Posts Tagged ‘slide guitar’


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?

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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


Steeldrivers at Grey Fox: Work in Progress

20 January 2012

NOTE: The following post has been edited to reflect some corrections and new information passed along by The SteelDrivers bassist and vocalist Mike Fleming. Big tip of the hat to Mike for his input!— Curly

To paraphrase a song lyric, “Everything old is news again.” Here I’ve been sitting on some fine performance footage of The SteelDrivers that I recorded last summer, when along comes an announcement at Christmastime: Mike Henderson, the group’s mandolin and steel guitar player, is decamping. How much you care about this development no doubt depends on how you feel about The SteelDrivers in general. For any of you fence-sitters, have a look and a listen as the group tears through “Cry No Mississippi,” a foot-stompin’ anthem at the 2011 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival:

Fellow band mates have described Henderson as something of a father figure for the group. It was Henderson who recruited the other founding members of the band. Viewed from the cheap seats, however, this central role might strike some as odd.  After all, Henderson’s presence on stage and in recordings is so low-key as to be ephemeral. In fact, on hearing that The SteelDrivers’ mandolin player was leaving, one friend replied (without irony, I believe), “That band has a mandolin player?”

Actually, my pal was on to something, for despite the group’s wide acclaim, The SteelDrivers may have felt like something of a digression for Henderson. Though a gifted and seasoned musician, he seems more of a bluesman than a bluegrasser— a fact that’s hinted at by his slide steel work in the clip above.

This marks the second departure from The SteelDrivers’ original line-up. Chris Stapleton, the group’s lead singer, signed off at the end of 2009. Stapleton’s growling vocals and brooding lyrics largely defined the band’s style, and there were those who felt that the jig was up as soon as he packed up his guitar and split.

I wasn’t in that camp. While Stapleton is a unique talent, he always looked vaguely freaked out to find himself on stage. In contrast, his replacement, Gary Nichols, seems to bask in the spotlight. As this video demonstrates, when it comes to live shows at any rate, that counts for something.

According to SteelDrivers bassist and vocalist Mike Fleming, “Cry No Mississippi” will be included on the group’s next album, which they plan to start work on in March.  The song is one of several that Nichols brought to the group. He wrote it with John Paul White (best known today as half of the alt-country duo The Civil Wars) and it got a bit of exposure a decade ago when it was recorded by country crooner Andy Griggs. Based on The SteelDrivers’ Grey Fox performance, I’d say it’s a keeper. I particularly like the way Tammy Roger’s harmonies and fiddling match Nichols’ scorching delivery, note for note.

For my money, I’d say there’s more chemistry and energy on display in this performance than could generally be found at shows in the band’s early days. So, while there’s certainly a risk that Stapleton and Henderson’s departures will cause The SteelDrivers to sputter out, there’s also a chance that the upheaval will permit the group to evolve into a more vital performing unit. While we await their fate, I’ll be serving up some more tasty samples of their work in the near future. Stay tuned.

Yer Pal— Curly

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