Posts Tagged ‘Nashville’

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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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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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Let Us Now Praise Famous Dives, Part 2: The Station Inn

27 June 2011

Summer, the season for sequels, has officially arrived. Those mobs at the cineplexes who have turned out to see The Hangover 2 or Cars 2 have not gone unnoticed by yer Cousin Curly. It seems that today’s perspiring public wants nothing more than, well, more of the same, and who am I to argue? In this spirit, I offer up the following summer bluegrass blockbuster…

Those of you following this space closely know that I’m a great fan of The Cantab Lounge, New England’s Mecca for Bluegrass and other roots music. When I posted my paean to that venerable institution, I called it “Let Us Now Praise Famous Dives, Part 1,” knowing that I had a “Part 2” lined up.

That was in May of last year. Nothing like just-in-time delivery, is there?

Anyhow, the long wait is over. Popcorn is optional…

Not all the music at the Station Inn is bluegrass, but much of it “demonstrates bluegrassish tendencies,” as the doctors like to say. In addition to the famous names mentioned in the video, here’s a sample of the performers who have appeared at the Inn over the past few years: The Red Stick Ramblers, Kimberly Williams, Blue Highway, Dierks Bentley, Roland White and Shawn Camp. Special mention should be made of The Cluster Pluckers and The Mashville Brigade, a couple of “supergroups” of Nashville musicians who are or were fixtures on the scene.

Going a bit farther back, no less a figure than Bill Monroe himself trod the Inn’s humble stage. You could make a movie about this place’s many brushes with fame, and it appears that one Patrick Isbey has done just that. Click here to see a clip from his documentary, The Station Inn: True Life Bluegrass.

Although our beloved Cantab can’t claim the international recognition afforded the Station Inn, otherwise these two joints feel like twins separated by nothing more than distance. They share a complete lack of pretense that can’t be imitated or approximated. Their very ordinariness makes them special.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Cousin Curly in the Temple of Twang

12 April 2011

Before I get all distracted, let me show you this edition’s video, which comes from my travels to Nashville last spring…

From a certain point of view, the Ryman Auditorium could be seen as a microcosm of Nashville. Like the Music City as a whole, the Ryman is a really nice place that seems to hide its deep connection to bluegrass. While the back of the building is lined with display cases, you have to go to the third floor to find any significant bluegrass-related material. In some respects this isn’t a surprise, in that the Ryman hosts all manner of performances today, from Aretha Franklin to ZZ Top. But while I’m sure that ticket sales for bluegrass acts aren’t keeping the auditorium’s pews polished to a fare thee well, I reckon that the streams of pilgrims who are paying close to twenty bucks for the backstage tour are primarily drawn by the venue’s storied past. No doubt many grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry, which called the Ryman home for several decades. If I’m correct about all that, it would follow that a good number of these are folks interested in an era when bluegrass was an integral part of the operation. So what gives?

But as I say, I found Nashville puzzling in the same way. A quick rundown of musicians based in Nashville reads like a directory of present-day bluegrass:

Alison Brown, Roland White, Bryan Sutton, Jerry Douglas, Jim Buchanan, Josh Williams, Valerie Smith, The Steeldrivers, Ron Block, Blake Williams,  Ricky Skaggs, Mark Schatz, Jerry Salley, Keith Tew, Gail Davies, The Infamous String Dusters, Melonie Canon, Casey Driessen, Sam Bush, Gillian Welch,  Daily & Vincent, John Weisberger, Dierks Bentley, Kathy Chiavola, Mike Bub, Larry Sparks, Tim Carter, Paul Brewster, Ronnie Reno, Tim O’Brien, Billy & Terry Smith, Fred Carpenter, Doug Dillard,  Tim May, Wayne Southards, Brad Davis, Barry & Holly Tashian, David Crow, Kevin Williamson, John Cowan, Mike Compton, Tim Hensley, Larry Cordle, Marty Raybon, Sharon Cort, Keith Sewell, The Chigger Hill Boys, Stuart Duncan, David Talbot, Ed Dye, The Grascals, Pat Enright, Scott Vestal, Donna Ulisse, The Farewell Drifters, Marty Stuart, Rickie Simpkins, Pat Flynn, Kim Fox, Pam Gadd, J.T. Gray, Tom T. Hall, Aubrey Haynie, Casey Henry, Tom Saffell, Randy Howard, Jim Hurst, Rob Ickes, Eddie Stubbs, Vic Jordan, Cody Kilby, Randy Kohrs, Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderdale, David Grier, Keith Little, Ned Luberecki, Del McCoury, James & Angela McKinney, Larry McNeely, Luke McNight, Ken Mellons, Patty Mitchell, Alan O’Bryant, Bobby Osborne, Heartstrings, The Overall Brothers, Continental Divide, David Peterson, Missy Raines, Lee & Elaine Roy, Carl Jackson, Darrell Scott, Jimmy Campbell, Ronnie McCoury, Larry Perkins, Larry Stephenson, Jim Van Cleve, Terry Eldridge, Andrea Zonn.

Whew. That’s just a start; I’ll bet there are literally hundreds more worth noting.  Even so, the music itself doesn’t even register as background noise. During my visit, I would regularly spin the radio dial from one end to the other. I never heard so much as a note that sounded like bluegrass. I know there is a vibrant house party scene in the Nashville bluegrass community, but that doesn’t explain why bluegrass isn’t a more visible— or, more the point, audible— part of the landscape.

But don’t get me wrong: I really like Nashville. As long as the Cumberland River behaves itself, it’s an elegant metropolis that also manages to be comfortable and friendly. Can’t wait for my next visit, by which time I hope I will have been granted the secret password and welcomed into Nashville’s occult (in every sense of the word) bluegrass scene.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Gruhn Guitars: String Fever!

9 March 2011

There are priorities, and then there are bluegrass priorities. For instance, while regular mortals might consider making a house payment a priority, bluegrassers can see the higher value in putting down a deposit on a sweet pre-war Martin— a steal at twelve grand!

When I first got into bluegrass, I was frankly stunned by the prices of instruments. This may be the music of hardscrabble hillbillies, but a decent mandolin or banjo can easily match the cost of very good classical instrument. Which begs the question: are all these friendly folks I meet at jam sessions robbing banks in their spare time?

For those who think I’m exaggerating, consider this: Ron Thomason of Dry Branch Fire Squad offered to trade a small apartment building for a Loar Gibson mandolin— and this was in the 1970’s. Yep, at the upper end of the market for bluegrass instruments, we’re talking about high finance.

Keep this in mind if, while rummaging through your deceased great uncle’s attic, you stumble upon a distressed banjo with the word “Mastertone” on a scuffed up plaque on the resonator. Should you find yourself in this spot, you should either— a) send me that rusty ol’ five-string and not give it another thought or b) take it down to Gruhn Guitars for an appraisal.

For the past forty years, Gruhn Guitars has been a clearinghouse for some of the most celebrated and sought after instruments in bluegrass and country music. It is the home base of George Gruhn, a legendary instrument dealer. I paid a visit to Mr. Gruhn’s famous emporium when I visited Nashville last spring. This was just before the flood that wreaked havoc on Music City. I was fortunate enough to meet Walter Carter at the shop. Carter is both a Gruhn veteran and an authority on fine string instruments, having written several books on the subject. After letting our conversation age like a vintage guitar, I have fashioned the exchange into a first installment of Curly’s Q & A, an occasional series of interviews. Have a look!

The shop is located on Broadway in downtown Nashville, just steps from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ol’ Opry, and while it is known as a Mecca for collectors, not every rack is filled with priceless booty. The showroom features the good as well as the great: the work of many contemporary instrument makers shares floor space with classic older instruments, so emptying an ATM is not a prerequisite for paying a visit.

Thanks to all the folks at Gruhn Guitar for letting me barge in, and a special tip of the hat to Walter Carter for sharing his knowledge and hitting every one of my questions right out of the park.

Yer Pal— Curly

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