Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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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

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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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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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Peter Rowan: Essential Stats

1 April 2013

Born on the 4th of July, Peter Rowan turned 70 last summer. With that milestone behind him and a new bluegrass album entitled “The Old School” soon to come out, it seems like a good time to survey his long career. If a picture is worth a thousand, then a graph ought to be worth at least five hundred words:

Peter Rowan GraphYer Pal— Curly

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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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From “Buy Local” to “Goodbye, Local”

15 January 2013

I admit that this week’s post is something of a departure, in that it deals largely with a landmark near my home base in Beantown, a subject that might strike some of my far-flung readers as parochial. Bear with me, however, as I believe there are universal lessons to be drawn from this story.

Sandys_Music_Seen_from_SideThis past Saturday morning, I got word through Jeff Boudreau’s informative notloB Music blog that a Cambridge musical institution, Sandy’s Music, was closing. I was saddened by the news and thought I should stop by the shop to spend a few last bucks and say farewell. However, when I got to Sandy’s some hours later, I was shocked to find the store already mostly disassembled.

Members of shop owner Sandy Sheehan’s extended family were busily packing up the remaining merchandise and hauling a ragtag miscellany of cases, stands and instruments up from the basement.

Sandy has been in poor health for some time now and therefore was unable to participate in the process of winding up the business that he started back in 1970. Located on Massachusetts Avenue midway between those famed institutions of higher learning, The Plough and the Stars and The Cantab Lounge— I mean Harvard and MIT— Sandy’s Music has served as a funky, cramped oasis for lovers of traditional American, British and Celtic music for over forty years. It was the kind of place where you could go to buy a ukulele for yer kid or an extra E-string for yer guitar and wind up having a 45-minute discussion about autoharp makers.

Family_help_to_clear_out_Sandys_Music_CambridgeThat’s because presiding over the whole shambolic enterprise was the unassuming, owl-like presence of Sheehan. Were someone to write “The Ballad of Sandy Sheehan,” it could serve as an anthem for the whole Folk Revival generation. Sheehan and his brother were born in Canada but adopted by a couple in the Pioneer Valley, north of Springfield, Massachusetts. As a young man, Sheehan migrated to Cambridge, no doubt seeking to connect with others who shared his passion for traditional instruments and music. It was the 1960’s and the heyday of “group homes” in Cambridge. In these communal households, residents shared everything from cooking to political philosophies. Sheehan lived for decades in one of the most durable and renowned group homes, an old house known simply as Old Joe Clark.

As the name of his longstanding abode implies, traditional music has permeated Sheehan’s life. He opened his store to pickers, hosting an old-time session that ran for decades on Monday nights. Jon Gersh, a friend who led the session for many years, described Sandy’s as a “space for people to meet, and new people to try out traditional music in a totally safe setting.”

Chair_Sandys_Music_CambridgeThough he is said to play a little banjo, Sheehan’s instrument of choice is the turntable, and it has been through the airwaves as much as anything that he has been able to share his deep knowledge of music with the public. Starting in 1986, Sheehan has hosted a show called “Traditional Folk” on WUMB in Boston. There are few pleasures to compare with driving along the Boston waterfront of an evening to the accompaniment of some chestnut from The Skillet Lickers or The Blue Sky Boys, followed by Sheehan’s succinct commentary in his distinctive burr. During Sheehan’s convalescence, the show has lived on through reruns. Until Sheehan is back on his feet, it will be hosted by Gersh.

When he wasn’t installed behind the microphone or the counter of his store, Sheehan could often be found in the lobby of a concert hall or in the mess hall of a music camp, selling music and instru-ments. His wide-ranging involvement in the New England music scene earned him a Boston Bluegrass Heritage Award in 2009. He once told me that he would have liked to have gotten out to see and sell at more events, but that too often required him to close the shop on weekends. “That’s when we make the big bucks,” he said with a dry laugh.

In truth, of course, Sheehan never realized much money from his passion, yet his store endured, despite decades of tumult in the music business. In closing at this time, Sandy’s Music joins a long list of local record, sheet music and instrument vendors who have recently thrown in the towel, a sad parade that begs us to ask, why now?

In the 1980’s and 1990’s stores like Sandy’s were able to fend off the assault from big box stores like Guitar Center (for instruments) and HMV (for records) by focusing on hard-to-find, local and used merchandise. Of course, they also provided a much more personable shopping experience.

Truck_in_front_of_Sandys_Music_Cambridge

In recent years, however, many of the stores have been done in by the Information Revolution. What’s interesting is that the internet picked these shops clean from two opposing directions. On the one hand, Amazon and Ebay gave customers access to a globalized marketplace that pushed prices down close to wholesale levels. On the other hand, Craigslist and the like provided ways for buyers and sellers of instruments to connect locally without the need of a middleman (unless you consider Craig and his list a middleman). Some of the small shops have managed to maintain a toehold by working their own internet sales very aggressively. Sandy’s Music was doing that a bit, too, but of course it’s very hard to be “heard” in the hurlyburly of the worldwide web.

I don’t see any real way of stopping the march of time, regardless of whether the wheels are turning in the direction of progress or decay, but milestones like Sandy’s Music closing give us an opportunity to reflect on what’s lost amid all the change. Small music stores haven’t just given us a place where you could seek out and talk with people like Sheehan who were knowledgeable about music; they provided day jobs for people who dedicated their lives to art and culture. It has never been easy for people to make a living in music, whether as a promoter, collector, DJ or performer. Stores like Sandy’s provided a way for such folk to devote themselves fully to music they loved. The shuttering of these stores therefore impoverishes the music scene not simply because it leaves us with fewer business outlets, but because it deprives the people who keep that scene alive of a livelihood.

Flyer_to_Benefit_Sandy_Sheehan-Sandys_Music

Although Sandy’s Music is no more, Sandy abides. Unfortunately, he currently abides in a rehab center, and that of course is very costly. That’s why Gerst and a big circle of Sandy’s friends and supporters have organized a benefit show on his behalf. It’s coming up on January 22nd at Johnny D’s in Somerville, so now is the time to lock in yer reservations. A cavalcade of performers will be on hand, including The Dixie Butterhounds, The Hi-Tone Ramblers, Lorraine and Bennett Hammond, Put Your Hoe Down, Laura Smith and a small army of banjo players. On that last note, you are encouraged to bring your “weirdest banjo” and join the “Dreaded Banjo Orchestra.” An event not to be missed! With luck, Sandy himself will be on hand.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Jeff Boudreau and Jon Gerst for much of the info included here.

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John Hartford’s Legacy at 75

28 December 2012

With his bowler hat and colorful duds, there was always something boyish about John Hartford. It therefore comes as something of a shock to realize that Sunday, December 30th would have been his 75th birthday. By way of appreciation…

Of course, that is Hartford’s giant hit, “Gentle On My Mind” as performed by Molly Tuttle, Eric Robertson, Nick DiSebastian, Gabe Hirshfeld and John Mailander. This campsite performance was captured at the 2012 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. See below for a special note on the circumstances surrounding the recording.

How you think about John Hartford probably depends a bit upon your vintage. I confess that, for a really ancient cuss like Yers Truly, it’s hard for Hartford ever to escape that bell jar of late sixties folksy nostalgia. Some part of him remains trapped forever in an easy-listening ether, along with the likes of Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb and the Smothers Brothers.

That limited view is unfortunate, and it certainly doesn’t do justice to Hartford’s multifaceted career. In truth, Hartford never spent much time marching in the hit parade. Instead he used his pop success to branch out and reach back. In the early 1970’s he was a central figure in the development of New Grass music, a melding of bluegrass with pop riffs, rhythms and instrumentation. For many young listeners who had grown up on a diet of folk and rock, Hartford’s 1971 album Aero-Plain seemed doubly authentic: on the one hand, with its fiddles and banjos, the album sounded as old and comfortable as a broken-in pair of jeans, but its playful references to contraband substances and life on the road gave it youth culture credibility.

In its heyday, it was easy to view New Grass as a musical manifestation of the Generation Gap, and there were of course plenty of bluegrass traditionalists who considered it an adulteration of the genuine article. At the distance of several decades, such hand-wringing and haranguing seems almost quaint, especially given that tunes like “Steam Powered Aero Plain” now show up regularly at jams, perfectly at home between “Salt Creek” and “On and On.”

Of course, the Young Turks of New Grass never saw the canon of bluegrass and traditional music as an “establishment” that had to be overturned. On the contrary, they were the first generation who could view the music with an archivist’s appreciation for historical context. If you watch the strange and wonderful double-DVD set that Homespun Music Instruction produced on the mandolin technique of Bill Monroe, it’s John Hartford who plays the role of MC, avidly encouraging and supplicating the Father of Bluegrass to share the secrets of his playing method.

Hartford’s interest in traditional string music led him back to songs and tunes that predate bluegrass. In 1998, he released, The Speed of the Old Long Bow, which had as its subtitle A Tribute to the Fiddle Music of Ed Haley. Haley was the blind fiddler whose composing and performing during the first half of the 20th Century greatly expanded the Appalachian fiddle tune repertoire.Hartford’s album didn’t ignite a renaissance in old time music— that phenomenon had been percolating already for several decades— but I do suspect that the current generation of hot shot fiddlers, all of whom know tunes associated with Haley like “Forked Deer” and “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom,” owe a thing or two to John Hartford.

The Haley tribute was just one of a series of projects that Hartford undertook at the end of his life that widened the audience for old time and bluegrass music. His contributions to the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou insure that a vast new generation of traditional string music fans got to know his fiddle and voice.

More than a decade has passed both since the passing of Hartford and the launch of the O Brother juggernaut, and we could use another galvanizing project that will once again give the bluegrass scene a shot in the arm (the fizzling of a biopic to coincide with Bill Monroe’s centennial seems like a lost opportunity in this respect). When you consider Hartford’s many guises— banjo-wielding hit maker, archangel of New Grass, champion of bluegrass and fiddle music— you have to wonder: where would he be leading us today? For of Hartford’s many gifts, perhaps the greatest was his ability to draw from the past while always looking ahead.

I am happy hear that two musicians, Marcy Cochran and Sheila Nichols, are well along in their efforts to produce a John Hartford documentary. I look forward to learning more about this protean picker through Cochran and Nichol’s film.

On The Joys of Field Recording

Here at Second Cousin Curly, we strive to bring you bluegrass in all its unvarnished glory. Sometimes that means venturing into the wilds of church basements and backyards to capture the music in its native habitat. This is not without its challenges. In the case of the recording featured above, you’ll notice that the audio gets kinda soggy about half way through the song. That’s because a portapotty truck arrived at that point and started doing its dirty work. In editing this video, we struggled for many hours to clean the sewage off the recording, so to speak, with only partial success. Even after all the pain and loss, I still keep a warm place in my heart for the portapotty crew, because as anyone who goes to outdoor fests will tell you, the only thing worse than having a portapotty truck show up and spoil yer jam is not having the portapotty truck show up at all.

Second Cousin Curly’s Hostile Facebook Takeover

Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine has a Facebook page (4800+ likes). The Punch Brothers have one, too (48000+ likes). So does the Little Roy and Lizzy Show (2700+ likes). Heck, even Bill Monroe has a Facebook page (4400+ likes), though he died long before Facebook was born. Anyway, we have gotten the message. With 2013 dawning, the time has come…

[a banjo roll, please…]

Debuting New Year’s Day: Second Cousin Curly’s Facebook Page! If you visit the page right now, you will find only the virtual equivalent of a freshly graded parcel of land. Soon, however, an empire will rise out of the barren soil, so watch that space! We’re going to use the page to share all sorts of entertaining stuff, from vintage videos to timely tips. It may not change the face of bluegrass, but we hope Second Cousin Curly on Facebook will put a smile on your face. So here’s a deal for you: “Like” us, and we’ll love you in return.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Yep, we are also on Twitter @2ndcousincurly!

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