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Debuts On Finally Friday And The Opry For The Wood Box Heroes

Somebody seems to have thrown a big bag of fertilizer on bluegrass during the pandemic, because the talent pool has been growing like crazy ever since. We’ve seen Dan Tyminski, who thrilled us recently at a WMOT Wired In, assemble a striking new band. Half of them are also in East Nash Grass, a “local” band that’s stepping on to the national stage with a new album this month. All-woman Big Richard is stirring up a viral buzz. There’s also an exciting new band in Music City called Wood Box Heroes, and they’ll be part of a dynamic showcase of roots at lunch that we like to call Finally Friday.

As tends to happen, the Wood Box Heroes formed out of friendship among top flight musicians who know each other’s ways and tastes. That said, when Nashville songwriter/artist Josh Martin assembled a band for a run of dates in Michigan that required an acoustic vibe, none of them expected it would lead to the kind of chemistry that would compel them to change their plans, but it did. Martin’s a deep-voiced singer from eastern Kentucky with “bluegrass in his blood,” and he’s also had the classic Nashville experience of getting involved in commercial country music enough that he realized it wasn’t his aim. “I was longing for something a little more real” after Covid eased up, Martin told me by phone this week. “And this project I think has really been an extension of that.”

They’ve been hailed as a supergroup because of the pedigree of each player. Fiddler and singer Jenee Fleenor, profiled here in 2020, is the four-time reigning CMA Musician Of The Year, a top-tier veteran of major tours, and a crack songwriter with cuts by Dolly Parton, Kathy Mattea, and others. Matt Menefee won the Winfield Banjo Contest at age 17 and has become an in-demand artist who’s worked with Jerry Douglas, Mumford and Sons and Bruce Hornsby. His own bands have included Chessboxer and Cadillac Sky, so he’s got experience balancing the old-school and the out-there. Same with Seth Taylor, a mandolinist we saw blaze brightly with Mountain Heart and who’s been called on by Ricky Skaggs and the Opry House Band among others. Barry Bales, veteran of Alison Krauss & Union Station, holds down the bass.

The band kicked out a self-titled EP this Spring (we’ve been playing it on The Old Fashioned), and a full-length debut album is close to finished. At the same time, Martin told me the Wood Box Heroes are at their best on stage. “We all come from a picking background and love to do it,” he said. “And we just don't get to do it enough in the studio. We do some really crazy live versions of our songs. You'll see when it starts hittin’.” After they play Finally Friday at noon, the WBH makes its debut on the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night.

Following along at 12:45 will be The One Eighties, a roots pop band from Raleigh, NC led by Autumn Brand and Daniel Cook. They were part of a really interesting outfit called New Reveille that didn’t survive the pandemic shutdown, and the current band name speaks to the hard pivot this musical pair made as they relaunched their sound. “We joke that it’s like a stew and we’re throwing in all our favorite stuff,” Cook told Raleigh magazine. “We have orchestral; we have synth pop influences; we have classic rock and psychedelic stuff we’re trying to work in.” They are getting set to release their debut album Minefields on the 18th of this month.

Wrapping the FF music at 1:30 will be William Matheney, a wiry, bespectacled beacon of power pop from Morgantown, WV. Like an angry (but reflective) young man from coal country, he swaggers with an electric guitar and pounces on his themes with passion and a sardonic edge, a feel that’s reminded some fans of early Elvis Costello. He’s followed up time with two bands - Southeast Engine and The Paranoid Style - with three solo albums, plus a fourth dropping this week called That Grand, Old Feeling on Hickman Holler/Thirty Tigers. An indepth review from Folk Radio UKcalls it “the start of something big.”

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