Archive for the ‘Jams’ Category

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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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The Late, Late Show at Grey Fox

15 July 2013

The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival takes place this week. Here’s a Zen koan I made up for this key event on the musical calendar: If it is 3:00 AM, is it early or late? While you ponder that, have a look and a listen to this campsite jam that was recorded in the wee hours at last year’s fest:

I have held forth in the past on the tune played here, “Cherokee Shuffle.” See my earlier post for an inventory of what is known and not known about that old chestnut.

The fine fiddler anchoring this jam is Elise Laflamme, a performer who is by now a fixture on the New England bluegrass scene. Elise has played with a few different outfits over the past several years, including the New Hampshire-based band Monadnock. Laflamme is also a member of The Boom Chicks, a super group made up of prominent female bluegrassers.

More than any other festival I know of, Grey Fox is a nocturnal event. No doubt this is partly dictated by the weather. It can be hard to catch yer cue to solo when streams of sweat are pouring into yer eyes. Therefore, most of the picking occurs when things cool down a bit after sundown.

Anyone who has engaged in a late-night (or early morning) Grey Fox jam will recognize this exquisite dilemma: a goodly chunk of yer brain has already gone to off to bed, but somebody just called a tune that you love. Next thing you know, you’re at it again, telling yerself, “I’ll go lie down after this one last number.”

In an attempt to replicate the full Grey Fox experience, we are therefore tempting you with another tune. That’s right, don’t go to sleep just yet, because we have a special treat:  a singer with a voice and a personality as big and inviting as Grey Fox itself…

That would be the one, the only Joe Singleton singing “Cry, Cry Darlin’,” a tearjerker that’s closely associated with Bill Monroe. In New England bluegrass circles, Singleton is a talent who needs no amplification— I mean introduction. Seriously, though he is known for his uncanny abilities to replicate the late Joe Val’s searing tenor, Singleton has a voice that is all his own. As the performance in this video demonstrates, although Singleton may be a Yankee by birth, his voice is well suited to songs steeped in the old country music of the South and West.

I said “the one, the only Joe Singleton,” but that might not be accurate. At Grey Fox, it’s not uncommon to have several Singleton sightings in one day. You might see him picking with some neighbors in the evening, then catch him jamming with the Grillbilly gang as the sun peeks over the horizon. You’ll catch a few hours of sleep and then be awakened by a parade passing by, and lo, there is Singleton in the lead, acting as Grand Marshall. Such ubiquity has led to speculation that there are surrogate Singletons out there, or perhaps even Singleton clones.  Whether singular or plural, I look forward to hearing more from Singleton at this year’s event. I’m also going to take plenty of naps so that I can pick a few more with the one, the only (truly!) Elise Laflamme, as well as Sandy, Sam, Bob, Geoff, Scott, Mary, Stephen, Eric, Hans, Andrew, Amy, and a whole bunch of folks whose names I don’t even know.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Five Rising Stars at Grey Fox

12 December 2012

Winter has its charms, but let’s face it: they pale in comparison to the joys of sitting around a campsite in yer shirtsleeves, playing with friends. But don’t take my word for it, listen to these folks…

This quintet of young musicians all share an affiliation with Berklee College of Music. We caught up with them last summer at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival as they were running through some tunes in advance of a Berklee showcase. Here, Eric Robertson leads the group through his own composition, a gospel-tinged beauty called “Take Me Under.”

It’s hard to keep up with these young pickers— and I don’t mean when they’re ripping through “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” though I’m sure that would be true as well. They all seem to be at a stage when the world is spinning in overdrive, and enormous changes are happening almost minute-by-minute.

Exhibit A: In the few months that have intervened since we shot this footage, Robertson has toured the Middle East with his group The Boston Boys. While in Egypt, they took a moment to record a touching performance of Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come” with the great pyramid of Giza looming in the distance. The sentiment of the song couldn’t be more timely for both Egypt and the U.S. It gets my vote for Best Video from the whole interminable election circus.

While Robertson & Co. were trotting the globe, Molly Tuttle was making a splash in an altogether different setting. Tuttle hails from the hollers of Palo Alto, where she grew up in a musical family. In October, she and her dad, Jack Tuttle, appeared on that public radio institution, “A Prairie Home Companion,” where they took second place in the show’s duet singing competition.

While still a student at Berklee, the ever-affable Nick DiSebastian established himself not simply as a performer, but as a ringleader for Boston’s young pickers. A natural networker and MC, he toyed for a while with becoming a local music producer and promoter. Eventually, however, the siren song of Nashville got to him. Literally any minute now, he’s due to relocate to Music City. Though featured on bass in the Grey Fox ensemble, DiSebastian is versed in several instruments.Once in Nashville,” he tells me, “I’m gonna put my efforts towards improving as a player and spending more time on the road playing.” Those of us who have enjoyed his company in Beantown would like to remind Nick that New England summers can provide a comfortable respite from Nashville’s sticky heat.

Another fixture of Boston’s picking scene, banjoist Gabe Hirshfeld, is staying put for the time being as he finishes his degree at Berklee. Throughout the fall, Hirshfeld has been immersed in the music of those fathers of bluegrass, The Beatles. Hirshfeld reports that, along with partners George Clements, Louis Fram, Patrick M’Gonigle and Matthew Witler,We’ve been taking Beatles songs and playing them as close to the original recordings as possible with the bluegrass instrumentation.”

Sometimes it seems like everyone at Berklee plays with everyone else, sooner or later, and never does that impression ring truer than when you look at fiddler John Mailander’s dance card. In recent months, he has worked with Hirshfeld on an EP called “The TriMountain Sessions” (produced by DiSebastian) and played a number of dates with Tuttle (including a recent gig with Berklee prof Darol Anger and partner Emy Phelps). But that only accounts for half his musical life. Mailander is from San Diego, and he continues to maintain links with the West Coast bluegrass scene, performing in the Bear Republic with Janet Beazley, Chris Stuart and the group Backcountry.

Not sure that I’ve got my cosmology right, but I hear tell of certain “unbound,” high-flying stars that have exited our galaxy. As yet, no one knows where these vagabond bodies are headed. Seems that much the same could be said of the stars grouped in this campfire constellation.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Granny’s Hot Sauce Spices Up the Tradition

15 May 2012

Wanted to share another gem from the hallways of this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. Here’s the new Boston-based group Granny’s Hot Sauce delivering a stark and powerful rendition of a fine old tune, “Foreign Lander”:

The lead singer, George Clements, along with bassist Louis Fram came upon “Foreign Lander” on Tim O’Brien’s “Fiddler’s Green” album, and the band’s version hews closely to O’Brien’s arrangement.

For a tune with so much maritime imagery, it’s ironic that the song laid its deepest roots— in this country at least— in landlocked Kentucky. As Jean Ritchie reported ten years back to the great traditional music site Mudcat Café, her father and his cousin both picked up the song while growing up in the Bluegrass State. Ritchie— who at 89 is today the doyenne of Appalachian folk music— collected the lyrics in the mid-1950’s in her memoir, Singing Family of the Cumberlands. Some years after that, a second cousin of Ritchie’s, Martha Hall, sang the song for an itinerant folklorist, which is where I suspect the tune’s discography begins.

Ritchie hypothesizes that the song originated in the British Isles, and simply judging from appearances, it’s hard to imagine otherwise. If anyone can shed light on those transatlantic beginnings, or on other variants of this sweet and mournful tune, drop us a line.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Buck White: “Sui Generis”

8 March 2012

We shot a ton of great stuff at this year’s The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. As is always the case, a lot of the most magical experiences were products of pure serendipity. Here’s a moment we caught backstage…

The gentleman on mandolin is Buck White, Grand Ole Opry member and pater familias of the country/bluegrass/swing outfit The Whites. He’s playing with fiddler Matt Glaser, Artistic Director of Berklee College of Music’s American Roots Music Program. White and Glaser are later joined by Charlie Rose, a versatile Boston-based musician who plays with everybody who is anybody.

Although he has shared the stage with some of the very top bluegrass musicians (dobro star Jerry Douglas was a member of his band for several years, and Ricky Skaggs is his son-in-law), White is really an example of a performer who comes to bluegrass by way of other genres. As he mentions in talking with Glaser, growing up in Texas, he wasn’t surrounded by bluegrass. A lot of the influences that shaped his music were more homegrown, which of course means he was exposed to a healthy dose of Texas swing. Here’s an example of that infectious musical style from The Whites main stage set at Joe Val. Buck is joined here by daughters Cheryl (bass) and Sharon (guitar). The tune is “My Window Faces the South,” a song popularized by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Whether watching Buck White on stage or behind the scenes, it’s hard to believe this is an octogenarian at work. This is a legend who is still very much living it up!

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Megan Lovallo for the fine editing.

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Hallway Jams at Joe Val

13 February 2012

The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival is upon us once again. For folks who are used to picking around a campfire, the jams at Joe Val require a mental adjustment. Have a look at this video and you’ll see what I mean…

The Joe Val fest takes place in the dead of winter within the confines of a Sheraton Hotel just off the Mass Pike in Framingham, Massachusetts. For three days in February, every available inch of the hotel is given over to bluegrass. The main stage is in the ballroom and the workshops and vendor displays are in the conference rooms. Any leftover space is filled with jams of every level. If you watch the video closely, you’ll catch a glimpse of some industrious teenagers who have repurposed a phone booth to run through some fiddle tunes.

Some aspects of the jams captured in this video are standard issue for bluegrass fests, but that doesn’t make them any less cool. Were a Martian anthropologist to drop by a bluegrass jam, it would note how participants in this earthling activity share the spotlight rather than showcase just a few talents. At the very start of the clip, you can see ­­­­­­Celia Woodsmith of Della Mae and Sten Havumakiof the Professors of Bluegrass and Billy Wylder teaching the changes on “Look Down That Open Road” by Tim O’Brien to veteran banjo picker Rich Stillman of Southern Rail. Stillman proceeds to acquit himself very nicely while apparently playing the tune for the first time.

Finally, the jams at the Joe Val fest, like most bluegrass picking sessions, are a demonstration of radical democracy. Not only do they feature players truly aged eight to eighty, but they also encompass everyone from novices to stars of the bluegrass circuit. No matter how many times I attend the Joe Val fest, I don’t think I’ll ever lose my sense of wonder at having the elevator doors open, revealing a bunch of musicians with national profiles jamming with everybody else in the lobby.

With this video, another new superhero from Team Curly makes her debut. Mistress of Mayhem Megan Lovallo cut this piece together, and she did a fine job of capturing the magic of the moment. Megan and I will be covering the Joe Val fest together this year. We look forward to seeing some of you in the halls…

Yer Pal— Curly

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Let Us Now Praise Famous Dives, Part 2: The Station Inn

27 June 2011

Summer, the season for sequels, has officially arrived. Those mobs at the cineplexes who have turned out to see The Hangover 2 or Cars 2 have not gone unnoticed by yer Cousin Curly. It seems that today’s perspiring public wants nothing more than, well, more of the same, and who am I to argue? In this spirit, I offer up the following summer bluegrass blockbuster…

Those of you following this space closely know that I’m a great fan of The Cantab Lounge, New England’s Mecca for Bluegrass and other roots music. When I posted my paean to that venerable institution, I called it “Let Us Now Praise Famous Dives, Part 1,” knowing that I had a “Part 2” lined up.

That was in May of last year. Nothing like just-in-time delivery, is there?

Anyhow, the long wait is over. Popcorn is optional…

Not all the music at the Station Inn is bluegrass, but much of it “demonstrates bluegrassish tendencies,” as the doctors like to say. In addition to the famous names mentioned in the video, here’s a sample of the performers who have appeared at the Inn over the past few years: The Red Stick Ramblers, Kimberly Williams, Blue Highway, Dierks Bentley, Roland White and Shawn Camp. Special mention should be made of The Cluster Pluckers and The Mashville Brigade, a couple of “supergroups” of Nashville musicians who are or were fixtures on the scene.

Going a bit farther back, no less a figure than Bill Monroe himself trod the Inn’s humble stage. You could make a movie about this place’s many brushes with fame, and it appears that one Patrick Isbey has done just that. Click here to see a clip from his documentary, The Station Inn: True Life Bluegrass.

Although our beloved Cantab can’t claim the international recognition afforded the Station Inn, otherwise these two joints feel like twins separated by nothing more than distance. They share a complete lack of pretense that can’t be imitated or approximated. Their very ordinariness makes them special.

Yer Pal— Curly

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