Mike Mitchell: Musician, Teacher, Family Man

“I find myself a man at peace, with a knowledge of self and of place which makes me the songwriter and musician I am today. Whether it is my own composition, or an old tune played on the Mitchell Family fiddle, or singing my heart out for the audience, my words and music come from the journey, singing of the destination.”

That quote, taken from the homepage of Mike Mitchell’s website, captures my experience meeting the man who started the Floyd Music School and who sparks the magic of musicianship in his students. I interviewed Mike at the “Mountains of Music on Main” festival in Christiansburg, just as the rain moved through and bought relief from the summer afternoon heat. With the sounds of fiddles and guitars warming up for the evening performances, we found a relatively quite corner to chat.

Turnpike Troubadours Rock the Lime Kiln Theater

I’m hard pressed to name something I like more than outdoor concerts. Saturday night, after years of recommendations by friends, I experienced my first show at the Lime Kiln Theater in Lexington, VA. And what an experience it was. Oklahoma based band, the Turnpike Troubadours had the crowd (of about 700 people) dancing, singing, hootin’ and hollerin’, at this sold out show. I will say, in all honesty, that I haven’t enjoyed an outdoor show this much since I saw the Lumineers at Red Rocks Amphitheater, and there’s a few reasons why.

First, Lime Kiln is one of the prettiest music venues I’ve been to in Virginia. For me, it beats Wolf Trap, and that’s saying a lot. Wherever you’re sitting, you’re close to the action. I spent most of the show in the second row and the sound was perfect, but when I ventured to the back of the theater, the sound was just as good. I even went behind the stage and the band still sounded immaculate. The venue is called “the bowl” because it’s nestled between a collection of large rocks. Looking up, you’re covered by a canopy of trees and after the sun departed, fireflies danced like fairies. In addition to the beauty and sound quality of the theater, the food and beverage options were top notch. Devil’s Backbone Brewery is a sponsor of Lime Kiln and I think we can all agree…yum.

Randy Williams: The Story Behind the Song

One of the best things about attending Southwest Virginia Songwriters Association meetings is getting to hear the incredible songs that come from local musicians. Last month, SVSA member Randy Williams, brought a song to get critiqued by the group, and it’s so beautiful, and perfect for a special Father’s Day edition of Story Behind the Song.

Williams began writing songs as a teenager, but didn’t start focusing on songwriting until after his kids were grown. Crediting Angaleena Presley, Shawn Camp, Jason Isbell and Richard Thompson as some of his songwriting heroes, he writes to inspire others to see things from an unfamiliar perspective. His only real goal with songwriting is to be able to share an emotion or struggle that people can connect with. And with the song, “Look Up”, he truly accomplishes this goal. He recorded the song at Summit Sound with Jake Dempsey, who Williams said was crucial in bringing his songs to life.

Blue Ridge KIDS Rock: Music Together in Roanoke

As a mom of a little girl, I’ve sought as many opportunities as possible to expose my offspring to music. I remember deciding the day she was born, that I was going to sing her the same song every night before bed: “I Will” by the Beatles. This song has always had the magical power to calm her down when nothing else would. It made her smile before she knew what smiling was. She would clap upon hearing it as soon as she discovered she had hands.

I truly believe that listening to music is a vital part of the developmental process in wee young ones. In Roanoke, there’s an ample amount of children’s music classes and I’ve tried out most of them. They’re all great in their own way but one sticks out, at least from a musician’s standpoint.

Scott Sutton, a Mainstay of the Roanoke Music Scene

“Playing live, at its best is a spiritual rush! When a band connects, it’s like my eyes are closed, and I’ve gone to Pluto and back. When the song is over and I open my eyes, it’s like, whoa, what just happened, where am I?”

The joy that Scott Sutton brings to the stage is infectious as he lays down a steady bed of bass beats he has acquired over years of playing with a wide range of bands and genres.

Photo credits: Aubrey Edwards

Eight Insights to Nikki Hill

There’s a sensational woman named Nikki Hill and she’s playing the Harvester tonight. Not only should you go see her to experience her immense vocal talent and diverse setlist, but go to be inspired by her pure, honest drive, independent spirit, and just general bad-assery. I not-so-secretly want her to be my best friend, because she’s already a role model for all of us who want our music to be bigger than YouTube channels and open mic nights.

Hill has played in Roanoke before on a much smaller stage. In 2013, her first year of touring, Hill played Blue 5, but those small tours have taken her to some pretty unique places. From a theme park in Sweden, to a palace in Morocco, to a tea tree farm in Australia, to the same stage where Otis Redding performed and Jimi Hendrix infamously set his guitar aflame.   This chick has played the world, and she does it all on her indie budget. As an independent artist, this self-described “music nerd”, relies on her passion for music and her “small but mighty” team to keep it all going. I asked Hill a variety of questions to get to know her a little better, so here are my top 8 insights about wonder woman, Nikki Hill:

AL: How did you develop your sound?

NH: It’s still developing and I hope it will continue! I like to think of it as a combination of my love for the energy and call and response style of early gospel, mixed with the attitude and fervor of rock n’ roll and soul, with a one-two-fuck you punch of the human experience and anti-system stylings of blues and punk. Honest and driven and giving it all each time on stage because that’s all there is and it’s all we’ve got.

The Practice Squad

New Music Alert: The Practice Squad

On April 1st, Roanoke based melodic rock band, The Practice Squad, released their second album titled “The Fighter”. The Practice Squad, who formed in 2013, consists of members Travis Fitch (vocals), Brandon Robertson (drums), Seth Holderfield (bass), Matt Cox (guitar), and Zach Holderfield (guitar).

Previously a part of a cover band, they broke away to write and record their own songs. “Our goal has always been to write honest music that we believe in,” said Fitch. And each member contributes to the writing process. Their songwriting style typically begins with a melody on the guitar followed by the addition of percussion, ending with the lyrics.

Surrender Dorothy

Surrender Dorothy: Never Giving Up

Roanoke rock band Surrender Dorothy is celebrating its 25th anniversary as part of the local music scene. To help highlight that celebration, Blue Ridge Rocks interviewed the band’s only original founding member who is still part of the group: Chris Spradling.

Spradling originally formed the group (25 years ago, go figure) with guitarist Steve Anderson.

“We were both playing with The Worx, but wanted to start a band that played something a little different,” Spradling said in a recent email interview.

Over the course of time, the band has undergone a number of different incarnations. Currently, it consists of Spradling on guitar and keys, Dean Ferguson on guitar, Tad Dickens on drums, and Jason Davis on bass. Davis joined the group after former bassists Henry Hancock lost his life to a series of illnesses following a stroke.

An Interview with Roanoke Hip-Hop Artist Harvest Blaque

Harvest Blaque—the Roanoke hip-hop artist also known as Bryan Hancock—has a show Saturday night from 8 to 11 at The Bazaar of Roanoke record shop. The bill features Equally Opposite from Charlottesville, as well as Knuckleheadz (Grandmaster Jax & Ol’ Dirty Dada) who will “open the evening with a short but memorable set,” according to Blaque.

The artist, who blends multiple genres, including rock, country and blues, to form his original hip-hop sound that he terms “soul hop,” also emcees a regular Poetry Slam at 16 West Marketplace. Blaque recently sat down with Blue Ridge Rocks to discuss his approach to music and his career.

Tell me a little about how you first got started in music?

I have to give my dad the credit. He played a lot of great band records. I remember growing up as a kid and listening to his music and wanting to express myself through music. My parents divorced when I was five and my aunt told me to keep a journal of my feelings. I would record shows and do lip sync battles and write my own verses. I always wanted to rap and do music one way or another.

Jason Isbell

An Evening with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Review with Photo Slideshow

Two-time Grammy Award winner Jason Isbell and his backing band the 400 Unit returned to the Berglund Performing Arts Theatre last night. On a stage immaculately lit, with a beautifully balanced sound system, the atmosphere was set for an intimate evening with the singer-songwriter. The music was a blend of acoustic Americana, southern rockabilly jams, and some harder-edge classic rock ‘ roll, all of which showcased Isbell’s gripping vocal qualities.

The 100-minute set was comprised mostly of songs from Isbell’s two most recent solo albums, “Southeastern” (2013) and “Something More Than Free” (2015), opening the show with “Stockholm” and later performing such hits as “Cover Me Up,” “Different Days,” “24 Frames,” “Speed Trap Town,” and “Super 8.”

Much of Isbell’s success as a singer-songwriter comes from his ability to create complex compositions filled with harrowing lyrics and emotion. Isbell writes about himself, honestly, openly, and brutally, without holding back.  His brilliant, yet accessible, songs cover universal topics of loss, loneliness, and love, and his personal struggles with addiction and the substance abuse that held a powerful grip on him in his early career. That early career included a six-year stint as lead guitarist and a principle songwriter for the Drive-By Truckers.

The evening performance previewed several songs off the band’s upcoming album “The Nashville Sound,” as well as a couple of songs written and performed during those years with the Drive-By Truckers. The new album, scheduled for release June 16th, delivers a heavier dose of rock than the award-winning “Something More than Free.”

Throughout the night, Isbell provided lots of love to his backing band, the 400 Unit, a name derived from the colloquial term for the psychiatric ward of a hospital located in Florence, Alabama, located in the Muscle Shoals region where Isbell and many of the band members claim roots. The band features former Drivin’ and Cryin’ member Sadler Vaden on guitar, Derry deBorja, formerly of Son Volt on keys, Jimbo Hart on bass and Chad Gamble on drums.

In true singer-songwriter fashion, Isbell was engaging and jovial with the audience, even pointing out the differences between singer-songwriters and other musical performers, impersonating what it might have been like had Michael Jackson introduced himself between songs. “Hi, I’m Michael Jackson and this song is called Beat It”. Isbell joked that sometimes he likes to rewrite history that way, before launching into “The Life You Chose” followed by “Traveling Alone,” two songs that include deliberate lyrical repetition to deepen the audience’s understanding of the music.

The three-song encore opened with “If We Were Vampires,” a slower ballad from the new album, that speaks to the mortality of life and marriage, and that eventually one of the lovers is left behind. Two rock songs completed the evening, “Flying Over Water,” and “Never Gonna Change,” which featured plenty of Isbell’s and Vaden’s intricate guitar skills.

From here, Isbell and the 400 Unit play a handful of shows in early May before embarking on an intense six-month American and European tour to promote their new album. That tour kicks off June 17th in Asheville, NC, followed by a show in Raleigh.

Before leaving the stage last night Isbell promised an eventual return, stating, “See y’all real soon!”