Sunday, December 31, 2006

Brain Science and Bluegrass

On December 7th Christopher Lydon, host of Open Source, an extremely wide ranging radio discussion originated at WGBH public radio in Boston, invited Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession to discuss his book. (You can listen to the complete discussion or download it to your iPod at: Why are this book and the later discussion important to bluegrass fans?

Levitin suggests at one point that people form a life-long attachment to a particular music at about age thirteen. This age is associated with all the hormone rages that accompany human movement into adolescence. It also means that guitar players get all the girls. This number suggests to me that a great number of today’s current bluegrass fans who are deeply devoted to traditional bluegrass are in the age range from 73 – 50. This suggests that the main fan base for bluegrass music is, at best, aging and, at worst, dying. People who were around age 13 during the emergence and popularity of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, The Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, The Osborne Brothers, and other first generation pioneers are the fans who support the music most strongly at festivals, concerts, local bluegrass societies, and jams. Their demographic suggests they won’t be able to continue to support this music forever. The next generation will want to hear and play a different kind of music, a music that more nearly reflects music permeating their environment.

If bluegrass music is to stay alive and vital, it is essential that fans give up their tendency to label elements of bluegrass as either “is” or “ain’t.” This destructive willingness to dismiss newer elements in the music as not belonging can only harm the long-term viability of the music. We certainly don’t want bluegrass to end up as a dusty memory in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. It is therefore necessary for those of us who prefer the more progressive forms of bluegrass to show appropriate respect to the first generation players. Equally important is that the traditionalists make room in their minds and hearts for the places where newer and younger players are taking the music. After all, isn’t that what Bill Monroe did when he synthesized all those musical forms into bluegrass?

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Grandparent Blogging

One of the nice things about grand parenting is that there’s no need to teach or be critical. It’s not that I haven’t been those things and probably will continue to do so from time to time. It’s just that such behavior isn’t in the grandparent job description. Honesty requires me to admit that I have often exceeded the mandates of my job description. Nevertheless, the job calls for loving support, and occasional quiet desperation.

This having been said, we awoke this morning to a cold gray day with little promise of improvement. Be eight o’clock we had put on ski clothes pulled from the closet and headed to nearby Crotched Mtn., where grandsons Alex (11) and Peter (9) were going to participate in their first ski race of the season. Alex is entering his third year of racing and, as very much a pre-adolescent, approaches this year’s racing, where he has moved up a category and thus has few expectations, with the cool confidence that only his age can muster. Peter is headed for his first ever race with some apprehension.

Kid sports have progressed to levels un-imagined in our misspent youths. There are no sandlots here, no pickup games or races, no informal, “Bet I can beat you to the bottom of the hill.” A couple of hundred kids in five or six age groups have assembled on this mountain for a day of giant slalom races. Adults have been up on the mountain setting gates. Electronic timers are in place. There are gate watchers, timers, starters, a finish lane, and, as always in kid sports, parents galore. Grammy Irene and I are bundled up but still chilly at the bottom of the hill. The temperature is about 27 degrees and the snow making machines have been running all night. A nice cover of packed powder snow has been deposited where little or no cover existed a few days ago. Winter has finally arrived.

The first racer comes down the hill. She’s a tiny little girl, the only girl in her class, who zips through the gates like a bat out of hell and skids to a stop to the cheers of her parents and the ringing of the inevitable cow bell. Another skier crosses the line about every thirty to forty seconds for the next hour. Finally, Peter’s number is called and we peer up the hill through the beginnings of a light snow storm to see him begin his tentative run down the hill. He carefully picks his way through the gates, gaining confidence as he descends. For a first run, his time is acceptable and he has made it through all the gates and kept on his feet. Peter, parents, and grandparents are pretty tickled as we head for the lodge to stoke him up for his second run.

Forty-five minutes later, it’s snowing much harder and Alex’s name is called. Apparently he bobbles a little at the start and then comes down through the gates with speed and confidence. The improvement he shows over the race we observed last spring is significant. He keeps his skis pointed through the best lines, maintains his crouch and finishes in a cloud of light snow. The bobbles at the top cost him a few seconds, but he has opened his season competently and will surely improve as the season progresses.

Cold and happy, the grandparents head for the warmth of their car and home before the snow gets too deep. We arrive home to discover that a car has knocked over a pole and we have no power. We might as well have stayed on the hill if we were going to be cold anyway.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Drums in Bluegrass

A few days ago I posted the following at Banjo Hangout ( “This morning the clear tenor voice of Mac Wiseman came through loud and clear from my iPod through the FM radio sitting beside my chair. He was singing a gospel song called “The Preacher and the Bear.” And guess what – there was a drum providing an oh so solid beat right alongside the bass. Later the drummer tapped out a rhythm on the drum rim. As nearly as I understand these things, Mac Wiseman is an icon of bluegrass music, one of the first generation greats. I noticed a few days ago a Flatt & Scruggs song with a strong solid drum line. I understand the Osborne Brothers put drums on the stage at one time. This all suggests to me that drums have a pretty good pedigree as part of bluegrass history. My question is: How come the drum has become a forbidden instrument among true believers of traditional bluegrass?”. I have been surprised at the number of responses to this question, because it strikes to the essence of what bluegrass is. It is not infrequent that people at bluegrass festivals sit back in their seats or even get up and leave when certain bands take the stage, saying something like, “That ain’t bluegrass.” I’ve seen it happen with supergroups like Mountain Heart. In their case, the audience seemed to object to the sound they generated. The topic “Drums” is merely a symbol for this disagreement within the ranks of bluegrass fans.

One respondent wrote, “That’s the real beauty of it..."bluegrass" and "gospel" weren't handed down from Mt.. Sinai along with anything else so there are no rules carved in stone...I hate to see any art form elevate itself to the point to where it takes on a "my way or the highway" elitism because then it's painted itself into a corner with nowhere to go.” Another posted this, “that is why I am a music fan not bluegrass fan. I believe if it sounds good it is good . The "just say no to drums crowd " is missing the boat . It is primal for music to have a strong pulse , just because Mr. Monroe didn't have doesn't mean it is bad music . I witnessed Tim O’Brien start his set a Merlefest with a song called "Turn the Page." It had a snare drum on stage a great pulse to the song , people were moving to the music but that would not be allowed at a bluegrass show. It makes no sense to me. People rave about a bass player that can create drum like slaps and percussive sounds but have distain for a snare drum. I can like Blue Highway or a band that makes me pat my foot if it has a drum in it. I can't figure this one out. I just like good music no rules just good music.”

A guy with the screen name of Unplugged chimed in, “…It's a matter of individual tastes, of course. What sets me off is when it comes across as the Voice of Authenticity. I just encountered a mando player who railed about the presence of a (pretty good) harmonica player (puffer?) at a recent jam. All I could do is just tell him that it worked for me - and that the harmonica had as much right to be at a BG jam as anyone (even a mando player who chops). As long as the basic etiquette and musical structures and strictures are followed (even by banjo pickers) [its all right with me]. This keeps reminding me of just how narrow a view of history (and of music, in general) so many other-wise knowledgeable people seem to have.

Of course, not everyone agreed with these posts. Billy H wrote, “I love playing drums, have for a long time. I play drums in a 70's rock and blues band and it’s a blast. New Grass Revival had some drums, so did J.D. Crowe, if I recall, but for me, I like my bluegrass without the drums. That’s what the bass, mandolin, fiddle, and banjo are for. While the bass holds on to things, one of the other 3 is chopping a backbeat. It sounds a lot like a kick drum and snare to me. To me, it’s what makes your toes go to tapping. I like the boom chick boom chick in bluegrass, just not with drums.

Stanger, a long-time member of Banjo Hangout contributed this explanation of the prejudice many bluegrass fans hold against drums, “Scruggs' version of Home Sweet Home and Groundspeed both have a snare drum in the mix. A little tasteful drumming doesn't hurt the music any, for sure. I think Monroe had the most to do with the lack of drums in the music. He didn't like them, and thought the mandolin was just fine for the purpose, and he was very adamant about his opinions. [Since Bill Monroe was a Grand Ol’ Opry member] any bluegrass band had to pass through his gate to gain the stage.” So maybe it all goes back to Bill Monroe and his churlish temper.

My concern lies in the fact that the traditional bluegrass audience is old and may be dying off. While groups started innovating in the sound and shape of bluegrass as early as the seventies, the traditional style pioneered by Bill Monroe is viewed by many as the gold standard. They view music offered by groups like The New Grass Revival, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, The Sam Bush Band and many others as not following in the tradition pioneered by Monroe. However, it’s quite clear that Monroe created a synthesized music comprised of many influences including traditional mountain and church music, rock, jazz, and swing. These newer bands have added newer and more progressive strands and continued the development of the music. Without the continued growth and development of these new bands and their acceptance from the center of bluegrass fandom, the music risks becoming a museum piece and dieing with its aging adherents.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


The e-mail showed up on my screen. The subject line read “I’m inclined to try this.” In the text was, “But I may need some help deboning, etc, on Sunday.” And this link: Our son Rick had had a brainstorm, trying a difficult assembly recipe he had never attempted, or for that matter tasted, for Christmas dinner. I fired back an e-mail saying I thought this particular job was above my pay grade and we would be at his brother’s house for a good part of the day. Back came an e-mail, which I read as capitulation. But no, he responded he had already bought the turkey, the duck, and the chicken and plans were coming along just fine.

Turducken has become a fashionable alternative holiday meal, perhaps because it is fancy and something new. The name comes from the fowl built into the basic package – a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey served with three different stuffings featuring exotic flavors like andouille sausage and smoked oysters. Building this bird(s) is a two or three day affair requiring that all three of the main constituents be deboned, put together in layers and then sewn up, so that the final product looks just like a turkey. The surprise occurs when the chef cuts across the turkey and reveals a multi-layered piece of culinary beauty. Because the feast is multi layered and complex, it must cook slowly for ten to twelve hours and sit outside the oven for an hour before being plattered, carved, and served.

We arrived shortly before noon to the aroma of roasting bird, but it didn’t smell quite like turkey. Rather a complex, somewhat smoky smell permeated the air. We were permitted a look in the oven, where what looked like a rather fat turkey lay roasting away. We settled in for the long wait. The Internet is filled with links to the recipe as well as discussions of its importance and implications. Chef Paul Prudhomme has provided his recipe ( which may be the original. The recipe, copyrighted in 1985, may be relatively new, but it harkens back to Roman feasts and Renaissance culinary art. Another recipe, with helpful pictures appears at In fact, a Google search for Turducken yielded 350,000 hits.

Around 3:00 PM the Turducken came out of the oven for it’s finishing period, brown, aromatic, and bursting steam as the inner flavors permeated the meat encased in tough turkey skin. The rest – mashed and roast potatoes, green beans, gravy, a savory cranberry sauce – came together quickly and we sat down around four. Rick, wielding his favorite Sabbatier chef’s knife, took a sweeping cut across the middle of the Turducken revealing the inside in all its glory and looking like so many of the pictures we had seen. PERFECT! The flavor, SUBLIME! Well worth the effort.

A note of caution is worthwhile here. This delicacy may not be for everyone. Not all like duck. Andouille sausage is a bit exotic and strong tasting for some palates. Smoked oysters impart a distinctly smoky flavor and something of a low tide aftertaste to the entire experience. Rick and I are already considering substituting kielbasa for the sausage and fresh shrimp for the oysters next year. And, for sure, next year’s Christmas dinner will feature some sort of variation on Turducken. In case this isn’t challenging enough for you. Give the Stuffed Camel Feast ( some thought.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Books #2 - Two Football Books

Two Football Books - Next Man Up and Blind Side

John Feinstein has practically patented the niche of sports books about “a year in the life of.” In books like A Season Inside, A Season on the Brink, Inside the Ropes, and Open as well as more than a dozen other books, Feinstein has brought baseball, football, basketball, and golf alive to fans hungry for an inside view of sports. He avoids hero worshiping hagiographies for telling the story of how a sport works from the inside. In Next Man Up, Feinstein was given almost unprecedented access to all aspects of the team. He tells the story of owner Steve Bisciotti, head coach Brian Billick, star players like Ray Lewis and Jamal Lewis, as well as players who are put on the roster to fill a specific role, play in one game and disappear forever from the NFL rosters. Along the way, Bisciotti and Billick become flesh and blood people who balance their desire to win with a sense of the value of their players as both athletes and human beings. The players are revealed in their strengths and weaknesses. The game is shown in all its complexity.

For instance, Feinstein tells the story of the agonies of Ray Lewis, the great linebacker and, in many ways the spiritual leader of the Ravens, who was accused of murder in a strange and not completely explained fracas in Florida. Lewis emerges as a passionate player and deeply committed Christian as well as a man who tries to balance between conflicting elements of his own character.

In another portion of the book, Feinstein shows how the massive Jonathan Ogden, 6’9” and 345 lbs. has been a part of the elevation of the offensive left tackle. As the passing game has developed, the position of left tackle has become increasingly important because of the necessity of protecting the passer on his blind side. Since most quarterbacks are right handed, left tackle has become a key position. Left tackles are often among the highest paid of all players on the field, and Ogden is one of the prototypes for this position.

In Blind Side: The Evolution of a Game, Michael Lewis approaches the issue of the left tackle from a very different perspective. When was the last time you read a sports book with footnotes? Michael Lewis uses statistics as if his book were the kind of business book he started writing while he uses the human interest story of Michael Oher to awe and inspire a reader. All this is within the context of the crucial importance of the left tackle as the position has developed through the past two decades.

Lewis opens his book with Lawrence Taylor’s destruction of Joe Thiemann in a play witnessed by millions on ABC’s Monday Night Football. He then segues to the arrival of inarticulate, confused black kids from the depths of MemphisBriarcliff Christian School of a “force of nature.” Michael Oher is sixteen years old, 6’ 5” tall, can a basketball from center court, move like a point guard, and has never played football. In his life, he has attended eleven schools, often missed as many as fifty days, and no school has ever been able to get a readable achievement or IQ test score for him. He has never shown any aptitude for school, he has no noticeable social skills, and there doesn’t even seem to be any evidence that he exists. Briarcliff, a Christian school founded as a segregation academy in the seventies accepts him, even though they really don’t know quite how to use him.

And then Sean Touhy and his wife Leigh Ann appear and, for some reason, take on Michael Oher. A wealthy Memphis business man and former point guard for Ol’ Miss, Touhy has the resources to provide financial support for Michael Oher. But it is his wife Leigh Ann, the Ol’ Miss cheerleader daughter of a racist retired military man, who sees the fear, loneliness, and human potential of Michael Oher, and takes him into her home, eventually adopting him. As the Touhy's love for Michael grows, my respect for them a products of southern culture developed in new ways. This family comes to understand the needs, desires, humanity of Michael Oher as an individual in ways that transcend race the their background. Their terrier like persistance in helping him become the person he can be teaches the reader new understandings about southerners and race.

The story of the athletic development and human socialization of Michael Oher, who is currently a sophomore at the University of Mississippi, is placed within the context of how Bill Walsh, and others, developed the “western” style of football offense to counteract the violent rush of linebackers like Lawrence Taylor. In developing the short, precise passing game, coaches like Sid Gillman and Walsh needed to re-conceptualize line play and the role of the massive left tackle emerged. Thus Blind Side: Evolution of a Game emerges as a fascinating story from both the technical side and the human interest angle.

Michael Lewis, whose previous books include Liar’s Poker, which follows Lewis’ own career on Wall Street while examining the world of junk bond trader Michael Milkin and Money Ball, the story of how Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s uses a new understanding of statistical analysis to winning baseball while keeping costs of running a team low. This approach, called sabremetrics, has, in this time of exceptionally high priced athletic talent, revolutionized personnel policies on many teams. In order to show how the position of offensive left tackle has become the second highest paid position in football, Lewis uses the language of market forces. Lewis brings the analytical mind of a Wall Street trader to the world of sport along with the insight and compassion of a thoughtful writer to telling his story in a compelling and immediate narrative. Together, these two books illuminate the game and the people within it in ways that any fan can enjoy.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Bluegrass #1 - Why Bluegrass

How and why did we get involved in bluegrass? The short version is: we went to Merlefest in 2003 and were hooked on Americana in general and bluegrass in particular. But that's too easy, a facile response for a more complex and nuanced appreciation of a special form of American music. As a child I studied classical violin. No kidding! And I often say, "The violin represents the five most miserable years of my life. I couldn't even tune my own fiddle, because I couldn't hear a fifth, the interval between each of the strings. In high school I picked up a guitar somewhere and played and listened to folk music. My wife taught in a girl's boarding school where one of the students taught her songs by Joan Baez. We bought lots of records and I didn't like rock. Through the years we've listened to classical music, the great pop singers like Frank and Ella and Tony and the others, country greats like Johnny and Willie and Kris Kristofferson and Vince Gill and more. One year we took a trip to the Maritime provinces in Canada and fell in love with the music of Nova Scotia. In other words, we were ripe for the picking, or pickin'.

Merlefest, which takes place during the last weekend of April in Wilkesboro, NC was founded in memory of Merle Watson, the famed Doc Watson's late son, who died in a tractor accident. Over the years it has gone from being a small festival held on a flatbed truck with some bales of hay thrown around to a huge event with around 80,000 total attendance over four days, twelve sound stages, and a great variety of American roots and accoustic music, including lots of bluegrass. We were hooked and we started attending festivals, buying CDs, talking to performers, and playing the music.

Our children think we're nuts and so do our friends. They see the music as hillbilly or simple or unsophisticated or repetititve or dull. Eddie Adcock, one of the great banjo players, says that bluegrass is one of the most difficult forms to master, right up there with jazz and the classical repertoire. It requires intense listening, complete cooperation, and the ability to pick up new music quickly and with style and grace. We admire the musicians we've met and like the people who attend the events we do. Bluegrass fits our lifestyle, too. For most of our life together we've camped in some form or other. When I retired, about eight years ago, we bought a large fifth wheel trailer and went on the road. Most bluegrass festivals are held at campgrounds or in fields where most of the attendees live for the duration of the festival in their RVs. Now we have a much smaller trailer which permits us more easily to fit into the confines of any space at a festival. We listen to the music, we jam with other pickers or listen to the better field pickers play together, and we thoroughly enjoy the experience. In the end, bluegrass suits us just fine.

Books #1: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin's most recent book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln turns out to be one of the most interesting and compelling works on Lincoln I've read. In it Goodwin examines how Lincoln, after defeating a number of seemingly much better qualified rivals to capture the Republican nomination and then the election of 1860, recruited these same rivals to serve in his war cabinet. These men were not only Lincoln's rivals, but competed with each other for political power and influence. Edward Bates, Edwin M. Stanton, Salmon P. Chase, and, perhaps most important, William H. Seward brought a variety of attitudes, beliefs, and skills to serving in Lincoln's cabinet. Each believed himself to be more qualifies for the position than the rough and unlettered Lincoln. He used each of their strengths to balance against his own weeknesses as well as his own, making his cabinet ever more strong and effective.

While showing the political implications of Lincoln's management, Goodwin also details the effect of their families on each of the people. Through this device, she realizes these men as truly human and full. As she did so effectively in her book about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Goodwin demonstrates the ways that people's domestic arrangements inform and illuminate their public selves. This book, in addition to being fascinating history is a great read.