Grassroots Rising

Classic Arts Features   Grassroots Rising
Carnegie Hall celebrates the roots of American music with its Route 57 festival, starting May 22.

You can drive on U.S. highways marked Route 57 in Martinsville, Virginia; San Jose, California; or Eagle Pass, Texas, and each stretch of road is a different and fascinating experience because of the unique character of each city. Carnegie Hall's sizzling Route 57 festival this month reflects the rich diversity of the American musical landscape.

Over this four-day celebration of regional American music, Route 57 (a name that plays with Carnegie Hall's location on West 57th Street) explores and celebrates the rich musical gumbo that exists throughout the country. Carnegie Hall has worked with Nalini Jones and Dan Melnick of Festival Productions, as well as Rita Houston of WFUV, to sculpt a series that takes advantage of Zankel Hall's ideally intimate setting. "The range of music represented by these artists is astonishing," says Jones. "I think these concerts will highlight a generational mix as well as a musical one." Melnick is also pleased that Zankel Hall, which opened in the fall of 2003, permits Carnegie Hall to present grassroots music in a venue that truly respects the music. "There are a billion things going on in New York," comments Melnick. "But this event is special. And Carnegie Hall has done an incredible job in presenting the best music regardless of genre."

The first festival event on May 22 pairs Natalie MacMaster with Norman Kennedy, both of whom look toward Europe for their roots but have long performed and recorded in the United States. Master fiddler MacMaster grew up on Cape Breton Island in Eastern Canada, while Kennedy, who learned his songs on the streets of Aberdeen, Scotland, has lived in this country since 1966. Both performers, in their own fashion, underscore the ways in which music from the British Islands can blend with and enrich America's grassroots music.

Certainly, New Orleans has been on the mind of many Americans since Hurricane Katrina devastated that city, and the fate of its native musicians hit the headline news. But fortunately, both of the New Orleans pianists appearing on May 23 escaped the hurricane's direct destructive path. Allen Toussaint, whose career stretches back to the late 1950s, has been around longer than Henry Butler, who is sharing the program with him, but both men draw upon the rich jazz and blues-based piano tradition that can be traced back to Jelly Roll Morton. [Since this article went to print, Allen Toussaint withdrew from the May 23 program and was replaced by guitarist and singer Corey Harris.]

Route 57 takes a detour on May 24 and heads to bluegrass country with The Del McCoury Band, arguably the most accomplished contemporary bluegrass outfit touring the country today. Following a brief stint as one of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in the 1960s, McCoury (often abetted by his sons) has fronted his own band, which has won over crowds with its strong nod to such pioneers as Flatt and Scruggs. Most recently the band won the 2005 "Best Bluegrass Album" Grammy for The Company We Keep.

Also on hand that evening will be Ollabelle (named in honor of country-bluegrass legend Ola Belle Reed). Drawing from a wealth of talent from the United States, Canada, and Australia, the band's first, self-titled CD includes interpretations of songs recorded decades ago by Blind Willie Johnson, the Carter Family, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and the Staple Singers, among others.

On the final night of Route 57, May 25, the Campbell Brothers bring soul-stirring and unexpected contemporary African American gospel music to Zankel Hall. Rounding out the concert is Chris Smither, an acoustic guitar picker infatuated with the country blues in the 1960s, one who has evolved into a highly respected singer-songwriter influenced by the music of Blind Willie McTell and Mississippi John Hurt.

This is the month to travel down Route 57, to hear music from areas as far flung as New Brunswick and New Orleans‹and to open our ears to a whole new soundscape.

Kip Lornell, an author of nine books, is on the music faculty of George Washington University. He has been nominated for several Grammy Awards and has won one for Best Album Notes.

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