Telluride, Kudzu and 18 South
We heard 18 South for the first time in Mountain Village (just above Telluride) last summer. We caught the end of their “Firstgrass” set on the way to see Yonder Mountain play its annual Wednesday night Telluride Bluegrass gig. Sam Bush was jamming with Jon Randall Stewart and the band as we walked up that afternoon. (Here’s a short video of part of that.) After hearing the end of the show, we were disappointed we had missed the beginning, but 18 South played the festival, too, and rocked the house.
Jon Randall comes from a background of Texas bluegrass. He played it as a kid. Emmylou Harris recruited him to play with her in the Nash Ramblers (Sam Bush was there, too). John Randall won a Grammy for their “Live At The Ryman” album. [God, please let Emmylou put the Nash Ramblers together again someday for a tour, however brief. I’ll show up.] Most of Jon Randall’s career has veered away from bluegrass, though. Truth is, the Nash Ramblers played some bluegrass, but a lot of what they played were bluegrass versions of songs like Guitar Town. [Sorry, I’m going to Emmylou digress again, but I love hearing her sing “Hey pretty baby are you ready for me . . .” with the Nash Ramblers on that Live At The Ryman record and the one time I got to see them at Hal & Mal’s in Jackson, MS. Okay, I’m done.] This 18 South gig isn’t bluegrass, either, but Jon Randall’s roots in the genre came to mind when I read Dustin Ogdin’s excellent blog post, “Bluegrass: Tweets, Traditions and Tangents.” Ogdin’s words caused me to think about the way bluegrass works its way into and around Americana music like kudzu on a Mississippi ditchbank. That made me think about Telluride, which in turn made me think about one of my favorites from last year’s festival, 18 South.
So I decided to check in on 18 South. First of all, an introduction for those that didn’t make it to Telluride last year. This video with clips from a show at Station Inn in Nashville and an appearance at a radio station gives some feel for what it’s like to see this band perform. Their style is relaxed, like they’re sitting around in their living room. I guess it’s easy to be relaxed when you’re this good. It’s really hard to pin down the type of music they play. Sometimes you think you’re listening to the Allman Brothers, sometimes an upbeat gospel act, sometimes newgrass, sometimes Bonnie Raitt. But it really isn’t any of those. It’s just 18 South, a group formed around Jon Randall Stewart and Jessi Alexander and jam packed with talent. The cover of their EP says “Soulful Southern Roots Music,” and I’d say that about sums it up.
The band is a bunch of all-stars. There’s Jon Randall, who but for a bit of bad luck with record labels might have had a very different career. You may recall that he was once married to Lorrie Morgan – in fact, his biggest hit was a duet with Ms. Morgan (By My Side). A bit of trivia here. Stewart and Morgan met while he was recording his album “It’s A Great Day To Be Alive.” The song, which was a part of the album, was written by Darrell Scott. The album was never released. Travis Tritt later recorded it and released it as a single, which made it to number 2 on the country charts. With Jon Randall’s voice, you have to wonder what would have happened if his album had been released and promoted – at the very least, Travis Tritt would have had one less single.
Speaking of strong voices, Jessi Alexander is the other front person for 18 South. She’s a singer-songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Patti Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Little Big Town and *drum roll* Hannah Montana. That last probably makes trips to the mailbox a little more interesting. Also in the band are Mike Bub, who played bass for Del McCoury for 13 years. There’s that kudzu again. Bub has toured with Vince Gill, Peter Rowan, Tony Rice, Tim O’Brien, Shawn Camp and Danny Barnes. Larry Atamanuik was also in the Nash Ramblers. He was in the rock band Seatrain and has played drums for Sam Bush and Alison Krauss as well. Kudzu. Guthrie Trapp played guitar for Patty Loveless on the Mountain Soul II tour and Jerry Douglas as well. Kudzu. Jimmy Wallace plays piano and organ, writes songs and sings, too. A different type of kudzu here, but Wallace’s Louisiana roots strongly influence the sound of 18 South.
All we have right now from 18 South is their excellent EP. There are only six songs, but all of them are good. If you don’t have it, you really need to add it to your collection. Cruising the internet to get a status on upcoming projects, I saw mention of a possible live CD (which would be great), but that’s apparently not in the immediate future. Mike Bub was kind enough to exchange emails with me on the band’s current status recently. He said that the EP was the result of recording sessions that produced material for a full album. They’re in the process of determining whether to issue the balance of the material by EP or produce a full album. Progress on that front has been slow, he says.
Meantime, 18 South is playing music. They’ll be at the Belcourt Theatre March 30 as a part of Two Bright Nights For Human Rights. I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening than listening to them play. I’m ready for a breakout here for this excellent band. Here’s hoping that can happen in the near future, so a wider audience will be able to enjoy their excellent music.
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