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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 03:50 am

Songs grown organically make better food

Writers based in tradition produce songs that nourish our imaginations, providing good food for thought

Jonathan Byrd

This week we're working on an assortment of related music here at Now Playing World Headquarters. It just so happens in the next 10 days Springfield plays host to a collection of top-notch, world-class entertainers from the traditional singer-songwriter and bluegrass genres.

Maybe I dwell on this style of music too much for some folks' taste, but I feel a significant attraction to roots music. As a songwriter, I find the basis for forming ideas so relevant and so evident in how songs are conceived and perceived, transformed and performed that origins are of the utmost importance. I just had a rather odd and possibly insightful idea about explaining this notion by comparing the writing of a song with growing a plant.

Let's say some songwriters come from a hydroponics place, where manufactured nutrients are piped in while other tunesmiths get nourishment from more organic sources. The plant grown in artificially constructed circumstances may appear healthy and robust, but in reality is lacking in substance and vitality. Then again, the one grown in a more natural way, feeding on well-composted earth, fortified with a strong foundation from years of absorbing what has come before, grows with less outward perfection, but from within is sound and vigorous.

That may sound like a bunch of crap (which when decomposed makes wonderful humus), but helps explain why I feel writers based in tradition produce songs that nourish our imaginations, providing good food for thought, shall we say.

In the third month of the fledgling Sangamon Songwriters Series, organizer Lucas Westcott booked a fine specimen of an organically produced singer-songwriter in Jonathan Byrd. The highly respected and thoroughly righteous guy with a guitar fed himself on the Appalachian sounds of his home state of North Carolina in the late 1990s, then started traveling and playing full time in 2000. Winner of the prestigious Kerrville New Folk songwriting award in 2003, Byrd released his fifth recording, The Law and the Lonesome, in 2008, describing it as "Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt meet on the high plains and tell ghost stories," which certainly sounds like an interesting get together. When talking about Byrd and his music, Tom Paxton, one of the great and lasting masters of the '60s folk scene put it this way: "What a treat to hear someone so deeply rooted in tradition, yet growing in his own beautiful way." Byrd performs 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 6, at the Trout Lily Café.

Chris Knight, another singer-songwriter guy raised on traditional ways, plays the Bedrock 66 Live! concert series on Nov. 15 at the Hoogland Center for the Arts. Knight, now 10 years and five albums into telling hard-boiled stories from his homeland in eastern Kentucky, sounds like a decent cross between Steve Earle's edginess and John Mellencamp's sense of song. Knight headed to Nashville early in his career, landed a nice record deal, and scored a few decent cuts by big-name artists, yet always stayed true to his vision of telling stories of down and out folks picking themselves up and dealing with what life dealt them. His latest offering, Heart of Stone (Drifter's Church), came out on Sept. 2.

Our last artists in the naturally produced section of the music store fill this whole weekend performing during the Greater Downstate Indoor Bluegrass Festival at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The long-running event always hosts some of the biggest names in bluegrass, and this year features the 2008 International Bluegrass Music Association's Entertainer of the Year, Dailey & Vincent. The high velocity, up-to-date bluegrass group features Jamie Dailey, recently of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Darrin Vincent, formerly of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. Other main acts include Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, the Grascals, Bobby Osborne, and Kenny and Amanda Smith. The Festival runs Friday through Sunday and as always, there is much more to it than the outstanding headliners. Many audience members are also pickers and players who stay the weekend at the hotel and create a whole other festival with spontaneous picking parties throughout the place.

And so ends our feast of finely grown, home-style, unprocessed music.

Contact Tom Irwin at tirwin@illinoistimes.com

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