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Forbert's endurance test 

ArtsCenter inaugurates another American Roots series

"You know, you've always wanted to sell records. Sam Phillips wanted to sell records, of course. But you didn't have this broad, overriding factor of just what will sell--you know, what will be the easiest to sell the fastest," responds folk-rocker Steve Forbert when asked about the changes he's seen during his 25-plus years in music.

Zeroing in on the handful of corporations that run the biz and the results of their bottom-line, quick-consumption mentalities, Forbert shares an eyewitness account, but as a father and not an artist. "When my boys listen to records, they don't even keep the container. And when they're through with a band, I find the CD on top of the washing machine. They don't care. You know, Atreyu: out, over. Coheed & Cambria: done." He lets loose a short, semi-bewildered-parent laugh before adding, "Man, I may have grown out of Uriah Heep, but I still have a mint copy of Salisbury."

After some thought, Forbert is able to come up with some good news. "I'm glad that folk rock has endured," he offers. "You've seen a lot of people come along through the years, from Lucinda Williams to Dar Williams, still making music that I think is personable and has that feeling, that positivity about it." Later, he mentions Kathleen Edwards, Ron Sexsmith and Irish pop/folk singer Sinead Lohan as other artists who are carrying on the tradition.

And, of course, there's Steve Forbert, as thoughtful and personable a folk-rocker as you're likely to encounter on record--or, for that matter, on the phone. Hitting the scene with the aptly titled Alive on Arrival in 1978, his music was quirky enough to earn him stage time at punk and new wave haunts such as CBGBs and literate-singer-songwritery enough to reserve a spot for him on the "New Dylan" list.

Forbert's gotten busier as the years have piled up. He's released a staggering 15 records in the last 10 years, including seven live recordings and three compilations. The five studio albums he's put out in that time showcase his ability to branch out while still staying true to a fundamental vision. "They're not going to change dramatically, you know," he offers of his records. "I've never been one with a talent for following trends, or having much of an interest in it." But within that framework, he's created such under-discovered treasures as 1996's Rocking Horse Head (recorded in Nashville with then members of Wilco), '99's Evergreen Boy (a Memphis-cast record produced by Jim Dickinson) and 2002's Grammy-nominated Any Old Time, a warm and rocking tribute to fellow Meridian, Miss. native Jimmie Rodgers.

With his track record and well-documented roots appreciation, Forbert makes a fitting opener for the second annual American Roots Series at the ArtsCenter in Carrboro.

Tess Mangum Ocana, the ArtsCenter's marketing and concert director, started the series last year to celebrate the ArtsCenter's 30th anniversary, and this year's edition runs for three months, beginning with Forbert's appearance on Jan. 7. "Roots music, or the term Americana, has come into vogue lately, and it's very all-encompassing," explains Ocana, who has a master's degree in enthnomusicology and who previously worked at the Durham-based world music label Alula, when asked to define the series. "It seems to work well, especially post O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to catch everthing from blues to bluegrass to old-time to Cajun to songwriter to country and alt-country and anti-country and whatever all the new terms and old terms are--all the different pockets of culture that America is fortunate enough to contain and develop and show off to the rest of the world." Dr. John, comedian James Gregory, Christine Lavin, acoustic guitar virtuoso Alex de Grassi, Pura Fe, the Avett Brothers, Lucy Kaplansky, Rodney Crowell and soulful up-and-comer Ray LaMontagne represent only a cross section of the catch-all roster that Ocana has assembled. And a performance by Leon Russell on May 6, the second-to-last night of the series, has just been announced.

When pressed, Ocana says that she's probably most looking forward to Rodney Crowell's performance. The response of her grandmother, a guitarist who taught Randy Travis how to play the instrument, to the Crowell announcement has given that show an extra bright shine. "I was at her house (with some other relatives), and they asked, 'So how's it going at work, honey?' And I said, 'Well, I think I might have some good stuff for the Roots Series in the spring: Hal Ketcham, Rodney Crowell...' My grandmother, 78 years old, across the room, goes, 'Rodney Crowell! Oh, sweetheart! I'm there!' Not only did Grandma know exactly who I was talking about and could hear what I was saying, she was completely on it."

That anecdote nicely reflects Ocana's goal for the American Root Series. "I want people to be able to wrap their hearts around this, or wrap their family around it," she says. "Bring everybody. Come on down, spend a weekend in the Triangle. Make a journey out of it." And thanks to the makers of enduring music that Ocana has recruited--the likes of Forbert, Crowell, Dr. John and Russell--these will be journeys well worth taking.

Steve Forbert plays the ArtsCenter Friday, Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $19. Visit for details about the show and upcoming Roots Series concerts.

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