No matter what anybody says otherwise, there is no better place in all the world to be a music fan than right here in ol' Nashville, Tenn. Yes, we have amazing record stores and amazing venues that book some of the best talent in the world. Yes, we have incredible studios and fantastic labels and all of the business stuff and blah blah blah. But in reality, what makes this town incredible is the sheer wealth of talent that's hanging in the shadows doing its own thing, oblivious to the machinations of the music industry. The best thing about living here is the random moment when somebody's like, 'Oh yeah, I know that dude from the taco shop. You should hear his album — it's incredible." And lo and behold, the album is actually incredible. Like, say, Luke Roberts' new Thrill Jockey release The Iron Gates at Throop and Newport.
It's a mystery how Roberts managed to fly under my radar until now. On paper, he looks like the exact sort of thing that would send us Music City music critics into a tizzy: He's a Nashville native, he counts playing at yard sales with local legend Dave Cloud at the age of 14 among his earliest forays into music, and his debut album Big Bells and Dime Songs was released on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace. He likes to hop trains, and Dime Songs was produced by Kyle Spence of avant-metal legends Harvey Milk. Iron Gates was recorded by Mark Nevers, for cryin' out loud. Yet, math be damned, it took a chance run-in at local dive Foobar to bring Roberts to my attention. Of course, once he had my attention, it was his off-kilter take on outré folk that convinced me I'd slipped up, somehow letting this one slide by.
But Roberts' music doesn't clamor for attention. It's not the sort of music that needs a big publicity push, and it's not bound for flavor-of-the-month status. This is music at its most personal and intimate — the type best suited to spread mouth-to-ear rather than publicist-to-blog.
Roberts isn't a careerist with an outsized personality, he doesn't subscribe to the musician-as-marketer concept, and he isn't out to be a jingle-writing indie-rock star. In fact, he'd be the first to tell you that his music would make for horrible advertising. It's not that Roberts makes anti-commercial music — he may have come up in the more avant-garde end of the hardcore punk movement, but there's a universal warmth in his understated folk — it's that the music itself is made with the least commercial of audiences in mind: his family, his friends.
Roberts seems a little surprised that these songs have made it so far out into the world, or that they're actually taking him to Europe next week for his first international tour. He strikes you as an artist who makes art for art's sake — by his own admission, his debut sprang from a need for "a big project" — whose motives are pure and successes incidental. Songs like Iron Gates' plaintive, finger-picked "Second Place Blues" and "Every Time" connect with a mystical otherness that doesn't fit squarely in easy-to-parse genres. Roberts' songs aren't particularly freaky or particularly strange — there's no forced weirdness here, just the typical sort you would expect from a guy who slept in Dave Cloud's La-Z-Boy for a stretch. They're just characterized by an otherworldly air, a darkened daydream vibe, of a man whose mind isn't preoccupied by the concerns and approval of others.
And that may be why he flew under my radar to begin with. We the critics, our instruments aren't tuned to pick up the solitary artist in pursuit of higher truths; they're tuned to find artists who want to see their names in the paper. But the social fabric in this city is even bigger than the industry or its widget machines. That social fabric — evident, sometimes, thanks to things like a chance run-in at Foobar —catches the best and the brightest when the gears of commerce can't or won't crush them up.