Craig Havighurst

Music News Producer

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Sundays at 8 am, repeating Mondays at 9 pm.

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John Prine, one of the most influential songwriters in American history and an icon of roots and Americana music, has died at age 73 following more than a week of intensive care in Nashville for COVID-19. He burst onto the songwriter scene as a fully mature artist in 1971 with a self-titled album full of masterpieces, endured through two bouts of cancer, and enjoyed a late career celebration for his incisive, charming 2018 album The Tree of Forgiveness.

Two years ago, a book of biography, art and musical manuscripts was published under the title John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes. Assembled by his daughter Katie Harford Hogue and musicologists including MTSU Center for Popular Music Director Greg Reish, it was the first-ever public documentation of John Hartford’s prolific composing, culled from 68 hand-written journals spanning 22 years. Now, the same team has brought some of those tunes to a recording.

Laura Partain

In early 2019, Caleb Caudle arrived in Nashville with his wife/manager to settle into a new home and a new chapter in Music City, but it was as if he’d already been here for years. The singer/songwriter didn’t have to set out on a five to ten year plan to build a support community and artistic respect. Instead, he celebrated his arrival by nipping off to the Cash Cabin, one of Nashville’s most storied and exclusive recording sanctuaries, to cut an album with the help of some elite musicians.

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Bonnaroo is postponed. Merlefest and, as of Tuesday, CMA Fest are canceled. The first third of the 2020 music festival season, with all its life and connectivity, has been wiped out by the Covid-19 virus. In this previously unimaginable void, artists have taken to the internet, but mostly as solo actors, gigging for tips. The creators of Shut In & Sing imagined how much festival dynamic they could bring to the crisis.

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“We never intended to make ourselves the poster children for independence or anything like that. It’s honestly been out of necessity,” says singer songwriter Ron Pope in the new episode of The String. He’s not using some flouncy royal “we” when asked to talk about the strategies and tactics that have made him one of the more successful independent roots artists at work today.

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It shouldn’t take a shelter-at-home order to indulge in your hi-fi, but with the venues quiet (for now), it’s an ideal time to sit still with your best speakers or headphones, and savor the wealth of recorded music released so far in this young and troubled year. I noticed a star cluster of new albums by leading roots women whose voices and musical auras are especially serene and fortifying. They include veterans returning to the field, top acoustic artists and an anticipated newcomer.

Grand Ole Opry

In the early days of radio, announcers and hosts would regularly offer special greetings to “the shut-ins” among their audience, those housebound with infirmities and illness for whom radio was a vital companion and mental health care. Thanks to Covid-19, we’re all shut-ins now, and over recent days, Nashville’s century-old tradition of broadcasting live music to reach the people where they are rose up out of calamity and went online. (This story has been updated.)

Sometimes you hear people talk about bands as a marriage, which is to say, bound together with a promise and destined to weather stress at close quarters. It’s a good metaphor. But some bands truly are married, and this week The String features conversations with artists who are on that long journey together in life and music. They play live and they’re in love.

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In the space of about 48 hours last week, the music business as we know it ceased to function. A dangerous new coronavirus made its way around the world and at last to the heart of the United States, and as scary as it is for individuals, it’s already proving fatal to music’s number one need, which is crowds. With increasingly urgent calls from the US Centers For Disease Control to bar close-packed public gatherings, artists and promoters realized there was no choice but to cancel or postpone tours, shows and festivals.

all photos Val Hoeppner

Singer/songwriters and roots music artists by definition live a life of service. There are more lucrative ways to spend one’s working hours to be sure, so these are people for whom reaching out, changing a life, uplifting a heart is a job description. And when called on to bring that ethos to a community in pain, artists of all kinds jump to attention, asking where to be and when to be there.

All photos Chris Dauray for Welcome To 1979

 

In the week before Christmas, Americans bought more than 1.2 million vinyl albums, the most since the 1980s. And overall, 2019 was another year of double-digit growth for the venerable format, continuing a trend that started about a dozen years ago. 

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The Asheville, NC-born novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote in You Can’t Go Home Again that, “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.” You could try that literally in this liberal and spiritual city of 90,000 and nobody would likely bat an eye. But listening for something timeless and true? That’s pretty much the mainstream in Asheville. It’s a musical Mecca, 2,100 feet above sea level amid ancient mountains.

Shelly Swanger

Music venue The Basement East, destroyed just shy of its fifth birthday, quickly became a rallying symbol of ruination and resilience after a tornado roared across the city and the midstate early Tuesday morning. With its collapsed ceiling juxtaposed against its weirdly intact “I Believe In Nashville” mural, the building told a story to the world. 

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The Grateful Dead spawned not one but two jam band movements. Its electric, psychedelic rock and roll road was followed by Phish, Widespread Panic and others. But the band regularly unplugged in tribute to its jug band and bluegrass origins, creating a template for freewheeling acoustic bands like New Grass Revival and Greensky Bluegrass. Leftover Salmon, among the most eclectic and beloved veterans of jamgrass, turned 30 years old on New Year’s Day.

Claire Marie Vogel

There’s a moment, about three minutes into Madison Cunningham’s song “Plain Letters,” that crystalizes the ambition and execution in her intricate folk pop. She’s just sung the second high-intensity chorus when the band’s roar suddenly collapses to an atmospheric whisper. Then the electric guitar – Madison’s electric guitar, not some sideman – interjects a rising scale so pristine and luminous it feels like fireflies in formation. Its timing, touch and its resolution into the final verse is other-worldly.

Dylan Ladds

Instrumental music faces headwinds in the music business, but hawks rise fast and high on headwinds, so Hawktail has a decent chance of soaring. The Nashville-based quartet recently packed out the capacious Harpeth Brewing Company for its release show of the new album Formations. They debuted on the Grand Ole Opry that same weekend. And they’ve just announced some high profile festival slots alongside their more vocally oriented colleagues, including Telluride Bluegrass and Newport Folk.

 

Marcus Finnie

The pristine white sanctuary of East Nashville’s St. Teresa Holiness Science Church glowed with morning light and gospel music on a recent Sunday morning. Up front and off to the left, a woman I’ve recently had the pleasure of meeting named Mabel Pleasure played a Hammond organ through a Lelise speaker cabinet. She looks almost too hip for church in a fedora and cat-eye glasses. Her instrumental setup is one I see much more frequently on stage with southern R&B, jazz and rock and roll bands.

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It’s a long, long way from New Zealand to Nashville – 24 hours of flights and layovers one doesn’t want to make in reverse after Music City has kicked your butt. Happily, songwriters Cy Winstanley and Vanessa McGowan go home to Auckland when they want to and on their own terms. Their stature, back home and back here, is secure as working side musicians and as the roots duo called The Tattletale Saints. They’re a parable of modern Nashville’s global reach and open arms.

Dylan Estes for WMOT

Aubrie Sellers, daughter of Nashville, has released two albums so far, one today and one in 2016 called New City Blues. To compliment and explain that debut, she wrote some notes that read like a young creator’s manifesto, with a few choice callouts of cultural nonsense that may or may not have been going on in her front yard.