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Irene Kelley, Afton Wolfe and Levi Ware Play Finally Friday

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From bluegrass to blues, from smooth to sandpaper, this week’s Finally Friday shows more range than Mariah Carey’s five-octave voice. We’ve served up a lunch buffet with acoustic songbird Irene Kelley, Nashville’s Mississippi son Afton Wolfe and musical healer Levi Ware.

Irene Kelley came to Nashville in 1984 from West Virginia where she’d cultivated a love of traditional music, notably the songs of Jean Ritchie, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. Boy was she in for a surprise when she got a country record deal on MCA. The label folks thought this bluegrass idea wasn’t marketable so they basically forbade her from playing music with her growing gang of friends and admirers at the Station Inn. Well perhaps you can see where this was heading, but Irene wound up following her heart and has done just fine thanks. Her songs landed on albums by Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood, Loretta Lynn, Little Big Town and many more. She’s released a string of excellent gentle bluegrass albums with many chart-topping singles in her field. The latest is Snow White Memories, a soothing set of songs conjured up with a raft of guest writers and musicians. Irene has also developed a rich working relationship with her daughter Justyna who co-produced the album with her. This ought to be just what our little ice storm called for. 

Songwriter Afton Wolfe was invited to keep a diary of Americanafest 2022 for Glide Magazine, and who he saw and who he hung out with tells a story about his tastes and his place in the Nashville roots scene, folks like Brian Wright, Jon Latham, India Ramey, Tommy McLain, Amy Speace and Garrison Star. And he performed several times as well, because Wolfe is a valued member of Team Americana here in Music City. From his native Mississippi he brings a passion for traditional blues and New Orleans R&B, but he’s also an artful troubadour with shades of Tom Waits in his gravelly voice. His absorbing and gently eccentric 2020 EP Petronius’ Last Meal shows he’s excited by sonic experiments. And yet another EP - Twenty-Three - arrives on show day. 

We’ll wrap our mid-day affair with Levi Ware, a songwriter and music therapist from Washington State. The story on his website about the encounter with a sick, depressed and hospital-bound kid that led to his latest single gave me some chills and tears. There’s obviously a gifted and empathic guy behind his guitar. He’s the co-founder and CEO of the non-profit Melodic Caring Project, and it’s hard not to care about that. 

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