Posts Tagged ‘guitar’

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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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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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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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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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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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Curly’s College Bowl: Define “Hegemonic”

13 June 2013

As we demonstrated in an earlier post, The Lonely Heartstring Band really lit up the hallways and stages of The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival last winter with their deft interpretations of the Beatles catalogue (intermingled with the occasional classic bluegrass number). Here’s another song from the Fab Five:

The music of the Beatles, whatever the genre, has a special and irresistible pull. You’ll notice folks poking around in the background of the videos we shot with The Lonely Heartstring dudes, and there’s a reason for that: people are drawn to these familiar songs and the band’s elegant musicianship like iron filings to a magnet.

Such good vibrations notwithstanding, there have always been and continue to be plenty of skeptics out there when it comes to mixing bluegrass and pop. My friend Emily Marcus recently posted some observations on the Facebook about the bluegrass the music service Spotify was offering up. She got a lot of props when she ventured that “most songs are NOT better done ‘bluegrass style’ (i.e.: Metallica & Green Day are plenty awful all by themselves…).”

We all know where Emily is coming from. As a rule, a bad song is a bad song is a bad song. Yet sometimes the very act of translating a song from one genre to another can reveal qualities that were hidden in the original form (see Richard Thompson’s acoustic rendition of Britney Spear’s “Oops, I Did It Again”). Moreover, it’s also true that a good song is a good song is a good song. It’s hardly worth pointing out that many a bluegrass classic started out life in a different musical style (see Del McCoury and the boys’ take on Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightning 1952”).

I suspect that what turns Emily & Company off about Metallica and Green Day isn’t just the quality of their songwriting but the sheer pervasiveness of their music. What makes Metallica, Green Day and any other commercial act you care to list “plenty awful” is partly that you can’t get away from them. If you listen to bluegrass and acoustic music as an antidote to the soundscape defined by The Music Industry, then naturally you aren’t going to be very happy when that mainstream, hegemonic musical industrial complex starts to infiltrate your place of refuge.

In the olden days, if you liked a song and wanted to replicate it, you had play it or sing it, and in doing so, you gave the tune your own particular spin. The music that arose from this chain of dissemination was a group effort, quite literally a “folk” product. Since the advent of mechanical reproduction and mass distribution, however, mere popularity is no longer measure of a song’s long-term cultural resonance. After all, by that yardstick, “Gangnam Style” is today’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Jeff Boudreau, the Boston-based music impresario and director of the notloB Parlour Concerts and Lord Geoffrey Presents Series laments how many bluegrass acts incorporate pop tunes into their set lists. “OK, they were influenced by pop growing up,” writes Boudreau. “Does that mean in a couple years we will be hearing bluegrass covers of Lada Gaga?”

The degree to which you chafe at the notion of bluegrass covers of “Born This Way” is probably a good indicator of the degree to which you see bluegrass as part of— or apart from— the contemporary music market. If you consider bluegrass to be a vestige of what Greil Marcus famously described as the “Old, Weird America,” then you’ll resist anything that smacks of homogenization.

I’m not hostile to the notion of bluegrass and old time music as a preserve for all things weird, organic and bent, but I also think that the Beatles in particular pose an interesting challenge to any attempt to draw a bright line between the mainstream and its alternatives. On the one hand, it’s hard to think of a musical act that’s more ingrained into the fabric of the “dominant culture” than the Beatles. To coin a phrase, their work is truly “here, there and everywhere.” Even so, the band and their music haven’t become completely commodified.

This is due in part to the care the musicians and their heirs have taken in protecting their legacy, but it also has something to do with the music itself. As anyone who has played through transcriptions of Beatles’ tunes will know, many are quite difficult and unpredictable. The song featured in the clip above, George Harrison’s composition “Something,” is as good an illustration of this as any. For every straight-ahead rock n’ roll composition they wrote, they penned another three that were rooted in other musical traditions. The group gathered the sounds from the Edwardian music hall, Indian ragas, country music and elsewhere, then combined them with their own patented, idiosyncratic chord progressions to create a body of work that was and is astoundingly varied and complex.

All that might sound like a good argument against using the Beatles as the basis for bluegrass, or vice versa— ye olde “too many chords for bluegrass” complaint. However, couldn’t the case also be made that it’s the very complexity and strangeness of their music that makes it an easy fit with the traditional string band? This might not be “Old, Weird America,” but it’s “Old, Weird Something-or-Other.”

Yer Pal— Curly

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