Summer Sessions Saturday: Jim Lauderdale, Alex Leach Band

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  • Who: Jim Lauderdale and The Alex Leach Band

  • When: 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, July 16

  • Where: A.K. Bissell Park, 1401 Oak Ridge Turnpike, Oak Ridge

  • How much: FREE

The Alex Leach Band returns to A.K. Bissell Park in Oak Ridge on Saturday for the next concert in the Summer Sessions concert series.
The Alex Leach Band returns to A.K. Bissell Park in Oak Ridge on Saturday for the next concert in the Summer Sessions concert series.

When I wrote about the young artists in Dan Tyminski’s band last week and noted how his guitar player had played first with Blue Highway and then moved up to Michael Cleveland's band, I was struck by how instrumental talent seems to percolate upward. It occurred to me that bluegrass is like jazz in this respect. There’s a natural process of upward percolation for talented players.

The Local Honeys
The Local Honeys
Jim Lauderdale
Jim Lauderdale

A musician can experiment with any group of performers he or she can relate to, but true talent migrates upward. It’s like going from college ball to the minor leagues to the Big Leagues in baseball. And getting hired to perform with Dan Tyminski is definitely Big League music.

This kind of musical exceptionalism doesn’t really happen in rock 'n' roll. It does in jazz and bluegrass. In country, not so much. If you study the guitar players in commercial country these days, it’s like they all come out of the same school of schlock. They all sound alike.

The “search and find” process is the province of real music. Music on a mission. Classical music, jazz, bluegrass, zydeco, any kind of music that still has roots reaching down into the Earth, all have a mission. The mission is excellence, relevance, and resonance.

That’s the Alex Leach Band’s mission. They’ll be opening the show Saturday evening at A.K. Bissell Park in Oak Ridge for Jim Lauderdale ... another man with a mission. A songwriting mission.

Like thousands of other East Tennesseans, I’ve listened to Alex’s voice for more than 20 years. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it. I was heading south on I-75, just coming over the crest of Jellico Mountain as the sun was coming up. The radio reception was fuzzy, going in and out, but then suddenly, clear as a bell comes this voice, doing a promo for a station I hadn’t heard of before.

“Eighty-nine-nine, East Tennessee’s own, W-D-V-X.” It was a kid’s voice. A real skinny one, if my ear pictured him right. And he said they were broadcasting from a camper off Highway 61 in Clinton.

The rest is history. Alex has grown from being a prodigy disc jockey to a music historian to an honest-to-goodness bluegrass star. But he’s still gracing the airwaves.

Alex showed everyone what he’s made of two years ago in a turn of events nobody expected, when he took on the morning DJ responsibilities for WDVX’s “Rise & Shine” in mid-August after the tragic passing of Steve Gulley, one of the sweetest souls in bluegrass and surely the most comforting voice morning radio ever knew. Alex picked up the baton and never stumbled, never hesitated, never wondered what to do. Not a little boy any more.

At Summer Sessions, Alex and his band will have advance copies of their new album for sale. Titled “All the Way,” it’s their second project on the Mountain Home Music label. It was produced by Jon Weisberger, who won the very first Songwriter of the Year Award bestowed by the International Bluegrass Music Association, in 2012. They’ll probably have copies of their first Mountain Home album also, “I’m the Happiest When I’m Moving,” which was produced by Jim Lauderdale.

Ten of the twelve cuts on “All the Way” are original songs by Alex, with co-writing help from Weisberger, Lauderdale, and Alex’s wife Miranda. You see, it’s all about the songwriting. More on that in a minute.

“All the Way” will be officially released on Aug. 19, exactly two years to the day since Steve Gulley found himself in the presence of Jesus. (Actually, Steve had always lived in Jesus’s presence. But in August 2020, Jesus gave Steve a pat on the back for a life well lived.

The rest of the Alex Leach Band is Mr. Baker Northern (banjo), J.T. Coleman (bass), Kasey Moore (fiddle and guitar), and Zach Russell (guitar). Catch ‘em now, because the Big Leagues are calling.

Great songwriters are great storytellers, and sooner or later great storytellers all tip their hats to the Bible, which contains all of the greatest stories ever told, and the greatest truths. The Bible is truer than truth, because it’s the egg truth hatches from. So when a great songwriter like Jim Lauderdale sits down with another great songwriter like Mary Gauthier (pronounced go-shay’) to write a song like “We’re All We’ve Got,” your ears and heart automatically dial in the carrier frequency of Deuteronomy, Proverbs, Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes.

A songwriters own experiences are central to vital and true storytelling, so every great song like this one begs the question ... “Did you live this?” And the answer is yes, because we have all lived it. While the song isn’t explicitly about the dreaded Pandemic, everything is. That’s how pandemics work.

The song is on Jim Lauderdale’s new album, his 35th full-length album, called “Game Changer.” Its release date is a week after Alex’s, but you can pre-order a copy on Jim’s website.

“Game Changer” and Jim’s third appearance in the Summer Sessions concert series come just in time to mark his nomination for induction to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. That decision comes at their gala celebration in October.

To extend the Big Leagues metaphor, Jim Lauderdale is sort of the Carl Yastrzemski of Americana Music. You play long enough, and the numbers just keep piling up until the doors of the Hall of Fame open all by themselves at the sound of your name. A career isn’t so much about rewriting history. It’s about showing up every day. It’s about consistency, reliability, steadiness, and keeping errors to a minimum. That’s Jim Lauderdale.

We landed here like scattered seeds / With mighty hopes and mighty dreams / Come up from the same melting pot / And while we’re here, we’re all we’ve got. 

I bet we could, if we try / Get across that great divide / Where we are now, and where we’re not / While we’re here, we’re all we’ve got / We can’t forget ... we’re all we’ve got.

That song is lightyears from “She’s Lookin’ At Me,” Jim Lauderdale’s first monster hit song, recorded before he had any facial wrinkles, in a goofball music video with the one and only Ralph Stanley. (Remember music videos?) Age is a wonderful teacher.

Fingers crossed for good weather on Saturday. Jim Lauderdale’s band and the Alex Leach Band at Summer Sessions mean Songwriters’ Paradise. Don’t miss it.

Local Honeys at Barley's

Between the Summer Sessions trek to Kingston for the Dan Tyminski Band and their return to Oak Ridge for Jim Lauderdale, there was other music to hear in these hills. Over in Crab Orchard on July 7–10, the Byrd’s Creek Music Festival at Oaklawn Farms brought some very heavy hitters to the Plateau. The Del McCoury Band. Town Mountain. Bella White. The Songs From the Road Band. The Travelin’ McCourys. More than two dozen bands performed over the four days and nights, for a very laid back audience of campers and honest to gosh hippies. It was pretty utopian.

My favorites were the duo from Lexington called the Local Honeys, Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs, who showed up at Byrd’s Creek with an extremely talented band to back them: Josh Nolan on guitar, Chris Justice on bass, Dan Rogers on guitar and fiddle, and Zachary Martin on drums. Linda Jean played guitar and harmonium. Montana played banjo. And they both sang, with voices that echoed every blue collar occupation that makes Kentucky what it is: tobacco auctioneer, coal miner, mule driver, railroad brakeman, horse trainer, desperate daughter …

The Local Honeys also reside in Songwriter's Paradise. Nearly everything they sang was original. "Dead Horses" is one of the best songs I've ever heard. "Last Mule in the Holler" is too. "The Ballad of Frank and Billy Buck" is a classic murder ballad that you don't see coming at all until it turns very, very dark, and somebody beats Frank to death when he's trying to do them a favor. Beat his poor dog to death too. It's like a plot line from "Justified."

When they do borrow another writer's work, it is with dramatic intention. When Montana belted out the opening lines of the great Jean Ritchey classic, "The L&N Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," the ears of every draft horse in Cumberland County shot straight up in the air, and Josh Nolan's electrifying guitar break took the song to places Jean Ritchey never knew existed.

The Local Honeys and band will be at Barley's in the Old City on Sunday to release their new album, "The Orchard." Go see them if you can. Schooled at Morehead State's Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, amplified by 10 years on the road, they are truly a revelation to savor. Their voices stay with you forever.

Linda Jean imparted one final truism about storytellers when she introduced a song about her grandfather.

"Papaw was a really good storyteller, or a really good liar …  Hard to tell which 'cause they're pretty close to the same thing." Songwriters too. The Songwriters Hall of Fame? A dang Liars Club.

John Job
John Job

John Job is a longtime Oak Ridge resident and frequent contributor to The Oak Ridger.

This article originally appeared on Oakridger: Summer Sessions Saturday: Jim Lauderdale, Alex Leach Band