Posts Tagged ‘music festival’

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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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Postcards from Grey Fox

21 July 2014

Just back from the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. For once, let me share a few experiences with you while they’re still fresh.

I only discovered Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line this year, but this is in fact Nora Jane’s third Grey Fox as a performer. As she explains in the video, her connection to the festival goes back to her childhood. Growing up in New Jersey, Grey Fox (which is in the Catskills region of New York) was “the local festival” for the Struthers family. Though now based in Nashville and exploring genres other than bluegrass, Grey Fox and bluegrass clearly continue to occupy a special place in Struthers’ heart. The musical snippets in this profile are from “Barn Dance” a song featured on Struthers’ 2013 album, “Carnival.”

While talented performers like Nora Jane Struthers light up the stages of Grey Fox, an army of festival staff and volunteers toil behind the scenes to keep the party going. Perhaps no one better illustrates the self-effacing, for-the-good-of-the-order spirit of the festival personnel than Ginger Smith. To give you a sense of Ginger, here’s a quick profile:

For the duration of the festival and beyond, Smith more or less lives in a big top tent just to the side of the main stage at Grey Fox. There she oversees Ginger’s Grey Fox Café, the festival’s own food concession. Her culinary offerings range from humble hot dogs to gourmet gumbo, all cooked right on site.

Smith strikes me as one of those incredibly industrious people who think that sitting down is for sissies. She must have a monster garden, since she grows the ingredients for the relishes and jams she serves at the café and sells at her local farmer’s market.

Tuckered out yet? But wait, the best is yet to come: Proceeds from the sale of Smith’s preserves and condiments support the Copprome Orphanage in Honduras, where she volunteers during winter months. You can learn more about Copprome by visiting http://copprome.com.

Grey_Fox_Parade-1

Grey Fox grew out of its predecessor, Winter Hawk (kinda sounds like the start of an old Native American legend, but I digress). Mary Doub was one of the producers of Winter Hawk and now owns and operates Grey Fox. This edition marked the thirtieth festival with Doub at the helm. At this point, Doub must be thinking a bit about her legacy. Will Grey Fox live on once she is no longer in charge? What music will they be playing at Grey Fox thirty more years down the line?  Will dawn still be greeting the Grillbillies, her rosy fingers stroking their greyed Mohawks and faded tattoos?

The general consensus “on the field,” so to speak, is that Grey Fox has gradually moved away from traditional bluegrass over the years. Certainly, there were plenty of drums, electric guitars and saxophones in evidence this time. On the other hand, the picking scene around the campsites seemed more lively than last year, so I’m not ready to declare Grey Fox a bluegrass festival in name only just yet. Indeed, if bluegrass has a “big tent,” it’s Grey Fox, and for now, all the strains of roots music that inform bluegrass can be found there, jostling each other on the dance floor.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Hot Mustard: Special Recipe for Tasty Bluegrass

29 June 2012

The New England bluegrass outfit Hot Mustard has got a busy summer brewing, including festival appearances and a set at— wait for it—The Night of 1000 Cupcakes!

This band could be said to be a marriage of marriages, in that it consists of two couples, Kelly and Bruce Stockwell and April and Bill Jubett. In this final episode of our Performers Showcase on the band, we circle back to beginnings, tracing how the various band members met up to share music and more. Who knew that “Bile Them Cabbage Down” could have sentimental value?

The featured tune in this clip is of course “Angel Band,” which is my way of sneaking one more gospel number under the tent flap after our recent trifecta of gospel-related posts. The song is indelibly associated with the Stanley Brothers, but its history stretches back 150 years. According to ye olde Wikipedia, the melody was first published in 1862 in Bradbury’s Golden Shower of S.S. Melodies, a title that brings forth unwelcome associations with grindhouse movies or worse. If that weren’t unsettling enough, consider the fact that, among the many bands that have covered this song, we find…The Monkees.

Hot Mustard’s version, which comes from the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, is angelic indeed. The key modulation that occurs near the end (listen for it under the final interview segment) is particularly nifty.

Yer Pal— Curly

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The Scruggs Legacy

10 April 2012

For the past two weeks, the world has paid tribute to Earl Scruggs. I won’t try to improve upon the wonderful encomia already shared on the web and in the press. Rather, I thought I might offer one example of Scruggs’ musical legacy. The following profile of the New England bluegrass band Hot Mustard was designed to focus on lead singer April Jubett’s vocal style. However, listen to the double barrel force of the band’s dueling banjos as they tear through their signature treatment of “Hold Whatcha Got” and the Scruggs connection will start to emerge…

Bruce Stockwell, the senior partner in Hot Mustard’s banjo duo, is part of a whole generation of banjo players whose life course was forever altered by Earl Scruggs. Although Stockwell grew up in Vermont, a long way from the Carolina Piedmont that gave rise to Scruggs’ famous three-finger picking style, Stockwell emulated Scruggs’ technique.

Earl Scruggs with Bruce Stockwell

As luck would have it, when Stockwell was just sixteen, Scruggs came to the local college to give a show, and Stockwell— who played with his brother and couple of cousins in a group called the Green Mountain Boys— got to play an opening set. As Bruce’s bass-playing wife Kelly recounts the story, “as they were leaving and Earl was coming on Earl shook Bruce’s hand and said ‘mighty fine.’” If that experience wouldn’t set your destiny, I don’t know what would.

Shortly after hearing this story, I listened to the WSM broadcast of the memorial for Scruggs that was held at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. One bluegrass star after another got up and spoke about how Scruggs had served as a mentor. Ricky Skaggs put it this way: “What I always saw in Earl, he was always looking, not at himself, but for the next generation. He was always looking ahead.”

That “next generation”— of which Stockwell is certainly a part— picked up Scruggs’ mantle and carried it forward. Indeed, it was Stockwell who taught Scruggs style banjo to the other half of Hot Mustard’s banjo team, Bill Jubett. That’s why it’s fair to say that, as Stockwell and Jubett lock into that boogie-woogie riff near the end of “Hold Whatcha Got,” we are hearing the literal manifestation of Scruggs’ legacy being preserved and passed on.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Thanks to Kelly and Bruce Stockwell for the anecdote and photo.

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Banjo Time!

29 December 2011

This year is ending with a BANG! Can’t you hear it? That’s the sound of Banjo Nation rejoicing in its newfound celebrity. Yep, the spotlight is shining on the humble banjer right now, and if you don’t believe me, I’ll make my case anon. But for now, we hasten to jump on the banjo bandwagon with this tasty double dose of five-string fun courtesy of a performance by Hot Mustard from the 2011 Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

For those keeping track of such things, the tune here, “Theme Time,” is most closely associated with Bill Emerson and goes back to that banjo virtuoso’s days playing with Jimmy Martin.

We’re looking ahead to a boisterous New Year, with profiles and performances from a diverse range of artists— from the Seldom Scene to Joy Kills Sorrow. Here’s hoping our paths cross often, whether here in cyberspace, or at potluck pickin’ sessions and festival campsites.

Yer Pal— Curly

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All We Are Saying Is Give Banjos A Chance

25 September 2011

Over the past few months, there has been some interesting to and fro in the letters section of Bluegrass Unlimited about the rising number of bluegrass bands without a fiddler (see postscript below). To be honest, up here in the Frozen North, where many folks come to bluegrass from Celtic music (an even more fiddle-based tradition) or classical training (ditto), I have not detected VFS (Vanishing Fiddler Syndrome) in our area. Banjos, on the other hand, seem to be on the endangered list. That’s right: banjos— for many the bedrock of bluegrass— appear to be an increasingly scarce commodity. We may well be in the midst of a Vanishing Banjo Syndrome outbreak and nobody seems to notice but Yers Truly. Somebody sound the alarm! Make some noise!! Wait a sec: how do you make a racket without banjos?

Not playing the banjo myself, the next best thing I can do to address the banjo shortage is to use this platform to champion five-string masters. I have done this over the past months with posts celebrating the work of Jens Kruger and Tony Trischka. Even so, judging by recent jams I’ve sampled, my efforts have done little to forestall the advance of VBS. Clearly, it’s time to up the ante. Suppose we lived in an alternate universe, one in which all bluegrass bands were required to be composed of no less than fifty percent banjos. What would that sound like? Have a listen…

That is Hot Mustard, the New England bluegrass outfit whose motto is “Two banjos, no waiting!” As I recounted in my previous showcase entry on the group, I heard Hot Mustard before I set eyes on them, and so natural and integrated was their sound that it was only after watching them perform for a while that I noticed the unusual line-up: two banjos, guitar and bass. As they ably demonstrate, given the right degree of taste and control, you can’t have too much of a good thing. And for those of you concerned about VFS, Bill Jubett occasionally puts down his banjo and plays some fiddle, too.

This video features one of the greatest banjo tunes, “Clinch Mountain Backstep.” The quirk that sets it apart from a gazillion other instrumental numbers is the extra beat that gets thrown in halfway through the B part, a feature that makes it what is sometimes called a “crooked” tune. The song was recorded as an instrumental by the Stanley Brothers way back in 1959, but as with much of the Stanley Brothers’ material, the melody sounds much older than that. Alan Jabbour, in his notes on the magisterial collection of fiddle tunes he collected from old time master Henry Reed, posits that “Clinch Mountain Backstep” is an adaptation of a nameless breakdown that Reed said was “old as the mountains.”

You can listen to Reed’s breakdown here and decide if you agree that it’s an antecedent to the Stanley Brothers’ tune. Whatever your verdict, I suspect you’ll agree that it’s the Stanleys’ version that has entered the bluegrass canon. Interestingly, Hot Mustard’s take on “Clinch Mountain Backstep” owes at least as much to Earl Scruggs banjo style as it does to that of Ralph Stanley. There was a time when Scruggs and Stanley defined two distinct approaches to the banjo, the former pioneering a hard-driving three-fingered technique while the latter held onto a sound anchored in the clawhammer tradition. In bringing a style derived more from Scruggs to “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” Hot Mustard’s dual banjoists, Bruce Stockwell and Bill Jubett, emphasize how much common ground there is in these various techniques.

For anyone familiar with the dozens of recorded versions of “Clinch Mountain,” the slow and spare vocal intro, written and sung by April Jubett, will come as a surprise. Those moody a cappella verses at the outset make the first salvo from Bill’s banjo sound like a clarion call. The tune gets even more of an adrenaline charge when Bill passes off to his mentor Bruce.

It all sounds great, which leads us back to the problem I raised at the outset: whither the banjers? Did somebody finally tell one too many banjo jokes? Folks, we didn’t mean it— come on back!

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— My favorite contribution to the VFS conversation in Bluegrass Unlimited so far was from John Mahoney of Strasburg, VA. In the September issue, Mahoney— who himself laments the disappearance of fiddlers from the scene— says that one explanation for the phenomenon given to him by bandleaders was that “fiddle players are idiots and hard to get along with.” I would beseech any of my fiddling brethren with anger management issues to keep in mind that these are not the views of Mr. Mahoney or Yers Truly.

P.P.S.— The traditional music site Mudcat Café has an old thread regarding the meaning of “backstep” as it applies to music or dance. The many clever thread participants are unable to verify that any maneuver from square dancing or other American folk dance idioms has an explicit connection to the Stanley Brothers’ famously “crooked” tune. I have also been unable to dig up any evidence that “backstep” applies to a particular type of tune, à la jig or reel. If anybody knows different, let us know!

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Introducing Hot Mustard!

6 September 2011

Once upon a time, I was walking across the fairgrounds at Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival. It was late in the fest and a maple glazed doughnut and some aspirin was about all I was up for. Then I heard it: a woman’s voice wafting across the field, singing some bluegrass standard in a way that I had only heard on old recordings. You could say that she was belting it out, except her singing had as much color and warmth as it had raw power. I found myself galloping past the concession stands. When I got to where I could see the stage, I discovered Hot Mustard, a group from the frozen north (its members live in New Hampshire and Vermont).

Flash forward a couple of years, and Hot Mustard are going stronger than ever. This summer, they played a number of dates around New England. It’s time that the wider world got to know them, so I’m wrasslin’ up a new series of Ye Olde Performers Showcase featuring this fine quartet. Here’s a quick getting-to-know-you installment that features a performance from last winter’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.

If I close my eyes and open my ears, Hot Mustard’s sound is just as natural as a mountain stream or a Stanley Brothers hymn. But when I take a look— dang! Double banjos, rhythm guitar and bass is their default set-up, with Bill Jubett only occasionally trading his banjo for a fiddle. I need hardly point out that this is not your standard bluegrass line-up. Then there is the gender distribution. While a number of the top bluegrass acts are fronted by women, there remains a substantial testosterone imbalance in the genre as a whole. Not so with Hot Mustard, however, which maintains a perfect male/female equilibrium.

The group is, in fact, comprised of two couples. The Stockwells— that would be bassist Kelly and banjoist Bruce Stockwell— have been married for some time, but the Jubetts— lead vocalist April and banjoist/fiddler Bill Jubett— just tied the knot within the last month.

I had the Jubett nuptials in mind when I chose the band’s performance of “Elkhorn Ridge” as the tune to accompany this first showcase installment. April mentions that she listened to a lot of Kate Brislin and Jody Stecher growing up, and I assume she learned “Elkhorn Ridge” from Brislin and Stecher’s fine recording from twenty years ago. As rendered by that duo, this traditional number is an unalloyed paean to flat-out, head-over-heels love. To wit, it contains a verse that consists of just this:

Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy

Darlin’, I’m crazy about you

The rest of the stanza is AWOL, as if the singer has indeed plum lost his or her mind. Who can argue with that sentiment?

Here’s wishing the newlyweds all the crazy love they can stand. As for the rest of you, check back for more Hot Mustard in the coming weeks.

Yer Pal— Curly

Addendum for the Late Edition: This just in from Richard Hamilton: “Elkhorn Ridge is generally attributed to Oscar Wright, a fiddler/banjo player from Princeton, WV. There are some recordings of his playing available. His version of Elkhorn on banjo looks like it is on Clawhammer Banjo Vol 2. from County.” Thanks, Rich!

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