Posts Tagged ‘Darol Anger’

h1

Dispatch from the Slippery Slopes

22 January 2013

Emy Phelps’ “Bluegrass Tune”

Emy Phelps set out to write “Dancin’ Round Your Door” as her “offering to the world of bluegrass,” but the song apparently had other ideas. Have a listen:

Phelps is accompanied here by partner Darol Anger (who on this tune has traded his fiddle for an octave mandolin) and mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist. The song— which is featured on Phelps’ latest album— was recorded at a notloB Music concert in Jamaica Plain, Massachustetts last Spring.

Phelps doesn’t claim that her song is bluegrass, nor would I, but I’m also not going to spill any ink trying to demarcate the territory that is or isn’t defined by the bluegrass genre. I think we can all agree that it doesn’t pass the Justice Stewart definition of bluegrass: “I know it when I hear it.”

Hearing a straight-ahead bluegrass tune performed with salt and feeling is revelatory: it’s like having your head dunked in cold, clear water. That’s not an experience that can be compromised or adulterated. But in my view, the folks who experiment at the margins of bluegrass help us to keep reexamining the music. In doing so, they also keep us alert to new ideas. As Phelps says in her introduction to “Dancin’ Round Your Door,” “Stretch your imagination!”

Beatle or Catfish?

It’s not everyday that you see a message like this in yer inbox: “Ringo Starr has commented on your video.” Such was the news I received from the busy scribes at YouTube last week. First thought: “Ringo Starr? The Ringo Starr?!” Second thought: “Which video?”

Faithful readers of this site will know that my primary goal has been to add to the library of online media pertaining to music with bluegrassish tendencies. The challenge of providing a regular flow of content (sometimes described as “feeding the beast”) is both stressful and fun, but as with any test, success is never assured. Sometimes I just have to get stuff out there and hope for the best. This ain’t Pee Wee soccer, so I recognize that not every post can be a winner. Rather than try to go back and airbrush the past, I tend accept that I must live with my missteps, figuring that “he that lives by YouTube shall die by YouTube.”

There is, however, one post that I have on more than one occasion considered quietly deleting. It’s an early video in which I just talk. And then I talk some more. Oh, and then I demonstrate the “bluegrass chop.” If you feel compelled to watch, here it is…

In my estimation, these aren’t my finest three minutes. For starters, there’s the substance of my rant. For the record, I still believe there are good reasons why most bluegrass bands, from the Clinch Mountain Boys to the Punch Brothers, don’t employ percussion. Be that as it may, I have come to understand that anytime you try to proscribe something, you sound like you’re prescribe another thing. In that old post, my point was not that I wanted to define a specific “bluegrass sound.” If anything, I was staking out more or less the opposite position: that by leaving percussion out of the mix, bluegrass bands could more deftly control and alter their sound. I tried to argue that they could do this with ease and without sacrificing drive because of the uniquely percussive nature of bluegrass instruments. That’s the case I was making, but some viewers clearly believed that I was defending some canonical notion of what bluegrass was supposed to be. Some viewers said “right on!” to this blinkered perspective, while others allowed as how it was narrow-minded anti-percussionists like me who were responsible for the fact that all bluegrass bands sounded exactly alike. To all this I reply…oh, never mind.

Anyway, setting aside whatever validity my argument might have, I’m not convinced that having some pasty guy (more Creepy Uncle than Second Cousin) gas on without even playing a dern tune is really what the public longs for. However, every time my finger inched toward the “delete” button, I noted that a few more people had written lively responses in the comments section. Figuring that fostering one of the few civil debates on YouTube was the least that I could do, I held off.

Which brings us up to last week, when none other than Ringo Starr appeared to have commented on the video— quite a detailed and thoughtful response, in fact. I suppose hearing from a Beatle would be a big deal for anyone of my vintage, but perhaps I should explain the particular association I have with that seminal group. The first feature film I recall seeing in a movie theatre was The Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.” I was mesmerized by the experience, and I honestly think that initial, intense enchantment contributed to my choice of becoming a filmmaker.

Given that history, you can appreciate the frisson of excitement I experienced when I visited my correspondent’s elegant YouTube Channel and found it loaded with tasty hi-def clips of the Fab Four in their heyday. You can also imagine how transported I was to find this in my personal message inbox:

Message_from_Ringo

Once I recovered from my swoon, I alerted all my friends on Facebook, my followers on Twitter and all the ships at sea. Dear God, it’s me, Curly. Ringo Starr commented on my video! As for the lame clip that had attracted Ringo’s attention, well, as I noted in my reply to Mr. Starr, now that a Beatle had chimed in, I could never erase it!

So things stood for a day or two. Then, as the novelty of having Ringo as my new BFF wore off, I did a little research. Apart from having his snazzy YouTube channel, the Ringo Starr who contacted me has this Google Plus account. So far, so good, but what are we then to make of this Ringo? “My” Ringo, though knowledgeable about percussion

  1. seems a tad attached to the Beatles’ golden years,
  2. uses some rather raw diction in comments on his channel
  3. has the YouTube username (a rimshot, please) “monkeychunger.”

Fishy, no? Speaking of suspect aquatic life, in 2010, brothers Yaniv and Ariel Schulman released a provocative documentary called Catfish. The film chronicles the brothers’ attempts to attach flesh and bone to a dubious online relationship. For those of you who have yet to see the film, I won’t spoil the ride. Suffice it to say that the experience of watching Catfish is like entering a hall of mirrors, where you quickly lose track of whether what you’re looking at is a reflection or the thing itself. The moral is as obvious as the “truth” is obscure: In this day and age, don’t believe everything you see.

Catfish the movie has subsequently spawned Catfish the reality TV series on MTV. On the show, the Brothers Schulman help other people investigate personal connections made via the internet. With episodes of Catfish rolling off the assembly line every week or two and stories like that of football star Manti Te’o making headlines, it’s hard not to look at “my Ringo” with anything other than a very jaundiced eye.

Yup, I suspect that “my Ringo” is really just “my Catfish.” If I’m right about that, then perhaps he/she/it is doing me a backhanded favor by reminding me that, when it comes to relationships forged online, there really is no “there” there. Even so, to quote the title of a well-known fiddle tune, I can’t help feeling that I’d like to “Nail That Catfish to a Tree.”

Yer Pal— Curly

Advertisements
h1

On the Trail of the Lost Cherokee

21 November 2012

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”— United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 12 February 2002

Do you know this tune?

Yes, that’s “Cherokee Shuffle” as performed by Darol Anger (fiddle), Sharon Gilchrist (mandolin) and Emy Phelps (guitar) at a recent concert in Boston’s historic Loring-Greenough House.

I would count “Cherokee Shuffle” among two dozen canonical bluegrass fiddle tunes. It seems to have only gained in popularity with the passing of the years. I can still recall the first time I heard it played. I came upon a jam session in the back room of a bar where a bunch of pickers were already in medias shuffle. When the tune had finally run its course, I asked the mandolin player what it was called. Instead of answering straight up, he got this puzzled look and asked his fellow fellers, “Now, was that ‘Cherokee Shuffle’ or ‘Lost Indian?’” I was stunned. Though a bluegrass tenderfoot, I had already experienced the common affliction of struggling to recall a tune based on its title. “Leather Britches,” “Sally Goodin,” “Fire On The Mountain” and “Cumberland Gap” often blurred into a sonic haze in my memory. Even so, it had never occurred to me that the obverse could occur: that you could be unable to name a tune even though you had just played the Hazel Dickens out of it.

But of course— the tune being new to me— I knew not of what the mandolin player spoke. In the fullness of time, I came to understand his confusion, for the more I looked into the past of “Cherokee Shuffle” and/or “Lost Indian,” the deeper my own mystification grew. Were these one, two or three tunes? What was or were the “home” key or keys? Who wrote it/them?

Many a folklorist has attempted to untangle the histories of “Cherokee Shuffle” and “Lost Indian” with only partial success. A wiser man therefore wouldn’t venture into this treacherous corner of bluegrass scholarship. Be that as it may, heedless of caution and thirsty for fame, I’m going to attempt to sort out this whole Shuffle/Indian morass once and for all.

Tommy Magness, who played fiddle with Bill Monroe, established a tune he called “Lost Indian” in the bluegrass fiddling repertoire. You can hear a version that is probably close to Magness’ here. This performance is from Kenny Baker, Monroe’s longest serving fiddling companion.

Tommy Jackson is generally credited with transforming Magness’ “Lost Indian” into “Cherokee Shuffle.” The salient changes between the tunes are a key shift from D to A and the addition of a more varied B part that has a distinctive brief descending chromatic figure.

Just to throw kerosene on the fire, I’m going to say that Jackson’s adaptation of Magness’ “Lost Indian” is just that, an adaptation or arrangement and not an original composition. In the same vein, Steve Earle’s “Dixieland” is also fundamentally an ingenious arrangement of “Cherokee Shuffle” and not a distinct tune, notwithstanding its wonderful lyrics.

So far, so good, but we ain’t out of the woods just yet. There are in fact two old-time fiddle tunes, both called variously “Lost Indian” or “Lonesome Indian,” one being the composition Magness adopted, the other being a horse of an entirely different color. This alternate tune gets widely credited to Ed Haley, the blind Appalachian fiddler who either wrote or popularized many classic fiddle tunes. You can hear Mark Campbell’s take on Haley’s “Lost Indian” using a clever non-standard tuning here.

To my ears, there really is no connection between Haley and Magness’ tunes, but at this point I have taken the narrative as far as I can. Did these two tunes spring from a common source, and what does any of this have to do with errant or solitary Native Americans, Cherokee or otherwise? Here, gentle reader, I fear we have arrived at the frontier of the “known unknowns.”

Yer Pal— Curly

h1

Waltzes Old and New

11 October 2012

Amid the scores of performances we at Team Curly have shared with you over the years, we’re not sure that any of them are waltzes. We’re therefore going to redress this shortcoming with a double dose of waltzes— let’s call it “the waltz in two steps.” First up, here’s a contemporary waltz that songwriter Emy Phelps wrote about two beloved canines:

Though it’s centuries old, the waltz is still a young musical form when compared to the ancient Anglo-Irish balladry and fiddle tunes that undergird so much of bluegrass. Even so, waltzes have been part of bluegrass from the start. Bill Monroe would leaven his sets of hard-driving bluegrass with a waltz or two, and he claimed that the first composition to which he ever set lyrics was a waltz, “Kentucky Waltz,” which he recorded in 1945. That was back in those prehistoric times when the primordial soup of country music encompassed the sundry offshoots of mountain and cowboy music. Indeed, it was around the same time that a couple of purveyors of Western Swing, Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart, penned a waltz that today is a favorite of many bluegrass bands. Here’s a lovely version of their song, “The Tennessee Waltz” as performed by Hot Mustard:

According to Wade Hall’s biography of Pee Wee King, there is a direct connection between “Tennessee Waltz” and bluegrass, for it was in fact by listening to Monroe’s just-released “Kentucky Waltz” that King and Stewart were inspired to write their song. Small world.

Of course, at the heart of the waltz is a dance, and I’ve often wondered if the enduring popularity of waltzes in today’s bluegrass scene owes something to ongoing cross-pollination with swing dance music on one side and contra dance music on the other. Just a theory. As always, yer input is most welcome.

Both groups featured in this week’s videos have been busy of late. Hot Mustard has just released a debut CD, Hot Mustard Live at Mole Hill Theater that nicely captures the group’s old school charm. You can buy a copy at the band’s website. Over the summer, Phelps and Anger played gigs across the country. To check on upcoming shows, seek them out on Facebook or visit Darol Anger’s website. Phelps has a new CD entitled Look Up, Look Down. You can hear excerpts from it on SoundCloud.

Yer Pal— Curly

h1

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.

h1

Crooked Still: A Sound All Their Own

29 April 2011

I can’t think of another string band that has a more distinctive sound than Crooked Still.  I recently talked with the group about its musical identity. Was having such an identifiable sound a blessing or a curse? Did they consciously maintain a specific style, or did it just happen organically? Here’s what they told me…

It’s a measure of Crooked Still’s influence that you can no longer simply identify it as “the band with the cello.” Even so, the cello has been and continues to be essential to defining the group’s sound. When he joined the group in 2007, cellist Tristan Clarridge took on a seemingly impossible job: filling the shoes of the group’s original cellist, Rushad Eggleston. Eggleston essentially invented a new technique for his instrument, adapting the crisp chop developed by Richard Greene and Darol Anger to produce a complex and percussive rhythmic foundation. Clarridge had apprenticed with Anger in his Republic of Strings ensemble, so he was uniquely suited to take over for Eggleston. These days, working in concert with bassist Corey DiMario, Clarridge lays down a groove on many up-tempo tunes that will shake the rafters.

Another trademark of Crooked Still is its penchant for rediscovering old songs. The band clearly has spent many an hour listening to field recordings by itinerant folklorists. I assume this in how they came upon the song featured in the video clip above— “Cold Mountains.” Alan Lomax recorded the Appalachian singer Texas Gladdens singing this elegant ballad several decades ago. As is their wont, the band polishes up and adds color to their arrangement while remaining quite faithful to the melody and lyrics.

“Cold Mountains” is included on Crooked Still’s most recent release, Some Strange Country. When I first heard it, I thought it might be an original composition. Over the years, members of the band have written a number of their own tunes, an accomplishment for which they don’t receive sufficient credit. Come to think of it, my confusion could be held up as further proof of the group’s unique musical identity. Whether they are playing an ancient tune, a song by the Rolling Stones or an original number, their sound is always entirely their own.

There’s more from Crooked Still yet to come, but this is an opportune moment to thank the band once again for sitting for their collective portrait. A special tip of the hat to the group’s label as well, which is named— appropriately enough— Signature Sounds.

%d bloggers like this: