Posts Tagged ‘Bill Monroe’

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Evening Prayer Blues

31 August 2012

Anger, Phelps & Gilchrist Up Close

Fiddler Darol Anger and singer-songwriter Emy Phelps have been playing a bunch of shows on both coasts over the past six months. These performances have featured an assortment of talented friends, but one of Anger and Phelps’ more constant fellow-travelers has been the mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist. Anger, Gilchrist and Phelps played an entirely acoustic house concert in Boston last April— no amplification whatsoever. As the sun set on a gentle spring day, the trio offered up this rendition of the haunting instrumental, “Evening Prayer Blues:”

As Anger noted in introducing this piece, “Evening Prayer Blues” started out life as a signature tune of harmonica virtuoso DeFord Bailey. Bailey, who has the distinction of being the first African-American member of the Grand Ole Opry, has resurfaced in the vast, bubbling cauldron of folk culture of late. Some months back, we shared a clip of Tony Trischka, another string innovator in the Anger vein, playing a “foxchase” that he had penned after listening to a recording of Bailey playing a similar tune.

But Bailey’s influence on folks in bluegrass and traditional string music is by no means a recent phenomenon. At some point Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass and fellow Opry member, picked up “Evening Prayer Blues,” and he recorded it late in his career. Bailey’s original sounded rather like a field holler translated to the harmonica. In Monroe’s hands, however, the piece was refashioned into one of those spooky fiddle tunes that marked his last years. Anger mentioned learning a variant of Monroe’s version from guitar ace David Grier. If you want to create a neat chain of influence from Bailey to Anger, it’s worth remembering that Grier’s dad was a Bluegrass Boy, touring with Monroe back in the 1960’s.

In their version, Anger, Phelps and Gilchrist let the fiddle and mandolin engage in a dialogue. Anger is of course one of the guiding lights in contemporary fiddling, while Gilchrist has built an impressive resumé in recent years by playing with bluegrass greats like Tony Rice and Peter Rowan. As they navigate their way through this tune, both Anger and Gilchrist acknowledge its antecedents while also bringing to it a deft and stylish touch that is their own.

notloB Music

Obviously, Anger, Phelps and Gilchrist deserve most of the credit for the spell cast by their version of “Evening Prayer Blues,” but the location doesn’t hurt. This concert took place in the intimate confines of the colonial-era Loring-Greenough House in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. It was part of notloB Music, an ongoing series organized by Jeff Boudreau. I love house concerts, and the Loring-Greenough House is a particularly inviting space. Sitting in such proximity to great musicians as they perform always gives me a profound case of the Warm and Fuzzies. As I offer up my own evening prayer of thanks for being allowed to commune so closely with the muses, I’m also reminded that, for tens of thousands of years, this was the only way that music was consumed. No wonder it feels so right. Boudreau recently announced the line-up for the fall notloB series. If you are in the Boston area, you should check it out.

Look Up, Look Down

Phelp and Anger’s tour coincides with the release of their new CD project, Look Up, Look Down. The album is a collection of Phelps’ compositions that Anger produced. We’ll be exploring a lot more stuff from the Anger, Phelps and Gilchrist show in the coming weeks. Along the way, we’ll be able dig into some of that new material. Stay tuned…

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S. Big thanks to Paul Villanova (camera) and Lauren Scully (camera) for their help with this series of videos.

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Sierra Hull: Some Finer Points

27 July 2012

Yer Second Cousin Curly is based in that seat of bluegrass scholarship, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tonight, in the town across the river, the multitalented singer, songwriter and mandolinist Sierra Hull will be kicking off the inaugural Boston Summer Arts Weekend with a free concert in the heart of the city. In honor of her visit, here’s a final installment of our interview with her, which includes some fiery picking from this winter’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

The comparisons Hull makes about various players’ techniques (including her own) might be too arcane for those who don’t play the mandolin, but to those of us enslaved to the eight-stringed midget, her observations are manna from heaven. The issue of whether or not to plant your pinky when you’re picking may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a subject of endless debate among mando players, and Hull’s down-the-middle approach is interesting in this regard.

Another insight Hull shares is the fact that she doesn’t use the classic closed chord pattern that Bill Monroe used as the foundation for his sound, favoring more open chords or simply using partial chords. At the outset of the video, you can see Hull tearing into Monroe’s “Old Dangerfield” on the octave mandolin. As that clip illustrates, Hull can more than hold her own on traditional bluegrass numbers, but her choice of chords gives her take on these tunes a distinctive flavor.

A native Tennessean through and through, we can’t exactly claim Hull as a hometown hero, but Boston was a home away from home while she recently studied at Berklee College of Music. Hull’s phenomenal technique and impeccable tone were already firmly in place before she came to Beantown. More than anything, studying with the late, great John McGann and others at Berklee seems to have given Hull the validation she needed to keep on doing what she’s doing.

The video clip also features some of Hull’s original instrumentals. She has penned some contemporary fiddle tunes that haven’t gotten half the attention they deserve. I hope that, as she keeps doing what she’s doing, Hull keeps doing plenty of those numbers.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Tip of the hat to Paul Villanova for his outstanding editing on the whole Sierra Hull series.

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Tongue Tied: Bill Monroe at 100

13 September 2011

I’ve been thinking about the centennial of Bill Monroe’s birth for over a year, and now that the date— September 13, 2011— is upon us, I find myself undone by the challenge of summarizing Monroe’s significance. It occurred to me that I should let the music do the talking, so I dug back through my cache of videos. I found several recent performances of Monroe tunes— or tunes associated with Monroe— both by up-and-coming and established musicians that I had yet to share, but none of the clips could encompass the breadth of the Father of Bluegrass’s achievement. If I picked an instrumental, I overlooked the high and lonesome harmonies; if I picked an original composition, I overlooked the old mountain tunes that Monroe revived. In the end, I felt it best not to offer the work of musical acolytes and offspring and instead to go back to the source…

The compositions that Monroe called “true songs” are among my favorites. They manage to sound as old as the hills, even as they tell tales drawn directly from Big Mon’s outsized biography. The number featured here, “My Little Georgia Rose,” is said to be one of these “true songs,” and now is perhaps not the occasion to spell out its presumed meaning in full. Let’s just say that a painful revelation may lie beneath its cheerful veneer. By most accounts, Monroe was complex and often difficult, yet however we may judge him as a man, surely a large part of his genius as an artist was his fearlessness in putting the whole sprawling mess of his life out there in his music.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to work my way through all the Monroe tunes I have in my collection. I’ve been struck both by how many of the tunes that he wrote or popularized have become standards, and how many more are still lying fallow, waiting to be rediscovered by another generation of pickers. Finally, I’ve been amazed all over again at how he used the vehicle of bluegrass to synthesize, adapt and reinvent the sounds of everything from the delta blues to the traditional music of the British Isles. He was a geyser of musical ideas, and we continue to be washed in that fountain a hundred years after his birth.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S. A quick note on the Bluegrass Boys featured in the clip above: The banjo player is a very young Bobby Hicks, who is taking a break from his usual fiddling duties and playing Monroe’s own Vega banjo. Jackie Phelps— normally the banjo player at the time— is on guitar, and Ernie Newton is playing bass with a “brush bass” attachment that he invented. For the truly obsessive viewers who are dying to know, the announcer at the beginning is Faron Young.

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Remembering Kenny Baker at Grey Fox

28 July 2011

The great fiddler Kenny Baker died on July 8th. Exactly one week later, the ad hoc Kenny Baker Memorial Orchestra assembled on the main stage at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival to “play homage” to this titan of American musican. The “orchestra” was the brainchild of Matt Glaser, himself a renowned fiddler and a guiding light of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee College of Music.

Since the Grey Fox program was already in place long before Baker passed, there wasn’t a block of time available for a full-blown tribute. Glaser and company therefore had to make the most of a brief interlude on Friday afternoon between sets by Michael Cleveland and Tim O’Brien.

The assembled multitude managed to pack four tunes into ten minutes. In my view, the heart of the medley was the second tune, “Cross-eyed Fiddler,” a Baker original, appropriately enough. Have a look and a listen…

Now, without clicking “replay,” how many of the performers can you name? If you’re from New England, chances are you recognize a face or two, as many are based in the region. With the likes of Baker and Hazel Dickens leaving the stage, and with players like O’Brien, Cleveland and Glaser well established in their careers, it’s time for a new generation of players to make their marks. Most of the performers in the “orchestra” are in their twenties; many are in highly regarded bands such as The Deadly Gentlemen, Della Mae or the Red Stick Ramblers. For those of you who haven’t updated your Who’s Who in Bluegrass lately, I’m providing, free of charge, the following video guide. This clip shows the entire Baker tribute medley, with the bonus feature that all players are identified. See how many pickers you can I.D. before their names show up on screen. Extra points if you can pick out the musician who is also an MD specializing in Emergency Medicine.

Only a stone could resist being moved by that last image of the players filing out to “The Dead March,” finally leaving just Cleveland on stage, like a solitary candle. Wish I could tell you more about “The Dead March.” It’s a late Monroe composition, a tune Glaser said that the Father of Bluegrass “remembered,” but I haven’t been able to dig up much beyond that. I suspect that as many people know the tune from a celebrated television performance by the meteoric supergroup Muleskinner as from any of Monroe’s recordings.

“The Dead March” is a keeper, but in the end, it’s “Cross-Eyed Fiddler” that really sticks with me. This seems a hugely underappreciated fiddle tune. It’s not an old composition and it’s under copyright, but those conditions haven’t kept other tunes (“Rebecca,” “Ashokan Farewell,” “Josephine’s Waltz”) from entering the fiddling canon. Perhaps it’s the title that holds it back— “Cross-Eyed Fiddler” doesn’t seem to fit its jaunty tone.

In any event, I love how the players at Grey Fox really get into the swing of the tune. You can see them all, little by little, put their bodies into it, swaying and bouncing to the melody. One of the things that made Baker a great musician— perhaps the thing— was that there was at once a looseness and formality to both his playing and his compositions. If you’ve ever seen a photograph or a video of Baker, there’s a kind of severity to the way he carried himself. He had this ramrod-straight posture, and no one— not even Bill Monroe— looked meaner in a perfectly blocked cowboy hat. His playing had a definite precision, too, but look closer and you can see how relaxed his technique remained, even when playing at speed. Like so many master musicians, he made it look easy.

Many people feel that to say that he “co-wrote” the classic tune “Jerusalem Ridge” with Monroe is to give Baker too little credit. Whatever the case, if you compare how he plays the tune to the whole host of subsequent renditions, what stands out is how spare and clean his version is. Every motion of the bow is like a punctuation mark. At the same time, however, was there ever a more baroque and passionate fiddle tune than this? There it is: the marriage of contradictions so often found in great art. For the philosophers following along at home, you could say that while there was much that was Apollonian in Baker’s demeanor and bearing, a Dionysian side always came out in his music. Whatever wonders future generations of musicians have to offer us, we will miss Kenny Baker.

A Word or Two More On Grey Fox

The biggest no-show at Grey Fox this year was not Peter Rowan, who managed to make it, albeit a little later than expected. No, the big no-show was the colossal, end-of-time rain storm that shows up like clockwork— except when it doesn’t. Even the storm’s usual sidekick, Insufferable Heat, barely stopped by. This, combined with the usual strong line-up and the off-the-hook campsite jams, made for a glorious festival. But don’t take my word for it: in a bid to put me out of business, Grey Fox has really ramped up its online media. Check out the festival blog for boatloads of videos. I’m particularly impressed by— and partial to— the several videos that capture the campsite jams. As we all know, some of the best playing goes on in these informal gatherings, and the experience is even more ephemeral than a live concert. After all, Del McCoury and his boys will play together another day, but most jams are fleeting hook-ups, so to speak. Those of us who care about this stuff need to do a better job of documenting these magical moments. Hats off to the media crew at Grey Fox for its progress on that front.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S. The Emergency Medicine specialist is Kalev Freeman, one of the fiddlers lurking in the rear on the right side of the stage.

P.P.S. Thanks to Nick DiSebastian, Ben Pearce, Fred Robbins, Mary Burdette and Matt Glaser for their scholarly assistance.

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Thile & Daves Bring It All Back Home

30 May 2011

Once upon a time, yer Cousin Curly set out to make a website that would be the Playboy Magazine of Bluegrass— you read it for the pictures.* On more than one occasion, however, I have lost sight of this goal and waxed on too fulsomely, creating something closer to The Times Bluegrass Supplement or The New York Review of Bluegrass.

Enough!

In an effort to wean myself of my prolixity, I hereby offer a veritable torrent of clips from a recent show at Boston’s Brighton Music Hall by Chris Thile and Michael Daves. For starters, we’re gonna jump right into the deep end with the longest video of the bunch. Stay with this fine medley of fiddle tune requests, though, and you’ll get a good feel for the show:

As noted in a previous post, it’s touching to hear a couple of virtuoso performers at the peak of their powers going back to the well of traditional material. The fiddle tunes liberally scattered through the duo’s two sets underscore the back-to-basics concept. The vocal tunes were also largely drawn from the bedrock of the bluegrass canon:

There were classic breakdowns and reels—

But there were also gorgeous slower tunes like Frank Rodgers’ “Ookpik Waltz”

The tune is sometimes called “Utpick Waltz.” While the spelling varies, everybody seems to agree that the title refers to an arctic owl.

Okay, before you drift off into some snowy dream, check out this take on “Loneliness & Desperation:”

That song was written by Michael Garris but I believe it’s most closely associated with Del McCoury, who recorded it in the 1980’s. Thile & Daves’ version does justice to Daves’ stated aim of using bluegrass to explore “basic, raw stuff.” This is also one of the strongest tracks on the duo’s fine new album, Sleep With One Eye Open.

In crafting the second fiddle tune medley based on audience requests, Thile & Daves decided to play with fire. They started with “Arkansas Traveler” in A, switched to Frank Wakefield’s “New Camp Town Races” in B flat and then finished up with Herschel Sizemore’s “Rebecca” in B. Don’t try this at home…

Very nice indeed, but as Thile put it himself, he failed to “stick the landing” into B on “Rebecca.” Undaunted, the duo attempted the transition one more time…

Nuff said!

Yer pal— Curly

*  Not to be confused with The Sporting News, which you read for the pitchers.

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Cousin Curly in the Temple of Twang

12 April 2011

Before I get all distracted, let me show you this edition’s video, which comes from my travels to Nashville last spring…

From a certain point of view, the Ryman Auditorium could be seen as a microcosm of Nashville. Like the Music City as a whole, the Ryman is a really nice place that seems to hide its deep connection to bluegrass. While the back of the building is lined with display cases, you have to go to the third floor to find any significant bluegrass-related material. In some respects this isn’t a surprise, in that the Ryman hosts all manner of performances today, from Aretha Franklin to ZZ Top. But while I’m sure that ticket sales for bluegrass acts aren’t keeping the auditorium’s pews polished to a fare thee well, I reckon that the streams of pilgrims who are paying close to twenty bucks for the backstage tour are primarily drawn by the venue’s storied past. No doubt many grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry, which called the Ryman home for several decades. If I’m correct about all that, it would follow that a good number of these are folks interested in an era when bluegrass was an integral part of the operation. So what gives?

But as I say, I found Nashville puzzling in the same way. A quick rundown of musicians based in Nashville reads like a directory of present-day bluegrass:

Alison Brown, Roland White, Bryan Sutton, Jerry Douglas, Jim Buchanan, Josh Williams, Valerie Smith, The Steeldrivers, Ron Block, Blake Williams,  Ricky Skaggs, Mark Schatz, Jerry Salley, Keith Tew, Gail Davies, The Infamous String Dusters, Melonie Canon, Casey Driessen, Sam Bush, Gillian Welch,  Daily & Vincent, John Weisberger, Dierks Bentley, Kathy Chiavola, Mike Bub, Larry Sparks, Tim Carter, Paul Brewster, Ronnie Reno, Tim O’Brien, Billy & Terry Smith, Fred Carpenter, Doug Dillard,  Tim May, Wayne Southards, Brad Davis, Barry & Holly Tashian, David Crow, Kevin Williamson, John Cowan, Mike Compton, Tim Hensley, Larry Cordle, Marty Raybon, Sharon Cort, Keith Sewell, The Chigger Hill Boys, Stuart Duncan, David Talbot, Ed Dye, The Grascals, Pat Enright, Scott Vestal, Donna Ulisse, The Farewell Drifters, Marty Stuart, Rickie Simpkins, Pat Flynn, Kim Fox, Pam Gadd, J.T. Gray, Tom T. Hall, Aubrey Haynie, Casey Henry, Tom Saffell, Randy Howard, Jim Hurst, Rob Ickes, Eddie Stubbs, Vic Jordan, Cody Kilby, Randy Kohrs, Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderdale, David Grier, Keith Little, Ned Luberecki, Del McCoury, James & Angela McKinney, Larry McNeely, Luke McNight, Ken Mellons, Patty Mitchell, Alan O’Bryant, Bobby Osborne, Heartstrings, The Overall Brothers, Continental Divide, David Peterson, Missy Raines, Lee & Elaine Roy, Carl Jackson, Darrell Scott, Jimmy Campbell, Ronnie McCoury, Larry Perkins, Larry Stephenson, Jim Van Cleve, Terry Eldridge, Andrea Zonn.

Whew. That’s just a start; I’ll bet there are literally hundreds more worth noting.  Even so, the music itself doesn’t even register as background noise. During my visit, I would regularly spin the radio dial from one end to the other. I never heard so much as a note that sounded like bluegrass. I know there is a vibrant house party scene in the Nashville bluegrass community, but that doesn’t explain why bluegrass isn’t a more visible— or, more the point, audible— part of the landscape.

But don’t get me wrong: I really like Nashville. As long as the Cumberland River behaves itself, it’s an elegant metropolis that also manages to be comfortable and friendly. Can’t wait for my next visit, by which time I hope I will have been granted the secret password and welcomed into Nashville’s occult (in every sense of the word) bluegrass scene.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Joe Val Workshops: Down Home Schoolin’

6 February 2011

A sizable chunk of the nation may be preoccupied with ice dams and rock salt, but that doesn’t mean that the Bluegrass Faithful have stowed their banjos and basses in the garage. It might be counterintuitive, but the biggest bluegrass festival in frosty Boston takes place annually in the dead of winter. Yes sir, like a freightliner that’s blown out its air brakes, the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, is bearing down on us. February 18th, 19th and 20th, few shall sleep in the mock Tudor splendor of the Framingham Sheraton. Get on board or jump out of the way!

I’ve already held forth here on the weird and wonderful mix of performances and jams that define the Joe Val Fest.  As, uh, exhaustive as my previous portrait was, I don’t think I gave enough emphasis to the Joe Val Fest’s major asset, which are its workshops.

Of course, many bluegrass festivals host workshops. Often there’s a tent devoted to such sessions where you can mingle with your heroes. What makes Joe Val’s workshops special? Simple: they’re indoors. It will probably always feel a bit odd to play “Foggy Mountain Top” while standing in a carpeted corridor, and the words, “the banjo licks workshop is about to begin in Conference Room C” may never sound quite right, but staging the festival in a large hotel has its consolations. Chief among these is the fact that, when you go to a workshop you can hear and be heard with a clarity that’s just not possible outdoors.

Check out this performance by Skip Gorman and Richard Starkey (a duo that sometimes performs under the name Rabbit in a Log) from a workshop at last year’s Joe Val Fest. The tune is Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Mandolin.”

Nice, no? You can hear every note of those brushed chords that Gorman plays towards the end. That’s how it is a Joe Val: you can sit inches away from legends like Bobby Osborne or Frank Wakefield as they tell tales from their early years, or you can discuss the arcana of microphone and plectrums with hotshots like Mike Guggino or Jesse Brock (can you tell I play mandolin?). In these sessions, more than just about anywhere on the circuit, you feel the intimate bond between performer and audience that’s such a key part of bluegrass culture.

“Kentucky Mandolin” has become a standard (at least among mando players) even though in human terms it’s still only middle-aged. According to the discography compiled by Neil Rosenberg, inveterate chronicler of Monrovia, this instrumental was written by Bill Monroe for a recording date on November 9th, 1967. To my ears, the minor key makes it of a piece with a number of plaintive tunes from the latter part of Monroe’s career, such as “Crossing the Cumberlands” and “My Last Days on Earth.”

To hear more from Gorman and Starkey’s workshop, click here. To check out a couple more Joe Val workshop sessions (these featuring Joe Walsh and friends), click here and here.

Finally, to learn more about the 2011 festival line-up, check out Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass Blog or tune into Jeff Boudreau’s radio show, “In the Tradition,” on WCUW in Worcester, MA on the next two Tuesdays (February  8th and 15th) from 7:00 to 8:00 PM. Jeff will be interviewing a number of the performers who will be playing at this year’s festival. The line-up is a strong one, featuring representatives of the old guard like J.D. Crowe, Robin & Linda Williams and The Whites, newer acts like Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, and interesting New England groups like Hot Mustard and Della Mae. Cool, you say? Are you kidding? Freezing!

Thanks to Gerry Katz and Evan Reilly for their guidance on this post.

Yer Pal— Curly

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