in performance: dierks bentley/jon pardi/tenille townes/hot country knights

Dierks Bentley. Photo by Jim Wright.

Perhaps the most concise way of summarizing Dierks Bentley’s return concert to Rupp Arena on Thursday evening is by viewing it as a set of before and after portraits.

The “before” image was the least telling of the two. It came at the stroke of 7 p.m. when the country star donned a mullet wig, ‘80s style shades and a bit of an amateur hour/lounge lizard stage persona. Here, Bentley transformed himself into the hapless Doug Douglasson, lead singer of a cover band called Hot Country Knights with a repertoire that stuck to ‘90s era country hits like Travis Tritt’s “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” and Sawyer Brown’s “Some Girls Do.”

What transpired was fun and very purposeful deconstruction with Bentley… er, Douglasson… and pals squabbling for the spotlight and high-stepping through some imploding chorus line choreography. It was half Louvin Brothers and half Marx Brothers, but mostly an intriguing (and quite rare) glimpse of a country celebrity willing to let loose and poke fun at himself.

The “after” shot arrived at 9:30 when Bentley, sans the hijinks and costuming, got down to business with an energetic set that emphasized the anthemic and affirmative lyrical bent of his last five albums.

The show-opening “Burning Man” set the mood with layers of syncopated ensemble might, a tasteful vocal roar from Bentley and orchestral guitar color from Brownsville native Ben Helson that would regularly propel much of the program’s drive.

At times, Bentley and his band allowed the lyrical sway of his narratives to trigger some of the show’s more intriguing instrumental passages, as with the brief but arresting bluegrass-esque breakdown that concluded “The Mountain.” In other instances, the lyrics triggered conversational turns in Bentley’s singing, especially during the back-to-back affirmations “Living” (his newest single) and “Riser.”

That’s not to say these “after” images didn’t loosen things up at times. “Am I Only One,” in fact, was sung with Bentley walking the length of the arena floor, slapping hands with some of the 5,200 fans on hand, while enroute to a second stage late into the show. The party material didn’t slide into country convention, save for “Somewhere on a Beach,” a weirdly conciliatory nod to Kenny Chesney-like pop. Other than that, the mullet-wearing class clown and the affirmative yet assertive country star managed an impressive balancing act.

Sandwiched between Bentley’s sets were performances by California singer Jon Pardi and Canadian newcomer Tenille Townes.

Pardi had a rough night. His performance was fine – a strong slab of electric honky tonk tunes (“Night Shift,” “Paycheck” and the new “Heartache Medicine”) highlighted by an assured, if not entirely distinctive vocal command. Musically, it was a more focused and traditionally accented outing than Pardi’s opening set for Miranda Lambert a year ago at Rupp. But onstage sound problems, which did not seem evident from the audience, got the better of the singer, causing him to tear out his ear monitors, blast the set as “probably the worst performance of the tour” (an estimation he later rescinded and apologized for) and even halt his show momentarily.

Townes took to Rupp with a big beat and even bigger bell bottoms for the electric “White Horse.” Her brief set reflected a voice that sounded more the product of ‘90s alternative pop than contemporary country (think Blind Melon had it come from Nashville). But the mix was appealing nonetheless, from the good-natured cheer of “I’m Gonna Find You” and “Where You Are” to the cautious professions of faith revealed within the eulogy of “Jersey on the Wall.” “If I ever get to heaven,” Townes sang in the latter tune, “I got a long list of questions.”

grammy post mortem 2019

Alicia Keys and Michelle Obama at the Grammy Awards, Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Unlike the Grammy Awards, we know how to keep a lid on things. We have limited our annual post mortem of the three-and-a-half plus hour televised carnival to 10 vital takeaways. Here is what it all boiled down to for The Musical Box.

+ Michelle Obama may just have been biggest pop star of the night. As part of an entourage that included Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Jada Pinkett Smith and show host Alicia Keys, the former first lady barely got five words out on a reflection of Motown music before the crowd went wild, sending the Grammys’ assertion of female star power into the stratosphere.

+ After Camila Cabello began the ceremony with a multi-story dance-pop block party version of “Havana,” Kacey Musgraves brought the Grammys back to earth with a stunning and sparse reading of “Rainbows” accompanied only by piano that proved a complete antithesis of the usual Grammy glitz. The mood didn’t last. The show quickly shifted to a performance of Janelle Monae’s Prince-meets-Kraftwerk blowout of “Make Me Feel.”

+ Non-rapping rapper Post Malone continued to confound as a song stylist, opening with a solo acoustic reading of “Stay” before turning to the dance-pop groove of “Rockstar” as he seemed to wander through the illuminated bowels of the Staples Center. He eventually resurfaced to jam with the Red Hot Chili Peppers (with Anthony Keidis looking a lot like that creepy actor from “Manos, Hands of Fate”) on “Dark Necessities.” Though a sloppy summit with no one coming off as a Caruso, it was nonetheless a fun genre-bashing mash up.

+ Anna Kendrick introduced a salute to Dolly Parton that included the Divine Ms. Dolly singing Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” with Maren Morris and Miley Cyrus (with the lyric about “getting high” glaringly whited out), a capable duet exchange with Cyrus on “Jolene” and an anthemic take on “Red Shoes” with Little Big Town where Parton’s vocals agelessly soared. The highlight, though, was watching Kacey Musgraves make musical mincemeat out of an ill-prepared/ill-matched Katy Perry during “Here You Come Again” before Parton joined in to take full ownership of her own tribute.

+ Sure, it would have great to have Kentucky’s own Chris Stapleton walk off with Country Album of the Year for the third time, but you will get no argument from me in handing the trophy over to the great Kacey Musgraves for the second time. In an age where country has shamelessly strayed further than ever from its homegrown roots, Musgraves, for “Golden Hour,” now rejoins a list of Grammy winning country album winners that includes Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lyle Lovett, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Sturgill Simpson. The Album of the Year win was the real surprise, especially to Musgraves. It didn’t take a lip reader to decipher her on-camera reaction: “What? What? What?”

+ Alicia Keys was already in the running for Coolest Grammy Host Ever, but she fully earned the title with an ambitious performance overview that used the dual piano playing of the late (and shamefully blacklisted) Hazel Scott as an inspiration. From there, she offered a hit parade that went from Scott Joplin to Roberta Flack to Nat King Cole to Lauryn Hill to Jay Z and more. Effortless and stunning.

+ Who would have expected the most to-the-bone assessment of the music business and the Grammys themselves to come from Drake? After winning Best Rap Song for “God’s Plan,” he delivered an eloquent but pointed dismissal of awards and high profile accolades. “If you have people who are singing your songs word for word, if you’re a hero in your hometown, if there are people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain and the snow, spending hard earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this. You’ve already won.” The Grammys responded by immediately cutting to a commercial.

+ Introduced by her nine year old grandson, Diana Ross remained a way-larger-than-life presence during a medley of two songs that spanned nearly 25 years of her post-Supremes solo career – “The Best Years of My Life” and “Reach Out and Touch.” It was hardly a spotless vocal exhibition and the run of motivational banter that wound up with the singer wishing herself a happy birthday (she turns 75 next month) grew tiresome. But you expected subtlety from the still uproarious Ms. Ross?

+ Hard to fully grasp Lady Gaga’s performance of “Shallow.” It’s a killer song that lit the rock and soul fuse of “A Star is Born.” Here, she backed up the song’s potency with a vocal command few could have imagined when her career began to gain traction nearly a decade ago. So why all the histrionics and posing in a performance that, visually, bordered on the cliched? In a perhaps unanticipated manner, what you saw wasn’t necessarily what you got. Then again, that’s always been the way with Gaga?

+ Also choosing to de-glam from the Grammys was Brandi Carlile. She let the potency of “The Joke” speak through the lean drive of her band and projections of the song’s chorus lyrics onto a screen behind her. But the key to this prayer for marginalized souls was that voice – that booming, clear vocal bravado that Carlile sent to the moon and back by the song’s conclusion. In recent pop history, only k.d. lang has displayed anything that can match it. Carlile may have even outdistanced her.

in performance: steep canyon rangers/eric bolander

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left, Nicky Sanders, Barrett Smith, Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, Mike Ashworth and Graham Sharp. Photo by Sandlin Gaither.

It was with no small degree of irony that the Steep Canyon Rangers began their highly engaging performance last night at Manchester Music Hall with their two newest members going it alone – namely, drummer Mike Ashworth and bassist Barrett Smith. The rhythm section initiated a subtle groove that brought the rest of the Grammy winning North Carolina bluegrass troupe to the stage, turning the resulting momentum into the rhythmic sway of “Stand and Deliver.”

Wait a minute. Bluegrass bands have rhythm sections? Well sure, just not normally ones anchored by drums, as was the case with the continually evolving Rangers. Over the course of a one hour, 45-minute set, Ashworth didn’t simply embellish the grassy textures that more expected string instrumentation gave to tunes like “As I Go” and the encore finale of “The Speed We’re Traveling.” He also set up a driving jam (quickly commandeered by mandolinist Mike Guggino) during “Let Me Out of This Town,” provided Fairport Convention-esque Celtic propulsion under fiddler Nicky Sanders on “Take the Wheel” (where Smith took a guest turn on lead vocals) and dug in for a drum solo underscored by mandolin that eventually enlisted all of the Rangers for a giddy percussion romp.

While Ashworth’s prominence (augmented by his solid harmony singing throughout the performance) represented the biggest stylistic leap the Rangers have taken since their last Lexington visit in 2014, the rest of the show relied on essentials, like the juggling of lead vocal duties between guitarist Woody Platt and banjoist/songsmith Graham Sharp. Platt was at home with the easy country lyricism of “When She Was Mine” and a nicely relaxed cover of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” while Sharp employed more conversationally smoky vocal colors for “Simple at Me.”

All of these elements converged during the title tune to the 2013 Rangers album “Tell the Ones I Love” that placed the train whistle fiddling of Sanders, the joint vocals of Platt and Sharp and some wild ensemble dynamics that gave the music an almost respiratory rhythm within a single bluegrass statement that both bowed to tradition and dashed madly away from it.

Local hero Eric Bolander opened the evening with a very appealing 50-minute trio set that utilized cellist Seth Murphy and drummer/harmony vocalist Ben Caldwell for an Americana mix that placed restless folk confessions within Southern fried frameworks. What resulted were songs like “The Road, “Fly” and the new “Montgomery Hill” that were rustic, rootsy and often elegant.

the modern tales of steep canyon rangers

Steep Canyon Rangers. From left: Michael Ashworth, Graham Sharp, Woody Platt, Mike Guggino, Nicky Sanders and Barrett Smith. Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither.

During the recording of their most recent album, “Out in the Open,” the Steep Canyon Rangers played around a single microphone in much the same way a traditional bluegrass band would have 50 or 60 years ago.

That might not seem like earth shattering news save for the fact the Grammy winning North Carolina sextet – lead vocalist/guitarist Woody Platt, banjoist/vocalist Graham Sharp, fiddler Nicky Sanders, mandolinist Mike Guggino, bassist Barrett Smith and percussionist Michael Ashworth – isn’t exactly what one would call traditional. It encompasses an Americana blend that reaches generously but respectfully outside the bluegrass norm. The string band instrumentation is scholarly and confident enough to still be viewed as bluegrass, but the songs – many of which are penned from within the band – possess an almost vintage folk and country inspiration that harkens back to such songwriting stylists as Gene Clark and Vern Gosdin. The Rangers’ appeal, however, has proven inviting enough to forge an unlikely alliance with comedian/actor Steve Martin that has served as a second career of sorts over the past decade.

“We grew up in an area where there was a lot of mountain music and old-time music,” said Platt, who will perform with the Rangers on Saturday at Manchester Music Hall. “I don’t think any of us really absorbed a ton of that or got really focused on it until we were in college, but it was around. There was a square dance every Thursday night right across the street from our house with a bluegrass band, but each member of our band comes from a non-bluegrass background, meaning saxophone players, choir singers and drummers.

“We were sort of a melting pot of influences and I think that comes through in our music. There was a time when we dove into traditional bluegrass head first. Now we’ve been around and have evolved naturally so everybody’s other musical interests and influences are creeping into our version of what I still like to call bluegrass.”

Making the traditional approach to recording the decidedly non-traditional “Out in the Open” all the more curious was the band’s choice of producer – Joe Henry. In addition to his own immensely atmospheric recordings, the veteran song stylist has produced records for such far-ranging artists as Rodney Crowell, Hugh Laurie, Ani DiFranco, Bettye LaVette, Joan Baez, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.

“We walked into the studio and there’s this guy immaculately dressed with this sharp hat on,” Platt said. “He just immediately set the vibe for a cool, laid back but kind of spiritual approach to making a record. It was never overbearing. He taught us a lot about how he viewed recording. It’s hard to explain until you experience making a record with Joe how impactful he can be without being overly pushy. There was such an easy way about him that really set the mood.”

Cementing the Rangers’ appeal outside of bluegrass circles has been the ongoing partnership with Martin, which has included numerous recordings and performances in front of amphitheater and arena audiences that might have otherwise never heard the band – or, for that matter, bluegrass music.

“I think all bands hope for a break in their careers,” Platt said. “What that may be is a certain song, a certain show or a certain collaboration with a different artist. I never saw one of the biggest breaks we would have coming from a movie star/comedian. It’s kind of bizarre, but it was natural from day one. We played one little jam with Steve and 10 years later we’ve never stopped talking about music.

“People may have gone to see Steve who weren’t bluegrass fans. They were just fans of his career and him. Then all of a sudden, he’s playing bluegrass with the Rangers. We’ve seen that help us when we’ve gone back to those markets. People have come to our shows and said, ‘I saw you with Steve.’ So that’s been a really great thing. Also, just working with Steve and watching him work a crowd and play a big show. That’s given us a ton of great stage experience that we’ve been able to carry into our shows.”

Ahead for the Rangers in 2019 will be a retrospective album of material re-recorded with the Asheville Symphony, continued work on a record of new music and ongoing stage work with Martin and fellow comedian Martin Short.

“There is potential when you’re getting close to the end of your second decade as a band to sit back and coast. I feel we’re more focused now than we’ve ever been. It’s an exciting time for the Rangers.”

Steep Canyon Rangers perform at 7 p.m. Feb. 2 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St. Tickets: $21-$36. Call 859-537-7321 or go to

cincinnati’s bunbury music festival announces 2019 lineup with fall out boy, greta van fleet as headliners

Greta Van Fleet will be one of the just-announced headliners at this year’s Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati. From left, Josh Kiska, Jake Kiska, Danny Wagner and Sam Kiszka. Photo by Travis Shinn/courtesy of the artist.

Just when you thought winter was at its worst, along comes the lineup for the first major regional music festival of the summer.

Fall Out Boy, Greta Van Fleet, The 1975, Girl Talk and Run the Jewels will be the headline acts at the eighth Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati. Set to run May 31 through June 2, the event will again be held at Sawyer Point and Yeatman’s Cove along the Ohio River.

While Fall Out Boy and The 1975 are both returnees (having played Bunbury in 2014 and 2017, respectively), this will be the festival debut for band-of-the-moment Greta Van Fleet, the Michigan quartet led by brothers Josh, Jake and Sam Kiszka that has received considerable attention (and a far amount of criticism) for sounding eerily like Led Zeppelin. The band has received four nominations, including one for Best New Artist, at next week’s Grammy Awards.

This year’s Bunbury Music Festival will also include performances by NF, Machine Gun Kelly, Awolnation, Stone Temple Pilots, Sublime with Rome, Dashboard Confessional, Clutch, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, Lovelytheband, Blue October, Bayside, Streetlight Manifesto, The Aces, Poppy, Joywave, Jeremy Zucker, Jukebox the Ghost, Flora Cash, Reignwolf, Witt Lowry, Lauren Sanderson, The Clarks, Shaed, Halfnoise, Great Good Fine Ok, The Blue Stones, The Candescents, Common Kings, Bülow, Tropidelic, You vs Yesterday, Taylor Janzen, Radattack, The Orphan The Poet and more.

While specific performance schedules will be announced at a later date, general admission weekend tickets are already on sale for $189 along with several, more expensive VIP packages. For more information, go to

the southern roots of the marcus king band strengthen

The Marcus King Band, From left: Jack Ryan (drums), Dean Mitchell (saxophone), DeShawn Alexander (keyboards), Marcus King (guitar), Stephen Campbell (bass) and Justin Johnson (trumpet/trombone). Photo by David McClister.

Marcus King recalled some advice received in his youth. It came from his father, a noted South Carolina guitarist and the third of four generational representatives of Southern roots music within his family. It might have dealt with music, it might have spoken to something larger, but the younger King took it to heart.

“Growing up in a musical family, I learned certain situations to look out for,” King said. “Find the right people that will do right by you and it can really be a beautiful thing. People like my father, he told me to be on my toes. And that’s a good way to be.”

For King, a stunning blues and soul stylist, guitarist, vocalist and bandleader who at age 22 has a become highly heralded roots music ambassador, that meant surrounding himself with a band that brings to mind the brassy warmth of Muscle Shoals soul, the churchy reverence of Southern gospel and a roaring guitar sound, matched by an equally gritty vocal might, that places him in the higher ranks of a new generation rock and roots movement.

But on his new “Carolina Confessions” album, that meant bringing another A-league player onto his team – producer Dave Cobb, whose seemingly omnipresent role in modern Americana music and more has placed him in the company of such Southern mavericks as Jason Isbell as well as a series of masterful Kentucky-bred artists led by Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and, more recently, Dillon Carmichael.

“Dave has a really good ear for songwriting and for what is going to play well,” King said. “What Dave keeps in mind is the overall flow of a record. He has these really cool studio tricks that I don’t want to get into too much. I don’t want to give out the secret recipe, but Dave just knows how to work with a band. It’s not about just looking at an artist, myself, with hired guns. He treats us equally as a group, which is how we like it. That’s what we want. He pushed everybody.

“Some members (of the band) liked that more than others, but Dave Cobb and I really hit it off. He’s become a dear friend of mine. He really helped use the studio as another voice on the record.”

Of course, having Cobb’s production home, the famed RCA famed Studio A in Nashville, didn’t hurt in the creation of “Carolina Confessions” (“As soon as we walked in, we felt there were a lot of friendly spirits in the room”). Mostly, though, Cobb helped fulfill King’s mission for the record – to create music that emphasized songwriting over King’s proven forcefulness as a guitarist and singer. In doing so, what emerged was more of an ensemble sound that underscored the tasteful orchestration of hornmen Justin Johnson and Dean Mitchell along with the sleek organ colors of DeShawn Alexander. More than King’s three previous albums and EP discs, “Carolina Confessions” was truly the work of the Marcus King Band, not just King himself.

“I don’t know if it was a conscious decision as much as just an organic happening along with the recording process,” King said. “We wanted to focus a bit more on songwriting and composition. That’s what we wanted on this record to highlight for the band. The other records focused a little bit more on musicianship and just the rawness of the sound. But on this one, we wanted to focus more on the songs. By doing that, I think we showcased the musicianship of the band as a whole. That allowed us to show our strength in working together on a common goal.”

The new album continues the traction created by a very fruitful touring year in 2018 that saw the King Band being invited as a guest for Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Wheel of Soul Tour during the summer. That collaboration almost seemed inevitable, as co-leader and guitarist Derek Trucks, now 39, began gaining national notice, as did King, during his teen years.

“The thing with somebody like Derek isn’t so much about any direct advice he gives. It’s more about the stories he tells. I look at Derek like an older brother. You listen closely enough to these heroes, these legends, talking about their career and you can hear the lessons that are being taught. Those are the kinds of people I’ve always been drawn to.

“I don’t like direct orders being sent my way. That’s never really been my bag. People that I’ve become good friends with, like Derek, those people just have good stories to tell. If you listen close enough, you pick up a lot of life advice and musical advice. It’s all right there.”

The Marcus King Band and Magnolia Boulevard perform at 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester Music Hall. Tickets: $12, $15. Call 859-537-7321 or go to

rayland baxter find inspiration in unexpected kentucky retreat

Rayland Baxter. Photo by Shervin Lainez.

Seeking solace and sanctuary in some form of geographical retreat is nothing new for artists. For centuries, many have created some of their most lasting works in remote and even foreign settings away from the masses. The locales could be as plush as an oceanside villa or as isolated as a country cottage.

Rayland Baxter found his in Kentucky, but it’s not the kind of retreat you might expect a song stylist still in the early stages of his career to find inspiring. After all, how enticing would you think an abandoned rubber band factory near the Kentucky/Tennessee border might be?

For five months, the Nashville-based songwriter used one in the Simpson County city of Franklin to compose nearly all of the music on his third album, “Wide Awake.” The record brings the more contemplative alt-country soundscapes and storylines of his first two albums into broader, power-pop territory. Given how cheery much of “Wide Awake” wound up sounding, the Southern Kentucky factory dwelling must have been accommodating.

“A friend of mine lives in Franklin,” said Baxter, who performs Jan. 24 at The Burl. “He had a place that was once this rubber band factory. He was like, ‘Hey, Ray. I hear you’re looking for a place to live for awhile and write. I’ve got a place that I’d like for you to come up and check out.’ So I checked it out. It was free. It was quiet. It was perfect. It was in the wintertime, so I didn’t know how long I was going to stay out there, but I got up there and it became like my bird’s nest. I could do everything I needed to do. I could keep to myself. This was from the end of October 2016 to early February 2017.

“I wanted to write tight songs. There are a million different ways to say ‘I love you,’ a million different ways to describe the wind blowing through the trees and a trillion bazillion different ways to look at the world and yourself. So I just wanted to keep on doing what I thought felt natural. I wanted to write nice melodies and some words I would never get sick of singing. That was it. That was the objective.”

To get the full effect of Baxter’s stylistic expansion on “Wide Awake,” start at the finish line with the quiet morning affirmation of “Let It All Go, Man.” Then let the album rewind to its opening track, “Strange American Dream,” which typifies the record’s more pop-inclined disposition. Lyrically, the songs are like kin. Musically, they travel more diverging stylistic trails.

“That all just happened in the studio, really. I wrote some pop forms on the guitar. For everybody that was in the studio, that was just what came together. It’s what everybody decided to play in support of the song. I mean, Butch Walker (the producer for “Wide Awake” who has overseen albums for Weezer, Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco) is a pop guy, but he’s got grit. He’s got this cabin-in-the-woods kind of thing about him. I don’t know. I have no other explanation for it other than every time we were done tracking, we liked what happened. It was like, ‘Okay, that’s cool, that’s it.’ Also, it’s just the third album, you know? They’ll be more.”

Helping Baxter out on pedal steel guitar during the sessions was an esteemed musical vet – his father, Bucky Baxter. The elder Baxter played extensively with Bob Dylan during the ‘90s and was a frequent visitor to Lexington during the late ‘80s as a member of Steve Earle’s band, the Dukes.

“Well, he’s a part of my project of life,” the younger Baxter said of his dad. “But I’m really his project, I guess. He’s been on every album of mine. He played on ‘Feathers & Fishhooks’ (his 2012 debut album), ‘Imaginary Man’ (the 2015 follow-up) and this new one.

“He tried to get out of it, too. He was like, ‘Oh, Ray, I’m not really well rehearsed. You should call Lloyd Green (now 81, who has recorded with everyone from Johnny Cash to Paul McCartney). Here’s his number. That was great, too. But my dad had to play on this record. I mean, he’s my dad. It’s a dream situation. I’m beyond fortunate to have his opinion about music.”

Rayland Baxter/Illiterate Light performs at 8 p.m. Jan 24 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.

Tickets are $15, $18 at

the classical-pop adventures of gabriel royal

Gabriel Royal. Photo courtesy of Columbia Artists.

Seated before a microphone in a video for his composition “Remember Us,” the dual musical worlds inhabited by Gabriel Royal quietly bleed into each other.

As a bow hits the base of his cello, a sense of classical clarity is summoned with long vibrant lines that sound distinctly European. Then he sings, but not with the sort of operatic color one might expect as dressing for such stately music. No, what emerges instead is a solid pop-soul tenor, one that winds into a sense of longing the strings already suggested. The two voices are remarkably complimentary, even if they sound like they were forged in different centuries.

The biggest surprise, though, is saved for when the camera pans out at the end of the clip. There you discover Royal wasn’t recording in a studio or rehearsing in a theatre. Instead, he was performing live in a New York subway.

That latter detail is the catalyst for the unlikely career of this genre-hopping artist. Raised in Oklahoma, he moved east and became a Brooklyn busker playing to legions of New York commuters.

“I feel like every time I went down in the subway, I was facing my nerves,” said Royal, who performs Jan. 18 at the Weisiger Theatre of the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. “Nobody asked you to be there randomly setting up and playing. As such, you don’t feel confident until you see that first dollar drop. Then you’re like, ‘Okay. People like me. I think I can do this.’ It can be a battle, but in the subways, for me, there has mostly been positive response.”

Having since graduated to such prestigious New York club gigs at the Blue Note and Le Poisson Rouge, Royal has been honing a classical cello/pop vocal hybrid that links New York to his youth (he calls the numerous home state refugees he discovered in Brooklyn “Oklahomies”). One sound didn’t necessarily lead to the other, though. Royal took to classical and pop simultaneously.

“The cello does what I tell it to, pretty much,” Royal said. “If I’m playing in a particular style, it’s because I’ve chosen to do that. I’ve never really had those kinds of hang ups about classical music.

“Back in school, my brothers and I would go to the orchestra and then we would come home and get on other instruments. I played drums when I was in college, so we would have the classical training, the music theory, ear training, choir and all that at school. At home, we would listen to hip-hop and jazz. I never had an idea that classical music was the end all and be all of everything. It was just one of the genres I was into. During the day, we would be on the classical side. At night, we would be on the jam-out side. The two always went hand in hand.”

Taken by the orchestrations and compositional structure of vintage Burt Bacharach songs, Royal’s musical scope quickly became panoramic, absorbing everything form Erik Satie to Black Sabbath to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir. From the communities of R&B, soul and pop, Stevie Wonder, John Legend and Thundercat lead a diverse lineup of inspirations.

“I always start with Burt Bacharach. I’m a huge Burt Bacharach fan, especially the stuff he did with Dionne Warwick, like ‘Walk On By.’ A lot of his songs had that laid back, kind of smooth, early ‘70s pop sound. I don’t know if you can hear it all that much in my songs, but there is a real bouncy happiness that definitely comes from listening to Burt Bacharach.”

While his heroes may have favored massive, expansive sounds, Royal – at least, for now – goes it alone in his concerts, forging a patiently paced classical/pop blend with one instrument and one voice.

“It works because I can add a beat. I can add a verse. I can make up some stuff. I can take extended time with certain phrases. But there are also things that I lose. I love the huge group harmonies, but I can’t get that when it’s just me and the cello onstage. There are things that you gain by having an actual ensemble with you. I want to get there, but for now, this is doing alright.

“I mean, to be onstage, look out and see people smiling at a song I wrote, that’s a special thing. So, really, I couldn’t be happier.”

Gabriel Royal performs at 8 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Weisiger Theatre at the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut in Danville. Tickets: $29, $39. Call 877-448-7469 or go to

the new traditionalist sound of dillon carmichael

Dillon Carmichael. Photo by Angelina Castillo.

From the moment you hear Dillon Carmichael launch into “It’s Simple,” a standout life parable from his debut album, “Hell on an Angel,” a sense of authenticity is struck.

Sure, as a country artist from Burgin making his way in Nashville, the 25 year old singer-songwriter has plenty of family ties to lean on, from parents and grandparents who sang gospel and country throughout Eastern Kentucky to a pair of famous uncles that know a thing or two about making a hit – John Michael and Eddie Montgomery.

All of that fades for a moment, though, when you hear Carmichael sing. What he lets loose is an effortless and inviting baritone, a voice so rustically smoky that a solid traditionalist streak is immediately established.

It’s no wonder then, in a generation where stars like Kane Brown and Florida-Georgia Line seem to almost purposely distance themselves from where country music has sprung from, Carmichael is going old school. His sound blends outlaw sentiments and serious Hank Williams charm with a list of influences that reel back through the years to such country classicists as Waylon Jennings and Vern Gosdin.

“Honestly, I think that sound is just in my soul,” said Carmichael, who performs this weekend at the Kentucky Castle. “I could have rebelled against it very easily and gone in a different direction. But Kentucky generates such great songwriters, so I wanted to sing to people as a songwriter.”

“As far as growing up went, my uncles Eddie and John Michael were gone and on the road as I was growing up. Of course, we would spend Thanksgiving and Christmas together and hang out then like a normal family.”

One of the key artists in Carmichael’s corner when creating “Hell on an Angel” may not have been part of the family, even though he came to feel like a brother as soon as recording sessions commenced. His name is Dave Cobb, who has been the Americana-and-more producer of the moment for several years. Cobb’s diverse client list includes John Prine, Jason Isbell, Zac Brown Band, Brent Cobb, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Chris Isaak, Lake Street Dive, Shooter Jennings and two other Kentucky born country stylists who have made more than a little commotion of late – Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson.

“Dave is kind of an ambassador for all of us out here,” Carmichael said. “But mainly, he just a great guy. The guys he got to play on the record are the best around, plus Dave is a great guitar player himself. While we got him to play on the play on the record, too, he but mostly just let me do my thing. You just leave all the other stuff at door when you go into the studio with Dave.

“This is my dream record with my dream producer on my dream record label (the booming publishing, management and label collective Riser House) helped by my dream radio team. It’s a big dream come true. The album just tells my story. I got to record songs that were true to me and my life. To out play them every night… man, that never gets old.”

Dillon Carmichael performs at 6 p.m. Jan 18 and 19 at the Greenhouse of the Kentucky Castle, 230 Pisgah Pike. Tickets are $35-$75. Call 859-256-0322 or go to

joseph jarman, 1937-2019

The Art Ensemble of Chicago, circa 1987. From left: Famoudou Don Moye, Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors.

As the volumes of interviews accumulated over multiple decades stack up, it is perhaps understandable to be asked which ones stand as favorites. It is probably just as expected that the answers be names known for some level of celebrity status.

When faced with that question, one of the first names that springs to mind is Joseph Jarman.


Joseph Jarman, who passed away yesterday at age 81, was an Arkansas-born saxophonist who became a keystone member of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and a mainstay instrumentalist for one of the organization’s banner jazz projects, the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

To many, what the AACM and the Art Ensemble were creating was renegade music – a jazz sound that often favored free improvisation over conventional melodic structure, although even that assessment is a generalization of what the groups were after. It wasn’t until I gained an appreciation for the Art Ensemble over time that its mix of heritage and invention revealed itself.

When the Art Ensemble visited Lexington for a December 1987 concert at the University of Kentucky’s Memorial Hall (as part of its historic Spotlight Jazz series), it was easy for unfamiliar jazz listeners to view the band as imposing. Maybe it was the face paint several members (Jarman among them) wore in performance or the shards of sound created on chimes and bicycle horns as well as on conventional wind, brass and percussion instruments. The Art Ensemble was a performance troupe that drew on tradition but celebrated creation of the moment.

I didn’t know what to expect when I phoned Jarman for a late November interview in 1987, as I had accepted the stereotypical view of the time that the Art Ensemble shunned melody for seemingly purposeful musical discord. But within minutes – specifically, after he admitted he was going to munch on turkey leftovers during our talk – all hesitancy vanished.

A scholarly but very congenial individual, Jarman spent the next 45 minutes with me discussing his music, his motivation, the sense of history at the heart of his playing and especially the inclusiveness of his art. The interview wasn’t merely disarming, it was an open invitation to take part in something new, a musical parade down jazz music’s more adventurous and unexpected avenues.

I won’t pretend that I fully understood the Art Ensemble’s performance the following month. But, 31 years on, I feel privileged to have witnessed the band when all its key members – trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors and Jarman, all passed on now – were fueling the fire of a music that was new and immediate. I think of these players at nearly every jazz performance I have attended since, especially ones featuring the young indie artists visiting Lexington for the Outside the Spotlight series, and feel grateful for the invite Jarman extended into this world of musical promise.

“America has the youngest cultural entity in the world,” Jarman, already a devout Buddhist, told me in our 1987 interview. “Yet, we’re still trying to define just what our culture is. We’re still breaking away from that heavy European tradition. Just now, we’re seeing those first little seeds of our own sprouting up.

“It’s been a total effort on our part to survive this long. People are really beginning to discover just how serious we are about this music. It’s funny, I’ve heard people say, ‘Hey, those guys are crazy. But they don’t sound too bad.’ “

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