Gainesville’s Hogtown Opry Premieres
Bill Killeen had a vision. The Gainesville entrepreneur/promoter wanted to see if a Grand Ole Opry-style show featuring bluegrass, Americana, and folk music would succeed in a town known for its rock history, which includes Bo Diddley, Stephen Stills, Bernie Leadon, and Tom Petty. Held in the historic University Auditorium on the University of Florida campus, the Hogtown Opry: First Night event was a grand experiment with lots of moving parts, and they all came together this past weekend.
For this first effort, Killeen recruited members of the local band Patchwork as the house band, with some added fine players (including songwriting master Mark “Brink” Brinkman on guitar and fiddle player Geof Perry), then added in special guests Anna Marie and former Gainesville resident and L.A. rock performer Nancy Luca.
The house band kicked off the evening with the fine vocalist Maggie Rucker taking lead on several songs, including a great version of the Kasey Chambers song “Pony.” All the band members sing, and bandleader Cathy Dewitt, Jolene Jones, Janet Rucker and Annie McPherson all took leads, with Brink Brinkman throwing in some fine guitar runs. The Carter family classic “Gold Watch and Chain” and “Thank Heavens for Dale Evans” were standouts, and McPherson then led them in a roots version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
Anna Marie and Nancy Luca each took a turn on the next two songs, “Colorado” and the great Mike Osborn tune “Hungry for the Country.”
Wil Maring and Robert Bowlin have been playing together for over a decade. Maring is one of the best songwriters anywhere, and a wonderful vocalist. Robert Bowlin has been a national guitar champion in both fingerstyle and flatpicking and has another unique historical accomplishment: he was Bill Monroe’s last fiddle player. Although I never met them before this weekend, I’ve been watching their videos for many years. They are the kind of performers who may not garner national headlines, but almost every acoustic musician will be aware of their work, and that’s high praise.
They did some of Maring’s best-loved songs: ”Cinco de Mayo”; “Keeper of the Farm” (a song about Maring’s ancient farmhouse), a slowed-down; then speeded up version of “St. Anne’s Reel” with words written by Maring and fantastic guitar breaks by Bowlin; and “Coyote on a Hill.” Bowlin played some gypsy jazz on “Django,” but the song that grabbed me was “Where the Ponies Run Free.” Maring had been involved in an animal rescue effort to save a large number of starving horses, and this song captured the emotions involved in such an effort and a hopeful future for the animals. They finished up with a terrific version of “At Last” with Maring’s powerful vocals and Bowlin’s fluid guitar work. It was a wonderfully entertaining set.
That brought up the headliners, Louisa Branscomb and friends. Branscomb is a legendary songwriter and has had literally hundreds of her songs recorded. Her signature song “Steel Rails” was the song that launched Alison Krauss’s career; it was also recorded by John Denver, and both of those albums were Grammy winners. Her most recent album stayed on folk and bluegrass charts for nearly two years, with five top 10 songs. It was also the first album to debut at Number One on the bluegrass charts and Number Two on the folk international charts. The album features an amazing group of musicians: Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Dale Ann Bradley, Claire Lynch, Stuart Duncan, and many others. I reviewed the album here. Branscomb, who has a doctorate in psychology, has been a force in the bluegrass world since the ’70s. She has sponsored songwriting workshops for 35 years, first at Woodsong Farm in Georgia and now at Lyric Mountain outside of Asheville, NC. As she has stated, “My approach is based on the assumption that everyone can learn the skills that make writing possible and that finding one’s voice and transforming thought and feeling to the song is a personal and highly individual process.”
For this event, she recruited some old friends and some very talented young performers. Josh Harris is a fine banjo and dobro player and a strong bluegrass vocalist from nearby Callahan; Lucy Becker is a wonderful young Kentucky-based fiddle player with a pure voice that is among the best I’ve heard in a long time, and was perfectly suited for Branscomb’s songs. Barbara Johnson is one of the best bass players in the state, playing with touring bands and most recently with Red and Chris Henry.
National flatpicking champion Allen Shadd was a great addition. His guitar breaks and backups and fills added up to a top-tier collection of talent. Branscomb performed a number of songs from her last album, and her vocal harmonies with Harris and Becker were perfect. They opened the set with “Gone” featuring those harmonies and Becker’s soaring lead vocal. While we don’t have access to videos from the show available at this point, I was lucky enough to get a short clip from their rehearsal for this song.
Harris and Becker traded off lines in “Barefoot Girl,” which was a huge hit from the most recent album. Branscomb then sang the heart-achey “Your Amazing Grace,” recorded by Claire Lynch, and then brought out Valerie Smith with Joe Zauner, the banjo player from her East Coast-based band Liberty Pike (which also includes bluegrass Hall of Famer Tom Gray). Smith has been a staple of the bluegrass/Americana scene for many years; in the late ’90s she performed with the legendary Charlie Louvin at the Opry. She’s recorded with Ralph Stanley, Charlie Louvin, Tom T. Hall, Becky Buller, Claire Lynch, and many others. She’s a dynamic stage presence and led the band in the barnburner “Little Liza Jane” as Valerie clogged around the stage to Lucy Becker’s strong fiddle breaks. The audience loved it.
Josh Harris took on “There’s No Marker on Our Grave,” a challenging high and lonesome vocal that he absolutely nailed. His dobro played off breaks by Shadd and Zauner, with harmony support from Becker and Branscomb. That was followed by “Bama Boogie Blues” with Becker and Shadd trading off breaks.
Allen Shadd Photo by Rick Davidson
The major highlights for me were two of Branscomb’s songs that have both been winners of Song of the Year awards. “Dear Sister” is an incredibly moving song based on actual Civil War letters written to Branscomb’s great-great-great aunt, who had four brothers who fought in the war. They wrote daily letters home to their sister, Lucinda Caroline, and she kept them all. Over a hundred years later they were found in an attic. Working with Claire Lynch, they wrote the song which was recorded by Lynch. I’ve seen many people reduced to tears by this song, and Lucy Becker sang it beautifully as a duet with Branscomb. In my opinion it’s one of finest songs ever written in any genre.
The finale was a masterful version of “Steel Rails,” Branscomb’s song that has become a bluegrass classic. With Bowlin and Maring joining everyone else on stage, the song was the perfect conclusion to an evening of wonderful acoustic music and gave Gainesville a chance to see some of the nation’s best songwriters. The audience was enthusiastic and wanted more.
The Hogtown Opry was a great showcase for bluegrass and Americana music. I spoke to people in the audience who were unfamiliar with the performers but absolutely loved the show and the structure of an Opry-like event. It was also clear that they wanted these events to continue in the future, and rumors are that more Hogtown Opry shows are already being planned. Congratulations to Bill Killeen and his staff who pulled off a seamless show. We’re already looking forward to the next one!
Louisa Branscomb Website
Wil Maring Website
Brink Brinkman Website
Valerie Smith Website
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