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Of Bluegrass and Beatlemania

18 October 2013

If you’ve had the pleasure of hearing The Lonely Heartstring Band play a set, then you know that they have widely surveyed the song catalog of Messrs. Lennon and McCartney. This must have made choosing just a handful of these compositions for their new EP a tough call. The record is a hit in my book, but one of my favorite Beatles covers failed to make the cut. I’m therefore pleased to offer it here as something like a bonus track:

Over time, music gets encoded into a culture in two ways: either it gets passed along and reinterpreted as folk music or it gets canonized and transformed into a classical form. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ first U.S. tour and the efflorescence of Beatlemania stateside, the Fab Four’s legacy remains a work in progress. It’s safe to say that we’ll still be listening to the Beatles in another fifty years, but will we be singing their songs around the campfire or studying them in college?

The notion of some ancient, ink-stained wretch like Yers Truly pondering such a question with regard to the Beatles would have seemed beyond strange to the mobs shaking to “Twist and Shout” in the 1960’s. After all, back then, even the Beatles’ songs moved up and down the charts, enjoying great popularity to be sure, but also eventually being supplanted by the Next Big Thing. That feeling of evanescence is worth keeping in mind as you have a listen to this:

That is the Charles River Valley Boys playing a reunion set at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival (yep, the same event where we shot our videos of the Lonely Heartstring dudes). The venerable group was on hand to receive a Heritage Award from the Boston Bluegrass Union. During the Folk Scare of the early 1960’s, the Charles River Valley Boys were the primary flag bearers for bluegrass in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts. After recording a few albums of straight-ahead bluegrass and traditional string band music, the group got the notion to make a record featuring Beatles tunes done in the style of bluegrass. Thus the album Beatle Country was born.

That was in 1966. Think about it: when the Charles River Valley Boys recorded “Help!”, the song had no comforting patina of nostalgia. At the time, it was simply part of the soundtrack of the moment. So though we recorded our videos with the CRVB and the LHB but a few hours and a couple hundred yards apart, and though they cover many of the same Beatles tunes, we have to imagine that the two groups bring very different perspectives to the music.

Beatle Country was certainly not the first instance of a bluegrass band covering pop songs. As noted bassist, songwriter and journalist Jon Weisberger has pointed out in commenting on one of my earlier posts, “Bluegrass acts were doing songs written or popularized by other acts, including from genres other than country music just about from Day 1.” That said, I’m having a hard time digging up an earlier example of an entire bluegrass record devoted to the work of one pop act. If anyone can point me toward dicographical entries I have missed, I’m all ears. Reno in Vegas: The Rat Pack Meets Bluegrass! has a nice ring to it, or perhaps Cline Time: The Music of Patsy and Curly Ray Cline.

Since the appearance of Beatle Country, this kind of concept album has become a veritable subgenre of bluegrass. Everyone from AC/DC to Journey has gotten the bluegrass treatment. There have been not one but two entire albums devoted to faithfully translating The Moody Blues into The Moody Bluegrass. Back when there were still record stores, our local emporium had a bin devoted just to cover projects such as these.

Whether or not such genre splicing is your cup of tea, I urge you to pay attention to The Lonely Heartstring Band. These guys may be Beatlemaniacs of the first order, but they have too much musical talent and too much of a feel for bluegrass to define themselves strictly as a Beatles cover band. Indeed, the most electrifying track on their EP is their devilish take on “Ole Slew Foot” (which you can download along with the rest of the record from Bandcamp on a pay-what-you-like basis— click here to see details).

“Old Slew Foot” has plenty of bluegrass credibility, having been played by the likes of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, and in the hands of the Lonely Heartstringers, the song sounds like it was brought down from the mountains. But guess what? The earliest recording I’ve found of “Slew Foot” was made by Johnny Horton in the late 1950’s. Horton’s take on the song is pretty much straight-up rockabilly. At the end of the day, then, what defines music as bluegrass has less to do with origins than with sound. Perhaps that’s what Tony Rice (a picker as adventurous and iconoclastic as any) meant when he recently concluded his moving speech at this year’s IBMA awards with this statement: “It’s our duty to allow bluegrass music to grow and flourish and at the same time retain the most important part of it, and that is the essence of the sound of real bluegrass music.”

The performance by the Charles River Valley Boys demonstrates one way that bluegrass continues to “grow and flourish, “ and that’s by families passing the music on from one generation to the next. The “Boys” are joined onstage by Ashley Lilly, the daughter of guitarist Everett Alan Lilly. Everett Alan is in turn the son of Everett Lilly, half of the seminal bluegrass duo The Lilly Brothers. Seeing young Ashley on stage with her dad is a poignant reminder of how few degrees separate any of us from the “true vine” of bluegrass.

Yer Pal— Curly

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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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Fiddle Camp with Brittany Haas & Friends

28 August 2013

As I write this, the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School is in full swing. Yep, the moon is full, and if you aren’t sure if Scottish fiddlers can swing, you need only look at this video featuring a bunch of VOM graduates and instructors:

This clip is from the raucous finale that closed a house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a whole bunch of friends and relations. The two-tune medley ties together a traditional Irish tune, “Bill Malley’s Barndance,” with a contemporary composition, “E-B-E Reel” by Liz Carroll a prominent performer, composer and instructor of Celtic music.

As you can see, the cozy living room “stage” was packed with musicians, including no less than four fiddlers: Haas, Lily Henley, Kellen Zakula and Duncan Wickel. I knew that this concert was more or less an ad hoc event, pulling together a group of friends for a night of music. I therefore asked Haas how it was that all of the performers could so quickly master a tune like “E-B-E Reel,” which has yet to enter the traditional canon.  Haas responded that they had all “learned it from Liz directly at a fiddle camp in California—Valley of the Moon.”

It’s hard to overstate the influence fiddle camps have had on traditional string music. More often than not, when I hear some tune cropping up at concerts and jams, its popularity can be traced back to its having been in the repertoire of a popular fiddle camp. It’s also common for a fiddle camp’s special recipe for some old-time tune to take hold as the music gets recycled once again. And then there are the original compositions inspired by fiddle camps. No fiddle camp, no “Ashokan Farewell.”

Fiddle camps have also had an enormous impact on playing technique. Watching this video, you don’t just hear that these folks share a common background; you can see it. There is little trace of the cramped style of traditional Appalachian fiddling. This is especially noticeable in the right hand: the players really move the bow across the string with ramrod-straight articulation.

That’s true even of Duncan Wickel, who was performing that night with an interesting handicap. If you aren’t familiar with Wickel, you will be soon. Once you start looking for him, he’s a bit like Waldo, showing up everywhere. Most recently I caught him over the summer playing with otherworldly cello phenom Rushad Eggleston. Wickel was in the audience for the Watertown house concert and was called up to join his friends for the encore. There was a spare fiddle on hand for him to use, but when it came to a bow, all that could be found was a cello bow.  Using the shorter and stouter weapon didn’t seem to slow Wickel down at all.

Fiddle camps often bear the imprimatur of a particular master or group of artists. The Ashokan to which fiddlers are bidding farewell is Ashokan Music & Dance Camp, which is associated with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. In the case of Valley of the Moon, the guiding force is Alasdair Fraser, the renowned Scottish fiddler who has played with Haas’ sister Natalie since she was in her teens. That’s Natalie on cello in the house concert video. As you can hear, her driving rhythms provide both a pulse and an anchor to a jam that could have easily spun out of control.

Indeed, when I congratulated Haas (younger sister Britanny, that is) at the conclusion of the concert, I could tell she was concerned that the finale had too many rough edges. This is a difficulty I often encounter: the musician and the audience view a performance through opposite ends of the telescope and come away with very different impressions. The performer understandably examines every nuance, whereas the audience concerns itself only with the overall effect. I assured Haas that the concert had ended on a very high note. Looking back at it through the lens of my camera, I still feel that way. All-star jams disappoint more often than not, but in this case, the joy of friends reconnecting is palpable. Watching them all rocking out on their former teacher’s tune, it’s not hard to imagine their younger selves practicing together— or just having boisterous, loud fun— in a camp cabin years ago.

Thanks to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Thanks as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his patience and ingenuity in editing the footage.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Town Mountain Shares the Good Times

8 August 2013

Town Mountain, the hot young quintet based in Asheville, North Carolina, seems to be having a good summer. They’ve been gigging around the country and were featured in the July 2013 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited. Here’s a crowd-pleasing number from the group that delivers plenty of sunny vibes, suitable for a group on the rise, or just a warm summer night:

The tune is “Sugar Mama,” and it was penned by the group’s mandolin player, Phil Barker. It appears on the band’s 2011 release, “Steady Operator,” and should not be confused with at least two different blues and sundry other compositions of the same name.

We’ve featured three original numbers from Town Mountain over the past several months, and it’s worth noting that each song was written by a different member of the group. Last year, in a piece on the veteran group Blue Highway, I opined that part of the secret of that outfit’s longevity lay in the fact that so many of its members wrote material for the band. This might lessen the likelihood of any player feeling like a fifth wheel. If I’m correct in this theory, then Town Mountain has a long and promising career still ahead.

As has been the case with many of our recent clips, the entire series of Town Mountain videos was edited by Adam Lawrence. Like Town Mountain, both Adam and I hail from North Carolina, so working on this trilogy has been like old home week. I really appreciate Adam’s contributions.

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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Hard Truths from Town Mountain

2 July 2013

Time to share another fine tune from the Tarheel outfit Town Mountain. This is from the group’s rip-roaring set at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.

“Hope Shadows Fear” is a good example of what Town Mountain does so well. They offer up traditional bluegrass without sounding canned or generic. If you listen to the lyric, you’ll find yer train a-runnin’ and all that, but there’s also a metaphysical perspective binding the whole thing together.

The song was penned by Town Mountain’s banjo player, Jesse Langlais, who writes that it’s about “giving up on a loved one who won’t help themselves.” That sounds pretty grim, but Langlais leaves the door open for redemption with the tag. Even when you’ve bottomed out, he says, “Hope shadows all the fear.” You can find the studio version of this number on the band’s 2011 release, “Steady Operator.”

The song’s brooding, philosophic reach connects it with a common thread in bluegrass, bringing to mind popular tunes like “The Walls of Time” and “All Aboard.” And is it just me, or do others detect the echo of “When Joy Kills Sorrow” in the title “Hope Shadows Fear?”

Yer Pal— Curly

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Curly’s College Bowl: Define “Hegemonic”

13 June 2013

As we demonstrated in an earlier post, The Lonely Heartstring Band really lit up the hallways and stages of The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival last winter with their deft interpretations of the Beatles catalogue (intermingled with the occasional classic bluegrass number). Here’s another song from the Fab Five:

The music of the Beatles, whatever the genre, has a special and irresistible pull. You’ll notice folks poking around in the background of the videos we shot with The Lonely Heartstring dudes, and there’s a reason for that: people are drawn to these familiar songs and the band’s elegant musicianship like iron filings to a magnet.

Such good vibrations notwithstanding, there have always been and continue to be plenty of skeptics out there when it comes to mixing bluegrass and pop. My friend Emily Marcus recently posted some observations on the Facebook about the bluegrass the music service Spotify was offering up. She got a lot of props when she ventured that “most songs are NOT better done ‘bluegrass style’ (i.e.: Metallica & Green Day are plenty awful all by themselves…).”

We all know where Emily is coming from. As a rule, a bad song is a bad song is a bad song. Yet sometimes the very act of translating a song from one genre to another can reveal qualities that were hidden in the original form (see Richard Thompson’s acoustic rendition of Britney Spear’s “Oops, I Did It Again”). Moreover, it’s also true that a good song is a good song is a good song. It’s hardly worth pointing out that many a bluegrass classic started out life in a different musical style (see Del McCoury and the boys’ take on Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightning 1952”).

I suspect that what turns Emily & Company off about Metallica and Green Day isn’t just the quality of their songwriting but the sheer pervasiveness of their music. What makes Metallica, Green Day and any other commercial act you care to list “plenty awful” is partly that you can’t get away from them. If you listen to bluegrass and acoustic music as an antidote to the soundscape defined by The Music Industry, then naturally you aren’t going to be very happy when that mainstream, hegemonic musical industrial complex starts to infiltrate your place of refuge.

In the olden days, if you liked a song and wanted to replicate it, you had play it or sing it, and in doing so, you gave the tune your own particular spin. The music that arose from this chain of dissemination was a group effort, quite literally a “folk” product. Since the advent of mechanical reproduction and mass distribution, however, mere popularity is no longer measure of a song’s long-term cultural resonance. After all, by that yardstick, “Gangnam Style” is today’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Jeff Boudreau, the Boston-based music impresario and director of the notloB Parlour Concerts and Lord Geoffrey Presents Series laments how many bluegrass acts incorporate pop tunes into their set lists. “OK, they were influenced by pop growing up,” writes Boudreau. “Does that mean in a couple years we will be hearing bluegrass covers of Lada Gaga?”

The degree to which you chafe at the notion of bluegrass covers of “Born This Way” is probably a good indicator of the degree to which you see bluegrass as part of— or apart from— the contemporary music market. If you consider bluegrass to be a vestige of what Greil Marcus famously described as the “Old, Weird America,” then you’ll resist anything that smacks of homogenization.

I’m not hostile to the notion of bluegrass and old time music as a preserve for all things weird, organic and bent, but I also think that the Beatles in particular pose an interesting challenge to any attempt to draw a bright line between the mainstream and its alternatives. On the one hand, it’s hard to think of a musical act that’s more ingrained into the fabric of the “dominant culture” than the Beatles. To coin a phrase, their work is truly “here, there and everywhere.” Even so, the band and their music haven’t become completely commodified.

This is due in part to the care the musicians and their heirs have taken in protecting their legacy, but it also has something to do with the music itself. As anyone who has played through transcriptions of Beatles’ tunes will know, many are quite difficult and unpredictable. The song featured in the clip above, George Harrison’s composition “Something,” is as good an illustration of this as any. For every straight-ahead rock n’ roll composition they wrote, they penned another three that were rooted in other musical traditions. The group gathered the sounds from the Edwardian music hall, Indian ragas, country music and elsewhere, then combined them with their own patented, idiosyncratic chord progressions to create a body of work that was and is astoundingly varied and complex.

All that might sound like a good argument against using the Beatles as the basis for bluegrass, or vice versa— ye olde “too many chords for bluegrass” complaint. However, couldn’t the case also be made that it’s the very complexity and strangeness of their music that makes it an easy fit with the traditional string band? This might not be “Old, Weird America,” but it’s “Old, Weird Something-or-Other.”

Yer Pal— Curly

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