Posts Tagged ‘festival’

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The Kruger Brothers Get On The Gospel Train

21 June 2012

This week, we conclude our gospel triptych with a nugget from the vault. You know how you sometimes read in the paper about postcards that get lost in the mail, only to arrive at their intended address years later? Well, something like that happened with this video postcard from MerleFest— MerleFest 2010, that is. Fortunately, the message is timeless. Have a look:

This video underscores a point made in our last episode— that the black gospel tradition has a greater influence in bluegrass today than once was the case. Talk about crossing cultural borders! Here we have a pair of brothers from Switzerland— that would be the Kruger Brothers, Uwe and Jens— playing a gospel song by an African-American soul maestro— Curtis Mayfield.

What is about trains and salvation anyway? How is it that, in relatively short order, the locomotive went from being the noisy emblem of the industrial age to supplanting the chariot as the preferred conveyance to the pearly gates? I note that the Interstate Highway System has been around for more than fifty years, but nobody’s taking I-40 to heaven.

Remembering Doc

That mysterious train carried Doc Watson away recently. Like everybody who loves traditional music, it seems, he touched me directly. One of my earliest memories of hearing bluegrass performed live was when I heard Doc and his son Merle play a concert at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, NC. They were at once totally down to earth and out of this world.

MerleFest, the annual music extravaganza in Wilkesboro, NC, honors Merle Watson, who died in an accident in 1985. Doc Watson was a guiding light behind the festival, and the last time I saw Doc was at the 2010 edition of Merlefest. I offer this video postcard from that event as a modest memorial to a great musical pioneer.

Yer Pal— Curly

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The SteelDrivers: A Hot Ticket

13 June 2012

Bluegrass and gospel share something like a sibling relationship: they are genres bound together in spirit. Last week, I offered an example of a gospel tune, “River of Jordan,” given a pretty straight-ahead bluegrass treatment by The Bluegrass Gospel Project. Compare that with this number by The SteelDrivers from last summer’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival:

Friends, I’m seeking some spiritual guidance here: Am I going to hell for thinking that Tammy Rogers’ performance is, um…sexy? I see her do that little shimmy and— heaven? Brother, I’m already there. Sacrilege or healthy response? Discuss.

Actually, harnessing the engine of desire (so to speak) in service of the holy is an old trick.  Consider these classic lines:

That is, of course, the old standard “Holy Sonnet XIV” by  John Donne (1572-1631), who certainly knew both sides of the secular/sacred fence. As you can see, Donne has a field day mixing lusty metaphors with pious metaphysics in the poem, ultimately swooning to a climax by asking the Almighty to “ravish” him. Yowzah. So if you think I’m a lewd dude for focusing so much on the seductive qualities of Rogers’ song, well, at least I’m putting her in august company.

By the way, when I say “Rogers’ song,” I mean it: Rogers co-wrote “You Can’t Buy a Ticket to Heaven” with well-known alt-rocker Victoria Williams. Even if you leave the shimmy out of it, the song is catchy as heck. I hope it gets heard more widely.

Guess it’s apparent by now that I’m a member of the Tammy Rogers Fan Club. The SteelDrivers have weathered some significant line-up changes over the past couple of years, but if Rogers ever moves on, the end times shall be upon that band. She brings a ferocious, yowling bluesiness to her fiddling that puts her in a class all her own.

In Black and White

Part of what accounts for the range of styles encompassed by the gospel you hear in bluegrass these days is the fact we’re actually hearing the confluence of two fairly distinct musical traditions. On the one hand there is black gospel, which draws from the rich legacy of spirituals and the music of the African-American church. On the other hand there is white gospel, an amalgam of camp meeting tunes, Southern Protestant hymns and shape note singing. Not surprisingly, the pioneers of bluegrass drew heavily— though certainly not exclusively— from the white gospel tradition in which they were steeped, and you can still hear that tradition in much of the bluegrass gospel music that’s performed today, including “River of Jordan.” However, to my ears at least, a song like “You Can’t Buy a Ticket to Heaven” owes a lot to the black gospel tradition. I hear it both in the bouncing rhythm and the dips the melody takes here and there. Listen to Sandy Cherryholmes’ song “Changed in a Moment” for another example of a contemporary bluegrass song that owes a lot to the African-American gospel tradition. Slowly but surely, cultural barriers defined by race are falling. Why wouldn’t this also be happening in bluegrass?

Yer Pal— Curly

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The Gospel of Bluegrass

5 June 2012

It’s high time we got right with gospel here at Second Cousin Curly. Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to feature very different flavors of gospel-tinged bluegrass (or vice-versa). To get us started on the righteous foot, here’s a tune from— what else?— The Bluegrass Gospel Project that I recorded a couple of years back at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival:

How Much Gospel Do You Take With Yer Bluegrass?

In my wanderings, I’ve found a wide spectrum of attitudes in bluegrass circles toward gospel. On one end, I’ve encountered folks who truly only play bluegrass as a vehicle for exploring and enjoying gospel music. On the other end, I’ve met a few pickers whose view of gospel might best be summarized as “Thanks, but no thanks.” I hasten to add that people’s tastes in this regard don’t necessarily align with religious beliefs, though of course a lot of fervent Christians like to celebrate their faith through song.

I am now going to creep out onto a limb and make a glaring generalization: gospel music is more deeply integrated into bluegrass below the Mason-Dixon line. Look into the biographies of Southern bluegrass musicians young and old, and you’ll find that the great majority of them got their first introduction to music singing in the church. With the recent passing of Earl Scruggs, many fans took another look at episodes from Flatt & Scruggs television series and were surprised by how much gospel those shows featured (with Earl picking a mean guitar!). In his autobiography, Ralph Stanley writes extensively about the role that singing in church played in shaping his music. This tradition lives on. In an interview we recently posted here, Sierra Hull spoke in much the same terms about her upbringing. You could say that gospel is in southern pickers DNA.

This fact doesn’t just account for why those folks are more at home with gospel than their northern counterparts; it also helps explain why harmony singing is emphasized more in southern bands than groups from elsewhere. As I say, I’m going out on a limb, but if you’ve ventured this far out onto this rickety branch, let’s see if you’ll follow me one step further: just as harmony singing and gospel music form the backbone of bluegrass down south, fiddle tunes play a more fundamental role in northern bluegrass.

To be sure, these are broad brush characterizations and certainly don’t apply to all performers, northern or southern. Witness the fact that The Bluegrass Gospel Project is a Yankee outfit, drawing its members from Vermont, New York and Massachusetts. Of course, it’s also notable that this group leavens its staple of gospel numbers with tunes like the one featured in this next video postcard from Lake Champlain:

Festival Season Is Upon Us

Incidentally, I hope the glimpses of the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival in the two videos featured here motivate you to dig the lawn chairs out of the garden shed. It’s festival time!

Seemingly perched at the top of the world— the Canadian border is just about walking distance from its gate— the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival is representative of the myriad rustic and family friendly festivals that pop up every weekend from now until Labor Day. As it happens, the LCBF didn’t take place in 2011 and isn’t scheduled to run this year either. Like so many bluegrass events, LCBF depends on dedication and hard work of a very small core team. Here’s hoping they will return (as advertised) in 2013.

Saint Hazel

Anyone could be excused for assuming that “The River of Jordan”— the tune featured in the first video clip— was written by Mr. Anonymous way back when. Turns out the song was penned by Hazel Houser in the middle of the twentieth century. Houser is one of the great unsung songwriters of country and bluegrass. While others were drinking martinis and playing mahjong, this housewife from Modesto, California was turning out timeless compositions, including the country and bluegrass classic “My Baby’s Gone.”

My research has dug up precious little on Houser, beyond the fact that she passed away already many years ago. The music she has left behind offers tantalizing hints of a profound and sophisticated sensibility. Who wouldn’t want to meet the author of the lyric, “Hold back the rushing minutes, make the wind lie still”? That’s a verse that’s closer to Romantic poetry than it is to honky tonk. If anyone has more information on Houser’s life and music, please get in touch.

Yer Pal— Curly

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