If you are on Island Saturday evening, Sept. 3, do yourself and your friends a favor: take them to the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven to see three of the finest musicians playing American roots-based music. Headlined by the lynchpin of much of today’s American roots music revival, Richie Stearns, the show will include Willie Watson of the Old Crow Medicine Show and Rosie Newton.
Richie Stearns quite simply makes good music. He is not locked into any one musical style but pulls from his extensive knowledge of American folk music to create music that is sometimes ethereal and sometimes just plain ol’ down home.
His concert here in April of last year filled the house. It made me a fan. His tools are fiddle, guitar, tenor guitar, banjo, keyboards, and his plaintive voice. He is known as a banjo virtuoso. His musical stylings range from The Holy Model Rounders to Woody Guthrie, from the Reaves White County Ramblers, to Bill Monroe to Hank Williams and Bela Fleck. Fleck once said, “Richie is a wonderful musician. I love his mantra-groove spooky-banjo style.”
Stearns has focused on his music since he was 14, in junior high school, playing string band and jug band music. Influenced by just about anything that can be heard and understood as music, Stearns is steeped in the American traditions of old-time music, Appalachian folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz, rock, and country. He has led numerous bands including The Horse Flies, and Donna the Buffalo. He has played with many others and toured with Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs. As a musician’s musician, he has influenced and mentored many contemporary musicians including Willie Watson and Rosie Newton.
He performs songs from a multitude of genres, often mixing and matching techniques and styles, always serving the song. His instrumental virtuosity never overshadows his songs. Each piece is an artistic whole.
“Anyone who has played with Richie Stearns will tell you how kind and joyful and honest he is, as a musician and human being. His love for music is infectious,” said David Gura, an associate editor of Talk of the Nation, National Public Radio, in a press release by KCT Concerts last year. Banjo guru Tony Trischka called Stearns “a transcendentally clawhammering force of nature. Richie’s music is ladled from deep wells of spirit,” on Stearns’s website, richiestearns.com.
Stearns lives in Ithaca, N.Y. where he teaches banjo and fiddle between gigs. He has a new album, Richie Stearns – Missing, available online at funkyside.com.
Guitarist Willie Watson, a star in his own right as one of the early members of one of the premier American roots-bluegrass-newgrass (bluegrass with a rock and roll attitude) groups, Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS). OCMS, which began recording in 1998, performed on-Island in 2005. OCMS has taken a temporary break from playing beginning last month. Watson sings and plays guitar, fiddle, banjo, and harmonica with OCMS.
Rosie Newton has been playing fiddle since childhood. Her mother is Celtic cellist Abby Newton, who exposed Rosie to the folk music scene in Woodstock at an early age. Ms. Newton also lives in Ithaca, where she went to college majoring in viola performance. In Ithaca she has became an important part of the local old-time music scene. She has made a CD with banjo player and singer Stephanie Jenkins, an album that is rooted in the American tradition and features unusual harmonies and innovative arrangements. Ms. Newton performs with the Pearly Snaps, with Richie Stearns and the Evil City String Band, and Ferintosh. She was also a frequent guest fiddler with The Mammals, and has taught fiddle at Sunshine Coast School of Celtic music and the Taylor Music Festival.
KCT Concerts is a local nonprofit organization created and run by Gregg Harcourt and Mary Wolverton, which has brought a formidable list of musicians to the Island. It is funded in part by a grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council.
Richie Stearns with special guests Willie Watson [Old Crow Medicine Show] & Rosie Newton [The Pearly Drops and the Evil City String Band], 8 pm, Saturday, Sept. 3, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Tickets are available at Aboveground Records, Island Entertainment, Alley’s, The Scottish Bakehouse, Oak Bluffs General Store, and online at ticketsmv.com. For information: 508-693-6237; kctconcerts.com.