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southern musings from an american band

Drive-By Truckers. From left: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez. Photo by Danny Clinch.

Drive-By Truckers. From left: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez. Photo by Danny Clinch.

It began pretty much the way any Drive-By Truckers album did. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley – the Georgia-born band’s frontmen, singers, guitarists and writers – composed a set of songs independently of each other, then discovered ahead of recording sessions how like minded their work was.

“I think ‘Southern Rock Opera’ (the troupe’s 2001 double disc opus that defined a rock ‘n’ roll vision almost defiantly removed from what had been considered Southern rock) was the only one that we actually had conversations about as far as what that album was going to be beforehand,” Cooley remarked. “Every time since then, I’m writing some stuff, Patterson is writing some stuff and we come together and wind up pretty much on the same wavelength without actually having had a conversation about it.

The Truckers’ forthcoming “American Band” album (due out Sept. 30) was no different in that sense. But what separated it from 10 preceding studio recordings was how pointedly it viewed the world outside of the South. If the band had ever created what could be called a topical record, “American Band” would claim the title.

“So much of what we have seen, not just in recent years, but over the last 20 or 30 years, the whole time we’ve been playing together, are these things that just keep happening and keep happening and nobody seems to be able to get a grip on just why or what a solution looks like. So we couldn’t help but comment on it and examine it from our own perspective and maybe try to carve out some vision of what a solution looks like, of what ‘better’ actually looks like. I don’t know if we found it or not. But it was more about trying to learn for ourselves than it was saying anything to anybody else.”

Hood’s song “What It Means” has already made selected rounds online with an easygoing musical stride but a volatile storyline torn from headlines of police killings across the country and the racial divisiveness uprooted in their wake. “We’re living in an age where limitations are forgotten,” he sings. “The outer edges move and dazzle us, but the core is something rotten.”

Cooley’s songs are not no less confrontational. On “Ramon Casiano,” the national view moves to immigration-fueled paranoia and militia groups that subsist on it. Unlike “What It Means,” the music on “Ramon Casiano” is all rocking, Neil Young-like guitar grit.

“I was examining what seemed to be a whole phenomenon with these right wing militia type guys,” Cooley said. “They seem to be obsessed with the Mexican border, and that’s not just a new thing. One Saturday morning, I turned on the TV and they’re doing a story on these guys who go down to the border and take all their guns and basically pretend to be patrolling the border because the government isn’t doing it.

“It seems every time you turn around, what everybody is afraid of is coming across the Mexican border – Ebola, ISIS, you name it. I found out about this militia group in Southern California in the early 1960s that claimed to have knowledge of Chinese troops amassing on the Mexican border. So there is a long, long history of people with that mentality.”

Hood and Cooley have never been shy when speaking their minds in song, just as the Truckers have long embraced a wide-open Southern view that differs altogether from the more conservative stance adopted by many country and rock artists of the region. It’s just that on “American Band,” the songs have stated the Truckers’ attitude in a succinct and often blunt manner.

“We always do this,” Cooley said. “This is not really new territory for us, but it’s the first time that it’s been this obvious. It’s the first time it’s been on the surface. But I could go back and almost go song by song and point out what some of the same political undercurrents were in all this music from our past. It just wasn’t right out there in plain view.

But what do the Truckers’ Southern fans (and, more exactly, non-fans) think of such a stance?

“Right now the only gauge you have to go on is what people are doing on social media,” Cooley replied. “I don’t do that. I’ve never even used Twitter or Facebook. I just stay away from it. Mainly, I don’t trust myself to not be overcome in a moment of passion with a little tequila behind it and make a fool out of myself.”

Drive-By Truckers perform at 8:40 p.m. Aug. 27 as part of the Moontower Music Festival at Masterson Station Park, 3051 Leestown Road. Tickets: $49, Call 859-230-5365 or go to moontowermusicfestival.com.

new voices from manchester orchestra

Robert McDowell (left) and Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra.

Robert McDowell (left) and Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra.

Andy Hull was looking forward to some down time. He had spent over a decade establishing Manchester Orchestra as a formidably intense indie rock presence that knew how to surprise an audience – like re-imagining the band’s unrelentingly angst ridden “Cope” album from spring 2014 as a lean, largely acoustic session (“sort of a skeletal, angelic twin brother,” as Hull called it) titled “Hope” that was released that fall. What was to follow was supposed to be a break.

Then Hull was contacted by Daniels – namely, filmmakers Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. The team was familiar with Manchester Orchestra, having directed a video for the title tune from the latter’s 2011 album “Simple Math.” This time, Daniels wanted Hull to be part of its team by scoring the recent offbeat movie “Swiss Army Man.” But there was a catch. The duo didn’t want Hull to use conventional instrumentation. That immediately struck the song stylist as ample reason to take a break from his break.

“I was pretty thrilled at the challenge,” Hull said. “We were going to be on our fifth album, Manchester was. At a certain point, it can be tough to find inspiration and tough to find something new without really looking for it. So I saw this score as a way to totally expand my brain and the way I looked at music. It really felt like that. I mean, it ended up being like a school with the stuff we were learning.

“A really fascinating thing it taught me was how songs don’t have to traditional in structure in order to be moving or emotional. It was a little scary and overwhelming, but in the middle of all that we found inspiration that allowed us to keep pushing forward.”

What Hull and his longtime Manchester co-hort (and brother-in-law) Robert McDowell did was emphasize computerized treatments of Hull’s voice peppered by vocal help from “Swiss Army Man” stars Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe. The result is a wildly ambient quilt that alternately recalls Brian Wilson, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno along with heavily reimagined stabs at “Cotton Eyed Joe” and the “Jurassic Park” theme.

“It’s so cool to be able to create in a totally different environment without any real instruments. It was mostly voices and effects creating a piece of work that, when it’s played by itself, is something I’m proud of and would put up with any record I’ve put out. It’s something I’m proud to have in my discography.

“Robert and I certainly had to re-learn how to talk to each other about our music. There were no longer chords or verses where we could say, ‘Go back to that.’ It was more like, ‘Go back to the ‘ba-ba-ba.’ We would get frustrated learning all that stuff. Ultimately, it really influenced us heading into our next Manchester record. It became like, ‘How far can we experiment with sound?’”

There sits the big question. Hull, McDowell and the rest of Manchester Orchestra will begin recording the band’s next album the day after its Lexington performance this weekend at the Moontower Music Festival. Have the adventures and innovations of “Swiss Army Man” influenced the way Hull will approach that new music?

“I can think of a big way it has. I don’t know if the next record will be of a certain temperament, but the soundtrack certainly struck an ambitious nerve. We want to make a really live record, something that we’ve never really sounded like before, and sort of dive deeper into the intent without having to be super, super loud.

“The soundtrack was a great advancement. It was like, ‘We can really convey the emotions we want to with just our voices.’ So certainly if we add instruments in the correct way, we can experiment and sort of open songs to put some soul into them.”

Even though the soundtrack is credited to Hull and McDowell, the former said the project has only served to strengthen the band spirit within the entire Manchester Orchestra lineup.

“We feel really excited. All the guys have been super supportive of all the soundtrack stuff, realizing this is best for everything with the band. But I know everyone is excited to start this album. We’re super confident in this material. We want to make something really, really great and we’re going to work really, really hard until we have the best possible record we can. That’s the goal for everyone involved.”

Manchester Orchestra performs at 10 p.m. Aug. 27 as part of the Moontower Music Festival at Masterson Station Park, 3051 Leestown Road. Tickets: $49, Call 859-230-5365 or go to moontowermusicfestival.com.

revitalizing the flatt and scruggs legacy

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Barry Bales, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas, Shawn Camp, Jeff White and Johnny Warren. Photo by Anthony Scarlati

The Earls of Leicester. From left: Barry Bales, Charlie Cushman, Jerry Douglas, Shawn Camp, Jeff White and Johnny Warren. Photo by Anthony Scarlati

The Earls of Leicester initially intended on a short reign. Assembled by one of bluegrass music’s most respected journeymen, Jerry Douglas, the band was organized as a performing tribute to the string music tradition of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Then Douglas was going to return to the other multitude of artistic commitments vying for his time.

“I thought we would put out a record, everybody would be amused and we would have gotten it out of our systems,” Douglas said. “It would be, ‘Okay. We’ve done it. We’ve done our part to re-educate the audience, our audience, to what Flatt & Scruggs meant to the genre. Then we’ll let it go.’ But it just caught fire. I mean, I’ve never really seen anything like it.”

To begin with, the Earls’ self-titled 2015 album won a Grammy Award, bringing Douglas’ total trophy count to 14 over a 32 year period. Eight have come from his ongoing role as dobroist for Alison Krauss and Union Station. But what Douglas experienced was a complete audience reawakening to the harmony singing and instrumental innovations of the Flatt & Scruggs band.

Several ties to those sounds within the Earls proved unavoidable. Earls fiddler Johnny Warren is the son of Paul Warren, who played fiddle with Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys for 15 years. Similarly, dobro innovator Josh Graves (also a key Flatt & Scruggs collaborator) was a major formative influence and longtime friend of Douglas. But the vintage inspirations went far beyond the musicians currently channeling them.

“Young kids come up to me and go, ‘We’ve never heard anything like this before. What is this?’ They don’t recognize it. They don’t hear that. Even Alison. Her start with this was J.D. Crowe and the New South, and I was in that band (during the group’s storied mid’70s residency in Lexington and the recording of its heralded, self-titled 1975 album). But Flatt & Scruggs was what I came up on.

“They kind of disappeared after that. I mean, I even got away from it just by following the path of becoming a musician and then having all these other influences come into my playing. I saw that sound leaving bluegrass music, too. That was really the reason for doing the Earls in the first place. Then everybody just loved it so much, there was such a demand for it, that there was no way we could stop. We’re still the only band out there doing just that. That’s all we do when we play. We do Flatt & Scruggs tunes as close to the way they did them as possible.”

The Earls’ newly released second album, “Rattle & Roar,” deepens the exploration into the Flatts & Scruggs catalog. While there are several chestnuts, like the Scruggs banjo classic “Flint Hill Special,” there are also obscurities, like Roy Acuff’s “Steel Guitar Blues” that became a major discovery for Douglas.

“Flatt & Scruggs never recorded it,” he said. “I got it off of a live show at the Ashgrove in Los Angeles. Josh played it out there – he encored with it, actually – and the crowd just went nuts. Then he had to play it again. It was like his ‘Bluegrass Breakdown’ (the famed instrumental Scruggs wrote and cut with Bill Monroe in 1949). The first time Earl played on the (Grand Ole) Opry, he had to play that song five times. But ‘Steel Guitar Blues’ was one of those songs that they never recorded. It was something they had laying around, an extra arrow in their quiver. We just listened to it, copied it and recorded it. I took it on out a little farther than Josh did and embellished it a bit. We do that. We embellish a little, but not enough to go out of character, really.

“For me, it is like an out of body experience to stand up there and hear what these guys do. I’ve had great, exhilarating moments with wonderful musicians, but this is something that goes way deep inside of me, to where I came from. To hear it manifest itself every night is so wonderful. There is no feeling like it.”

The Earls of Leicester perform at 6:45 p.m. July 25 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 East Third for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio. Tickets: $20. Call 859-280-2218 or go to

lexingtonlyric.tix.com.

the duo purpose of colvin & earle

Colvin & Earle: Shawn Colvin (left) and Steve Earle. Photo by Alexandra Valenti.

Colvin & Earle: Steve Earle (left) and Shawn Colvin. Photo by Alexandra Valenti.

Pinpointing how Colvin & Earle became a formal artistic enterprise is tricky. The veteran songwriters have been admirers of each other’s music for decades, even to the point of Shawn Colvin recording a version of Steve Earle’s forlorn “Someday” on her “Cover Girl” album in 1994. But the comparatively recent decision to tour as a duo, which resulted in the June release of the aptly named “Colvin & Earle” album, was, as Colvin outlines, a two-fold process.

“It was my idea to put some shows together and do a little tour with Steve,” she said. “I was enjoying putting packages together where you would get together with an artist and no one would open or close. The show would be together. We would be together onstage the entire show, swapping songs, singing and playing on each other’s songs, telling stories and so on. It just sounded like something fun. Audiences really like that kind of thing, too. We would have kind of a package deal, two for the price of one.

“Then once we got into it, Steve felt that there was something really special going on and that we ought to make a record. So that was Steve’s idea, where it was my idea to pair us in the first place and do some concerts.”

To say “Colvin & Earle” is a collection of duets homogenizes what the two have intended. Duets, in today’s modern music context, usually translates into a cut-and-paste manner of recording with artists in different studios in different cities at different times. “Colvin & Earle” offers nine of its ten songs as full collaborations with both artists singing in unison throughout. Only one song, “The Way That We Do,” separates them within verses.

“We thought we could pull it off,” Colvin said of the approach. “We loved the way our voices blended and just thought, ‘Let’s don’t have it where you sing most of the verses and I’ll sing on the choruses, then we’ll switch it up.’ That was deliberate and it worked.”

Similarly, five out of the six original tunes on the album were jointly written. The other, the finale song “You’re Still Gone,” began with an idea passed along years ago by fellow songsmith Julie Miller that Colvin, and later Earle, added to.

“The approach was kind of similar for all the songs. It nearly always started with a musical idea from one of the two of us and the lyrics would develop from there. We just sat in a room and pounded them out.”

The remaining tunes were covers. Colvin suggested the blues/soul warhorse “Tobacco Road” and Emmylou Harris’ “Raise the Dead.” Earle brought in the Rolling Stones classic “Ruby Tuesday” and the 1964 Ian & Sylvia folk nugget (and 1965 pop hit by We Five) “You Were On My Mind.”

“They were just fun to sing,” Colvin remarked. “That was it. Steve’s term for it was ‘fantasy camp.’ I mean, who doesn’t want to sing ‘Ruby Tuesday?’ It’s not really a duet, but that was one of the things that was fun about doing these covers. We knew we wanted to sing together throughout the entirety of the songs, so I think that makes them a little bit different.”

While “Colvin & Earle” was recorded with a rustic ensemble immediacy courtesy of ace producer and guitarist Buddy Miller, the duo’s current shows jettison band support altogether. That allows Colvin & Earle to be strictly the product of Colvin and Earle.

“We go into our own catalogs a little bit so we can give the people what they want to hear. But we do stay onstage together the whole time and play everything on each other’s stuff that isn’t on the record. We perform the whole record as well, so it’s just the two of us.

“You know, we wrote and even recorded with the idea, with the feeling of necessity, that we could pull this off with just two instruments and two voices. That was really important to us, because that’s how we started when we did the shows together that jump started this whole thing. I feel like we accomplished that.”

Colvin & Earle perform at 7:30 p.m. July 26 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets: $55.50. Call: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.

the fleeting mortality of freakwater

FReakwater: Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin. Photo by Edward Neary.

Freakwater: Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin. Photo by Edward Neary.

Within an Americana-leaning indie community, Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin have been charter members. Collectively known, along with longtime bass cohort Dave Gay, as Freakwater, the two songsmiths have a mastered a country tradition ripe with brittle purity. We’re not talking country in any radio-friendly sense of the term, but a rarified yet flexible form that prides in itself in unassuming, harmony-rich folk foundations and occasional variations that shoot down dark electric sideroads.

Since 1989, Freakwater has been a basement dweller of sorts with alt-country contingencies. Bean, from Chicago, and Irwin, from Louisville, often play with other bands (Bean, most prominently, with Eleventh Dream Day) and as solo acts. When the mood strikes, Freakwater performs. But the mood hits far more seldom these days when it comes to making records. Hence, the February release of Scheherazade, the first new Freakwater studio album in over a decade and its debut for the heralded Chicago label Bloodshot. So what took so long for the fires of Freakwater to light up in the recording studio again?

“I don’t know,” Irwin said. “Our fleeting mortality, maybe? It just seemed like the right thing to do. I know the people in Louisville that I keep playing with, played shows and have done solo things with are really incredible musicians. It just seems like a really great time in Louisville. I don’t know what’s going on in Lexington. But right now there’s just a ton of talented younger musicians here that are really cooperative. They want to work hard on other people’s records even if they don’t get paid for it. I get a real community feel for it right now.”

So with members of Morgan Geer’s Drunken Prayer (which opens Freakwater’s concert tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s), Murder By Death and Louisville’s Jaye Jayle helping out, Scheherazade became a new entry in the Freakwater catalogue that varies little from the rustic country roots-sound Irwin and Bean have championed for over 25 years.

“Growing up in Kentucky, you’re naturally exposed to a lot of bluegrass music and a lot of country music – especially Top 40 country music from the ‘70s and ‘80s that we either liked or hated,” Irwin said. “Growing up, my parents listened to Pete Seeger records and the Clancy Brothers and just the kind of folk music that was always going on around us. My father always used to torture the family with bagpipe records, especially by the Royal Scots Dragoons. That was one of the only common musical elements my dad and I shared. But I was really loving Woody Guthrie records and classic country music.”

Along with a love of folk of vintage folk and country came fascination with punk aesthetics. You hear it especially on Scheherazade in the ragged, Neil Young-esque Falls of Sleep. Mostly, though, Freakwater embraces the renegade sentiments within the songs of country forefathers as much as any sonic trait.

“There are obvious connections between Hank Williams and Johnny Rotten,” Irwin said. “The great thing to me about punk rock – and I think what made it so great for people in my age group – was you could just go ahead and play it and sing it. You didn’t come from a time where you had to particularly know how to play an instrument or anything. That didn’t really matter because you weren’t really inhibited. Maybe everybody is like that. Maybe they’re all like a little bit delusional about what they’re actually doing.”

One thing Irwin is certain about, though, is the timetable Freakwater has chosen to make music. If it takes a decade between albums to maintain the band’s love of harmony and songcraft, so be it. Irwin and Bean are in no hurry. They never have been.

“We don’t really have a plan,” Irwin said. “If we had a plan, we wouldn’t still be playing together. That’s one of the things Janet and I are pretty confident about. If we actually had a goal, we would have failed to achieve it and we would have stopped playing.

“When we started playing together, if we said, ‘We have to be on the Grand Ole Opry by spring of next year,’ that never would have happened. If we had a plan like that, we would have been really disappointed and bitter. So we’re just enjoying what we’re doing. We’re always playing. Even when we’re not putting out records, we’re playing live shows. That’s just a more vital element to what we do than making a record.”

Freakwater and Morgan Geer’s Drunken Prayer perform at 10 p.m. July 15 at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. Admission: $10, $12. Call: 859-309-9499 or go to cosmic-charlies.com.

dr. dog days

Dr. Dog. From left: Dimitri Manos, Scott McMicken, Eric Slick, Frank McElroy, Toby Leaman, Zach Miller.

Dr. Dog. From left: Dimitri Manos, Scott McMicken, Eric Slick, Frank McElroy, Toby Leaman, Zach Miller.

Pennsylvania may be the land Dr. Dog hails from, but seldom does the longstanding psychedelic pop-and-more troupe stay away long from Louisville. Bassist, guitarist and co-vocalist Toby Leaman, in fact, figures the band plays Derbytown once every 16 months or so. The relationship was cemented in 2007 with a visit to Louisville Slugger Field.

“I remember that show,” Leaman recalled. “I think we sang the national anthem that night. The impetus for that was that the Phillies had asked us to sing the national anthem back home the next week. So, we were like, ‘Let’s practice. Nobody ever gets to practice the national anthem at a baseball field.’ And we just happened to be at a baseball field.”

The band’s ongoing fondness for Louisville will be displayed twice this weekend, courtesy of the Forecastle festival. Dr. Dog performs a midnight show tonight at Headliners Music Hall then heads to the main Forecastle digs in Waterfront Park on Saturday as part of a hearty day-long bill that includes Alabama Shakes, The Arcs, Sarah Jarosz and Pokey LaFarge, among others.

For Leaman and his bandmates – guitarists Scott McMicken and Frank McElroy, keyboardist Zach Miller, drummer Eric Slick and percussionist Dimitri Manos – the Forecastle engagement isn’t just a way of deepening an already solid Louisville fanbase. It will also help introduce Dr. Dog’s refreshingly animated pop to prospective fans, especially on Saturday, that journeyed to the festival to hear a different act.

“We’ve always been kind of a slow burn of a band,” Leaman said. “The good thing is we’ve never really taken a step back. Not a lot of bands can say that. For the past 12 years of being on the road, we’ve just gotten bigger. But we’ve never gotten big, so there’s that. If I knew how to crack into the next bracket without feeling like we were losing a piece of ourselves, that would be valuable information to have. But we’ve always had a pretty humble mentality about our band. We’ve never really chased trends or anything like that. We’ve never been cool on any level whatsoever.

“That probably speaks to the fact that we’ve never had a hit single, a big video, placement in a movie or something that really pushes the ball forward really quickly. But when you’ve been doing it for as long as we have, you’re just happy you’re still around and that you’re still growing. That, in and off itself, is a minor miracle.”

The charm of Dr. Dog’s music is on display throughout The Psychedelic Swamp, the band’s newest album – a record comprised, oddly enough, of some of its oldest songs.

The first version of the sci-fi friendly concept album was cut with demo-like sensibility in 2001. But when Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre Company inquired about creating a stage project with Dr. Dog, the album was recut and essentially reborn with sounds that recall everyone from The Beach Boys to My Morning Jacket.

“They almost felt like cover songs in a lot of ways,” Leaman said of retooling the music from The Psychedelic Swamp. “The idea was, ‘Okay, this is what the song sounded like then but it doesn’t have to sound anything like that now.’ I don’t think any of the lyrics really changed, but some of the songs changed completely along with the instrumentation.”

“The original recordings were just done on a little keyboard, a drum machine, a delay pedal and an acoustic guitar. They didn’t have a full band or anything like that. So that part was kind of fun. We’re just covering ourselves with songs we’ve been detached from for so long that they felt more or less like other people’s songs.”

Summing up all the sounds and details that go into those songs is another matter. A preview story by Donna Cope on the Sloss Festival in Birmingham, Ala., which Dr. Dog will play after Forecastle on Sunday, tagged the band as a “label-defying, multi-hyphenated, indie-psychedelic-rock-folk-basement-Americana-touring band.” Just trying looking for that bin at Wal-Mart.

“We don’t really think about labels too much. I mean, sometimes they can be helpful, like when you look at a band and think, ‘Okay, here’s a band that plays ska music.’ That’s helpful. But when I read a little descriptor of what a band is in a handbill at a festival and it’s all a bunch of hyphens, well…. If that’s actually helpful, I’m all for it. But if it’s just laziness, a way of thinking about something that isn’t necessarily accurate, it’s not helping at all.”

Dr. Dog performs at 11:59 p.m. July 15 as part of Forecastle Late Night at Headliners Music Hall, 1386 Lexington Rd. in Louisville. Tickets are $30. Call 502-584-8088 or go to etix.com. The band then plat 6:30 p.m. July 16 as part of Forecastle on the Boom Stage at Waterfront Park, 300 East River Rd. in Louisville. Tickets: $79.50, $189.50. Call 800-745-3000 or go to ticketmaster.com

josh ritter leaves the beast behind

josh ritter.

josh ritter.

Most contemporary artists shy away from labels designed to market and promote their music, viewing them as stylistically restrictive. Josh Ritter is not among them. It’s just that he has come up with his own label, and it’s rather specific – messianic oracular honky-tonk.

Come again?

To comprehend that tag and Ritter’s need for it, one had to start with other labels. After 2013’s stripped down, primarily acoustic The Beast In Its Tracks, a record written in the aftermath of his divorce from songsmith Dawn Landes, Ritter decided to return to the outside world of inspiration that gave his early recordings comparisons to the likes of Bob Dylan for their removal from direct, auto-biographical lyrics. But Ritter also amped up the groove along with the scope of his songs. When he was done, he was surprised at the amount of religious imagery the resulting music contained. Hence, a genre of his devising was born.

“When you’re writing, you never really get a chance to think about the themes of the record, and I think that’s good,” said Ritter, one of the featured artists at this weekend’s Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. “It’s always good to be writing in the dark because I never want to write towards a goal.

“As I was wrapping up the record, I started to notice all this strange American imagery –  kind of mystical but very earthy, very feet-of-clay stuff about how people we know match up against the expectations we’re supposed to live up to in religion and just about how those things cause friction. For that reason, I thought the rambunctiousness of the music and the rambunctiousness of the statements needed a real flesh-and-blood term. Messianic oracular honky tonk just sounded like such a fun way of thinking about music.”

More than the label itself, Ritter said, came a need. With The Beast In Its Tracks drawing the emotional intent of his music unexpectedly inward, he felt a need for expansion. Being autobiographical, it seemed, did not suit him.

“One of my pet peeves has always been autobiographic information. I don’t care for it. I don’t care for songs that are just about me, me, me. I’ve always stayed away from that. The Beast In Its Tracks was an impossibility. I was writing about a divorce. I was cataloging it and dissecting it myself. It felt like it was an important thing to get down. It was a huge life experience that was important for me to look at from all angles to see what it was. The Beast In Its Tracks was about divorce and everything that came after.

“That having been done, I definitely felt like now was the time for me to get back to my outward looking writing, about writing that isn’t necessarily about me. It’s about other things. It was about a girl in a small town who is trying to make an awful decision or a tent preacher working his way across Ohio. These songs are definitely outward looking just because I felt like I had already allowed myself a pass to do a record about myself.”

Ritter’s writing hasn’t been limited to music, either. The Idaho native’s 2011 novel Bright’s Passage became a New York Times best-seller. It also renewed his appreciation for concise narrative storytelling that is essential to songwriting.

“It gave me respect for all forms of writing as well as a deeper respect for my own songwriting. I’ve always been a voracious editor. Nothing doesn’t get polished down. I believe in the idea being good enough for getting all you can get out it. When you’re writing a book, it’s still about being concise, about saying exactly what you want to say and saying no more.

“That’s also what is so attractive about songwriting, although the performance isn’t there when a person sits with a book and reads in a room. That’s a much lonelier life, I feel.

At the end of the day, the difference between the two is that with songwriting, I can go onstage and get a bunch of applause.”

Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band perform at 8 p.m. July 9 for the Master Musicians Festival in Somerset. Tickets are $65 for weekend admission. Call 888-810-2063 or go to mastermusiciansfestival.org.

go big ‘blue’: leann rimes at 33

leann rimes, photo by owen sweeney (invision/AP).

leann rimes, photo by owen sweeney (invision/AP).

LeAnn Rimes has grown up in public, although she is hardly the first celebrity to do so. Still, it seems something of revelation that, at age 33, she is celebrating the 20 year anniversary of her breakthrough hit.

Seriously. Remember Blue, the Patsy Cline-style crooner of a country hit Rimes shook the world with two decades ago this month? It was the kind of worldly tune – both in sentiment and rich, regal vocal design – that even a practiced singer would struggle with when in came to conveying the kind of natural ease Rimes exhibited. The kicker, of course, is that Rimes was 13 when the song was a hit. Turns out, though, she was even younger when it was first recorded.

“I first cut Blue when I was 11 and then I re-recorded it when I was 13,” said the veteran singer who performs this weekend at Renfro Valley. “But the version that you heard, and the one you still hear today, is the recording I did as an 11 year old. The vocals were switched accidentally, and the 11 year old recording was released. So what you’re hearing is me at 11.”

“I haven’t actually listened to the whole album (the same-titled recording that became Rimes’ debut major label album in 1996) in a really long time, but it definitely defines a moment in time. For Blue itself, it really is still such a timeless song.”

With Blue celebrating its 20th birthday, one has to ponder the obvious. How does an artist, even one with the performance authority and vocal chops of a practiced adult, address stardom at the dawn of their teen years?

“I don’t know if anybody knows how to handle that kind of success at that age,” Rimes said. “It was so instant and so big. I was so young that I don’t think I ever really understood how it could be such a pivotal moment. Still, that time really defined my career.”

Unfortunately for Rimes, so did the tabloid-ready adventures that came with stardom in subsequent years. The hits continued to pile up – especially crossover smashes like How Do I Live, I Need You and Can’t Fight the Moonlight. But so did all the offstage turbulence – lawsuits, divorce, family strife – that made Rimes as much of a sensation with the tabloids as her music.

“There are good things and bad aspects to success,” she said. “I want to give myself a little bit of credit here, because I’ve been very honest about the ups and downs in my life and hopefully through a lot of that I’ve been able to help people. Of course, there are a lot of people who think they know something about you when they’re reading something in a magazine in the grocery line. At the same time, that’s given me a real understanding and even sympathy for other human beings and what they go through.”

Today, however, Rimes sees her life and career from calmer turf. She recently signed a recording contract with RCA/UK in Europe and has begun work on a new album. Her current overseas single is a cover of The Story. The song was a single for folk/rock song stylist Brandi Carlile but became a bigger hit when re-cut by actress/singer Sara Ramirez in 2011 for the television drama Grey’s Anatomy (which features Ramirez as a cast member).

“There will be a completely different single in this country in the next few months, but I love The Story. I first heard it on Grey’s Anatomy and thought, ‘What’s that?’ But I’ve been a fan of Brandi for many years, too.”

Rimes said the anniversary of her earliest chart success together with the next chapter of her recording career has proven an invigorating combination.

“I feel very grounded. I’m at a good place right now.”

LeAnn Rimes performs at 8:30 p.m. July 9 at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, 2380 Richmond St. in Mt. Vernon. Tickets are $45-$55. Call 800-765-7464 or got to renfrovalley.com.

ringing the changes with hunter hayes

hunter hayes performing at rupp arena in september 2015,

hunter hayes performing at rupp arena in september 2015,

Towards the end of the biography info embedded into Hunter Hayes’ website, past the part where he makes a self-effacing confession (“First of all, you should know I’m a geek”), describes his music listening preferences (“I’m obsessed with vinyl”) and champions his mom’s culinary expertise (“She makes the best gumbo ever”), the youthful Nashville star outlines three of the inspirations that figure into his very contemporary brand of country music and how the resulting sound is presented onstage.

“I want it to be a mix between Chris Martin, Garth Brooks and Michael Buble.”

Hayes, 24, let out a short, fractured but acknowledging laugh when that grocery list of influences was read back to him. But he was also eager – in rapidly delivered, chopped sentences reflecting a conversational mode best described as “caffeinated” – to explain how multiple modern musical styles play out in a sound he proudly claims as country.

“I love country music dearly, but I grew up with such a variety of country music to listen to,” said Hayes, who returns to Lexington this weekend to perform at the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event. “I think everyone in this genre brings something significant to the table. That’s kind of our job. I like the challenge of finding a name for the mix because I’m bringing a lot of things in. But it all comes home because this music is my home. That’s what I love doing. I love mixing it up.”

A native of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, Hayes was still in his teens when work began on his self-titled debut album. The record would go on to score three hits, including the No. 1 single Wanted, before reaching quadruple platinum in sales. The charttoppng Storyline followed in 2014 along with near non-stop touring that brought Hayes to Lexington last September for an unannounced performance at Cosmic Charlie’s on his birthday and a show-opening spot for Lady Antebellum’s Rupp Arena concert the next evening.

The touring regimen has purposely cooled a bit in 2016 so that Hayes can write and record songs for his next album, songs with one common theme in mind: change.

“There is this thing about whenever you release any debut record in your pre-younger 20s just because there is so much that changes in a person’s life between, let’s say, 18 and 25. For a lot us, it’s college. It’s the start of a career. A lot of us move away from home in a search for something, so there’s that. Some of us stay home and find this calling. There are all kinds of different things that happen, a whole list. Even for me, even though I’ve found my passion and started the path of my career before I was even 18, I’m still going though a lot of changes as a person.

“The focus for me for this next record is to treat it like a debut record. I’ve never really loved following anything up, so I’m really viewing this record like it’s a reintroduction. It’s not a start over, but a lot has changed. What’s really the coolest thing about it is knowing my fans are going through this with me. We’re all changing. We’re all discovering things. That’s kind of the fuel for this record, knowing that we’re all in this thing together. We’re all discovering our lives, we’re discovering ourselves. It’s very much what we’re writing about.

Change or not, with any level of stardom – be with from a popular newcomer or a practiced arena headliner – comes responsibility. Hayes is more than aware his connection to a youth based market means his music may well serve as the first country sound to hit many of his fans’ ears.

“Country music is a big genre. It’s a big place. It’s really cool, too, when you’re part of someone’s introduction to country music, or maybe just the connection. Maybe they’ve heard country before but they’ve never really had that connection. It’s just great to be part of that.”

Hunter Hayes and Ryan Lafferty perform at 6 p.m. April 30 at Alltech Arena, 4089 Iron Works Parkway as part of the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event. Tickets: $35 – $150 at

eventbrite.com.

andrea zonn on the rise

andrea zonn. photo by anthony scarlati.

andrea zonn. photo by anthony scarlati.

As a child, Andrea Zonn absorbed every note and lyric to James Taylor’s 1972 album One Man Dog. Ever since then, the acclaimed Americana fiddler and songstress has regarded Taylor as a hero, inspiration and, as of 13 years ago, employer.

Though Zonn has amassed an extensive resume of studio and performance credits that has brought her to Lexington in numerous musical settings – from an arena scale show with Lyle Lovett and his Large Band to a club date alongside banjo stylist Alison Brown to a set of her own last fall for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour – it is with Taylor and his remarkably enduring catalog of folk-pop songs that Zonn has reached her most substantially sized audience. She will be in his company again on Sunday at Rupp Arena when Taylor plays his first Lexington concert in more that 42 years.

“James is not a guy who has a lot of turnover in his band,” Zonn said. “I’ve been with him for 13 years and I’m still pretty much the new kid. There have not been a lot of people holding those positions over the years, so it felt like a pipe dream to want to sing with someone like that. When the phone rang and it was his office calling, it was such a surreal moment.

“It’s been remarkable to be part of his creative process all these years. I have learned so much from him, especially about songwriting. I love observing how artists go about creating their craft. Everyone seems to speak their own language. Everybody has a vision for the songs and the sound they want to create. Our job as sidemen is to figure out how to bring that vision to real life. I love the way James hears harmonies. I love the way he articulates what he wants from each member of the band. But I also love the space he gives everyone to bring themselves into this picture.”

Observing Taylor at work has rubbed off on Zonn’s own music as well. Last year, she released a solo album called Rise that sported a number of high profile cameos including Taylor, veteran drummer Steve Gadd (also a longtime Taylor band member), contemporary bluesman Keb’ Mo’, country star Trace Adkins and dobro great Jerry Douglas.

“Most of my friendships with these players have been really longstanding. Most of them have come out of working relationships. In that, I think you recognize when the chemistry is right. These are really kindred spirits, so it was important to draw from that well. It is amazing to have that community around me and to be part of that creative mindset.”

While the inspirations of her high-profile friends have helped influence her music, the affirmative slant of Rise also draws closely from her own life. Most of the tunes were written in the wake of a series of brain surgeries, along with resulting complications, Zonn’s then-seven year son had to undergo. Such music was not necessarily cathartic, she said, but rather reflective of the time while serving as an acknowledgement of her son’s eventually healthy outcome.

“The catharsis probably occurred before the making of the record and before the writing of the songs. It was more of a reflective process and, in some cases, just gratitude, just the joy of getting through it. While he was undergoing his surgeries and complications, everything else really took a back seat. This was more of a reflection on life and a sort of assessment of the aftermath.

“You can’t go through a life experience like that without it kind being folded into who you’ve become as a person. So that stuff stays true forever. We just keep adding to it. I think that’s just part of the natural evolution of life. Nobody gets out unscathed. It’s just important to take stock every once in awhile and say, ‘Wow. That’s what that was and here’s where we are now.’”

Where Zonn is now is back on the road for a summer tour with Taylor and a band full of heavyweight players (Gadd, keyboardist Larry Goldings, saxophonist Lou Marini, among others) playing a library of vintage hits, new works from the 2015 recording Before This World (curiously, Taylor’s first No. 1 album after a near 50 year career) and a few surprises.

“One of the things I love about James is he always seems to be in a state of being inspired. Part of that is the live performance. There are certain songs that are regulars to the set list, like Shower the People and Fire and Rain. But he likes to dig back in the catalog and play with songs that we haven’t done in awhile. Some of them may be more obscure things.

“I’m just so happy to be back out with James and this band. I’m been really looking forward to it all winter while we’ve been off. I’m also happy that my record has some dirt under its heels and getting a little traction. It’s a wonderful time.”

James Taylor and his All-Star Band performs at 8 p.m. April 24 at Rupp Arena. Tickets: $67.50, $87.50. Ccall: 800-745-3000, 859-233-3535 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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