The Peaceable Kingdom of Bluegrass

22 December 2014

As the year winds down, it’s not hard for me to identify my Most Magical Musical Memory of the past twelve months. In a funny way, the moment really crystalized before even a note was played: it was when the great Adam Steffey stepped to the microphone and said, “Does anyone have a song on their heart they would like to share?”

It was on a Friday night in late June at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival up in Tunbridge, Vermont. Jenny Brook has a wonderful tradition of having headliner acts lead open mic nights over at the Sugar Shack, a food concession run by the local maple sugar producers.

On that night of the festival, it was The Boxcar’s turn to run the jam. That’s when Steffey, the group’s mandolin player, opened the proceedings with that humble question: “Does anyone have a song on their heart they would like to share?”

What followed was a couple of hours of “Vermont’s Got Talent.” Pickers from eight to eighty came up to the stage (if you can call a collection of microphones and a modest PA system a stage) and offered up their tunes. There were performers who may well prove to be tomorrow’s all-stars and there were players who apparently will never master the art of tuning their instruments.

Through it all, Steffey, Ron Stewart and the rest of The Boxcars soldiered gamely on. If backing this parade of amateurs was work for them, they didn’t show it. As for the folks who volunteered songs, their responses to the situation varied. Some seemed amazed to find their musical offering backed by the world’s greatest bluegrass musicians. Others seemed to take it in stride, viewing this as just another local Friday night jam, and if those Boxcars fellers wanted to join in, why, they were welcome.

For my part, I enjoyed every bit of the ragtag pageant. If a couple hours of racket can still be considered a moment, then the session came about as close to what Spalding Gray called a Perfect Moment as I am ever likely to get.

I thought of that evening when, a few weeks later, I was observing a very different jam. A bunch of professional and semi-pro pickers were gathered at a campsite. Ostensibly they were there to play, but not much music was being made. The hours were rolling by as, slouched over their instruments, they rehashed old adventures and shared gossip. Occasionally, someone would make a desultory attempt at launching a tune.

I noticed that a sour note pervaded much of the rambling conversation. Without exception, every name that came up— present company excepted of course— brought forth a withering look or a disparaging comment. No one, it seemed, whether legend or neighbor, quite measured up. This dude had an annoying way of kicking off a tune; that chick couldn’t keep time. Someone else had questionable taste in material while another stole every lick he knew.

Quite the contrast with the open mic at Jenny Brook, where the assembled multitude— without so much as a sign-up sheet, so far as I could tell— efficiently worked through song after song. No one in front of or behind the mic seemed much inclined to mull over the merits of the performances, which included classic ballads, brother duets, yodeling and a jaunty number in praise of homegrown tomatoes.

It’s a free country. If folks want to spend a perfectly good summer day leaning over their instruments and complaining about their colleagues, that is their right. For my part, I’ll find another jam to sit in on, even if I’ve grown tired of some of the tunes or cringe a bit whenever the washboard solo comes around.

As that last comment suggests, we all have limits to our tolerance. For my part, I am an acknowledged washboard skeptic, and I take the arrival of a harmonica— an instrument I play— as generally a bad sign. I try to keep these prejudices in check, however— to ride them out, as it were. Because you never quite know when that really great washboard player is going to stumble into yer campsite. By the same logic, if anyone has a song on their heart they would like to share, and that song happens to be “Wagon Wheel,” well, rock me, mama. Another great tune is surely just around the corner.

There is exactly one way in which bluegrass beats all other musical genres. It’s not the oldest nor the newest form of music; it’s not the most complex nor the simplest; not the most varied nor the most subtle. Bluegrass has but a single attribute in which it triumphs, and that is its openness. Because it is built on a core of simple, widely known tunes, it’s a music that is easy to share.

In the peaceable kingdom of bluegrass, much as the lion lies down with the lamb, the virtuoso sits down with the Sunday picker. Anyone who loses touch with that essential quality in the music is, well, lost. Much as I defend everyone’s right to sit around pissing and moaning, I can’t help but wonder if some of those hotshots at that anti-jam I witnessed wouldn’t be better off— dare I say it?— stepping away from the music for a while.

I took up playing bluegrass quite late. Shortly before I drank the bluegrass Kool-Aid, my main musical activity was playing in a student classical ensemble. My son was learning the violin, and every Sunday morning we would go over to his teacher’s house to play with other students. I grew up playing the cello, so I would sit in the back of the ensemble and provide support in the lower register. The repertoire was hardly challenging, but before we even got to the pieces, we always warmed up with a solid quarter of an hour of… scales.

As we went through this weekly exercise— intoning the notes slowly and in unison— I would sometimes check myself: why did I do this? Why didn’t I find it more wearisome and mind-numbing than I did? For, in truth, I found the entire process of warming up and then playing these simple pieces to be centering, even refreshing.

One day it dawned on me that what we were doing in this ensemble was much like the Buddhist concept of “practice.” Friends of mine who meditate according to Buddhist precepts don’t refer to “worship;” the term they use is “practice.” I had never really understood the term in a spiritual context (I am about as religious as a lump of coal, though of course to a Buddhist a lump of coal— oh, never mind). But then that day, sitting in the back of the student ensemble, trying to play that scale simply and correctly, its meaning finally opened up to me. The filigreed monuments of classical music are awesome to behold, but they are all built on twelve notes. Taking a few minutes each week to become reacquainted with that foundation is a sound practice.

Bluegrass is an uncommonly easy musical form to dissect. The unfiltered well water of Celtic, British and Appalachian musical traditions is almost always flowing near the surface of a bluegrass tune. In my view, the “practice” of bluegrass is to reconnect with that source again and again. That at least is what I am here for. So, if anyone has a song on their heart they would like to share, let’s hear it.

I’ll close with a little year-end present. This isn’t one of my own videos, so perhaps it only counts as regifting. In any case, here’s a late-night jam from ten years ago at Merlefest. It’s as good an example as I can find of the “practice” of bluegrass. The songs are standards (with a little of the Beatles’ “Taxman” thrown in for good measure), and there’s seldom more than a minute or two of discussion between tunes. The lighting is the only thing gloomy about this clip, but it’s fun to see how many stars of the bluegrass firmament you can pick out in the midnight murkiness.

Here’s to sharing a tune, new or old, in the year ahead.

Yers– Curly


Postcards from Grey Fox

21 July 2014

Just back from the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. For once, let me share a few experiences with you while they’re still fresh.

I only discovered Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line this year, but this is in fact Nora Jane’s third Grey Fox as a performer. As she explains in the video, her connection to the festival goes back to her childhood. Growing up in New Jersey, Grey Fox (which is in the Catskills region of New York) was “the local festival” for the Struthers family. Though now based in Nashville and exploring genres other than bluegrass, Grey Fox and bluegrass clearly continue to occupy a special place in Struthers’ heart. The musical snippets in this profile are from “Barn Dance” a song featured on Struthers’ 2013 album, “Carnival.”

While talented performers like Nora Jane Struthers light up the stages of Grey Fox, an army of festival staff and volunteers toil behind the scenes to keep the party going. Perhaps no one better illustrates the self-effacing, for-the-good-of-the-order spirit of the festival personnel than Ginger Smith. To give you a sense of Ginger, here’s a quick profile:

For the duration of the festival and beyond, Smith more or less lives in a big top tent just to the side of the main stage at Grey Fox. There she oversees Ginger’s Grey Fox Café, the festival’s own food concession. Her culinary offerings range from humble hot dogs to gourmet gumbo, all cooked right on site.

Smith strikes me as one of those incredibly industrious people who think that sitting down is for sissies. She must have a monster garden, since she grows the ingredients for the relishes and jams she serves at the café and sells at her local farmer’s market.

Tuckered out yet? But wait, the best is yet to come: Proceeds from the sale of Smith’s preserves and condiments support the Copprome Orphanage in Honduras, where she volunteers during winter months. You can learn more about Copprome by visiting http://copprome.com.


Grey Fox grew out of its predecessor, Winter Hawk (kinda sounds like the start of an old Native American legend, but I digress). Mary Doub was one of the producers of Winter Hawk and now owns and operates Grey Fox. This edition marked the thirtieth festival with Doub at the helm. At this point, Doub must be thinking a bit about her legacy. Will Grey Fox live on once she is no longer in charge? What music will they be playing at Grey Fox thirty more years down the line?  Will dawn still be greeting the Grillbillies, her rosy fingers stroking their greyed Mohawks and faded tattoos?

The general consensus “on the field,” so to speak, is that Grey Fox has gradually moved away from traditional bluegrass over the years. Certainly, there were plenty of drums, electric guitars and saxophones in evidence this time. On the other hand, the picking scene around the campsites seemed more lively than last year, so I’m not ready to declare Grey Fox a bluegrass festival in name only just yet. Indeed, if bluegrass has a “big tent,” it’s Grey Fox, and for now, all the strains of roots music that inform bluegrass can be found there, jostling each other on the dance floor.

Yer Pal— Curly


Della Mae: Pine Tree

9 July 2014

Pining for some more Della Mae? You’ve come to the right place:

Here we have Della Mae performing performing “Pine Tree,” a composition that can be found on their Rounder Records Release from last year, This World Can Oft Be.

When do you suppose “Pine Tree” was written? Listening to Jenni Lyn Gardner sing about “the soil of Galilee,” it would be reasonable to think the song is very old. In fact, the tune doesn’t date back to Libba Cotten, nor even to Hazel Dickens. Nope, it’s a new composition, written by Virginia-based singer/songwriter Sarah Siskind.

Jesus said that “new wine must be put into new bottles,” but I’m not sure he had contemporary string band music in mind when he preached that parable. Much of today’s bluegrass and old time music seems to be about mixing up the bottles, putting old vintages into new bottles and giving new wine the look and taste of earlier times. Siskind’s song—and Della Mae’s take on it—nicely illustrates the latter approach.

The Dellas have been very good about promoting the work of women songwriters and performers old and new. More on this in future posts. In the meantime, here’s a game yer family can play on its summer road trip: Each player makes a list, writing down all the bluegrass and old time songs that feature the word “pine” in the title. Whoever has the longest list gets an extra scoop of ice cream at the next stop.  You can further while away the miles by arguing about how to score titles that are on the bubble, such as “The Pine Tree,” written by Billy Edd Wheeler and popularized by Johnny and June Carter Cash.

Siskind is originally from North Carolina, and it’s easy to see how she and other writers of bluegrass and country tunes have so often gravitated to the image of the pine tree. The pine is the official tree of the Tarheel State (come to think of it, that tar in them tarheels might well have come from pine pitch). Pines are at once ubiquitous and unremarkable throughout much of the south. The tree is therefore a fitting symbol of everything that is both humble and enduring.

Yer Pal— Curly


Uncorking Some Vintage Della Mae

25 June 2014

Thirsting for some Della Mae? We’re serving up some vintage material from the Dellas that we’ve had in the cellar for… well, too long. Still, we think you’ll find it delightful: bubbly, with notes of lavender and bluegrass.

That is, of course, the band Della Mae performing their original song, “Turtle Dove.” The composition was co-written by singer Celia Woodsmith and guitarist Courtney Hartman. It can be found on their Rounder Records release from last year, This World Can Oft Be.

My scant understanding of the Interweb tells me that it isn’t like fine wine: the stuff we byte-stained wretches post doesn’t improve with age. This poses a conundrum, however, because doing things right takes time— at least in my case it does. I’m with Tina Turner “We never, ever do nothing nice and easy.”

The current post being an apt example. Here we have Della Mae, one of the hottest, most talented bands in bluegrass, playing in a beautiful sunlit room, recorded without amplification or mixing boards— what could be more simple, more right? But there’s the rub: given such perfect elements, I want to make sure I do everything right on my end.

Over a year ago, I spent a day with Della Mae in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shooting both the informal session you see here and a show at the legendary acoustic performance venue Club Passim. By the time I reviewed the footage, I knew I was in trouble. Often my job as a filmmaker is that of salvage expert: I do the best to pull something useable from the wreckage of what I shot. That was not the problem here: I had hours of good stuff to work with, and that made for many months of (pun alert!) fretting.

But, at last, like fine wine…

After struggling with the harvest and following several false recipes, I have bottled some vintage Della Mae that I think is, as the vintners say, ready for release. I’ll be sharing several more of these videos with you in the weeks ahead. For now, I’m just rushing (yes, ironically, rushing after this long wait) to get a first taste out to you.

I’m grateful for everyone’s indulgence as I have worked through this material. Of course, above all, I appreciate the patience of the members of Della Mae. They were so gracious and fun to work with— qualities that I think come through in their performances. A dirty secret of my profession is that, when you edit videos, you almost always come to loathe the material. In the case of Della Mae, working with this footage has only deepened my appreciation of their skill and their artistry. Going over their songs, literally frame by frame, I keep discovering new treasures: a clever rhyme, a delicate ornamental detail, a rich harmonic interval. The care with which they have crafted their songs should inspire generations to come. If these videos help capture that alchemy for the ages, then the wait will have been worthwhile.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Special thanks to Paul Villanova for his help in shooting the video.


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


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.


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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