Posts Tagged ‘Bruce Stockwell’


Hot Mustard: Special Recipe for Tasty Bluegrass

29 June 2012

The New England bluegrass outfit Hot Mustard has got a busy summer brewing, including festival appearances and a set at— wait for it—The Night of 1000 Cupcakes!

This band could be said to be a marriage of marriages, in that it consists of two couples, Kelly and Bruce Stockwell and April and Bill Jubett. In this final episode of our Performers Showcase on the band, we circle back to beginnings, tracing how the various band members met up to share music and more. Who knew that “Bile Them Cabbage Down” could have sentimental value?

The featured tune in this clip is of course “Angel Band,” which is my way of sneaking one more gospel number under the tent flap after our recent trifecta of gospel-related posts. The song is indelibly associated with the Stanley Brothers, but its history stretches back 150 years. According to ye olde Wikipedia, the melody was first published in 1862 in Bradbury’s Golden Shower of S.S. Melodies, a title that brings forth unwelcome associations with grindhouse movies or worse. If that weren’t unsettling enough, consider the fact that, among the many bands that have covered this song, we find…The Monkees.

Hot Mustard’s version, which comes from the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, is angelic indeed. The key modulation that occurs near the end (listen for it under the final interview segment) is particularly nifty.

Yer Pal— Curly


The Scruggs Legacy

10 April 2012

For the past two weeks, the world has paid tribute to Earl Scruggs. I won’t try to improve upon the wonderful encomia already shared on the web and in the press. Rather, I thought I might offer one example of Scruggs’ musical legacy. The following profile of the New England bluegrass band Hot Mustard was designed to focus on lead singer April Jubett’s vocal style. However, listen to the double barrel force of the band’s dueling banjos as they tear through their signature treatment of “Hold Whatcha Got” and the Scruggs connection will start to emerge…

Bruce Stockwell, the senior partner in Hot Mustard’s banjo duo, is part of a whole generation of banjo players whose life course was forever altered by Earl Scruggs. Although Stockwell grew up in Vermont, a long way from the Carolina Piedmont that gave rise to Scruggs’ famous three-finger picking style, Stockwell emulated Scruggs’ technique.

Earl Scruggs with Bruce Stockwell

As luck would have it, when Stockwell was just sixteen, Scruggs came to the local college to give a show, and Stockwell— who played with his brother and couple of cousins in a group called the Green Mountain Boys— got to play an opening set. As Bruce’s bass-playing wife Kelly recounts the story, “as they were leaving and Earl was coming on Earl shook Bruce’s hand and said ‘mighty fine.’” If that experience wouldn’t set your destiny, I don’t know what would.

Shortly after hearing this story, I listened to the WSM broadcast of the memorial for Scruggs that was held at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. One bluegrass star after another got up and spoke about how Scruggs had served as a mentor. Ricky Skaggs put it this way: “What I always saw in Earl, he was always looking, not at himself, but for the next generation. He was always looking ahead.”

That “next generation”— of which Stockwell is certainly a part— picked up Scruggs’ mantle and carried it forward. Indeed, it was Stockwell who taught Scruggs style banjo to the other half of Hot Mustard’s banjo team, Bill Jubett. That’s why it’s fair to say that, as Stockwell and Jubett lock into that boogie-woogie riff near the end of “Hold Whatcha Got,” we are hearing the literal manifestation of Scruggs’ legacy being preserved and passed on.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Kelly and Bruce Stockwell for the anecdote and photo.


Banjo Time!

29 December 2011

This year is ending with a BANG! Can’t you hear it? That’s the sound of Banjo Nation rejoicing in its newfound celebrity. Yep, the spotlight is shining on the humble banjer right now, and if you don’t believe me, I’ll make my case anon. But for now, we hasten to jump on the banjo bandwagon with this tasty double dose of five-string fun courtesy of a performance by Hot Mustard from the 2011 Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

For those keeping track of such things, the tune here, “Theme Time,” is most closely associated with Bill Emerson and goes back to that banjo virtuoso’s days playing with Jimmy Martin.

We’re looking ahead to a boisterous New Year, with profiles and performances from a diverse range of artists— from the Seldom Scene to Joy Kills Sorrow. Here’s hoping our paths cross often, whether here in cyberspace, or at potluck pickin’ sessions and festival campsites.

Yer Pal— Curly


All We Are Saying Is Give Banjos A Chance

25 September 2011

Over the past few months, there has been some interesting to and fro in the letters section of Bluegrass Unlimited about the rising number of bluegrass bands without a fiddler (see postscript below). To be honest, up here in the Frozen North, where many folks come to bluegrass from Celtic music (an even more fiddle-based tradition) or classical training (ditto), I have not detected VFS (Vanishing Fiddler Syndrome) in our area. Banjos, on the other hand, seem to be on the endangered list. That’s right: banjos— for many the bedrock of bluegrass— appear to be an increasingly scarce commodity. We may well be in the midst of a Vanishing Banjo Syndrome outbreak and nobody seems to notice but Yers Truly. Somebody sound the alarm! Make some noise!! Wait a sec: how do you make a racket without banjos?

Not playing the banjo myself, the next best thing I can do to address the banjo shortage is to use this platform to champion five-string masters. I have done this over the past months with posts celebrating the work of Jens Kruger and Tony Trischka. Even so, judging by recent jams I’ve sampled, my efforts have done little to forestall the advance of VBS. Clearly, it’s time to up the ante. Suppose we lived in an alternate universe, one in which all bluegrass bands were required to be composed of no less than fifty percent banjos. What would that sound like? Have a listen…

That is Hot Mustard, the New England bluegrass outfit whose motto is “Two banjos, no waiting!” As I recounted in my previous showcase entry on the group, I heard Hot Mustard before I set eyes on them, and so natural and integrated was their sound that it was only after watching them perform for a while that I noticed the unusual line-up: two banjos, guitar and bass. As they ably demonstrate, given the right degree of taste and control, you can’t have too much of a good thing. And for those of you concerned about VFS, Bill Jubett occasionally puts down his banjo and plays some fiddle, too.

This video features one of the greatest banjo tunes, “Clinch Mountain Backstep.” The quirk that sets it apart from a gazillion other instrumental numbers is the extra beat that gets thrown in halfway through the B part, a feature that makes it what is sometimes called a “crooked” tune. The song was recorded as an instrumental by the Stanley Brothers way back in 1959, but as with much of the Stanley Brothers’ material, the melody sounds much older than that. Alan Jabbour, in his notes on the magisterial collection of fiddle tunes he collected from old time master Henry Reed, posits that “Clinch Mountain Backstep” is an adaptation of a nameless breakdown that Reed said was “old as the mountains.”

You can listen to Reed’s breakdown here and decide if you agree that it’s an antecedent to the Stanley Brothers’ tune. Whatever your verdict, I suspect you’ll agree that it’s the Stanleys’ version that has entered the bluegrass canon. Interestingly, Hot Mustard’s take on “Clinch Mountain Backstep” owes at least as much to Earl Scruggs banjo style as it does to that of Ralph Stanley. There was a time when Scruggs and Stanley defined two distinct approaches to the banjo, the former pioneering a hard-driving three-fingered technique while the latter held onto a sound anchored in the clawhammer tradition. In bringing a style derived more from Scruggs to “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” Hot Mustard’s dual banjoists, Bruce Stockwell and Bill Jubett, emphasize how much common ground there is in these various techniques.

For anyone familiar with the dozens of recorded versions of “Clinch Mountain,” the slow and spare vocal intro, written and sung by April Jubett, will come as a surprise. Those moody a cappella verses at the outset make the first salvo from Bill’s banjo sound like a clarion call. The tune gets even more of an adrenaline charge when Bill passes off to his mentor Bruce.

It all sounds great, which leads us back to the problem I raised at the outset: whither the banjers? Did somebody finally tell one too many banjo jokes? Folks, we didn’t mean it— come on back!

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— My favorite contribution to the VFS conversation in Bluegrass Unlimited so far was from John Mahoney of Strasburg, VA. In the September issue, Mahoney— who himself laments the disappearance of fiddlers from the scene— says that one explanation for the phenomenon given to him by bandleaders was that “fiddle players are idiots and hard to get along with.” I would beseech any of my fiddling brethren with anger management issues to keep in mind that these are not the views of Mr. Mahoney or Yers Truly.

P.P.S.— The traditional music site Mudcat Café has an old thread regarding the meaning of “backstep” as it applies to music or dance. The many clever thread participants are unable to verify that any maneuver from square dancing or other American folk dance idioms has an explicit connection to the Stanley Brothers’ famously “crooked” tune. I have also been unable to dig up any evidence that “backstep” applies to a particular type of tune, à la jig or reel. If anybody knows different, let us know!


Introducing Hot Mustard!

6 September 2011

Once upon a time, I was walking across the fairgrounds at Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival. It was late in the fest and a maple glazed doughnut and some aspirin was about all I was up for. Then I heard it: a woman’s voice wafting across the field, singing some bluegrass standard in a way that I had only heard on old recordings. You could say that she was belting it out, except her singing had as much color and warmth as it had raw power. I found myself galloping past the concession stands. When I got to where I could see the stage, I discovered Hot Mustard, a group from the frozen north (its members live in New Hampshire and Vermont).

Flash forward a couple of years, and Hot Mustard are going stronger than ever. This summer, they played a number of dates around New England. It’s time that the wider world got to know them, so I’m wrasslin’ up a new series of Ye Olde Performers Showcase featuring this fine quartet. Here’s a quick getting-to-know-you installment that features a performance from last winter’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.

If I close my eyes and open my ears, Hot Mustard’s sound is just as natural as a mountain stream or a Stanley Brothers hymn. But when I take a look— dang! Double banjos, rhythm guitar and bass is their default set-up, with Bill Jubett only occasionally trading his banjo for a fiddle. I need hardly point out that this is not your standard bluegrass line-up. Then there is the gender distribution. While a number of the top bluegrass acts are fronted by women, there remains a substantial testosterone imbalance in the genre as a whole. Not so with Hot Mustard, however, which maintains a perfect male/female equilibrium.

The group is, in fact, comprised of two couples. The Stockwells— that would be bassist Kelly and banjoist Bruce Stockwell— have been married for some time, but the Jubetts— lead vocalist April and banjoist/fiddler Bill Jubett— just tied the knot within the last month.

I had the Jubett nuptials in mind when I chose the band’s performance of “Elkhorn Ridge” as the tune to accompany this first showcase installment. April mentions that she listened to a lot of Kate Brislin and Jody Stecher growing up, and I assume she learned “Elkhorn Ridge” from Brislin and Stecher’s fine recording from twenty years ago. As rendered by that duo, this traditional number is an unalloyed paean to flat-out, head-over-heels love. To wit, it contains a verse that consists of just this:

Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy

Darlin’, I’m crazy about you

The rest of the stanza is AWOL, as if the singer has indeed plum lost his or her mind. Who can argue with that sentiment?

Here’s wishing the newlyweds all the crazy love they can stand. As for the rest of you, check back for more Hot Mustard in the coming weeks.

Yer Pal— Curly

Addendum for the Late Edition: This just in from Richard Hamilton: “Elkhorn Ridge is generally attributed to Oscar Wright, a fiddler/banjo player from Princeton, WV. There are some recordings of his playing available. His version of Elkhorn on banjo looks like it is on Clawhammer Banjo Vol 2. from County.” Thanks, Rich!

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