Posts Tagged ‘roots music’

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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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Cherryholmes Serves Up Sizzlin’ Self-Help

6 January 2011

Dang. Anybody know which way 2010 went? I believe I left some stuff in the back seat…

Cousin Curly’s got whole stocking full of good stuff to share with you in the New Year, but first I’ve got to wrap up our “Cherryholmes Season.” What with the calendar turning over and all, it seems appropriate to close out this brief series with a bit of soul-searching— a Cherryholmes specialty.

For those of you not up on Team Cherryholmes, a quick recap: Since leaping full-blown onto the stage a decade ago, this six-member family band has become one of the most popular acts in bluegrass. I’ve already commented on the band’s technical virtuosity and its puzzling mix of piety and razzle-dazzle. There’s one key ingredient to the group’s music that I have yet to delve into, however, and that’s the way it continually draws on the language of self-improvement in its lyrics.

Take the latest release from the band, Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads. After listening to that album for a while, I realized that I wouldn’t need to buy a Daily Affirmations calendar for 2011— all I had to do was press “play” on my Cherryholmes playlist every morning and I’d be good to go. True, a number of their compositions mine a millennialist vein— not surprising, given the family’s deep Christian roots, to say nothing of its affiliation with the born-again Ricky Skaggs— but more often than not, the group’s songs take a psychological tack. When working in this mode, the group trades notions of damnation and salvation for an ethic focused on redemption through self-realization.

This self-help theme turns up in songs written by many members of the family, but the expert in the genre would seem to be banjo-slinging daughter Cia. I caught the whole Cherryholmes brood performing Cia’s composition “How Far Will You Go” at last summer’s Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival. Contrary to what the title suggests, the song has nothing to do with the question so often posed by one teenager to another. Rather, it’s an up-tempo ballad about a troubled girl for whom the song’s narrator has plenty of advice. Have a listen:

I hope this video captures a little of the energetic interplay that is a hallmark of the band’s stage presence. As I’ve noted before, this is a group that really knows how to swing. All that good mojo can make you overlook what’s being said. In the midst of all the ruckus, Cia is laying it out for her tormented friend:

Why do you cling so desperately to the hurt that you don’t need

You can’t let go of the fear in your mind, and leave it behind

While I admire the song’s ambition— its attempt to capture a certain inner turmoil in words and music— I confess that I recoil a bit from its artless approach. Cia Cherryholmes is a gifted songwriter, but her work would be stronger if she could find a way to evoke rather than merely address. More often than not, the songs that stand the test of time paint a picture, leaving audiences over the ages to find meaning in the composition. Take this old line about another young woman who is “passing away her troubles:”

Last time I saw little Maggie

She was sittin’ by the banks of the sea

With a forty-four around her

And a banjo on her knee.

In contrast with the concrete imagery of this lyric, songs from the Cherryholmes family are laced with references to a purely inner world (the word “mind” crops up repeatedly). The problem with this on-the-nose approach to addressing psychology is that, ironically enough, it forestalls any attempt to look deeper. When, in another song, Cia sings, “I’m left with anger and annoyance,” well, what more is there to say? The songwriter has already analyzed her mental state, leaving the listener no role beyond “being there for her.”

Perhaps I have a point, or perhaps I “just don’t get it.” It occurs to me that my beef with Cherryholmes’ particular brand of confessional songwriting might be of a piece with a broader disconnect on my part. I’ll spare you the sermon, but let’s just say that contemporary American culture is riddled with values that, from a more traditional perspective at least, seem contradictory. After pondering long and hard about the mixed signals I get from Cherryholmes, it finally dawned on me that the problem is with me, not them. I’m trying to reconcile all these disparate cues the family sends out— the hints of rusticity, the pouting glances, the homespun values, the tattoo fetish— when in fact I just need to let go. Instead of trying to look under the hood of the band’s tour bus to see what makes it run, perhaps I should be more focused on the sleek exterior, because maybe that surface level is all there is— or at least all that matters in this case. When you look at the group’s work this way, it starts to add up: everything you need to know is right out there, at once as glossy and raw as a photo of a steak in a supermarket circular.

Yer Pal— Curly

Pedantic Postscript: Ever since I first heard Cia Cherryholmes sing, I’ve asked myself, “Where have I heard that voice before?” The other day, I had a Union Station song on the iPod and— bingo! In interviews, mother Sandy Cherryholmes has confirmed that the kids listened to Alison Krauss & Union Station early on, and Krauss’ influence on Cia’s singing is unmistakable. It’s interesting to hear influences like this crop up in the work of younger performers; it reminds us that their points of reference are as likely to be current, still-active artists as it is to be the forefathers and mothers of the genre.

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Broke Guitar Blues

8 October 2010

We interrupt the regularly scheduled programming to bring you this public service announcement… John Martin Holland has long been a fixture on the streets of Burlington, Vermont, where he bills himself as “The Human Jukebox.”  While at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival this summer, Holland lived through every musician’s worst nightmare when he tripped and busted his prized instrument, a ’72 Martin. Here he recounts the tale— with musical accompaniment, no less…

Again, if you want to contact Holland and offer help or encouragement, he can be reached at johnsmusic@comcast.net

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Cherryholmes: Intelligent Design or Mutation?

29 September 2010

Bluegrass has been a family enterprise from the outset. Bill Monroe honed his craft playing first with his uncle and then his brothers, but well before his Bluegrass Boys first took the stage, there were family minstrel acts traveling the byways. Today, there are still family bands across the spectrum of acoustic string music, from The Whites to the Parkington Sisters and all points in between.

Yet even given this musical legacy, it feels odd simply to lump the group Cherryholmes into the long tradition of bluegrass family bands. Their story is so singular, their ascent in the field so vertiginous and their style so distinctive that parallels with other music acts seem to miss the point. Rather than compare them to Del McCoury & Sons, I’m tempted instead to place them in the company of famed aerialists the Flying Wallendas or pyrotechnic legends the Grucci Family, idiosyncratic clans that have raised the business of grabbing attention to an art form.

I caught up with the Cherryholmes juggernaut last month at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival, a homey event that takes place each year on a farm just a mile from the Canadian border. The band anchored the Saturday evening line-up, and as soon as they took the stage, my narrow little mind started to seize up. The band is a semiotic puzzle, a jumble of cultural references. First there’s mom Sandy, the Amazonian queen girded with a Celtic arm band, then there’s dad Jere, looking like Sean Connery playing a mountain man, and finally there’s the whole gaggle of offspring, all of whom— but for their instruments— would not look amiss backing Justin Timberlake.  Add enough rhinestones and sequins to make Liberace blush and more tattoos than you’ll find in a prison yard and— well, see for yourself…

Jere Cherryholmes likes to call the band’s style “bluegrass on steroids.” The show has an energy that can take away the collective breath of the performers and viewers alike. Before you blink it seems, they’re five songs into their set and you’re thinking, “You know, maybe steroids aren’t so bad…” Still, when it’s all over, you wander away asking yourself, who are these born-again bow-hunting hippies in lip gloss?

It helps to know they’re from that great cultural blender known as California, and that Ma and Pa Cherryholmes met in church. This goes some way towards explaining their “Red Hot Chili Amish” aesthetic and lifestyle. I’m not joking about the Amish part either. The kids were home schooled, and the family code of conduct was not typical of most Southern Californian households: no television, internet, nor even headphones allowed, and no driving or dating until the child had reached eighteen.

Small wonder, then, that a heady mix of Old Testament rigor and hormonal sizzle fairly oozes from the stage at a Cherryholmes show. In truth, in interviews, members of the band seem entirely grounded and reasonable. The professions of faith that turn up frequently in their songs sound like genuine and heartfelt testaments, not bumper sticker slogans. The number in the video above— “Changed in a Moment”— is a gospel-inflected original tune penned and sung by Sandy that summons up both the Holy Spirit and a devilish swing rhythm. It’s remarkable how you can hear the background chatter give way to hoots and hollers as the audience gets swept up in the song.

I can’t help wondering if the transformative moment that Cherryholmes refers to in this composition was the death of the family’s eldest child, a daughter named Shelley who passed away from respiratory failure in 1999. As the oft-told story goes, it was in seeking solace in the wake of this tragedy that the family embraced the idea of playing bluegrass together and began their meteoric trajectory.

Of course, playing connect-the-dots between a songwriter’s biography and his or her art is a dangerous game, and I would resist the temptation were the members of the band not so devoted to keeping this personal loss in their— and our— thoughts. Each album they release bears a dedication to Shelley’s memory, the latest— Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads— being no exception.

I have a small arsenal of Cherryholmes material from Lake Champlain that I’ll fire off in the coming weeks, but it makes sense to start with a number that has an overtly spiritual theme, and not just because band makes no secret of its faith. It’s hard to spend an hour looking at this photogenic ensemble and listening to their impeccable musicianship without pondering some Big Questions. The whole ensemble is so perfect, right down to the name Cherryholmes, which sounds like a brand of some sort— perhaps for a pipe tobacco? Anyway, you take the whole thing in and, depending on your metaphysical inclinations, you either think, “Only the Great TV Producer in the Sky could come up with this,” or “It took nearly seven billion people and all the ages of history, but here they are.” Yer call.

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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Bill Monroe: Ninety-Nine and Counting…

13 September 2010

William Smith Monroe was born on September 13th, 1911. Yep, while we were busy playing the countless tunes that Uncle Bill contributed to the canon, the centennial of the “Father of Bluegrass” has been creeping up on us.

Monroe died in 1996, and while we no longer have him around to share his music and glare at his sidemen, there is a veritable army of masters of “Monroe Style Mandolin.” Among the upper ranks of this faithful cohort is Skip Gorman. Gorman has played a variety of traditional music. For many years, he performed with guitarist Richard Starkey as the duo Rabbit in a Log. As the name suggests, they favored repertoire from the dawn of Bluegrass. Gorman and Starkey still play together when they can. Here they are performing a classic Monroe fiddle tune in a workshop at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

That composition— “Get Up John”— uses a highly unorthodox tuning for the mandolin. Working from the lowest to highest strings, the tuning is AF#-DD-AA-AD!* Gorman tells the story of Monroe borrowing his mandolin to play “Get Up John” at a show in the late sixties. Gorman was just a lad at the time, and it was of course an honor to have the Great Man play his instrument. In truth, however, Monroe probably made the gesture so as not to risk busting a string on his own mandolin.** That tale, some version of which I’ve heard from more than one picker, seems emblematic of Monroe in many ways, in that it shows him at once engaging with the audience and operating from some squirrelly personal motive.

Although several Monroe tunes feature alternate tunings, in and of itself, that doesn’t define Monroe Style Mandolin. What does? Well, here’s a very partial list:

  • A percussive use of the right hand. In addition to inventing the classic “bluegrass chop,” Monroe’s playing was characterized by what mandolin ace Ben Pearce calls a “really aggressive and often rhythmic tremolo.”
  • Building lots of “open” intervals into his harmonies
  • Allowing open strings to ring while playing notes on a neighboring string

Monroe liked to talk about the “ancient tones” that he built into bluegrass, and those big harmonic intervals and chiming open strings did indeed forge a connection with music from bygone eras such as shape note singing and other still more archaic traditions.

But bluegrass— the genre Monroe helped invent— has never been purely a retrograde musical style, and Monroe was always equal parts throwback and pioneer. Ricky Skaggs, among others, likes to draw the connection between Monroe’s propulsive playing method and the early rock n’ rollers. Skaggs points out that Monroe’s boogie-woogie riffs on certain breakdowns prefigure rockabilly by a decade or so.

So, Happy 99th, Mr. Monroe. Cousin Curly predicts a Global Bluegrass Awakening this time next year, so let’s all keep practicing.

Yer Pal— Curly

* PEDANTIC POSTSCRIPT #1: There is some discussion out there as to the order in which the G string should be tuned on “Get Up John”— AF# or F#A— with the consensus leaning toward, “It don’t make no differ’nce!”

** PEDANTIC POSTSCRIPT #2: The risk of busting a string is mostly in returning to normal tuning, when you crank the top strings back up to E.

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