Thursday, May 31, 2007

Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center - Road Note

I set out to visit the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center with a degree of trepidation and cynicism. The trepidation came from my concern that the museum would be a less than solid effort based on my cynicism about the reason for putting up the museum in the first place. I was concerned that the only reason for putting up the museum was to create a cover for Foxwoods Casino, which dominates the Pequot Reservation and, to some extent, the region. While I have not completely given up my cynicism, the Museum itself is well worth a day’s visit, even if you don’t go to the casino.

Located within a short drive of Norwich, New London, or Mystic, Connecticut, the Pequot Museum is a most impressive structure. It boasts a sky tower which provides a panoramic view of the area for those who can stand openness at an impressive height. The museum charges an admission fee of $15.00 per person with appropriate reductions for age. When I presented my credit card, the clerk asked if I had another well-known card and immediately told me that our admission was free for the day, a promotion of the bank. It might be a good idea when you go the museum to ask whether there are any promotional specials. Cameras are forbidden inside the museum, so leave yours in your car.

The museum is built in a free form shape roughly resembling and Indian war club. Visitors enter on the third level and descend down a ramp or an elevator to the first level, where the story begins. Part of the descent is down an escalator through a very effectively simulated glacier, taking a visitor back 18,000 years to the last ice age. Typical of everything that is done in this museum, attention to detail is superb. The museum is divided into four sections. Life in a Cold Climate describes how Indian people arrived in North America and how they learned to live in and manage their environment through the centuries. The archeological and anthropological information given in the exhibits suggests that the museum curators have paid attention to the latest research concerning pre-contact civilizations of the woods Indians. A surprising number of artifacts are shown, especially considering the age and lack of permanent ruins in the region. Exhibits include a fine diorama of a caribou hunt as well as a forest setting demonstrating the usefulness of forest products and suggesting that the woods Indians managed the woodlands to assure the growth of desirable species, a practice not recognized until recently.

Perhaps the highlight of this museum can be found in The Pequot Village. Visitors are given an Audio Tour Unit before entering this large and entertaining exhibit. This gadget has a keyboard on which visitors can push numbered buttons corresponding to numbered plates in the floor. In each section remarkably lifelike figures are engaged in the arts of living. There is a village site, a sweat lodge, a large fishing scene, and a number of other exhibits depicting activities in lifelike settings. This is definitely a look don’t touch exhibit, but is fascinating. Typical of the attention to detail shown in this museum, each location permits listeners to garner additional information by pressing additional buttons on their unit. One of these always supports the exhibit’s authenticity by supplying information about how this information is known or was learned. This section alone is worth at least an hour’s visit.

The section called The Pequot War takes a very different view of the life among the Pequot people. In the mid-seventeenth century competition between Indian groups and English and Dutch settlers became intense as they struggled for commercial advantage and territory. The white settlers fought amongst themselves and solicited Indian support when it was advantageous to them. This all culminated in the Pequot War in which over 600 members of the Pequot tribe were killed and the survivors sold into slavery or other forms of servitude. Only a thin strand kept some of them together and kept tribal memory alive. One part of this section is a very vivid and violent film depicting the massacre. According to Wikipedia, the smallpox epidemic of 1616 – 1619 made the massacre possible. After the massacre there followed 300 years of poverty and dispersion while a few people kept the story alive. In the 1970’s, under the leadership of Skip Heyward, the Pequot nation began to rally to recover their land and their identity. Out of this effort has grown Foxwoods Casino, the largest in the world, and this museum to tell the story. As nearly as I can tell from a brief search of the Internet, the story is told pretty straight from the Pequot’s point of view. The wealth created by this enormously successful casino has thrown off enough money to create a wonderful and thought provoking museum.

The museum is open every day excluding major holidays from 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM. You can find directions for getting to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & research Center here. Admission is $15.00 for adults, children under six are free. The museum store sells rather generic American Indian wares. Perhaps more interesting for those interested are the monographs the Research Center has produced. Since this museum has been in existence less than ten years, I expect that more research will be forthcoming. Despite my reservations, this museum is the real deal, a learning and entertainment experience which vies with Mystic Seaport as an attraction to eastern Connecticut. We drove back to our camper and the bluegrass festival without stopping at the casino.

All pictures are taken from the museum web site and will be removed at their request.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival - Preston, CT

Look for daily blogging from the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival in Preston, CT starting tomorrow. With a very strong lineup and located about half way between New York and Boston, this festival has lots to offer. Day trippers can choose from this daily line-up:


5:00PM April Verch Amphitheatre
6:00PM Amy Gallatin & Stillwater Amphitheatre
7:15PM April Verch Amphitheatre
8:30 PM The Greencards Amphitheatre


12:00 NOON Nothin’ Fancy Amphitheatre
1:15PM Lovell Sisters Amphitheatre
2:45PM Rhonda Vincent Amphitheatre
4:00PM Mountain Heart Amphitheatre
5:00PM-6:00PM Dinner Break
6:00PM Nothin’ Fancy Amphitheatre
7:00PM Lovell Sisters Amphitheatre
8:00 PM Rhonda Vincent Amphitheatre
9:30PM Mountain Heart Amphitheatre


12:00 NOON Steep Canyon Rangers Amphitheatre
1:15PM Cadillac Sky Amphitheatre
2:15PM Dry Branch Fire Squad Amphitheatre
3:30PM Infamous Stringdusters Amphitheatre
5:00PM-6:00PM Dinner Break
6:00PM Dry Branch Fire Squad Amphitheatre
7:00PM Cadillac Sky Amphitheatre
8:00PM The Grascals Amphitheatre
9:30PM Chris Thile & The How to Grow a Band
Featuring Bryan Sutton
Our Sunday morning Gospel Hour will be hosted by the Dry Branch Fire Squad
10:00AM Dry Branch Fire Squad Amphitheatre
11:15AM Dale Ann Bradley Amphitheatre
1:15PM Gibson Brothers Amphitheatre
3:30PM Cherryholmes Amphitheatre

As you can see, you really can't miss on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. If you live within driving distance for day tripping or want to come to rough camp, give it a try. Last year the sound system was excellent, and when it rains too hard, they move the festival indoors. Despite the fact the thunder showers threaten this year, too, this should be a great time. There's wonderful field picking also.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Jim and Becky Johnson Guilty of Negligence

I was up on Echo Mountain this morning with Jim and Becky Johnson’s son, who is so ashamed of his parents that he’s changed is name to James King or maybe Ron Thomason. Anyway he told me the story of how the hound saved his life for the umpteenth time and I suddenly realized – Jim and Becky were negligent parents. With today’s modern oversight by local agencies they would have been in jail long before they had to shoot that hound. It’s too bad, too, because Jim and Becky sound as if they were nice people. They had always wanted to have children and got the dog as a substitute when having a baby looked like an impossibility. When the kid was finally born, they realized they’d have to rely on the dog to provide child care since their life was so busy and difficult.

Anyway, one day the dog was baby sitting while Jim was in the field and Becky was hauling water and who should appear at the door but a couple of wolves. Now, whether these wolves were the metaphorical wolves to be kept away from the door or real ones looking for a cheap meal doesn’t much matter. The hound met them bravely and tore them to shreds. Jim and Becky returned to find the hound’s jaws dripping blood and immediately assumed he had eaten Jim or Ron or whatever the kid’s name was and killed the dog. Just shot him dead right there.

Later, as they were cleaning up the mess, they discovered the baby “safe and sound” as Jim often told the story. Outside the door they also found two dead wolves. This entire incident raises a couple of questions. How is it that Jim and Becky neglected to search the house for the kid’s remains before destroying the hound? Why didn’t they provide appropriate child care if they truly valued the infant? Why hadn’t Child Protective Services stepped in to assure the child’s safety? Was the Johnson cottage adequately protected from predators to assure the child’s safety? Had Jim and Becky attended parenting classes? Even after more than seventy years, this story raises questions that must be answered in order to assure the safety of other children up on Echo Mountain.

Wolf picture provided here

Friday, May 25, 2007

Bluegrass: A History by Neil V. Rosenberg - Review

Rosenberg, Niel V., Bluegrass: A History – Twentieth Anniversary edition, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL, $24.95, paper

I come to bluegrass music late in life. I should say “we” because my wife Irene is a part of this story as we share a love for the music and have invested a significant portion of our recent life in it. Nevertheless, as in many other aspects of our life, we come at the music from different perspectives and value it in different ways. Although we have listened to country music for years, we came to bluegrass at Merlefest in 2003. The initial performers who blew us away were people like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. At this first festival, we also heard Del McCoury and Doyle Lawson. Not a bad way to be introduced to the music. Since then, we’ve become increasingly involved in the music, as listeners and then in the slow process of trying to learn to play bluegrass instruments. At festivals and concerts we have been introduced to the wide variety of kinds of music that come, at least peripherally, under the umbrella of bluegrass. We’ve also seen the stresses and strains that exist in the different strands the music has taken.

I come to bluegrass with a musical taste informed by the folk music of Burl Ives, Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Oscar Brand, The Kingston Trio, The Limelighters, the Chad Mitchel Trio and many more individuals and groups who emerged during the folk revival of the fifties and sixties. In my home, as a child, were the Sea Chanties of the Almanac Singers, a group I only learned as an adult included Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Paul Robson, both for Ballad for Americans and his other singing rings through my memory. As a young adult my music was dominated by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and other Pop/Jazz singers. Rock music somehow pretty well passed my by until middle age.

Neil Rosenberg’s seminal book Bluegrass: A History, first published in 1985 by the University of Illinois press and reissued in a twentieth anniversary edition with a new preface, has filled in many of the holes in my knowledge of bluegrass music from its earliest beginnings into the early 1980’s when Rosenberg’s account hurriedly ends. But no matter, Rosenberg’s contribution to understanding the beginnings of bluegrass music and the stresses and strains that have influenced it since the very beginning is important reading for anyone interested in the music as a social and cultural force. Furthermore, Rosenberg’s extensive discography provides a roadmap for people wishing to listen to the way the music has developed and changed through the years. In all, this book provides essential background about bluegrass music.

Beginning with an extensive discussion of Bill Monroe and his development of a particular sound as well as the transmogrification of the name of his group, The Blue Grass Boys, into a specific musical genre called bluegrass; Rosenberg provides great detail about how the music developed. He places bluegrass into a context of the movement of people from rural Appalachia to the urban industrial centers of the Midwest and the northeast. Rosenberg details how Monroe, first with his brothers Charlie and Burch and later with a succession of musicians who came, stayed a while, and then moved off to form their own bands, developed a musicians’ and performers’ music synthesizing old time country music, Appalachian mountain music, southern white and black sacred music, jazz, western swing, and more into a fast paced music played on a limited number of acoustic instruments. He shows how performers like Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt were both formed by and formed Monroe’s music before moving on.

Rosenberg describes the way bluegrass music spread from a predominantly rural music enjoyed on the radio, on records, and in barns and small auditoriums to larger venues closer to urban areas. With the first festival, organized by Carleton Haney near Washington, D.C. in 1965, bluegrass found a way for fans to see and hear the performers they had enjoyed on the radio. The music spread at first through a series of small radio stations in the southeast. Early on it was indistinguishable from the country music of the time. Because the music was not a set form during its emergence, the musicians experimented with including different instruments – drums, harmonica, electric amplification – until the fans made it clear they wanted bluegrass to be pretty much what Bill Monroe said it was.

With the coming of the folk revival and rock and roll in the late fifties and sixties, the music industry was challenged in all forms including bluegrass. New influences and sounds were developed, some coming into bluegrass and others being rejected. Often the musicians were more willing to change than were the fans, both rural adherents and urban newcomers attracted by this driving folk-like country music. With the advent, at first, of groups like the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene and later the New Grass Revival and other groups, the influence of folk and rock moved into bluegrass changing the music and causing a split between fans of “traditional” and “progressive” bluegrass. While much that this new movement brought to bluegrass moved from being radical change to being an integral part of the music, such change happened slowly, and bluegrass fans remain conservative, only accepting changes in bluegrass slowly, if at all. This can particularly be seen today in the bluegrass festivals of Florida, where many fans demand Monroe style hard driving bluegrass.

The festival scene became established as a way for bluegrass fans, whom Rosenberg characterizes as being so committed to the music that they became “believers,” to perform the music themselves in parking lot and campsite jams as well as to interact with the performers in relatively informal settings. Festivals proliferated throughout the decades of the seventies and eighties. Today hundred exist along the eastern seaboard and in California as well as internationally. They are supported by fans who come to see and hear national “headliners’ as well as local and regional bands. Many festivals are held in music parks and campgrounds, to which fans in tents and recreational vehicles flock. A robust recording and music publishing industry helps to spread and support the music. Bluegrass remains a robust niche of country music and is viewed by many as a form of folk music, even though it is largely and invented form only sixty-some years old.

Rosenberg’s story ends in the mid-nineteen eighties with bluegrass “articulated and defined as a traditional art form which cannot articulate too much definition. While some innovation is now accepted as a part of bluegrass, anything likely to gain mass success would probably be considered not really bluegrass.” (368) New groups continue to emerge and tour, some emphasizing their ties to traditional bluegrass while other groups develop new sounds using largely the traditional forms. Often, when a band crosses over into country or popular music, fans continue to dismiss its music as they have for two generations. The music changes, however slowly, and admits songs that treat the old subjects in new ways. Groups seeking to establish themselves, hope to fuse traditional sounds with new ones in ways acceptable to the fans. Meanwhile, more than twenty years have passed since Rosenberg published this important book, and it’s time for the story to be brought up to date in a scholarly and rigorous fashion. Rosenberg’s work is distinguished by its thoroughness and scholarly tone. It is not for every reader, but those wishing to understand where bluegrass came from and how it developed can only benefit from reading this work.

Monday, May 21, 2007

What I Learned on the Bluegrass Trail - Winter 2007

Our 2007 Bluegrass Odyssey: Irene and I left home in New Hampshire on January 15th and returned on May 18th. During that time we drove 8300 miles and attended nine three or four day festivals, five concerts, and one camp. We practiced our own instruments on most days. Mostly we camped, living in our 21 foot travel trailer, which we pull with a Toyota Tacoma. At one festival we worked as volunteers, and Irene also covered the merchandise table for Grasstowne on several occasions. I photographed all the events we attended, sent DVDs of my pictures to promoters and CDs to many bands. I also maintained this blog, finding Wi-Fi hot spots in campgrounds, coffee shops, public libraries, and motel parking lots. We spent a few nights in motels. We travel with two cats who live inside our trailer and never go out. We arrived home tired, but having enjoyed ourselves immensely and immediately began planning our fall and winter trips. We already have a schedule for the summer. What follows is an exploration of what I think I learned during the past four months. It is tentative and will be revised from time to time.

It’s still hard to define bluegrass: In Bluegrass: A History, Neil Rosenberg provides a number of definitions to bluegrass. They sort of boil down to these criteria: acoustic, banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass, and sometimes Dobro. The music is primarily a show music often played at high speed and using traditional rural themes. Much of its content comes from old time mountain music, and so-on. The only trouble is that even the first generation bands experimented with drums on stage, alternative instruments, different ways to present the music, and much more. When folks get up and walk away at a bluegrass event saying, “That ain’t bluegrass,” they’re really saying that the music isn’t exactly what Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers, the Stanleys and others played in the forties and fifties. The audience is more conservative than the musicians. But the music is more enduring than the fans.

There’s a deep well of fine bands: Wherever we go we hear local and regional bands we haven’t heard before who make really good music. Some of them are cover bands playing the music of the first generation as well as that of more recent bands. Other groups play singer/songwriter material. These bands spring from a deep well of bluegrass instruments and sounds. They represent the past and the future of the music. As long as new bands emerge who revere the originators while they create new approaches to making and performing bluegrass, the music has a future.

The audience retards the advance of the music: The musicians are more innovative, creative, and accepting than their audience. Bands seek to create a unique sound, a sound that listeners will instantly recognize as theirs. This was as true of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Osborne brothers as it is of Mountain Heart, Blue Highway, and the Avett Brothers. When the audience insists on the former and rejects the latter they refuse to recognize that in stagnation lies death. The Country Gentlemen brought a whole new sound to bluegrass music when they emerged in the early sixties. Imagine how many bluegrass standards would be missing from today’s music if these pieces had not entered the genre. When fans revere and maintain the originals while accepting the best of the new, they assure that bluegrass music will continue to thrive, grow, and spread.

The big jam is missing from the stage: In the early days of bluegrass festivals, a staple of each event was the massed jam in which former and present members of The Blue Grass Boys played Bill Monroe’s music as a culmination to the festival. The economics of bluegrass may be the reason this wonderful tradition has disappeared. Bands, in order to make a living, must arrive, perform their two sets, and get back on the bus to travel to the next event. If possible, they may play in two or even three events during a single four day weekend. The jam looks to the past, the present and the future. When skilled musicians take the stage and play together, often performing music they’re hearing for the first time, the show their skill and create music on the fly. Such jams happen in the field, back stage, and in parking lots. Usually they don’t happen on stage, but when they do, magic happens. At Merlefest this year Sam Bush led a jam, several new bands (The Duhks, Crooked Still, Donna the Buffalo and others) participated in one, and Pete Wernick combines with members of the Waybacks for a set. Such wonderful events create new traditions for performers and audience alike. If festival organizers can put together such events on stage, a tradition will be preserved and enriched.

It pays to hear a band more than once: Familiarity breeds knowledge and understanding. During the winter I heard several bands for the first time and others for the second or third. Some, like Crooked Still and New Found Road, I found wanting for some reason. I didn’t like Crooked Still because their sound seemed odd and the use of a cello played by an affected young man seemed phony. On hearing them a second and third time, their music grew on me and I began to see and feel how they fit into the long line that is becoming bluegrass music. Another, much more traditional band’s allure also passed me by at first. But when I saw New Found Road in a different setting, they sounded wonderful to me and I began to look forward to and cherish their music. I have yet to have the same experience with, for instance, Cadillac Sky, but I look forward to seeing them again. I don’t expect to come to like every band, and some I think I’ll never enjoy (Carl Shifflet, Gold Wing Express), but that’s just fine with me. On the other hand, there are other people who love the bands I don’t care for. What I hope I’ll develop is an ability to appreciate bands for what they are and to cherish what they contribute. I also hope that I’ll get better at allowing myself to be pleasantly surprised by groups which I discover offer more than I had expected.

People come to festivals and other events for a range of reasons: When we first started attending festivals, we couldn’t understand why so many people paid for tickets, including camping, and then came to see and hear so few of the bands. Over time we’ve come to see that people come to a festival for a variety of reasons – listening to music, jamming, socializing, inexpensive camping with music. Each of these reasons is legitimate. Since the first festival, a large attraction has been to allow non-professional musicians to meet informally to play the music they love. At many festivals, the professional musicians circulate among the jammers, joining them to pick and sing. Some fans come to see favorite bands and do not seek to broaden their experience by staying to see others. Thus, a band like Rhonda Vincent and the Rage or Goldwing Express might fill the tent to overflowing. As soon as their performance is over, people get up and return to their campers or go to shop and eat in the vending area. Still others tune into the camp-wide FM programming of the festival often provided and prefer to sit under their awnings, chatting and enjoying each other’s company. More power to them.

Bluegrass will profit from staying in touch with its roots and allowing itself to develop: Country Music seems to have forgotten its roots. Years ago, when country awards were given, the programs were sure to honor the pioneers of the music. In recent years, they seem more interested in showcasing country rock performers seeking to cross over into pop or rock. Bluegrass music should be sure to maintain its allegiance to its roots in the music of the mountains, in Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs and the other first generation performers. But fans should also be encouraged to remember that bluegrass has been fluid since the beginning. The Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, The Dillards and other groups began expanding the scope of the music before it was even well established. Such changes continue and the material and styles developed in recent years will work their way into the bluegrass pantheon as well. This may happen slowly, but it will happen.

There are a lot of great people in bluegrass: Everywhere we went we met people who were warm, welcoming, and friendly. From people who stopped by our campsite to listen or pick with us to big names in bluegrass who took time to chat, we met a bunch of great folks. Musicians shared their time, even when we weren’t purchasing merchandise. Fellow fans wanted to talk about their favorite festivals or places they went to hear music. We were invited to the home of one musician and felt enfolded in his family and environment leading us to a deeper understanding of the roots of this wonderful music. We were teased (playfully) as Yankees and welcomed almost everywhere. The people are one of the great assets of bluegrass music.

All in all, we had a wonderful winter in bluegrass and travel. We’re still learning about the music, which turns out to be a lifelong process. Even though we started late, we like to think we’re catching up.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Putting on a Festival - Bluegrass on the Waccamaw

Bluegrass on the Waccamaw is unusual in several ways. It is a one day festival offered free to the public. Held on the second Saturday of May in Conway, South Carolina, BG on the Waccamaw aspires to showcase national bands, as well as local and regional performers, offering, as its promotional material says, “World class bluegrass.” Promoter Jennings Chestnut, who owns and operates a mandolin shop in Conway and who makes fine mandolins, works all year long to find sponsors, local boosters, and other supporters to make it possible to offer this event without charging attendees. He serves without pay as do all the other people associated with the event. The only people receiving payment are the performers and the various vendors offering services to the festival. After proving ourselves three years ago, Irene and I were allowed to become volunteers last year, and this year came back. We worked from Thursday until Sunday morning, with many other volunteers, to help Jennings, his wife Willi, his daughter Ginger, and Ginger’s kids Dylon and Amanda Lynn to get Bluegrass on the Waccamaw off the ground and running for its eleventh consecutive year. While each festival is unique, a thread of similarity runs through all of them. This review is written from the point of view of a volunteer rather than a fan in the front seats.

Seven o’clock Thursday morning is our time to appear at the Old Peanut Warehouse. Built in the nineteenth century, this unpainted barn of a building was resurrected by Jennings about a dozen years ago, having fallen into disuse when peanut agriculture in Horry County declined. The first year he used it, Jennings and his family spent days cleaning off the accumulated waste of years of disuse, including a thick carpet of pigeon waste. This morning, when Irene and I arrive, a pumper truck from the local fire company is on hand and a man in fire gear is pressure washing the floor with a thick fire hose. The space looks wide open and smells fresh and clean. As the morning wears on we hang bunting, put risers for the small stage in place, hang banners outside the building, and collect traffic barriers and cones from the police department to help control traffic on Saturday.

Volunteers for various parts of the operation appear and leave during the day, but essentially this is Jennings’ and Willi’s show and they’re the administration and staff. The organization and implementation for all elements of the festival reside in their minds; no checklists point the way, no organization chart distributes responsibility. Jennings likes to say that when he and Donald Smith, a local entrepreneur who is Jennings’ partner, talk on the phone, the Board has had a meeting. While Jennings and I do chores around the warehouse, Willi, Ginger, and Irene chop vegetables, prepare cakes, and make sure the materials for both Friday’s supper and Saturday’s lavish buffet for performers and volunteers are ready for assembly. Lynn and Brenda Butler have been volunteers at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw for years, they know the routine, and their work and spirit are crucial to its running smoothly. Despite the fact that they are delayed because their son is coaching in an important high school baseball tournament, by Thursday afternoon we found ourselves waiting for the rental company to deliver the next batch of work for us. The rental company appears around 2:00 PM and starts putting up the large tent that provides shade for the audience as well as delivering the tables and chairs we need.. By quitting time, the tables are in place and covered with table cloths, chairs largely distributed and the warehouse begins to look like a banquet hall. A large tent to provide shade from sun or protection from rain is erected toward the rear of the seating area. A festival grounds and backstage area have begun to be created.

On Friday morning Gary Payne appears with his sound equipment for the Friday evening fund raiser. Gary, from Charleston, is a musician who also does sound. He erects his equipment and meticulously tests it to be sure that the balance is good and that the sound fits the room. The porta-john man arrives and sets up these essential items. There is a lull as the room is finished and we wait for the caterer to arrive with dinner and the band to begin to come and set up. This year’s fund raiser entertainment is a band called Derwin Hinson and the Soggy Beach Boys. Hinson, large and smiling man filled with energy, is primarily an evangelist/entertainer who does a one man band presentation to churches and other religious organizations featuring gospel music where he plays all the instruments. Tonight he will be doing a bluegrass show with a full band. He and the band arrive and set up as Larry Dickerson, the caterer begins to arrive with dinner. The pace is picking up. Outside the Old Peanut Warehouse a few people are beginning to arrive for dinner and to check out our progress.

One of the ways Jennings keeps Bluegrass on the Waccamaw going is by offering a $25.00 a person benefit dinner the night before the festival. He raffles off a guitar with a limited number of chances at $10.00 each. The dinner provides an opportunity for friends of the festival and local people to hear a performance by bluegrass band, eat good food together, and have a fine time. Jennings presents awards to people whose contribution to the festival help keep it working. The setting is rustic, the environment friendly. Larry has provided a supper of Chicken Bog, a low country rice and chicken delicacy that is different in the hands of each cook. His recipe is excellent. The buffet includes Chicken Bog, cole slaw, beans, and rolls, and Miss Willi and other volunteers have provided a range of cakes for desert. Steve and Eve Hinman set up their vending table offering T-shirts as well as other Bluegrass on the Waccamaw memorabilia. Tomorrow Steve will be selling outside while Eve works in the kitchen. After supper, enjoyed by all, Derwin Hinson’s band begins to play. Derwin is obviously the real talent of this group, but the ensemble works well, playing bluegrass standards, which is what this crowd wants. They are well received. In the middle of the concert, the band takes a break so Jennings can present awards. He gives a lovely glass obelisk to Derwin as a lifetime contributor to Bluegrass on the Waccamaw. Grady Richardson, a fellow Conway businessman who serves as an auxiliary security person representing the Horry County Sheriff’s Department, receives the volunteer of the year award, and Jennings two grandchildren, Dylon and Amanda Lyn, are given lifetime achievement awards for their having grown up with the festival and the help they give annually in making it work. Derwin and his group return for a few more songs and the successful evening ends on schedule, an important value for Jennings.

Grady Richardson isn’t the only representative of the Horry County Sheriff’s Department in evidence at the festival. Both the sheriff’s department and the Conway Police Department provide security for this community event, and most of the police presence found there is providing volunteer support. Having a clear police presence at the festival relieves Jennings, the performers, and the attendees of concern about personal safety as well as assuring that musicians’ valuable instruments are well protected inside the Peanut Warehouse. Jennings is a man who maintains a pleasant demeanor governed by nature, culture, and good manners. Nevertheless, he is anxious that this event run smoothly. Having the police presence allows him to stay even tempered and polite throughout while knowing that the necessary protection is on hand.

On Saturday morning we arrive shortly after seven to find Jennings already there and working. The traffic barriers are erected and the Bluegrass Strangers bus has arrived. They are important because not only are they performing, but they are the sound people. Because bluegrass music is traditionally presented with acoustic instruments, sound is especially important at a bluegrass festival. Each microphone must be adjusted and balanced in order to have instruments and voices reach out into the crowd. Gene Daniell, one of the best sound men, says his job is to make the words completely understandable while not missing a note. A good sound technician can make a band sound better than they are, while bad sound muddies the music and either overwhelms the audience with its volume or hides its quality. As the Bluegrass Strangers set up their sound equipment, people are already beginning to arrive and place their lawn chairs either beneath the tent, under the bridge behind the tent or in front of the stage. The music won’t begin until 12:30, but folks are beginning to arrive. Since this is a free festival, there are no lines for admission, but people do have their preferred seating patterns.

A group of us help Steve Hinman erect his vending tent and set up his operation. Chick Filet is the sole food vendor, and they set up a tent next to Steve’s. The stage is decorated with the same carnations that decorated the stage last night.. To the right of the stage an area is set aside for the bands to place their merchandise tents from which they will sell their CDs and other paraphernalia. We have accomplished enough so that by mid-morning there’s no need to panic as noon approaches. Slowly the opening bands show up and are admitted to the Warehouse. They break out their instruments and begin to warm up in a couple of corners. The Grascals’ bus arrives from Nashville and Lynn Butler takes their driver to the Holiday Inn Express to sleep so he can meet FTA regulations for driving back later tonight.

Larry, the caterer, has brought in the buffet – chicken bog, turkey, ham, slaw, potato salad are supplemented from Miss Willi’s kitchen with cheese, her own home made summer sausage, nuts and more. One specialty of her house is the Cake in Bowl, a concoction of sponge cake, vanilla pudding, strawberries, and cut up bananas all layered to look festive and delicious. There are cakes and cookies and more. The entertainers who’ve played Bluegrass on the Waccamaw rave at other festivals about how well they are treated here. The Grascals hit the buffet as soon as they arrive and then return to their bus and the comfort of air conditioning. The temperature is hovering around ninety. Randy Waller, son of Charlie Waller, and the Country Gentlemen arrive. At 12:30 Rocky, the emcee, introduces Flatt City and the festival has begun.

For the next several hours I wander between backstage, in front of the stage taking pictures of the bands, and wandering around the crowd taking pictures of “the scene.” I stop to help Randy Waller pick up some rocks to hold down the fliers on his CD table and we end up talking about bluegrass history and his Dad’s role in it. He walked me back to his van and pulled a book out. It was a copy of Bluegrass Odyssey, a picture history of the music, which he has had signed by most of the living legends of bluegrass. As we talked I realized the gift, the burden, and the struggle of being descended from one of the greats. He tries, and sometimes manages, to pull it off gracefully. Meanwhile, it seems to me his band is improving and today his voice is the best I’ve heard it and the chemistry of his band is there.

The Lewis Family bus pulls up and folks go to the door to help Little Roy Lewis’ aging sisters into the Warehouse. They are aging and ill, but they are troopers and they’re here to perform. Little Roy is all energy. His energy drives the Lewis Family effort forward and they hit the stage on time. Irene has agreed to cover the merchandise table for Grasstowne’s first set while I take more pictures and wander.

Jennings has asked me to be sure to be available for his presentations at the beginning of the supper break. Little Roy Lewis joins him and Derwin Hinson on the stage to present Derwin with a lifetime achievement award from the festival. Then the local state representative presents a lovely tribute to the Lewis Family in the form of a resolution from the State House of Representatives. Roy appears genuinely moved as he accepts the truly handsome framed resolution, tells a couple of stories and they all exit. And the second sets of music begin. When they come off the stage I ask Little Roy if he would play my banjo. An account of the jam that developed can be found here. At around 7:40, Jennings comes over to tell Little Roy that the Lewis Family will be on stage in five minutes. He transitions from jammer to family leader and the family hits the stage on time.

A cool wind has begun to blow and by the time The Country Gentlemen have taken the stage a decision has been made to close the festival down, as thunder storms are headed right at us. The people leave quickly and the bands, too. Only two bands, Grasstowne and The Grascals miss their performances, but safety comes first.

On Sunday morning we arrive again at around eight to find that Elsie and Jackie Snipes along with Tom and Joan Moore have cleaned the grounds until they are nearly spotless. Jennings and Miss Willi soon appear as well as Steve and Eve as we go through the final pieces of cleaning up and closing the Warehouse. By ten we are done, but people seem a little reluctant to leave, despite being tired after three days of hard work. Finally, everyone hugs and we go our own way. Another Bluegrass on the Waccamaw is complete for another year.

Putting on even a small bluegrass festival is a complex affair requiring attention to detail as well as keeping the big picture in front at all times. Jennings Chestnut has pulled this off for yet another year, and even though weather has intervened, the festival has been a success.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Great Jam at BG on the Waccamaw

Backstage at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw is a huge, old warehouse dating back to the late nineteenth century. Each year Miss Willi Chestnut puts out a spread fabled in the bluegrass world as the best food offered to musicians and volunteers anywhere. Musicians gather backstage to warm up in the far corners of the room, get together to visit and chat with each other, and hang out with those few people allowed backstage to join them. Jennings Chestnut, promoter of this wonderful festival, carefully monitors access to make sure that the performers aren’t overwhelmed by public access and that a friendly, informal environment is maintained. The space is decorated, tables are covered with red-checked oil skin tablecloths, and there are plenty of folding chairs for all to relax in.

After the afternoon’s Lewis Family performance I asked Little Roy Lewis if he would be willing to play my banjo. While mostly recognized as a clown who provides structure and drive to his family’s bluegrass gospel performances, Little Roy is often under- estimated by people for his musicianship. He is one of the really fine banjo players as well as doubling on guitar and auto harp. I expected he would play a song or two on my banjo, perhaps lasting five minutes, had it back to me and tell me it was nice. I would have been happy to hear that. Instead, one of those magic moments that happen in bluegrass occurred.

Little Roy started playing. After each piece I thanked him, expecting he’d hand the instrument back. After a while he stopped, pressed on the head, hit a few notes, flexed the head again and said, “The head’s loose; needs to be tightened. Do you have a wrench?” When I said I didn’t, he sent Will Gay to get one from his banjo case. He took the resonator off the back and examined it carefully, noting the good construction and then went around the head, tightening each of the bolts holding it in place, thus raising its pitch slightly and reducing the random vibration. My banjo, which I bought about a month ago, is a Deering Tenbrooks Thirtieth Anniversary, number 20 of a limited edition of 30. Its tone ring is bronze, made in a Swiss bell factory to the specification of Jens Kruger, one of the world’s great banjo players. It’s the best banjo I’m ever likely to purchase, and I’m really a proud owner who doesn’t play well enough to get the most out of it. Roy does.

After tightening the head, Roy began playing again. The difference in tone and power was remarkable. Soon Alan Bibey came over and joined us with his 1923 Lloyd Loar built Gibson mandolin. Alan is one of the finest mandolin players in the world. His signature model Gibson is a dark beauty. Recently he picked out one of his models in Nashville for us and gave it to Irene during a performance at Down Home in Johnson City, TN where he sang one of her favorite songs and then stepped down from the stage to hand it to her as she dissolved in tears. Here in Conway she immediately saw an opportunity to hear her mandolin in the jam and ran to get it. Alan and Little Roy exchanged leads and backup as they raced through several songs. Alan’s mother and father James were there as well as his wife, Pam. Their presence added to the moment, as it was his parents first chance to see their son with his new band, Grasstowne.

Soon Derwin Hinson, a talented multi-instrument player from nearby Wilmington, NC picked up a guitar and joined in. Derwin is a fine lead singer so Little Roy urged him to call a couple of songs, which he did. The music swirled around, each player pushed by Roy’s speed and invigorated by the quality of the group. Aubrey Haynie sidled up with his fiddle. Haynie, one of the most sought after musicians in country music, has appeared as a fiddler in literally hundreds of country albums and has toured with the biggest names in country music. This weekend he is standing in with the Grascals, this year’s IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) entertainers of the year, for Jimmie Mattingly, who is on tour with Dolly Parton. Haynie is tall, elegant, and handsome. He dwarfs his fiddle which has a beautiful tone and gives everything he asks of it.

In bluegrass jamming, a player often calls a song other players have never heard before or don’t know well. He kicks off with a chorus and players are expected to pick up the tune and play either backup or to solo when their turn comes. In some ways it’s like a competition, while in others it shows the most complex and intricate cooperation. More like jazz than rock or blues, bluegrass requires both individual excellence and close group cooperation. The complex interplay of the instruments, each taking lead or working together with the other instruments to back up either the soloist or the singer takes skill and intense listening. Players are expected, too, to be able to sing choruses in close three part harmony. The total effect is exhilarating and awe inspiring. In gospel songs a fourth part is often added as groups sing a-cappella. Irene and our fellow volunteer and friend Lynn Butler watched, sharing my enjoyment at hearing my new banjo and her mandolin played at their very best. Later Irene continued to watch while spending some time with Little Roy’s three sisters, with whom he has performed for half a century.

Soon, Jennings appeared to tell Little Roy that he had five minutes before he was due to take the stage. The band currently playing had two more numbers. Roy kicked off Earl Scruggs’ wonderful song, “Earl’s Breakdown,” a challenging and extremely fast piece. He ripped through it, everyone else struggling to keep up. Later I asked Danny Roberts and Alan how fast they thought Roy had played. In one voice they said, “Too fast!” Alan said his forearm was getting sore from playing at that speed. Danny estimated that Little Roy had nailed Earl’s Breakdown at 180 beats per minute. Phenomenal!!

Roy hit the final notes and leapt to his feet to join his family on stage where they swung into their performance. A magical musical moment that rarely happens was over. The essence of bluegrass had been achieved as five masters of the music, each playing with a different band at the festival had shown how bluegrass is supposed to happen.

According to Neil Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History the first bluegrass festival was held in Virginia in 1965. It featured present and former members of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and there was a large jam at the end in which all participated. In subsequent years many festivals have featured jams in which musicians from different bands join together on stage for a culminating jam. In recent years, however, bands arrive at a festival, play their two sets, and head for the next venue, playing two or three events in a single weekend. The economics of festivals and bands almost require this. The sad part about this behind the scenes jam was that perhaps only twenty or thirty people heard the music, while a thousand or more people outside had no idea that such a magical moment was taking place. Sadly, the tradition of forming composite bands to create a grand finale jam no longer exists.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival - Preview

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival will be held in Preston, CT from May 31 through June 3, 2007 at Strawberry Park Campground. The campground is a large facility well-equipped to put on a major bluegrass festival. It is centrally located between New York and Boston and close to two nearby Indian casinos for those who tire of the music, unlikely this year as the lineup is excellent. Offering traditional and progressive bluegrass, this year’s bill will satisfy almost any fan of bluegrass who doesn’t insist on hard-core Bill Monroe bluegrass all the time.

By this time of year, most full-service campsites are probably reserved, but the campground provides a large rough camping area and an overflow area, which probably don’t ever run out of space. To make sure, though, give the campground a call on their toll free number (888) 794-7944 or their regular number (860) 886-1944. The campground is reasonably quiet, although there is some jamming there. The rough camping area is a jammer’s heaven, where you can make music all night long. It is tightly packed with close quarters, but people staying in the rough camping area seem to be having a good time. Strawberry Park also has a number of rental trailers that can be rented for the festival. They are usually snapped up well in advance. While the campground itself is located in what appears to be a rural area, there is quite a bit of development in the area and there should be motel rooms available for day trippers, including the casinos.

Vendors at Strawberry Park are less satisfactory than at many other festivals of the same size. There seem to be two reasons for this. First, the vending area is a short walk uphill from the main amphitheater so that it is difficult to wander up to shop or eat and still listen to the music. Second, the campground has a major entertainment area including a large food service of its own with covered picnic tables. It provides snacks to full meals as well as ice cream and other deserts. While it’s something of a trek to these windows, the food is tasty. Breakfast is served. The campground has a couple of large swimming pools that are available if the weather permits, but early June can be chilly and wet in Connecticut.

The performance area is almost ideal for both viewing and listening to music. The natural amphitheater slopes up gently from the stage and spreads out as it rises. Listeners can place themselves close in a tight setting or spread out as they move further away from the stage. Last year the sound was superb, making good bands sound better and allowing the music to be heard everywhere in the performance area without every becoming overwhelming. Off to the left (facing) of the stage is a raised wooden platform ideal for those who wish to dance. It provides a good view and sound for dancers while never allowing them to interfere with the vision or enjoyment of those who prefer to listen to the music. More festivals should provide such a setting. Another platform is provided for groups to sell merchandise and meet and greet their fans. The general performance layout is one of the best in our bluegrass experience.

In addition to the outdoor facility, Strawberry Park has a large indoor room where the festival can move in case of intractable rain. Last year part of the Saturday program and Sunday morning were held indoors. While not completely satisfactory, the room nevertheless held a large crowd and offered good sound when being outside would have been pretty miserable. Since the weather this time of year is iffy, this alternative assures that people won’t freeze or be too soaked. Last year we sat in the warm rain of Friday evening and listened to the Kruger Brothers outdoors. This proved to be a wonderful experience, especially considering their unique musical offering. Nevertheless, it was nice to be able to move inside when it got really wet.

The entire infrastructure is present to serve a first rate lineup for 2007. Thursday, usually an abbreviated program, features the Greencards, an entertaining bluegrass group from Australia. April Verch is a fiddler/dancer from Canada who performs with her husband on drums, as well as a bass. She has a pleasant voice and fiddles well, too. I’ve never heard Amy Gallatin and Stillwater. On Friday the festival swings into top gear with two sets each by Nothin’ Fancy, The Lovell Sisters, Rhonda Vincent, and Mountain Heart. Nothin’ Fancy, who style themselves as successors to The Country Gentlemen and mine their materials as well as playing lots of Mike Andes songs, are always musical and amusing. Chris Sexton is a wonderful fiddler who brings his classical background to bluegrass without missing a beat. The Lovell Sisters are high energy, attractive, and sing good, too. Rebecca Lovell (16) who plays mandolin, was the first woman to win the Merlefest mandolin contest last year. These girls are comers. It will be interesting to see Mountain Heart for the first time since Steve Gulley left them to form Grasstowne. I’ve heard good things, but am interested to see for myself. Nothing much needs to be said about Rhonda Vincent and the Rage – they are simply one of the best bands touring. Furthermore, Rhonda will sign and greet fans until the last one leaves, a generous and endearing characteristic for such a big star.

Strawberry Park is unusual in that some bands only give one performance rather than the two set model used at most festivals. This means that in order to see all the bands, you gotta be there. On Saturday Cadillac Sky and Dry Branch Fire Squad repeat, but The Steep Canyon Rangers, Infamous Stringdusters, Grascals, and Chris Thile & How to Grow a Band featuring Bryan Sutton each only have a (roughly) ninety minute set. The longer sets allow a group to strut its stuff, but audience members need to hang in. Cadillac Sky is based in Texas and brings a lively new sound to bluegrass. The Infamous Stringdusters, coming from Boston are wired to tradition in a new and lively sound. Banjo player Chris Pandolfi is a great stylist, the first person to major in banjo at Berklee School of Music. Steep Canyon Rangers are a more traditional band who play and sing with conviction and musicality. Their performances are always satisfactory. Chris Thile has grown himself a new band with a new sound. A brilliant performer, he has surrounded himself with wonderful musicians. Adding Byron Sutton, a brilliant flat picker on guitar, for this performance can only improve the band. Dry Branch Fire Squad, led by satirical humorist Ron Thomason, presents an interesting mix of social satire with wonderful primitive gospel music. His performances, backed by a very fine band, are always a wonder. Dry Branch Fire Squad will also do a traditional hour of gospel music on Sunday morning. The Grascals, always reliable, fill out the Saturday bill.

It is often hard to keep an audience at a festival on Sunday. People who love bluegrass music will leave early on Sunday at their peril. After Dry Branch Fire Squad’s gospel hour, Dale Ann Bradley has a long set. Her dead on singing is back by a group of fine musicians including newly signed on Mike Bub, the best in the business, on bass. At noon the Strawberry Park Kids Academy will perform. They will have been practicing since Friday afternoon and had lots of work with very good teachers. After their performance comes the Gibson Brothers. Leigh and Eric Gibson, coming from far upstate New York have voices that blend as brothers should and write and sing wonderful songs. Each member of their band is a first rate musician. Rick Hayes on mandolin, Clayton Campbell on fiddle, and Mike Barber on bass support Eric’s fine banjo and Leigh’s excellent rhythm guitar, but the energy and quality singing of this band is what shines, and they do shine. Finally, Cherryholmes will close the festival. This family band, which tours incessantly and will probably not be new to many in the audience, has refreshed its act and has a new CD out. They have grown musically as the young band members have matured. Father Jere still can’t resist the coarse remark, but he’s learning and the band is funnier when he’s a little lighter.

People planning to attend Strawberry Park should come prepared for any kind of weather – hot, chilly, sunny, dry, wet…who knows. If it’s hot and sunny, the shaded amphitheater will provide a delightful setting for the weekend. Strawberry Park is a festival that people who take an eclectic view of the nature of bluegrass music will find to be entirely satisfying. Give it a try.