Posts Tagged ‘J.D. Crowe’

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Josh Williams: Flatpicking Country

8 January 2013

At last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival Josh Williams took some time to talk with us about his musical background. His observations were frank and detailed:

Climbing the Fretboard

Folks with only a passing awareness of bluegrass are always surprised to learn that its history as a distinct musical genre is so brief. As a kid growing up in North Carolina, I had the same impression: like the Loblolly pines and the red clay, bluegrass was just part of the landscape, so it was easy to assume that it had always been thus.

The same went for flatpicking on steel string guitars. I recall spending a week in the mountains of Tennessee when I was in my teens. I had learned a few chords on the guitar, but there was a boy sharing a cabin with me who could pick bluegrass runs like greased lightening. I was aware of Flatt & Scruggs and Doc Watson, but this was the first time I had observed flatpicking up close. Once again, I assumed that this tight, fast technique had always been part of bluegrass in particular and traditional string music in general. Unbeknownst to me, as I tried in vain to emulate that Tennessee stud’s deft licks, I was at that very moment missing the Flatpicking Express that was just then leaving the station.

In his interview, Williams provides a succinct history of modern flatpicking. His earliest idols, Flatt & Scruggs, weren’t flatpickers per se: both used thumb and forefinger to pick and strum the guitar as performers like Charlie Monroe and A.P. Carter had done before them. It was their contemporary, the blind phenomenon Arthel “Doc” Watson, who forever changed the landscape of bluegrass guitar. Watson mastered everything from African-American country blues to honky tonk swing, and he brought all those styles together in a fluid technique that often featured brisk runs neatly articulated with a flat pick.

At the same time that Watson was wowing audiences at bluegrass festivals and college hootenannies, a young man was growing up in sunny California who would take Watson’s flatpicking technique and run with it. Clarence White played with a variety of musical acts, but in bluegrass circles, White is probably best remembered for his tenure in the Kentucky Colonels (another musical influence cited by Williams). White’s life was cut tragically short, so it was left to another West Coast-raised picker, Tony Rice, to carry on White’s legacy. It might seem a tad reductive to trace contemporary flatpicking technique back to the confluence of just three figures— Watson’s Appalachian roots infusing the jazzy Californian inflections of White and Rice— but as you can hear from Williams own account, those are indeed the key influences that shaped the technique of his generation of pickers.

Catching Up With the Past

In mentioning guitarist Tony Rice, Williams also brings up J.D. Crowe, the banjo player and bandleader with whom Rice collaborated for many years. Williams has often cited J.D. Crowe’s catholic tastes in material as a model. Back in the 1970’s Crowe’s penchant for borrowing tunes from the pop and country charts was seen by some as a threat to the traditional bluegrass sound. That response seems more than a little ironic today, since now it’s the groups that draw on what is often called “traditional country”— the music of George Jones, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens— that have formed a conservative bulwark in the bluegrass repertoire.

While Williams makes it clear that he appreciates a broad palette of music (Michael Jackson! Metallica!), that old country sound holds a special place in his heart. While he will probably always be best know for his flatpicking pyrotechnics, he can also match the heroes of heartache when it comes to putting across a country ballad. You get a little taste of Williams’ vocal abilities in the video clip as the band warms up backstage with a rendition of a song popularized by Gene Watson, “Speak Softly (You’re Talking to My Heart.)” For a full dose of pathos and romance, check out Williams singing another tune associated with Watson, “The Great Divide,” which we captured in a performance a couple of years back. You can review that post here.

While some of Williams’ heroes have retired or passed on, Gene Watson is still very much with us. In fact, he just celebrated fifty years as a performer. Though still carrying the country music banner, for years, Watson has performed as part of various bluegrass showcases, revues and festivals. It’s therefore not surprising that he has been touring with bluegrass stalwart Rhonda Vincent lately. What is a bit unanticipated is the recent announcement that Josh Williams had climbed aboard the Vincent/Watson bandwagon. Near the end of the year, Williams announced that he was rejoining Vincent’s band, The Rage, an outfit he toured with from 2004 to 2007. Williams’ return to The Rage line-up can therefore be seen as a homecoming on a couple of fronts, reconnecting him not just with a former bandleader but also with one of the standard bearers of the traditional country music Williams holds so dear.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Joe Val Workshops: Down Home Schoolin’

6 February 2011

A sizable chunk of the nation may be preoccupied with ice dams and rock salt, but that doesn’t mean that the Bluegrass Faithful have stowed their banjos and basses in the garage. It might be counterintuitive, but the biggest bluegrass festival in frosty Boston takes place annually in the dead of winter. Yes sir, like a freightliner that’s blown out its air brakes, the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, is bearing down on us. February 18th, 19th and 20th, few shall sleep in the mock Tudor splendor of the Framingham Sheraton. Get on board or jump out of the way!

I’ve already held forth here on the weird and wonderful mix of performances and jams that define the Joe Val Fest.  As, uh, exhaustive as my previous portrait was, I don’t think I gave enough emphasis to the Joe Val Fest’s major asset, which are its workshops.

Of course, many bluegrass festivals host workshops. Often there’s a tent devoted to such sessions where you can mingle with your heroes. What makes Joe Val’s workshops special? Simple: they’re indoors. It will probably always feel a bit odd to play “Foggy Mountain Top” while standing in a carpeted corridor, and the words, “the banjo licks workshop is about to begin in Conference Room C” may never sound quite right, but staging the festival in a large hotel has its consolations. Chief among these is the fact that, when you go to a workshop you can hear and be heard with a clarity that’s just not possible outdoors.

Check out this performance by Skip Gorman and Richard Starkey (a duo that sometimes performs under the name Rabbit in a Log) from a workshop at last year’s Joe Val Fest. The tune is Bill Monroe’s “Kentucky Mandolin.”

Nice, no? You can hear every note of those brushed chords that Gorman plays towards the end. That’s how it is a Joe Val: you can sit inches away from legends like Bobby Osborne or Frank Wakefield as they tell tales from their early years, or you can discuss the arcana of microphone and plectrums with hotshots like Mike Guggino or Jesse Brock (can you tell I play mandolin?). In these sessions, more than just about anywhere on the circuit, you feel the intimate bond between performer and audience that’s such a key part of bluegrass culture.

“Kentucky Mandolin” has become a standard (at least among mando players) even though in human terms it’s still only middle-aged. According to the discography compiled by Neil Rosenberg, inveterate chronicler of Monrovia, this instrumental was written by Bill Monroe for a recording date on November 9th, 1967. To my ears, the minor key makes it of a piece with a number of plaintive tunes from the latter part of Monroe’s career, such as “Crossing the Cumberlands” and “My Last Days on Earth.”

To hear more from Gorman and Starkey’s workshop, click here. To check out a couple more Joe Val workshop sessions (these featuring Joe Walsh and friends), click here and here.

Finally, to learn more about the 2011 festival line-up, check out Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass Blog or tune into Jeff Boudreau’s radio show, “In the Tradition,” on WCUW in Worcester, MA on the next two Tuesdays (February  8th and 15th) from 7:00 to 8:00 PM. Jeff will be interviewing a number of the performers who will be playing at this year’s festival. The line-up is a strong one, featuring representatives of the old guard like J.D. Crowe, Robin & Linda Williams and The Whites, newer acts like Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, and interesting New England groups like Hot Mustard and Della Mae. Cool, you say? Are you kidding? Freezing!

Thanks to Gerry Katz and Evan Reilly for their guidance on this post.

Yer Pal— Curly

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