Archive for profiles

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 www.willieslex.com.

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 www.lexingtonlyric.com.

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 www.beetnik.com.

mac and satch

dr. john

dr. john

There is a tag Mac Rebennack – known the world over as New Orleans rock, funk and roots music patriarch Dr. John – loves to summon when his describing his music.

He uses it when referencing his band, his takes on the jazz gems popularized by Crescent City icon Louis Armstrong (which form the foundation of his current album and tour) and the entire gris-gris culture that sits at the heart of his stage persona.

The word is “slamming.” But under Rebennack’s soulful, unhurried New Orleans dialect, an accent so heavy one almost hears the humidity dripping from it, the word sounds positively incantatory.

“Slah-muhn.”

“I think everything is slamming,” said Rebennack, 74, the veteran pianist and six-time Grammy winner, who brings the Armstrong-themed songs of his 2014 album Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch album to the Opera House on Sunday. “I feel blessed about everything.”

For Rebennack, a love of Armstrong’s music was instilled almost at birth. Both musicians hailed from New Orleans’ famed Third Ward. But serious admiration began when the young Rebennack was introduced to Armstrong’s music at his father’s appliance store, which also sold records.

“My father’s shop was way out on Gentilly Road, which is far removed from the Third Ward,” Rebennack said. “Yeah, my pa played a lot of Louis’ records. He was considered traditional jazz, but I also heard bebop and a lot of the Afro-Cuban music. He had race records, too. That was rhythm and blues as well as blues. He had spiritual records and hillbilly records. Those were the kinds of records my father sold.”

Rebennack met Armstrong briefly in the late ‘60s as his own recording career as Dr. John was beginning and Armstrong’s was winding down. Both were clients of champion booker/manager Joe Glaser, whose client list had included Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.

“I was blessed to meet Louis Armstrong in Joe Glaser’s office, and that was just, well, a very spiritual thing,” Rebennack said. “We jaw-jerked about him sitting on this rock in Bucktown, right outside of the port of New Orleans. That’s when my pa’s shop was out there.

“This was across the street from Ralph Schultz’s Fresh Hardware store. Louis Armstrong was telling me how he was laughing so hard about what went on at Ralph’s store. Ralph could marry you. He could sell you break tag stickers (for automobiles). Whatever he did, he just made Louis laugh.”

On Ske-Dat-De-Dat, the pure joy of Armstrong is translated with a New Orleans groove that rings closer to King Oliver and Professor Longhair than to Satchmo himself. An all-star guest list that includes Bonnie Raitt, Shemekia Copeland, Arturo Sandoval, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Blind Boys of Alabama help out, as do two notables that will be part of Rebennack’s Nite Trippers band on Sunday – trombonist and Ske-Dat-De-Dat producer/arranger Sarah Morrow and veteran New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley (an alumnus of Wynton Marsalis’ famed ‘90s septet who played the Opera House last fall with pianist Marcus Roberts).

“I’m really grateful to have a slamming band like this,” Rebennack said.

Of course, no one on the guest list upstages the mighty Dr. John. While the psychedelic shaman pageantry that dominated his concerts and recordings through the decades is largely held in check on Ske-Dat-De-Dat, his sense of Crescent City soul thrives in the way his piano work madly mingles with horns on Dippermouth Blues and in how his singing leads a conga line reimagining of When You’re Smiling to conclude the record.

That kind of soul and rhythm isn’t just a fixture of Armstrong’s music or even of New Orleans culture. For Dr. John, it’s a component of everyday life.

“I think that no matter what you go through in life, you got to roll. You got to roll like a big wheel in the Georgia cotton fields.”

Dr. John and the Nite Trippers perform at 7 p.m. May 17 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $85.50. Call: (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or got to ticketmaster.com

keeping track of dave rempis

dave rempis. photo by jim newberry.

dave rempis. photo by jim newberry.

A little over two years ago, Chicago saxophonist and frequent guest of Lexington’s long running Outside the Spotlight Series Dave Rempis discovered the best way to chronicle and share his numerous improvisatory and free jazz projects was to do it himself.

Indie labels were fine. But even in that company, Rempis could only release a fraction of his prolific musical output. So Aerophonic Records was born, a label that has issued 10 recordings of Rempis related music, including 2014’s Spectral, the debut of a double saxophone/trumpet trio that performs for OTS tonight.

“It’s been incredibly rewarding to be able to put out a much broader pallet of things that I’m working on,” Rempis said. “I’m free to put out whatever I want that I feel has some artistic merit to it. Aside from that angle of things, the label continues the connections I’ve made with fans, with writers, with other people who are all part of the music on an ongoing basis.”

The Spectral trio teams Rempis with two San Francisco Bay Area artists, trumpeter Darren Johnston and ROVA Saxophone Quartet member Larry Ochs. The band presents a novel configuration – three horns and no rhythm section. But the music the three create is both grounded in its sense of organization and open enough to encourage the level of improvisatory intensity that has distinguished all of Rempis’ myriad performance projects.

“We make very clear decisions and really consider the longer term ramifications of what we’re doing over the course of a piece of music,” Rempis said. “Some of the bands I play with will do a 45 minute set of improvising, which I certainly love. The tunes with this trio tend to be a bit shorter, anywhere from the five to eight minute range and are a little more tightly focused at times.

“But one of the most challenging things about this group is its untraditional instrumentation. So your role as an instrumentalist and as a member of the band becomes an opportunity to redefine what you do on your instrument and how you fit into an ensemble since there isn’t a drummer or a bass player. It creates a lot of openings for you to make decisions as an improviser and instrumentalist about what other roles could to play.”

The Rempis/Johnston/Ochs Trio performs at 8 p.m. May 15 at Dixieland Gardens, 110 Luigart Ct. Admission is $5. Call (859) 257-4636.

learning with les

les mccann. photo by martial trezzini-key.

les mccann. photo by martial trezzini-key.

The events surrounding today’s return of Lexington jazz legend Les McCann are rooted in education.

First, there will be the daytime commencement presentation of an honorary doctorate from the University of Kentucky, a belated honor for a jazz career that reached international proportions with the 1969 album Swiss Movement the keyboardist/vocalist cut with saxophonist Eddie Harris and its hit version of the activist anthem Compared to What.

In the evening, McCann will perform at the Lyric Theatre, just a few blocks away from his long ago home on Eastern Ave. The concert is designed to raise funds and awareness for the locally established arts school that bears his name.

For McCann, the degree and benefit are reflections of his devotion to a lifetime of learning.

“We all have the power,” said McCann, 79, by phone last week from his current home in Los Angeles. “It’s all within each one of us. It’s a simple word called creativity. We all are creative. We all have something special within us. We are unique. We all have a special talent, but everybody doesn’t know that. Life is learning. It’s about the lessons we learn to love each other more.

“The point I’m trying to make is that each one of us, even though we might not think we have anything creative to offer, just need to sit down, relax and open up to the part most of us never do and just listen to your heart. We always want to go with the head. The head is just another tool to use in life. It’s not the machine that drives the whole thing.”

Now in its second academic year of operating on a seasonal class schedule (including sessions during the spring, summer and winter breaks of other school systems), the Les McCann School for the Arts offers instruction in music, photography, theatre and other arts related fields at various Lexington community centers including the Lyric.

“Some instructors may only have two or three students in a class,” said Denise Brown, the school’s artistic director. “But what’s been so nice is the instructors have been able to work one on one with students and really mentor them and do a lot of hands on teaching. The students get so much out of that. That’s especially vital in the early stages of the school.”

As with two previous performances at the Lyric in as many years, McCann will perform alongside saxophonist Javon Jackson during tonight’s benefit for the school. The partnership was struck after McCann suffered a severe stroke onstage during a concert in Germany.

“When I got out of the hospital and came home, Javon was one of the first people to contact me,” McCann recalled. “He said, ‘I want you to be in my band.’ Now I couldn’t even touch a piano at the time. My fingers didn’t operate right. He said, ‘Then come anyway and just sing.’ So working with him has allowed me to get back into shape and get my touch back with the keyboard because I had lost all the feeling in my hands. The only thing I could feel was severe pain. It’s been like that, but lately it’s started to turn around. So Javon has been real special to me.”

“When I had my stroke, they told me I wouldn’t be playing no more and that was it. But I went into intense therapy. Since I never take no for an answer, I just knew that I had to work. So my message to everyone is to celebrate every day. Find something new and great about every moment of every day because there is so much there.”

Les McCann Juke Joint 2015 Fundraiser featuring Les McCann, Javon Jackson and the Tee Dee Young Band performs at 7 p.m. May 9 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third. Tickets: $5-$50. Call (859) 280-2218 or go to lexingtonlyric.com.

calling his own tune

chris stapleton.

chris stapleton.

Lexington native and country music revivalist Chris Stapleton will celebrate the release of his debut solo album Traveller with a free in-store acoustic performance at CD Central, 377 S. Limestone at 1 p.m. May 10. For more information, call (859) 233-3472 or go to cdcentralmusic.com.

Standing on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theatre two weeks ago, Chris Stapleton couldn’t have looked less like a country music star.

His face buried beneath a healthy crop of hat, hair and beard, the Lexington born, Paintsville/Staffordsville reared songwriter resembled less the Nashville of today and more the Central Texas of 40 years ago. That pretty much held true for the music, too, as Stapleton and an unfussy combo that included his wife as a singing partner casually sailed through the weary but worldly title tune to his debut album Traveller.

The setting was telling, as well. Despite a songwriting career that has spun No. 1 country hits for Luke Bryan (the recent Academy of Country Music Song of the Year nominee Drink a Beer), Kenny Chesney (Never Wanted Nothing More) and George Strait (Love’s Gonna Make It Alright), Stapleton wasn’t making his network television out of Nashville. He was instead in a cherished New York theatre as a music guest during the final weeks of The Late Show with David Letterman.

“It was a surreal thing,” Stapleton said. “It’s one thing to get to stand there in the Ed Sullivan Theatre and be on that show, but to be in the last home stretch of what has become a real iconic thing – man, that was really a wonderful honor.”

New York and Nashville were obviously removed from Stapleton’s Eastern Kentucky roots. While his mother and coal mining father could “hold a tune,” they were especially encouraging as active listeners of the country artists that emerged from the region around them.

“It’s just part of the fabric of being from Kentucky,” Stapleton said. “Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, Dwight Yoakam and Patty Loveless, the list goes on and on. Those names are just part of life in Kentucky. You can’t help but be aware of them and be influenced by them. It’s almost genetic in the sense that you don’t have an existence that doesn’t involve their music.”

A recommendation by Jesse Wells from the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music at Morehead State University introduced Stapleton to songsmith Steve Leslie. The latter, in turn, helped connect Stapleton with the Nashville songwriting community.

“There was nothing frightening about it at all,” Stapleton said of his move to Nashville. “I tried college and that didn’t take. I tried various other jobs that didn’t really take just because of the disinterest in all things but music.

“Boy, as soon as I found out someone would pay you to write songs and play, I said, ‘That’s the job for me. I’ve got to figure out how to do that.’ So I was lucky enough to meet some of the right people fairly early in town. I had a publishing deal about four days after moving to Nashville.”

Four days? In one the most competitive music markets anywhere, Stapleton’s songwriting career was up and running in four days?

“That’s not most people’s story,” Stapleton said with a laugh. “But that’s mine.”

Two very different performance projects soon surfaced to plant the possibility of an eventual solo career. The first was a stint as vocalist and co-guitarist with the Steeldrivers, a progressive bluegrass troupe made up of Nashville A-list players.

“The Steeldrivers certainly challenged me as a player because I never saw myself as a bluegrass flatpicking guitar player. Neither did bluegrass flatpicking guitar players, but I still got to test myself. I got better as a musician because all the other members of the band were hot shot players that were very well respected.”

The second was a cranky, highly electric rock ‘n’ roll outfit called the Jompson Brothers that returned Stapleton to Lexington for several performances at Cosmic Charlie’s.

“We went out with the songs, played some rock ‘n’ roll shows and did it all for the love of it, really. The Steeldrivers were the same way. I try to operate from that place at all times. I don’t like that opportunist kind of musical mentality. But it was a wonderful thing. We were loud and playing rock ‘n’ roll. We learned the hard way there wasn’t much rock radio left, but we sure had a lot of fun. It was just a lot of self-indulgent guitar madness. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with that at all.”

With this week’s release of Traveller (produced by Dave Cobb, who has overseen the recent solo records of another newly celebrated Kentucky country stylist, Sturgill Simpson), Stapleton has emerged as an artist finally singing his own songs under his own name.

“Regardless of commercial reception or whatever, I just can’t imagine being any prouder of this record. I hope people give it a listen – as in a hard listen. I hope they listen to it actively, engage in the music and not treat it as some kind of background noise. That’s my hope, anyway.”

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