Posts Tagged ‘Berklee’

h1

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.

h1

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

h1

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

h1

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

h1

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

h1

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

h1

Bobby Britt & Town Mountain: Four Miles

10 May 2013

Fiddle tunes are musical DNA. Like our genetic code, they recombine the same twelve notes in nearly endless permutations and they’re passed down to us through the ages, weaving together far-flung ancestral strands. While they are potent vessels for conveying our heritage, fiddle tunes are by no means an historical or archaic musical form. Great fiddle tunes are still being written all the time. To kick off our new video series, Curly’s Wide Word of Fiddle Tunes, here’s a prime example of a contemporary composition that extends the tradition:

Catchy as all get out, isn’t it? That’s the exciting young band, Town Mountain, featuring an original fiddle tune penned by their fiddler, Bobby Britt. The performance is from this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.

Bluegrass was built on a foundation of fiddle tunes. The father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, always said as much. Monroe could be parsimonious when it came to sharing credit, but he was always fulsome in acknowledging the debt his music owed to two fiddling forbearers, his uncle Pen Vandiver and Arnold Schultz. Vandiver was a relative and a neighbor of Monroe’s; Schultz was an itinerant African-American musician. Each in his turn helped introduce young Bill to the vast canon of fiddle tunes. These traditional melodies, some locally produced, many imported from the British Isles and Europe, were the popular dance music of the day in Appalachia. Many of the songs that Monroe subsequently wrote borrowed phrases from these tunes, and of course Monroe always interspersed vocal numbers with plenty of original and traditional fiddle tunes. Town Mountain and most contemporary bluegrass acts carry on this practice of leavening their set lists with fiddle tunes.

Britt relayed a poignant story behind the writing of “Four Miles.” About three years ago, he was recovering from surgery and had a couple of weeks of time on his hands, so he decided to make use of it by writing his first-ever fiddle tune. The title is a play on the phrase “For Miles.” Britt’s girlfriend had a brother named Miles who passed away. Miles loved bluegrass, so Britt penned the tune in his honor.

As Britt’s composition demonstrates, fiddle tunes have an elemental quality that makes them timeless. “Four Miles” fits right into the tradition, taking its place on the shelf between “Fire on the Mountain” and “Frosty Morning.” *

Britt hails from North Carolina, but he is currently studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston where he works with master fiddler/teacher/arranger Darol Anger, among others. Britt recently received The Fletcher Bright Award at Berklee, the largest award in the school’s American Roots Music Program. “I am extremely honored and grateful for this award,” reports Britt, adding that it “will help make it possible for me to finish my degree at Berklee.” This is a neat detail, because while Bright made his money in real estate development, he is known in musical circles for his unfathomable repertoire of…fiddle tunes! By supporting Britt’s studies, Bright is insuring that the wellspring of good tunes will never run dry.

“Four Miles” is on Town Mountain’s latest release on Pinecastle Records, “Leave The Bottle.” We’ll be offering up some further selections from Town Mountain in the weeks ahead, as well as many more fiddle tunes from far and wide.

Yer Pal— Curly

* Before the Fiddle Police write, I know that I’m cheating with my alphabetization: the full title is “Cold Frosty Morning.”

%d bloggers like this: