Archive for the ‘Ye Olde Performer Showcase’ Category

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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

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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.

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Josh Williams Takes Us Back to Redwood Hill

5 February 2013

With the 2013 edition of the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival just around the corner, it’s time to wrap up our series of profiles of Josh Williams that we recorded at last year’s event. Here’s the band running through the ballad “Redwood Hill” as they warmed up for their main stage set:

In bluegrass circles, “Redwood Hill” is most closely associated with The Country Gentlemen. In a prior post, Williams discussed learning about bluegrass by exploring his dad’s record collection as a kid. The Country Gentlemen were among the acts that made an impression on him.

Founded in the late 1950’s, The Gentlemen were prominent fixtures in the rebirth of bluegrass that occurred in the 1960’s and early 1970’s with the rise of college music circuit and the culture of bluegrass festivals. Though the group developed an international following and was a key influence on a whole generation of pickers, not everyone warmed to their polished, folk-inflected brand of bluegrass. In particular, The Gentlemen’s penchant for adapting tunes with a pop pedigree didn’t endear them to traditionalists.

I’m not sure where the Moldy Figs of bluegrass would come down on “Redwood Hill,” then or now. It was written by the Canadian troubadour Gordon Lightfoot, so it’s a contemporary composition, but it also clearly shares the form and themes of many an older song. At the time The Country Gentlemen appropriated “Redwood Hill,” Lightfoot was at the height of his fame and many of the Young Turks of early 1970’s bluegrass were drawn to his material. Williams’ mentor, Tony Rice, recorded Lightfoot’s “Cold on the Shoulder”— a milestone from the era that has weathered well.

Whatever one thinks of The Country Gentlemen and their ilk’s exercises in cultural cross-pollination, when Williams & Co. sing “Redwood Hill,” it sounds like the aural equivalent of a vintage postcard, summoning up all the tumult and tempests of yore, no longer as battles to be fought again, but as bittersweet memories.

As we close out this series, I want to thank Josh Williams and his bandmates for sharing their music and their views. I’m also very grateful to Jamie Lansdowne for editing these pieces with such patience and forbearance.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Josh Williams: An Homage

29 January 2013

We pestered Josh Williams plenty at last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival and as you can see from our previous posts, he put up with us with grace and humor. While we appreciate Williams’ candor and detail in responding to our many questions, seems like we ought to take a break from the talk and let the man do what he does best…

“Blue Railroad Train” is a vintage country blues from the Delmore Brothers, but as Williams points out in his introduction, he learned the tune as it was popularized by Williams’ mentor Tony Rice in the 1970’s. When Williams says that he is offering his rendition as an homage to Rice, he seems to be referring primarily to the instrumental licks, but he can also channel the sound of Rice’s younger voice to great effect— a fact not lost on Rice himself.

Back when he recorded “Blue Railroad Train” for his classic album Manzanita, Rice could both play and sing with abandon. Over the ensuing decade, however, illness largely robbed him of his voice, forcing him to team up with other singers. For the past several years, Williams has been a fixture in The Tony Rice Unit, where he has played mandolin and handled lead vocal duties.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else being a more fitting vocal surrogate for Rice than Williams. While he certainly has a voice that’s all his own, Williams shares Rice’s affinity for soulful country vocals. It’s an oversimplification to put it this way, but you could say that the key to Rice’s sound was that his guitar was playing jazz and his voice was singing country. That description fits Williams’ style as well.

Only a genuine hot shot would announce that he’s going to play a song the way Tony Rice does— inviting inevitable comparisons between his performance and that of the maestro. Should you feel compelled to measure Williams’ version against Rice’s, there’s a video clip on YouTube of a live performance from Rice with a stellar edition of The Unit.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Josh Williams: Flatpicking Country

8 January 2013

At last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival Josh Williams took some time to talk with us about his musical background. His observations were frank and detailed:

Climbing the Fretboard

Folks with only a passing awareness of bluegrass are always surprised to learn that its history as a distinct musical genre is so brief. As a kid growing up in North Carolina, I had the same impression: like the Loblolly pines and the red clay, bluegrass was just part of the landscape, so it was easy to assume that it had always been thus.

The same went for flatpicking on steel string guitars. I recall spending a week in the mountains of Tennessee when I was in my teens. I had learned a few chords on the guitar, but there was a boy sharing a cabin with me who could pick bluegrass runs like greased lightening. I was aware of Flatt & Scruggs and Doc Watson, but this was the first time I had observed flatpicking up close. Once again, I assumed that this tight, fast technique had always been part of bluegrass in particular and traditional string music in general. Unbeknownst to me, as I tried in vain to emulate that Tennessee stud’s deft licks, I was at that very moment missing the Flatpicking Express that was just then leaving the station.

In his interview, Williams provides a succinct history of modern flatpicking. His earliest idols, Flatt & Scruggs, weren’t flatpickers per se: both used thumb and forefinger to pick and strum the guitar as performers like Charlie Monroe and A.P. Carter had done before them. It was their contemporary, the blind phenomenon Arthel “Doc” Watson, who forever changed the landscape of bluegrass guitar. Watson mastered everything from African-American country blues to honky tonk swing, and he brought all those styles together in a fluid technique that often featured brisk runs neatly articulated with a flat pick.

At the same time that Watson was wowing audiences at bluegrass festivals and college hootenannies, a young man was growing up in sunny California who would take Watson’s flatpicking technique and run with it. Clarence White played with a variety of musical acts, but in bluegrass circles, White is probably best remembered for his tenure in the Kentucky Colonels (another musical influence cited by Williams). White’s life was cut tragically short, so it was left to another West Coast-raised picker, Tony Rice, to carry on White’s legacy. It might seem a tad reductive to trace contemporary flatpicking technique back to the confluence of just three figures— Watson’s Appalachian roots infusing the jazzy Californian inflections of White and Rice— but as you can hear from Williams own account, those are indeed the key influences that shaped the technique of his generation of pickers.

Catching Up With the Past

In mentioning guitarist Tony Rice, Williams also brings up J.D. Crowe, the banjo player and bandleader with whom Rice collaborated for many years. Williams has often cited J.D. Crowe’s catholic tastes in material as a model. Back in the 1970’s Crowe’s penchant for borrowing tunes from the pop and country charts was seen by some as a threat to the traditional bluegrass sound. That response seems more than a little ironic today, since now it’s the groups that draw on what is often called “traditional country”— the music of George Jones, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens— that have formed a conservative bulwark in the bluegrass repertoire.

While Williams makes it clear that he appreciates a broad palette of music (Michael Jackson! Metallica!), that old country sound holds a special place in his heart. While he will probably always be best know for his flatpicking pyrotechnics, he can also match the heroes of heartache when it comes to putting across a country ballad. You get a little taste of Williams’ vocal abilities in the video clip as the band warms up backstage with a rendition of a song popularized by Gene Watson, “Speak Softly (You’re Talking to My Heart.)” For a full dose of pathos and romance, check out Williams singing another tune associated with Watson, “The Great Divide,” which we captured in a performance a couple of years back. You can review that post here.

While some of Williams’ heroes have retired or passed on, Gene Watson is still very much with us. In fact, he just celebrated fifty years as a performer. Though still carrying the country music banner, for years, Watson has performed as part of various bluegrass showcases, revues and festivals. It’s therefore not surprising that he has been touring with bluegrass stalwart Rhonda Vincent lately. What is a bit unanticipated is the recent announcement that Josh Williams had climbed aboard the Vincent/Watson bandwagon. Near the end of the year, Williams announced that he was rejoining Vincent’s band, The Rage, an outfit he toured with from 2004 to 2007. Williams’ return to The Rage line-up can therefore be seen as a homecoming on a couple of fronts, reconnecting him not just with a former bandleader but also with one of the standard bearers of the traditional country music Williams holds so dear.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Josh Williams: Ready for Anything

20 December 2012

Though only in his early thirties, Josh Williams has been a fixture on the bluegrass scene for well over a decade. He’s both a sought-after sideman and an established bandleader. Among flatpickers, he attained Guitar God status long ago, with a raft of awards to prove it. For all that, Williams doesn’t convey the kind of jaded, guarded attitude you might expect from someone with his track record. We caught up with Williams and his band at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. As you’ll see, he didn’t dodge any of our questions…

Do you know that cloying expression, “A little bird told me…?” For a fair number of folks, bluegrass fans and otherwise, it was indeed a little bird who told them about Josh Williams. Some 18 months ago, at the Doyle Lawson Bluegrass Festival, Williams and his band were rolling through one of his best known songs, “Mordecai,” when a small bird landed right on Williams hand…and stayed there. The episode was captured for posterity by the intrepid Ted Lehmann and has since been viewed by thousands on YouTube. In my estimation it trumps “Charlie Bit My Finger” in every category: warmth, humor and weirdness.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about the Josh Williams Bird Incident is the fact that Williams and the band never skipped a beat. They carried right on to the end of the song. I’ve never seen any performer more capable of rolling with the punches than Williams. And it isn’t as if he just gamely soldiers on in the face of adversity. It might be an overstatement to say that he flirts with disaster, but— as is apparent from his no-set-list policy— he certainly courts the unexpected.

I learned this the first time I took my camera to a Williams show. I was shooting video of him playing a hot number when he broke a string. Rather than wait for them to limp through the rest of the song, I turned off the camera, figuring I’d save the pixels and battery power. To my everlasting regret, I therefore missed what happened next: Williams casually pulled a pack of strings from his back pocket, thumbed through the package, found the correct string and threaded the replacement onto his guitar. He kept singing through all this, and when the solo break came around, he was all tuned up and ready to go.

A year or two after that experience, Williams was playing on the giant main stage at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival when the whole sound system shut down. Most bands would have stood there shrugging or shuffled off the stage. Williams & Co. ran down into the audience and resumed their show, totally, truly unplugged. You can see a bit of video from that set here. The crowd was so enchanted that they seemed vaguely disappointed when the power finally came back on.

Williams’ unflappability seems of a piece with his open, unvarnished personality. On stage and off, he has an easygoing candor that can take you by surprise. How many world-class musicians have you heard say that they don’t practice every day, or that there are times when they need a break from music? Among the other offhand assertions that Williams tosses off in the video clip above are a) that he doesn’t read much music, b) that he doesn’t even think much about keys and scales and c) that he doesn’t give much credence to technical do’s and don’ts. If you heard these views divorced from Williams’ music, you’d imagine him to be the Bad Boy of Bluegrass, a “punk picker” so to speak, but in fact Williams is a virtuoso of the first order.

Williams’ legions of fans should stay tuned, because we’ve got a whole series of videos featuring Josh and his band coming up. As we’ll see in those pieces, Williams likes to explore the line between bluegrass and traditional country music, and indeed you get a taste of that mixture in our first video clip above. The song the boys are running through backstage is Dwight Yoakam’s ode to his coal mining grandfather, “The Miner’s Prayer.” With it’s high and lonesome chorus seasoned with just a hint of Bakersfield twang, it’s a great fit for Williams’ sound.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Hot Mustard: Special Recipe for Tasty Bluegrass

29 June 2012

The New England bluegrass outfit Hot Mustard has got a busy summer brewing, including festival appearances and a set at— wait for it—The Night of 1000 Cupcakes!

This band could be said to be a marriage of marriages, in that it consists of two couples, Kelly and Bruce Stockwell and April and Bill Jubett. In this final episode of our Performers Showcase on the band, we circle back to beginnings, tracing how the various band members met up to share music and more. Who knew that “Bile Them Cabbage Down” could have sentimental value?

The featured tune in this clip is of course “Angel Band,” which is my way of sneaking one more gospel number under the tent flap after our recent trifecta of gospel-related posts. The song is indelibly associated with the Stanley Brothers, but its history stretches back 150 years. According to ye olde Wikipedia, the melody was first published in 1862 in Bradbury’s Golden Shower of S.S. Melodies, a title that brings forth unwelcome associations with grindhouse movies or worse. If that weren’t unsettling enough, consider the fact that, among the many bands that have covered this song, we find…The Monkees.

Hot Mustard’s version, which comes from the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, is angelic indeed. The key modulation that occurs near the end (listen for it under the final interview segment) is particularly nifty.

Yer Pal— Curly

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