Saturday, January 27, 2007

Lorraine Jordan at Richlands Bluegrass Association

Richlands H.S. is a pleasant, modern high school building in Richlands, NC, about ten miles west and a world away from nearby Jacksonville, the home of Camp LeJeune where Marines are being trained to head out for Iraq. In Richlands there’s no evidence of any stress other than a wrestling match, a couple of boys and girls high school basketball games, and a small bluegrass festival. Sponsored by the Coastal North Carolina Bluegrass Association, this small festival will showcase eight or nine bands over a two day period, a pretty ambitious undertaking for a local bluegrass society. We’ve come to see Lorraine Jordan and her Carolina Road Band but have also been interested to see the Larkins, a family band from Nashville. It’s always a pleasure to see local bands, because they remind us the depth of musical talent we encounter as we travel.

We purchase our tickets and sort ourselves out from the basketball and wrestling fans, settling into the comfortable school auditorium after hot dogs and cake supplied by the festival vendors. We also make sure to purchase 50-50 tickets to help support the Society. The Coastal Carolina Bluegrass Society has been around since 1993, holding events at several schools in Jacksonville before settling in at Richlands. Like many local bluegrass societies, Coastal Carolina has struggled to continue in existence, settling for a single two day sponsor supported event held once a year in January. President Rufus Carter proudly says that this year they have 35 sponsors who have contributed enough money to assure the festivals success.

The first band out is a local band, centered in Jacksonville and New Bern, NC called the Grassy Creek Band. While this band plays around the region, I could find no web presence to point to. They were clearly well-known to the audience, which greeted them warmly. They were not, however, well showcased by the sound system, which was still experiencing some glitches during their performance. Thankfully, the sound problems were solved by the end of this set. The band is fronted by Jeff Davis, who plays a good mandolin and has a pleasant tenor voice. He sang a particularly nice version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Darby’s Castle.” A highlight of this group’s set was an instrumental called Cedar Point Shuffle, written by the group’s banjo player. About half the band’s offerings were bluegrass gospel, which was very well received by the audience. Their rendition of “Little White Church” was well done. This is a solid, local cover band, good for opening a concert like this one.

We had checked out the Larkins on their web site and came prepared to enjoy this band. A family band, they feature two blond sisters, whose voices blend very well and who decorate the stage with their playing and clogging. Tina, age 23, plays a very competent mandolin and sings lead as well as carrying most of the MCing chores. Her older sister Shauna, 24, plays fiddle and sings leads and harmony. Their Dad, Lowell, plays rhythm guitar and sings baritone, while Mom, Barbara, plays banjo. Jason Crawford, the only non-family member in the group contributes a solid bass beat. The Larkin sisters have been performing since they were three and four years old and have been on the road for about fifteen years. They have been regulars at Dollywood and have performed at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

The Larkins started their set fast and up-beat with “How Mountain Girls Can Love” and “Smokey Mountain Memories.” With their bright blonde hair and wholesome good looks, these two sisters draw a viewer’s attention to them. They have a polished presentation, perhaps too polished. The overall impression of their performance is one of packaged Nashville show-biz. In bluegrass, this is not a compliment. Tina’s carefully programmed shots at her parents and patter with hand and arm gestures choreographed by a Nashville performance packager come across as more slick than authentic, the kind of presentation that may fool folks at Dollywood, but doesn’t go over well here in the real hinterland.

The music heads pretty quickly downhill, too. Mother Barbara picks a version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown that not only isn’t Earl, it isn’t up to contemporary bluegrass standards. The girls do a nice job on the Tennessee national anthem, “Rocky Top” and follow it with a perfectly awful song called “Jesus, Daddy, and You.” Shauna closes the set with Orange Blossom Special on the fiddle and is overpowered by her sister’s mandolin break. Properly played, OBS should send chills down a listener’s spine as it rounds into the final portion. Shauna invests almost no passion in her mechanical version of this bluegrass standard. Tina announces that they’ll be back for another set the next day, which doesn’t bother us as we hadn’t planned on returning anyway.

As Lorraine Jordan and her band Carolina Road come on stage, I take a deep breath and give thanks that the adults have finally arrived. Lorraine not only fronts her own band, but produced and plays in an IBMA award winning disk called “Back to the Well” with an all women’s group called Daughters of Bluegrass, which won the IBMA Recorded Event of the Year in 2006. For many years bluegrass has had a reputation for being largely a boys club. This excellent recording showcases many of the fine woman pickers as well as singers and songwriters. It is the second of two projects for the daughters.

Lorraine’s own band has been and its members have been nominated for nine awards by SPBGMA, The Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, one of the two major national bluegrass organizations. In addition, “Go Back to the Well” from the Daughters album has been nominated as song of the year. Lorraine’s own nominations include Entertaining Group of the Year and Entertainer of the Year. All in all, it’s quite an honor to rack up so many well-deserved nominations. Her band has recently been strengthened by the addition of Jerry Butler as lead and rhythm guitarist and singer. Jerry brings first class flat picking as well as amusing musical impressions to the mix, adding a needed element of humor. His rendition of “They’re Laying Eggs Now” added some interesting twists to an old song.

Lorraine is also a very solid singer/songwriter. Her song “Pickin’ with the Boys” has become a signature song, expressing the pleasure she takes in her band and traveling with them. A new song from her latest album called “Carolina Road” was written for the band by their friend Tom T. Hall. Ben Green on banjo played as well as we’ve heard him over the past year or so. We bought his and Butler’s new solo projects, and a copy of Carolina Road’s new project “A Stop in South Port Towne” as a gift. We left at the end of this set, having to return to Wilmington to drop our friends and then back to the trailer in Myrtle Beach. All told, we thought our trip worth the effort and found it a delight to see Lorraine and her band once again. As usually happens at this sort of event, a jam was going on in the lobby, oblivious to the professional bluegrass being played in the auditorium. This is one of the true glories of these local association events, because it helps assure the future of bluegrass music.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Jennings Chestnut - Luthier

We walk up Main Street in Conway, SC to a small store front with an unobtrusive yellow banner hanging outside the door. State of SC Award Winning Luthier it reads. We walk in to see Jennings helping a very tall, thin black man who wants a left-handed electric guitar. Jennings helps him find the exact right instrument to meet his needs, calls the vendor, and orders one. He glances up briefly to greet us as we come in and wander to the back of his shop, carrying our instruments. Coming to the back, he greets and hugs Irene and we shake hands. We’ve come in for him to do his magic to my banjo and Irene’s mandolin. A visit to Jennings’ shop has become, for us and many other acoustic string instrument people, a regular pilgrimage to soak up his lore, his hospitality, and his skill.

We first met Jennings several years ago when we casually dropped into his shop. Conway is the county seat of Horry County, SC. It lies about fourteen miles west of Myrtle Beach physically, but it feels like a piece of another simpler, more traditional, pleasanter world that many people today seek. Jennings welcomed us into the shop with an interested, but somewhat formal reserve. We chatted for a while and bought some gear. I asked him whether he taught banjo, and he said that he didn’t want to give formal lessons, but if I hit a snag, I should call him and he’d help me out. A week or so later I was completely defeated by the “G lick” on the banjo and called for help. I came out with my Deering “Goodtime” open-back banjo and was invited behind the counter for the first time. Jennings patiently and gently showed me how to pick the lick and gave me plenty of time to practice. Along the way, he began filling me with bluegrass lore from his long experience as a picker, luthier, and bluegrass promoter. I came home about three hours later after paying him $10.00 for the help.

In the spring of 2005 we attended Jennings’ annual festival Bluegrass on the Waccamaw for the first time. In support of his deep commitment to make bluegrass music available to everyone, his one-day festival is “free to the public.” How Jennings manages to bring the best of national bluegrass bands to a small, free festival in Conway, SC each year without charging admission is a mystery to all. Nevertheless, he provides one of the great single day events in this music. A year later, after asking how we could help, we were invited to show up at the Old Peanut Warehouse on Friday afternoon to help with setup. We spent the weekend pulling staples, moving tables and chairs, taking pictures, washing dishes (this is Irene’s specialty), and generally trying to be helpful. By the end of Saturday night, we had been invited back for the 2007 festival. Irene’s work in the kitchen keeping up with the food provided for the performers gets the credit.

Jennings sets to work on Irene’s A9 Gibson mandolin. He identifies where the problems are and pulls out his files, hooks, and gauges to nudge her mandolin from good to excellent. As he works, I noodle on my banjo. Dwight Murphy, lugging a computer in his arms comes in through the front door. Tall and thin with a straggly white moustache, Dwight is an old-time fiddler with roots deep in the same Adirondacks where we spend lots of time. Around eighty years of age, he has finally decided to give up sailing his large sailboat, but he’s written an instructional book filled with old-time fiddle tunes, teaches fiddle to kids in Georgetown, SC, and is building his computer skills with Jennings, who not only builds mandolins, but computers. Dwight pulls one of the fiddles hanging behind him off a hook, tunes it and joins me in playing “Buffalo Gals.” What fun to just sit in a music shop and jam informally with another musician! Neither of us plays great, but the song is recognizable and we’re both having fun. Meanwhile, Jennings is putting the finishing touches on Irene’s mandolin.

In 1971, Jennings’ son said he wanted to learn to play the mandolin. Money was short in the Chestnut family, so Jennings said he’d make one. Jennings has now made about seventy-three mandolins with three more under construction now. A new Chestnut sells for $5700 these days. One of his instruments is on display in the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina which showcases the work of South Carolina folk artists. Jennings has been recognized by the state legislature as well. A customer would have to come to Jennings’ shop in order to purchase one of these rare instruments, because Jennings will only put one in the hands of a musician he feels deserves the instrument. It’s a rare day when a Chestnut comes on the market.

Irene picks up her mandolin and it plays much easier than it did before and sounds better, too. Jennings moves on to my Sullivan Festival, a wonderful, plain instrument that the people at First Quality Music in Louisville have been selling because they believe in making a reasonably priced professional sounding American-made banjo. Their parts have long been key components in Gibson banjos, but their own brand is not well known. Those who do know the brand recognize its excellence. My banjo isn’t flashy, but it sounds good and plays easily. A woman and her young son come in looking for a Yamaha guitar. Jennings gently suggests a couple of suitable beginner guitars in a perfect size for a young boy. They seem uninterested and wander out. Jennings resets my bridge, changes my strings, and makes a complex adjustment to the tuner for my fifth string, setting it at a slight angle and making it tighter in its hole. He also resets the rail spikes used for tuning the fifth string when using a capo. The new spikes are perfectly placed and much easier to use. After an hour of Jennings’ ministrations, the banjo sounds better than ever and is much better set up.

Irene and I go to The Lazy River Cafe, a nearby restaurant, to pick up Philly cheese steaks for the four of us. While there we run into Jennings’ daughter Ginger; Conway really is a small town. Miss Willie, Jennings’ wife and business partner comes into the shop as we return, and we visit as we eat lunch. Miss Willie is famous in bluegrass music for the lunch spread she puts out at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw. Most bluegrass festivals, if they offer food to performers, provide a sandwich platter and soft drinks. The backstage buffet at their festival includes barbecue, chicken bog (a South Carolina low country delicacy worth a blog entry of its own), salads, beans, cakes and other cookies, and a range of non-alcoholic liquid refreshments. Everyone associated with Bluegrass on the Waccamaw goes away satisfied. We leave Chestnut Mandolins after settling our bill for much less than we think the work deserves, knowing we’ve had a treat reserved for few - a day spent with one of the true gentlemen of bluegrass music, an important learning experience, and a few hours of renewed friendship that brings joy to our visit.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Lou Reid at Rivertown Bluegrass Society

Around four in the afternoon cars begin pulling into the parking lot of Wheelwright Auditorium at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC. People lugging instrument cases amble into the lobby. A group moves upstairs and a jam begins. Mike Morris, the talented banjoist in a local bluegrass band called The Morris Brothers is playing with band mate Bob Toppings, a veteran of the Grand Ol’ Opry and numerous national bands, on a resophonic guitar. Other players join in while appreciative listeners cluster about. The acoustics are wonderful, allowing the music to echo through the hall. During the next couple of hours, other bands find places to set up and begin playing. While the quality varies, the satisfaction of making music together in a shared setting never wanes. Even when the concert begins at six, some of the participants prefer to continue playing rather than give up their own immersion in the music to listen to one of the top professional bands.

Below, in the auditorium foyer, volunteers set up. Ticket sales, a raffle of donated items ranging from commercial gift certificates to home baked cakes, snacks sold as a fund raiser by the music education students at the University, and a table where Lou Reid and his band will make themselves available to autograph CDs and just chat with their fans. A booth is set up to give extra attention to a children’s program the Society wants to undertake as well as to publicize RenoFest, a bluegrass festival held in nearby Hartsville, SC, west of Florence in March. Other folks were visiting and chatting. As six o’clock approached, the crowd, now perhaps 400 people, drifts into the large and very attractive auditorium.

The crowd settles down and Jack Christiano welcomes everyone and introduces Doug Clark to introduce Lou Reid and Carolina who sidle on-stage to begin their first set. Many bands come on stage and after a few minutes of setting their sound and tuning launch into an initial high energy instrumental. Reid’s band seems much more casual, as they chat with each other and the audience before beginning. It’s worth the wait, however. Reid’s well-controlled tenor voice and his clear, fast mandolin are a treat worth waiting for. He’s been around the music for many years and has sung with the Original Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver Band as well as joining Seldom Scene after the sad and premature death of John Duffey. He also sings with the superband Longview, where he sings and plays rhythm guitar to Don Rigsby’s mandolin and J.D. Crowe’s great banjo. I’ve been lucky enough to see him play with all three bands. A remarkable aspect of seeing him this way is that in each band he displays a different persona and plays in different kinds of ways. As the “old man” of his own group, Lou provides energy and drive to each song. His performance also models the kind of generosity often seen in great bands, with each band member getting plenty of opportunity to shine.

Reid is ably supported by his wife, Christy on bass. She brings a saucy sexiness, a clear voice, and a very solid bass beat to this band, while ably inserting her bright personality. Playing banjo in a mando-centric band is often difficult, but Trevor Watson does so quite ably. His solid and unobtrusive backup couples with strong, short breaks and good harmony work in the quartets. Kevin Richardson plays rhythm guitar as well as contributing wonderful flat picking solos. His rendition of “Freeborn Man” is one of the highlights of the concert. Finally, Brian Batten on the Dobro adds depth and complexity to this band’s work. As the youngest member of the band, he adds significantly to its performance. The band plays music from Reid’s albums, including his big hit “Time” with depth and feeling. They include a solid mix of traditional bluegrass repertoire as well as newer and more progressive sounds. This band is truly excellent. Reid’s singing, whether on Seldom Scene’s great “Wait a Minute” or his own hit is plaintive and clean. The band’s rendition of “Long Black Veil” allows for heartbreak and morbid humor in the same song.

A regional band called The Hager Mountain Band played a solid cover set in the interval between Reid’s two sets. The audience warmed to this newly formed band and enthusiastically called them back for an encore. Playing a set between Reid’s two sets would be a challenge for any band, and these boys worked hard to meet the standard.

Rivertown Bluegrass Society has raised the bar for itself and met its goal well. The audience was larger than the one they usually draw and they greeted the bands with enthusiasm. The music was wonderful, the jamming fun for both players and listeners, and the evening a success.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Salisbury, MD to Myrtle Beach - Road Note

We have driven down the Delmarva Peninsula often enough now to recognize landmarks and enjoy seeing places again. We choose this route to avoid the stress of traffic, urban congestion, and huge backups found on the beltways around Baltimore and Washington. Driving through the mostly rural countryside between Wilmington, DE and Norfolk, VA is comparatively restful. We have passed The Turner Sculpture Gallery and Foundry often but driven past thinking it was either a tourist trap we preferred to avoid or else it contained works too expensive for us even to look at. Today we have plenty of time and the sun has risen to a bright, clear, and chilly day as we head toward Myrtle Beach. We discover quickly after entering the gallery, that we’ve been wrong on two counts. The work produced by Dr. William Turner and his son David is stunning and pricey, but there is work in the gallery we can afford.

It’s a quiet Wednesday morning and we’re the only people in the gallery, which sprawls through a number of rooms. Easels are set up in one of the galleries as well as in a couple of small studios easily accessible to customers. An unmarked rear door leads out to workshops and the foundry. The principle works in the Turner Gallery are bronze castings of wildlife found in the Eastern Shore region of the Chesapeake Bay along with a variety of other pieces. Hung on the walls are vivid wildlife watercolors by Dr. Turner (Turner’s is a dentist, but has long ago given up practice for full-time art) in the original or in much less expensive print form, some limited editions. Works by other artists also hang on the walls and lie in bins throughout the gallery. A particularly endearing feature is casts of small works done by the Turner grandchildren along with a certificate of authenticity and a picture of each child.

The most imposing works in the gallery are a series are the wildlife tables. Each one gives the impression of being a smooth, glassy water surface revealing the sea creatures and plants living below. These works, ranging in price from around $5000 to well over $10,000 can be bought off the floor or custom ordered to the customer’s preference. Turner provides a large number of possible components, including such items as a stingray, striped bass, blue crab, octopus baby dolphin, and many more. These stunning pieces would grace any living or dining room setting. While there are some generic types of table, the gallery works closely with customers to create specific settings to order in a variety of shapes and sizes and containing a range of elements. (Pictures from Turner web site used by permission)

Individual pieces are available in great variety and sizes. Many do not represent wildlife from the region. For instance, recent editions include a bighorn ram and a moose. Turner is also an inventor whose easel, costing $1500, would be the pride and joy of any artist. We purchase two small prints of birds and two copies of a book, which Dr. Turner kindly autographs and adds a small ink drawing to the title page, with the wry comment that that should double the value of the book as soon as he dies. We voice the earnest hope that such a day should not come too soon. Turner’s son David whose work is also prominent in the gallery is available, too. The Turner Gallery represents some of the finest of American wildlife art and no ride down U.S. 13 on the peninsula would be complete without a stop there.

The sea is very choppy as we head across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. This crossing often offers wonderful views of Bay shipping, fishing vessels, and military shipping out of Norfolk. We’ve seen a nuclear sub as well as huge inflatable landing craft carrying up to 80 troops going through the gap in the bridge where the road becomes a tunnel. Today there is no shipping nearby. We quickly pass through the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area and head south on US 17. In Elizabeth City, NC we stop at the Caribbean & Soul-Food Restaurant at 311A South Hughes Boulevard (Hwy 17 S) for lunch. We had happened upon this little gem last year, but sought it ou

This restaurant is housed in an unprepossessing cinder block building on the busy U.S. 17, just across the street from the Days Inn. It would be easy to miss, but don’t. It’s open from 11:00 AM until 8:00 PM on weekdays and closed Saturday and Sunday. The ten table dining room is decorated with the flags of Caribbean nations. A counter is fronted by woven palm fronds. The clientele is largely black, but don’t let that deter you, as we have always felt more than welcome here. The staff is welcoming and friendly, the food excellent. The service is a little slow, but worth the wait as the food arrives hot, pungent and flavorful.

The menu of the Caribbean & Soul-Food Restaurant is moderately priced, with large dinners costing $8.00 or $9.00 and smaller versions of the same dishes priced two dollars lower. Main courses include Oxtails, Curried Goat, Brown Stew Chicken, Jerk Chicken, Short Ribs of Beef as well as meatloaf, and fried chicken and fish. Each dinner is accompanied by two side dishes like rice & beans, fried plantains, collard greens, slaw, potato salad, and so-on. There are also a range of beverages, many, like Sorrel and Swank, unfamiliar to us.

I have had both the curried goat and the short ribs, both deliciously prepared in light gravy. The collard greens are cooked soft and flavorful in southern style, but with a slightly sweet tinge that works perfectly. Fried Plantain is new to us and a delightful experience. A little harder than bananas, these fruits serve as a starch and represent a recipe I want to add to my repertoire. We leave with sufficient left-over to provide dinner for me later in the day. While this restaurant may seem to be a little bit toward the adventuresome side, the food is plentiful, tasty, and well-prepared. The atmosphere is plain, but friendly and welcoming. The Caribbean and Soul-Food Restaurant is well worth the stop for travelers seeking a somewhat unusual, but fully rewarding, place to stop to eat.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Bluegrass Societies - The True Grass Roots

On almost any Saturday night in locations around the world, a bluegrass enthusiast can find a jam session or a concert to attend as a player or fan. Many of these events are sponsored by a local or regional bluegrass society staffed by volunteers for the love of the music. Some of these organizations are large and provide broad and varied programs as well as information about events throughout their region. Others are small, struggling organizations that sponsor a monthly jam session or a small concert, usually featuring a local group that sometimes gets paid. Regardless of size or level of penetration in their area, these societies share certain characteristics. Their function, however, is practically universal – they are committed to supporting and encouraging the spread of bluegrass music.

Typically, a local bluegrass society has a monthly meeting which is open to the public. The evening’s format generally begins in mid-afternoon with a lengthy period of jamming by different groups spread out around a room, building, or parking lot. In the early evening, on stage there is a period when local bands can perform for those in the audience. Sometimes these groups invite players in the audience to join them. Finally, the evening’s formal program is introduced. There may be two or three bands, with each playing one or two sets. If there’s a featured band, it will play two sets. Sometimes the featured band is a recognized regional or national band, usually a little below the first rank. Because there is such a deep well of bluegrass talent abroad in the land, the quality of music coming from the stage is higher than a person new to bluegrass might expect. Dedicated bluegrass pickers and fans know to expect a day of good music from jamming to professional performers.

Let’s take a look at several specific bluegrass societies. The Boston Bluegrass Union stands as the major source of bluegrass information and programming for all of New England. Its concerts, held in the lovely National Heritage Museum in suburban Lexington, MA, present groups like The Seldom Scene, the Claire Lynch Band, and The Grascals with admission prices in the twenty dollar range. BBU’s largest annual event is the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, which in 2006 won the IBMA bluegrass event of the year award. In addition to these large, audience oriented events, BBU sponsors a monthly jam and disseminates information about regular jams around the entire region. Its mailing list keeps members up-to-date on all bluegrass events in New England. While people around the nation don’t think of New England as a center for bluegrass activities, a scan of BBU’s web site reveals that there are bluegrass activities available year round. BBU also sponsors activities for “Kids in the Schools,” “Adult Education” and a “Kids Academy” at the Joe Val Festival. This comprehensive program is run entirely by volunteers.

The Foothills Bluegrass Music Society is located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Founded in 1987, their mission statement says, “As we near our third decade of success, the FBMS continues to offer a myriad of concerts, workshops and theme based social gatherings throughout the year. Operating on the volunteer efforts of our membership, we take pride in presenting warm and inviting, family friendly musical experiences open to the entire community.” This year their concert series highlights have included Tim O’Brien, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, and Michael Cleveland/Audie Blaylock and Flame. Pretty good for a local bluegrass society. A feature of their program is an active bursaries (scholarship) program for young musicians. Each year Foothills provides financial support for young musicians to attend workshops and seminars across North America. How better could an organization support the growth and development of bluegrass music?

Bluegrass Australia
functions as a coordinating bluegrass and old-time music association for an entire continent. Bluegrass Australia’s web site is owned by the Bluegrass and Traditional Country Music Society of Australia and provides integrated bluegrass information about a number of Australian events as well as links to events and associations in the U.S. For instance, a link to the Balyana web site introduces a band providing bluegrass activities in Queensland, New South Wales and pictures a lovely set of perfect waves. Here bluegrass fans can combine the music with great surfing. This site, as you might expect, highlights bluegrass activities in Australia while keeping people apprised of bluegrass activities in the U.S. and other centers around the world.

My first contact with a bluegrass society came when I discovered The Rivertown Bluegrass Society in Conway, SC. As winter visitors in Myrtle Beach, my wife and I heard that there was bluegrass music available in the area, and one cold winter day we traveled the ten miles west to Coastal Carolina University for a concert. We were entranced by the music, joined the society, and moved further along our trip of discovery in bluegrass. Rivertown sponsors a monthly concert series with jams, open microphones, and featured bands. At present, it is a more modest organization than those described here, but is working hard to expand its program and outreach. As its web site indicates, there is a bluegrass jam sponsored by a local society within an hour or two’s drive every week of the month in the area. But in this small organization can be found the strength and joy of bluegrass music. Bluegrass, despite how difficult it is to play well, must be played. The richness of bluegrass music lies in the true grass roots, the local jams, concerts, and small festivals dotted across the country and, now, around the world. Bluegrass music truly grows from the grass roots.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Chasing the Rodeo by W.K. Stratton

Madison Square Garden smells of old cigar smoke. The great arena is covered with several inches of sawdust and wood chips. The lights go down and then, with a flash, a single spotlight focuses on a gate at the end. It opens and a handsome horse gallops through with a cowboy wearing a great white hat and twirling a lariat around his head mounted on his back. Gene Autry and Champion charge around the ring to the cheers of thousands of young cowboys who’ve never been west of the Hudson River. It is probably 1947. My folks by me a chameleon in a little cardboard box, which probably dies a day or so after I get it home.

Fifty-some years later, my wife and I are camped at an RV park in Casa Grande, Arizona for a three week stay. I’ve been retired for less than a year. Today is the day of the annual O'Odham Tash Casa Grande Indian Days All Indian Rodeo. We drive up to a run-down arena, park and walk around the grounds, looking at the offerings of Indians – turquoise, silver, belts, necklaces. One vender is selling kettle corn, a lightly sweetened and salted form of popcorn we’ve never seen before. A delightful frying smell comes from a booth selling Indian fry bread, something like our eastern funnel cakes, but more breadlike and substantial and equally greasy and fair-food satisfying. The rodeo begins with young Indian cowgirls barrel racing and then proceeds through the standard rodeo events – calf roping, saddle and bareback bronc riding, and culminating in bull-riding. The venue couldn’t be further removed from my first rodeo experience, but the romance and excitement of a West that existed only for a very few years in the late nineteenth century still creates an irresistible aura.

In Chasing Rodeo W.K. (Kip) Stratton takes on big themes for a book ostensibly about a season spent attending the big rodeos and examining rodeo culture. Stratton examines the history of rodeo, racism, popular culture, and his own search for the absent rodeo bum father he has never met. While asserting at the beginning that his adoptive father was a true father to him, Stratton’s ceaseless search for flighty “Cowboy Don” dominates this enjoyable and informative book. While Kip Stratton has never met his biological father, he creates an image in his mind of a happy-go-lucky cowboy drifter who lives in a beat up pick-up truck as he cuts a swath through a world of sex, booze, and western lore with a charming smile and a cowboy attitude. Stratton seeks out Cowboy Don as he attends large and small rodeos in the West.

At each stop along the way, Stratton provides a background history for the rodeo he is visiting, placing it in a context of the development of rodeo and its connection to the old west the nineteenth century. He connects rodeo events to the skills of working cowboys while taking notice that many of today’s rodeo performers have never worked on ranches and even questions whether some bull riders have ridden horses. Since bull riding has separated itself from traditional rodeo and now sells itself as an independent sport, this accusation carries some venom with it.

In his visits to contemporary rodeos at Pendleton, OR, Calgary, Alberta, CAN, Prescott, AZ, Oklahoma City, OK and finally Leakey, TX, Stratton rubs elbows with contemporary rodeo contestants while profiling great performers from the past. One particularly poignant set of entries concern the stories and fates of black or Indian rodeo performers whose skills were among the very best of all-time, but who were forced to perform in a period when racism governed their access to success. Another very interesting strand concerns the backgrounds of his own ancestors, whose journey West mirrors that of many who moved westward to escape failed ambition or sordid experience and take advantage of the West’s openness to creating new lives. More positive is picture of the great rodeo cowboys of the recent past, men like Jim Shoulders and Larry Mahan who should be counted as among America’s finest athletes. Along with providing keen insights into the lives and culture of rodeo cowboys, Stratton drinks and jaws with the fans, cowboy groupies who travel from rodeo to rodeo to rub shoulders, and other parts of their anatomy, with the performers.

Stratton’s odyssey offers an enjoyable romp through an important element of American myth and contemporary cowboy culture while being tempered by his search for a sense of connection with the father he has never met, but whose travels he can either chart or imagine through the locations he visits. For a reader seeking to gain deeper understanding of the range of lifestyles and cultures available in our vast nation, this is an important and interesting book.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides

Kit Carson has been a part of my memory since my earliest reading. His name echoes through history as the most resourceful of the mountain men, buffalo hunters, guides to explorers, and Indian killers, but this hagiographic character had no flesh and blood reality to me until I read this masterful book. In Blood and Thunder Sides uses Kit Carson as the lynchpin to explore the westward expansion of the 1840’s and 50’s as John C. Fremont and Stephen Watts Kearney moved west to add New Mexico, Arizona and California to America’s possessions, thus fulfilling James K. Polk’s ambition to make the United States into a truly continental nation. He then details the destruction of the Navajo, Apache, and Comanche tribes by the westward expansion as well as the military and political forces supporting it.

Kit Carson early on left his childhood home in Missouri. His parents both dead, he left a youthful apprenticeship to head west with the mountain men. During the period from the 1820’s to the early ‘40’s, Carson became one of the most celebrated of these independent and brave men who first explored the plains, deserts, and mountains of the west in search of beaver hides to sell to furriers in the east. Their storied annual get-togethers became the focus for the early dime novels. Soon Carson’s ability and his renown led army explorers like Steven Watts Kearny and John C. Fremont to hire him as guide and advisor. Through their exploits his own fame spread.

The events generally known as the “Indian wars” emerge in Blood and Thunder as the tragedy we now understand them to be. At Polk’s insistence and through the Mexican War, America had vastly increased its size, becoming a continental nation. Americans moving west had increased from a trickle to a flood, encouraged by the availability of land and then turned into a westward frenzy by the discovery of gold in California. The major victims of this westward movement and sense of manifest destiny were Mexico, which lost half its land area and the Indian tribes, which were rendered powerless and, eventually, nearly extinct by disease and greed. Sides helps us to understand the extent to which this movement was abetted by the total cultural misunderstanding the parties managed to share. Concepts such as property, government, law, contracts, ownership, and nation were totally incomprehensible to the Indians. Americans moving west had no understanding for the complex spiritual and cultural life which had existed in the plains and deserts of the west for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The collision of theses different ways of understanding the world could only end in tragedy for the natives.

Carson’s name became a household word through the “blood and thunder” dime novels written by eastern authors, many of whom never had met Carson and who constructed these tales from whole cloth. Since many of his exploits were at least as epic as the fictional stories made of his life, this is a shame, but Carson was illiterate and unable, as well as constitutionally unwilling, to tell his own story. His character was such that had he had the literary ability, he likely would have been too reticent to tell it anyway. Nevertheless his actual skill coupled with his national fame made him an ideal person to, eventually, lead the effort to subdue the Navajo designed by the nearly monomaniacal General James Carleton. The effort, envisioned and promoted by Carleton and unfortunately enforced by Carson, to settle the Navajo far from their home territory at a place in New Mexico called Basque Redondo resulted in the near destruction of Navajo culture and the deaths of nearly a third of their number.

As Carson aged, the man who followed the dictates of official government representatives in the mindless destruction of the Indians to make way for the westward settlement of whites became increasingly uncomfortable with the results of these wars. At once recognizing the necessity of subduing the Indians and the tragedy of this movement, Carson found himself caught between social movements over which he had little control. Sides tells this story with compassion for the Indians, balanced admiration for Carson, and just censure for the mindless bureaucrats and greedy entrepreneurs who assured that no mutual accommodation could be made. He also delineates the elements of Indian life and culture which helped to make either assimilation or accommodation impossible.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

On Learning to Play the Banjo

I think I got my first banjo back in the late fifties or very early sixties from a much loved uncle who owned a Whyte Laydie that he played with some skill when in a creative funk. Uncle Frank was a painter of limpid flowers and wonderful city scapes no-one ever bought. When stuck for inspiration, he played the banjo or the Martin dreadnought that also sat in his studio in Manhattan. I think it was he who gave me an old open back banjo he had lying around. I also acquired somewhere Pete Seeger’s marvelous instructional record, one of the first of its kind. I learned to tune the banjo to a G chord and tried to follow Pete’s instruction to no avail. I think I only gave it a couple of weeks before putting the banjo aside for the much easier to play folk guitar, which I also stopped playing soon after my wife-to-be became better than I. She sort-of kept with the guitar, but I really didn’t pick up an instrument for forty-some years.

We first attended Merlefest, that quintessential bluegrass festival where 20,000 daily attendees can glory in the widest array of Americana music anywhere, in late April of 2003. There we were introduced to traditional and progressive bluegrass groups the likes of which we had never encountered before. We wandered around the campus of Wilkes Community College in N. Wilkesboro, NC, visiting vendors, sampling the twelve sound stages, and meeting new friends we would cross paths with again. We also heard Earl Scruggs, Jens Kruger, Bela Fleck, Rob McCoury, Scott Vestal, Jim Mills, and other great banjo players. I was hooked. A year later I bought my first banjo, a Deering Goodtime open back and Janet Davis’ “You Can Teach Yourself Banjo” book. At the same time, Irene bought a starter mandolin. We were nearly 63 years old.

The banjo is a strange mistress at best, but to start courting her at an advanced age makes mastering her even more elusive than the lifetime that many other players devote to her. I brought my new Goodtime home and started to read the book and practice the skills, slowly and laboriously picking away. My fingers hurt, I didn’t understand the picks, and everything was just so slow. Nothing I played sounded anything like what a banjo was supposed to sound like. I played alone in a practice room and occasionally pulled the banjo out to show our friends what I was doing. They were always polite and encouraging. Apparently they had no idea what a banjo was supposed to sound like or how a banjo ought to sound. I played “Boil ‘em Cabbage Down” and “Good Night Ladies” along with repetitions of the banjo rolls, and there was very little progress.

The rolls. To develop his hard driving style of bluegrass banjo, Earl Scruggs had fallen into a series of right hand fingering patterns that Bill Keith dubbed rolls when he worked with Earl to turn out what is still reckoned to be one of the best instructional books on the banjo. Earl says to practice each roll a thousand times and then a thousand times more. He says to go for tone and accuracy and promises that speed will follow. Some promise! Rolls, chords, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, and pinches – the basic stuff of playing the banjo. Breaks and back-up – the banjo is part of an intricate musical dance including at least three other instruments and a tight mixture of two or three voices. Lots of banjo players don’t sing, because playing the banjo takes so much concentration that drooling jokes are a piece of banjo lore.

How can you tell if the stage is level?
Because the banjo player is drooling from both sides of his mouth!

There have been two major turning points in my learning path. At Merlefest 2005, we heard the winner of the annual banjo contest play. His name was Bruce Stockwell and he was introduced as coming from Putney, VT, just around the corner. I called Bruce to ask if he taught and how much he charged. He did and he said, “Twenty-five dollars a lesson.” And I was signed up.

Bruce is a small, wiry balding man in his early fifties whose entire life appears to have been devoted to making music and whose passion has been the banjo since he was quite young. While for many years he subsisted by playing rock guitar, he now is fully engaged in the banjo. At my first lesson, I brought along the material I had been studying for the past year or so. I particularly had been working with Tony Trischka’s “Essential Practice Exercises for the Banjo.” Bruce took one look at these materials and sniffed, “Earl Scruggs never put his index finger there,” thus establishing the parameters and the nature of our relationship. I was to learn to pick in Scruggs style in order to achieve a level of mastery that would allow me to branch out into other ways to approach the banjo. As I’ve moved along, it has become increasingly clear to me that, in most ways, this was a good way to go. I bought a copy of Bruce’s book and CD and tried to schedule lessons often enough so I would have goals for the next lesson. I also discovered that a lesson with Bruce means putting aside about two to two and a half hours for work with him. As the time drew to a close at my first lesson, I pulled out fifty dollars to pay for my two plus hours. “Oh, no,” says Bruce, “I said $25.00 a lesson.” Wow!

Over the last eighteen months I’ve developed a pretty solid grasp of the rolls, am beginning to understand the way that chord forms related to the fret board to permit work up and down the neck, and practiced a series of songs, each of which is arranged to allow practicing a particular roll and then later a series of inter-related linked rolls. Bruce has emphasized listening and learning by ear as well as working on playing backup to both singing and instrumentals along with learning banjo solos. Recently, I’ve begun to try developing my own breaks for songs and Bruce has helped me take my rudimentary efforts and make them into real breaks by altering the rolls to fit the melody, adding pinches, slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs, i.e. turning them into real banjo playing. Each time I finish a lesson, I have plenty to work on until the next time we meet. Finally, the real pleasure of working with Bruce has been his patience in helping me to develop as a player in a direction that makes sense.

The other major turning point came when I signed up to attend Pete Wernick’s Jam Camp, this one held during the three days preceding Merlefest 2005. I had seen Pete’s Jam Camp students performing from the Cabin stage on Thursday at Merlefest for three years. This year I decided that I should attend and try to learn to jam from Dr. Banjo. Pete has actually earned this title, as he has an earned Ph.D. in sociology, but beyond the degree, his work has proven itself to be good medicine for a generation of banjo students, bands, and wannabe jammers. His writings about teaching and learning banjo make important contributions to the literature of the instrument.

Prior to attending Jam Camp, most of my experience had taken place in my practice room without the pressures of having to pick in front of others or having to work in the cooperative setting of a band. Within an hour on Monday morning, Pete had managed to push me way beyond my level of comfort without making me feel out of place or so challenged I couldn’t learn. Within a few hours we were divided into jam groups and began working on songs based on the skills we had worked on in large groups under Pete’s direction. Every time it came my turn to play, I totally melted, unable to perform anything approximating a song. Pete’s instructional strategies included direct instruction, large group practice, his recounting entertaining stories about the history of bluegrass that had direct relevance to what we were learning, small group practice, and directed practice from him and his staff, which included his wife Joan. The range of ability in the room ranged from absolute beginner, through moderately experienced, to a few near professionals. The better and more experienced campers assisted the staff in providing leadership and help.

Pete’s model works well from both the standpoint of social relationships and increasing individuals’ ability to develop themselves as musicians and part of a musical team, read band. By working with the campers on playing the lead, backup, singing, and harmony, Pete raised our ability levels and our confidence. His focus on ear training and de-emphasis on learning from tab required many of us to alter our learning focus. Much of what he taught was quite difficult for some of us, but the emphasis was on success and students provided lots of support for each other. Students’ level of confidence rose as the three and a half days passed, and by Thursday we were ready to present a song to the rest of the group. Later in the day, we repaired to the main performance area of Merlefest, where we sang a couple of songs for the several hundred early arrivals at the festival. Our first public performance had been at the largest festival of them all! Throughout the rest of the weekend, we kept running into people who had become our friends. As the summer wore on, we ran into people we had met at Jam Camp at other festivals, and one of our campers hosted a banjo workshop in his home in Maryland in September.

As a result of band camp, I have begun designing my own breaks based on singing the song, hearing it in my head, finding the tune on the strings, and turning them into a break, of sorts. With Bruce Stockwell’s help, I have begun to blend in slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs to make my playing sound more like banjo picking. I’ve participated in a couple of jams with greater confidence and learned to enjoy watching good bluegrass even more. I developed a greater respect for the early pioneers as well as the later innovators. And I found myself to be more a member of the bluegrass community. I probably won’t ever become a really good picker, but I can find even more enjoyment in what and how I’m learning.

I know I’m never going to be a really good, perhaps not an even competent banjo player. But I have goals for improvement and each day I have many elements to focus my practice on. Being involved in lifelong learning on an instrument that only a half dozen people in the world have truly mastered has to be a pretty good quest and helps to give meaning to anyone’s life.