Posts Tagged ‘Nick DiSebastian’

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Blue Ridge Mountain Girl

2 February 2014

Sorry, that recent cold snap had me in a state of cryonic suspension from which I have but lately awakened. Without further ado, something to warm even the coldest heart—

That there is Jenni Lyn Gardner, appearing not with her usual bandmates from Della Mae, but with The Palmetto Bluegrass Band. The PBB consists of Kyle Tuttle on banjo, Nick DiSebastian on guitar and Josh Dayton on bass. If you like what you just heard, check out our earlier post from these good folks.

“Blue Ridge Mountain Girl” was written by the veteran songwriting team of Holyfield and Leigh. It appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1987 release, “Hold On.” In bluegrass circles, the tune was popularized by Blue Highway on their first album, “It’s a Long, Long Road.” It was this version that brought the song to Jenni Lyn’s attention, and it clearly still evokes tender memories for her. As she recalled recently—

My dad had a radio show that I would often co-host when I was a little girl and this is the song that I chose to play, every single time. It has stuck with me all this time and I enjoy singing it— even if it is from a man’s perspective.

The Palmetto Band’s interpretation of the song summons a lot of the spirit of Blue Highway without slavishly following that band’s version. Nick DiSebastian’s guitar solo takes the place of Rob Ickes’ dobro break, and his elegant cross-picking puts a smile on my face every time I hear it.

We recorded this informal session with Jenni Lyn & Co. at last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. This year’s edition of that frosty fest is right around the corner. Like triathletes in training, pickers all over New England are prepping for Joe Val, winding their clocks back and trying to get their sleep regimen pared down to just a few naps during the daylight hours. It’s not a routine for the faint-hearted, but as I trust we have demonstrated with this post, the compensations are many, including the knowledge that at any hour, in any corner of the Framingham Sheraton, music magic can happen.

Yers— Curly

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Finding Harmony with Jenni Lyn Gardner

1 November 2013

Jenni Lyn Gardner is best known these days as the mandolinist in Della Mae. Membership in that fast-rising group is surely a big commitment. Even so, Jenni Lyn likes to sow some musical oats occasionally. Like many other successful bluegrassers, she has established a side project for that purpose, The Palmetto Bluegrass Band. We caught up with Jenni Lyn Gardner & The Palmetto Bluegrass Band as they were running through some tunes at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.  As you can see, the band’s sweet harmonies attracted some curious bystanders to their hotel room door. Small wonder. Have a listen—

Along with Gardner, the group is comprised of Kyle Tuttle on banjo, Nick DiSebastian on guitar and Josh Dayton on bass. You may recall that South Carolina is “The Palmetto State,” and the group’s name is a nod to Gardner’s roots in that corner of Dixie.

Gardner grew up steeped in bluegrass. Though still in the bloom of youth, she has already had many opportunities to mingle with legends of the genre. There is a brief video on YouTube of a very young Gardner playing backstage with the one and only Bill Monroe, and a photograph of that encounter hangs in the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was another brush with greatness that brought the song in this video into Gardner’s repertoire. She tells the story better than I can:

I first heard the song “Born To Be With You” on the JD Crowe “Blackjack” album, but it wasn’t until I was backstage at [the] “Down From The Mountain” concert and heard Alison Krauss and Union Station standing in a circle warming up to it that it really caught my attention. I thought, man that is a cool song!

Cool song indeed. The close three-part harmonies in Gardner & Co.’s treatment made me think that it came to us from the white gospel tradition. In fact, I was following the wrong stream to foreign headwaters. In the 1950’s “Born To Be With You” was a hit for The Chordettes, a female quartet whose output overlapped at points with doo-wop (they are better remembered today for “Lollipop” and “Mister Sandman”).

As Gardner’s account shows, the song has been bouncing around bluegrass circles for a while. The most recent recording I heard of it was from the alt-bluegrass outfit Chatham County Line. In my view, whosoever shall essay this tune had better have good harmony chops. Jenni Lyn and friends certainly meet this requirement.

We’ve got more good stuff to share from Jenni Lyn Gardner & The Palmetto Bluegrass Band, but we’re also doing our dangedest to finish up a whole series of videos featuring Gardner’s “day job,” Della Mae. We shot a truckload of footage with that fine group and are looking forward to sharing a bunch of it with you soon.

Yer Pal— Curly

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John Hartford’s Legacy at 75

28 December 2012

With his bowler hat and colorful duds, there was always something boyish about John Hartford. It therefore comes as something of a shock to realize that Sunday, December 30th would have been his 75th birthday. By way of appreciation…

Of course, that is Hartford’s giant hit, “Gentle On My Mind” as performed by Molly Tuttle, Eric Robertson, Nick DiSebastian, Gabe Hirshfeld and John Mailander. This campsite performance was captured at the 2012 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. See below for a special note on the circumstances surrounding the recording.

How you think about John Hartford probably depends a bit upon your vintage. I confess that, for a really ancient cuss like Yers Truly, it’s hard for Hartford ever to escape that bell jar of late sixties folksy nostalgia. Some part of him remains trapped forever in an easy-listening ether, along with the likes of Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb and the Smothers Brothers.

That limited view is unfortunate, and it certainly doesn’t do justice to Hartford’s multifaceted career. In truth, Hartford never spent much time marching in the hit parade. Instead he used his pop success to branch out and reach back. In the early 1970’s he was a central figure in the development of New Grass music, a melding of bluegrass with pop riffs, rhythms and instrumentation. For many young listeners who had grown up on a diet of folk and rock, Hartford’s 1971 album Aero-Plain seemed doubly authentic: on the one hand, with its fiddles and banjos, the album sounded as old and comfortable as a broken-in pair of jeans, but its playful references to contraband substances and life on the road gave it youth culture credibility.

In its heyday, it was easy to view New Grass as a musical manifestation of the Generation Gap, and there were of course plenty of bluegrass traditionalists who considered it an adulteration of the genuine article. At the distance of several decades, such hand-wringing and haranguing seems almost quaint, especially given that tunes like “Steam Powered Aero Plain” now show up regularly at jams, perfectly at home between “Salt Creek” and “On and On.”

Of course, the Young Turks of New Grass never saw the canon of bluegrass and traditional music as an “establishment” that had to be overturned. On the contrary, they were the first generation who could view the music with an archivist’s appreciation for historical context. If you watch the strange and wonderful double-DVD set that Homespun Music Instruction produced on the mandolin technique of Bill Monroe, it’s John Hartford who plays the role of MC, avidly encouraging and supplicating the Father of Bluegrass to share the secrets of his playing method.

Hartford’s interest in traditional string music led him back to songs and tunes that predate bluegrass. In 1998, he released, The Speed of the Old Long Bow, which had as its subtitle A Tribute to the Fiddle Music of Ed Haley. Haley was the blind fiddler whose composing and performing during the first half of the 20th Century greatly expanded the Appalachian fiddle tune repertoire.Hartford’s album didn’t ignite a renaissance in old time music— that phenomenon had been percolating already for several decades— but I do suspect that the current generation of hot shot fiddlers, all of whom know tunes associated with Haley like “Forked Deer” and “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom,” owe a thing or two to John Hartford.

The Haley tribute was just one of a series of projects that Hartford undertook at the end of his life that widened the audience for old time and bluegrass music. His contributions to the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou insure that a vast new generation of traditional string music fans got to know his fiddle and voice.

More than a decade has passed both since the passing of Hartford and the launch of the O Brother juggernaut, and we could use another galvanizing project that will once again give the bluegrass scene a shot in the arm (the fizzling of a biopic to coincide with Bill Monroe’s centennial seems like a lost opportunity in this respect). When you consider Hartford’s many guises— banjo-wielding hit maker, archangel of New Grass, champion of bluegrass and fiddle music— you have to wonder: where would he be leading us today? For of Hartford’s many gifts, perhaps the greatest was his ability to draw from the past while always looking ahead.

I am happy hear that two musicians, Marcy Cochran and Sheila Nichols, are well along in their efforts to produce a John Hartford documentary. I look forward to learning more about this protean picker through Cochran and Nichol’s film.

On The Joys of Field Recording

Here at Second Cousin Curly, we strive to bring you bluegrass in all its unvarnished glory. Sometimes that means venturing into the wilds of church basements and backyards to capture the music in its native habitat. This is not without its challenges. In the case of the recording featured above, you’ll notice that the audio gets kinda soggy about half way through the song. That’s because a portapotty truck arrived at that point and started doing its dirty work. In editing this video, we struggled for many hours to clean the sewage off the recording, so to speak, with only partial success. Even after all the pain and loss, I still keep a warm place in my heart for the portapotty crew, because as anyone who goes to outdoor fests will tell you, the only thing worse than having a portapotty truck show up and spoil yer jam is not having the portapotty truck show up at all.

Second Cousin Curly’s Hostile Facebook Takeover

Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine has a Facebook page (4800+ likes). The Punch Brothers have one, too (48000+ likes). So does the Little Roy and Lizzy Show (2700+ likes). Heck, even Bill Monroe has a Facebook page (4400+ likes), though he died long before Facebook was born. Anyway, we have gotten the message. With 2013 dawning, the time has come…

[a banjo roll, please…]

Debuting New Year’s Day: Second Cousin Curly’s Facebook Page! If you visit the page right now, you will find only the virtual equivalent of a freshly graded parcel of land. Soon, however, an empire will rise out of the barren soil, so watch that space! We’re going to use the page to share all sorts of entertaining stuff, from vintage videos to timely tips. It may not change the face of bluegrass, but we hope Second Cousin Curly on Facebook will put a smile on your face. So here’s a deal for you: “Like” us, and we’ll love you in return.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Yep, we are also on Twitter @2ndcousincurly!

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Five Rising Stars at Grey Fox

12 December 2012

Winter has its charms, but let’s face it: they pale in comparison to the joys of sitting around a campsite in yer shirtsleeves, playing with friends. But don’t take my word for it, listen to these folks…

This quintet of young musicians all share an affiliation with Berklee College of Music. We caught up with them last summer at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival as they were running through some tunes in advance of a Berklee showcase. Here, Eric Robertson leads the group through his own composition, a gospel-tinged beauty called “Take Me Under.”

It’s hard to keep up with these young pickers— and I don’t mean when they’re ripping through “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” though I’m sure that would be true as well. They all seem to be at a stage when the world is spinning in overdrive, and enormous changes are happening almost minute-by-minute.

Exhibit A: In the few months that have intervened since we shot this footage, Robertson has toured the Middle East with his group The Boston Boys. While in Egypt, they took a moment to record a touching performance of Sam Cooke’s “Change Is Gonna Come” with the great pyramid of Giza looming in the distance. The sentiment of the song couldn’t be more timely for both Egypt and the U.S. It gets my vote for Best Video from the whole interminable election circus.

While Robertson & Co. were trotting the globe, Molly Tuttle was making a splash in an altogether different setting. Tuttle hails from the hollers of Palo Alto, where she grew up in a musical family. In October, she and her dad, Jack Tuttle, appeared on that public radio institution, “A Prairie Home Companion,” where they took second place in the show’s duet singing competition.

While still a student at Berklee, the ever-affable Nick DiSebastian established himself not simply as a performer, but as a ringleader for Boston’s young pickers. A natural networker and MC, he toyed for a while with becoming a local music producer and promoter. Eventually, however, the siren song of Nashville got to him. Literally any minute now, he’s due to relocate to Music City. Though featured on bass in the Grey Fox ensemble, DiSebastian is versed in several instruments.Once in Nashville,” he tells me, “I’m gonna put my efforts towards improving as a player and spending more time on the road playing.” Those of us who have enjoyed his company in Beantown would like to remind Nick that New England summers can provide a comfortable respite from Nashville’s sticky heat.

Another fixture of Boston’s picking scene, banjoist Gabe Hirshfeld, is staying put for the time being as he finishes his degree at Berklee. Throughout the fall, Hirshfeld has been immersed in the music of those fathers of bluegrass, The Beatles. Hirshfeld reports that, along with partners George Clements, Louis Fram, Patrick M’Gonigle and Matthew Witler,We’ve been taking Beatles songs and playing them as close to the original recordings as possible with the bluegrass instrumentation.”

Sometimes it seems like everyone at Berklee plays with everyone else, sooner or later, and never does that impression ring truer than when you look at fiddler John Mailander’s dance card. In recent months, he has worked with Hirshfeld on an EP called “The TriMountain Sessions” (produced by DiSebastian) and played a number of dates with Tuttle (including a recent gig with Berklee prof Darol Anger and partner Emy Phelps). But that only accounts for half his musical life. Mailander is from San Diego, and he continues to maintain links with the West Coast bluegrass scene, performing in the Bear Republic with Janet Beazley, Chris Stuart and the group Backcountry.

Not sure that I’ve got my cosmology right, but I hear tell of certain “unbound,” high-flying stars that have exited our galaxy. As yet, no one knows where these vagabond bodies are headed. Seems that much the same could be said of the stars grouped in this campfire constellation.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Three Tall Pines Branch Out

22 September 2012

Earlier this summer, the Boston-based group Three Tall Pines posted a video of an infectious ditty called “Going to Grey Fox.” Where better then to catch up with this quartet than at their home-away-from-home, The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJQcYg9SHx0 w=427&h=240]

Like so much of the best stuff that happens at Grey Fox and other fests, this performance took place away from the stages— just a beautiful moment in the early evening captured among tents and trailers.

Songwriting is a particular strong suit of this group. The composition in this video is “Tire Chains,” an original tune that can be found on the band’s 2011 release, All That’s Left. With its evocation of small town and rural life, its loping rhythms and its twangy vocals, “Tire Chains” offers a good introduction to the world of Three Tall Pines. While these guys are very much part of Boston’s burgeoning roots music scene, they don’t seem to share some of their compatriots conflicted relationship with bluegrass. As their Grey Fox anthem suggests, they answered that high and lonesome call long ago. They have been baptized in bluegrass, washed in the blood not just of murder ballads and fiddle tunes but also more contemporary strains of the music. Indeed, overall, their sound seems more a product of soaking up the currents of the last twenty years of bluegrass, country and Americana music than the study of folk traditions. To put it another way, I hear more Steve Earle and David Rawlings in their songs than Dock Boggs and Robert Johnson.

As I mentioned in an earlier post from this year’s Grey Fox Festival, a generational shift seems underway at that sprawling confab of musicians and music fans. With the passing away of so many pioneers of bluegrass, the mantel of elder statesperson has been passed to the generation of Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien, leaving room for an army of twenty-somethings to stake their claim to the music. Three Tall Pines are definitely soldiers in that army, but they’re not at war with the generation that came before them.

At the very end of the “Tire Chains” video, you can hear someone say, “Bill Keith,” as if to acknowledge the good vibrations that came from recording in the shadow of Bill Keith’s iconic teepee, the beige structure visible directly behind the band. Keith’s musical approach, which shifted the emphasis away from chord patterns and toward melodic and chromatic runs, transformed banjo playing in the 1960’s. Once a Young Turk, today Keith is a benevolent godfather and guru to the generation of Three Tall Pines, Della Mae, The Get Down Boys and many other acts. His teepee is therefore a fitting symbol of the bluegrass tradition, a culture that at once endures and evolves.

How many members would a group called Three Tall Pines have? It’s a trick question on a couple of counts. For starters, the band consists of four pickers: Dan Bourdeau (guitar and vocals), Joe Lurgio (mandolin and vocals), Conor Smith (fiddle and harmony vocals) and newcomer Nick DiSebastian (bass and harmony vocals). But the group also draws on a circle of friends and collaborators, most notably Avi Salloway, who has worked with them as both sideman and producer. That’s Salloway you see on slide steel guitar and harmony vocals in the video. Salloway is currently working with Three Tall Pines on a new album, so depending on how you count, expect to hear more from this trio, quartet or quintet soon.

Yer Pal— Curly

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Remembering Kenny Baker at Grey Fox

28 July 2011

The great fiddler Kenny Baker died on July 8th. Exactly one week later, the ad hoc Kenny Baker Memorial Orchestra assembled on the main stage at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival to “play homage” to this titan of American musican. The “orchestra” was the brainchild of Matt Glaser, himself a renowned fiddler and a guiding light of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee College of Music.

Since the Grey Fox program was already in place long before Baker passed, there wasn’t a block of time available for a full-blown tribute. Glaser and company therefore had to make the most of a brief interlude on Friday afternoon between sets by Michael Cleveland and Tim O’Brien.

The assembled multitude managed to pack four tunes into ten minutes. In my view, the heart of the medley was the second tune, “Cross-eyed Fiddler,” a Baker original, appropriately enough. Have a look and a listen…

Now, without clicking “replay,” how many of the performers can you name? If you’re from New England, chances are you recognize a face or two, as many are based in the region. With the likes of Baker and Hazel Dickens leaving the stage, and with players like O’Brien, Cleveland and Glaser well established in their careers, it’s time for a new generation of players to make their marks. Most of the performers in the “orchestra” are in their twenties; many are in highly regarded bands such as The Deadly Gentlemen, Della Mae or the Red Stick Ramblers. For those of you who haven’t updated your Who’s Who in Bluegrass lately, I’m providing, free of charge, the following video guide. This clip shows the entire Baker tribute medley, with the bonus feature that all players are identified. See how many pickers you can I.D. before their names show up on screen. Extra points if you can pick out the musician who is also an MD specializing in Emergency Medicine.

Only a stone could resist being moved by that last image of the players filing out to “The Dead March,” finally leaving just Cleveland on stage, like a solitary candle. Wish I could tell you more about “The Dead March.” It’s a late Monroe composition, a tune Glaser said that the Father of Bluegrass “remembered,” but I haven’t been able to dig up much beyond that. I suspect that as many people know the tune from a celebrated television performance by the meteoric supergroup Muleskinner as from any of Monroe’s recordings.

“The Dead March” is a keeper, but in the end, it’s “Cross-Eyed Fiddler” that really sticks with me. This seems a hugely underappreciated fiddle tune. It’s not an old composition and it’s under copyright, but those conditions haven’t kept other tunes (“Rebecca,” “Ashokan Farewell,” “Josephine’s Waltz”) from entering the fiddling canon. Perhaps it’s the title that holds it back— “Cross-Eyed Fiddler” doesn’t seem to fit its jaunty tone.

In any event, I love how the players at Grey Fox really get into the swing of the tune. You can see them all, little by little, put their bodies into it, swaying and bouncing to the melody. One of the things that made Baker a great musician— perhaps the thing— was that there was at once a looseness and formality to both his playing and his compositions. If you’ve ever seen a photograph or a video of Baker, there’s a kind of severity to the way he carried himself. He had this ramrod-straight posture, and no one— not even Bill Monroe— looked meaner in a perfectly blocked cowboy hat. His playing had a definite precision, too, but look closer and you can see how relaxed his technique remained, even when playing at speed. Like so many master musicians, he made it look easy.

Many people feel that to say that he “co-wrote” the classic tune “Jerusalem Ridge” with Monroe is to give Baker too little credit. Whatever the case, if you compare how he plays the tune to the whole host of subsequent renditions, what stands out is how spare and clean his version is. Every motion of the bow is like a punctuation mark. At the same time, however, was there ever a more baroque and passionate fiddle tune than this? There it is: the marriage of contradictions so often found in great art. For the philosophers following along at home, you could say that while there was much that was Apollonian in Baker’s demeanor and bearing, a Dionysian side always came out in his music. Whatever wonders future generations of musicians have to offer us, we will miss Kenny Baker.

A Word or Two More On Grey Fox

The biggest no-show at Grey Fox this year was not Peter Rowan, who managed to make it, albeit a little later than expected. No, the big no-show was the colossal, end-of-time rain storm that shows up like clockwork— except when it doesn’t. Even the storm’s usual sidekick, Insufferable Heat, barely stopped by. This, combined with the usual strong line-up and the off-the-hook campsite jams, made for a glorious festival. But don’t take my word for it: in a bid to put me out of business, Grey Fox has really ramped up its online media. Check out the festival blog for boatloads of videos. I’m particularly impressed by— and partial to— the several videos that capture the campsite jams. As we all know, some of the best playing goes on in these informal gatherings, and the experience is even more ephemeral than a live concert. After all, Del McCoury and his boys will play together another day, but most jams are fleeting hook-ups, so to speak. Those of us who care about this stuff need to do a better job of documenting these magical moments. Hats off to the media crew at Grey Fox for its progress on that front.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S. The Emergency Medicine specialist is Kalev Freeman, one of the fiddlers lurking in the rear on the right side of the stage.

P.P.S. Thanks to Nick DiSebastian, Ben Pearce, Fred Robbins, Mary Burdette and Matt Glaser for their scholarly assistance.

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