Archive for profiles

harry dean, cop cars and dodgers dates: the punk rock odyssey of john doe

John Doe.

John Doe got to know Harry Dean Stanton the old fashioned way – in the back of a police car.

No, the veteran Los Angeles punk rocker, actor and author didn’t connect with the late Kentucky born film celebrity through any untoward activity. Both were actually gaining experience for roles as policemen in Wayne Wang’s 1987 movie “Slam Dance,” which will be screened Saturday at the Farish Theatre as part of the Harry Dean Stanton Fest. Doe will also perform a solo concert covering music from throughout his 40 year career, including songs cut with the vanguard Los Angeles band X, tonight at the Green Lantern.

“We worked six, maybe, eight weeks on ‘Slam Dance,’” Doe recalled. “We did a lot of ride-alongs with homicide cops to figure out what they were all about. That was both intriguing and frightening because their world view has to be kind of skewed since they’re dealing with criminals a lot of the time and dealing with the aftermath of things gone very wrong.

“But then I asked Harry Dean to play music with me at this club in L.A. called McCabe’s Guitar Shop, and he said, ‘Well, sure.’ I knew he had played music from when he did ‘Paris, Texas’ and films like that, but little did I realize I was opening the door for him to reek havoc on the musical world for the next 20 years. He did a residency at The Mint and then at another place up on Sunset Boulevard. I feel pretty good about that.”

Cruising with cops has been just one of the unlikely but situations Doe has been led to by a remarkably far reaching career. Another came in August when all of X – Doe, vocalist Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake – were honored by the Los Angeles Dodgers prior to a baseball game at Dodger Stadium.

“That’s another mystifying turn of events. ‘Really? You want a punk rocker to sing the national anthem? Okay.’ Sure, I’ve spread out a little more from just being a punk rock musician, but, still, it’s weird. You don’t think about that stuff and then when it happens, you feel a certain odd sense of validation.”

“So for X Day at Dodger Stadium, we played gender reversal. Exene threw out the first pitch and I sang the national anthem. Usually it would be like, ‘Oh, let’s have the girl sing and the boy throw the ball,’ but we switched that around. She did great. She got it over the plate and Rich Hill, the pitcher that night, caught it. He pitched a no hitter until the game went into the 10th inning. We figured it was the magic Exene laid on the team.”

“Spreading out,” as Doe termed it, has included a long running solo career he has maintained outside of X, one that has taken him to various avenues of rock and roots-oriented music. His newest record, 2016’s “Westerner,” teamed him with producer Howe Gelb for a series of songs inspired by Doe’s friendship with the late author Michael Blake, best known for writing “Dances with Wolves.”

“I’ve been friends with Howe Gelb and a fan of his production and music for a long time. He’s really the main architect of what you might call the Tucson Sound, which would include Neko Case or Calexico and Howe’s band, Giant Sand. There’s a lot of space, a lot of reverb that really fit the songs.

“A lot of the songs were about my friend Michael. We were friends for 30 years, but he struggled with dementia for the last four of them. We talked a lot about art and what we want to do with the world and things like that. Before he was really sick I started writing these songs just because he was such an inspiration to me.”

Almost concurrent with “Westerner” was the publication of “Under the Big Black Sun,” a overview of the Los Angeles punk uprising that began in the late 1970s, the era that gave birth to X (the books shares its title with X’s third album, released in 1982). Doe, along with Tom DeSavia, was as much a curator of the book as an author since it also boasts chapters penned by other members of the L.A. punk community, including Henry Rollins, Mike Watt and Dave Alvin. The audiobook version of “Under the Big Black Sun” earned a Grammy nomination.

“I didn’t really want to be the authority,” Doe said of the book. “I couldn’t tell the story of what it was like for women in that era. I didn’t live at the Canterbury where Jane Wiedlin (of the Go Go’s) lived. I wasn’t part of a roots band, which Dave Alvin was. There are so many different stories that people have. They were the experts in those subjects, so that’s why we pulled them in.”

As for his solo concert tonight, Doe said fans should expect a little bit of everything: X tunes, “Westerner” music, “unexpected” cover selections and more.

“Plus, I know a hell of a lot of John Doe songs, so I can take requests. If I don’t know them, I’ll wing it. Sometimes, I crash and burn, and that’s fun, too.”

John Doe and Warren Byrom perform at 10 p.m. tonight (Sept. 29) at The Green Lantern, 497 W Third. Tickets are $15. Call 859-252-9539 or go to harrydeanstantonfest.org.

Doe will also participate in a Q&A session following a free screening of “Slam Dance” as part of the Harry Dean Stanton Fest at 3 p.m. Sept. 30 at the Farish Theater of the Lexington Public Library, 140 E Main.

the tenuous kentucky connection to the world of rufus wainwright

rufus wainwright.

Having performed around the world with a wildly diverse variety of concert programs reflecting equally far reaching musical preferences, Rufus Wainwright is quick to point out his ties to the Bluegrass.

Until now, they have not included Lexington, although that will change with a Wednesday performance at the Opera House. He has played Louisville on occasion, but that’s not what Wainwright is recalling. There was an earlier link to the region that landed him in, of all places, Bardstown.

“My mother and aunt were huge Stephen Foster fanatics, so when I was a child, we did a pilgrimage to My Old Kentucky Home. So, yeah, I have a slight, tenuous history with your state.”

This Kentucky sojourn unlocks the first and perhaps most immediate aspect of Wainwright’s artistic identity – his family. The mother and aunt in question were Kate and Anna McGarrigle, the immensely celebrated Canadian singer-songwriting siblings from Quebec. His father is veteran folk songsmith Loudon Wainwright III and his sister is the acclaimed folk and rock stylist Martha Wainwright.

“Once you scratch the surface and get into our story, you realize it’s really like a three generation saga that I’m gratefully involved in with all the good music and positive outcomes that we’ve experienced as a family – along with some adversarial situations, of course.”

Over the past two decades, Wainwright has solidified a career of astonishing stylistic breadth. He recorded numerous albums of his own works (including the extraordinary two volume “Want” in 2003 and 2004) but also released a concert tribute record to Judy Garland (2007’s “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall”), composed two operas (the newest of which, “Hadrian,” based on the Roman emperor of the same name, will have its premiere next year in Toronto), cut an entire album of Shakespearean sonnets set to original music (2016’s “Take All My Loves”) and, earlier this year, fashioned a cover of Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” for the Los Angeles charity The Art of Elysium.

What he will bring to the Opera House will be, in essence, all of that and more – a solo program encompassing his original works, standards, perhaps a pop cover, a sampling of the sonnets and a likely nod to some of the great Canadian songsmiths that came before him (the Leonard Cohen staple “Hallelujah” has been a frequent inclusion).

“I’m made up of three parts, shall we say. One being a songwriter, one being a composer of operas and the third being a singer. I find that in singing opera, singing standards or singing my own material, there is something about my voice specifically that is able to unite a lot of very disparate musical ideas to bring out the commonalities. So as a singer, I often have to look for themes as opposed to the variations.

“The show I’m bringing to you guys really just represents who I am as a working, eating, sleeping, loving musician. This is what I have to do to in order to earn my keep. It draws on a lot of elements of my career, be it pop songs or opera stuff.”

Born in New York and currently (as of a year ago) residing in Hollywood, Wainwright moved with his mother and sister to Montreal at the age of three following his parents’ separation. He has long maintained dual citizenship in Canada and the United States (“the best of both worlds,” as he called it) and has found considerable kinship with the music of other songwriters from his longtime homeland.

“I sing a lot of those songs, whether they come from Leonard (Cohen), Joni Mitchell or Neil Young. So, yeah, it’s a strange phenomenon, actually, as to how there are so many brilliant songwriters from Canada. I think it has to do with the light – of the lack of it, shall we say. It gets pretty dark up there in the winter – cold, too. You really have to escape to the nether regions of your imagination to make it through.”

That won’t be a problem this fall, though. Between our conversation last week and his Opera House concert this week, Wainwright will head to Havana for a string of concerts collectively titled “Wainwright Libre!” But this time, climate will play an altogether different role. Battered earlier this month by Hurricane Irma, Cuba was, as of this writing, bracing for a possible hit from Hurricane Maria.

“We’re just going where we’re needed, you know? But let’s just hope Maria doesn’t meet me there.”

Rufus Wainwright performs at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $45.50-$55.50. Call (800) 745-3000, (859) 233-3535 or go to ticketmaster.com.

robert cray gets the royal treatment

robert cray at royal studio in memphis. photo by ronnie booze

When you’re a Grammy winning bluesman that has rubbed shoulders and shared songs with the rock and soul elite for over three decades, what territories are left to be won? For Robert Cray, such turf revealed itself in Memphis at the famed recording studio with a sense of legend and prestige that is embodied in its name.

Royal.

Under the direction of producer Willie Mitchell, such R&B giants as Solomon Burke, Bobby Blue Bland and Ann Peebles and recorded some of their most cherished music at Royal. This was also where Al Green cut his vanguard ‘70s hits for the Hi Records label. But rock ‘n’ rollers found a home there, too, with John Mayer, My Morning Jacket and Rod Stewart having also made music at Royal.

Even though Mitchell died in 2010, the studio never slowed down. In fact, two members of the its famed Hi Rhythm Section, organist Charles Hodges and his bassist brother Leroy Hodges, still record there with Mitchell’s family overseeing ongoing operation of Royal. The mix of history and ongoing vitality prompted drummer/producer Steve Jordan to suggest Royal Studios for his newest recording project with Cray.

“While we knew we were going to do another record together, Steve and I had different ideas of what we wanted to do. Then all of a sudden, he sent me an email saying, ‘I got it. ‘Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm.’ We’ll record at Royal. So I’m like, ‘Okay. Fantastic.’

“From the moment when you walk in at Royal, you see pictures of Willie Mitchell, you see pictures of Al Green, you see pictures of people like Ann Peebles and you just go, ‘This is where the magic was made.’ It puts you in that mood, plus you’re playing with the same players that made that music. It was great.”

The resulting record – titled, as promised, ‘Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm’ – may have employed the Hodges brothers, their keyboardist cousin Archie “Hubbie” Turner and Jordan – in place of the longstanding Robert Cray Band, but the vintage-flavored music they created played out as naturally as it did on many of the guitarist’s previous albums. The mix of soul and blues remains unchanged. “The stories with both are the same,” Cray said. “It’s just that the delivery is a little bit different.” But the repertoire is made more expansive with songs by Bill Withers (the churchy, orchestral album opener “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh”), The 5 Royales (the two part soul scorcher “I’m With You,” the conclusion of which lets Cray loose on a jubilant guitar solo) and a trio of original tunes that fit in easily with the record’s retro feel (“Just How Low,” “You Had My Heart” and “The Way We Are”).

But among the highlights are two songs by Tony Joe White (“Aspen, Colorado” and “Don’t Steal My Love”) that feature the esteemed Louisiana guitarist and song stylist sitting in.

“He is just the coolest cat in the world,” Cray said of White. “He’s so casual and nonchalant, but he really wanted to be at the sessions. It was great for us to have had the opportunity to work with Tony Joe. He’s so cool.”

One of the many greats to have recorded at Royal was Chuck Berry. The rock forefather, who died a month before ‘Robert Cray and Hi Rhythm’ was released in April, figured prominently in the guitarist’d career. Cray and Jordan were among the artists featured in Taylor Hackford’s 1987 concert documentary celebrating Berry’s music, ‘Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll.’ The guest list included Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Walsh and an artist especially intrigued by the new blues music Cray was just starting to get noticed for – Keith Richards.

“You see, ‘Strong Persuader’ (Cray’s Grammy winning 1986 breakthrough album) hadn’t even been released yet when we did these shows. So we had our meeting in Keith’s hotel room and there is this cassette player on the mantle. I looked at it and saw a tape in there with the handwritten title ‘Strong Persuader.’ I said, ‘Where did you get this?’ Keith went, ‘I’m a Rolling Stone. I’ve got everything.’ That broke the ice.

“I was the new kid on the block back then. I could do no wrong. Chuck was like, ‘Robert, let’s have coffee.’ He was the nicest man in the world to me.”

The Robert Cray Band performs at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 17 at the Grand Theatre, 308 St. Clair St. in Frankfort. Tickets: $40-$65. Call 502-352-7469 or go to grandtheatrefrankfort.org.

graham nash: still changing the world a song at a time

graham nash. photo by amy grantham.

In the chorus to one of his most acclaimed songs, Graham Nash designs the chorus as an affirmation, a chant against a social and political climate ripe with unrest.

The tune was “Chicago.” The year was 1971, although the tune was written in the aftermath of conflict that arose out of the Democratic National Convention three years earlier. The chorus was almost child-like in its simplicity.

“We can change the world.”

Now at age 75, Nash stands by the credo. Even though the world – his own as well as the one that surrounds him – has undeniably shifted, he stills believes in the power of a singular voice.

“Let me give you an example,” Nash said. “Do you know who Frank Wills is? He was a guard at the Watergate hotel. One night he was sitting there at his desk with a little nine inch black and white television showing a basketball game. He went on his rounds and saw that there was tape keeping a door open. Now, he’s faced with a decision. ‘Do I check it out or do I go back to my game and make believe everything’s fine?’ He made the decision to check it out. I mean, that brought down the President of the United States. You can absolutely change the world, even if it’s only your world.”

The changes in Nash’s world have been considerable in recent years. In his personal life, the two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee divorced his wife of 38 years, moved to New York and formed a new relationship with photographer Amy Grantham. On the professional front, the heralded folk-rock trio of Crosby, Stills & Nash, after an on-again/off-again run of over 45 years, crashed to the ground following a dispute with longtime partner David Crosby. Those events and more informed Nash’s first solo album in 14 years, “This Path Tonight.”

“I make music that comes from my heart,” Nash said. “I came to New York and fell in love with a beautiful photographer. Actually, the very first picture that Amy ever took of me became the album cover.”

Touring continuously since the record’s release in April of 2016, Nash has been performing in a duo setting with guitarist Shane Fontayne, whose extensive credits includes tenures with Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Lone Justice. While the resulting shows have understandably emphasized songs from “This Path Tonight,” the repertoire reaches back to his pre-CSN tenure with The Hollies. In a career known for songs like “Our House,” “Teach Your Children” and “Cathedral,” is it difficult to get an audience to give attention to Nash’s newer music?

“I’m finding the people coming to see us are very cognizant of who I am,” Nash said. “I want them to enjoy music from when I was first writing music. The last tour I did started with ‘Bus Stop.’ This tour, I’m starting with ‘On a Carousel’ (the tunes were hits for The Hollies in 1966 and 1967, respectively). People are loving it. Those songs, they’re not particularly brain scratchers in terms of message, but they’re fun pop songs that make you feel good because you bring in all this memory of your youth into play. Not only do audiences understand that I sang in The Hollies and I made pop records for years before I met David and Stephen (Stills), they are also responding to this new stuff brilliantly. I couldn’t be happier.”
Forming Crosby, Stills & Nash involved sacrifice, though. He left everything – his home, his marriage, his band and nearly all his belongings – in his native England to move to Southern California to begin the group.

“Let’s just think about what I did. I left my incredibly popular band that, when I was with them, had at least 15 or 16 Top 20 hits. I left my bank account. I left my equipment. I left my first wife, although we were going to get divorced anyway. Hearing me and David and Stephen sing… that was it for me. That’s how powerful that sound was. That’s how powerful three voices sounding like one voice was. It brought me to America. It made me give up my entire life.”

Nash didn’t shy away from discussing his current rift with Crosby, which stems from disparaging remarks the latter made about Neil Young, CSN’s frequent fourth member, and his relationship with actress Daryl Hannah after divorcing his longtime wife – a situation that largely mirrored events in Nash’s life. Does the quarrel mean CSN is a dead proposition as a performance unit?

“At the moment now, yes,” Nash said. “David was very, very unkind. You may not agree with what your friends do, but you can kind of keep that to yourself. You don’t go on national radio and talk about Neil like that. That’s insane. And let me tell you, Neil was very upset because this came at a very fragile point. I completely understand because I just went through the same thing. For one of his (Young’s) friends to say that publicly was powerfully cruel.”

With such a championed artistic history to his credit, Nash is not standing still. His mission remains the same as it was in the ‘60s – to change the world one song at a time.

“I’m on the road right now, writing every day for another record. What’s in my future? More love. More peace. So yeah, I’m still alive.”

Graham Nash performs 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short St. Tickets: $55, $65. Call 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to ticketmaster.com.

nicole atkins addresses her inner pop star

nicole atkins. photo by anna webber.

Let’s get one question out of the way before we go any further. Who is Rhonda Lee?

The fourth and newest album by Nicole Atkins – the Jersey songstress with towering vocal chops and the pop smarts as a writer and performer to put them to expert use – is titled “Goodnight Rhonda Lee.” Alright then, who in creation is Rhonda Lee?

Ah, but there’s the key. It turns out that’s exactly what Rhonda Lee is – a creation. She is, in effect, Atkins’ fictitiously evil twin – the character who acts with unapologetic recklessness. She is, if you will, a trouble child.

“She’s the girl who always has a little too much,” said Atkins, who makes her Lexington debut on Thursday (the night before the release date for “Goodnight Rhonda Lee”) at The Burl.

“You know when you have a friend that drinks too much and you give them a different name? That’s what’s she’s like. In my family, it’s when they tell me, ‘Oh, we’re having dinner tonight. Don’t bring Rhonda Lee.’”

Turns out, though, Rhonda Lee was making her presence quite known in Atkins’ life long before she was immortalized in song. Even as the singer was rewarded with a new and happy marriage as well as a move from her longstanding New Jersey/New York roots to Nashville, she was duking it out something fierce with her uneasy alter ego. Specifically, she was battling for sobriety on top of dealing with news that her father had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

On top of all that, she was facing an everyday artistic dilemma – maintaining a career that had been gathering momentum since the release of her debut album “Neptune City” a decade ago. Fueling such mounting visibility was a vocal charge that regularly summoned the spirits of pop giants like Roy Orbison and encompassed inspirations of vintage pop, soul and country but with a literary flair all her own.

“I was under the delusion that it mattered to keep putting things out and moving fast – you know, the fear that things could go away if I didn’t keep moving. But for this record, I really just wanted to take my time until every song was a song that I wanted to hear, a song that told a story about my life. I feel that this is the album that taught me how to be a good songwriter.

“I’ve always been really connected to that big crooner type of singing – you know, Roy Orbison or Jay Black, that kind of stuff, as well as classic country, soul music and rock music in the 1968 kind of vein. I didn’t think it was possible for me to make a record that combined those things. It wasn’t until three years had past and I had moved, gotten married and went through rehab that I kept saying, ‘I wish I could just move forward.’

“Then, while sitting and listening to the 16 songs I whittled down from maybe 100, my husband popped into the room and said, ‘You did it, babe.’ I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘You’ve got your soul record.’ It’s funny because sometimes I can’t see when things are done until somebody else steps in and tells me.”

Among the heroes in Atkins’ corner during writing sessions for “Goodnight Rhonda Lee” was veteran rock and pop stylist Chris Isaak. Longtime friends and touring mates, the two collaborated on one of the true gems of “Goodnight Rhonda Lee,’ the epically orchestrated and ultra Orbison-esque “A Little Crazy.”

“Chris was, like, ‘Your voice has this special thing that I don’t think you utilize enough. It’s kind of your superpower.’ When we were having burgers for lunch, I came up with this chorus that was kind of Righteous Brothers-ey. Then I was like, ‘Well, what do I write it about? I’m happily married now.’ Chris said, ‘Remember that horrible relationship you had when we were touring together? You got anything from that?’ I thought, ‘I have a lifetime of stuff from that.’

“I remember having an old boyfriend saying to me, ‘You know what your problem is? You’re defined by your music.’ Well, okay. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I’m absolutely defined by that. It’s my life, no matter what happens. I won’t stop doing this until I can’t physically do it anymore. There’s no Plan B.”

Nicole Atkins with Joslyn and the Sweet Compression perform at 8 tonight (July 20) at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.  Tickets: $8, $10. Call: 859-447-8166 or go to theburlky.com.

bring on the noise

bruce hornsby. photo by megan holmes.

He had led an all-star jazz trio, taken turns at bluegrass and collaborated with some of the most honored names in rock and pop. Shoot, the guy was even a member of the Grateful Dead.

But when it comes to the regal, piano-based music he makes on his own, Bruce Hornsby favors a setting where he can make serious noise. Hence, the Noisemakers, a band of diversely versed pop strategists that can match Hornsby’s virtuosic musicianship, play with a fearsome ensemble tightness and yet remain open to whatever spontaneous turns and jams that might emerge.

The Noisemakers – keyboardist J.T. Thomas, guitarist/mandolinist Doug Derryberry, saxophonist Bobby Read, bassist J.V. Collier and drummer Sonny Emory – are also the players that bring the multi-Grammy winning Hornsby back to Lexington for a Tuesday concert at the Opera House.

“The members of the Noisemakers are veterans, like me, of so many different types of gigs, from lounge gigs, frat parties with ropes to separate the dancers from the band, wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs, J-Lo, Was Not Was, biker bars, Earth, Wind & Fire, Mumford and Sons, Gladys Knight, Holiday Inns, Captain Beefheart, Brandi Carlile, on and on and on.

“They are very adept at moving from one style to another at the blink of an eye or wave of a hand – in this case, my hand. They watch me closely because they know I’m restless and often looking for something new to do within a song’s performance. Also, I try to ‘entertain the band’- to keep it loose, free and improvisational every night. This approach keeps it always fresh.”

Hornsby emerged as an expert pop songsmith when the singles “The Way It Is,” “Mandolin Rain” and “The Valley Road” made him a rock radio regular beginning in 1986. But his career has since traveled numerous stylistic paths his airwave-friendly music might not have forecasted, including two albums with Kentucky-born country/bluegrass giant Ricky Skaggs and an instrumental jazz record with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jack DeJohnette.

“Jazz music, bluegrass music and lots of my own music have one thing in common- they’ve all been about virtuosity on the instrument. My style comes from a combination of these disparate stylistic elements and is often described as ‘Bill Evans meets the Hymnal, with some blues thrown in.’”

In 1991, Hornsby met up with one of his foremost musical inspirations, Leon Russell, to produce a comeback record for the elder artist titled ‘Anything Can Happen.’ But scan most any Hornsby record and you will likely find a song (like “Another Day” from 1990’s “A Night on the Town”) where the jubilant spirit of Russell, who died in November, beams.

“I thought I could do a pretty solid Leon imitation on the piano until I started working with him closely on the ‘Anything Can Happen’ record,” Hornsby said. “I saw that it was way deeper than I had thought. It was beautiful to actually be able to learn literally at the feet of the gospel/rock ‘n’ roll master. We were good friends for years, and I spoke at his memorial service in Tulsa last November. I’ll always miss him, very much like Garcia.”

“Garcia,” of course, was Jerry Garcia, the late guitarist of the Grateful Dead, which enlisted Hornsby as a touring member during the ‘90s. The connection was re-established in 2015 when he was asked to play as part of the Dead for a run of career-concluding concerts. The performances were chronicled on the concert CD/DVD, “Fare Thee Well.”

“The finality of these ‘last Dead concerts’ gave me a different sense of what was happening. I tried to savor certain special moments while they were happening, moments when things would really jell musically and the crowd would respond in that amazing Deadhead fashion. The ‘Fare Thee Well’ concerts were an unforgettable experience for me – such a great time playing with my old Dead cousins.”

Up next for Hornsby will be the completion of music for Spike Lee’s Netflix series based on his first movie, ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ (his ninth project with the filmmaker) and a record of new songs composed for orchestra.

“(It) may be the most original thing I’ve done,” Hornsby said of the latter project. “Or it may not be. But at the very least it’s surely the most dissonant and harmonically adventurous music I’ve made. So yes, I’m in a very fertile, creative place with regard to new music and musical areas to explore.”

Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers perform at 7:30 p.m. June 27 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short. Tickets: $75.50. Call: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to     ticketmaster.com.

lonesome ruhks

Band of Ruhks: Kenny Smith, Ronnie Bowman and Don Rigsby.

It’s been quite some time since Ronnie Bowman, Kenny Smith and Don Rigsby have been this Lonesome.

As the foundation of the contemporary bluegrass troupe Band of Ruhks, the three established their far reaching musical profiles as bassist, guitarist and mandolinist, respectively, with the Lonesome River Band. All three departed in 2001, after solidifying the group’s mighty instrumental drive alongside banjoist Sammy Shelor and, in the process, fortifying a level of popularity carried on by subsequent versions of the band.

But the chemistry between Bowman, Smith, and Rigsby was never forgotten as the three established separate careers. Band of Ruhks rekindles it completely. While its self-titled 2015 debut album hardly ignores tradition, as shown by a vocal cameo by the late bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley on “Coal Mining Man,” the record regularly extends its reach to more contemporary country and Americana inspirations.

“We’re a bluegrass band with traditional sensibilities but are forward leaning,” said Isonville native Rigsby, who served as the inaugural director of Morehead State University’s Kentucky Center for Traditional Music for eight years following his exit from the Lonesome River Band.

“We definitely pay respect and revere the old guys. I mean, shoot, we had Ralph on the last album. But it’s one of these deals where we know we can’t beat the guys who have already done this, so we’re going to do our own thing. When I play with these guys, I think that I’m with some of the best musicians on the planet. There is nobody who can sing better than Ronnie Bowman. There is nobody who can play guitar better than Kenny Smith.”

The three reteamed with Shelor for a one-off reunion of their Lonesome River Band roster in 2010. But with Shelor still committed full time to the group’s present lineup, Bowman, Smith and Rigsby worked with a succession of other banjoists to form Band of Ruhks. Its current enlistee is Brian Fesler, who preceded Shelor, Bowman, Smith and Rigsby in the Lonesome River Band.

“When the three of us were all in the Lonesome River Band together, we knew we could make great music and get along because we did so for years,” Rigsby said. “But at the same time, everybody kind of gets in a spot where they feel they need to explore more, so we all went our separate ways. Ronnie became quite a well known songwriter (he has penned chart-topping songs for Kenny Chesney and Brooks & Dunn, among others), Kenny went on to teaching and did great records with his wife Amanda. I went into the education field and had my own band together. There were growth opportunities for all of us.

“But when I was getting ready to leave my job at the university, I had been kind of itching to play with the guys again, so I contacted all of my bandmates for a Lonesome River Band reunion. We only did one concert because Sammy already had his Lonesome River Band lineup going since we had all been gone. We talked about doing some more dates, but I think it got to the point where Sammy felt like it might be counterproductive to have two Lonesome River Bands out there. Still, Kenny, Ronnie and me decided there was a lot of great music left for us to make together.”

A sophomore Band of Ruhks album, the group’s first with Fesler on board, is in the planning stages. Before that will be considerable summer touring. When off the road, Rigsby calls Sandy Hook, just a few miles from Isonville, home.

“They couldn’t run me off if they tried,” he said. “Even if they did, I’d just wind up back there in Elliott County. It’s good because they keep you humble there. They don’t want you to get too big. They like to keep you anonymity. I kind of like that anonymity, too.

“It’s nice to be able to go out and hear someone say, ‘Hey, there’s ol’ Don. He’s no big deal.’”

Band of Ruhks performs at 5 and 8 p.m. on June 10 as part of the Festival of the Bluegrass at the  Kentucky Horse Park Campground. The festival runs through June 11. Tickets are $10 (June 11 only), $50 (June 9 only), $55 (June 10 only). Call: 859-253-0806 or go to festivalofthebluegrass.com.

the lowdown from hammertowne

Hammmertowne. Top row: Scott Tackett, Bryan Russell, Dave Carroll; Bottom row: Caston Carroll, Brent Pack. Photo by Allison Pack.

The name is a little tricky – Hammertowne. Dave Carroll says it’s derived from the kind of aggressive, rhythmic bluegrass music his band fell in line with.

“We’re traditional in terms of the pace of our music and the type of music we prefer, but we’re also kind of edgy in how we play. We’re high energy and kind of like to hammer down onstage. That’s where our name came from.”

But then there is the town aspect of Hammertowne, which performs Friday as the Festival of the Bluegrass gets into full gear at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. That could be seen as a reference to the variety of Eastern Kentucky communities the band’s members hail from. Guitarist Carroll lives in Johnson County (specifically, Flat Gap) but is a native of Ashland, which is where his son, Hammertowne mandolinist Chaston Carroll, now resides. Bassist Bryan Russell makes his home in Magoffin County, just outside of Salyersville. Banjoist Brent Pack is from Louisa and lead vocalist Scott Tackett lives in Olive Hill.

“We describe our origin as Eastern Kentucky,” Carroll said. “That’s the best way it works for us. We all live within about an 80 mile radius of each other.

“For me, music was just part of my life growing up in that area. I actually didn’t start playing music until I got out of high school. I have a relative who is very well known throughout Central and Eastern Kentucky, an old time fiddle player by the name of Marvin Carroll. I remember when Marvin was playing with a band in a local community center. I went out and saw him one night and the bug bit me hard. From that point, I was determined to play and sing. I got me a guitar which has encompassed a whole lot of my life ever since.”

Hammertowne got its start when Tackett, weary of his previous bluegrass band, set out to make a solo record with Carroll’s help. Once the record, titled “Looking Back,” was completed, the two took on concert dates initially booked for Tackett’s previous band. Friends soon joined and what was once a solo endeavor became Hammertowne. The band’s third album, “Hillbilly Heroes,” is set for release on June 30.

“Folks in the industry will tell you how, most of the time, bands don’t last to the third album,” Carroll said “The third album is kind of the bar setter. I’m more excited about this record than any project I’ve ever been a part of. We’ve got, I think, really great songs to work with.”

Carroll knows his way around a good song, too. His compositions have been recorded and popularized by, among many others, two longtime headliners at the Festival of the Bluegrass – the Lonesome River Band (which tops Thursday’s abbreviated bill) and Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out (which leads the Friday lineup).

While a few of the Hammertowne members have played the Festival of the Bluegrass previously in other groups, Carroll hasn’t. Like many, though, he has been a patron.

“I attended that festival for the first time in 1985, when it was still at Masterson Station Park, but haven’t been back since it moved to the Horse Park. Still, it’s one of those great festivals, like Bill Monroe’s festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana, which we got to play last year (and will again next week).

“A lot of people don’t realize this, but 2017 is only our fourth year as a touring band. When you look at the tradition of the Festival of the Bluegrass and the bands that have come across the stage… I mean, we could not be any more excited. This is one of those bucket list festivals. It was on our list, certainly, when we first formed this group. We were so thrilled to find out that we made the bill, so we’re super excited to be there this year.”

The Festival of the Bluegrass runs June 9 through June 11 at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. Hammertowne performs at 2 and 7 p.m. June 9. Tickets: $10 (June 11 only), $50 (June 9 only), $55 (June 10 only); $100-$115 (entire festival). Call: 859-253-0806 or go to  festivalofthebluegrass.com.

jim lauderdale hits a new lowe

jim lauderdale.

Perhaps one of the least likely stylistic destinations for a songsmith so celebrated in Americana and country circles as Jim Lauderdale would be British pop. After all, over the past three decades, his songs – many possessing a strong, traditional country air – have been recorded by George Strait, Vince Gill and Kentucky’s own Patty Loveless, among many others. He has also collaborated on full album projects with the likes of bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley and Americana chieftain Buddy Miller.

But dig deep into Lauderdale’s very deep satchel of musical influences and you will discover a love for the kind of pop songcraft that began, not surprisingly, with The Beatles and runs through to the comparatively modern British musings of Nick Lowe. The former inspiration more than once fuels tunes from Lauderdale’s upcoming “London Southern” album, but it’s Lowe’s crew – specifically, his producer and several longtime band members – that help realize the album’s broader musical scope.

“Really, a lot of this record is heavily Beatles influenced,” said Lauderdale, who returns to Lexington for a solo concert tonight at Willie’s Locally Known. “That’s especially true of the early Beatles (as evidenced by the hullabaloo spirit of such “London Southern” songs as “No Right Way to Be Wrong”). That was kind of where I was coming from in a lot of ways with this. It was a combination of going back to their roots and going back to my roots. The Beatles were part of my roots since I was, like, six, having seen them on Ed Sullivan first. So a lot of that stuff has been in my system for years. They were so influenced by American music and we were so influenced by them back.”

That explains how the opening tune to “London Southern” better reflects the spirit of vintage George Jones than British pop. By the time “Only So Much Time” cues up, though, the country sound turns more progressive, as if it were an outtake from Bob Dylan’s classic 1969 country-inspired album, “Nashville Skyline.” One of the key elements to this cross-continental sound is the subtle keyboard orchestration of Geraint Watkins, a long time member of Lowe’s band.

“Geraint Watkins is a real master,” Lauderdale said. “That’s all him and Neil (Brockbank, veteran Lowe producer). A lot of that stuff we just had to trust and let it be different from the other records I’ve made. Sometimes it was hard for me to let go and not second guess things. But I’m glad I let them do what they wanted to do and needed to do.”

With several members of Lowe’s band and production team on hand for “London Southern,” one has to wonder why Lowe himself wasn’t part of the party.

“Originally, Nick was going to co-produce the record,” Lauderdale said. “The problem was that he really needed the songs several weeks in advance and I didn’t have them. And I totally understand. The way I make records when I co-produce is so chaotic.  For better or for worse, I have a habit of writing under tremendous pressure. That’s just the way it sometimes turns out. But he’s of the school, logically and understandably, of needing songs in advance to plan things out and to think about doing parts, instead of just working off the cuff.”

Once completed, another query surfaced for “London Southern” – namely, finding the right time to release it. An insanely prolific artist, Lauderdale recorded the album almost three years ago, releasing a total of six other recordings in its wake. Among them were bluegrass projects, a solo acoustic record, a country album, collaborative works with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter and the North Mississippi All-Stars and more. That truckload of music may have delayed the release of “London Southern,” but it never lessened the feeling of artistic camaraderie and exploration Lauderdale experienced working with his British allies.

“I felt like we had a connection,” he said. “I was slightly nervous about working with this new group. I wasn’t nervous that they wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off, and if they would like the material. But I think that we had a connection musically because we really shared the influences.”

Jim Lauderdale performs at 9 tonight at Willie’s Locally Known, 286 Southland Dr. Tickets: $17. Call 859-281-1116 or go to willieslocallyknown.com.

elizabeth cook doesn’t hold back

elizabeth cook.

Elizabeth Cook has never been one to hold back – not in the frank tales she revealed of her life and family during numerous appearances on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” not in the homey yarns she spun on her Sirius XM morning radio show “Apron Strings” and especially not on her soul-baring 2016 album “Exodus of Venus.”

A critically lauded country music renegade who is right at home channeling a subversive rock or folk inspiration if the spirit hits, Cook sees no point in hiding any personal truth, dark or otherwise, from anyone willing to give her songs a listen.

“I’m very forthcoming musically,” said Cook, who returns to town for a solo concert Thursday at The Burl. “That’s kind of the whole point. I just don’t see where I’m doing any service with my artistry if I’m holding back. We’re all here to comfort each other through our experiences and gain a deeper understanding. I mean, it’s sort of my job.”

Cook takes her work quite seriously on “Exodus of Venus,” an album cut in the aftermath of myriad personal hurdles – divorce, the deaths of family members, a family home burning down and a stint in rehab. The effects of each are worn like battle scars in a parade of proud, coarse electric songs whose titles do little to mask their sentiments – “Slow Pain,” “Straightjacket Love,” “Dyin’” and “Methadone Blues” – before the album concludes with a meditation of pure country anguish, “Tabitha Tuder’s Mama” that recalls, vocally and stylistically, Emmylou Harris’s finest work.

“If I’m any good at this, it’s because what I do is instinctive and it’s instinctive because I’m going down a rabbit hole for myself. Hopefully, that becomes relatable on the other side to other people. It’s absolutely and totally cathartic. I listen to it and I’m surprised by it. I found a lot of it to also be prophetic in things that played out since those songs were written and recorded. So it’s, first and foremost, self-serving.”

“Exodus of Venus” serves as a dynamic addition to a career that has clocked literally hundreds of performances on the Grand Ole Opry, collaborations with such Americana heroes as John Prine, Jason Isbell and Steve Earle and a 2012 trio performance here in Lexington with Midnight Oil mainstay Bones Hilman as her bassist (a show notable for, among other things, concluding not with a perhaps expected classic country cover but a lullaby-like reading of the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”).

But it was Letterman that proved one of Cook’s greatest supporters. Taken by unvarnished and very human stories about, among other subjects, her moonshine running father and his eventual incarceration, the comedian and talk host invited Cook back on “The Late Show” numerous times prior to his retirement in 2015.

“That was really cool and encouraging, but also very surprising to me,” Cook said. “It was very out of the blue. I was pretty shocked, especially at first. I couldn’t understand why I being put in that position of being asked questions and stuff. But I later became very humbled by it and, I guess, flattered by his attention about how he felt connected to me when he listened to me on the radio. I really think he wanted to introduce me to a wider audience.”

When asked about the influences that went into her country-conscious songs, Cook doesn’t point to a specific artist or recording. Her gateway into the world of songwriting and performance began at home.

“I had grown up with my mother and father being musical, watching them having a band and seeing how music was just a way of life for them and probably their greatest comfort and outlet for joy and solace. I think, by tradition, it became all that to me, too.

“So when I had an opportunity to start mining out what I would be doing for a living in that direction, it wasn’t so much that I saw the Beatles on ‘Ed Sullivan’ like Tom Petty did. I didn’t have that type of moment. For me, it was about coming up in an environment that was saturated by people directly around me making music all the time.”

Elizabeth Cook, Darrin Bradbury and Maggie Lander perform at 8 p.m. May 4 at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd. Tickets: $12. Call 859-447-8166 or go to burlky.ticketfly.com.

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