Posts Tagged ‘gospel’

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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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Connecting Dots: From Tony Trischka to Bill Monroe

21 May 2011

Perhaps it comes as no surprise to hear this from a guy who claims to be yer second cousin, but bluegrass musicians do all seem to be related— if not genetically then at least professionally. The line-ups in string bands can start to seem like an endless game of connect-the-dots. Am I losing you? All right, as an example, let’s take the fine group that recently performed with banjo ace Tony Trischka

The fiddler is Tashina Clarridge, a well-known fiddling contest champion from the West Coast. Tashina is the sister of Tristan Clarridge, cellist for Crooked Still, the band that has been the subject of an ongoing series of profiles on this site. Indeed, I’ve got to finish up these Crooked Still pieces so that I can start sharing another series of profiles I’ve got “in the can,” these with the Vermont-based group Hot Mustard. And what do you suppose Hot Mustard is doing these days? Why, they’re opening shows for…Tony Trischka & Territory!

Which brings us back around to the line-up in the clip above. The fellow who is belting out the vocals is Michael Daves, a musician based in Brooklyn who just released an album with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile. The record is called Sleep With One Eye Open and it features a bunch of traditional bluegrass numbers. Here’s a taste of the Thile/Daves collaboration:

In most bluegrass circles, releasing an album with standards like “20/20 Vision” wouldn’t cause much of a stir, but these ain’t yer garden-variety pickers. In recent years, Thile has explored the no-mans-land between traditional music, contemporary pop and classical composition, and Daves— who plays everything from funk to swing— has cited jazz master Yusef Lateef as a major influence. If you root around online a bit, you can find a nice clip of Daves playing Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” It is neither particularly high nor lonesome.

Despite these musical wanderings, both Thile and Daves grew up steeped in bluegrass, and it’s heartwarming to see them taking a moment in the prime of their careers to return to those roots. Daves clearly has a sophisticated musical palette at his disposal, but this southern-bred musician seems to appreciate the corrosive tang of bluegrass. In interviews, he has been known to draw connections between Bill Monroe and, uh, Iggy Pop (talk about connecting dots!). When he uses the verb “destroy” to describe a performance, he means it in a good way. This outlook makes Daves an excellent foil for Thile, his gritty delivery providing ballast for Thile’s boundless musical invention.

The Thile/Daves partnership goes back several years. Indeed, you can hear them harmonizing on a 2007 release by— wait for it— Tony Trischka. Yep, on Trischka’s Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, Thile and Daves contribute the vocals for “Run Mountain,” the second tune in the video above. By the way, the fiddle player on the recorded version of “Run Mountain” is Brittany Haas, who currently plays with— you guessed it— Crooked Still.

[We now pause in our delightful connect-the-dots exercise to pose the question, “Hey, isn’t that a phone that Tony Trischka is using as a slide?” We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let’s address an even more pressing query: “Curly, why does the camerawork in your video suck so very badly?” Well, two reasons, actually. First, I’m hurrying to get this post up because Trischka, Thile and Daves are crisscrossing the Northeast at this very moment and I thought some of you might like to catch their acts. This means that I’m sharing video that had to be rushed out of kitchen with scarcely any seasoning. Second, when I was shooting this footage, there was a guy sitting next to me making peerless observations like, “The banjo player is obviously the most mature player in the band.” Oh yes, listen closely to my recording and you’ll hear that and much more from the Sage of Row G. Now, I challenge any of you to keep your framing steady while you’re trying to hurl your shoe at the head of your neighbor. As for the previous question, yes, I do believe Trischka was using the Banjo Slide app on his iPhone. We now rejoin our connect-the-dots game…]

Daves certainly has his own sound, but there’s no doubt that the bluegrass pioneers Charlie and Bill Monroe have heavily influenced both his guitar technique and singing. This musical kinship has apparently caught the attention of folks in Hollywood, where the actor Peter Sarsgaard is pushing to star in a biopic about Bill Monroe. According to Trischka, Daves is slated to provide Monroe’s vocals for the movie, which will have to be rushed to completion if it is to capitalize on Monroe’s centennial next September. The script is by Callie Khouri, who showed that she knew a thing or two about the byways of American culture in her screenplay for Thelma and Louise. It is no coincidence at all that Khouri is married to T Bone Burnett, the famed record producer, who naturally is supposed to supervise the music for the project. Burnett is connected to everybody in bluegrass, if only because he produced the bestselling bluegrass soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? thereby launching a resurgence of interest in bluegrass in particular and American roots music in general. Sadly, I can’t neatly wrap up this bagatelle by reporting that Trischka was part of the pantheon of bluegrass greats who played on O Brother. He has definitely gotten around, but he’s not the bluegrass equivalent of Zelig.

[Parting question: What on earth do the lyrics to “Run Mountain” mean? I, for one, am stumped. Anyone? Anyone?]

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— In addition to the Hot Mustard profiles, I’ll have more to offer from Trischka in the not-too-distant future. This five-string superhero plays a key role in a major new documentary about the banjo that is to be released in the fall. Stay tuned for more on this project…

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Cherryholmes: Intelligent Design or Mutation?

29 September 2010

Bluegrass has been a family enterprise from the outset. Bill Monroe honed his craft playing first with his uncle and then his brothers, but well before his Bluegrass Boys first took the stage, there were family minstrel acts traveling the byways. Today, there are still family bands across the spectrum of acoustic string music, from The Whites to the Parkington Sisters and all points in between.

Yet even given this musical legacy, it feels odd simply to lump the group Cherryholmes into the long tradition of bluegrass family bands. Their story is so singular, their ascent in the field so vertiginous and their style so distinctive that parallels with other music acts seem to miss the point. Rather than compare them to Del McCoury & Sons, I’m tempted instead to place them in the company of famed aerialists the Flying Wallendas or pyrotechnic legends the Grucci Family, idiosyncratic clans that have raised the business of grabbing attention to an art form.

I caught up with the Cherryholmes juggernaut last month at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival, a homey event that takes place each year on a farm just a mile from the Canadian border. The band anchored the Saturday evening line-up, and as soon as they took the stage, my narrow little mind started to seize up. The band is a semiotic puzzle, a jumble of cultural references. First there’s mom Sandy, the Amazonian queen girded with a Celtic arm band, then there’s dad Jere, looking like Sean Connery playing a mountain man, and finally there’s the whole gaggle of offspring, all of whom— but for their instruments— would not look amiss backing Justin Timberlake.  Add enough rhinestones and sequins to make Liberace blush and more tattoos than you’ll find in a prison yard and— well, see for yourself…

Jere Cherryholmes likes to call the band’s style “bluegrass on steroids.” The show has an energy that can take away the collective breath of the performers and viewers alike. Before you blink it seems, they’re five songs into their set and you’re thinking, “You know, maybe steroids aren’t so bad…” Still, when it’s all over, you wander away asking yourself, who are these born-again bow-hunting hippies in lip gloss?

It helps to know they’re from that great cultural blender known as California, and that Ma and Pa Cherryholmes met in church. This goes some way towards explaining their “Red Hot Chili Amish” aesthetic and lifestyle. I’m not joking about the Amish part either. The kids were home schooled, and the family code of conduct was not typical of most Southern Californian households: no television, internet, nor even headphones allowed, and no driving or dating until the child had reached eighteen.

Small wonder, then, that a heady mix of Old Testament rigor and hormonal sizzle fairly oozes from the stage at a Cherryholmes show. In truth, in interviews, members of the band seem entirely grounded and reasonable. The professions of faith that turn up frequently in their songs sound like genuine and heartfelt testaments, not bumper sticker slogans. The number in the video above— “Changed in a Moment”— is a gospel-inflected original tune penned and sung by Sandy that summons up both the Holy Spirit and a devilish swing rhythm. It’s remarkable how you can hear the background chatter give way to hoots and hollers as the audience gets swept up in the song.

I can’t help wondering if the transformative moment that Cherryholmes refers to in this composition was the death of the family’s eldest child, a daughter named Shelley who passed away from respiratory failure in 1999. As the oft-told story goes, it was in seeking solace in the wake of this tragedy that the family embraced the idea of playing bluegrass together and began their meteoric trajectory.

Of course, playing connect-the-dots between a songwriter’s biography and his or her art is a dangerous game, and I would resist the temptation were the members of the band not so devoted to keeping this personal loss in their— and our— thoughts. Each album they release bears a dedication to Shelley’s memory, the latest— Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads— being no exception.

I have a small arsenal of Cherryholmes material from Lake Champlain that I’ll fire off in the coming weeks, but it makes sense to start with a number that has an overtly spiritual theme, and not just because band makes no secret of its faith. It’s hard to spend an hour looking at this photogenic ensemble and listening to their impeccable musicianship without pondering some Big Questions. The whole ensemble is so perfect, right down to the name Cherryholmes, which sounds like a brand of some sort— perhaps for a pipe tobacco? Anyway, you take the whole thing in and, depending on your metaphysical inclinations, you either think, “Only the Great TV Producer in the Sky could come up with this,” or “It took nearly seven billion people and all the ages of history, but here they are.” Yer call.

Yer Pal— Curly

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