Something is Roots Moderne if it embodies a strong link to a popular musical lineage that goes back beyond the last 50 or 60 years, while adding elements that make it relevant to the present. Such lineage would include blues, country, jazz, African, Asian, etc. It also needs to involve reinvention of the genre.
As I write this, I am not even halfway through this record and we are not even halfway through 2016. Still, Lucinda Williams’ The Ghosts of Highway 20 already rates as one of the best Roots Moderne records of the year.
When I interviewed Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz about Guitar in the Space Age for Premier Guitar in 2014, they had just finished recording with Williams for Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone. They appear together on a couple of tracks on that record, but Frisell told me at that time there was an amazing record in the can, made up entirely of the two guitarists interacting live with Williams and her rhythm section. The Ghosts of Highway 20 is that record.
Early Lucinda with a another pair of great guitarists, John “JJ” Jackson (Bob Dylan), and Kenny Vaughn (Marty Stuart) who studied with Bill Frisell as a young man in Colorado.
I often play a parlor game with friends. I say, “People always lament about what Jimi Hendrix might have accomplished if he had lived longer. Well, he might have done great things, or he might have reached a certain point and stagnated, like so many of the Sixties icons.” We then try to think of artists who had 40 or 50 year careers that have continued to grow, experiment, and change. The list proves to be a short one: Miles Davis, Jim Hall, right up until his death; Jeff Beck, for sure, Joni Mitchell, and always, Neil Young. His recent release of old Blue Note tracks is a step back. But this record, with Daniel Lanois, was a Roots Moderne, guitar noise masterpiece. Happy Birthday Neil.
Imagine Duane Eddy fronting the Tito Puente Orchestra and you will get a picture of what Diego Garcia’s new music is like. Or imagine Ry Cooder and Manuel Galban’s Mambo Sinuendo on steroids. Or better yet just buy Garcia’s Pachuco record; the sheer joy of rockabilly twang mixing with Latino rhythms is hard to beat.
What makes Garcia (a/k/a EL Twanguero) modern is the undercurrent of sophistication in his playing. This is a fully schooled guitarist who chose to concentrate on a particular sound and nailed it. Also, check out his looping and Frisell-style approach to Charlie Rich’s weeper, “I Feel Like Going Home.”
Discovering underappreciated talent like this is why Guitar Moderne exists.
B.B. King in Guitar Moderne? Hell yeah. He did more to modernize the sound of the blues than any other guitarist. King refined the sound of the electric guitar, finding that sweet spot where it drove the tubes and achieved the sustain of a horn, without distorting into unintelligibility. King mashed up elements of big band swing, Django Reinhardt’s gypsy fire, with some be-bop sophistication, all without ever losing the power of the genre’s simpler folk roots.
King was a student of music, working with instruction books during long trips on the road—and there were a lot of long trips on the road. It was this hidden well of sophistication that allowed him to often interject an amazing modern jazz run in the midst of the melodic call and response licks he used to tell his story.
Blues revivalists who mimic his style note for note are not his offspring. His children are players like Robben Ford, Joe Bonamassa, Mat Schofield, and Josh Smith, who start with his lessons and add modern touches of their own.
If Guitar Moderne is about moving the art of guitar forward, B.B. certainly deserves to be here. RIP Riley B King.