Posts Tagged ‘bluegrass festival’


Going Flatt Out At Joe Val

20 February 2013

So there I was this past week, seated in the green room of The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. It had been a long weekend already, and it was only Saturday evening. The Joe Val Fest takes place under one roof— that would be the Mock Tudor palace known as ye olde Framingham Sheraton— but it can feel like a very large roof. Between catching acts on the main stage and in the Showcase room downstairs, catching up with friends in the hallways and sitting in on the occasional jam on the “picking floors” of the hotel, yer cousin Curly was feeling a tad peaked. I set my recording gear down, intending just to catch my breath for a moment, but soon I found my lids getting heavy. Next thing I knew, I was having sweet, bluegrass-tinged dreams…

As you can see, in my reverie, I am still at Joe Val, but it’s one year earlier. Spooky! My crew and I are passing through the hotel lobby, when suddenly— in one of those splices of time and place that can happen in a dream— one of the main stage acts appears, and they’re playing away. It’s Flatt Lonesome, a new act with old roots. As you can hear, the group draws from the wellspring of traditional bluegrass and country music. Half of the ensemble— Kelsi, Charli and Buddy Robertson— are siblings who grew up playing bluegrass and gospel in a family band. In 2011, this trio teamed up with friends Dominic Illingworth, Michael Stockton, and Paul Harrigill and Flatt Lonesome was born.

The band has had a busy year since their appearance at the 2012 Joe Val Festival. In September, Kelsi and Paul got married, and just a couple of weeks ago, the group released its first album. The song featured in the clip— I mean in my dream— is the lead-off track on the album, “You’ll Get No More of Me.”

Regular readers will know that I am not dogmatic when it comes to matters of style. I’m okay with a vocalist bringing jazz and folk inflection to their singing of bluegrass and old time tunes. That said, it’s refreshing to encounter two young women like Kelsi Robertson Harrigill and Charli Robertson who can— for want of a better term— belt it out, old school.

I was savoring Kelsi and Charli’s bracing harmonies when another high-pitched tone bored into my slumbering consciousness. I opened my eyes, and there I was, back in the Joe Val green room, only now seated before me was a cowboy in a black Stetson. As for that high-pitched sound, well…

That is musician Alan Kaufman on the right and filmmaker Bill Politis on the left. In addition to being “the Yoda of Yodeling,” Kaufman is the fiddler in the bluegrass band Flatt Rabbit, which played at this year’s Joe Val Fest. Yup— Flatt Lonesome and Flatt Rabbit. Very, very eerie. The rabbit reference could make you believe Lewis Carroll had a hand in this scenario. In the coming weeks and months, we’re going to have some excellent video of Flatt Rabbit in action, along with tons of other good stuff from Joe Val 2013, so don’t wander off. In the meantime, I’ve gotta get some sleep…

Yer Pal— Curly


Patented Blue Highway

2 November 2012

Though some of what follows was written in the dark while I waited out a passing power outage (no joke!), our neck of the woods was largely unscathed by Hurricane Sandy. Even so, what with all the calamity brought upon the land of late, the cry from the chorus of “Marbletown” seems to fit the moment: “We got a man down here! We got a man down!” Here it is then, the third and (for now at least) final installment in our recent series of performances from Blue Highway at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

Blue Highway addresses a range of themes and achieves a spectrum of colors in its repertoire. I’ve always attributed this to the band drawing on multiple sources for its music. There isn’t one songwriter or songwriting team in charge. Even so, there is a particular kind of song that I tend to think of as “patented Blue Highway,” and “Marbletown” is a good example. The ingredients: lots of gritty details drawn from working life, a brooding minor melody, a dash of high and lonesome harmonies. Other tunes that I’d put in this kit bag would include “Union Man” and “Boulder City Dam” from Still Climbing Mountains, “Born with a Hammer in My Hand” and “Don’t Come Out of the Hole,” from Blue Highway,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down” from the group’s latest release, Sounds of Home.

Over its long history, band members Shawn Lane, Tim Stafford and Wayne Taylor have all contributed regularly to the Blue Highway songbook. Knowing this, I started to work out some sort of Lennon/McCartney theory regarding the group’s sound— or sounds. That is to say, I figured that, while some songs were undoubtedly the product of collaboration, a little rooting around would reveal that one guy’s forte was writing the sensitive ballads, another wrote the hard bitten songs of life on the road, another the odes to nature, and so on. The question therefore was: Who was the auteur of that “patented” Blue Highway song described above? Well, I looked up the writing credits on a dozen or so compositions that fit the bill, and guess what? There’s really no pattern. Either individually or in pairs, Lane, Stafford and Taylor wrote many of the songs on the list, and— a drum roll, please— “Marbletown” was written by… Mark Knopfler.

Yes, the erstwhile front man from Dire Straits, the Sultan of Swing himself, Mark Knopfler wrote and recorded “Marbletown” a few years before it showed up on Blue Highway’s record of the same name in 2005. I’m not surprised that Knopfler wrote such a convincing blue collar anthem. He’s always had a great ear for musical and vocal idioms, and though English by birth, he’s spent decades mining (pun intended) the veins of American roots music. What does surprise me is that no one in Blue Highway had a hand in penning the song. With Rob Ickes’ bluesy dobro licks and those keening harmonies, the group makes it so convincingly their own. Clearly, then, “patented Blue Highway” is less a product of any one person’s voice or vision. Rather, it comes from a shared sensibility that, over time, has proven as durable and adamantine as a cold steel spike.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Special thanks to Paul Villanova for his fine work editing the video featured here, even as his last days as a bachelor wound to a close. And congratulations to Patty and Paul for tying the knot!


Blue Highway’s Endurance Test

12 September 2012

A Winning Team

Bluegrass bands can sometimes seem like baseball teams: they go out to play for a season, then they come back home and “rebuild”, firing or trading a few team members. Come spring, they take to the field again, trying to sell the public on a new line-up. This has emphatically not been the game plan of Blue Highway, one of the most enduring acts in bluegrass. The same members have been playing together now for over seventeen years. Small wonder then that their sound is so burnished and their stage presence so relaxed and assured. Have a listen to the title cut from their recent album Sounds of Home (this video is from their performance at last winter’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival):

To the outside observer at least, Blue Highway seems like a confederation of equals. On stage, several members sing lead and solos are evenly distributed. Behind the scenes, songwriting duties are again shared. Finally, each member seems to have a robust life apart from the band. They record solo projects, work as sidemen and even write books.

It’s easy to imagine how these very characteristics could be the ingredients for infighting and rivalry, but in Blue Highway’s case they seem to have fostered a sense of mutual respect and stability.

The Recombinant Theory of Bluegrass

The longevity of Blue Highway does make you wonder about the tenuous nature of so many other bluegrass unions. Without straining my feeble brain, I can think of a handful of acts that have broken up or had line-up changes over just the past couple of months. Why is professional bluegrass like an orgy without the sex— folks pairing up or parting company on an hourly basis?*

I think there are two unrelated reasons for the mix-and-match nature of the bluegrass scene. First, the music lends itself to quickly forged partnerships. At the outset, bluegrass was grounded in simple and oft repeated patterns. Any biography or memoir of the founders of the genre features a bewildering cavalcade of pickers. Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys was just the best known of many outfits that operated like a revolving door. Because they shared the same musical language and a common canon of tunes, the performers could start making music together right out of the gate.

Tim Stafford of Blue Highway

It’s interesting to note that, even though the music has evolved considerably over the years, the top bluegrass musicians retain this ability to jump right in. Over the summer, I heard the fiddler Mike Barnett sit in with David Grisman and Sierra Hull. Barnett, whose home base is the Boston band The Deadly Gentlemen, was able to hang tough with Grisman and Hull even though their compositions often diverged from the roster of Officially Sanctioned Bluegrass Chords. As others have pointed out before me, the development of bluegrass parallels that of jazz. These days, adept young pickers seem to be able to navigate their way through complex chord progressions in much the same way that a jazz player can breeze through a chart. In any case, the protean talents of bluegrass pros are certainly a reason that their musical careers can often resemble speed dating.

Then there are purely practical considerations. Even at the highest level, profit margins in bluegrass are mighty slim. There are plenty of times when musicians have to part company simply to keep a roof over their heads or to feed a family. Again, check out those bluegrass biographies and memoirs: you’ll often come across passages that go something like, “After we finished the tour of Japan, Eddie went back to work in his family’s furniture moving business.”

There’s a corollary to this problem as well, which is that there aren’t enough bucks to be made in bluegrass to entice most dysfunctional partnerships to suck it up and keep rolling along, despite their differences.

Viewed against this long history of musical promiscuity, Blue Highway’s enduring partnership is all the more remarkable.

Yer Pal— Curly

* Please God, let me be right about the “without the sex” part.


Buck White: “Sui Generis”

8 March 2012

We shot a ton of great stuff at this year’s The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. As is always the case, a lot of the most magical experiences were products of pure serendipity. Here’s a moment we caught backstage…

The gentleman on mandolin is Buck White, Grand Ole Opry member and pater familias of the country/bluegrass/swing outfit The Whites. He’s playing with fiddler Matt Glaser, Artistic Director of Berklee College of Music’s American Roots Music Program. White and Glaser are later joined by Charlie Rose, a versatile Boston-based musician who plays with everybody who is anybody.

Although he has shared the stage with some of the very top bluegrass musicians (dobro star Jerry Douglas was a member of his band for several years, and Ricky Skaggs is his son-in-law), White is really an example of a performer who comes to bluegrass by way of other genres. As he mentions in talking with Glaser, growing up in Texas, he wasn’t surrounded by bluegrass. A lot of the influences that shaped his music were more homegrown, which of course means he was exposed to a healthy dose of Texas swing. Here’s an example of that infectious musical style from The Whites main stage set at Joe Val. Buck is joined here by daughters Cheryl (bass) and Sharon (guitar). The tune is “My Window Faces the South,” a song popularized by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Whether watching Buck White on stage or behind the scenes, it’s hard to believe this is an octogenarian at work. This is a legend who is still very much living it up!

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Megan Lovallo for the fine editing.


String by String: Banjo Secrets Revealed

27 February 2012

As mud season approaches, it’s a good time for pickers to do some “woodsheddin’.” With that in mind, here are some more fun banjo tips from a workshop that five-string guru Tony Trischka ran at last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

We often think of creativity as being the manifestation of some primal inner force. Such associations, as well as terms like “free expression,” obscure the fact that creativity is fostered as much by constraint as it is by freedom. That’s why a lot of artists find it useful to impose strictures or rules upon themselves. This might mean painting a picture using just one hue, or writing a poem with lines constructed in alphabetical order. In the case illustrated in this video, Trischka gave himself the assignment of composing brief tunes for single strings of the banjo. It’s clear that none of these compositions were meant to be more than clever diversions. Even so, it’s interesting how Trischka draws different moods from different strings— a new spin on the old idea that every key has its own special flavor.

This clip was put together by Cousin Curly’s Minister of Propaganda, Paul Villanova. As you see, Paul’s got some hot editing licks. I’d take my hat off to him, but my stubble might get singed.

Yer Pal— Curly


Don’t Fret: Professor Trischka Is Here!

6 February 2012

The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival— New England’s annual rebuke to winter— again looms large. I’m looking forward to catching up with Sierra Hull, The Whites, Della Mae, Blue Highway, Josh Williams and many other acts in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I still have some fine stuff from the 2011 fest to share.

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the fact that Joe Val takes place indoors makes its workshops unique, in that the performers don’t struggle to hear or be heard. As a result, these sessions are often intimate and informative. As an example, check out banjo ace Tony Trischka as he holds forth in this first of two new videos:

Some musicians, either by inclination or philosophy, seem incapable of revealing anything about the mysteries and insights embedded in their music. They play essentially the same material in a workshop that they would perform on stage. When asked to demonstrate a technique or explain a musical choice, they stammer or bluster for a bit and then play another tune. Not so with Trischka, who is clearly a natural teacher. He comes to these workshops fairly bursting with ideas to share, and for all the attention to technical detail in his remarks, he always brings it all back to the sound and the music. As his adaptation of that almost forgotten musical form, the foxchase, illustrates, he also always has his ears wide open.

If you can’t make it to one of Prof. Trischka’s workshops, don’t fret: he makes house calls, virtually speaking. Like a growing number of “A List” bluegrassers, Trischka gives lessons via online video exchanges. I’m not shilling here, but I heard a couple of satisfied alums of Tony Trischka’s School of Banjo speak up in the Joe Val audience.

The Trischka video clip marks an important new chapter here at Second Cousin Curly World Headquarters. It was edited by Paul Villanova, our new Minister of Propaganda. Thanks to his efforts, the video crackles with wit and vigor. Watch this space for more of his work.

Yer Pal— Curly


Cherryholmes and Bluegrass Power Chords

18 October 2010

Autumn may be the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” but here at Second Cousin Curly, it’s also “Season of Cherryholmes.” I’ve already expounded on the Cherryholmes juggernaut (click here for that entry), but I’ve got lots more music to share from this talented group’s appearance at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival.

Here’s a brand new tune from the ensemble’s latest album, Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads. The composition— co-written by BJ Cherryholmes and his younger sister Molly— is called “Tattoo of a Smudge.” The title refers to the permanent ink that collects on the sides of musicians’ hands after they have been signing a lot of merchandise at shows. Doesn’t that clear things up? I’ll let the music speak for itself—

Listening to  Cherryholmes going to town on this tune got me to thinking about a musical trope that has become a fixture in contemporary bluegrass, something that I call the “bluegrass power chord.”

Before we go any further, let me anticipate a question that might come up with regard to the following clip, namely, “Was I drunk when I made it?” Friends, in truth, I was stone cold sober, but this doesn’t exactly get me off the hook, since I’ll be the first to admit that the video makes very little sense. After gassing on this summer about the pernicious influence of percussion in bluegrass and other burning issues, I had decided that my proper place was behind the camera. I know I should have staid the course in this regard, but the current topic required a fair number of examples, and once I had settled upon a musical show-and-tell format, I didn’t see how I could avoid putting my ugly mug— Oh, just have a look and see what you think…

I’m less concerned about looking like a lunatic* here than I am about failing to make my point. You see, having committed to treading the boards once more, I was determined at least to get through the whole exercise as quickly as possible. As a result, I raced through the various musical excerpts, making it very hard for even the attentive listener to grasp my point.

Be that as it may, I still believe there is a case to be made here. Watch Sandy Cherryholmes hitting those chords in the first video clip, or turn the dial to the Bluegrass Channel on satellite radio or some other outlet for contemporary bluegrass, and you’ll hear what I’m talking about. Whereas bluegrass up until around 1970 was marked by a steady backbeat punctuated by the occasional lick or fill from the rhythm guitar, today’s music features surging rhythms that are often quite tightly arranged. That caesura that you hear in Ricky Skagg’s version of “Walls of Time”— the little hiccup where the whole band seems to take a collective breath— is a common stylistic device for contemporary groups like The Steeldrivers and Blue Highway.

As the carol goes, “Do you hear what I hear?” If so, when exactly did bluegrass get that extra rhythmic punch? Where did it come from? Send me your thoughts, and should you try to make one, let me know how that “bluegrass turntable” works out. A word of caution, however: try it out first on your old Bay City Rollers LPs and keep those bluegrass heirlooms on the shelf.

Yer Pal— Curly

*Self-flagellating postscript: Precisely why I was drawn like a moth to immolate myself on the flame of exhibitionism is a matter I’ll be taking up shortly with my bluegrass therapist, Dr. George Dickel.

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