Posts Tagged ‘Jenny Brook’

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The Peaceable Kingdom of Bluegrass

22 December 2014

As the year winds down, it’s not hard for me to identify my Most Magical Musical Memory of the past twelve months. In a funny way, the moment really crystalized before even a note was played: it was when the great Adam Steffey stepped to the microphone and said, “Does anyone have a song on their heart they would like to share?”

It was on a Friday night in late June at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival up in Tunbridge, Vermont. Jenny Brook has a wonderful tradition of having headliner acts lead open mic nights over at the Sugar Shack, a food concession run by the local maple sugar producers.

On that night of the festival, it was The Boxcar’s turn to run the jam. That’s when Steffey, the group’s mandolin player, opened the proceedings with that humble question: “Does anyone have a song on their heart they would like to share?”

What followed was a couple of hours of “Vermont’s Got Talent.” Pickers from eight to eighty came up to the stage (if you can call a collection of microphones and a modest PA system a stage) and offered up their tunes. There were performers who may well prove to be tomorrow’s all-stars and there were players who apparently will never master the art of tuning their instruments.

Through it all, Steffey, Ron Stewart and the rest of The Boxcars soldiered gamely on. If backing this parade of amateurs was work for them, they didn’t show it. As for the folks who volunteered songs, their responses to the situation varied. Some seemed amazed to find their musical offering backed by the world’s greatest bluegrass musicians. Others seemed to take it in stride, viewing this as just another local Friday night jam, and if those Boxcars fellers wanted to join in, why, they were welcome.

For my part, I enjoyed every bit of the ragtag pageant. If a couple hours of racket can still be considered a moment, then the session came about as close to what Spalding Gray called a Perfect Moment as I am ever likely to get.

I thought of that evening when, a few weeks later, I was observing a very different jam. A bunch of professional and semi-pro pickers were gathered at a campsite. Ostensibly they were there to play, but not much music was being made. The hours were rolling by as, slouched over their instruments, they rehashed old adventures and shared gossip. Occasionally, someone would make a desultory attempt at launching a tune.

I noticed that a sour note pervaded much of the rambling conversation. Without exception, every name that came up— present company excepted of course— brought forth a withering look or a disparaging comment. No one, it seemed, whether legend or neighbor, quite measured up. This dude had an annoying way of kicking off a tune; that chick couldn’t keep time. Someone else had questionable taste in material while another stole every lick he knew.

Quite the contrast with the open mic at Jenny Brook, where the assembled multitude— without so much as a sign-up sheet, so far as I could tell— efficiently worked through song after song. No one in front of or behind the mic seemed much inclined to mull over the merits of the performances, which included classic ballads, brother duets, yodeling and a jaunty number in praise of homegrown tomatoes.

It’s a free country. If folks want to spend a perfectly good summer day leaning over their instruments and complaining about their colleagues, that is their right. For my part, I’ll find another jam to sit in on, even if I’ve grown tired of some of the tunes or cringe a bit whenever the washboard solo comes around.

As that last comment suggests, we all have limits to our tolerance. For my part, I am an acknowledged washboard skeptic, and I take the arrival of a harmonica— an instrument I play— as generally a bad sign. I try to keep these prejudices in check, however— to ride them out, as it were. Because you never quite know when that really great washboard player is going to stumble into yer campsite. By the same logic, if anyone has a song on their heart they would like to share, and that song happens to be “Wagon Wheel,” well, rock me, mama. Another great tune is surely just around the corner.

There is exactly one way in which bluegrass beats all other musical genres. It’s not the oldest nor the newest form of music; it’s not the most complex nor the simplest; not the most varied nor the most subtle. Bluegrass has but a single attribute in which it triumphs, and that is its openness. Because it is built on a core of simple, widely known tunes, it’s a music that is easy to share.

In the peaceable kingdom of bluegrass, much as the lion lies down with the lamb, the virtuoso sits down with the Sunday picker. Anyone who loses touch with that essential quality in the music is, well, lost. Much as I defend everyone’s right to sit around pissing and moaning, I can’t help but wonder if some of those hotshots at that anti-jam I witnessed wouldn’t be better off— dare I say it?— stepping away from the music for a while.

I took up playing bluegrass quite late. Shortly before I drank the bluegrass Kool-Aid, my main musical activity was playing in a student classical ensemble. My son was learning the violin, and every Sunday morning we would go over to his teacher’s house to play with other students. I grew up playing the cello, so I would sit in the back of the ensemble and provide support in the lower register. The repertoire was hardly challenging, but before we even got to the pieces, we always warmed up with a solid quarter of an hour of… scales.

As we went through this weekly exercise— intoning the notes slowly and in unison— I would sometimes check myself: why did I do this? Why didn’t I find it more wearisome and mind-numbing than I did? For, in truth, I found the entire process of warming up and then playing these simple pieces to be centering, even refreshing.

One day it dawned on me that what we were doing in this ensemble was much like the Buddhist concept of “practice.” Friends of mine who meditate according to Buddhist precepts don’t refer to “worship;” the term they use is “practice.” I had never really understood the term in a spiritual context (I am about as religious as a lump of coal, though of course to a Buddhist a lump of coal— oh, never mind). But then that day, sitting in the back of the student ensemble, trying to play that scale simply and correctly, its meaning finally opened up to me. The filigreed monuments of classical music are awesome to behold, but they are all built on twelve notes. Taking a few minutes each week to become reacquainted with that foundation is a sound practice.

Bluegrass is an uncommonly easy musical form to dissect. The unfiltered well water of Celtic, British and Appalachian musical traditions is almost always flowing near the surface of a bluegrass tune. In my view, the “practice” of bluegrass is to reconnect with that source again and again. That at least is what I am here for. So, if anyone has a song on their heart they would like to share, let’s hear it.

I’ll close with a little year-end present. This isn’t one of my own videos, so perhaps it only counts as regifting. In any case, here’s a late-night jam from ten years ago at Merlefest. It’s as good an example as I can find of the “practice” of bluegrass. The songs are standards (with a little of the Beatles’ “Taxman” thrown in for good measure), and there’s seldom more than a minute or two of discussion between tunes. The lighting is the only thing gloomy about this clip, but it’s fun to see how many stars of the bluegrass firmament you can pick out in the midnight murkiness.

Here’s to sharing a tune, new or old, in the year ahead.

Yers– Curly

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The Blues in Bluegrass

28 January 2012

Mike Henderson Gets the Blues

As I reported in a previous post, Mike Henderson recently announced his departure from the Steeldrivers, the popular bluegrass outfit known for its bouncy paeans to bloodlust and whiskey. I also mentioned that, despite his role in putting that group together, bluegrass seemed to be more of an avocation than an occupation for Henderson. I based this assertion in part on the low profile that Henderson maintained with The Steeldrivers, but I was also guided by some additional intelligence that I’ll share with you now— a Cousin Curly exclusive!

I was visiting Nashville a couple of years ago when I learned that Henderson had a regular gig at the Bluebird Café. Though it’s tucked into an unassuming suburban strip mall, the Bluebird is sacred ground for Nashville’s songwriting community. I was curious to see what sort of act a veteran bluegrass picker and session musician would bring to such an intimate venue.

As you can see and hear, Henderson and his merrie band were ripping through one swampy electric blues number after another. That’s how it went the whole night. And I have to say, whether he was exhorting the crowd to ignore the Bluebird’s famous no-talking-during-songs rule or belting out another baleful tune, Henderson seemed a good deal more relaxed than any of the several times I saw him perform with The Steeldrivers. Clearly, this was his home turf and the blues was his mother tongue.

‘Twas in the Spring, One Sunny Day

Superficially, bluegrass and the blues might seem to be products of cultures that have stood apart from one another. The blues was, of course, a cornerstone of African American culture during the first half of the 20th century, initially developing in the rural South and then evolving into an urban genre as African Americans migrated to the cities. Meanwhile, bluegrass first took hold as a musical genre among white folks in Appalachia and the South.

In reality, however, these art forms weren’t as segregated as the cultures from whence they sprang. Certainly in the case of bluegrass, the music was flavored by the blues from the outset. At the same time that the “Great Migration” was bringing thousands of black families from the southern delta into the cities of the Northeast and Midwest, many poor whites from the southern mountains were flocking to those same industrial centers, getting exposed to the blues and other musical styles along the way. Bill Monroe, the father of the genre, made a point of crediting the early influence that Arnold Shultz, an African American itinerant musician, had on his playing. His first single as a solo artist was a blues number (albeit one written by a white man), “Mule Skinner Blues” and “blue notes” play a big role in Monroe-style mandolin.

Here’s a blues that every bluegrasser knows— “Sittin’ On Top Of The World.” I captured this performance by The Seldom Scene at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival. Like a number of performers, the group started the tune off slow and then “kicked it up.” And yes, it really was “in the spring, one sunny day.” Have a listen…

When Dudley Connell and Lou Reid trade off vocal duties on the slow and fast parts, they play up nicely how two traditions come together in this song. Connell’s delivery is relaxed and bluesy, whereas Reid’s is hard-driving and full of southern twang.

The history of “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” neatly exemplifies the cross-pollination that has occurred between the blues and bluegrass. The Mississippi Sheiks, an African American blues band, first recorded the song in 1930. By 1935, it had been recorded by the king of Texas swing, Bob Wills. I’d be curious to hear proposals as to which musician made the first bluegrass recording— a distinction that I would think is a bit hard to pin down, inasmuch as a number of string bands were playing the tune before bluegrass as such existed. In any case, the song has been a staple of bluegrass for at least six decades.

In our current era of cultural atomization, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of how much overlap and commonality there is among the artistic traditions that are at the core of our heritage and our identity.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Acoustic Blue: Making Connections

20 September 2010

When a star of classical music plays a concert at, say, Symphony Hall here in Boston, it’s common practice for just a handful of carefully vetted music students and aspiring professionals to be permitted into the green room after the performance. When a pop music act plays a venue like the Boston Garden, a select group of fat cats, friends and contest winners are given backstage passes.

In bluegrass, such gate keeping hardly exists. When I go to even very large festivals or concerts, I’m always struck by how accessible some of the biggest names in the business can be. Not only will performers generally come down to the merchandise tables after a show; it’s not uncommon to find them picking around some campsite in the wee hours.

This is one of the charms of bluegrass: that it’s an intensely social form of music at every level. Virtuosity is certainly prized, but there’s a human element to the music that’s harder to quantify yet equally important. Whenever we catch a bluegrass act, we’re particularly attuned to how the performers relate to each other, and how they connect with the audience.

This theme of connections— both within a band and with the public— is the subject of Cousin Curly’s final installment of Ye Olde Performer Showcase featuring the New England-based bluegrass outfit Acoustic Blue:

The song accompanying this segment is Merle Haggard’s rowdy ode to heartache and hard living, “Back to the Barrooms.” Just listening to it makes me thirsty.

To explore all the Performer Showcase segments, click here. A tip of the hat in gratitude to the members of Acoustic Blue for sharing their thoughts and experiences with me. Here’s to our paths crossing again soon!

Yer Pal— Curly

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Acoustic Blue: Song Craft

6 September 2010

Where do songs come from? It’s a question without answer that we keep asking through the ages. Music is such a pure and direct expression of the human spirit that when someone summons forth a new song, it’s natural enough to wonder: how did that happen? Complicating the issue is the fact that a song, like any form of communication, is an act of translation. We use an array of musical conventions to turn the primal noise inside us into something universal. A successful song must find a balance between inspiration and craft.

Not surprisingly, the paths songwriters follow when navigating this thorny terrain are endlessly varied. Peter Rowan likes to tell the story of co-writing one of the all-time great bluegrass tunes, “The Walls of Time” with Bill Monroe. The Bluegrass Boys’ bus had broken down on a mountain pass. Rowan was standing next to Monroe, watching dawn break over the hills, when Monroe pointed out a sound— the song literally coming to them on the wind. Think of this the next time you sing the lyric “I hear a voice out in the darkness…”

On the other hand, Woody Guthrie, the archetypal Dust Bowl rambler, wrote his songs on a typewriter. I always like to picture the lyrics of “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” scrolling up out of the carriage of the ol’ Underwood. Different strokes, indeed.

In the latest installment of Ye Olde Performer Showcase, Corey Zink and his bandmates from Acoustic Blue talk a bit about the alchemy of songwriting. If nothing else, this brief clip is worth watching just to get a better look at Mike VanAlstyne’s custom built resophonic guitar. Have a look and a listen:

Two Acoustic Blue originals make brief appearances in that clip— “Sweet Perfume” and “An Empty House”— both of which can be found among the band’s recordings. As Zink explains, the latter tune was essentially written as an assignment, inasmuch as Zink and guitarist Shaun Batho specifically set out to write a song that would sum up the dark themes in an album that the band was working on. Not all Acoustic Blue songs take shape in such a deliberate fashion, however. Another Zink original, “Carved Into a Stone” grew out of a breakfast meeting with a friend. The friend’s wife had just passed away. In expressing his grief, the man said something to the effect that the memories of his partner could never fit onto a tombstone, a sentiment that Zink translated almost verbatim into the song he wrote that same day: “There’s no room for her memory carved into a stone.”

Another fundamental chicken-versus-egg question that pops up when song craft is being discussed is this: Which comes first, lyrics or music? Judging from the treasure trove of orphaned lyrics he left behind, it seems that the lyrics always came first for Mr. Guthrie, but of course more than a few songs started out as instrumentals, only to have lyrics added later.

But never mind the words; what about the melody itself? Where does that come from? I recently spoke with musician and music educator Mike Holmes (founder of Banjo Camp North and Mandolin Camp North, among many other credits). Holmes was commenting on the Greenbriar Boys’ composition “A Minor Breakdown,” and this led to an interesting observation on what makes a tune work.

What say you? Do you have a process for calling forth the muses, or any routines you avoid, for that matter? Do rabbits’ feet or rattle snake tails help? Let us know…

Yer Pal— Curly

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Acoustic Blue: Eras & Regions

14 August 2010

Like so many siblings, bluegrass and country music started out close, then drifted apart, only to reconnect in later years. Now I know what some of you are thinking: “Wha—?” As I write this, the #1 country hit is “Free” by the Zac Brown Band, a tune that, apart from a little fiddle in the background, would seem to have about as much in common with bluegrass as the latest from Katy Perry. Fair enough, but let’s rewind the clock fifty years or so. At that time, amped-up country tunes like George Jones’ “White Lightenin’” were also seen as quite removed from acoustic-based bluegrass. Today, however, the classic country of Jones, Merle Haggard, Porter Wagoner and others provides fodder and inspiration for many bluegrass bands.

Such is the case for the Berkshire bluegrass outfit Acoustic Blue. In this third installment of Ye Olde Performer Showcase featuring Acoustic Blue, we dig down to those country roots:

By the way, that tune running through the piece is the Merle Haggard standard “Workin’ Man Blues.”

Of course, bluegrass makes a natural fit as a refuge for fans of traditional country music.  Even so, not everyone in the bluegrass scene is happy about the marriage. In particular, some of the more experimental players— many of whom draw elements of swing and older music styles into their music— find the country influence confining. Note that I didn’t use the term “progressive” to define this contingent. “Progressive” has come to have so many different connotations in bluegrass that I’m not sure what it means anymore.

In any event, as I always say, I’m a lover not a fighter. I love the full spectrum of flavors that can be found in bluegrass and string band music, from gypsy swing to Texas fiddle to honky tonk. But that’s just me. Where do you come down on this issue?

Another interesting point raised by Bear Aker in this profile is that Northern bands tend to pay less attention to their vocals than they do to their instrumental work. Say, didn’t we fight a war over that issue? Actually, I’ve heard this characterization more than a few times. Based on my experience, it rings true. What say you?

Finally…

If you like what you’re hearing from Acoustic Blue and happen to be in the vicinity of the Vermont/Canadian border, uh, today (August 14th), come on over to the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival. Acoustic Blue will be playing a couple of sets, including one right before the Mother of All Family Bands, Cherryholmes, takes the stage. I’m heading up there myself, so if you see me, come say “hi” and we’ll pick a tune or three.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Acoustic Blue: Sound & Style

23 July 2010

That God (or the devil) is in the details is abundantly clear in this installment of Ye Olde Performer Showcase. In this segment, members of the band Acoustic Blue discuss a number of issues related to performance style and technique. Why dress up for shows? Why shun sunglasses? Why use a particular microphone? Taken together, the band’s stance on these and other points defines them as performers. Have a look…

The song Acoustic Blue performs in this segment— “I’d Rather Be Alone”— is a pretty number that Flatt & Scruggs played during their heyday. Years later, the Bluegrass Album Band polished it to a fare-thee-well. Can anyone provide information on the song’s composer and/or lyricist? The melody sounds like it predates bluegrass, but what do I know?

While I’m fishing for input, let me know your thoughts on stage decorum, a topic about which the guys in Acoustic Blue have very definite views. How important is a performer’s physical appearance or the rapport he or she shares with the audience between songs? I was just at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. A band that shall remain nameless was playing a killer set, but between songs, they were so cut off from the audience that I thought they might start texting friends. I found that disconnect unsettling. Am I just being shallow?

Hey, are you just getting caught up with Acoustic Blue on Ye Olde Performer Showcase? Catch the previous installment by clicking here. Further segments will be turning up here through the coming month.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Introducing Ye Olde Performer Showcase!

8 July 2010

I’ve discussed Boston’s distinctive, hybridized bluegrass scene in the past. Given the success of edgy Boston-affiliated roots bands like Crooked Still and Session Americana, it may come as a surprise for those outside the region to learn that, in New England as a whole, a more orthodox brand of bluegrass is the norm.

One group that typifies the Yankee appetite for straight-ahead, country-tinged bluegrass is Acoustic Blue, an outfit based in the Berkshires. Having released three albums and toured extensively in their seven years together, the band has honed an act that balances a tight sound with a relaxed stage presence.

At this year’s Jenny Brook Family Bluegrass Festival, I had a chance to sit down with the members of Acoustic Blue to record the first entries in what I hope will be a regular feature: Ye Old Performer Showcase. Here’s a first installment—

Acoustic Blue’s key assets are its strong vocals and its collective songwriting talent. The tune featured in the video clip above, “1940 Ford,” is a song that mandolinist Corey Zink penned about bassist Bear Acker’s beloved old pickup truck. As this number illustrates, Zink & Co. have a penchant for heartfelt storytelling and pithy couplets that are the mark of well-crafted country and bluegrass material. Stay tuned for an upcoming Showcase installment that deals specifically with the band’s songwriting skills.

As for the singing, Zink’s reverence for George Jones would be apparent even if you didn’t know that he has a room in his home dedicated to Jones memorabilia. He shares with his hero an uncanny vocal range and a delivery that’s stripped of irony or pretense. The affinity that Zink and his band mates feel for classic country performers like Jones will also be explored more fully in upcoming Showcase segments.

If you dig around online (or on my YouTube channel, for that matter) you can find videos of the likes of Chris Thile, Michael Cleveland and Josh Williams playing bluegrass when they were just out of diapers. Stuff like that can make folks like Yers Truly feel like we came to the pickin’ party way, way too late. It’s therefore heartening to learn that at least a couple of the members of Acoustic Blue only embraced their instruments after first exploring other musical avenues. Who knew that being a rock drummer was the ideal apprenticeship for bluegrass?

Another theme that came up as I explored the backgrounds of the band members is the fact that music was always a part of the households in which they grew up. The moral is clear: If you want your babies to grow up to pick and sing like these guys, make sure there’s plenty of music in the air.

Yer Pal— Curly

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