Archive for profiles

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

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.


“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

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

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

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.”

life on the outside

eric church.

eric church.

With legions of predominantly young acts vying for sales, chart potential and all-around attention, it’s easy for country music to get caught up in the moment

Then there is Eric Church. Over the past four years, he has almost subversively become one of country’s biggest draws. But as the lasting popularity of his aptly titled 2014 album The Outsiders attests, he is not in the game for immediate sales or a handful of quick hits. Church is out for making a lasting, crater-like mark on the industry.

“Everybody gets so focused on first week numbers,” said Church, who returns to Rupp Arena for a Thursday concert. “Ours were great and all that. But I’ve always said I’m more concerned about week 100 than I am about week one or week four. That’s why you make albums. You make them for longevity. You make them to stay around and continue to roll, and I’m proud that this one has continued to do so.”

The roll into The Outsiders actually began with 2011’s Chief, an album whose charttopping success (bolstered by the No. 1 singles Drink in My Hand and Springsteen) surprised everyone, including Church.

Chief freaked me out because it was a big commercial success that nobody really saw. We had really minimal success with Sinners Like Me (Church’s 2006 debut album) and a little bit more with Carolina (the 2009 follow-up). But we were still a large club to a small theatre act. That’s what we were. Then Chief came out and went double platinum. None of us were ready for that, myself included.

“So when it was time to make The Outsiders, I just knew that it couldn’t be Chief Part II. It had to be schizophrenic and weird. It had to be a departure in every way. I don’t know where we go next. I’m not in that process yet. Once we get through this tour (which concludes later this month), I’ll start thinking about that. I think we can go anywhere now because The Outsiders was so all over the place. There are really no barriers here. There is nowhere we can’t go because it is such a weird and wild album.”

A mix of dark, internalized narratives (the No. 1 hit Give Me Back My Hometown), radio-ready country kiss-offs (Cold One) and frenzied, almost metal-esque rock ‘n’ roll (the album’s title tune), The Outsiders is purposely scattered in its musical mindset.

The Outsiders was always an outlier album for us,” Church said. “If you’re a Beatles fan, it’s somewhat like what the White Album was. For the Beatles, it was just fun to be kind of out there. It’s the way this one was conceived, too.

Church’s outsider status has also been distinguished by the company he keeps onstage. Since his current tour began last fall, he has personally selected a parade of under-the-radar country performers and, in several instances, decidedly non-country artists as opening acts. The list includes new generation Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers, Kentucky country celebs Dwight Yoakam and Chris Stapleton, Americana troupe The Lone Bellow (which performs on the Thursday bill) and the Pennsylvania guitar rock brigade Halestorm.

“Here’s an example of our thinking,” Church said. “Early in our career, Bob Seger took us out for 15 or 20 dates (which included a Rupp Arena stop). We were brand new. Nobody knew who we were, and frankly, Bob Seger didn’t need any help selling tickets. So we did him no good. But he took us on tour because he liked the music.

“Now we’re at a point where we can do the tickets we want to do. I just thought it was cooler than who everybody else takes on tour. Everybody just repackages tours. That’s what happens in country music. That’s what happens in all kinds of music. They just take the same four or five people, whoever had had a hit this year, whoever’s hot, and sticks them on the bill.

“There is just so much music out there I love that doesn’t have the outlet. You know what? We didn’t used to have the outlet, either. We used to play the bars and clubs and couldn’t get on a tour. Nobody would take us out. I remember thinking then, ‘If I ever get the opportunity, I’m going to make sure we take people out that we love, that have a chance to grow. Going forward, this is something we’re going to continue to do.”

Eric Church and The Lone Bellow perform at 7:30 pm May 7 at Rupp Arena. Tickets: $25-$61.50. Call:(859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000 or go to

the reverential blues

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band: Breezy Peyton, The Reverend Peyton and Ben “Birddog” Bussell.

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band: Breezy Peyton, The Reverend Peyton and Ben “Birddog” Bussell.

Josh Peyton has been playing the blues in Lexington for a long time – clear back to the early days of The Dame on West Main, in fact.

Peyton was anomaly then. A child of the ‘80s reared in rural Southern Indiana (Brown County, to be exact), he became enamored of fingerstyle guitar, the blues that was born out of it and especially the legendary stylists like Charlie Patton that sought to expand and individualize the sound.

“My dad was into Johnny Winter and rock-blues stuff,” Peyton said. “Then we would go back and play Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf – that kind of music. When you go back to the early stuff, you see there were a lot fewer rules. Blues now, it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s got to be 12 bars, pentatonic scales and shuffles.’ I’m like, ‘Well, wait a minute. Go back early enough and there wasn’t hardly any of that stuff in blues. There weren’t any rules and the feel was awesome.

“The finger-style country blues just absolutely, I think, was the greatest guitar style America has ever produced. I love it. But I don’t want to just preserve it. I want to take it new places and maintain it as a living, breathing guitar form. Plus, me being a country kid, the rural music just spoke to me more. It just felt right to me.”

Those inspirations eventually found their way into an unconventional trio that matched Peyton’s growing guitar prowess with two percussionists – a washboard player (his wife, Breezy Peyton) and a drummer whose kit includes a five gallon bucket (Ben “Birddog” Bussell).

Then there was the matter of a stage name for Peyton and his trio that indicated something huge and reverential about the elemental blues grind he was forging. Thus was born The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, along with the start of a steady stream of Lexington concert stops that have continued for over a decade.
But The Reverend – not Josh, mind you – insists that if you haven’t experienced the big blues attack of the Big Damn Band since the Dame days, then you are in need of a serious refresher course.
“If you were someone who saw us even five years ago, then you haven’t seen us,” Peyton said. “That’s all there is to it. That’s not just bravado. It’s a literal fact. We literally work at getting better every day.

“Some artists get into kind of a groove and roll and think, ‘This is what we do. We’re going to stick to that.’ I get too bored with that thinking. I have to consciously try to get better. That doesn’t mean I want to be completely different, like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be someone else next week.’ I just want to figure how to be better at being me.

“Now, what does that mean? It means I want to be better at singing, writing songs and playing guitar. I want to get the feel right. It’s just something I work on every day. We work on the live show, too. The live shows are way better now, which is great because that’s our bread and butter.”

Part of that evolution is evident on the Big Damn Band’s new So Delicious! album, the first release by a contemporary artist on the famed Yazoo label (previously devoted exclusively to recordings of archival roots music). The music is so direct and down home that the album notes include Breezy’s recipe for pot roast.

“Oh man, I am more proud of this than anything we’ve ever done,” Peyton said of the record. “I just feel like it has such a cool diversity of sounds. It’s so organic. The vocals on it I’m really proud of – the background vocals, especially. They’re probably the best they’ve been. They really texture the record. The guitar picking on it, I’m just really proud of that, too.

“You make a record and you hope people like it. But with this, it’s like we’re at the top of our game.”

The Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band with Blacklist Royals perform at 9 p.m. April 28 at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 day of show. Call (859) 309-9499 or go to


rolling on the river

rosanne cash.

rosanne cash.

At the heart of Rosanne Cash’s Grammy winning 2014 album The River & The Thread sits a Civil War themed narrative titled When the Master Calls the Roll.

While the tune is as epically romantic as anything Cash has written in a recording career that stretches back nearly four decades and as Southern accented as the other 10 original works making up The River & The Thread, it is also a wildly expansive family snapshot. It draws on inspiration from Cash’s children for the song’s construction, her ancestry for its characters, her husband (producer, arranger and guitarist John Leventhal) for its music and even her ex-husband (veteran country/Americana troubadour Rodney Crowell) for its recording.

“My son was doing a project on the Civil War and I showed him a picture of our ancestor William Cash on the civil war database,” Cash said via email last week. “My daughter Chelsea wrote a great Civil War song and I loved it and wanted to write one myself. I found Mary Ann Cash in my family history – 20 years old at the beginning of the war. It was all very compelling.

“John wrote this gorgeous melody that seemed to be in the tradition of those narrative folk ballads, so I asked Rodney to re-write the lyrics he had already written for the melody as a story about my ancestors. It was a powerful, almost overwhelming experience to write the song. The characters were alive.”

Family, of course, plays an almost unavoidable role in Cash’s personal and professional history. The eldest daughter of Johnny Cash, she has devoted her career to establishing a remarkable songwriting voice of her own. Though a champion of Nashville initially, she long ago cut ties with commercial country music for recordings of powerful personal reflection that included 1990’s Interiors, 1993’s The Wheel and 1996’s severely underrated 10 Song Demo.

Her father’s shadow was never far from Cash’s side, however. She addressed their relationship directly on 2006’s Black Cadillac and devoted a follow-up covers album, 2009’s The List, to compositions the elder Cash deemed “essential country songs.”

In a way, her father was a catalyst for The River & The Thread, as well. After assisting in fund-raising for Arkansas State University’s purchase and restoration of Johnny Cash’s childhood home, she and Leventhal journeyed throughout the South and gathered snapshots and inspirations for what would become her first album of new songs since Black Cadillac.

Among those she contacted along the way was Marshall Grant, the bassist for her father’s early Tennessee Two band. His relationship with wife Etta formed the foundation for Etta’s Tune, one of the most poignantly romantic songs on The River & The Thread.

“They don’t figure just metaphorically in Etta’s Tune,” Cash said. “It’s fairly documentary – the house on Nakomis Ave. in Memphis, the collection of artifacts from Marshall’s years on the road.

“But it wasn’t a reconnection. I’d stayed in touch with them my whole life and Marshall called me every six or eight weeks in the few years before he died to talk about the old days and go over all his memories. That’s why I said (in the song) ‘don’t stare into the past.’”

Leventhal again designed a delicate musical fabric to support Cash’s lyrics on the tune. While he has served as a vital contributor to his wife’s recordings (mostly as a producer) and concert performances (as a guitarist) over the last two decades, The River & The Thread is a project where the two are on equal standing. Cash penned nearly all of the lyrics while Leventhal wrote, produced and arranged the music.

“This was a total collaboration,” she said of the resulting recording. “We are good at very different things and brought our best selves to work. His great gifts in arrangement and melody writing really serve my lyrics and vice versa. I’m lucky to have found the perfect collaborator and get to sleep with him as well. For twenty years.”

That brings us to the here and now. With the The River & The Thread now 15 months old, Cash is facing a milestone event next month – her 60th birthday. But that serves to underscore the greatest strength of her newer music – an emotional and narrative maturity that can only be attained through life experience.

“Not a sensitive subject,” she said of her impending birthday. “It’s a matter of public record, so no way I can avoid it.

“No, I couldn’t have written these songs at 30. Life shows up in your writing and in your voice. Observation is keener, bittersweet becomes an overriding sentiment at times, awareness that time is limited, losses accumulate. They all become urgent topics.

My actual process is much the same, however – writing in spurts, lots of rumination.

“I feel …settled, but still very curious.”
Rosanne Cash performs at 7:30 p.m. April 25 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond. Tickets: $31.50-$59. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to

two trios are better than one

The California and Montreal Guitar Trios: Marc Morin, Hideyo Moriya, Sebastien Dufour, Paul Richards, Glen Levesque, Bert Lams. Photo by Pierre Larue.

The California and Montreal Guitar Trios: Marc Morin, Hideyo Moriya, Sebastien Dufour, Paul Richards, Glen Levesque, Bert Lams. Photo by Pierre Larue.

What can be more striking than a trio of virtuoso guitar players busting stylistic boundaries from tune to tune in performance? You guessed it – two trios of like minded thrillseekers pursuing parallel musical missions while remaining distinct.

Such a game plan sits at the heart of the perhaps unlikely alliance of the California Guitar Trio and the Montreal Guitar Trio that will perform Thursday at Natasha’s.

The California Guitar Trio, which has been visiting Lexington for over a decade, brings together acoustic players of three nationalities – Paul Richards (American), Bert Lams (Belgian) and Hideyo Moriya (Japanese) – that studied extensively in England with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. Unassuming in its stage demeanor, the trio juggles classical, prog, surf, jazz, original works and more within its repertoire.

The Montreal Guitar Trio, which makes its Lexington debut with the Thursday concert, is as outward in its presentation as the CGT is reserved. All three – Marc Morin, Sebastien Dufour and Glenn Levesque – are French Canadians with strong classical backgrounds that, on recent albums, have reached out to tunes by modern rock vet Radiohead, tango giant Astor Piazzolla and fellow Canadian troupe Rush to intersperse with its own compositions.

A chance meeting at an Oregon conference led to a quick friendship as well as a part-time partnership that celebrated the trios’ stylistic similarities as well as often dramatically different approaches to the guitar.

“The differences, firstly, are in the guitars we use,” Richards said by phone from Los Angeles. “The California Guitar Trio plays steel string acoustic guitars while the Montreal Guitar Trio plays nylon string classical guitars, so the fundamental approach is quite different. The sound is very different.

“During the first half of the show, each group plays separately so people get to hear what the Montreal Guitar Trio sounds like on their own and also the California Guitar Trio for those people who haven’t heard us before. Then we play the second half of the show together. It’s important for people to hear the difference in the sound and the repertoire.”

The MGT’s Dufour agreed that differences in the guitars the trios play emphasize not only a difference in technique but how those techniques have led the groups to different stylistic terrains.

“Nylon string guitars also bring us to the flamenco music,” he said by phone from Montreal. “There are a lot of strumming techniques and rhythmic patterns that you find in Spanish and Latina music that have really driven the MGT. That’s something CGT has explored a little bit but not as much.

“The California guys have their repertoire from the progressive rock and the music they studied with Robert Fripp, whose influence is very obvious and present in their music. They have a kind of atmospheric approach to the music. We have more of Latina energy to the music. So when we bring the two things together, it seems to really expand the spectrum of what guitars can do in a normal ensemble. That’s what makes it so interesting to play together in this project.”

Another curiously complimentary aspect to this alliance centers around the on-and-offstage personalities that distinguish the trios.

“The Montreal guys are very wild, passionate French Canadians,” Richards said. “You can see that in the way they perform. Burt, Hideyo and I are pretty mellow. There is not much joking around, not much flashiness going on. They are really high energy players.”

“It’s a balance,” Dufour said. “The three of us in MGT are very energetic guys and the guys from California are really Zen. I think that’s why we’re able to stick together. It’s kind of a ying and yang. They’re really calm people. We’re talking all the time. They bring us a good vibe and we bring them a good balance. We like that.”

California Guitar Trio and Montreal Guitar Trio perform at 9 p.m. April 16 at Natasha’s Bistro. 112 Esplanade. Tickets: $20. Call (859) 259-2754 or go to

cd central turns 20

steve baron at cd central. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

steve baron at cd central. photo by herald-leader staff photographer mark cornelison.

Feel like holding an entire rock ‘n’ roll era in your hands? Then grab hold of The Complete Studio Albums 1981-1990, which chronicles the entire recording history of Minneapolis upstarts The Replacements.

Born during the final crest of the punk revolution and a cultural shift that turned the pop landscape of the time into synthesized mush, The Replacements were the black sheep of the ‘80s. Led by the coarse, restless songs of Paul Westerberg, the band was an unknowing and perhaps unwilling architect of a movement that helped shaped indie rock as it exists today.

Such a legacy came at a price, though. There were fallouts along the way. Some were personal splits and casualties within the band, other centered around an eventual commercial breakthrough that bordered on heresy to the punk faithful that first championed the band.

Released in conjunction with a series of semi-reunion shows spearheaded by Westerberg and founding bassist Tommy Stinson, The Complete Studio Albums is a no-frills box set that gathers the eight recordings The Replacements plowed out in a 10 year span.

1981’s Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (highlighted by the giddy yet caustic Shiftless When Idle) and 1982’s ultra raw Stink (an EP that bashes through eight songs in 15 minutes) define the band’s punk roots and garage rock sensibility. But it was 1983’s Hootenanny that centralized a boozy charge through nay-saying anthems like Color Me Impressed and the performance immediacy of guitarist Bob Stinson, Tommy’s older brother.

That set the stage for what were arguably The Replacements’ two strongest albums, 1984’s Let It Be and 1985’s Tim. The music retreated from a purely punk stance for power pop gems like Unsatisfied (from Let It Be) and Here Comes a Regular (the closing tune on Tim) that compromised none of Westerberg’s poetically disheveled outcast narratives.

The firing of Bob Stinson (who died in 1995) trimmed the band to a trio for 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me, an album full of wonderful surprises (the jazzy Nightclub Jitters) and familiar punk-pop drive (Alex Chilton). 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul then cemented Westerberg’s more streamlined maturity as a writer and enlisted guitarist Slim Dunlap, a tempering, good-natured personality to compliment the band’s modestly retiring new sound. Punk die-hards hated it even though it remains The Replacements’ most fully realized and enduring album.

Mars left and was replaced prior on 1990’s fractured swan song record All Shook Down, the closest thing the band did to an incidental record, by Steve Foley (who died in 2008). The Replacements called it a day in 1991.

Now that Westerberg and Tommy Stinson have at least temporarily reassembled the band for a new generation, we have eight reminders, all packed together, of how The Replacements put a glorious hurt on the ‘80s.

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