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Take Us To The Rivers! Craig’s Guide To WMOT’s June 3 Fest

Mickey Bernal

The Third of June is most famous to roots music fans as the “sleepy dusty Delta day” that the narrator of Bobbie Gentry’s most famous song finds out that Billie Joe MacAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge. In real life, it’s World Bicycle Day and of course Economist Day in Argentina, so we feel like Roots On The Rivers 2023 has a very good chance of making history as the most positive and exciting thing to ever happen on June 3.

We hope you’ve made plans to join us. The forecast looks great, and the agenda is packed, with music of course, but with so much more.

WMOT is above all a community-making, community-supported institution, and that will be reflected with a village of organizations, activities and vendors that make Nashville and Middle Tennessee a great place to live. You’ll be able to meet folks from the Cumberland River Compact, which protects our watershed, Bonaparte’s Retreat, Emmylou Harris’s beloved dog rescue, the road show of the socially conscious handcraft outlet Philomena & Ruth, and a lot more. The Country Music Hall of Fame is bringing its Family String Band Circle, where you and the kids in your lives can try a range of folk instruments. You’ll also find more than enough to eat and drink with food by Chivanada Empanadas, the Bad Luck Burger Club, Southern Bell Creamery, and Bondi Bowls, plus beer from our friends at Tennessee Brew Works.

All this takes place on the green and gorgeous grounds of Two Rivers Mansion, one of the most historic homes in the city. And it’s all close-knit and compact. This is a boutique festival - intimate by design - that lets you get close to the stage, close to the activities, and close to each other. It extends our mission to help you discover great music new and old to helping you discover your city and each other. Parking is free! You should bring festival chairs. Service animals are welcome.

But the music’s at the heart of it all, so here’s a guide to our exceptional lineup:

Mark Thornton & The Sidekicks - First impressions matter, so when you arrive, you’ll immediately see the Show Truck, back for its second year to act as the Local Brew Stage presented by Tennessee Brew Works. The truck is the brainchild of Nashville guitarist and recording studio maestro Mark Thornton, whose band The Sidekicks - beloved at the American Legion and Dee’s Lounge - will play our walk-in music, like the country troubadours of old.

Steve Cropper + Emily McGill - We enthusiastically invite you to get to Two Rivers early to kick off our day of music at noon, because you’ll be up close and personal with one of the iconic soul musicians of the 20th century and a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer - Steve Cropper. What’s he doing there? Well, the great guitarist has been cultivating new talent in recent years, including songwriter Emily McGill. She’s a West Tennessee native raised not only in a family band but a family-owned music store. (I wish I’d had that. My dad was a law professor.) Anyway, she’s 23 and making her rounds as a new artist with the slow burn country soul single “Write You Out Of My Memory” and the more contemporary “Better When I’m Drinking” that debuted on CMT.

Cordovas - They’re sort of “headliners” for this year’s ROTR because they close out our day with an 8:30 pm set, but what we can say for sure is that Cordovas are definitely friends of WMOT, going back years to past events and through their longstanding curation of our Sunday night Strange Roots Radio show. I call this quartet the jam band that doesn’t jam, because they’ve got all the vibes with less of the soloing. What they excel at is arrangement, with wonderfully woven interplay of all the instruments and understated mastery of each. Then there’s Joe Firstman’s leadership on the bass guitar and as a charismatic vocalist. Their sets always flow like the rivers that bear our festival’s name.

Alison Brown - Raised on bluegrass in southern California, Nashville’s Allison Brown mastered classic Scruggs-style banjo, but when she began writing original music on her chosen instrument, “it came out as jazz,” she told me in a recent profile. She quit a corporate job to pursue music, as an instrumentalist, a composer, a producer, and a record executive, running Compass Records with her husband Garry West. Now an acknowledged pioneer on her instrument, Brown’s continued to create, including her latest album On Banjo, which includes guest turns from Stuart Duncan and Steve Martin. Read my full feature about Alison’s new project and hear our String interview here.

Langhorne Slim - With a weatherbeaten voice, songs that invite reflection, and an infectious energy, this folk singer from Bucks County, PA has been one of Nashville’s most assured and rousing artists for more than a decade. He fell hard for blues and roots music after a cousin showed him some guitar concepts, studied music in college, and started making a name opening for the artsy and inimitable Trachetenburgh Family Slide Show Players. His debut album When The Sun’s Gone Down of 2005 was extremely well received, and he’s been a staple in roots circles and on TV and film soundtracks ever since. Slim’s latest is the extra-long, hopeful, and heart-swelling Strawberry Mansion of late 2020. Don’t be surprised if he plunges into the crowd and gets you involved.

Tommy Stinson's Cowboys in the Campfire - Tommy Stinson got started in rock and roll very young when his older brother taught him the bass to straighten out his wayward ways and, importantly, to have somebody play the low end in a punky little Minneapolis band called The Replacements. Since that historic run, Tommy’s pursued a wild range of gigs, including stretches with Guns N’ Roses and Soul Asylum. All along he’s had his own bands as well, and his latest takes a country turn.I have a full profile of Tommy here.

Laura Cantrell - Nashville-raised and New York based since the 1980s, Laura Cantrell’s plaintive, sincere voice has been a vital part of Americana for more than two decades. In a new profile, I describe how her plans for a collaborative album celebrating her 20th anniversary of recording were deferred but not defeated during the pandemic. The luminous new album Like A Rose comes out a week after her ROTR performance.

Cruz Contreras - Of all the artists on our bill this week, I’m personally most curious what Cruz Contreras has to say and to sing. He’s been an anchor of roots music out of Knoxville for many years, most vitally founding and steering the Black Lillies through the 2010s, wrapping with a “farewell for now” message and the album Stranger To Me in 2019. Before that, Cruz was a mainstay in Robinella and the CC Stringband, that late great ensemble. He’s working on something new to be released this year, as we understand it. Expect new material from an old hand during his set.

The Shootouts - You can learn a lot about why this hard core country band from Akron, OH is growing so fast by the company they keep. Asleep At The Wheel’s legendary founder Ray Benson produced their third album Stampede. Special guests include Marty Stuart, Raul Malo and Jim Lauderdale. They’re on board because this four-piece band - a “labor of love” per singer Ryan Humbert - is fun-loving, effervescent and steeped in the old school, from Bakersfield to Western swing to Nashville honky tonk. My full profile of The Shootouts appeared earlier this year.

Bee Taylor - People who see Bee Taylor perform tend to flip out and tell other people, such as myself, that she’s amazing. She’s an East Texas native who gravitated to the piano styles of Professor Longhair and Dr. John. Her brassy performance personality carries the show the rest of the way home. Our own Jessie Scott says: “Bee Taylor might just be a music discovery for you. She was for us, as her name was whispered from a well-respected colleague. Bee came to play Finally Friday in February, and we just had to invite her to Roots on the Rivers. She grew up on a cattle ranch in East Texas, but her music will transport you to a sultry summer night in New Orleans!”

Kashena Sampson - She’s a show business natural because she was raised in Las Vegas. She’s worldly because she sang on cruise ships that took her all over the globe. Now Nashville is lucky to have Kashena Sampson, a committed, complete songwriter/artist with an alluring voice that some compare to Stevie Nicks. She impressed folks domestically and overseas with her releases Wild Heart in 2017 and Time Machine in 2021.

Stevie Redstone - Stevie, a recent transplant from Los Angeles, is another artist earning affection from our program director Jessie Scott, who says, “His debut album Shot In The Dark garnered praise by Rolling Stone. His 2022 move here has opened the door for his next album, which is being produced by Dave Cobb. His music draws on soul, pop, rock, and blues to make engaging improv.”

Ben de la Cour - As I wrote recently in a Finally Friday preview, one of many clues that Ben de la Cour is a unique individual is that he sought out Jim White to produce his current album. Not by email or through an intermediary. He “tracked him down and basically camped outside his house until he finally agreed to produce my record,” says Ben in his bio for Sweet Anhedonia. But what really makes this wild is that Jim White is about as obscure and culty as artists come in roots music - an outsider and a southern gothic iconoclast. It’s not like getting Dave Cobb or Tucker Martine, not a move calculated to be anything other than art first. Ben’s journey took him from London where he was born to Brooklyn where he was raised to New Orleans and Cuba (!) and Nashville where he’s lived since 2012. He’s released several excellent and unusual albums, won a Kerrville New Folk prize and impressed critics with his “urgent authenticity,” to quote his admirers at No Depression.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org