Why You Been Gone So Long?

6 August 2010

I am merely the latest of a string of Curlys in bluegrass, but to my knowledge, there is but one Beppe in the genre, and that would be Beppe Gambetta, the Italian flatpicking virtuoso. Gambetta probably gets tired of being called “the Italian Tony Rice,” but well, he’s the Italian Tony Rice. He has recorded Rice staples like “Church Street Blues,” and he favors voicings that bring “The Gasoline Brothers”— that would be Rice and David Grisman— to mind.

Mention of Grisman isn’t coincidental. Halfway through the mandolin legend’s set at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival last month, who should stroll on stage but His Beppeness. Check it out:

Gambetta shares with Tony Rice an ability to play lightning fast licks without breaking a sweat. Indeed, he plays runs so quickly and with so little movement of his right hand that the camera in this clip is apparently unable to capture the moment of contact between the pick and the string on those brief bursts of tremolo. Mamma mia!

Dawg and Beppe go back a ways. In 2001, they recorded a collection of mostly Italian tunes for a CD called Traversata. The number they play here— “Why You Been Gone So Long?”— was penned by the late country songsmith Mickey Newbury. Lots of people have recorded it, but to date I haven’t found a version that surpasses that of— you guessed it— Tony Rice.

It’s a great, bluesy, boozy tune, and given the date of the recording (1988), Rice might have brought a bit of, er, method acting to his rendition. Whatever the case, the album version captures one of Rice’s most vivid vocal performances. By the way, unless Tony Rice starts playing “O, Mio Babbino Caro,” nobody’s calling him “The American Beppe Gambetta.”

One More Thing…

Driving away from Grey Fox, a buddy who is a five-string specialist pointed out that, throughout the festival, the banjos were getting lost in the main stage audio mix. I confess I hadn’t noticed this at the time, but listening back to the Grisman set and some other performances, I see that my friend had a point. Here’s a brief illustration:

If you closed your eyes, you’d have a hard time telling that it was in fact a banjo playing there— no percussive “pop” at all. Fortunately, if someone is going to pioneer the art of “banjo miming,” Grisman’s longtime associate Keith Little is the man for the job. Seriously, Little has one of the expressive faces in bluegrass. I could watch him all day long— but I’d sure like to hear him as well.

Thanks to Geoff “Alpha Dog” Poister for providing the video footage of Gambetta and Grisman. Much obliged.

Yer Pal— Curly


  1. I’ve always loved this song too and agree that Tony’s version is pretty definitive. But don’t forget that he got the baton passed to him on that tune from Clarence White. Go back and listen to that Rounder LP with the White Brothers Live in Sweden from 1973. Clarence came back to play a few gigs with Roland and older brother Eric on that tour and that song was one of the highlights of that album. Clarence of course had had his big run the the Byrds and Roland had his runs with both Monroe and Flatt and they were having fun playing bluegrass again as a family, along with the great Alan Munde on banjo. Good stuff and thanks for posting. Just discovered your site and enjoy what I’ve seen. Thanks, Tom Keeney Seattle, WA

    • Hi Tom!

      Sorry for taking a million years to respond. Just wanted to acknowledge your point: Whenever I listen to Clarence White flatpicking, I think of Tony Rice– and vice-versa. In fact, it’s listening to White and The Kentucky Colonels playing “I Am A Pilgrim” moments ago that reminded me of the comparison you drew. All this leads to a question: was there a player in bluegrass before White who set the stage for this slinky, jazz-tinged approach to flat-picking? Thanks for the input!

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