Levi Lowrey’s two-disc Roots and Branches is a majestic record. In the best of all possible worlds, it would be heard in an acoustically perfect concert hall by an audience that sits undistracted in the dark listening intently to its exquisitely sculpted lyrics, transcendent melodies and intricately woven instrumentation. But it’ll work just fine in your car stereo, too.
Lowrey is a former opening act for the Zac Brown Band and co-writer of the ZBB hits, “Colder Weather,” “The Wind” and “Day for the Dead.”
The Roots of the album’s title refers to 11 songs made famous in the late 1920s and early ‘30s by Lowrey’s great-great grandfather, fiddler Gid Tanner and members his celebrated band, the Skillet Lickers. During that era, Tanner eclipsed or stood shoulder-to-shoulder in popularity with the now legendary Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. In reviving these classics, Lowrey—a commanding fiddler and guitarist in his own right—is backed by the current edition of the Skillet Lickers, a self-regenerating assemblage of virtuosi that includes Phil Tanner, Russ Tanner, Fleet Stanley, Larry Nash and Joel Aderhold.
The Branches disc spotlights Lowrey’s astounding skills as a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, bandleader and producer. Of the 10 songs here, the Dacula, Georgia native wrote or co-wrote eight, each a cinematically luminous glimpse of adult life. “I try to make my lyrics as relatable as possible,” he says. “Obviously, I’m one man going through my own set of failures and successes, my own story. But the core of these emotions are experienced by everyone. I’m not afraid of being human.”
That humanity is forged and tempered in what one song calls “the side effects of living.” And, thus, we hear in Lowrey’s lyrics meditations on fate, regrets, guilt (both personal and cosmic), self-effacement, world-weariness, immortality, restlessness and the magnetic lure of home. If that sounds like too heavy an agenda for mere music, fear not—Lowrey leads us through these emotional rough spots with a savior’s touch.
In Lowrey’s universe, music and a sense of community are inseparable. He recalls his grandparents taking him to jam sessions every Friday night at the “Chicken House” on Gid Tanner’s farm. It was just that—a converted chicken house—in which local musicians gathered for joy, relief and companionship.
“That was the beginning of music,” he says. “Before you had records being sold and the commercialization of music, it was primarily a get-together. That was the reason for it. It always belonged in a community. I feel we’ve lost sight of that. Now it’s about record sales and touring and concerts and things of that nature. I don’t get quite as much fulfillment from that as I do sitting around on the front porch playing with a bunch of guys.”
In the sixth grade, Lowrey began taking classical violin lessons and soon moved on to playing fiddle music, taking in and assimilating all the instrumental techniques and flourishes he saw on display at the Chicken House. Even so, he stayed in the school orchestra throughout high school. In his sophomore year, he joined a rock band, playing lead guitar, and performing at fairs and clubs in Atlanta, Athens and the surrounding areas.
“We never really did anything big, never really got anywhere with it,” he says. “We just enjoyed it. It was some of the best times I ever had playing music.”
His next move was to join Sonia Leigh’s band as a fiddler. “All the while I was writing my own stuff,” he recalls, “coming up with my own voice and kind of figuring out what I had to say. About two years after I went with Sonia, I started playing out on my own and doing my own thing a lot more. I eventually decided to make music my full time profession. I was working construction at the time as a framer. So I quit my job and played just as much as I possibly could. I think one year—between my gigs and hers—we did over 285 shows. It was the only way we could make any money. You just kind of went up there and busted your ass, maybe for $25 bucks, especially in Athens. In some joints you got paid your bar tab.”
After touring with Leigh for years, Lowrey found himself playing on the same bill with Zac Brown at the Dixie Tavern in Marietta, Georgia. “Zac’s star was rising and he ended up forming a record label,” Lowrey says. “Sonia and I both signed to it on the same day. About then, Sonia and I went our separate ways. With my obligations as a recording artist, I couldn’t play with her fulltime. I hit the road with Zac and toured with him for several years. And I wrote a bunch of good songs with him. When the label folded, I went completely independent and put out My Crazy Head in 2015. Roots and Branches is my second independent release.”
It was while touring with Brown that Lowrey realized it was time to choose what he wanted to achieve with his music. He and Brown were sitting on the bus before a show “either in Greenville, South Carolina or Greensboro, North Carolina” when Brown asked the crucial question. “Zac said, ‘Do you want to be me—to follow this path that I’m on [to stardom]—or do you want to be Darrell Scott?’ Darrell Scott’s my heroin that he found something to say and a voice to say it with and the determination to control what he will and won’t do. And I chose then and still choose to this day ‘to be’ Darrell Scott.”
But he loved the songwriting that came from his time with Brown. “We were writing all the time,” he says. “Zac used to write almost every night. Everybody who was on that tour wrote a bunch of songs. We had a joke that the ones who could stay up the longest were the ones who got the songwriting credit. We all contributed so much.”
Being the heir to a distinguished musical dynasty hasn’t been all that intimidating, Lowrey says. “First of all, the family is not as well known as you’d think it is or it should be. The only time I feel pressure is when I get around people who know more about Gid Tanner than I do.” That happened earlier this year when Lowrey was invited to perform at the International Country Music Conference in Nashville. Made up of scholars and country music enthusiasts to whom the name “Gid Tanner” is magical, the conference welcomed Lowrey like a celebrity, rushing out afterward to buy his albums and ask for autographs and pictures. It was a display of affection and respect Darrell Scott might have envied.
As it turns out, Lowrey’s musical role model isn’t Gid Tanner, but rather his son, Gordon. “He passed away before I was born,” Lowrey says, “but I used to sit down and listen to old tapes of him playing fiddle for hours on end and try to copy everything he did. So the way I play ‘Down Yonder’ or ‘Listen To The Mocking Bird’ or ‘The Old Spinning Wheel’ or ‘Out Of My Bandage’—that’s all from Gordon. For my two cents, there was no better fiddle player in that family.”