Walter Tunis: Two bluegrass stars continue midwinter theme in Lexington and Clay City

Contributing Music WriterJanuary 30, 2014 

Rhonda Vincent will be featured Monday at WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.



    Robert Earl Keen at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center: Keen knows a few things about providing a wintry cast to Texas-style Americana music. Some of his best writing, in fact, downplays the Lone Star State dance hall drive that defines his popularity as a live act in favor of subtle, chilled intimacy.

    One would think a return Lexington concert by the famed Texas songsmith in the midst of a particularly nasty winter — one, in fact, that caused Keen to joke that he had traded in his tour bus "for a bobsled" — would be the ideal occasion to employ such icy intimacy.

    No chance. For this sold-out performance, Keen favored a full-fledged Texas bonfire. The resulting set list went heavy on the Lone Star roadhouse reveries that reflected the more electric side of his artistic persona (Five Pound Bass, Amarillo Highway and the set-closing renegade anthem The Road Goes on Forever) plus the more askew cantina/honky tonk reflections that highlighted the narrative mischief in his writing (I Gotta Go, Merry Christmas from the Family and the especially twisted, waltz-infused romp A Border Tragedy).

    It was all as fun as could be, with Keen sounding effortlessly involved with songs he has sung for decades while pedal steel/lap steel/dobro player Marty Muse and longtime guitarist Rich Brotherton offered regal border-town orchestration through their soloing and sparring.

    The few times that Keen stepped out of party mode and into that neglected, darker intimacy, an entire other dimension of his performance profile emerged. Leading the pack was a discreetly solemn reading of Bears by Steven Fromholz, the champion Texas songwriter who died last week in a hunting accident. Another was a sweetly nostalgic revisit to The Front Porch Song and an accompanying story that underscored Keen's longstanding friendship with fellow Texas scribe Lyle Lovett, who co-wrote the song.

    The highlight, though, was a finale cover of The Old Home Place, a preview from an upcoming Keen album of bluegrass standards. Played at the front of the stage without amplification, it forced the honky tonk attitude of the crowd into a state of attentive concert hall quiet.

Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, Stone Cold Grass

7 p.m. Feb. 1 at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall, 303 Bluegrass Lane in Clay City. $18. (606) 663-9008.

'WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour': Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Willow Osborne

6:45 p.m. Feb. 3 at the Lyric Theatre, 300 E. Third St. $10. (859) 252-8888.

It never was intended as a challenge, even though last weekend it was tough to keep from viewing it as one. The test involved bluegrass and the question as to whether fans of the music would flock to it locally when the winter turned especially nasty.

The answer came loudly when the blooming Asheville, N.C., quintet Town Mountain packed Natasha's Bistro to the point that the venue had to turn upwards of 50 fans away at the door.

The momentum continued the next night, when Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen played to a similarly sold-out house at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. Not a bluegrass artist per se, Keen is recording an album of string-band standards. He also finished the Lyric concert with a blast of unamplified bluegrass (see The Week That Was).

Not a bad showing considering the shows fell between waves of snowstorms and single-digit temperatures. Bluegrass continues its steadfast seasonal charge, with two more high-profile performances in the evenings ahead.

On Saturday at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall, which is pretty much Bluegrass Central during the winter months, marks the return of a familiar name. In fact, the venue has long devoted the first Saturday of February to a performance by veteran singer and bandleader Larry Sparks.

This weekend's show is something of a milestone, though. It helps usher in the 50th year of a bluegrass career that began when Sparks joined the Stanley Brothers as a guitarist. He would eventually take over vocal duties after the death of Carter Stanley and continue with Ralph Stanley's initial lineups of the Clinch Mountain Boys.

Anniversary celebrations commence in full this spring with the release of a new album by Sparks that will feature help from bluegrass royalty including Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Bobby Osborne, Jesse McReynolds, Curly Seckler, and Judy Marshall.

Stone Cold Grass will open Saturday's show.

The bluegrass fun spills over into Monday with the return of Rhonda Vincent and The Rage for the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour.

Recognized by the International Bluegrass Music Association as female vocalist of the year seven consecutive times (from 2000 to 2006), Vincent favors a traditionalist streak in her bluegrass playing that regularly bleeds over into country turf. Those lines are deliberately blurred on her new double-disc album, Only Me, which was released Tuesday. The recording is split evenly between bluegrass tunes with her band The Rage, and country works backed by pros including guitarist Carl Jackson and fiddler Tim Crouch.

Completing the WoodSongs lineup will be 12-year-old banjoist Willow Osborne, a native of Pigeon Forge, Tenn., who has performed at Dollywood, among other venues. Coincidentally, Vincent has been viewed as a prime artistic inspiration for the young musician.

Gimme some Mo'

For close to 15 years, Kevin Moore — better known commercially as three-time Grammy-winning folk/pop/blues/soul stylist Keb' Mo' — has made Lexington a regular stop on his concert treks. He returns Thursday to the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short Street, for a duo concert with multi-instrumentalist Tom Shinness. (7:30 p.m. $44.50. (859) 233-3535 or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or

Moore discusses his next album and the critical view of his profile as a bluesman next week in Living.

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