Torch and Twang

The fourth annual Twangfest, the biggest and the best so far, celebrates some of the country's best roots artists

Twangfest, held this weekend at Off Broadway, is a feast of American-influenced music, a celebration that honors, as per its name, the rural accent that appears front and center in both kinds of music, country and western.

Each year the festival gets bigger and, wonderfully, better; this, the fourth Twangfest, is crammed with inspiration, ranging from the hardcore traditional to the just-barely-twangy, honoring those not just interested in historic preservation but in wide-eyed adaptation. As a result of this relatively adventuresome philosophy, the three-day series of concerts is developing a national reputation as one of the premier festivals of its kind. Most impressive is its bare-bones, do-it-yourself energy; it's a party created by fans of the music for fans of the music, and you can tell. You won't find a more excited and reverent crowd anywhere in the country on this weekend, and the city's resurgent reputation nationwide as a music town owes at least a little bit to the fact that Twangfest is held within its limits once a year.

What follows is a list of a few recommendations from RFT writers. Be forewarned, though: Chances are, you're going to have to commit to either going to the festival or not; the Twangfest crowd crams Off Broadway, and picking and choosing the evenings you'll attend is risky. You may face sellouts, and it's recommended you either get there early or go whole-hog and buy the three-day pass.

Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings, purveyors of a hybrid strain of country-pop for which there is no word
Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings, purveyors of a hybrid strain of country-pop for which there is no word
Tift Merritt
Michael Traister
Tift Merritt

Fred Eaglesmith
11 p.m. Thursday, June 8
Fred Eaglesmith's musical development parallels the movement being celebrated by Twangfest: Take country music, with its detailed eye for the hard truths of daily life, then add rock, with its pulsating beats and unyielding drama. These two forces were combined by many bands following in the wake of Uncle Tupelo; Eaglesmith did the same thing on his own -- while growing up in Canada.

The music of Fred Eaglesmith grabs you by the collar and shakes you while rubbing a gentle hand up and down your back. He's of the singer/songwriter ilk, to be sure, but doesn't just strum an acoustic guitar and deliver literary impressions set to meandering melodies. Nope, Eaglesmith understands song structure, has an ear for hooks, builds tension and releases it just when you can't take it anymore.

Most of Eaglesmith's songs are about people overcome by desperate passions, usually just after the end of an intense relationship. He takes longing and turns it into grace with a deft turn of phrase and an urgent rhythmic undertow.

None of this is meant to deny the good-time humor he brings to many of his songs as well and which becomes even more important during his stage show. To add to the fun, Eaglesmith's percussionist, Washboard Sam, has the craziest gear you've ever seen a musician wear, including a cymbal on his head.
-- Steve Pick

Lonesome River Band
Midnight Thursday, June 8
What does it take to be among the best bluegrass bands on the planet? Listen to the Lonesome River Band's early-'90s classics Carrying the Tradition or Old Country Town or even their picking on John Fogerty's Blue Moon Swamp. You hear more than just chops: Call it natural forces, or supernatural, or just the collision of intuition and imagination. What comes across rawks hard enough to wipe out a fleet of Harleys.

The Lonesome River Band was begun in 1982, gaining notoriety with Lookin for Yourself (1989) and then taking over the bluegrass charts (yes, there is such a thing) with the seminal Carrying the Tradition in 1991. As with most bluegrass acts, the lineup has changed radically. After the last original member, Tim Austin, retired from touring, the band was willed to bass player Ronnie Bowman and banjo monster Sammy Shelor. "When the band first started," Bowman says, "the drive was there. Over the years, we've kept the same drive."

Most bands in jazz, rock, blues or country get that drive through drums. Even bluegrass has a history with the skins: As far back as the '50s, Don Reno, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt and Scruggs recorded and played live with drum kits. Before they could pay the bills on the festival circuit, the Lonesome River Band actually used a drummer, doing country and bluegrass in nightclubs. Now bass and mandolin provide that racing pulse. "I don't want to say it's rock & roll," Bowman says, "because bluegrass is totally un-rock & roll, but we're all big fans of drums. Our driving sound has a similarity: We're all thinking of that kick drum, which is like the bass, and the mandolin is like the snare. We have that kick-snare, bass-mandolin chop. When you have a groove going, you might forget that it's all about the beat. The drive is not tempo, how fast or slow you play, but how you play on that beat."

The current LRB lineup is completed by Kenny Smith (guitar), Rickie Simpkins (fiddle/baritone vocal) and Don Rigsby (mandolin/lead and tenor vocals). Each has made a name with the most important bluegrass/ acoustic acts in the biz -- including Tony Rice, Claire Lynch and J.D. Crowe -- but they have truly coalesced in the Lonesome River Band. For fans of Del McCoury or Ralph Stanley, LRB's appearance at Twangfest Thursday night is a God-sent opportunity to hear what contemporary bluegrass is all about. After last year's overly polished Finding the Way -- Bowman jokingly calls it "our pop album" -- the band has returned to a hard-smacking bluegrass sound, rooted in devastating harmonies, timeless songs -- old, new and unknown -- and a viscerally live approach. After 18 years, Talkin' to Myself (Sugar Hill) may be their most thrilling work. "This record is a better representation of our live show," Bowman says. "Our sets aren't so polished. We don't practice what we say or do every night. And yet every song on the new record fits together. It's like a good quilt pattern: You can have a lot of fabric pieces, but if you have that pattern, everything sewn together, well, then you have art."
-- Roy Kasten

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