“A Night at the Morton” brings American roots music to life

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A Night at the Morton poster

Downtown Athens, well-known as a cradle of new and daring music, will play host to three music acts with direct lineages stretching as far back as the 19th century, with “A Night at the Morton: Celebrating American Roots Music” at the Morton Theatre on Tuesday, March 29, at 7 p.m.

The McIntosh County Shouters, The Skillet Lickers and Tony Bryant will perform music that laid the foundations for most, if not all, of the musical styles that have emerged in America. The event begins—and began—with a man who is connected to all the performers.

“The show is built around collaborations and work done with Art Rosenbaum, who has, at one time or another, recorded these groups as a folklorist, heritage collector and enactor through music,” said Dr. Jean Ngoya Kidula, professor of music at the UGA Hugh Hodgson School of Music, and a director of the Athens Music Project.

An on-stage interview with Rosenbaum will provide some context for the acts, shedding light on the history of not just the performers themselves, but the heritage of their music.

“All the groups testify to the powerful bonds and energy embedded in the continuity of tradition,” said Rosenbaum. “Staging their traditions brings alive a context whose vitality is enacted in the minds of the participants—both the performers and the audience.”

The McIntosh County Shouters, from Bolden, Ga., are world-renowned as practitioners and preservers of the Shout or Ring Shout tradition, which stretches back to slavery-era America.

“The Shout is the motherboard of spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, and by extension, any other genre that has spun alongside or after it,” said Kidula. “It is a truly American tradition, reworked from an African ethos that became the distinctive flavor that separated American musics from those of Europe.”

The Skillet Lickers are perhaps the oldest active country band, originating in the 1920s. Their connection to the past is familial as well as spiritual: Russ Tanner, fiddler for the group, is the fourth generation of Tanner to play with The Skillet Lickers.

“They draw influences from Anglo and Celtic traditions as well as African American traditions, but they are the motherboard for country and western, western swing and bluegrass,” said Kidula.

Tony Bryant, an acoustic blues performer, is the grandson of famed Atlanta bluesman Curley James Weaver. Weaver was a part of the Piedmont Blues tradition made famous by his close friend Blind Willie McTell. Weaver’s daughter, Cora Mae Bryant, continued in his footsteps, and now her son follows suit.

“Blues is the motherboard of most of America’s popular musics in more ways than can be described,” said Kidula. “Tony not only performs classic pieces in the acoustic styles of his grandfather, he also composes blues in this older style but on topics contemporary to his time.”

The event is free to attend, but tickets are required. The McIntosh County Shouters will also be holding a workshop at the Russell Special Collections Library the same day as the performance at 11 a.m.

“A Night at the Morton” is organized by the Athens Music Project, an interdisciplinary research initiative of the Willson Center for Humanities and the Arts, co-directed by Jean Ngoya Kidula and Susan Thomas of the Hugh Hodgson School of Music.

The event is sponsored by the Willson Center, the Hugh Hodgson School of Music and the Institute of African American studies, as well as the UGA President’s Venture Fund, the Franklin College Visiting Scholar, the Russell Special Collections Library, the Athens Downtown Development Authority and the Morton Theatre Corporation.