Two great music shows – one bluegrass, one blues – to catch in Lexington this weekend

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

What separates the seemingly disparate worlds of bluegrass and the blues?

Intention? Amplification? The meshing of different camps of rural, homegrown music, maybe? Well, next week, all that will be keeping these sounds apart will be two nights and a distance of about a mile as a pair of major blues and bluegrass concerts converge on Lexington.

The fun begins with the first 2023 taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour at its longtime home of the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. For bluegrass fans, this will be a must-see. The Jan. 23 bill offers epic Eastern Kentucky fiddler Jason Carter with the bluegrass-rooted country duo of Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley.

The blues come roaring in on Jan. 25 with a rare local outing by guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd at the Lexington Opera House.

Here’s the rundown.

Jason Carter

The WoodSongs outing will be a Lexington solo debut of sorts for Carter even though he has been one of the most visible and influential string players of his generation. That comes from serving as fiddler in The Del McCoury Band for the past three decades amid a 14-year stretch in its Del-less offshoot ensemble, The Travelin’ McCourys. The combined tenures have earned Carter three Grammy Awards and scores of other accolades.

In that time, Carter has found himself on a ton of recording sessions outside of the McCoury camp, which explains why his newly released solo album, “Lowdown Hoedown,” is ridiculously packed with contributions from an army of all-star pals. Among them: Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Billy Strings, Jonathan Fishman (from Phish), Marty Stuart, Dierks Bentley, David Grier, Tim O’Brien, Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and the entire Del McCoury Band/Travelin’ McCourys membership.

Kentucky fiddler Jason Carter will perform at the Lyric Theatre for a taping of “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour” on Jan. 23 with country duo of Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley.
Kentucky fiddler Jason Carter will perform at the Lyric Theatre for a taping of “WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour” on Jan. 23 with country duo of Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley.

But that’s not what distinguishes “Lowdown Hoedown.” The album’s ultimate charge comes from hearing an artist who has moved out of his usual role as support/band member into the driver’s seat. Carter’s fiddle playing – lyrical, expressive and drenched in tradition – has been abundantly featured on the McCoury records. Here, it eases into a leadership role that might not seem dramatically different at first. But there is a pronounced shift in dynamics. Check out “Paper Angel,” one of two tunes penned by guitarist Grier (who also plays on both), where the fiddle kicks up a feverish acoustic storm around Douglas’ expert dobro lines as well as the dizzying banjo runs of Scott Vestal. Carter also reveals a deep, colorful singing voice (as he often has with the Travelin’ McCourys) with a great gift for expressing a narrative.

On the flip side is “Kissimmee Kid,” the album’s lone instrumental. Penned in the ’70s by another vanguard, bluegrass-bending fiddler, Vassar Clements, the tune lets Carter roll up his sleeves alongside Grier, Douglas, Stuart and the expert bassist Dennis Crouch with a blast of bluegrass merriment and a shade of jazzy joyriding.

Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley

Hearing Carter let loose on his own is reason enough to be part of the WoodSongs audience. But the Jan. 23 taping will also sport the return of the Ickes/Hensley duo, a combination capable of throwing a few bluegrass sparks of its own.

Ickes is widely considered the most stylistically daring ambassadors of the resonator guitar known as the dobro since Jerry Douglas. His bluegrass roots are wildly expansive, including a two-decade run with the contemporary string band Blue Highway. Ickes’ side projects have regularly taken him into regions of scholarly new grass music – sounds that employ bluegrass instrumentation to explore more jazz-savvy compositions and improvisations. On 2009’s “Road Song” album, a collaborative work with pianist Michael Alvey, Ickes jumped head first into the jazz pool with unlikely dobro/piano re-wirings of compositions by Horace Silver, Oscar Peterson and Wes Montgomery.

Ickes’ collaborative duo with Johnson City, Tenn.-born vocalist and guitarist Hensley is now a decade old. Their fourth album, “Living in a Song,” is due out Feb. 10 and stands as their most band-oriented and fully produced recording to date. Much of that comes from working, for the second time, with Grammy-winning producer Brent Maher, whose past client list has included Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and The Judds.

Beefing up the arrangements doesn’t mean giving up on the traditional grass and country inspirations that have always sat at the heart the duo’s music. The unspoiled, conversational and roots-savvy command of Hensley’s vocals leap out at you as soon the album-opening title tune to “Living in a Song” commences and doesn’t let up until the “Happy Trails”- esque cordiality of “Thanks” closes the record.

As for Ickes, his playing remains as scholarly as ever, providing an earthy fortitude to the gospel staple “I’m Working on a Building” and propelling a giddily paced reading of the Doc Watson-popularized “Way Downtown.”

The “WoodSongs” taping featuring Carter, Ickes and Hensley commences at 6:45 p.m. Jan. 23 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, 300 E. Third. Tickets are $10 at tix.com.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd

From bluegrass we go to the blues – specifically, a brand of guitar-saturated electric blues-rock that stems back to the then-20-year-old hands of Kenny Wayne Shepherd on his 1997 album, “Trouble Is ...”

The Louisiana-born guitar star came to notoriety in 1995 when his debut record “Ledbetter Heights” was released. Though a teen at the time, Shepherd’s muscular guitar tone and natural ability at feeding blue traditions through well-traveled channels of rock and psychedelia made him a welcome hero for a generation still mourning the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who traveled many of the same stylistic avenues, five years earlier.

“Trouble Is ...” was the true breakthrough, though. It rolled past all fears of a sophomore album jinx, brought Cincinnati vocalist Noah Hunt into the fold and earned Shepherd a sizeable hit in the brooding “Blue on Black.”

Blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd performs Jan. 25 at the Lexington Opera House.
Blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd performs Jan. 25 at the Lexington Opera House.

In December, Shepherd honored the album’s quarter century anniversary by releasing “Trouble Is ... 25,” a complete re-recording of the original album with nearly all of the same players (the one holdout was bassist Tommy Shannon, who has since retired from performing and recording.) Even the producer of the original “Trouble Is ...” sessions, Jerry Harrison (of Talking Heads fame) was back on board.

An exercise in indulgent redundancy? Not really. While the material, producers and players are the same, there is a noticeable – and perhaps, unavoidable – difference between the two records. The former is full of exuberant bluster, the joyful noise of a young artist trying the make good on the promise of an often-hyped reputation. The music on “Trouble Is ... 25” is clearly the work of a more nuanced and mature player, one who is more relaxed and schooled in his creative skin.

There is a bonus, too. “Trouble Is ... 25” concludes with an intriguing cover of “Ballad of a Thin Man.” The Bob Dylan classic was recorded but not included on the 1997 record. Reportedly fashioned after the arrangement from that earlier aborted version, Shepherd’s new “Thin Man” is a pressure cooker of a tune, both in the simmering intensity of his guitarwork and the expansive breadth of Hunt’s vocals.

As he has for most of his performances in 2022, Shepherd will play the entire “Trouble Is ... 25” album at his Opera House concert.

The Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band performs at 8 p.m. Jan. 25 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short. Tickets are $59.50 and $69.50 through ticketmaster.com.