songwriting. Segarra is already a star, most of us just don’t know that yet, but it’s about time.
Mac McAnally – To be Jimmy Buffett’s lead guitarist and running buddy and win CMA Musician of the Year eight times, you have to be two things – absolutely incredible and a guy that people really, really like to hang out with. Mac is both, plus a whole lot more. Tune in to this one for great songs, great playing and great stories from a great guy, and he has awards to prove it.
J.J. Grey & MoFro – The singer guitarist fronts a brilliantly eclectic jam band that works its way through the Southern music landscape from the soul of Otis Redding to the improvisational blues-rock of the Allmans. If the words “jam band” make you think of interminable noodling, let me assure that, this is not THAT jam band. This one will rock your TV.
The Cox Family is everything that makes you love bluegrass Siblings Suzanne, Evelyn and Sidney have been singing longer than they’ve been toilet-trained. This is deep into goose-bump territory, with magical, in-the-blood harmony that made The Volcano Room glow that night. Sid’s daughter Anna on bass brings another generation into the fold. This may be the most intimate, authentic set of music I’ve experienced in 8 years at Bluegrass Underground.
The Lone Bellow – This trio proves you don’t have to be related to create vocal alchemy. Led by singer/guitarist Zach Williams and featuring singer/lead guitarist Brian Elmquist and singer/mandolinist Kanene Pipkin, The Lone Bellow hails from from East Nashville’s sister burrough, Brooklyn. But the sound they made that night wasn’t urban or country, it was otherworldly, weaving a spell that The Volcano Room hadn’t seen since The Civil Wars back in 2012.
Drivin’ N Cryin’ – fronted by singer/songwriter/storyteller Kevin Kinney, there is simply no band like this anywhere. Yes, they play arena rock anthems and folkish ballads in the same set, but Kinney’s musicality and wit makes it all fit like guitar god Warner E. Hodge’s well-worn guitar strap. They were inducted into the Georgia Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 along with Gregg Allman. And they deserved it. One of the great American rock bands.
Sierra Hull (see above). And again, seriously, do not miss this one.
St. Paul & The Broken Bones – Do you like good music? Sweet soul music? Then prepare to be awe-struck. And not just you folks who haven’t seen the astounding Paul Janeway and his hard-driving soul band The Broken Bones. I mean even you longtime fans. There really is something special about that 333-feet deep, dirt-floor stage in The Volcano Room. For Janeway, already legendary as a kamikaze showman in the manic tradition of James Brown, being in the bottom of a cave with those beautiful lights and all those cameras sent him into a zone of his own. By the end of his set, he had spent so much time writhing on the ground (never once stopping singing), he seemed to have about an acre’s worth of The Volcano Room clinging to him. This wasn’t the BGU Olympics, this was our X Games. Fittingly, it was the final set of the weekend.
Jason & The Scorchers – call them cowpunk pioneers or rhinestone Ramones, Jason Ringenberg and his cohorts are one great rock ‘n’ roll band. The lights came up, the camera’s rolled and Jason and the boys really put the Scorch on it. For our season VI finale, Jason & The Scorchers, featuring the return of Warner E. Hodges on lead guitars, brought it all back home, mixing punk, country and classic rock ‘n’ roll into one irresistible force. Spoiler alert – like the Rio games, BGU VI ends with indoor fireworks, courtesy of Jason & The Scorchers.
And, like Rio, it takes an Olympic-sized village to make Bluegrass Underground for PBS. Producers Todd Mayo and Todd Jarrell; Becky Magura, President and CEO of WCTE, our presenting PBS station; director Jim Yockey and his squadron of camera folks; stage manager Karalie Hennigan and her crew; soundman Andy Kerns; lighting director Allen Branton – you won’ see any of them on-screen, but they’re the reason you get to see Bluegrass Underground on your TV (and why BGU’s “metal” count now stands at 11 regional Emmy Awards). And just in case I haven’t made my point repetitiously enough, you really need to see Season VI, as tradition and innovation beautifully collide, proving that, even 333 feet down, you can still break new ground. So check those local listings and join in. Watch the preview video now and share with your friends who love music! Watch the preview video here!
And come visit us. Because as great as Bluegrass Underground looks and sounds on your TV, it feels even better in The Volcano Room. We’ll see you Underground.
– Larry Nager.