Archive for profiles

craving soul

jc brooks.

jc brooks.

JC Brooks steers a conversation in much the way he drives a stage performance. In both instances, his voice reflects a restless but soulful vigor, an almost orchestral fluidity and, above all, a seemingly caffeinated urgency that comes from filling every open space with a consistently evolving idea or sound.

“Obviously, I’m a bit of a talker,” Brooks said as our interview drew to a close last week ahead of his Crave Lexington performance this weekend at Masterson Station Park. “I hope you were recording everything because I just shoved a lot down your earhole.”

Ever since forming and fronting the Chicago-based Uptown Sound band in 2007, Brooks has been at the center of an R&B sound both modern and retro in design that has played out on a pair of dramatically different albums for the indie Bloodshot label – 2012’s traditionally slanted, soul revue-style Want More and 2013’s more modern punk-funk infested Howl. But when it comes to spreading the word on his cross-generational soul blend, Brooks and his band do things with a very old fashioned work ethnic – specifically, a high octane live show and a desire for serious roadwork.

“I scream and jump around and stuff like that onstage. But all of that aside, even if I was more of a stand up performer, what we do is pretty uptempo dancing music. If people are going out with the intention of having a good time, then it’s hard for them to not at one of our shows unless they straight up don’t like our music, which is entirely possible.

“Generally after the first song or two, we get them going. We try to start with more traditional soul – something uptempo to serve as an in-road to what we do. Then we throw some of newer stuff in there, a lot of the stuff from Howl.

Want More was pretty much a party soul album. With Howl, we decided to include some of our other influences. We added synths and just did stuff that sounded less like traditional soul. It was more in the vein of a post punk thing, so that’s a little less accessible for people. But I think once they’re in there they get it. Then by the end of the set we bring them back out, too, with let-your-body-move-type stuff. It’s just a good place and a good time to come and forget your troubles for however long we’re playing. The troubles will be waiting for you afterward. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Aside from the stylistic disparity between Want More and Howl, Brooks is a walking vocabulary of soul-pop vocal references, from Wilson Pickett-style gusto to James Brown falsetto runs to a level of performance daring that wouldn’t be out of place (albeit with some stylistic adjustments) at a Bad Brains concert.

Naturally, the question of influences surfaces when addressing his stage stance. With a background in musical theatre, Brooks mentions artists like Tina Turner and Patti LaBelle, but more as performance inspirations than specific singing guides.

“I’m more into performing than vocals. I think it’s way more important to give a great performance than to just get up there and sound good. As far as vocal inspirations, that’s especially hard to say with us because when I started doing bands, I was listening to a lot of rock and punk stuff – Eddie Vedder and Ben Folds, guys like that.”

A new album with a new Uptown Sound lineup is in the works that should expand even further on the modern soul charge of Howl.

“As we recorded and brought in these songs, the music has shifted direction so many times, so we all decided, ‘Let’s not make a declaration here. Let’s just make songs and then find out what they have in common later on.’ That’s sort of the way Howl worked, too. This time, we have a hard rock song, we have a disco song, we have a Pixies-esque song, we have something that sounds like old Stones, we have something like that sounds adult contemporary R&B. We’re kind of all over the place right now.”

JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound perform at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 22 at Masterson Station Park, 3051 Leestown Rd., as part of Crave Lexington. Admission is free. Call (859) 266-6537. For info

picnic with the pops – both of them

wycliffe gordon at his lexington home. herald-leader staff photo by mark cornelison.

wycliffe gordon at his lexington home. herald-leader staff photo by mark cornelison.

Wycliffe Gordon is more than aware audiences perceive classical music and jazz as, at best, distant relatives. But this weekend, Lexington’s newest jazz ambassador is out to make peace within the family.

“One of the most difficult things in dealing with orchestras, and just musicians who are classically trained, is to try and get them to step out of the box as a unit. It’s not that classical musicians don’t improvise. Of course they do. But I’m kind of unconventional in the way that I like to get the most out of musicians, so we want the orchestra to sing. You have structure, but we also want to deal with that improvisational aspect.”

A longstanding trombonist, composer, arranger and jazz educator, Gordon amassed an impressive jazz dossier that included an extended tenure in Wynton Marsalis’ famed 1990s sextet (a jazz battalion rightly coined by the New York Times as “a special forces unit”) before relocating to Lexington two years ago.

But homebound time for Gordon is scarce. He maintains an office in New York yet works and teaches as an artist-in-residence at Georgia Regents University in Augusta (he was born in nearby Waynesboro). There have been occasional Lexington showings, including a burst of performance activity in December 2013 with the Lexington Brass Band and the University of Kentucky Jazz and Wind Ensembles, but after marrying and moving to town, Gordon largely considers home time to be down time.

“I love it in Lexington. It’s not as far South as Georgia, but it’s South. We have a lovely home. I like the pace. It’s a beautiful city. But outside of going out every now and then, I don’t get a chance to do too much there. By the time I get home, I really just want to stay home.”

This weekend, however, begins something of a strengthening of bonds with his new hometown. At the heart of this reinforced connection will be two concerts that offer a new duality to the term Picnic at the Pops. The performances team the trombonist with the Lexington Philharmonic in a literal pops setting. But Pops is also the nickname of Louis Armstrong, the jazz giant whose music Gordon, his quintet and the Philharmonic will bring to life.

“The influence of Louis Armstrong goes beyond his music,” Gordon said. “It’s about Louis Armstrong as a musician, but it’s also about Louis Armstrong as a humanitarian. What he stood for, what he played for is always going to be relevant because he was about bringing people together. It’s just that music was his way of doing that. That was his tool. So to play the music of Louis Armstrong, we must recognize him as a musician, a jazz musician, a trumpet player and a vocalist. He is so many things. But most importantly, it’s what people get out of the music.

“Whenever I play or listen to the music of Louis Armstrong it affects me. If I feel good, after hearing Pops, I feel better. If I don’t feel so good, I feel better. Anytime you experience a performance of Louis Armstrong’s music, people smile. When they listen to that music, they want to sing. That’s the kind of thing that Pops was about.”

Gordon paid direct homage to Armstrong on his 2011 album Hello Pops. But those recordings dealt largely with combo and small ensemble arrangements. As much of the trombonist’s touring work has involved performance collaborations with larger college jazz groups, he revisited Armstrong’s tunes with an eye for big band arrangements. Gordon then cut the resulting music with Lexington’s DiMartino-Osland Jazz Orchestra for the June-released Somebody New album (he will perform the music with DOJO on Oct. 26 at Comedy Off-Broadway).

“Even though I don’t work with my own big band, I do a lot of work with big bands, so it seemed like a good idea to do a big band record,” Gordon said. “Of course, I included some of the music from Hello Pops, because I did those arrangements, too. So the CD is kind of multi-purpose, and DOJO did a wonderful job. They delivered the music at the highest level and I appreciated that.”

For this weekend, though, the focus will be on performing Armstrong’s music with the Philharmonic and exploring the possibilities of jazz within an orchestral context.

“When you have a large ensemble, there are so many more tonal pallets and timbres that you can deal with in terms of the music. But we also have a little more structure with the orchestra in terms of the performance and the arrangements than with smaller groups.

“In dealing with orchestras and symphonies, they tend to want to have a show that is kind of regimented and scripted. But we’re working on a program that will be quite diverse, so we will enjoy putting this script together.”

Picnic at the Pops Presents Night on Bourbon Street: A Tribute to Louis Armstrong featuring Lexington Philharmonic with Wycliffe Gordon and his International All-Stars performs at 8:30 p.m. Aug. 14 and 15. Gates open at 6 p.m. at the Meadow at Keene Barn, Keeneland. Tickets: $15-$300. Call (859) 233-3535 or go to

the summer of lera lynn

lera lynn.

lera lynn.

There are probably other grand titles you can give the season now heading into the home stretch. But if you’ve been tracking the blossoming career of a certain Nashville by way of Georgia by way of Texas songsmith and the rather explosive turn it is now taking, you might agree we are in the midst of The Summer of Lera Lynn.

The headline performer at this weekend’s Well Crafted Festival at Harrodsburg’s Shaker Village, Lynn began creating serious indie commotion in 2014 with the release of her sophomore album The Avenues. The recording boasts richly emotive and often darkly atmospheric songs that touch on elements of Americana, country, pop and more with a decidedly noir cast.

One especially smitten fan was David Letterman, who summed a Late Show performance by Lynn of The Avenues’ David Lynch-ian snapshot of country-esque longing Out to Sea with a proud boast. “Remember, you heard it here first.”

But next week, Lynn will expand on that exposure with the release of True Detective: Music from the HBO Series. It includes a set of newer songs produced by T Bone Burnett that are leaner in design and more quietly disruptive than her music from The Avenues. The singer has already been featured in a recurring role as a dour songstress performing in the series’ dank dive bar The Black Rose. Her performance of My Least Favorite Life, which played under a scene featuring True Detective stars Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell was especially arresting.

While the tune is also a highlight of the soundtrack, the album’s first single, The Only Thing Worth Fighting For, features a pair of very different celebs. It was jointly penned by Lynn, Burnett and Rosanne Cash.

“On the plane to LA, I was kind of having a pep talk with myself before my first session in the studio with T Bone,” Lynn said. “I was kind of saying, ‘Okay, Lera. It’s time to deliver. Get it together.’ It was intimidating, obviously, but he and Rosanne were both great – just really sweet and easy to work with and encouraging. Really, it was a dream come true.”

“It’s all thrilling in that I’m able to perform now for more people and connect with more people. I mean, the process itself was obviously thrilling, as well. But on the other side of that, it’s also exciting just to see people responding to the work that I’ve done previously by coming up after the shows and buying records. It’s all of that.

Lynn admitted Burnett encouraged her to explore her “dark side” when composing the True Detective songs. But such terrain isn’t foreign to her. She took a few strolls there when making The Avenues.

“It was actually a very natural process. I think it’s an element that has been present in my music for years. It’s just that it’s the thing people don’t think they can market, plus no one has ever really encouraged me to do it until now. I think that’s why T Bone chose me to do the True Detective music, because he could see that peaking through. He wanted to really highlight that. But it was fun. It’s an easy thing, the dark side.”

One might suspect with the True Detective soundtrack still a week away from release that Lynn wouldn’t be rushing back to the recording studio anytime soon. In actuality, she’s already there working on music for what will become her third album. But the collaboration with Burnett and Cash on the True Detective music has opened a new perspective on songwriting she says will play out on her next recording.

“I think the songs I did for True Detective have given me a greater confidence in doing what I find inspiring rather than what I find to be marketable. So with the new record, I’m trusting my instincts even more and digging a little bit deeper into the territories that I have hinted at in my previous records.

“There was a time in my life when I thought, ‘To be an artist, you have to be in pain.’ Usually to be in pain you have to be involved in drama. A certain part of that is true. I still experience pain and drama. But I think the writing process also involves drawing on other people’s stories and maybe implying my own feelings as they relate to something I’ve experienced. It’s just different for every song.”

But what of the music itself, the dreamscapes that ooze from one genre to another to create a sound that is introspective in its hushed beauty but cinematic enough to bring the corners of a shadowy but popular television series to life? For that, Lynn credits her upbringing – specifically, a household ruled by a rotating musical set list.

“I grew up with my mom playing Vince Gill and then skipping to Joni Mitchell and then Michael Jackson. I think that’s what most people do, really. I mean, why would you limit yourself to one thing?”

While translating that to her own songs has become second nature, finding a place for her stylistically disparate songs might be seem arduous if she had to answer to the whims of major record label marketing. Luckily, as a still-independent artist, she doesn’t.

“It’s difficult to find a balance between business and art. But I think the best thing you can do as an artist is to try not to think about what’s marketable and just do what moves you the most because chances are that’s what is going to move other people the most, too. That’s always been my M.O.”

Lera Lynn performs at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 8 as part of the Well Crafted Festival at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, 3501 Lexington Road in Harrodsburg. The festival begins at 12 noon. Admission: $25. Call (859) 734-5411 or go to

living with the nashville rash

dale watson.

dale watson.

On a 1995 tune called Nashville Rash, Dale Watson roared on unapologetically about being “too country now for country,” a remark that underscored just how vast the distance was between his brand of hard core honky tonk and the wave of pop attitudes that were already overtaking the roots-driven music he grew up with.

Today, the veteran Texas singer takes an opposite view. Longtime fans shouldn’t fret, though, as the heavily traditional country sound descended directly from giants like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings remains his steadfast style. But the distance between that music and the Nashville norm has him modifying his perspective.

“What’s happened in the 20 years since I wrote Nashville Rash is that now I’m actually not country enough in terms of the new definition of what country is. I am so light years away from what country music has become that I’m not country enough for country.

“You know what? That’s a good idea. I hear a song coming on.”

A regular Lexington visitor in the mid-to-late’90s at Lynagh’s Music Club when his recording career commenced, Watson’s honky tonk vocabulary remains devoted to tradition on two of his newest albums, 2013’s El Rancho Azul, which vastly upped his national exposure through considerable critical praise and television appearances, and this summer’s Lloyd Maines-produced Call Me Insane. But for an artist with such a scholarly command of country tradition, one may find a few surprises scattered among his list of musical heroes.

“Three stand out in my mind – Elvis (Presley), Johnny Cash and Dean Martin.”

Dean Martin? One of today’s most versed country traditionalists finds inspiration in the cocktail swigging, ‘60s swinging swagger of Dean Martin?

“Oh yeah,” Watson said. “I loved his voice right off the bat. But when I watched The Dean Martin Show, you could tell he had fun. He sang great, but he had so much fun onstage.

“That’s our main objective as a band today. Our only rule is to have fun. That’s it. We remind each other of that when we get onstage. Just last night, one of the cats said that right before we went on. He said, ‘Alright. Number one rule.’ The road can really get to you, but it just takes one guy to go, ‘Alright. Number one rule.’ It perks you right up.”

While his music hasn’t changed over the years, Watson has done a lifetime of hard living since those ‘90s shows at Lynagh’s. Following the 2000 death of his fiance in a car accident, Watson dropped into a personal tailspin of alcohol and drug abuse. Following a year-long recovery, he recounted the whole devastating saga in the tribute album Every Song I Write is for You and a 2006 documentary film titled Crazy Again.

“Hey man, I survived living,” Watson said. “It’s not easy sometimes. Most of the time, in my case, I was my own worst enemy – a lot of times, really. But if you can survive yourself, at the end of the day, you have a pretty healthy outlook on life. I know I’m happier these days than I ever have been.

“The documentary was my way of fulfilling a promise. I wanted to let people know what I’ve been through. I thought that was really important. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve had so many people come up to me and tell me how that particular documentary or album helped them out. It makes you feel good to share something like that.”

While Watson certainly doesn’t maintain the commercial profile of today’s country stars (he continues to call his music “Ameripolitan” as opposed to country), the favorable reception to El Rancho Azul and Call Me Insane represent subtle breakthroughs, spreading the word on serious country tradition for an devout and expanding fanbase.

“It is weird, you know? To be the age I am (52), having been in the business so long, and now having some success is scary. I’ve been banging my head against the wall for so long that it’s strange to finally have the breaks start coming. It’s an unusual place for me.”

Dale Watson and his Lonestars with the Coralee and the Townees Trio perform at 8 tonight at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N.Broadway. Tickets are $20. Call (859) 281-1116 or go to

chris young looks at 30

chris young.

chris young.

Chris Young spent his 30th birthday by celebrating a bit of the old and a touch of the new.

Specifically, the Tennessee-born country star received word that his 2011 album Neon – a record that yielded the No. 1 singles Tomorrow and You – as well as three previous singles (2013’s Aw Naw and the 2014 hits Who I Am With You and Lonely Eyes) – had all achieved gold status in sales. The same day, Young turned in a fifth studio album to his record label. The as-yet-untitled untitled work is already being represented on country radio by a chart-scaling new tune called I’m Comin’ Over.

“Grinding out the end of my 20s and going into my 30s, it was pretty cool,” said the co-headliner of this year’s Red, White and Boom at Whitaker Bank Park. “We brought things in really, really good.

“I’m glad I’m Comin’ Over is the first single, because it’s a good sonic bridge between what the last record (2013’s A.M.) sounded like and what this album is going to sound like. There is some different stuff on there, and I mean not just in the songs we recorded. I mean in the sound of it. Even what I did with my vocals is a little bit different. But so far, so good, I guess. People seem to be liking the single.”

The upcoming album will also feature a guitar cameo by a country veteran (Vince Gill) and a duet with a comparative newcomer (Cassidy Pope). But perhaps most important, the record represents the latest growth spurt in a hitmaking career that has expanded in increments, not in a sudden blast of chart popularity that usually signals a short career shelf life.

“Obviously, being able to go in and make a record that I’m really happy with and am really excited about, one that I got to be a co-producer on and that I wrote most of the songs for is really big for me. But everything else is going well, too, especially from the touring side of things.

“I went over and had a big couple of shows in Australia and had some fun down there. I did some stuff in South Korea and Japan, too. This fall we’re going to do a headlining tour. On top of that we’re also going to be over in Europe for three weeks. Everything over there is already sold out, so we’re at a really good place right now.”

Young is no stranger to Kentucky audiences. He co-headlined a concert with hitmaker Lee Brice (a performer at the 2014 Red, White and Boom) last winter in Corbin. Locally, he made three consecutive visits to Rupp Arena opening shows for Alan Jackson and Josh Turner in 2010, Rascal Flatts and Luke Bryan in 2011 and Miranda Lambert in 2012. Such bills, along with the collaborations on his forthcoming album enforce the healthy state of collaboration Young said has always existed in country music.

“I think you’ve always had that through the history of country music. That’s something that is definitely there and you see continuing. I mean, it’s such a big opportunity for all of us to work together, like at CMA Fest (the CMA Music Festival held in Nashville earlier this month) or at any of the awards shows. Everybody wants to hang out and see people that they know.

“Nashville is a big town, but it’s also a small town. There are not a whole lot of places to hide. If you’re in country music, you’re going to run into everybody else. You get a chance to open for each other and play with a lot of people. You get to know everybody that way. That’s something that runs true, for sure.”

As for the duties his career calls upon that that rely strictly on his own contributions, Young feels blessed. They make for a hectic work schedule. But there are also enormous rewards that extend from the accolades of fans to his records to the still-honest thrill of concert performing.

“I don’t know if there is any way to describe all of this other than it is truly what makes me happy. I’m really lucky. I say that all the time, but it’s true. There is a lot of hard work, a lot more behind the scenes work, that goes on than a lot of people realize. But the gigantic upside is every day that I wake up, I’m working on stuff that has to do with music. I just feel really, really lucky to still be doing that.

“We talked a little bit about my career having a kind of a slow growth arc instead of a spike up and then a spike back down. I really count myself lucky for that, too. People don’t always get to have their career work that way. I’m almost 10 years into my label deal and I feel like, in some ways, this is only the beginning. There is a lot of room for me to grow.”

Chris Young headlines the second evening of Red, White and Boom at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. The concert is sold out. Music begins at 5 p.m.

the shires project

amanda shires.

amanda shires.

Musical artists and stylists often view their life’s work in terms of projects. That might translate into a new recording, a collaborative work or a concert tour – all requisites in establishing a lasting career.

Amanda Shires is no different. An accomplished Texas fiddler since her teens, a critically lauded songwriter of increasing visibility and a performer who has shared the stage with a number of notables – including John Prine, who she will open a sold-out performance for tonight at the Singletary Center – Shires has charted her career with a perhaps expected number of projects.

But her biggest undertaking – and, by far, her most prominent collaborative work – will get an inaugural public viewing later this summer. In short, she and husband (and fellow Americana music champion) Jason Isbell are expecting their first child. Until then, the other, more musically inclined projects demand attention. That includes tonight’s performance with Prine.

“Aside from being eight months pregnant, the shows have been as great as usual,” Shires said. “I just have to aim my bow in a different direction so I don’t hit myself. That’s about it.”

Shires hopes to begin work on her next recording, a follow-up to 2013’s acclaimed Down Fell the Doves, as early as August with help from producer Dave Cobb. Aside from his work with such Kentucky country notables as Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton, Cobb is also the producer for Isbell’s 2013 Grammy nominated Southeastern album as well as his new Something More Than Free, which is due out next month. Isbell will also contribute to the upcoming Shires sessions, continuing a fruitful artistic alliance on top of a healthy marriage.

“In Jason, I have somebody that I can trust to give me an honest opinion that’s not motivated by anything other than wanting to do what’s best for the song or what’s best for the music, you know? So if I take something and play it for him, I know he won’t suggest anything to make what I do more easily digestible for folks. He encourages me to say what I want to say without fear. I kind of write weird songs, but he doesn’t try to tell me about what might or might not be appealing for the masses.

While there is often a noir-like elegance and spaciousness to Shires songs, including Down Fell the Doves’ sublime The Garden (What a Mess), there is also a folk essence that sounds comparatively earthy and intimate. Such qualities abound on a version of Warren Zevon’s Mutineer she recorded with Isbell on an EP titled Sea Songs. The two also performed the tune during the final weeks of The Late Show with David Letterman (the now-retired TV host has been a vocal fan of Zevon and Isbell).

“We started playing that song a year ago when we toured in Europe,” Shires said. “I was playing it in soundcheck and Jason was like, ‘That would be a good song to do as a duet.’ We’re both in love with Warren Zevon’s music, so playing it on Letterman seemed serendipitous. It was magical. It was one of those things that makes you feel like you were just supposed to do it.”

The couple is similarly enthusiastic about Prine’s music, so much so that when Shires was nabbed as an opening act for tonight’s performance, Isbell wanted to join in. As such, Shires said Isbell is planning on tagging along tonight as a surprise guest and accompanist for her Singletary set.

“We just both love John Prine so much. If Jason knows I’m playing with him, he’s like, ‘Hey, I want to come, too.’”

Amanda Shires with Jason Isbell will open tonight’s sold out 8 p.m. performance by John Prine at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

billy joe shaver’s diamond status

billy joe shaver.

billy joe shaver.

Peruse the songs that have flowed from the pen of Billy Joe Shaver over the past 40 years ago and you will find one fabulous yarn after another. All may be country by design. But even a perfunctory listen reveals how worldly the lyrics are.

“I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m going to be a diamond someday.”

“The devil made me do it the first, the second time I did it on my own.”

“I’m a pistol packing papa with a million dollar smile. I’m fit to kill and going out in style.”

At age 75, the fire and spirit of Shaver’s music has not remotely begun to settle. In a lifetime full of personal loss (his son and musical partner Eddy Shaver died of a drug overdose in 2000) and artistic triumphs (Bob Dylan referenced the elder Shaver in the 2009 song I Feel a Change Comin’ On), the songsmith remains a Texas soul unspoiled by Nashville country consumption. He also has no interest in letting the dust settle under his boots. Shaver remains a prolific writer and concert performer that doesn’t understand why other artists of his generation (or younger) haven’t remained similarly invested in their craft.

“I figure if the boot fits, then wear it,” said Shaver, who kicks off this year’s Best of Bluegrass with Tuesday performance at Willie’s Locally Known. “I don’t put nobody’s name down or nothing. There are just guys that are capable of writing real good stuff, but they’re just kind of slacking off.”

Defining the current state of Shaver’s tireless career is a 2014 recording that takes a friendly jab at his own professional and personal stance. It’s titled Long in the Tooth.

“It’s a challenge for me to write songs,” Shaver said. “But I love a challenge. I want to write these suckers right, too, man. I always feel that way when I’m writing this stuff, and I can tell when I have a good one. Long in the Tooth just leans more toward the truth. You get a little older in age, so you just try to be as honest as you can be. But I guess everybody else is, too.”

The record kicks off with a tune destined to a Shaver classic, Hard to be an Outlaw. New generation country stars may sing of trucks, beer and beaches. Shaver sings of mortality and sin, but does so with the same Lone Star honky tonk soul that has drawn artists like Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, The Allman Brothers Band and dozens of other notables to cut his songs.

“It’s hard to be an outlaw,” Shaver sings, “who ain’t wanted anymore.”

Far more sobering is American Me, a decidedly non-jingoistic tale centering around South of the border mischief with a devastating climax. (“The woman I loved was left waiting for me. I broke her sweet heart, American me”).

“I kept hanging on to that thing for years and years,” Shaver said of American Me. Finally, Ray Kennedy (who co-produced Long in the Tooth) heard it. He threw a couple of fantastic words in there and made it come together real good. It’s a real good song, really poetic.”

Of course, Shaver is well aware that fans, critics and fellow artists still flock to warhorse songs like Georgia on a Fast Train, When the Word Was Thunderbird and especially Old Five and Dimers Like Me (the title tune to his 1973 debut album) that defined his career and songwriting reputation decades ago.

Old Five and Dimers… man, that one was loaded for bear. Actually, that’s the song I keep trying to beat. It’s pretty true to life. I mean, these songs are so old they’re new.”

Billy Joe Shaver and The Kentucky Hoss Cats perform at 8 p.m. June 9 at Willie’s Locally Known, 805 N.Broadway, for Best of Bluegrass. Tickets: $20-$40. Call (859) 281-1116 or go to

pop pilots heading homeward

twenty one pilots: josh dun (right) and tyler joseph. photo by jabri jacobs.

twenty one pilots: josh dun (right) and tyler joseph. photo by jabri jacobs.

While they haven’t fully comprehended the success that has greeted them this summer, Tyler Joseph and Joseph Dun are returning to Ohio this weekend as champions.

Known collectively as the modern pop, dance and beat-savvy duo Twenty One Pilots, the two will help close out this year’s Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati – a skip down the Interstate from their hometown of Columbus.

What makes this quasi-homecoming so momentous is the Herculean task Joseph and Dun pulled off. Last week, the band’s newest album, an indie record of wildly varied pop called Blurryface, entered the Billboard 200 chart at No. 1. By selling over

146,000 units in its first week of sales, the album edged out the Pitch Perfect 2 soundtrack and the un-killable Taylor Swift for the top spot.

“To be totally honest, I had no idea what that meant,” said drummer Dun by phone earlier this week. “Part of me didn’t really want to know just because I like going onstage and playing my drums. I never wanted to get too focused on all the other stuff going on. I was like, ‘Hey, as long as you’re telling me things are going well, I’m good with that.’

“But what I’ve really taken from this is somehow this crazy number of people have decided to buy into what we’re doing and want be a part of it. To me, the most powerful marketing tool is word of mouth. That’s why this is really an honor, to have people really resonating with this.”

Blurryface is like an exploding scrapbook of pop references from the instant the album opening Heavydirtysoul uses hip hop verses to mask for a lyrical unrest (“this is not rap, this is not hip hop; just another attempt to make the voices stop”) that explodes with a Pet Shop Boys-like chorus that will likely bounce in your brain for weeks.

At the other extreme of a record dominated by Joseph’s cinematic keyboards and Dun’s roaring percussion is perhaps the most unexpected instrumental voice of any dance-pop hit this year: ukulele. Its sound saddles up alongside the pounding Dun drum intro of We Don’t Believe What’s on TV without diffusing the song’s underlying agitation.

“I’m a fan of my own band,” Dun confessed. “I know that sounds weird. I think sometimes even talking about art can be weird.

“Everything we’ve ever done we’ve approached with the idea of the live show. Tyler and I were picturing ourselves onstage playing these songs while recording them. There’s nothing more exciting than that.

“We’ve been able to do a couple of festivals and a couple of small shows in the UK so far. But with Bunbury coming up and having it so close to home for us, we’re excited to bring this music to life for friends and family in an atmosphere that feels like home.”

While the sound of Blurryface is, for all its stylistic variance, huge, don’t expect any kind of expanded lineup of the band to take the stage at Bunbury. Onstage, as on record, Twenty One Pilots is the creation of just two people.

“It’s just us. I play drums and Tyler sings and plays piano, a little ukulele and some synth stuff. We rely on electronic technology for some of our sound.

“Since the beginning, when we decided on just having two of us in the band, we both realized a bit of an insecurity. We were feeling like a duo might not be entertaining enough. So to go out onstage every night and battle that insecurity, that sort of fear, is good for us. I don’t know if I would ever want to be at a place where I go onstage and have nothing to conquer. There are mental, emotional and maybe even spiritual things happening that potentially need to be defeated. That’s part of playing live. It’s such an addicting feeling.”

the hotwiring of hot rize

hot rize: pete wernick, nick forster, bryan sutton and tim o'brien.

hot rize: pete wernick, nick forster, bryan sutton and tim o’brien.

For over two decades, Hot Rize existed as a bluegrass band in limbo.

An acclaimed Colorado quartet that served as a conduit between string music tradition and the progressive variations that began to take hold of bluegrass in the late ‘70s, the quartet – Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, Charles Sawtelle and Nick Forster – amicably disbanded at the dawn of the ‘90s. But Hot Rize didn’t fully vanish.

Sporadic reunion shows affirmed the band’s legacy as its members pursued disparate solo careers. Even Sawtelle’s death from leukemia in 1996 didn’t end the Hot Rize saga.

But in 2014, things shifted. Hot Rize committed to cutting its first album of new songs in 24 years – its first recording, in fact, to feature all-star guitarist Bryan Sutton, an avid fan of the band as a kid, as a recruit.

“We overcame the biggest obstacle that we all felt,” Forster said. “And that was, ‘Can we make a new Hot Rize record? Can we do something without Charles, given the passage of time, given all the things we’re doing now, and make it feel like Hot Rize?’ And we proved to ourselves that we can. The fans are responding, and I think the record sounds like a Hot Rize record. That’s kind of a load off for us, a nice milestone.”

Next up was the prospect of performance. To support the resulting record When I’m Free, the fully reconstituted Hot Rize committed to several extended runs of touring, which will include its first Lexington performance since an appearance at the Festival of the Bluegrass nearly three decades ago.

“Once you get in to a more refined sense of connection and communication with each other, you go beyond just thinking about remembering the songs or remembering the parts or trying to recreate something,” Forster said. “Having lots of opportunities to play music together, especially with a whole bunch of new songs, really made for a very different experience. It was really the first time we were able to have that experience with Bryan in the band.

“Perhaps it’s just super subtle and it’s the kind of thing only I would notice. But it’s palpable. It really felt like we were really digging into a slightly deeper level of what it means to be in Hot Rize.”

For Forster, the 24 years between the decommission of Hot Rize from full time duty and the release of When I’m Free was spent in eTown, a public radio music and interview program he organized and continues to host out of Colorado. In fact, Hot Rize used eTown’s Boulder studio to record When I’m Free.

“I think eTown has really helped me understand the arc of a show and how to present it, how to connect it and how to engage an audience. I’ve always been the emcee in Hot Rize, too. That’s one of the reasons eTown exists.”

Forster isn’t sure what the future will hold for Hot Rize. The band agreed to a one year commitment for the making, promoting and touring of When I’m Free. That period will conclude this fall.

“I think we’re all a little overcommitted and starting to feel the pressure of maintaining multiple careers at the same time, so I think there will be a happy respite when we’re done. But I also think we’ve grown closer in a way, so my guess is there will be more recording, whether it’s another Hot Rize record or in some other configuration. It’s just really nice to be out playing music together again, especially with new material that’s fresh for us and fresh for our audience.

“It just makes it real again for us as a band. Whether we know it or are even acknowledging it, we’re infusing some really creative energy into this particular foursome.”

Hot Rize performs at 7:30 tonight at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third. Tickets: $38.50-$44.50. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to

the blown up folk singer

willie watson.

willie watson.

A year ago at this time, Willie Watson was embarking on his most extensive solo tour since breaking ranks with Old Crow Medicine Show.

His mission? To establish himself as an artist apart from his former, famed band armed with a pack of vintage folk songs penned or previously interpreted by the likes of Leadbelly, Utah Phillips and Roscoe Holcomb. He fashioned 10 such unaccompanied tunes together on a Dave Rawlings-produced solo album called, aptly enough, Folk Singer, Vol. 1.

So as another summer commences, how well does the guitarist/banjoist feel his mission has gone?

“I think the record worked. The plan sort of worked. We just wanted to get me out there doing what I could do best. I just sing these songs. It’s such a simple sort of idea, but I think people have embraced it in the past year.

“There are much more spectacular concerts than what I do, but it’s having an impact on people. I appreciate that, for sure. A lot of people keep coming to the shows, so I keep doing it.”

And Folk Singer, Vol. 1? Does the record still stand up for him, as well?

“I put it on the other day for my daughter and I hated it,” Watson said. “Couldn’t bear it.”

Before you assume Watson is a complete defeatist, know he has felt the same way about every recorded work he has been involved with, from the banjo/fiddle driven albums he cut with Old Crow Medicine Show between 1998 and 2012 right up through Folk Singer, Vol.1, his debut solo album.

“It’s been that way with everything I’ve ever done. I put on those Old Crow records now and I can’t believe I was singing like that. I’m just very critical of myself. But, ultimately, what I think of the music is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. If that is the sound that’s making a lot of people happy, then so be it. But what I do is always changing. It’s always developing.”

Watson’s introduction to such folk staples as James Alley Blues, Rock Salt and Nails and Midnight Special came during his teen years.

“I was seventh grade when I first got into clawhammer banjo and old-time fiddle music,” he said. “It grew from there. I was already listening to Woody Guthrie by then. I had done the Bob (Dylan) thing. I had done the Neil Young thing. I knew I liked acoustic music. But I liked rock ‘n’ roll, too. I was really into Crazy Horse and the whole grunge thing before all that. So it sort of went on from there.”

“There is a common simplicity about this music and the way the chords work that draw people in. It feels friendly. It makes people feel comfortable. That’s all over the place today, too. That’s happening with Americana music now. It’s happening with Mumford & Sons and those kinds of bands that have taken this whole structure of music and blown it up.”

Old Crow Medicine Show was among the first new generation bands to breakthrough with such a “blown up” folk sound. But Watson said his decade-plus tenure with the band was also a vital training ground for the life of a modern day traveling musician.

“That band did really well right away,” Watson said. “We were in the right places at the right times. That’s where I learned everything about what it’s like to tour and be a working musician. We got hooked up with Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch pretty soon after we moved to Nashville. They really showed us the ropes about how to make records.

“Then we just got out there and played music. We did that for over 10 years with a bunch of guys. We just worked the road and let the road work for us.”

Willie Watson performs at 8 tonight at Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Tickets: $15.

Call (859) 259-2754 or got to

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