Posts Tagged ‘flatpicking’

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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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Blue Ridge Mountain Girl

2 February 2014

Sorry, that recent cold snap had me in a state of cryonic suspension from which I have but lately awakened. Without further ado, something to warm even the coldest heart—

That there is Jenni Lyn Gardner, appearing not with her usual bandmates from Della Mae, but with The Palmetto Bluegrass Band. The PBB consists of Kyle Tuttle on banjo, Nick DiSebastian on guitar and Josh Dayton on bass. If you like what you just heard, check out our earlier post from these good folks.

“Blue Ridge Mountain Girl” was written by the veteran songwriting team of Holyfield and Leigh. It appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1987 release, “Hold On.” In bluegrass circles, the tune was popularized by Blue Highway on their first album, “It’s a Long, Long Road.” It was this version that brought the song to Jenni Lyn’s attention, and it clearly still evokes tender memories for her. As she recalled recently—

My dad had a radio show that I would often co-host when I was a little girl and this is the song that I chose to play, every single time. It has stuck with me all this time and I enjoy singing it— even if it is from a man’s perspective.

The Palmetto Band’s interpretation of the song summons a lot of the spirit of Blue Highway without slavishly following that band’s version. Nick DiSebastian’s guitar solo takes the place of Rob Ickes’ dobro break, and his elegant cross-picking puts a smile on my face every time I hear it.

We recorded this informal session with Jenni Lyn & Co. at last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. This year’s edition of that frosty fest is right around the corner. Like triathletes in training, pickers all over New England are prepping for Joe Val, winding their clocks back and trying to get their sleep regimen pared down to just a few naps during the daylight hours. It’s not a routine for the faint-hearted, but as I trust we have demonstrated with this post, the compensations are many, including the knowledge that at any hour, in any corner of the Framingham Sheraton, music magic can happen.

Yers— Curly

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Finding Harmony with Jenni Lyn Gardner

1 November 2013

Jenni Lyn Gardner is best known these days as the mandolinist in Della Mae. Membership in that fast-rising group is surely a big commitment. Even so, Jenni Lyn likes to sow some musical oats occasionally. Like many other successful bluegrassers, she has established a side project for that purpose, The Palmetto Bluegrass Band. We caught up with Jenni Lyn Gardner & The Palmetto Bluegrass Band as they were running through some tunes at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.  As you can see, the band’s sweet harmonies attracted some curious bystanders to their hotel room door. Small wonder. Have a listen—

Along with Gardner, the group is comprised of Kyle Tuttle on banjo, Nick DiSebastian on guitar and Josh Dayton on bass. You may recall that South Carolina is “The Palmetto State,” and the group’s name is a nod to Gardner’s roots in that corner of Dixie.

Gardner grew up steeped in bluegrass. Though still in the bloom of youth, she has already had many opportunities to mingle with legends of the genre. There is a brief video on YouTube of a very young Gardner playing backstage with the one and only Bill Monroe, and a photograph of that encounter hangs in the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was another brush with greatness that brought the song in this video into Gardner’s repertoire. She tells the story better than I can:

I first heard the song “Born To Be With You” on the JD Crowe “Blackjack” album, but it wasn’t until I was backstage at [the] “Down From The Mountain” concert and heard Alison Krauss and Union Station standing in a circle warming up to it that it really caught my attention. I thought, man that is a cool song!

Cool song indeed. The close three-part harmonies in Gardner & Co.’s treatment made me think that it came to us from the white gospel tradition. In fact, I was following the wrong stream to foreign headwaters. In the 1950’s “Born To Be With You” was a hit for The Chordettes, a female quartet whose output overlapped at points with doo-wop (they are better remembered today for “Lollipop” and “Mister Sandman”).

As Gardner’s account shows, the song has been bouncing around bluegrass circles for a while. The most recent recording I heard of it was from the alt-bluegrass outfit Chatham County Line. In my view, whosoever shall essay this tune had better have good harmony chops. Jenni Lyn and friends certainly meet this requirement.

We’ve got more good stuff to share from Jenni Lyn Gardner & The Palmetto Bluegrass Band, but we’re also doing our dangedest to finish up a whole series of videos featuring Gardner’s “day job,” Della Mae. We shot a truckload of footage with that fine group and are looking forward to sharing a bunch of it with you soon.

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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Josh Williams Takes Us Back to Redwood Hill

5 February 2013

With the 2013 edition of the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival just around the corner, it’s time to wrap up our series of profiles of Josh Williams that we recorded at last year’s event. Here’s the band running through the ballad “Redwood Hill” as they warmed up for their main stage set:

In bluegrass circles, “Redwood Hill” is most closely associated with The Country Gentlemen. In a prior post, Williams discussed learning about bluegrass by exploring his dad’s record collection as a kid. The Country Gentlemen were among the acts that made an impression on him.

Founded in the late 1950’s, The Gentlemen were prominent fixtures in the rebirth of bluegrass that occurred in the 1960’s and early 1970’s with the rise of college music circuit and the culture of bluegrass festivals. Though the group developed an international following and was a key influence on a whole generation of pickers, not everyone warmed to their polished, folk-inflected brand of bluegrass. In particular, The Gentlemen’s penchant for adapting tunes with a pop pedigree didn’t endear them to traditionalists.

I’m not sure where the Moldy Figs of bluegrass would come down on “Redwood Hill,” then or now. It was written by the Canadian troubadour Gordon Lightfoot, so it’s a contemporary composition, but it also clearly shares the form and themes of many an older song. At the time The Country Gentlemen appropriated “Redwood Hill,” Lightfoot was at the height of his fame and many of the Young Turks of early 1970’s bluegrass were drawn to his material. Williams’ mentor, Tony Rice, recorded Lightfoot’s “Cold on the Shoulder”— a milestone from the era that has weathered well.

Whatever one thinks of The Country Gentlemen and their ilk’s exercises in cultural cross-pollination, when Williams & Co. sing “Redwood Hill,” it sounds like the aural equivalent of a vintage postcard, summoning up all the tumult and tempests of yore, no longer as battles to be fought again, but as bittersweet memories.

As we close out this series, I want to thank Josh Williams and his bandmates for sharing their music and their views. I’m also very grateful to Jamie Lansdowne for editing these pieces with such patience and forbearance.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Josh Williams: An Homage

29 January 2013

We pestered Josh Williams plenty at last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival and as you can see from our previous posts, he put up with us with grace and humor. While we appreciate Williams’ candor and detail in responding to our many questions, seems like we ought to take a break from the talk and let the man do what he does best…

“Blue Railroad Train” is a vintage country blues from the Delmore Brothers, but as Williams points out in his introduction, he learned the tune as it was popularized by Williams’ mentor Tony Rice in the 1970’s. When Williams says that he is offering his rendition as an homage to Rice, he seems to be referring primarily to the instrumental licks, but he can also channel the sound of Rice’s younger voice to great effect— a fact not lost on Rice himself.

Back when he recorded “Blue Railroad Train” for his classic album Manzanita, Rice could both play and sing with abandon. Over the ensuing decade, however, illness largely robbed him of his voice, forcing him to team up with other singers. For the past several years, Williams has been a fixture in The Tony Rice Unit, where he has played mandolin and handled lead vocal duties.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else being a more fitting vocal surrogate for Rice than Williams. While he certainly has a voice that’s all his own, Williams shares Rice’s affinity for soulful country vocals. It’s an oversimplification to put it this way, but you could say that the key to Rice’s sound was that his guitar was playing jazz and his voice was singing country. That description fits Williams’ style as well.

Only a genuine hot shot would announce that he’s going to play a song the way Tony Rice does— inviting inevitable comparisons between his performance and that of the maestro. Should you feel compelled to measure Williams’ version against Rice’s, there’s a video clip on YouTube of a live performance from Rice with a stellar edition of The Unit.

Yer Pal— Curly

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