Posts Tagged ‘fiddle’

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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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More Fiddling Around with Haas & Friends

26 November 2013

As the song title says, the frost is on the pumpkin. If that nip in the air is getting you down, here’s a two-song medley of old fiddle tunes that should buck you up:

Like an earlier medley, this video comes from a cozy house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a crew of fellow travelers, specifically Lily Henley and Kellen Zakula, who join Haas on fiddle, older sister Natalie Haas on cello and Rene del Fierro (off screen) on guitar.

The recorded history of the two tunes featured here— “Shove the Pig’s Foot a Little Further into the Fire” and “Rebel Raid”— reaches back to two important early figures. The consensus in folklore circles seems to be that “Shove the Pig’s Foot…” was first recorded by North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin, whereas “Rebel Raid” is associated with the great Ed Haley.  Haas tells me that both tunes came to her by way of a more contemporary source: reigning old time fiddling master Bruce Molsky.

Though she has studied and played with Molsky and other current practicioners, Haas is well acquainted with the work of the earlier generations of fiddlers. In addition to Martin and Haley, she cites the work of Tommy Jarrell, Edden Hammons, Manco Sneed and Estill Bingham as influences. “There’s just a huge wealth of source recordings floating around through the old-time community,” says Haas, “so it’s always great to hear different fiddlers and older versions of tunes (as well as old tunes that are new to me still!).”

Name That Tune

“Shove the Pig’s Foot Further Into the Fire” has one of the key attributes of a good fiddle tune: a cryptic title. Vi Wickam has a concise summary of what little is known of the tune’s origins and meanings on his website. I buy the argument that the “pig’s foot” in this case refers to a blacksmith tool rather than an animal byproduct.

Fiddle tunes go in and out of vogue. “Shove the Pig’s Foot” has certainly enjoyed an upswing in popularity over the past few years. Traveling in its wake now is another old tune with a title that always gets folks scratching their heads, “Nail that Catfish to a Tree.” Given the success of these tunes, both of which have such long exhortations for titles, I am thinking of writing a contemporary number that I’m calling “Don’t Forget to Buy Milk.”

The redoubtable musician and teacher Mike Holmes once used “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” as an example of a tune that was better known in a particular region. He said that folks in Tennessee have always been keen on it, while it has only recently gained currency elsewhere. Holmes speculated that this pleasant melody might have benefited from a more appealing title. He could be right on that score, but for those who find the concept of nailing a fish to a tree at best surreal and at worst abhorrent, I can at least offer a little clarification. As anyone who has passed a summer afternoon fishing in a farm pond down South can tell you, catfish have skin as tough as Tyvek. One method for skinning one of these slithery critters is to nail it to something solid and then use pliers to pull off the skin. Nailing a catfish to a tree is therefore not so much bizarre as mundane. I’m aware that this explanation doesn’t really get us any closer to answering the more fundamental question of why this phrase got attached to that tune.

Perhaps “Nail that Catfish to a Tree” has a second meaning? Fiddle tune titles sometimes carry such hidden or coded messages. Take the title “Frost on the Pumpkin” I mentioned at the outset. The late, great Kenny Baker penned the fiddle tune bearing that name. You might assume that the title is meant to do no more than summon up a wistful image of rustic beauty, but several sources tell me that “frost on the pumpkin” is an old saying that refers to feeling randy. Whether or not the always grave and dignified Mr. Baker had making whoopee in mind when he wrote the song is beyond my ken. I will say this much: should “Frost on the Pumpkin” lead to “Makin’ Whoopee,” and thence to “A Bun in the Oven,” I heartily encourage you to name yer progeny Edden, Manco or Estill.

Once again, we extend our gratitude to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Jeff Boudreau— notloB mastermind— tells me that he has a trio of concerts featuring Brittany Haas coming up. Check his website for details.

Finally, thanks go out as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his tasteful editing.

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Fiddle Camp with Brittany Haas & Friends

28 August 2013

As I write this, the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School is in full swing. Yep, the moon is full, and if you aren’t sure if Scottish fiddlers can swing, you need only look at this video featuring a bunch of VOM graduates and instructors:

This clip is from the raucous finale that closed a house concert in Watertown, Massachusetts last winter featuring Brittany Haas with a whole bunch of friends and relations. The two-tune medley ties together a traditional Irish tune, “Bill Malley’s Barndance,” with a contemporary composition, “E-B-E Reel” by Liz Carroll a prominent performer, composer and instructor of Celtic music.

As you can see, the cozy living room “stage” was packed with musicians, including no less than four fiddlers: Haas, Lily Henley, Kellen Zakula and Duncan Wickel. I knew that this concert was more or less an ad hoc event, pulling together a group of friends for a night of music. I therefore asked Haas how it was that all of the performers could so quickly master a tune like “E-B-E Reel,” which has yet to enter the traditional canon.  Haas responded that they had all “learned it from Liz directly at a fiddle camp in California—Valley of the Moon.”

It’s hard to overstate the influence fiddle camps have had on traditional string music. More often than not, when I hear some tune cropping up at concerts and jams, its popularity can be traced back to its having been in the repertoire of a popular fiddle camp. It’s also common for a fiddle camp’s special recipe for some old-time tune to take hold as the music gets recycled once again. And then there are the original compositions inspired by fiddle camps. No fiddle camp, no “Ashokan Farewell.”

Fiddle camps have also had an enormous impact on playing technique. Watching this video, you don’t just hear that these folks share a common background; you can see it. There is little trace of the cramped style of traditional Appalachian fiddling. This is especially noticeable in the right hand: the players really move the bow across the string with ramrod-straight articulation.

That’s true even of Duncan Wickel, who was performing that night with an interesting handicap. If you aren’t familiar with Wickel, you will be soon. Once you start looking for him, he’s a bit like Waldo, showing up everywhere. Most recently I caught him over the summer playing with otherworldly cello phenom Rushad Eggleston. Wickel was in the audience for the Watertown house concert and was called up to join his friends for the encore. There was a spare fiddle on hand for him to use, but when it came to a bow, all that could be found was a cello bow.  Using the shorter and stouter weapon didn’t seem to slow Wickel down at all.

Fiddle camps often bear the imprimatur of a particular master or group of artists. The Ashokan to which fiddlers are bidding farewell is Ashokan Music & Dance Camp, which is associated with Jay Ungar and Molly Mason. In the case of Valley of the Moon, the guiding force is Alasdair Fraser, the renowned Scottish fiddler who has played with Haas’ sister Natalie since she was in her teens. That’s Natalie on cello in the house concert video. As you can hear, her driving rhythms provide both a pulse and an anchor to a jam that could have easily spun out of control.

Indeed, when I congratulated Haas (younger sister Britanny, that is) at the conclusion of the concert, I could tell she was concerned that the finale had too many rough edges. This is a difficulty I often encounter: the musician and the audience view a performance through opposite ends of the telescope and come away with very different impressions. The performer understandably examines every nuance, whereas the audience concerns itself only with the overall effect. I assured Haas that the concert had ended on a very high note. Looking back at it through the lens of my camera, I still feel that way. All-star jams disappoint more often than not, but in this case, the joy of friends reconnecting is palpable. Watching them all rocking out on their former teacher’s tune, it’s not hard to imagine their younger selves practicing together— or just having boisterous, loud fun— in a camp cabin years ago.

Thanks to notloB Parlour Concerts for the invitation to this intimate soirée and to the hosts for opening their home to us. Thanks as well to Paul Villanova for his help with the shoot and Ehsan Moghaddasi for his patience and ingenuity in editing the footage.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Town Mountain Shares the Good Times

8 August 2013

Town Mountain, the hot young quintet based in Asheville, North Carolina, seems to be having a good summer. They’ve been gigging around the country and were featured in the July 2013 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited. Here’s a crowd-pleasing number from the group that delivers plenty of sunny vibes, suitable for a group on the rise, or just a warm summer night:

The tune is “Sugar Mama,” and it was penned by the group’s mandolin player, Phil Barker. It appears on the band’s 2011 release, “Steady Operator,” and should not be confused with at least two different blues and sundry other compositions of the same name.

We’ve featured three original numbers from Town Mountain over the past several months, and it’s worth noting that each song was written by a different member of the group. Last year, in a piece on the veteran group Blue Highway, I opined that part of the secret of that outfit’s longevity lay in the fact that so many of its members wrote material for the band. This might lessen the likelihood of any player feeling like a fifth wheel. If I’m correct in this theory, then Town Mountain has a long and promising career still ahead.

As has been the case with many of our recent clips, the entire series of Town Mountain videos was edited by Adam Lawrence. Like Town Mountain, both Adam and I hail from North Carolina, so working on this trilogy has been like old home week. I really appreciate Adam’s contributions.

Yer Pal— Curly

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The Late, Late Show at Grey Fox

15 July 2013

The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival takes place this week. Here’s a Zen koan I made up for this key event on the musical calendar: If it is 3:00 AM, is it early or late? While you ponder that, have a look and a listen to this campsite jam that was recorded in the wee hours at last year’s fest:

I have held forth in the past on the tune played here, “Cherokee Shuffle.” See my earlier post for an inventory of what is known and not known about that old chestnut.

The fine fiddler anchoring this jam is Elise Laflamme, a performer who is by now a fixture on the New England bluegrass scene. Elise has played with a few different outfits over the past several years, including the New Hampshire-based band Monadnock. Laflamme is also a member of The Boom Chicks, a super group made up of prominent female bluegrassers.

More than any other festival I know of, Grey Fox is a nocturnal event. No doubt this is partly dictated by the weather. It can be hard to catch yer cue to solo when streams of sweat are pouring into yer eyes. Therefore, most of the picking occurs when things cool down a bit after sundown.

Anyone who has engaged in a late-night (or early morning) Grey Fox jam will recognize this exquisite dilemma: a goodly chunk of yer brain has already gone to off to bed, but somebody just called a tune that you love. Next thing you know, you’re at it again, telling yerself, “I’ll go lie down after this one last number.”

In an attempt to replicate the full Grey Fox experience, we are therefore tempting you with another tune. That’s right, don’t go to sleep just yet, because we have a special treat:  a singer with a voice and a personality as big and inviting as Grey Fox itself…

That would be the one, the only Joe Singleton singing “Cry, Cry Darlin’,” a tearjerker that’s closely associated with Bill Monroe. In New England bluegrass circles, Singleton is a talent who needs no amplification— I mean introduction. Seriously, though he is known for his uncanny abilities to replicate the late Joe Val’s searing tenor, Singleton has a voice that is all his own. As the performance in this video demonstrates, although Singleton may be a Yankee by birth, his voice is well suited to songs steeped in the old country music of the South and West.

I said “the one, the only Joe Singleton,” but that might not be accurate. At Grey Fox, it’s not uncommon to have several Singleton sightings in one day. You might see him picking with some neighbors in the evening, then catch him jamming with the Grillbilly gang as the sun peeks over the horizon. You’ll catch a few hours of sleep and then be awakened by a parade passing by, and lo, there is Singleton in the lead, acting as Grand Marshall. Such ubiquity has led to speculation that there are surrogate Singletons out there, or perhaps even Singleton clones.  Whether singular or plural, I look forward to hearing more from Singleton at this year’s event. I’m also going to take plenty of naps so that I can pick a few more with the one, the only (truly!) Elise Laflamme, as well as Sandy, Sam, Bob, Geoff, Scott, Mary, Stephen, Eric, Hans, Andrew, Amy, and a whole bunch of folks whose names I don’t even know.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Hard Truths from Town Mountain

2 July 2013

Time to share another fine tune from the Tarheel outfit Town Mountain. This is from the group’s rip-roaring set at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.

“Hope Shadows Fear” is a good example of what Town Mountain does so well. They offer up traditional bluegrass without sounding canned or generic. If you listen to the lyric, you’ll find yer train a-runnin’ and all that, but there’s also a metaphysical perspective binding the whole thing together.

The song was penned by Town Mountain’s banjo player, Jesse Langlais, who writes that it’s about “giving up on a loved one who won’t help themselves.” That sounds pretty grim, but Langlais leaves the door open for redemption with the tag. Even when you’ve bottomed out, he says, “Hope shadows all the fear.” You can find the studio version of this number on the band’s 2011 release, “Steady Operator.”

The song’s brooding, philosophic reach connects it with a common thread in bluegrass, bringing to mind popular tunes like “The Walls of Time” and “All Aboard.” And is it just me, or do others detect the echo of “When Joy Kills Sorrow” in the title “Hope Shadows Fear?”

Yer Pal— Curly

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