“I’ll try not to cry tonight,” said Valerie June directly after taking the stage for her ACL debut. “It means the world to me to be here.” With an intro like that, it would be impossible not to be on the side of this fast-rising Memphis singer/songwriter. The talent bursting from her seams, however, justified the empathy. With one foot in country blues, the other in mountain folk music and her head in the stars, June and her band conjured a distinctive brand of genre-blending songs that she calls organic moonshine roots music.
June opened with the Carter Family chestnut “Happy or Lonesome,” her unique voice working the midpoint between those emotional extremes. Then she and her band – which includes guitarist Binky Griptite, last seen on the ACL stage as part of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – ranged all over the Americana map, from the twanging folk of “Twined & Twisted” and sprightly country of “Rain Dance” to the waltzing honky-tonk of “Keep the Bar Open” and the heartfelt gospel of Jim Reeves’ “This World is Not My Home,” which earned especially vocal approval from the crowd. But whether June was strumming her custom-made “baby” (a banjo/ukulele hybrid) for “Somebody to Love,” crooning through the R&B balladry of “The Hour” or philosophizing the slow blues of “Pushin’ Against a Stone,” June put her own stamp on every note. Once you hear “Goodnight Irene,” her show-closer, you’ll never want to hear it any other way.
This was one of those special first-time shows that will be talked about for years to come. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on PBS.