Roots and Branches of American Music
In three sets with three different bands over nearly three hours, Levi Lowrey showed a packed house at the Red Clay Music Foundry what he’s all about. The Dacula, Georgia, native can trace his musical roots back over thirty years when he was a twelve-year-old fiddle player working up the nerve to play at “the Chicken House” in Dacula with bluegrass legends the Skillet Lickers. You think the Stones have been together a long time? The Skillet Lickers have a direct line dating back four generations: that’s 90 years, folks.
This night was no mere trip to the past, but a complete living history of a singularly talented songwriter and performer offering a rare glimpse into the music that influenced him, where he is now, and where he might go next.
The first set featured Lowery and the Skillet Lickers (Phil Tanner: guitar; Russ Tanner: fiddle; Fleet Stanley: dobro; Joel Aderhold: banjo; Brian Morgan: mandolin) on “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane” and “Down Yonder,” the first Skillet Lickers’ song ever recorded. It was Dacula chicken farmer and band founder Gid Tanner’s son, Gordon, who recorded it in 1934 in San Antonio, Texas, for RCA. Gordon, 17 at the time, played lead fiddle on that cut as well as “Back Up and Push,” which sold over a million copies.
The set followed nearly song-for-song the tracks on Lowrey’s compelling double album, Roots and Branches, with the old timey songs appropriately labeled “roots”. Along with “The Old Spinning Wheel,” Soldiers Joy,” (a song that was banned from being played for soldiers during the Civil War because it made them so homesick they tended to desert), “Lorena” and “Bully of the Town,” improvised versions of “Wabash Cannonball,” “Orange Blossom Special” and “Three Nights Drunk” were welcome additions.
Touching moments abounded, especially when Lowrey thanked Stanley for mentoring him and teaching him how to “play between the lines” with a group and not to try to outshine the other musicians in the band.
The second set progressed to Lowrey’s current style, again following closely to the second disc of Roots and Branches, songs based in the country/folk rock genre, songs of love and loss, redemption, spiritual doubt and ultimate certainty. A standout was “Play An Old Time Fiddle Tune with Me,” which Lowrey wrote with Blackberry Smoke’s Charlie Starr who is featured on guitar and vocals on the CD. It’s a song with one eye on the past and one firmly focused on the future of this music. An inspired cover of Dave Griffin’s “Dance with the Devil,” a murder ballad and ghost story rolled into one, was as compelling, haunting and original a song as ever there was one, with Lowrey looping his fiddle behind his mesmerizing solo vocals. I’d be surprised if I were the only one in the audience with chillbumps.
The third and final set had a looser and more rocking feel featuring songs from Lowrey’s previous albums, including “December Thirty-One,” and “I’ve Held the Devil’s Hand.” Lowrey ended the night with a spectacular version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” that included a mindblowingly trippy and frenetic fiddle solo, and killer guitar work by Danny McAdams. (Check out his 2015 album for the studio version, which is impressive but doesn’t begin to capture the energy of a live show.) Basically, Lowrey is a virtuoso fiddle player and one helluva good songwriter. To sum up his own history, here he is in his own words from the final track of the first disc on Roots and Branches:
“I grew up in Dacula, Georgia. I was a twelve-year-old fiddle player and it was a small town halfway between Athens and Atlanta, Georgia. A lot of things have changed. The town’s not so small anymore and I’m a songwriter in my 30s who tours the country to make a living. Every Friday night, if I’m home, you can find me at the Chicken House, still sitting around playing this North Georgia string band music with the Skillet Lickers. They don’t do it for the money. They don’t do it for the recognition. They do it for the community, and that’s one thing that will never change.”