Posts Tagged ‘Americana’

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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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Postcards from Grey Fox

21 July 2014

Just back from the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. For once, let me share a few experiences with you while they’re still fresh.

I only discovered Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line this year, but this is in fact Nora Jane’s third Grey Fox as a performer. As she explains in the video, her connection to the festival goes back to her childhood. Growing up in New Jersey, Grey Fox (which is in the Catskills region of New York) was “the local festival” for the Struthers family. Though now based in Nashville and exploring genres other than bluegrass, Grey Fox and bluegrass clearly continue to occupy a special place in Struthers’ heart. The musical snippets in this profile are from “Barn Dance” a song featured on Struthers’ 2013 album, “Carnival.”

While talented performers like Nora Jane Struthers light up the stages of Grey Fox, an army of festival staff and volunteers toil behind the scenes to keep the party going. Perhaps no one better illustrates the self-effacing, for-the-good-of-the-order spirit of the festival personnel than Ginger Smith. To give you a sense of Ginger, here’s a quick profile:

For the duration of the festival and beyond, Smith more or less lives in a big top tent just to the side of the main stage at Grey Fox. There she oversees Ginger’s Grey Fox Café, the festival’s own food concession. Her culinary offerings range from humble hot dogs to gourmet gumbo, all cooked right on site.

Smith strikes me as one of those incredibly industrious people who think that sitting down is for sissies. She must have a monster garden, since she grows the ingredients for the relishes and jams she serves at the café and sells at her local farmer’s market.

Tuckered out yet? But wait, the best is yet to come: Proceeds from the sale of Smith’s preserves and condiments support the Copprome Orphanage in Honduras, where she volunteers during winter months. You can learn more about Copprome by visiting http://copprome.com.

Grey_Fox_Parade-1

Grey Fox grew out of its predecessor, Winter Hawk (kinda sounds like the start of an old Native American legend, but I digress). Mary Doub was one of the producers of Winter Hawk and now owns and operates Grey Fox. This edition marked the thirtieth festival with Doub at the helm. At this point, Doub must be thinking a bit about her legacy. Will Grey Fox live on once she is no longer in charge? What music will they be playing at Grey Fox thirty more years down the line?  Will dawn still be greeting the Grillbillies, her rosy fingers stroking their greyed Mohawks and faded tattoos?

The general consensus “on the field,” so to speak, is that Grey Fox has gradually moved away from traditional bluegrass over the years. Certainly, there were plenty of drums, electric guitars and saxophones in evidence this time. On the other hand, the picking scene around the campsites seemed more lively than last year, so I’m not ready to declare Grey Fox a bluegrass festival in name only just yet. Indeed, if bluegrass has a “big tent,” it’s Grey Fox, and for now, all the strains of roots music that inform bluegrass can be found there, jostling each other on the dance floor.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Vintage Della Mae

8 March 2013

It’s during these late winter days that you go down to the root cellar hoping to find some whatnot from which a meal can be made. Sometimes you find a moldy turnip, but occasionally you get lucky and come away with a jar of watermelon pickles or some such delicacy you had previously overlooked. Such was the case this week as we cleared out the last of our 2012 vintage of Joe Val Bluegrass Festival videos. Tucked in a corner was this tasty tidbit…

That is of course an earlier incarnation of one of the bluegrass bands of the moment, Della Mae. I’ve recently reported on the very busy year Della Mae had in 2012. If the first two months are any indication, 2013 will prove to be even more action-packed for these globetrotting pickers. On the heels of an appearance at Washington’s Wintergrass, they are presently attending the International Country Music Festival in Zurich, Switzerland. And let me remind you that the ICMF is “das einzige 38 tägige Country-Festival in der Welt.” How do you say “Yee-haw” in Swiss German?

In a couple of months, things will really start to heat up for Della Mae with the arrival of their first album with Rounder Records. Having at last cleared out our cellar, we’ll be ushering in spring with some video profiles of this talented quintet, along with material that will be on the new album.

While we wait for these new blossoms to burst forth, we can savor “Polk County,” the tune in the clip above. This is a song that the group has done for a couple of years now, and it can be found on their debut album, “I Built This Heart.” As you can hear, its infectious hook has a long shelf life. Polk County is tucked into the southwest border of North Carolina. Lead singer Celia Woodsmith wrote the song after reading about an old mining town down yonder. According to mandolinist Jenni Lyn Gardner, “it has become one of our more stompy tunes with the mandolin intro and fiery fiddle riffs.” No question about that. Enjoy!

Yer Pal— Curly

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Della Mae’s Busy Year

1 January 2013

We know the feeling: 2012 seems to have passed in a flash. A minute ago we were watching the crocuses bloom, then we blinked, and there’s Christmastime a-comin’ a-gain. Well, however busy we thought the past year was, Della Mae has us all beat. This young bluegrass band had so much happen so fast in 2012 that this video (shot at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival in February) already feels like an historical artifact:

Della Mae’s performance at Joe Val was one of the last major gigs featuring founding bass player Amanda Kowalski, who departed early in the year to pursue other callings. She was replaced by Shelby Means, a Wyomingian by way of Nashville. The band spent the summer busily gigging and recording. In August, it was nominated for an IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year Award and then in the fall, it embarked on an international tour as part of the State Department’s American Music Abroad Program.

Della Mae in Kazakhstan

How many Stans do you know? We don’t mean Stan Musial, Stan Lee or (to pick a bluegrass figure) Stan Zdonik. We’re talking about those states on the Asiatic steppes that virtually define the term “faraway places.” In their fall tour, Della Mae pretty much cornered the market on Stans, touring through Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. If the photographic record is any indication (which you can find on the band’s Facebook page and in the cool new bluegrass website The Bluegrass Situation), the group left throngs of new admirers in their wake. I often say that the bluegrass audience is like the Platte River: an inch deep but a mile wide. Della Mae’s tour undoubtedly widened that fan base even further. It’s heartwarming to think of folks drinking the bluegrass Kool-Aid in places like Tashkent, Bishkek and Islamabad.

We have other good stuff from Della Mae to impart in the weeks ahead, but more importantly, the band will be sharing lots of new music in the form of an album that’s due to be released by Rounder Records in March. It will include the song featured in the video above. “Empire” is just one example of the group’s strong homegrown material. It was penned by Celia Woodsmith, who also sings lead on it. More on the new record as the drop date approacheth.

Della Mae’s founder and fiddler Kimber Ludiker recently referred to 2012 as “easily the best year of my life.” Just looking over some of the souvenirs from her travels, it’s not hard to understand how she feels, and the State Department tour in particular seems like a defining, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even so, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to see that the coming year holds its share of important new milestones for this fast-rising ensemble.

Giving Thanks

Before 2012 recedes into the mists, we need to send some heartfelt thanks out to all the talented folks who contributed to the small mountain of videos that we put out in the course of the year. Working backwards chronologically, Jamie Lansdowne has just escaped to Los Angeles after spending the fall in the tyrannical yoke of Cousin Curly’s editing bay. Jamie gave generously of his time and talents and was instrumental to the shaping of the Josh Williams and Della Mae pieces that we are now sharing with the world. Lauren Scully worked through the summer months and was the core of our media team at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (aided and abetted by colleague and friend Geoff Poister). Lastly, for much of 2012 we had the good offices of two exceptionally dedicated filmmakers, Megan Lovallo and Paul Villanova. Mistress of Mayhem Megan edited a bunch of videos for us and contributed some gorgeous camerawork, especially at the Joe Val Fest, where she was joined by Anna Gerstenfeld. Paul dazzled us with his post-production skills and then went on to prove that his title Minister of Information was no joke. He has been the lynchpin behind our increased presence in social media and continues to be a key player in the Wide World of Curly. Which leads us to one last point…

Second Cousin Curly’s Plan for Domination of Worldwide Bluegrass Craze

It’s a New Year and we’re partying like it’s 2006! Yep, we at Team Curly are launching this thing called a Facebook Page. I know: it’s like hillbilly science fiction. We’ve got lots of good stuff to share, but “sharing with no one” just sounds like a bad Zen koan. That’s why we’re asking you to make “liking” the Second Cousin Curly Facebook page a resolution you’ll actually keep in 2013. Here’s to a tuneful and peaceful New Year!

Yer Pal— Curly

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The Kruger Brothers Get On The Gospel Train

21 June 2012

This week, we conclude our gospel triptych with a nugget from the vault. You know how you sometimes read in the paper about postcards that get lost in the mail, only to arrive at their intended address years later? Well, something like that happened with this video postcard from MerleFest— MerleFest 2010, that is. Fortunately, the message is timeless. Have a look:

This video underscores a point made in our last episode— that the black gospel tradition has a greater influence in bluegrass today than once was the case. Talk about crossing cultural borders! Here we have a pair of brothers from Switzerland— that would be the Kruger Brothers, Uwe and Jens— playing a gospel song by an African-American soul maestro— Curtis Mayfield.

What is about trains and salvation anyway? How is it that, in relatively short order, the locomotive went from being the noisy emblem of the industrial age to supplanting the chariot as the preferred conveyance to the pearly gates? I note that the Interstate Highway System has been around for more than fifty years, but nobody’s taking I-40 to heaven.

Remembering Doc

That mysterious train carried Doc Watson away recently. Like everybody who loves traditional music, it seems, he touched me directly. One of my earliest memories of hearing bluegrass performed live was when I heard Doc and his son Merle play a concert at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, NC. They were at once totally down to earth and out of this world.

MerleFest, the annual music extravaganza in Wilkesboro, NC, honors Merle Watson, who died in an accident in 1985. Doc Watson was a guiding light behind the festival, and the last time I saw Doc was at the 2010 edition of Merlefest. I offer this video postcard from that event as a modest memorial to a great musical pioneer.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Crooked Still: The Streets of Boston

12 July 2011

As yer Cousin Curly hastily packs his knapsack for Grey Fox, the largest of the New England bluegrass festivals, he pauses for a moment… Hang on a sec… [Sounds of third person voice being tossed into the verbal insinkerator.]

The point is, just as Grey Fox is a locus for the more progressive (sorry to employ that vapid term, but I’m in a rush) edge of the New England bluegrass scene, so has Crooked Still stood, for the past decade, as the lynchpin for a still youthful generation of Boston musicians. For the third year in a row, the band will be back at Grey Fox. It’s therefore fitting to take this opportunity to post a final segment (for now at least) of Ye Olde Performer Showcase featuring the band. In this installment, we circle back to the beginning, in a sense, by getting the band to talk about its roots in— and its ongoing connection to— Boston.

The song featured in this clip is “Lonesome Road.” As Matt Schofield notes in his super-helpful Grateful Dead Family Discography, some versions of the song overlap another popular ballad, “In the Pines.”

“Lonesome Road” goes all the way back to Crooked Still’s debut album, Hop High. This means that an eleven year-old kid who happened to stumble upon the band’s first commercial recording might be an entering freshman this fall at Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory, or any of the other Boston institutions where the practice and performance of American roots music are being taught. Will that fresh-faced arrival on the Boston scene carry on the meshing of old and new that has marked Crooked Still’s work, or will they veer off in some new direction? In other words, where is the Boston music scene headed? I’ll be keeping my ears open as I tromp the fields of Grey Fox, and of course I’ll report if I sight any new genus or species of note. In the meantime, as always, let us know yer thoughts.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— RIP Kenny Baker. For anyone attending Grey Fox, be sure to catch the brief tribute to this fiddler extraordinaire, scheduled to happen around 3:30 on Friday. A stellar line-up will be paying homage to the man who for many still defines the bluegrass fiddle.

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Crooked Still: It’s Not the Tune’s Fault

7 June 2011

What happens when you fall out of love with a tune, or when you never loved a tune to begin with, but you still have to play it? That’s the impolite questions I posed to the members of the group Crooked Still in the latest segment of Ye Olde Performer Showcase.

The title of this segment— “It’s Not the Tune’s Fault”— comes from an expression bassist Corey DiMario attributes to one of his teachers at New England Conservatory, the noted bassist John Lockwood.

The song featured in this clip is of course the well-known murder ballad “Little Sadie,” and I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the tune by including it in this segment. I had the good fortune to hear Doc & Merle Watson play a concert at Memorial Hall at UNC-Chapel Hill back in the 70’s, and that’s probably the first time I heard “Little Sadie.” I’ve heard a lot of renditions of the song in intervening years, but as with many people, I suspect, Doc’s version remains the archetype. Even after all these years, I’m still not sick of it.

Crooked Still seems to make a point of keeping their back catalog in play, as it were. In concert, they are as likely to play a tune from their first album as they are to play one from their most recent release. “Little Sadie” is featured on their excellent sophomore outing, Shaken By a Low Sound, an album that is now almost five years old. If anyone in the band is growing tired of recounting the tale of Little Sadie’s demise, they aren’t showing it.

I wish I had time to do some research on “Little Sadie,” but perhaps my faithful readers can help me out. To be honest, apart from the chilling randomness of the murder, the confusion as to the narrator’s name (perhaps it’s Lee Brown?) and the simple, all-verses-no-chorus structure, the song doesn’t sound that old. To my ears at least, the rhymes are too neat and the story progresses too logically to be a folk song with ancient roots. Or did the ditty just get a major overhaul in the hands of Mr. Watson or some other mid-century master? If you know, let me know.

Above all, I’d love to hear folks’ thoughts on tunes that wear out their welcome. Do you find that it’s “hate at first listen,” or do songs just get old? Do you fall in and out of love with tunes? Do you agree with DiMario and Lockwood’s assertion that it’s not the tune’s fault? Whatever the case, is it possible to rekindle a love that’s lost? Enquiring pickers want to know!

Yer Pal— Curly

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