Insisting that you need to understand something about a local culture to gain insight into the music, Music Road affords context as well as tunes.
Turner South is targeting Southern music fans with Music Road. Our host through the urban wilds, backwoods, and bayous is Edwin McCain, a South Carolina native who still has his studios there, plus the comforting credentials of being as multi-platinum recording artist with hits like "I'll Be."
Music Road hops between juke joints and smoke-filled bars in places all over the region, catching acts who already have national exposure as well as some homegrown players who have yet to hit the big time. The show is like a public service for big music fans who don't have the time or wherewithal to get out there on the road to hear all these great acts in person. But you can get a taste, of this musical stew, which includes blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, country, Southern rock, alternative, hip-hop, soul, and jazz, through this series.
Insisting that you need to understand something about a local culture to gain insight into the music, Music Road affords context as well as tunes and characters. Anybody can go hear a hot band, but here you also get helpful background and history. Memphis's mix of gospel, soul, rockabilly, and blues is going to be different from Nashville's country and hip-hop scene.
As the series travels from place to place, McCain provides continuity, telling stories and also jumping on stage with the bands and performers the series will cover. He's charming and entertaining, shambling and good-tempered. Most important, he's willing to let his fellow musicians have the spotlight.
In the first episode, McCain played with Kevin Kinney (of Drivin' and Cryin') and singer-songwriter Emerson Hart at Smith's Olde Bar in Atlanta, a place where, McCain told us, he "cut his teeth." This club, said McCain, is "just the right size to where it can rock," and we hear Kinney do just that. He ripped through his satirical blues song ("I've Got Blues on Top of Blues") with his band, played some countrified rock numbers, and then raised the roof with the Drivin' and Cryin' classic, "I'm Goin' Straight to Hell." McCain and Hart joined him on this witty, gripping tribute to the idea that, "Just like my momma said," he might as well accept the fact that he's always going to be on the wrong side of Southern morality. Following, McCain and Hart sang a lilting Hart ballad together, "If You're Gonna Leave," with tight harmonies and sensitive acoustic guitar work. The three performers were tight, with some good chemistry and interplay (they did a summer tour together).
For all the promise of "background," however, Music Road's first episode didn't offer much in the way of interviews with artists. We overheard backstage patter between McCain and his buddies, cheerful and "insider," but not all that illuminating (that said, we did learn that McCain credits Kinney with being one of his inspirations for getting into music in the first place). McCain tried to elicit some good tour stories from Kinney ("Tell us how you burned down Waffle King in Waycross..."), but most of the banter was superficial. We needed more on the discussions of genre and sound and venue and the South, less on the rowdy exploits.
Turner South is clearly looking for distinctively Southern concepts and content to market. And at times, it has seemed overbearingly corporate, a McSouth. But this series looks to be more than that. Cultivating a camaraderie and sense of musical community, McCain and crew come close to a "fly on the wall" vantage point, from which you can be a part of the live audience while also seeing some behind-the-scenes footage. Maybe the targeting will pay off.