Posts Tagged ‘Merlefest’


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


The Kruger Brothers Get On The Gospel Train

21 June 2012

This week, we conclude our gospel triptych with a nugget from the vault. You know how you sometimes read in the paper about postcards that get lost in the mail, only to arrive at their intended address years later? Well, something like that happened with this video postcard from MerleFest— MerleFest 2010, that is. Fortunately, the message is timeless. Have a look:

This video underscores a point made in our last episode— that the black gospel tradition has a greater influence in bluegrass today than once was the case. Talk about crossing cultural borders! Here we have a pair of brothers from Switzerland— that would be the Kruger Brothers, Uwe and Jens— playing a gospel song by an African-American soul maestro— Curtis Mayfield.

What is about trains and salvation anyway? How is it that, in relatively short order, the locomotive went from being the noisy emblem of the industrial age to supplanting the chariot as the preferred conveyance to the pearly gates? I note that the Interstate Highway System has been around for more than fifty years, but nobody’s taking I-40 to heaven.

Remembering Doc

That mysterious train carried Doc Watson away recently. Like everybody who loves traditional music, it seems, he touched me directly. One of my earliest memories of hearing bluegrass performed live was when I heard Doc and his son Merle play a concert at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill, NC. They were at once totally down to earth and out of this world.

MerleFest, the annual music extravaganza in Wilkesboro, NC, honors Merle Watson, who died in an accident in 1985. Doc Watson was a guiding light behind the festival, and the last time I saw Doc was at the 2010 edition of Merlefest. I offer this video postcard from that event as a modest memorial to a great musical pioneer.

Yer Pal— Curly


New Wave New Grass?

28 May 2010

Time for some more souvenirs from Merlefest.  Here’s a video entry about Elvis Costello’s main stage set with his roots supergroup, The Sugarcanes:

Say, is it just my imagination, or is it actually the case that you can’t do these just-one-man’s-opinion video entries without sounding like Andy Rooney?  In my Excellent Online Adventure, I’ve been throwing all manner of stuff against the virtual wall to see what sticks, and so far it seems like the opinion pieces not only don’t stick; they just hang there for a second and then come crashing to the floor.  Just one man’s opinion— dang, there I go again.

In any event, hope my ugly mug didn’t get in the way of your appreciation of Elvis & Co.  The two performance clips I’ve stitched together here actually show his band cutting loose a bit more than was the case during the show as a whole, and even so, they’re pretty battened down.

While it seems odd that Costello would go through the trouble to assemble so much instrumental firepower, only to have the musicians keep their powder dry, this approach is very much in keeping with his formation as an artist.  Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before, but younger or older readers might need to be reminded that the punk and new wave scene from which Costello emerged in the mid-1970’s largely defined itself as a reaction to the excesses of the “album rock” of that era.  Back in the day, jamming was anathema to Costello and his fellow Young Turks.  If a song didn’t fit into three minutes, they just played it faster.  Although Costello shed his punk veneer long ago (that’s a very natty suit he was wearing at Merlefest), my guess is that he’s still resistant to any extended improvisation.  It doesn’t seem to jibe with his whole sense of songwriting craft.

Yer Bloviatin’ Pal— Curly


Can’t You Hear Them Banjos Ringin’?

13 May 2010

After attending this evening’s Banjo Extravaganza, perhaps I’ll have a new favorite banjo player or three to crow about.  For now, however, I’m pretty high on Jens Kruger who, together with his guitar-wielding brother Uwe and bassist Joel Landsberg, form the Kruger Brothers.  The Swiss-born Krugers have built up avid followings both in Europe and in their adopted home of North Carolina.  Make that a rabid following— listen for that guy barking out “Uwe!” and “Jens!” behind me on the clip below.  He was…well, a committed listener.

Anyway, Jens is certainly no secret in the world of roots music.  If I’m not mistaken, he was the only player from outside the band to accompany The Waybacks throughout their “Hillside Album Hour” performance of “Abbey Road” at Merlefest this year.  Other performers came and went, but Jens was on stage from start to finish, insinuating himself into all those familiar tunes so gracefully as to make you think that they had been composed with the banjo in mind.

It’s precisely Kruger’s blend of technical wizardry and musical taste that make him a joy to hear on his own and an asset to any ensemble.  Check out his approach to that old crowd-pleaser, “Sixteen Tons:”

Having made such a fuss about the addition of drums to bluegrass ensembles, I’ll be the first to admit that this clip doesn’t help sell my cause. The thud of the percussion sounds great here, where a big, greasy beat is entirely called for.

Would love to  hear some banjo players’ assessments of the current state of five string playing, from Scott Vestal to Béla Fleck to Greg Liszt.

Yer Pal— Curly


No Drums, Please, We’re Hillbillies

9 May 2010

What’s that thumping noise?  Why, it’s your Second Cousin Curly’s pulse quickening at the discovery of drum kits among many a bluegrass outfit during his recent visit to Merlefest.  Some thoughts on this alarming trend…


Classic Tony Rice at Merlefest

7 May 2010

Now that he’s back from his southern jaunt, yer pal Curly is wrangling pixels as fast as he can so as to share some of the music and sights he collected in the course of his travels.  As with any musical set, it never hurts to kick off with a crowd-pleaser, so here goes:

It’s always tempting— and usually ill-advised— to read into the expressions and body language of musicians.  In this case, you can’t help feeling that everybody in the band is a little checked out, no one more so than the great Josh Williams.  If you’ve ever had the pleasure of catching Williams leading his own eponymous outfit, then you’ll understand my noting a distinct lack of verve in this performance.  Many explanations for this come to mind:  1) It was really hot; 2) He was rubbing his nose a lot, so perhaps he’s allergic to Merlefest; 3) How many times has he played “Wayfaring Stranger” anyway?  But perhaps the most intriguing possibility is that he was playing the mandolin rather than his principal instrument, the guitar.  Maybe that thousand-mile-stare is really Williams concentrating?  Nah— this is a guy who could play a ball of twine without breaking a sweat. I vote for allergies.

Whatever the case, I can attest that this is one of those instances when— at least purely in musical terms— a piece works better just as audio than as video.  Close your eyes and listen. Nice, no? Still, there are insights to be gained from watching the picture.  I enjoy the way Tony Rice conducts the band with just the barest nod of his head, cuing solos and marking when to start the last chord.  It’s such a minimal gesture, and so seemingly nonchalant, yet at the same time so precise.  Sort of sums up Rice’s style.

Lots more to come, so don’t wander too far…

Yer Pal— Curly



1 May 2010

Okay, there’s Doc Watson, Elvis Costello, the Waybacks and even Steve Martin playing here on the main stage, but what is Merlefest as a whole really like?  Sub-Commander Curly sends you a direct report from the comfort of the internet service tent…

If you have trouble viewing this here, you can also see it on my YouTube Channel.

What have we caught so far?  Well, I’m listening to Peter Rowan playing a nice set right now, and yesterday we took in The Waybacks, The Green Cards, Cadillac Sky, the Kruger Brothers (yes, even they had a drummer) and Sam Bush, to name only the acts I can remember.

I’ve been on a tour of the southeast, so— in addition to lots of good music clips from Merlefest— I’ve got a veritable travelogue that will coming at you…eventually.  Stay tuned…

Yer Pal— Curly


Banjo “Missing Link” Discovered?

1 April 2010

Somebody tell Ken Burns:  There is a compelling story of music, strife and harmony waiting to be told— the history of the banjo!  Wait a sec, you say, didn’t Béla Fleck just do that in his recently released documentary Throw Down Your Heart?  Well, yes, Fleck did explore the instrument’s African roots in that heartwarming venture, but a fuller exploration of the banjo’s evolution in America is still waiting to be done.

Even a yahoo like me has picked up the following history of banjo styles:  Once upon a time, just about everybody played in the so-called “clawhammer” style, also known as “frailing” (linguists will note how “clawhammer” draws a vivid picture, whereas “frailing” perfectly captures the sound of this approach, but I digress…).  This involved using the thumb and the bunched-together fingertips of the right hand to create a propulsive strumming rhythm.  The clawhammer style developed at a time when most banjo players toiled in the fields.  They spent so much time grasping plow handles and… er… hoes that their hands were permanently frozen into a Pac-man-like rictus.  Some players could not even open their hands wide enough to separate the thumb from the other fingers, and these hard luck cases were therefore forced to develop a plectrum-based approach to playing.  This held true across the land, except for a pocket of pickers in North Carolina.  In this corner of the Piedmont, a style of playing using three fingers was developed.  It is thought that the cultivation of tobacco in the region— a task that involves the plucking of the lower leaves from the plant at harvest time— may have given these players the dexterity necessary for this style.  Although the so-called “three-finger” style existed for untold generations, it was popularized by Earl Scruggs and indeed today is widely referred to as “Scruggs” style.

So things stood for at least half a century.  Then, in the 1990’s, a scientist at MIT made a startling discovery:  the hand has two more fingers.  Determined to expand the horizons of banjo picking, Dr. Greg Liszt began to experiment with what became know as— have you been paying attention?— the “four-finger” style.  It is thought that it took an MIT student to figure out that he had all those extra fingers on his right hand because [REDACTED] and the lack of livestock near campus.  Dr. Liszt has predicted, reasonably enough, that a five-finger style is bound to be forthcoming, but development of a six or seven-fingered style clearly must await further lab work.

The above account represents a fairly canonical history of banjo playing over the past century— an orthodoxy that now must be reconsidered in light of a recent discovery.  It turns out that, while music historians’ attention has been focused on the eastern seaboard, from Cullowhee to Cambridge, they have overlooked technical breakthroughs in banjo playing that took place on the western frontier, decades before anyone started counting fingers.    With the assistance of Mike Holmes and his merry band at Banjo Camp North, Second Cousin Curly has recently unearthed an Italian documentary that recreates this hitherto neglected chapter of five-string evolution.  Here’s an excerpt:

Is this approach a crucial “missing link,” connecting later techniques to the instrument’s primal roots, or is it merely an evolutionary dog leg, as it were?  Cousin Curly is merely your humble reporter, leaving this and other important questions to those more thoroughly versed in the Cult of the Five Strings.

Hey everybody, it’s April!  You know what that means?  One and a half words:  Merlefest!  Second Cousin Curly will be journeying back to his Tarheel roots for this annual exercise in controlled hysteria.  As they say on TV, come on down!

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