Southern Songs and Stories

When people talk about artists like Aretha Franklin, St. Vincent, Paul Brady and Sam Cooke, they tend to talk about these artists’ best known work, their music that came after their formative years. For Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, her Columbia Records sides and his time in The Soul Stirrers tend to get glossed over. For the casual fan, who remembers that St. Vincent got her start in The Polyphonic Spree, or that Paul Brady once was known as a Celtic artist?

Memphis quintet Lucero has been making straight ahead rock without a hint of pretense since 1998, and just over two decades in, they are at an inevitable crossroads of sorts.

Photo: Daniel Coston

For those who adhere to the old adage that “If you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room,” you would likely feel comfortable being in the company of Dom Flemons. Now living in Chicago, he has called many places home, from his native Arizona to North Carolina to Washington, D.C., and has covered even more musical territory, mastering the banjo, fife, guitar, harmonica, percussion, quills, and bones in many styles along the way.

Dom Flemons performs at WNCW’s Outback Opry drive-in concert September 2020
Photo: Daniel Coston

After a brief pause over the holidays, it is time to jump into the new year with a strong lineup of guest artists here at Southern Songs and Stories. On deck is Dom Flemons who has a new song with Reverend Peyton featured in his episode, as well as Amythyst Kiah who is soon to raise her profile with her album Wary + Strange, scheduled for release this June. Also in our pipeline are Ben Nichols of the band Lucero, and a relatively new artist, Pony Bradshaw, both of whom have new albums which we will explore as we speak with them in their podcasts.

No survey of current bluegrass is accurate without mention of Darin and Brooke Aldridge. The husband and wife duo, whose first album came in 2008, are now at the center of what contemporary bluegrass does best. And they have the hardware and chart hits to attest to that — for starters, Brooke is the 4-time, reigning IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year, and their 2019 album Inner Journey rose to the top of the charts, surprising no one on both counts.

Make no mistake, Kenny Roby has turned in one of the most emotional and raw records of 2020. But listening to his fifth solo album The Reservoir, it is impossible not to feel solace. When he sings in the album opener “Don’t Ya Know What’s On My Mind”, “My mama told me I was special/ She never saw me in the dark/ A soft truth and a wet confessional/ Dressed in a mess and double parked”, you know right away that there’s going to be trouble ahead, and real soon. But Kenny’s voice is so reassuring, his music so assuaging, that you know it is all going to be okay in the end.

(l to r) Woody Platt and Graham Sharp warm up in WNCW’s Studio B 9/28/20
Mike Gavin

It could be easy to lose sight of this, with all of the trials and tribulations we have endured in 2020, but Steep Canyon Rangers is having a banner year. Beginning with their live album North Carolina Songbook, continuing with a surprise collaboration with Boyz II Men on the remake of their song “Be Still Moses”, and finishing with their studio album Arm in Arm, the western North Carolina six piece band has been fully en fuego despite all of the cold water thrown on the music world lately.

In 2018, the four piece group Wood & Wire was nominated for a Grammy award for their album North of Despair. Since their four members had come up playing styles like jazz and punk rock, of course they would find themselves in a band on the verge of winning nationwide recognition as a bluegrass band -- from that hotbed of the genre, Austin Texas no less. Somehow, two plus two equals five with Wood & Wire, and here they are, carving out a niche that seems as unlikely as it is fortunate.

Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires are amongst the most celebrated couples in music, and their star continues to rise. Theirs is a story that brings to mind iconic husband and wife teams like Johnny and June, and they can boast an ever growing legion of fans and critical acclaim. The past year or so has proved to be one of their most successful in terms of their music, while it has also been a span with times of great difficulty -- both with their art and their relationship.