Luck has been the ever-present bass note of Stephen Wade’s career as a musician, storyteller and historian of American grassroots music. From his early exposure to roots music in his native Chicago to a three-week engagement that stretched to a decade-long gig at Arena Stage, Wade knows he has led a charmed life.
“I’m lucky. Nothing but good fortune has shined on me,” Wade, 64, of Hyattsville, said of a career that seeks to capture and preserve American folk music—and folklore—that might otherwise be lost. While a master performer on the banjo and guitar, he is equally at home researching, writing books and making documentaries about early grassroots music and performers.
His live performances capture the music, stories and even the dance steps that bring alive traditions that mostly have their roots in the American South, but speak to us all, the Grammy-nominated musician said.
“I’ve tried to bring this musical tradition to audiences outside of academe,” he said of the dozen or so albums he has recorded or produced. “American music has its own unique history and influences. People from all the world came together in America to make a new music for us all.”
To celebrate his recently released album, “Across the Amerikee: Showpieces from Coal Camp to Cattle Trail,” Wade, accompanied by musicians Zan McLeod and Russ Hooper, will perform gems of American’s grassroots musical traditions in a Saturday, Sept. 16 concert at AMP by Strathmore in North Bethesda.
The music may be old, but the messages are timeless, Wade said. “Amerikee is a really old-fashioned, archaic turn of phrase. And yet the issues America was dealing with a hundred years ago—such as immigration—are still relevant, and can be found in this music.”
A companion concert on Nov. 16 at the same venue will highlight the music and artists from the Southern Appalachians, Mississippi Delta and the Great Plains that Wade wrote about in his 2012 book, “The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience.” During the solo performance, Wade will share the trove of images and video he has collected through decades of capturing America’s unique musical heritage.
“That book was really 18 years in the making,” he said, describing his efforts to track down and interview musicians recorded by the Library of Congress in the 1930s and ‘40s. Wade traveled to prisons, churches and family gatherings to learn as much as possible about the music and the artists.
“I spoke to over 200 people in the process of researching and writing that book,” he said. “While I never hid the fact that I was a musician or performer, I didn’t bring my banjo with me during interviews. I was afraid that if I did, they’d want to listen to me versus my listening to them.”
Wade may connect musically with the past, but he lives for the future. A new documentary based on the Amerikee album is in the works, and he is planning a new book.
For the near future, Wade looks forward to the AMP concerts where he may see fans he made during his one-man show, “Banjo Dancing,” that ran for a decade in the 1980s at D.C.’s Arena Stage.
“The audience that knows me well is aging, but they’re bringing their kids and grandkids,” he said. “I am so grateful that I can bring this music to new audiences.”
AMP powered by Strathmore presents “Stephen Wade: Across the Amerikee” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, at 11810 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda. Tickets range from $25 to $35. “Stephen Wade: The Beautiful Music All Around Us” will be at AMP at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16; tickets range from $25 to $35, with a 20 percent discount available to patrons who purchase tickets to the Sept. 16 show. For additional information or to purchase tickets, visit www.ampbystrathmore.com or call 301-581-5100. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.