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.

Many of us these days are, by dint of distance, time or Covid, out of reach of our mama’s hugs. But a healing dose of the Mother energy the country at large needs so much right now can be felt on the lush and lovely album The Dream That Holds This Child by the Sweet Water Warblers. Three acclaimed singer/songwriters, two of them in Nashville, have parlayed Michigan home state connections and radiant voices into a side project that offers reassurance in a disorienting moment.

Noah Fallis

The genre name Country & Western music was retired, at least by the Billboard magazine charts, in 1962. The term became an anachronism, so over the years since it’s become too easy lose sight of the majesty and specificity of Western country music, a realm with its own lore, subject matter and swing. When we do hear Western music today, it’s most often a nostalgia show, but there are important contemporary artists renewing the tradition. One who may well be on his way to legendary status is the long-haul, square jawed Rocky Mountain songwriter Corb Lund.

Rodney Bursiel

Eliza Gilkyson turned 18 years old in 1968, the year many historians are pointing to as a precedent for the national turmoil of 2020. Those are formative years for anyone, but as a budding folk singer with a progressive outlook, it was a stirring, motivating time. Problem is, when Gilkyson watches the world now, she sees that famous era as one that produced a lot of consciousness-raising but too little actual change. “We really thought we were moving the ball down the court,” she says on The String. “We patted ourselves on the back prematurely.”

One of the essential stories that will be told inside the new National Museum of African American Music, set to open in downtown Nashville this Fall, is the pivotal role of music in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. Yet the exterior of the building became part of that story in the present day as well. Early in Black Music Month for 2020, June 4 to be exact, one of the largest protest marches in the history of Nashville rolled past the front door of NMAAM, and its director Henry Beecher Hicks III tells WMOT that felt like a proud moment.

The Americana Music Association today offered its first look at this Fall’s annual gathering, starting with a new name. AmericanaFest has been recast as an online suite of events called Thriving Roots: A Virtual Community Music Conference and set for Sept. 16-18. The AMA is leaning in to high profile guest speakers and panelists to add value, announcing appearances by Rosanne Cash, John Leventhal, Mavis Staples, Jackson Browne, Rhiannon Giddens and T Bone Burnett to start. 

Marla Keown for Dee's

This Thursday night, Tommy Womack will have the chance to feel somewhat in his element for the first time in months. “It’s my first show not on a screen since February and my first band show since February,” he says. “I’m looking forward to being on stage with a band and feeling a rock and roll beat.” That stage is at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge in Madison, and the ticketed show is just one part of the tentative return of live music to Nashville.

Joe Del Tufo

In the repertoire and the freedom and the spaces between the notes on David Bromberg’s new album Big Road, we hear signifiers of his whole story. There’s big band with electric guitar and pianistic ragtime solo acoustic guitar. Bromberg croons country and shouts the blues. We hear the bluegrass work song “Take This Hammer,” the gospel classic “Standing In The Need of Prayer” and an eleven-minute slow jam on the original “Diamond Lil.” No corner or tradition of Americana music goes untouched, and it has been thus for more than 50 years.

Collage by Americana Music Association

Without ceremony or comment, the Americana Music Association announced the nominees for its 2020 Honors & Awards on Monday. Brandi Carlile, 2019's Artist of the Year, continues to be among the format’s most recognized figures, with an individual nomination for Artist, a production credit on Tanya Tucker’s Album and Song, and a shared Duo/Group nod for her super-group The Highwomen.

After years in the popular music wilderness, the guitar has made a certifiable comeback, with a new generation of virtuoso players drawing big audiences beyond the roots music faithful. In bluegrass it’s Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings. Southern rock has Marcus King. And at last, after arguably a skipped generation or two, the blues has an emotive, rafter-rattling, soul-satisfying young guitar master with an old school blues name. Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, at 21 years old, is a star.

The Americana Music Association confirmed on Thursday that AmericanaFest 2020, scheduled for Sept. 15-20 has been cancelled. At the same time, it teased some virtual events that it plans to announce next week. 

A quick glance at the year-end lists of Best Country Albums of 2019 strikes me as having a bunch of quality records from the soul side (Yola), the songwriter side (Caroline Spence), the clean contemporary side (Miranda Lambert) and whatever that Sturgill Simpson album was. But for those who’ve been craving steely-twanging, stare-down-the-darkness, hard-living Country & Western, there was a slimmer set of choices. That’s okay. This is a cyclical thing. But 2020 is bringing more edge and more outlaw, and this week’s String sits down with two such artists.

One cruel twist of the passing of songwriting legend John Prine was that a traditional memorial service was made impossible by the very virus that took his life on April 7. After deep thinking and re-grouping, the Prine family and Oh Boy Records opted to take the memorial online. 

In its 130 years standing sentinel in downtown Nashville, the Ryman Auditorium has presented boxing matches, Trigger the horse, presidents and 30 pivotal years of the Grand Ole Opry. Even so, having researched pretty carefully, I can find no previous instance of a Ryman show with no live audience. Songwriter Sturgill Simpson figured out another way to storm into the history books by doing just that last Friday, even as he broke news about his latest passion and pursuit, bluegrass music.

The Ryman Auditorium breaks its three-month silence tonight with a special fund-raising performance by Kentucky songwriter Sturgill Simpson. The show, with the support of an all-star bluegrass band, will go live at 7 pm on Nugs.TV, Twitch and YouTube.

You can think outside the box all you like, but the important corollary to that advice is to never fall out of love with the box. Americana and roots music at its best plays and inside-outside game. It’s not a format that routinely embraces the avant-garde, but it’s a lot of fun when there’s a hint of the weird, the obscure or the brave in the mix. Here are six new albums featuring virtuoso musicians mingling the foundational and the free, ready to take you on some unexpected trips.  

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Jake Blount - Spider Tales - Free Dirt Records

Nashville is remembering two key guitar-playing sidemen who’ve recently died. Jimmy Capps, who passed away early this week at the age of 81, earned his way into the Musicians Hall of Fame for his work with the Grand Ole Opry and on classic country records. William “Bucky” Baxter, who toured the world with Bob Dylan and played with Steve Earle, Jean Shepard and R.E.M, died on May 25 at age 65.

America’s music venues have been shuttered since March due to Covid-19, but on Tuesday, virtually the entire music industry is voluntarily going dark in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The unprecedented work stoppage, promoted as #theshowmustbepaused on social media over the weekend, prompted industry figures from all sectors to speak out on behalf of racial justice during a weekend of demonstration nationwide.

Even before last weekend’s protests and melees around the nation, America’s political fault lines felt like grand canyons and open wounds. And while the caricature of the left-leaning folk singer is an ideologue who sings up-with-we and down-with-thee, an honest listen to socially conscious roots artists of the last few years is more likely to reveal despondency over our disconnections than scolding. If this is an emerging genre of radical empathy, this week’s String talks to the creators of two timely, important examples.

Val Hoeppner

It’s one thing to see America’s big music festivals cancel one after the other under the spectre of a viral pandemic. It hurts that much more when it’s your festival, and one that was just a fresh green shoot, ready for nurturing and another year of growth. But alas, 895 Fest, which would have taken place this weekend for the second time, is off. So we’re taking a cue from Merlefest and DelFest and going to the videotape, all weekend long. 

Years from now, when it all blurs together, Jason Isbell should easily remember the launch of Reunions, his seventh album as a band leader. The songwriter and his wife Amanda Shires walked out on the stage of the Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville on release night last Friday, waving to virtually no one in the cavernous room yet virtually to several thousand people around the world watching online.

Matt Spicher

Among country stars of a 1990s vintage, Pam Tillis has worked harder than most to stay open to new influences and change. Some of that expressed as a move to East Nashville in 2016. The proximate reason was that her husband and producer Matt Spicher has been a partner in a couple of restaurants over there, The Treehouse and The Pearl Diver. But the relocation came with some cultural reorientation as well.

DelFest, the annual gathering of eclectic roots and bluegrass hosted by Del McCoury’s family since 2008 in Cumberland, MD, isn’t happening this weekend as scheduled. But taking a cue from Merlefest, organizers will stream historic performances from tomorrow, 5/21, through Sunday. Besides the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin’ McCourys, you’ll see sets by the Trey Anastasio Band, Leftover Salmon, Greensky Bluegrass, Billy Strings, The Infamous Stringdusters, Sam Bush and Sierra Hull.

Franklin, TN-based Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival has become the latest casualty of the Covid-19 crisis. Organizers released a statement Tuesday morning announcing that the 2020 event, scheduled for Sept. 26-27 has officially been canceled. “While we are as disappointed as you are, rest assured we will be back in 2021 ready to deliver a festival that celebrates the healing power of music,” they said.

 

 

Every day, if you are even remotely near social media, you’re invited to tune into numerous live performances streamed on the internet, the only concert venue that’s open during the Covid crisis. But what if you’re the artist? How does every day sound to you? While most musicians are spacing out their appearances out of concern for over-taxing the audience, some have decided the daily stream has more upside than down. Songwriter and guitarist Josh Daniel of Charlotte, NC will go live today for his 60th day in a row.

David McClister

The four albums released to date by Nashville’s Lilly Hiatt offer up a three-hour journey of self-discovery and voice-finding as concise and inspired as any you could find. Between 2014’s debut Let Down and 2020’s Walking Proof, I hear her letting go of something and giving in to something, from the accessories of being a daughter of a major roots/country songwriter to vulnerable storytelling that dances on a knife’s edge between sweet pop and garage rock. I ask if my theory has any merit in Episode 129 of The String.

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