Posts Tagged ‘Courtney Hartman’

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Della Mae: Pine Tree

9 July 2014

Pining for some more Della Mae? You’ve come to the right place:

Here we have Della Mae performing performing “Pine Tree,” a composition that can be found on their Rounder Records Release from last year, This World Can Oft Be.

When do you suppose “Pine Tree” was written? Listening to Jenni Lyn Gardner sing about “the soil of Galilee,” it would be reasonable to think the song is very old. In fact, the tune doesn’t date back to Libba Cotten, nor even to Hazel Dickens. Nope, it’s a new composition, written by Virginia-based singer/songwriter Sarah Siskind.

Jesus said that “new wine must be put into new bottles,” but I’m not sure he had contemporary string band music in mind when he preached that parable. Much of today’s bluegrass and old time music seems to be about mixing up the bottles, putting old vintages into new bottles and giving new wine the look and taste of earlier times. Siskind’s song—and Della Mae’s take on it—nicely illustrates the latter approach.

The Dellas have been very good about promoting the work of women songwriters and performers old and new. More on this in future posts. In the meantime, here’s a game yer family can play on its summer road trip: Each player makes a list, writing down all the bluegrass and old time songs that feature the word “pine” in the title. Whoever has the longest list gets an extra scoop of ice cream at the next stop.  You can further while away the miles by arguing about how to score titles that are on the bubble, such as “The Pine Tree,” written by Billy Edd Wheeler and popularized by Johnny and June Carter Cash.

Siskind is originally from North Carolina, and it’s easy to see how she and other writers of bluegrass and country tunes have so often gravitated to the image of the pine tree. The pine is the official tree of the Tarheel State (come to think of it, that tar in them tarheels might well have come from pine pitch). Pines are at once ubiquitous and unremarkable throughout much of the south. The tree is therefore a fitting symbol of everything that is both humble and enduring.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Uncorking Some Vintage Della Mae

25 June 2014

Thirsting for some Della Mae? We’re serving up some vintage material from the Dellas that we’ve had in the cellar for… well, too long. Still, we think you’ll find it delightful: bubbly, with notes of lavender and bluegrass.

That is, of course, the band Della Mae performing their original song, “Turtle Dove.” The composition was co-written by singer Celia Woodsmith and guitarist Courtney Hartman. It can be found on their Rounder Records release from last year, This World Can Oft Be.

My scant understanding of the Interweb tells me that it isn’t like fine wine: the stuff we byte-stained wretches post doesn’t improve with age. This poses a conundrum, however, because doing things right takes time— at least in my case it does. I’m with Tina Turner “We never, ever do nothing nice and easy.”

The current post being an apt example. Here we have Della Mae, one of the hottest, most talented bands in bluegrass, playing in a beautiful sunlit room, recorded without amplification or mixing boards— what could be more simple, more right? But there’s the rub: given such perfect elements, I want to make sure I do everything right on my end.

Over a year ago, I spent a day with Della Mae in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shooting both the informal session you see here and a show at the legendary acoustic performance venue Club Passim. By the time I reviewed the footage, I knew I was in trouble. Often my job as a filmmaker is that of salvage expert: I do the best to pull something useable from the wreckage of what I shot. That was not the problem here: I had hours of good stuff to work with, and that made for many months of (pun alert!) fretting.

But, at last, like fine wine…

After struggling with the harvest and following several false recipes, I have bottled some vintage Della Mae that I think is, as the vintners say, ready for release. I’ll be sharing several more of these videos with you in the weeks ahead. For now, I’m just rushing (yes, ironically, rushing after this long wait) to get a first taste out to you.

I’m grateful for everyone’s indulgence as I have worked through this material. Of course, above all, I appreciate the patience of the members of Della Mae. They were so gracious and fun to work with— qualities that I think come through in their performances. A dirty secret of my profession is that, when you edit videos, you almost always come to loathe the material. In the case of Della Mae, working with this footage has only deepened my appreciation of their skill and their artistry. Going over their songs, literally frame by frame, I keep discovering new treasures: a clever rhyme, a delicate ornamental detail, a rich harmonic interval. The care with which they have crafted their songs should inspire generations to come. If these videos help capture that alchemy for the ages, then the wait will have been worthwhile.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Special thanks to Paul Villanova for his help in shooting the video.

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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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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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Joe Val Flashback

10 June 2010

Do you know “Framingham Breakdown?” No? Perhaps if I hum a few bars…

As summer returns, your Cousin Curly offers up the web video equivalent of Dr. Zhivago or Ice Station Zebra— one of those icy epics that takes your mind off the heat and humidity.

This video also works as the bluegrass equivalent of Where’s Waldo— Waldo in this case being your favorite pickin’ partners. I’ve tagged the clip with some of the players I spotted, but there are many others I missed.  Let me know who catches your eye.

Next week, Cousin Curly heads to Jenny Brook— the sweetest little bluegrass festival this side of the Pearly Gates.  Hope to see y’all there.

Yer Pal— Curly

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An Embarrassment of Riches

11 May 2010

What region of the country has the hottest bluegrass scene?  Greater Boston makes its case for the crown of bluegrass capital this week.  Let’s see… This Thursday, do you go to the “Banjo Extravaganza” at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, or do you catch the Della Mae and Sarah Jarosz double bill at Club Passim in Cambridge?  If you opt for banjos, you can still catch Della Mae next Tuesday (May 18th) at the great Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, taking in the weekly jam there while you’re at it, or you can listen to them as you cruise Boston Harbor on the “Bluegrass Cruise” (May 15th— click here for a flyer with details). Choose this option and you’ll also be doing a good deed, as the cruise is a fundraiser for the Traditional Music Foundation.

Both Della Mae fiddler Kimber Ludiker and guitarist Courtney Hartman are due to be on that cruise, so in their honor, Cousin Curly offers another tune from this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, featuring Joe Walsh on mandolin, Hartman on guitar and Ludiker on fiddle…

I particularly like the way the players trade fragmentary “micro-solos” in the last run-through of the tune.  This lets them both stretch the boundaries of the melody and pull everything together.

This tune, “Billy in the Lowground” is one of the relatively few fiddle tunes in plain ol’ C.  I was certain the tune had its origins in the British Isles during the Eighty Years War (“Lowlands” referring to the Netherlands, the House of Orange and all that, you see), but cursory research suggests that I’m off base.  I haven’t uncovered a credible explanation for the title, but several sources seem to think the song derives from the Scottish strathspey called “The Braes of Auchtertyre.”  But don’t take my word for it:  read more on the Fiddler’s Companion website.

Yer Pal— Curly

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