Music News & Reviews

When he's not performing, Bruce Robison crafts hits for others

Bruce Robison

8 p.m. March 27 at Natasha's Bistro and Bar, 112 Esplanade. $15. (859) 259-2754. www.beetnik.com.

Bruce Robison is one of those great Southern songwriters who has fashioned a career in and out of the spotlight.

The more visible part has been illuminated by chart- topping country artists including George Strait, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and the Dixie Chicks. All have scored major hits with Robison's songs.

Strait took the easygoing, modestly swing-savvy title tune to Robison's 1995 debut album, Wrapped, to No. 1 in 2006. Country power couple McGraw and Hill similarly hit the top with the ballad Angry All the Time in 2001. And the Dixie Chicks, which included the songwriter's former sister-in-law, Emily Robison, spun gold out of Travelin' Soldier in 2003.

The latter's stay at No. 1, however, coincided with Chicks singer Natalie Maines' now- infamous blasting of then-President George W. Bush. At a Rupp Arena concert with Robert Earl Keen and Todd Snider last November, Robison recalled the timing of Maines' remarks with the chart life of Travelin' Soldier.

"It became the fastest-descending No. 1 hit in country music history," he said.

Then there is the side of Robison's career that promotes his own versions of his own songs. Lexington has received numerous glimpses into that world, going back to late-'90s concerts at Lynagh's Music Club that Robison shared with wife and fellow Americana scribe Kelly Willis.

Coinciding with those shows, and with the hit cover versions of his songs, has been a string of predominantly independent albums by Robison, culminating in 2008's splendid The New World. That recording is full of cosmopolitan and, dare we say, worldly country tunes with a rich Lone Star flavor. Sometimes those songs reach beyond that state's line, as on the breezy honky-tonk reflection California 85. On others, including the album-closing Echo, there is a plaintive Americana air that brings Canada's Blue Rodeo to mind. But the sentiments, the often poetic lyricism and, ultimately, the mood and groove are all Central Texas to the core.

Robison will be back in town this weekend to show off all of that along with new tunes, including the Rodney Crowell-produced Born to Roll. He performs Saturday at Natasha's Bistro and Bar.

You read that right. One of Texas' finest will play in Lexington on a Saturday night. Aren't weekends grand?

A big Mon

With apologies to Bill Monroe, we kindly borrow the title to one of his most beloved compositions, Big Mon, to describe exactly what next Monday is shaping up to be.

It begins at The Kentucky Theatre, 214 East Main Street, with the weekly taping of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour. Monday's program will feature the local debut of The South Memphis String Band, an all-star trio whose members have played in Lexington separately but never as a unit. The players are Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars; Jimbo Mathus of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and various solo projects; and one of the finest modern purveyors of traditional blues, Alvin Youngblood Hart.

The repertoire that they create steers away from blues-directed fare and more toward string-related swing, ages-old spirituals, fiddle jams and more.

The trio will share Monday's WoodSongs bill with The Quebe Sisters Band, a fiddle-swing ensemble from Fort Worth, Texas. (7 p.m. $10. (859) 252-8888 for reservations. www.woodsongs.com.)

No sooner will WoodSongs wind down than Natasha's Bistro will kick into action across the street. Headlining there Monday will be celebrated folk stylist Jonatha Brooke. Fresh from a European tour, Brooke is still promoting 2008's album, The Works, a novel project in which she set original music performed by some of today's top pop-jazz artists to unrecorded lyrics by folk legend Woody Guthrie. (9 p.m. $25. (859) 259-2754. www.beetnik.com.)

We will detail these shows more in Sunday's Life + Arts section, with Dickinson checking in from deep in the heart of Mississippi and Brooke chatting by phone from Paris (France, not Kentucky).

Enough? Not quite. Buster's Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester Street, will get into the Monday groove with a performance by the San Francisco rock troupe Third Eye Blind. Soon after the release of its self-titled debut album in 1997, Third Eye Blind became a staple of alternative rock radio with the pop-soul charge of vocalist of Stephan Jenkins making hits out of Semi-Charmed Life and Jumper. The album went on to sell 6 million copies. Third Eye Blind released its first recording of new material in six years, Ursa Major, last August. (9 p.m. $22 in advance, $25 day of show. (859) 368-8871. www.bustersbb.com.)

MusicNow Festival in Cincinnati

What would it take for you consider squeezing in a road trip — or two or three — to Cincinnati in the coming week?

How about performances by Joanna Newsom, St. Vincent and Bon Iver? Those are the headlining acts at this year's MusicNow Festival, Tuesday through Thursday at Cincy's ultra-intimate Memorial Hall, 1226 Elm Street.

The bad news is that the Thursday performance by Bon Iver is sold out, as are three-day passes to the entire festival. The good news, for now, is that single-show tickets are available for wildly popular harpist/indie song stylist Newsom, whose new three-CD set Have One on Me has become one of the more critically lauded recordings of 2010; and St. Vincent, known in real life as Annie Clark, whose album Actor received similar accolades in 2009 for its distinctive sense of pop invention).

Newsom will perform with Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold on Tuesday. St. Vincent and the New York neo-classical/pop ensemble yMusic play Wednesday. Show time is 8 each night. Tickets for each performance are $20.

For more ticket information, go to www.musicnowfestival.org.

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