The ArtsCenter’s American Roots Series (click for full schedule below)
Opening night: Friday, Jan. 5, 8:30 p.m.
Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, opener Rod Picott
Tickets: $28
Saturday, Jan. 6 and Sunday, Jan. 7
Red Clay Ramblers
Tickets: $17

Tess Mangum Ocaña talks about the American Roots Series like a string of weddings: “I feel like a bride. I work really hard before the shows, arranging everything, getting everything in order. Then, the night of the show, I’m a little bit nervous, I’m a little bit excited. I feel like I’m getting married to the audienceor somebody, I don’t know. Then after it’s all over, everything went great, but you can’t hardly remember anything that happened.”

Polygamy laws be damned; Ocaña has an impressive collection of successful musical marriages under her belt. She’s been the concerts director at The ArtsCenter since 2002, arriving with a master’s degree in ethnomusicology and real-world marketing experience with Durham’s Alula label. She launched the roots series in 2004, in celebration of The ArtsCenter’s 30th birthday.

The highlight of the inaugural series was a mid-January appearance by Rickie Lee Jones, an artist who’d never played The ArtsCenter. “For me, this was a very, very, very big deal show in all the ways that you could imagine,” says Ocaña. “I remember that when I sat the contract down in front of our executive director, Jon Wilner, he looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he asked me one more time. I said, ‘I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life.’”

Ocaña’s confidence was well founded. With little advertising, the show sold out in six days. Arguably, it’s what put the American Roots Series on the map. It at least earned Ocaña the reputation of someone who could put on a hell of a wedding and who listens to her guests.

Other than having a personal wish listafter all, why take this kind of job if you can’t let your tastes enter in a little?you have to wonder how someone manages to get her arms around a series that, by design, sprawls.

“You look at what the local audience wants,” explains Ocaña. “Out on stage, I’ll always say ‘Everybody, give me a call. Tell me who you want, and I’ll go after them.’ And I do.” She’s keenly aware of her audience, meaning that she knows to be open to their input and she knows how hard she needs to work to meet their expectations. “The area has a great appreciation for live music of all types, a passion and an obsession.”

The last two years have been but testaments: Steve Forbert opened it in 2005, delivering the kind of performance that turned The ArtsCenter into his living room. People like Dr. John, Christine Lavin, The Avett Brothers, Pura Fé, Lucy Kaplansky, Rodney Crowell and soulful up-and-comer Ray LaMontagne followed. Last year’s centerpiece was a concert by Mavis Staples and her band. Whereas Forbert and his storytelling ilk make The ArtsCenter seats feel like couches and recliners, Staples transformed them into pews, albeit the kind made for dancing.

Expect the same from Bettye LaVette, who will likely have that same electrifying effect on The ArtsCenter faithful. LaVette’s Joe Henry-produced 2005 release I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, on which she put her gritty-soul stamp on songs by artists ranging from Dolly Parton and Joan Armatrading to Aimee Mann and Sinead O’Connor, earned her new fans. But those in the know have been onto her for years. Two reissues that followed Hell made it clear what the fuss has always been about.

But there’s plenty here besides soul: Chris Hillman (who opens the series on Jan. 5), Marcia Ball, Johnny Winter, David Olney, Lucy Kaplansky, the Two Dollar Pistols, Rosie Ledet, Leo Kottke, Odetta, and Leon Russell and Redbone are all slated for this year’s series of American eclectics.

“I’m not strict in my definition because I think the term roots needs to be as encompassing as it is,” Ocaña says about her criteria for the series. “To me, it is all the musics of America, whether that be blues or country or bluegrass or, also, our American singer-songwriters.”

“[It’s] an eclectic blend of people,” she continues. “That’s where you get the rockabilly and the country, the folk and the soul, and some rockers as well. But it’s American music. We can claim it. We do claim it.”

There’s plenty of exciting stuff to catch at this year’s American Roots Series at The ArtsCenter. Here’s a complete 2007 schedule.

Friday, Jan. 5: Chris Hillman & Herb Pedersen with Rod Picott
Saturday, Jan. 6 & Sunday, Jan. 7: Red Clay Ramblers
Saturday, Jan. 13: Adrian Duke Projek & Lise Uyanik & The Mobile City Band
Thursday, Jan. 18: Marcia Ball, Seth Walker
Friday, Jan. 19: Paul Thorn
Saturday, Jan. 20: Leon Russell
Friday, Jan. 26: Clive Carroll
Saturday, Feb. 3: Alice Gerrard CD Release Concert
Monday, Feb. 5: Vetiver with Vashti Bunyan
Wednesday, Feb. 14: Tommy Emmanuel
Saturday, March 3: The Shady Grove Band
Friday, March 9: Odetta
Saturday, March 10: Bettye LaVette
Wednesday, March 28: Leo Kottke
Friday, March 30: John Jorgenson Quintet
Friday, April 6: Cyril Lance & The Outskirts: An Evening of Dylan
Saturday, April 7: Kickin’ Grass
Friday, April 13: Richard Shindell
Saturday, April 21: Carolina Breakdown featuring The Allen Boys & Tony Williamson
Saturday, April 28: Two Dollar Pistols
Saturday, May 12: David Olney
Friday, May 18: Asylum Street Spankers
Saturday, May 19: Johnny Winter with Cyril Lance
Friday, June 15: Rosie Ledet & The Zydeco Playboys
Saturday, June 30: Leon Redbone