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Blue Ridge Mountain Girl

2 February 2014

Sorry, that recent cold snap had me in a state of cryonic suspension from which I have but lately awakened. Without further ado, something to warm even the coldest heart—

That there is Jenni Lyn Gardner, appearing not with her usual bandmates from Della Mae, but with The Palmetto Bluegrass Band. The PBB consists of Kyle Tuttle on banjo, Nick DiSebastian on guitar and Josh Dayton on bass. If you like what you just heard, check out our earlier post from these good folks.

“Blue Ridge Mountain Girl” was written by the veteran songwriting team of Holyfield and Leigh. It appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1987 release, “Hold On.” In bluegrass circles, the tune was popularized by Blue Highway on their first album, “It’s a Long, Long Road.” It was this version that brought the song to Jenni Lyn’s attention, and it clearly still evokes tender memories for her. As she recalled recently—

My dad had a radio show that I would often co-host when I was a little girl and this is the song that I chose to play, every single time. It has stuck with me all this time and I enjoy singing it— even if it is from a man’s perspective.

The Palmetto Band’s interpretation of the song summons a lot of the spirit of Blue Highway without slavishly following that band’s version. Nick DiSebastian’s guitar solo takes the place of Rob Ickes’ dobro break, and his elegant cross-picking puts a smile on my face every time I hear it.

We recorded this informal session with Jenni Lyn & Co. at last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. This year’s edition of that frosty fest is right around the corner. Like triathletes in training, pickers all over New England are prepping for Joe Val, winding their clocks back and trying to get their sleep regimen pared down to just a few naps during the daylight hours. It’s not a routine for the faint-hearted, but as I trust we have demonstrated with this post, the compensations are many, including the knowledge that at any hour, in any corner of the Framingham Sheraton, music magic can happen.

Yers— Curly

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More Fiddling Around with Haas & Friends

26 November 2013

As the song title says, the frost is on the pumpkin. If that nip in the air is getting you down, here’s a two-song medley of old fiddle tunes that should buck you up:

Like an earlier medley, this video comes from a cozy house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a crew of fellow travelers, specifically Lily Henley and Kellen Zakula, who join Haas on fiddle, older sister Natalie Haas on cello and Rene del Fierro (off screen) on guitar.

The recorded history of the two tunes featured here— “Shove the Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire” and “Rebel Raid”— reaches back to two important early figures. The consensus in folklore circles seems to be that “Shove the Pig’s Foot…” was first recorded by North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin, whereas “Rebel Raid” is associated with the great Ed Haley.  Haas tells me that both tunes came to her by way of a more contemporary source: reigning old time fiddling master Bruce Molsky.

Though she has studied and played with Molsky and other current practicioners, Haas is well acquainted with the work of the earlier generations of fiddlers. In addition to Martin and Haley, she cites the work of Tommy Jarrell, Edden Hammons, Manco Sneed and Estill Bingham as influences. “There’s just a huge wealth of source recordings floating around through the old-time community,” says Haas, “so it’s always great to hear different fiddlers and older versions of tunes (as well as old tunes that are new to me still!).”

Name That Tune

“Shove the Pig’s Foot Further Into the Fire” has one of the key attributes of a good fiddle tune: a cryptic title. Vi Wickam has a concise summary of what little is known of the tune’s origins and meanings on his website. I buy the argument that the “pig’s foot” in this case refers to a blacksmith tool rather than an animal byproduct.

Fiddle tunes go in and out of vogue. “Shove the Pig’s Foot” has certainly enjoyed an upswing in popularity over the past few years. Traveling in its wake now is another old tune with a title that always gets folks scratching their heads, “Nail that Catfish to a Tree.” Given the success of these tunes, both of which have such long exhortations for titles, I am thinking of writing a contemporary number that I’m calling “Don’t Forget to Buy Milk.”

The redoubtable musician and teacher Mike Holmes once used “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” as an example of a tune that was better known in a particular region. He said that folks in Tennessee have always been keen on it, while it has only recently gained currency elsewhere. Holmes speculated that this pleasant melody might have benefited from a more appealing title. He could be right on that score, but for those who find the concept of nailing a fish to a tree at best surreal and at worst abhorrent, I can at least offer a little clarification. As anyone who has passed a summer afternoon fishing in a farm pond down South can tell you, catfish have skin as tough as Tyvek. One method for skinning one of these slithery critters is to nail it to something solid and then use pliers to pull off the skin. Nailing a catfish to a tree is therefore not so much bizarre as mundane. I’m aware that this explanation doesn’t really get us any closer to answering the more fundamental question of why this phrase got attached to that tune.

Perhaps “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” has a second meaning? Fiddle tune titles sometimes carry such hidden or coded messages. Take the title “Frost on the Pumpkin” I mentioned at the outset. The late, great Kenny Baker penned the fiddle tune bearing that name. You might assume that the title is meant to do no more than summon up a wistful image of rustic beauty, but several sources tell me that “frost on the pumpkin” is an old saying that refers to feeling randy. Whether or not the always grave and dignified Mr. Baker had making whoopee in mind when he wrote the song is beyond my ken. I will say this much: should “Frost on the Pumpkin” lead to “Makin’ Whoopee,” and thence to “A Bun in the Oven,” I heartily encourage you to name yer progeny Edden, Manco or Estill.

Once again, we extend our gratitude to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Jeff Boudreau— notloB mastermind— tells me that he has a trio of concerts featuring Brittany Haas coming up. Check his website for details.

Finally, thanks go out as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his tasteful editing.

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Finding Harmony with Jenni Lyn Gardner

1 November 2013

Jenni Lyn Gardner is best known these days as the mandolinist in Della Mae. Membership in that fast-rising group is surely a big commitment. Even so, Jenni Lyn likes to sow some musical oats occasionally. Like many other successful bluegrassers, she has established a side project for that purpose, The Palmetto Bluegrass Band. We caught up with Jenni Lyn Gardner & The Palmetto Bluegrass Band as they were running through some tunes at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.  As you can see, the band’s sweet harmonies attracted some curious bystanders to their hotel room door. Small wonder. Have a listen—

Along with Gardner, the group is comprised of Kyle Tuttle on banjo, Nick DiSebastian on guitar and Josh Dayton on bass. You may recall that South Carolina is “The Palmetto State,” and the group’s name is a nod to Gardner’s roots in that corner of Dixie.

Gardner grew up steeped in bluegrass. Though still in the bloom of youth, she has already had many opportunities to mingle with legends of the genre. There is a brief video on YouTube of a very young Gardner playing backstage with the one and only Bill Monroe, and a photograph of that encounter hangs in the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was another brush with greatness that brought the song in this video into Gardner’s repertoire. She tells the story better than I can:

I first heard the song “Born To Be With You” on the JD Crowe “Blackjack” album, but it wasn’t until I was backstage at [the] “Down From The Mountain” concert and heard Alison Krauss and Union Station standing in a circle warming up to it that it really caught my attention. I thought, man that is a cool song!

Cool song indeed. The close three-part harmonies in Gardner & Co.’s treatment made me think that it came to us from the white gospel tradition. In fact, I was following the wrong stream to foreign headwaters. In the 1950’s “Born To Be With You” was a hit for The Chordettes, a female quartet whose output overlapped at points with doo-wop (they are better remembered today for “Lollipop” and “Mister Sandman”).

As Gardner’s account shows, the song has been bouncing around bluegrass circles for a while. The most recent recording I heard of it was from the alt-bluegrass outfit Chatham County Line. In my view, whosoever shall essay this tune had better have good harmony chops. Jenni Lyn and friends certainly meet this requirement.

We’ve got more good stuff to share from Jenni Lyn Gardner & The Palmetto Bluegrass Band, but we’re also doing our dangedest to finish up a whole series of videos featuring Gardner’s “day job,” Della Mae. We shot a truckload of footage with that fine group and are looking forward to sharing a bunch of it with you soon.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Of Bluegrass and Beatlemania

18 October 2013

If you’ve had the pleasure of hearing The Lonely Heartstring Band play a set, then you know that they have widely surveyed the song catalog of Messrs. Lennon and McCartney. This must have made choosing just a handful of these compositions for their new EP a tough call. The record is a hit in my book, but one of my favorite Beatles covers failed to make the cut. I’m therefore pleased to offer it here as something like a bonus track:

Over time, music gets encoded into a culture in two ways: either it gets passed along and reinterpreted as folk music or it gets canonized and transformed into a classical form. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ first U.S. tour and the efflorescence of Beatlemania stateside, the Fab Four’s legacy remains a work in progress. It’s safe to say that we’ll still be listening to the Beatles in another fifty years, but will we be singing their songs around the campfire or studying them in college?

The notion of some ancient, ink-stained wretch like Yers Truly pondering such a question with regard to the Beatles would have seemed beyond strange to the mobs shaking to “Twist and Shout” in the 1960’s. After all, back then, even the Beatles’ songs moved up and down the charts, enjoying great popularity to be sure, but also eventually being supplanted by the Next Big Thing. That feeling of evanescence is worth keeping in mind as you have a listen to this:

That is the Charles River Valley Boys playing a reunion set at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival (yep, the same event where we shot our videos of the Lonely Heartstring dudes). The venerable group was on hand to receive a Heritage Award from the Boston Bluegrass Union. During the Folk Scare of the early 1960’s, the Charles River Valley Boys were the primary flag bearers for bluegrass in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts. After recording a few albums of straight-ahead bluegrass and traditional string band music, the group got the notion to make a record featuring Beatles tunes done in the style of bluegrass. Thus the album Beatle Country was born.

That was in 1966. Think about it: when the Charles River Valley Boys recorded “Help!”, the song had no comforting patina of nostalgia. At the time, it was simply part of the soundtrack of the moment. So though we recorded our videos with the CRVB and the LHB but a few hours and a couple hundred yards apart, and though they cover many of the same Beatles tunes, we have to imagine that the two groups bring very different perspectives to the music.

Beatle Country was certainly not the first instance of a bluegrass band covering pop songs. As noted bassist, songwriter and journalist Jon Weisberger has pointed out in commenting on one of my earlier posts, “Bluegrass acts were doing songs written or popularized by other acts, including from genres other than country music just about from Day 1.” That said, I’m having a hard time digging up an earlier example of an entire bluegrass record devoted to the work of one pop act. If anyone can point me toward dicographical entries I have missed, I’m all ears. Reno in Vegas: The Rat Pack Meets Bluegrass! has a nice ring to it, or perhaps Cline Time: The Music of Patsy and Curly Ray Cline.

Since the appearance of Beatle Country, this kind of concept album has become a veritable subgenre of bluegrass. Everyone from AC/DC to Journey has gotten the bluegrass treatment. There have been not one but two entire albums devoted to faithfully translating The Moody Blues into The Moody Bluegrass. Back when there were still record stores, our local emporium had a bin devoted just to cover projects such as these.

Whether or not such genre splicing is your cup of tea, I urge you to pay attention to The Lonely Heartstring Band. These guys may be Beatlemaniacs of the first order, but they have too much musical talent and too much of a feel for bluegrass to define themselves strictly as a Beatles cover band. Indeed, the most electrifying track on their EP is their devilish take on “Ole Slew Foot” (which you can download along with the rest of the record from Bandcamp on a pay-what-you-like basis— click here to see details).

“Old Slew Foot” has plenty of bluegrass credibility, having been played by the likes of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, and in the hands of the Lonely Heartstringers, the song sounds like it was brought down from the mountains. But guess what? The earliest recording I’ve found of “Slew Foot” was made by Johnny Horton in the late 1950’s. Horton’s take on the song is pretty much straight-up rockabilly. At the end of the day, then, what defines music as bluegrass has less to do with origins than with sound. Perhaps that’s what Tony Rice (a picker as adventurous and iconoclastic as any) meant when he recently concluded his moving speech at this year’s IBMA awards with this statement: “It’s our duty to allow bluegrass music to grow and flourish and at the same time retain the most important part of it, and that is the essence of the sound of real bluegrass music.”

The performance by the Charles River Valley Boys demonstrates one way that bluegrass continues to “grow and flourish, “ and that’s by families passing the music on from one generation to the next. The “Boys” are joined onstage by Ashley Lilly, the daughter of guitarist Everett Alan Lilly. Everett Alan is in turn the son of Everett Lilly, half of the seminal bluegrass duo The Lilly Brothers. Seeing young Ashley on stage with her dad is a poignant reminder of how few degrees separate any of us from the “true vine” of bluegrass.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Arresting Music From The Deadly Gentlemen

10 September 2013

You have the right to remain silent during the following video:

That of course would be The Deadly Gentlemen performing their original song “Police” at a sound check at The Lizard Lounge, an exemplary watering hole and listening room in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Another name for this clip might have been “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” We shot this piece waaaaaay back, but it took many moons for us to do the footage justice. For those interested in such things, this project combines three separate takes of the song, each take covered by three cameras. Do the math and you’ll arrive at the fact that we were juggling nine video tracks throughout. To say that arriving the right recipe from so many ingredients took a lot of work is an understatement.

While we were locked in our editing dungeon, time did not stand still for The Deadly Gentlemen. They were signed by Rounder Records and released a new album, Roll Me, Tumble Me. The group has been touring heavily as well. They have a bunch of gigs coming right up, including FreshGrass, the fast-growing festival at Mass MoCA up in the Berkshires.

“Police” is actually one of The Dead Gents’ older songs. It can be found on the group’s first album, the excellent Carry Me To Home. To my ears, the earlier Deadly Gentlemen compositions tend to be more percussive, more punk in spirit than the more recent tunes. One of the many strengths of this band is the fact that they can shift gears between rocking numbers like “Police” and lusher songs like “Faded Star,” the tune featured in a previous post.

There is a tenuous connection between the fiddle extravaganza in our previous post and this entry: Brittany Haas— ringleader of the house concert featured last time— is the fiddler in Crooked Still, the groundbreaking group that was banjo picker Greg Liszt’s home base before he started The Deadly Gentlemen. As you can see and hear, both Haas and Liszt are running on all cylinders.

Thanks to Megan Lovallo, Jamie Lansdowne, Joe Stewart and of course The Deadly Gentlemen for their help with this project.

Yer Pal— Curly

ERRATUM: An observant reader pointed out that “Police” is based on an old-time tune called “Policeman.” You can check out a fairly orthodox rendition of “Policeman” here. There are some salient differences between The Dead Gents’ tune and earlier versions. You’ll note that, in days of yore, the cops merely sat on a log and no shots were fired.

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Fiddle Camp with Brittany Haas & Friends

28 August 2013

As I write this, the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School is in full swing. Yep, the moon is full, and if you aren’t sure if Scottish fiddlers can swing, you need only look at this video featuring a bunch of VOM graduates and instructors:

This clip is from the raucous finale that closed a house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a whole bunch of friends and relations. The two-tune medley ties together a traditional Irish tune, “Bill Malley’s Barndance,” with a contemporary composition, “E-B-E Reel” by Liz Carroll a prominent performer, composer and instructor of Celtic music.

As you can see, the cozy living room “stage” was packed with musicians, including no less than four fiddlers: Haas, Lily Henley, Kellen Zakula and Duncan Wickel. I knew that this concert was more or less an ad hoc event, pulling together a group of friends for a night of music. I therefore asked Haas how it was that all of the performers could so quickly master a tune like “E-B-E Reel,” which has yet to enter the traditional canon.  Haas responded that they had all “learned it from Liz directly at a fiddle camp in California—Valley of the Moon.”

It’s hard to overstate the influence fiddle camps have had on traditional string music. More often than not, when I hear some tune cropping up at concerts and jams, its popularity can be traced back to its having been in the repertoire of a popular fiddle camp. It’s also common for a fiddle camp’s special recipe for some old-time tune to take hold as the music gets recycled once again. And then there are the original compositions inspired by fiddle camps. No fiddle camp, no “Ashokan Farewell.”

Fiddle camps have also had an enormous impact on playing technique. Watching this video, you don’t just hear that these folks share a common background; you can see it. There is little trace of the cramped style of traditional Appalachian fiddling. This is especially noticeable in the right hand: the players really move the bow across the string with ramrod-straight articulation.

That’s true even of Duncan Wickel, who was performing that night with an interesting handicap. If you aren’t familiar with Wickel, you will be soon. Once you start looking for him, he’s a bit like Waldo, showing up everywhere. Most recently I caught him over the summer playing with otherworldly cello phenom Rushad Eggleston. Wickel was in the audience for the Watertown house concert and was called up to join his friends for the encore. There was a spare fiddle on hand for him to use, but when it came to a bow, all that could be found was a cello bow.  Using the shorter and stouter weapon didn’t seem to slow Wickel down at all.

Fiddle camps often bear the imprimatur of a particular master or group of artists. The Ashokan to which fiddlers are bidding farewell is Ashokan Music & Dance Camp, which is associated with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. In the case of Valley of the Moon, the guiding force is Alasdair Fraser, the renowned Scottish fiddler who has played with Haas’ sister Natalie since she was in her teens. That’s Natalie on cello in the house concert video. As you can hear, her driving rhythms provide both a pulse and an anchor to a jam that could have easily spun out of control.

Indeed, when I congratulated Haas (younger sister Britanny, that is) at the conclusion of the concert, I could tell she was concerned that the finale had too many rough edges. This is a difficulty I often encounter: the musician and the audience view a performance through opposite ends of the telescope and come away with very different impressions. The performer understandably examines every nuance, whereas the audience concerns itself only with the overall effect. I assured Haas that the concert had ended on a very high note. Looking back at it through the lens of my camera, I still feel that way. All-star jams disappoint more often than not, but in this case, the joy of friends reconnecting is palpable. Watching them all rocking out on their former teacher’s tune, it’s not hard to imagine their younger selves practicing together— or just having boisterous, loud fun— in a camp cabin years ago.

Thanks to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Thanks as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his patience and ingenuity in editing the footage.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Town Mountain Shares the Good Times

8 August 2013

Town Mountain, the hot young quintet based in Asheville, North Carolina, seems to be having a good summer. They’ve been gigging around the country and were featured in the July 2013 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited. Here’s a crowd-pleasing number from the group that delivers plenty of sunny vibes, suitable for a group on the rise, or just a warm summer night:

The tune is “Sugar Mama,” and it was penned by the group’s mandolin player, Phil Barker. It appears on the band’s 2011 release, “Steady Operator,” and should not be confused with at least two different blues and sundry other compositions of the same name.

We’ve featured three original numbers from Town Mountain over the past several months, and it’s worth noting that each song was written by a different member of the group. Last year, in a piece on the veteran group Blue Highway, I opined that part of the secret of that outfit’s longevity lay in the fact that so many of its members wrote material for the band. This might lessen the likelihood of any player feeling like a fifth wheel. If I’m correct in this theory, then Town Mountain has a long and promising career still ahead.

As has been the case with many of our recent clips, the entire series of Town Mountain videos was edited by Adam Lawrence. Like Town Mountain, both Adam and I hail from North Carolina, so working on this trilogy has been like old home week. I really appreciate Adam’s contributions.

Yer Pal— Curly

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