Southern Exposure

BY Arts Desk  August 11, 2009 at 11:45 AM EST

'The Big Surprise Tour' poster
The Big Surprise Tour — a musical ode to string band fiddling, working man’s music and American folk troubadours — began earlier this month in New Hampshire and is headed down to Nashville. The tour features contemporary “Americana” artists, such as Old Crow Medicine Show and the magnetic Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch (performing together as The Dave Rawlings Machine), as well as singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle and Catskills rockabilly troupe, the Felice Brothers.

Old-timey Southern music, long marginalized by Nashville’s pop-country charts, seems to be making a barnstorming, seersucker comeback. Yet this renewed interest in antique forms — claw-hammer banjo and murder ballads, to name a few — is as much the product of curious outsiders as native sons. Drawn by the rich tradition of American roots music, these artists are remaking the sound and themselves in the process.

Take The Felice Brothers’ fiddler and washboard player, Greg Farley. At a concert stop Sunday in Charlottesville, Va., Farley wore an oversized Yankees cap, plain white tee and gold chain that looked more Beastie Boys than Soggy-Bottom. Yet, his raw enthusiasm for the music (if not a strict adherence to its traditional visual aesthetic) is infectious and genuine.

Welch and Rawlings more subtly exemplify the new Americana, blending a pared-down rural sound with a contemporary idiom and skill at arrangement (“Look At Miss Ohio” or “Wrecking Ball,” for instance). Welch, whose lyrical alto graced the soundtrack of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, drawls gently when she speaks and her toothy smile and slight frame seem a little Faulknerian. Rawlings, a quiet, intense musician, improvises on the guitar with a virtuosity that causes his body to swivel freely from the waist.

Neither musician, however, grew up south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and some critics have questioned their country credentials. (Welch discovered bluegrass in California and later met Rawlings, a Rhode Island native, at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.) But both have adopted Nashville with such a graceful musicianship that cries of cultural carpet-bagging seem unusually tone-deaf. At the Charlottesville venue, the pair played a new song called “Sweet Tooth” from a yet-to-be recorded studio album. Emanating pitch-perfect folksy, early rock ‘n’ roll style, even their understated cowboy gear comes off as charming instead of cloying.

Like many of their primary influences — Minnesota-born Bob Dylan and the mostly-Canadian rockers, The Band (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) — the members of The Big Surprise Tour who have adopted, and been adopted by, Southern music are paying homage to its rich past by reviving a regional sound for a wider audience. In the signature romp of Old Crow Medicine Show, “Wagon Wheel,” a lyric goes: “Runnin’ from the cold up in New England/ I was born to be a fiddler in an old-time string band.”