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Dispatch from the Slippery Slopes

22 January 2013

Emy Phelps’ “Bluegrass Tune”

Emy Phelps set out to write “Dancin’ Round Your Door” as her “offering to the world of bluegrass,” but the song apparently had other ideas. Have a listen:

Phelps is accompanied here by partner Darol Anger (who on this tune has traded his fiddle for an octave mandolin) and mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist. The song— which is featured on Phelps’ latest album— was recorded at a notloB Music concert in Jamaica Plain, Massachustetts last Spring.

Phelps doesn’t claim that her song is bluegrass, nor would I, but I’m also not going to spill any ink trying to demarcate the territory that is or isn’t defined by the bluegrass genre. I think we can all agree that it doesn’t pass the Justice Stewart definition of bluegrass: “I know it when I hear it.”

Hearing a straight-ahead bluegrass tune performed with salt and feeling is revelatory: it’s like having your head dunked in cold, clear water. That’s not an experience that can be compromised or adulterated. But in my view, the folks who experiment at the margins of bluegrass help us to keep reexamining the music. In doing so, they also keep us alert to new ideas. As Phelps says in her introduction to “Dancin’ Round Your Door,” “Stretch your imagination!”

Beatle or Catfish?

It’s not everyday that you see a message like this in yer inbox: “Ringo Starr has commented on your video.” Such was the news I received from the busy scribes at YouTube last week. First thought: “Ringo Starr? The Ringo Starr?!” Second thought: “Which video?”

Faithful readers of this site will know that my primary goal has been to add to the library of online media pertaining to music with bluegrassish tendencies. The challenge of providing a regular flow of content (sometimes described as “feeding the beast”) is both stressful and fun, but as with any test, success is never assured. Sometimes I just have to get stuff out there and hope for the best. This ain’t Pee Wee soccer, so I recognize that not every post can be a winner. Rather than try to go back and airbrush the past, I tend accept that I must live with my missteps, figuring that “he that lives by YouTube shall die by YouTube.”

There is, however, one post that I have on more than one occasion considered quietly deleting. It’s an early video in which I just talk. And then I talk some more. Oh, and then I demonstrate the “bluegrass chop.” If you feel compelled to watch, here it is…

In my estimation, these aren’t my finest three minutes. For starters, there’s the substance of my rant. For the record, I still believe there are good reasons why most bluegrass bands, from the Clinch Mountain Boys to the Punch Brothers, don’t employ percussion. Be that as it may, I have come to understand that anytime you try to proscribe something, you sound like you’re prescribe another thing. In that old post, my point was not that I wanted to define a specific “bluegrass sound.” If anything, I was staking out more or less the opposite position: that by leaving percussion out of the mix, bluegrass bands could more deftly control and alter their sound. I tried to argue that they could do this with ease and without sacrificing drive because of the uniquely percussive nature of bluegrass instruments. That’s the case I was making, but some viewers clearly believed that I was defending some canonical notion of what bluegrass was supposed to be. Some viewers said “right on!” to this blinkered perspective, while others allowed as how it was narrow-minded anti-percussionists like me who were responsible for the fact that all bluegrass bands sounded exactly alike. To all this I reply…oh, never mind.

Anyway, setting aside whatever validity my argument might have, I’m not convinced that having some pasty guy (more Creepy Uncle than Second Cousin) gas on without even playing a dern tune is really what the public longs for. However, every time my finger inched toward the “delete” button, I noted that a few more people had written lively responses in the comments section. Figuring that fostering one of the few civil debates on YouTube was the least that I could do, I held off.

Which brings us up to last week, when none other than Ringo Starr appeared to have commented on the video— quite a detailed and thoughtful response, in fact. I suppose hearing from a Beatle would be a big deal for anyone of my vintage, but perhaps I should explain the particular association I have with that seminal group. The first feature film I recall seeing in a movie theatre was The Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.” I was mesmerized by the experience, and I honestly think that initial, intense enchantment contributed to my choice of becoming a filmmaker.

Given that history, you can appreciate the frisson of excitement I experienced when I visited my correspondent’s elegant YouTube Channel and found it loaded with tasty hi-def clips of the Fab Four in their heyday. You can also imagine how transported I was to find this in my personal message inbox:

Message_from_Ringo

Once I recovered from my swoon, I alerted all my friends on Facebook, my followers on Twitter and all the ships at sea. Dear God, it’s me, Curly. Ringo Starr commented on my video! As for the lame clip that had attracted Ringo’s attention, well, as I noted in my reply to Mr. Starr, now that a Beatle had chimed in, I could never erase it!

So things stood for a day or two. Then, as the novelty of having Ringo as my new BFF wore off, I did a little research. Apart from having his snazzy YouTube channel, the Ringo Starr who contacted me has this Google Plus account. So far, so good, but what are we then to make of this Ringo? “My” Ringo, though knowledgeable about percussion

  1. seems a tad attached to the Beatles’ golden years,
  2. uses some rather raw diction in comments on his channel
  3. has the YouTube username (a rimshot, please) “monkeychunger.”

Fishy, no? Speaking of suspect aquatic life, in 2010, brothers Yaniv and Ariel Schulman released a provocative documentary called Catfish. The film chronicles the brothers’ attempts to attach flesh and bone to a dubious online relationship. For those of you who have yet to see the film, I won’t spoil the ride. Suffice it to say that the experience of watching Catfish is like entering a hall of mirrors, where you quickly lose track of whether what you’re looking at is a reflection or the thing itself. The moral is as obvious as the “truth” is obscure: In this day and age, don’t believe everything you see.

Catfish the movie has subsequently spawned Catfish the reality TV series on MTV. On the show, the Brothers Schulman help other people investigate personal connections made via the internet. With episodes of Catfish rolling off the assembly line every week or two and stories like that of football star Manti Te’o making headlines, it’s hard not to look at “my Ringo” with anything other than a very jaundiced eye.

Yup, I suspect that “my Ringo” is really just “my Catfish.” If I’m right about that, then perhaps he/she/it is doing me a backhanded favor by reminding me that, when it comes to relationships forged online, there really is no “there” there. Even so, to quote the title of a well-known fiddle tune, I can’t help feeling that I’d like to “Nail That Catfish to a Tree.”

Yer Pal— Curly

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