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Roots Favorites Celebrate Public Radio Music Day With WMOT

Public Radio Day 2022
Sam Bush welcomed Jeff Hanna to sit in during his closing set for WMOT's Public Radio Music Day.

The stained glass windows in Riverside Revival, a former church deep in East Nashville, don’t tell any particular story or imply any religion. But their mod colors and abstract geometry cast a beautiful light into a space repurposed to the sacred pursuit of live music. WMOT made use of this new community center on Wednesday, setting a stage for Public Radio Music Day. And a full day it was.

The music started at noon with Leftover Salmon founder and recently transplanted Nashvillian Vince Herman offering a full band set. That was followed by WMOT’s own radio host Chloe Kimes offering her voice as a songwriter amid a slate of talented women - Caroline Spence, Cecilia Castleman and Allison Russell, who moved many to tears with a solo voice and banjo performance. The public open house part of the day wrapped up with a solo set by broadcaster and lanky twangy country rocker Webb Wilder. Your correspondent wasn’t free to enjoy the daytime music, but I found the evening triple-bill - a Wired In event for WMOT members - even more rewarding and moving than I expected.

Public Radio Day 2022
Kristen Drum
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Allison Russell

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is celebrating a remarkable 50 year anniversary of its most impactful triumph, the recording and release of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, so 2022 has been an especially good time to see them. They’d hoped to be part of WMOT’s AmericanaFest Day Stage but had to make a change of plan, so they made good with a stripped-down trio set for Public Radio Day. It’s an interesting configuration, with founder Jeff Hanna on acoustic guitar, his son Jamie on electric guitar, and Ross Holmes on fiddle and mandolin. Thus we have a powerful father/son duo, completely keyed in on vocal harmony and guitar synergy, and we have the youth brigade of the latest Dirt Band in Jamie and Ross, who bring unique experience from the contemporary roots world. The trio focused on material from their 2022 covers album Dirt Does Dylan, including the timeless “Girl From The North Country” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Closer “Mr. Bojangles,” the Jerry Jeff Walker classic that became a significant hit for the Dirt Band, conveyed all of its melancholy layers.

Public Radio Day 2022
Kristen Drum
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The trio version of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Jamie Hanna, Jeff Hanna and Ross Holmes.

Courtney Marie Andrews has a floating, tremulous voice like no other. That said, Joni Mitchell can come to mind, as she did for me during Courtney’s performance of “Irene,” a song from Andrews’s 2016 album Honest Life, with its melodic leaps into the soprano range. Mostly though, the Phoenix-raised, Nashville-based songwriter performed songs from her very new album Loose Future, a project she said is mostly about living gratefully in the present during times when, as per 2020, anything can happen. The title track evoked keeping options open at the first stirrings of affection (“can we play it cool?”) while her magnificent performance of the album’s final song “Me And Jerry” went all in, celebrating a fully bloomed love affair and “falling down the rabbit hole.” While the set to that point was on guitar with a crooning, close-to-the-mic voice, here she played Wurlitzer piano and let her tone truly fill the room, suggesting how much power she keeps in reserve.

Public Radio Day 2022
Kristen Drum
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Courtney Marie Andrews

There’s no musical situation so nice that bluegrass can’t make even better, and that’s how I felt as Sam Bush and his longtime guitarist Stephen Mougin took the stage for the night’s final set. With no drums, bass or banjo from the usual and always super Sam Bush Band, the inner heartbeat of Sam’s incredibly swinging and precise mandolin chops could be deeply felt, as with the high lonesome opener “I’m Still Here.” That one was a deep catalog song by the late great John Hartford, who happens to be the subject of Bush’s upcoming Smithsonian Folkways release Radio John, out Nov. 11. Bush had a long, impactful relationship with the one-of-a-kind Hartford, so he’s covered nine Hartford tunes and penned one original - the title track - in tribute to his hero. Bush sang and strummed a lovely take on the working-man blues waltz “Tall Buildings” and got the room smiling with the surreal side of Hartford as he offered “Granny Won’t You Smoke Some Marijuana,” to the public radio airwaves. And he closed the circle by inviting Jeff Hanna out for a romp through “My Walking Shoes” from the Circle album.

Public Radio Day 2022
Kristen Drum
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Sam Bush with guitarist Steven Mougin.

Closing out with “Radio John” couldn’t have worked better. We were on the radio, remembering Hartford and supporting all the music that makes America and Nashville so rich and sustaining. And since many of the roots of Music City go through churches, the setting was ideal as well.

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 Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org