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Chinese And American Folk Song, Bridged Through Two Mighty Rivers

Chinese folk rocker Su Yang and Nashville based country/Americana artist Jim Lauderdale collaborate on a show this week.

Jim Lauderdale is a lighthearted guy on stage and off, so one might get the impression that his practice of Tai Chi is a trifle, a quirk of his quirky personality. But that’s not the case. It’s been a daily discipline for almost half his life, and he’s made more than half a dozen trips to China over the past decade. So when MTSU’s Center for Chinese Music and Culture organized a United States trip by Chinese folk rocker Su Yang, a partnership show with Lauderdale felt like a compelling idea. 

The River As Song, Su Yang and Jim Lauderdale’s two-man show, takes place Thursday, Oct. 24 at 8 pm at the Analog, the slick and cozy lounge-like venue at the Hutton Hotel at 1808 West End Ave. It’s a free and open event  co-produced with MTSU’s Center for Popular Music. 

“He’s quite a star in China,” said the CPM’s director Greg Reish. “He plays acoustic guitar, but he normally plays with an electric rock band. He’s not bringing that band to the US, but that’s his normal sound. He has on occasion used some traditional Chinese folk instruments for color. But the basic approach is folk rock.”

Reish’s counterpart at the Chinese center Mei Han, a PhD ethnomusicologist specializing in the spread of Chinese culture, worked nearly three years to bring Su Yang to middle Tennessee.

“There is a perception about Chinese music – I’m not blaming anybody, because China puts out these mega events – that it’s flashy,” said Mei Han. I wanted to show people there are a lot of artists in China like Su Yang who have a soul and who represent an independent artist’s voice.”

As a songwriter, Su Yang exhibits some of the muscular, working-man pride of a Bruce Springsteen, but as one might expect, he’s not singing political truth to power in mainland China. Instead he emphasizes the virtues of rural life and day-to-day culture around his hometown of Yinchuan in the upper region of China’s longest river.

“In upper region of the Yellow River folk singing is almost like shouting. It fits the esthetic of rock music very well,” Mei Han said. “Also, he never abandoned local folk culture. So he’s been making CDs and documentaries that bring awareness of local arts, for instance puppet shows, narrative songs, local operas. So that makes him quite a bit bigger than just a songwriter or a rock singer.”

Lauderdale, who’ll be speaking and singing on behalf of America’s river of song The Mississippi, said “I am looking forward to cultural exchange with Su Yang and helping to present him over here and let him have a musical experience with our audience. He has interesting themes about rivers, and that’s kind of a universal thing.” He’ll be leaning on the universal in a two-artist, side-by-side show with a language barrier. 

“Hopefully Su Yang and I will also collaborate on a song - to write something,” says Lauderdale, a prolific co-writer and last-minute writer. “Even though I don’t speak Chinese and he doesn’t speak English, I think musically we have things in common and can make something happen.”