Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Large vs. Small Bluegrass Festivals

Every bluegrass festival has its own feel, its own setting, audience, traditions, and bands. These factors come together for a few days each year to create a magical environment in which a special small world is created. A community begins to develop during the week preceding the event as first event organizers and volunteers set up and then early bird campers begin arriving to create a small village, which will disappear by the following Monday. The event kicks off and then builds as each band presents the best it has under what can only be described as uncertain conditions. But weather, sound systems, and the interaction of crowd and musicians aside, something special seems to happen to transport attendees into a small and vibrant world for a few days before it ends until next year.

Each year, for the past five years, we have attended Merlefest, held on the last weekend of April on the campus of Wilkes Community College in North Wilkesboro, NC. Until this year, we have camped in a gravel parking lot at the top of the campus, where we pulled ourselves into the camping line before noon on Monday in order to be admitted when the gates open at twelve sharp. Merlefest begins around 3:00 PM on Thursday afternoon, and we have had the same reserved seats each year. We figure to spend around $1000 during the four days as we pay for good reserved seats, instrument raffles, performer CDs, hats, t-shirts, food, and miscellaneous fun. Merlefest represents a major part of our entertainment dollar and we budget for it. After three years of attending just Merlefest each year, we decided that mega-festivals provided us with a great experience, but we wanted to expand our horizons. We have continued to attend this wonderful tribute to Merle Watson and revel in the opportunity to see the best of bluegrass and Americana, and we’ve discovered that good alternatives also exist and that they are entirely satisfying. This year we figure to attend somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty festivals and other bluegrass and Americana events.

Last year we attended two very large festivals. Merlefest has an average daily attendance in the neighborhood of 20,000 people, while Grey Fox, in Ancramdale, NY has around somewhere between 7500 and 10000 a day. These festivals are characterized, at least partially, by the facilities they require. Merlefest is held on a spacious community college campus. It features twelve different performance venues, mostly outside, but some in college buildings. Until this year it has had several on-campus spots for RVers as well as a raw camping area nearby. Local organizations offer additional camping opportunities. The festival is seeking to find ways to continue its growth while leaving more green space available on campus. One solution has been to severely restrict the available RV spaces available to more than double the already high price. At the main stage Merlefest has about 3000 reserved seats, which attendees buy ahead of time and can renew from year to year. These seats are open until 5:00 PM to anyone with a day ticket unless the owner of the seat wishes to have it. After five, entrance to the reserved seat area is restricted. Because of its size, all other services are also large – food concessions and vendors are located at places convenient to the main stage. Access to performers is severely limited. The festival provides an area for autographs and some performers wander the grounds between appearances at various venues, but they are not readily available as they are at smaller events.

Grey Fox, now entering its 30th year, is located on rolling farmland in rural New York State, convenient to much of the population of the northeast. Beginning about a month before the festival, held the second weekend in July, people begin to form a line in a field outside the main gate to the festival. By the week of the festival there are, perhaps, 500 rigs in line waiting for admittance, which begins at noon on Wednesday. Volunteers and staff get early admission and begin staking out spaces on The Hill for seating and setting up their elaborate campsites on the top of The Hill. We rolled into line early on Wednesday afternoon, after the gates had opened, and were not able to even get to our campsite in the quiet area before 4:00 PM or so. We rushed to The Hill and were rewarded with seats in about the 30th row to the side. The Hill is so steep we had to dig in the rear legs of our chairs to make them nearly level. Grey Fox offers outstanding music, but the noise of the crowd and the constant movement make it less easy to sit and listen than at other festivals. Performers spend some time at the merchandise tents signing autographs and chatting with fans, but there is a significant crush to see them. Food vendors at Grey Fox are outstanding; perhaps the best we’ve encountered anywhere. Grey Fox is justly renowned for its field picking, and many people attend this festival to stay up on The Hill, drinkin’ and pickin’.

Smaller festivals offer their own special ambience. Each is different, and I don’t want to categorize them all, but I’ll reflect a little on several that we have attended in recent years and try to generalize a little.

Jennings Chestnut owns the Chestnut Mandolin Shoppe in Conway, SC. He makes beautiful and resonant mandolins and is the organizing genius behind Bluegrass on the Waccamaw, a “free to the public” bluegrass festival held the second Saturday of May each year. Bluegrass on the Waccamaw is held at the Old Peanut Warehouse in Conway. Jennings books two or three national bands, several local and regional bands, and a couple of bands he has tabbed as “up and coming.” He is able to attract unexpectedly good bands to his festival because of his long time connections to the music, the high quality of food and hospitality made available to the bands, and good crowd he is able to attract. The bands set of their merchandise tents near the stage and are available for good long periods of time. The Waccamaw River flows in the background, and there’s a walkway on it where jammers congregate to play. Attendance during the day may reach a total of 2000 people, but it doesn’t feel crowded, the music is great, and Conway is a lovely small southern town that’s worth strolling through. This is a great small festival.

Jenny Brook Family Festival, held in mid-June in Weston, Vermont, is one of those small festivals that each year hopes it can do well enough to continue into the next year. Promoter Candi Sawyer, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, manages to keep this delightful festival going despite her disability, Much of spirit of Jenny Brook grows from the love and support fans feel for Candi as well as the high quality she manages to present each year. This four day festival features all dry camping. There’s lots of field picking and the bands are readily available to their fans. Sometimes band members can be found jamming with pickers around RVs because the stage is so close to the camping area. This festival, as well as Pickin’ in the Pasture in Lodi, NY, has a close-knit family atmosphere unlike larger festivals. Parents are confident to allow their children to roam around the grounds while they listen to the music.

Pickin’ in the Pasture, held the last full weekend in August is located on a sheep farm overlooking Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes region of central New York. Like Jenny Brook, this is a family festival with lots of kids roaming everywhere. Hosts Sandy and Susan Alexander and their eleven year old son Jesse, welcome around 400 RV rigs plus drive-ins for a four day festival with first class music from the stage and high quality pickin’ in the fields around. This festival advertises round the clock jamming, so attendees shouldn’t be surprise to hear bands playing at three or four in the morning. Nor should they be surprised to find Dan Paisley or some other band sitting in with the jammers.

Pickin’ in the Pasture, located in the midst of rolling farmland, is perhaps the most rural of the festivals we attend, and, as such, is very much a campers’ affair. There are no nearby accommodations, the nearest motels located fifteen or twenty miles away in Watkins Glen and Ithaca. Limited grocery shopping is available in Ovid, six miles away. Balancing these inadequacies are the fine organization of the festival staff, which makes sure that ice is always available, there are plenty of porta potties, and the grounds are well-organized. Food at Lodi was limited, but competent. A wider variety of vendors offering more healthy choices would certainly be appreciated, but many attendees were self contained, providing their own food as well as plenty of their own entertainment.

Audiences at the smaller festivals tend to prefer traditional bluegrass to more progressive forms of the music. For people preferring progressive bands, larger festivals like the two mentioned here and others in the east including Strawberry Park, the two Gettysburg Festivals, and Thomas Point Beach can offer greater diversity as well as more big names. For people preferring a more intimate environment, easy access to band members, and more traditional bluegrass, smaller festivals might prove to be preferable. We attend both kinds and find that over time our tastes have been broadened and we’ve learned more about the music in both settings.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Memo to Democrats, February 2007

A clear strategy leading to victory in the 2008 presidential election is beginning to emerge, but it will require a certain amount of courage and relentless attacking to carry it out. This element of a winning strategy looks at the war and other elements of policy which have proven themselves to be disastrous and will, no doubt, continue and continue to cause bad results.

Recent articles in the Washington Post have shed light on the inadequacy of the medical and psychiatric care provided to retuning veterans of the war in Iraq. This work suggests that wounded soldiers who have glamorous injuries have received much publicity. Television features have emphasized the state of the art prosthetic devices that soldiers receive as well as the courage and determination of those receiving them. Particularly noteworthy, and justifiably so, have been the examples of military personnel determining to return to active duty with less then complete natural bodies.

On the other hand, people returning from Iraq suffering from various forms of mental illness are being warehoused and not helped. Soldiers suffering from PTSD, depression, and other severe mental illnesses are being denied adequate care and forced from the military. In the future these men and women will require hundreds of billions of dollars in continuing care, which they will certainly not receive under current conditions. The current Bush budget projections for veterans’ medical care, after an increase for the coming fiscal year, are flat into the foreseeable future, showing a lack of commitment to meeting the needs of those he sent into battle.

As a result of personnel shortages, people of increasingly advanced age have been sent into service in Iraq. When men and women in their forties are injured or develop problems, military physicians find pretexts in their prior medical or emotional conditions to disqualify them from VA coverage. Either these conditions were never taken into account when the administration projected its needs or it realized the costs involved and determined to hide them.

We are told that the government will provide what is needed for military families, but they are sent into battle with inadequate body armor, insufficient numbers of vehicles, and broken equipment, while their families at home receive insufficient compensation to avoid relying on food stamps. The hypocrisy of the administration, which asserts its commitment to supporting the troops while refusing to provide the kind of support which could make success possible shows both bad thinking and planning as well as a truly low level of concern for the military personnel. Supporting the troops means giving them the training at home, the equipment and leadership abroad, and the care on their return that these men and women deserve.

It appears that while focusing on Iraq, the administration has lost sight of the war on terror it declared after the attacks on September 11th. Mr. Bush galvanized the country and received full support in sending troops to Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and capture or Kill Osama bin Laden. By committing ourselves to the war in Iraq, we have allowed the Taliban to reorganize and strengthen themselves to the extent that they are resurgent in Afghanistan and the US is virtually powerless to do anything about it.

As the pool of available and qualified candidates for induction into the armed services has grown smaller, standards have consistently been lowered. This has made training more difficult at home and discipline more difficult to maintain abroad. It has also meant that age has increased, intellectual ability decreased, and physical condition fallen. Our armed forces are less able to undertake the missions they are tasked for than ever before. Meanwhile, in the name of supporting the troops we have allowed ourselves to be silenced about this scandal.

Finally, Mr. Bush has insisted on continuing to lower taxes while spending more money, thus disguising from the American people the true fiscal costs of waging this war and the effects of his expenditures on domestic efforts. Never before has a president tried to lower taxes while engaged in warfare. When Lyndon Johnson tried to provide both guns and butter he threw the economy into a terrible recession. So far the Bush tax cuts have avoided this, but it’s only a matter of time.

If Democrats can muster the courage to focus on failures of competence, shortness of vision, and dishonesty in dealing with the American people, they can win the next election and establish a working majority that can last for some time. Only, however, if they come across as being honest and courageous will this work. So far, since regaining control of Congress, they have played softball. They need to stand up and say what they know in their hearts.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Bluegrass at the Bean Depot

The Bean Depot is a low, wooden building, erected in 1922, that has served as a post office and general store since before development destroyed much of South Florida. This low rambling wooden building is, in its current reincarnation, an old-time Florida bar offering live music on most nights. Wednesday is bluegrass evening. With our two longtime friends, Steve and Dianne Powel, we arrive early and pick a banquette table in the far corner of the narrow room. In the Bean, “Banquette” means a padded corner seat with a 1940s style enamel kitchen table. In the Bean, no two tables are identical and there are a variety of kinds and shapes of chairs, too. Our waiter, Stan, is pleasant and accommodating. The menu includes a bar standard variety of burgers, chili, and soup as well as dinner entrees including shrimp, scallops, and fish as well as chicken and various salads. Dianne has bean soup, appropriate, which she says is delicious. Irene and Steve have pretty standard burgers. My blackened fish on a bed of salad is tasty. Seasoned well while not overcooked, but plenty spicy. Around 6:30 the band straggles in and begins to play.

I’ve been told that tonight will be a jam night. The initial band includes two mandolins, a guitar, a banjo, and a woman on doghouse bass. They are un-miked and the crowd is pretty raucous. Outside someone’s car horn starts going off and the driver, aided by two or three friends, can’t seem to stop it. The room is full of diners and drinkers who listen with one ear while they talk and laugh. The band plays and sings a group of bluegrass standards and seems to be enjoying itself. In a back room, called the “Museum,” another eight or ten jammers straggle in and begin playing. Some players rotate into the house band while others move back to the jam group in the Museum. Some people move chairs from the main room to the museum, and everyone is having a good time.

The music has been, at best, adequate bluegrass, but that really doesn’t matter. The crowd has enjoyed itself and given The Bean a good Wednesday evening. More important, a dozen or so bluegrass musicians have had an opportunity to perform before a a live audience. It is in locations like this that bluegrass finds one of its bases. All over the country, bars and small restaurants, even McDonalds, make space available for groups of bluegrassers to make music together and to provide entertainment for others, many of whom have not been exposed to the music before.

Around 8:00 we get up and leave to drive home. We’ve had a nice pub dinner and enjoyed each other’s company while listening to music. A lot of bluegrass musicians have had a chance to jam with a real, live audience, it’s February21st and the temperature is nearly 70, and all have had a good time.

The Bean Depot is located of SR 776 at the El Jobean Bridge, corner of Garden and Sturkie, across from the Mystic Station in El Jobean, Fl, between Port Charlotte and Englewood. Their phone number is: 941-627-3344 and their e-mail address . They play bluegrass music on Wednesday evenings beginning around 6:30 with other music on other evenings.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Rock Crusher Canyon RV Park

The Nature Coast of west central Florida is a name declared for this region stretching from north of Clearwater up into the first curve forming the Panhandle... Crystal River is about 80 miles north of Tampa in Citrus County. Temperatures here are a little cooler than in South Florida, which leads to a more laid back lifestyle, less crowding, no high rise buildings, and a generally more welcoming environment. Relatively few beaches line the coast, but there are miles and miles of salt marsh and tidal rivers for fishing and kayaking. Rock Crusher Canyon RV Park offers a lovely setting for short term or long term campers to explore this region.

Offering nearly 400 sites, mostly large and well separated by palmetto and brush dripping with Spanish moss, Rock Crusher Canyon is a welcoming, friendly RV Park. Once home to a regular series of country music concerts, the park has a spacious clubhouse – heated pool complex where a wide variety of programming, apparently interest motivated and managed by camper residents, take place. There is lots of computer activity centered here, as well as free Wi-Fi spottily available at other points in the park. Each site has a 50 amp hookup, water and sewer as well as a quite good cable system. Brighthouse cable will also install a cable modem at your site for the very reasonable price of under $20.00 per month.

Bath houses here deserve a special note as they are constructed as full bathrooms, each containing a shower, a toilet, and a sink. The upside of this arrangement is that it allows a person to accomplish the entire daily toilette in lordly privacy. The downside is that one person ties up three facilities, meaning that at certain times of the day it’s difficult to get into one of the rooms. The washrooms also contain a laundry facility. This all gives a nice, civilized sort of feeling.

Irene and I took a walk around the perimeter of the park on Saturday morning. It was cool and clear after a frosty night. The park features some terrain. As it was President’s Day weekend, the park was packed, but because the sites are well designed and spacious, it did not give a feeling of being over-crowded. Unlike many Florida campgrounds, this park does not seem to encourage even seasonal visitors to set up elaborate porches or permanent structures. There are no park models in Rock Crusher. All sites are gravel on a limestone base and have wonderful drainage. The very pleasant staff keeps the grounds clean and tidy. Pet owners seem most conscientious about picking up after their charges. There are children here, and they are under control and pleasant to have around.

The region offers lots of outdoor activities including SCUBA diving, fishing, golf, bird watching, hiking, biking, and horseback riding. There are archeological and other state historic sites within a short drive. Plenty of restaurants are nearby. Because there is a general sense of there being a good deal less crowding, a leisurely sense of time to do what you wish pervades the area. If you’re tired of the crowds and development of south Florida, you might want to give Rock Crusher Canyon a try.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Education of a Coach by David Halberstam

The Education of a Coach, David Halberstam, Hyperion Books (Paper), 2005, $14.00

In his Acknowledgements, David Halberstam makes two elements of this useful book perfectly clear: Halberstam is not knowledgeable about football even though sports has been an important element of his long and distinguished writing career and this is not a football book as much as it is meditation on success in America. Placing Education of a Coach in this context turns it from a somewhat interesting football book into a fascinating study of a complex and interesting man.

Bill Belichick has won three Super Bowls during the first decade of the twenty-first century as coach of the New England Patriots. His has become recognized by fans as perhaps the finest football mind in the game today. His teams are characterized by great defense based on taking away the strengths of the opponent and on the intelligence and skill of Tom Brady, along with Peyton Manning the preeminent quarterback of the decade. The book is at its weakest, however, when seeking to describe players and the feel of the game in progress. Halberstam often needs to explain football terms like “blitz” or “play action pass” as if he is assuring himself he understands elements of the game familiar to even casual TV fans of football.

The strengths of this really quite interesting book lie in the descriptions of the rise of the Belichick family from the poverty of immigrant life in the early part of the twentieth century. By dint of an exceptionally powerful work ethic, dedication, and sacrifice, it became possible for Bill Belichick’s father, Steve, to attend college and rise to prominence, at least among the knowledgeable, in the coaching profession. He spent a large part of a successful coaching career as an assistant coach at the Naval Academy. The son, abetted by his father’s connections, was able to parlay limited athletic ability but finely honed intelligence, extremely hard work, and a creative and innovative approach to the game into a post graduate year at Andover, a scholarship to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and a slow but steady rise through the coaching ranks in the NFL into a remarkable career as a winning head coach.

In terms of providing insights into the inner workings of a football organization, I prefer John Feinstein’s Next Man Up, an account, reviewed earlier on this blog, of a year in the life of Coach Steve Bellichick of the Baltimore Ravens. On the other hand, The Education of a Coach develops a remarkable picture of the learning processes and skills necessary to succeed in this demanding profession. Attention to detail, close observation, a huge appetite for thoughtful repetition, and a willingness to spend endless hours analyzing film are necessary, but not sufficient, components. A great coach must also win the respect of players who usually grant such respect only to those who have excelled as players themselves. It requires a person who can identify the strengths he needs and develop the players to fill those needs. It demands the ability to identify and develop assistants who can fulfill parts of the job while working within the confines of the coach’s vision. All this must be accomplished with the context of working for a rich and often spoiled owner, satisfying insatiable press and fans, and knowing that each success demands more of the same. The great coach is an unusual person who might, under other circumstances, become CEO of a major corporation or run the country. In Bill Belichick’s case it has meant an unending involvement in creating or helping to create great football teams.

In the last portions of the book, Halberstam seems to lose interest, but the title gives it away. This is a book about the process of becoming a great coach, not the results of that process. Therefore, the most interesting parts of the book concern how Belichick gets to the top of his profession, and laterally how he develops the staff he needs to support his efforts and how those staff members spread across the country as coaches for other teams, bringing Belichick’s skills and training to many other college and professional football teams.

One of Halberstam’s best books, The Best and the Brightest, details how the Ivy League trained group of men surrounding John F. Kennedy came to provide leadership for the country. In a sense The Education of a Coach tells the same story about a more humble group of men dedicated to seeing that a game is played at its highest possible levels. Halberstam sometimes seems a bit bemused by the fact that so many able and thoughtful people have committed themselves to football. This attitude somewhat mars a truly interesting and insightful look into the ranks of coaching which have been hurt at lower levels by an inadequate understanding of the bullying approach made popular by Vince Lombardi. Perhaps if the men coaching boy’s sports had a better understanding of the thought and study expended by men like Bill Belichick, our sports would develop happier kids and more effective use of sports as a metaphor for life.

Picture of Steve Bilichick courtesy of Laura London at

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Palatka Bluegrass Festival - Review

Each week a floating community begins to appear at a campground or in a pasture or cornfield somewhere along the road. On Monday or Tuesday a few trailers and motor homes arrive and set up near a stage or large circus tent sitting in lonely splendor. As the week progresses more trailers and motor homes come. Some plant themselves in a semi-circle behind the stage, put out display tents with sales tables or a field kitchen. Others arrive in the general camping area, creating compounds with tent structures in the center. By Wednesday the trickle of campers has become a steady stream spreading in a closely packed profusion across the available landscape. Campers sit in small circles near their rigs drinking beer or soft drinks, talking, and pickin’. Guitars, mandolins, banjos, fiddles and even full size doghouse basses can be heard playing. The singing, sometimes in creditable nasal harmonies, floats through the area. People head for the stage area to place folding lawn chairs under the tent or in front of the stage. A bluegrass festival will start on Thursday afternoon.

This week the site is the Palatka Bluegrass Fesitval at the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch, a few miles south of Palatka, Florida. We arrive at around eleven in the morning. As in any small town, there are disputes. Border problems arise almost immediately. Can we put out our awning without impinging on our neighbor’s territory, keeping him from putting out his own window awnings? Have we blocked off our neighbor on the other side? Later, questions of how much noise someone makes jamming at 2:00 AM or cooking breakfast at 5:00 create the small irritations and animosity found in any community.

The first big issue at Palatka surrounds getting our seats located for the festival. At Palatka, promoter Norman Adams enforces a rule prohibiting placing chairs before noon on Wednesday. We arrive at the performance shed at 11:30 to find a couple of hundred people lined up just outside lines painted on canvas flooring waiting to jump out onto the floor to claim space. Adams keeps people from getting out on the floor too early. An elderly couple (it’s pretty hard to call anyone here elderly as the vast majority of people at Palatka are well past retirement) steps out onto the canvas and starts to place their chairs to boos from the crowd and Adams’ quick remonstrance that the time has not yet come. At noon he tells people to set up and there is a rush from both sides of the floor to claim spaces and get folding chairs in place. We end up in the middle of a row about seven back from the stage, almost exactly where we were last year. By 2:00 PM, chairs are neatly lined up fifty or sixty rows back. People arriving on time or coming on Friday will either be far back our outside the shed looking in.

Thursday - Each day begins with an open mic period and then the first band is introduced at noon. Adams is a master scheduler and a powerful force in bluegrass and has assembled an extremely strong lineup for this festival, which in three years has mushroomed into a major winter event. The James King Band opens today in Palatka. King is an old trooper, recognized only a day or two earlier for the fifth time at the SPBGMA awards ceremony as the finest traditional bluegrass singer. He is a bleary-eyed alcoholic who has little discipline and is a great performer. King is noted for singing melancholy songs and crying during his own performances. He also has a blustery, sunny personality that shows he’s laughing at his content at the same time he gets maudlin. He’s supported more than ably by mandolinist Kevin Prater, a powerful high tenor and mandolin player, Chris Hill on banjo, and newly returned Adam Haynes on fiddle. Robert Feather, a very fine flatpicker, has joined the group this week on guitar. The band sports a new look, all wearing black suits and white cowboy hats. Hill seems to have brought a new discipline to the group in the year he’s been with them, and they are tight and powerful in both performances today.

Gary Waldrep and his band have not been able to keep their commitment because of his mother’s illness. This means that the day’s lineup features two gospel bands in succession. The Village Singers perform traditional gospel featuring the very fine bass voice of Warren Goad, the leader’s son. Their work on acapella songs is strong. They are followed by Carolina Sonshine, another bluegrass gospel group stepping into a larger arena than their usual Carolina venues. This band leaves me cold, as usual. Danny Stanley, who has a quite good baritone voice, does competent impressions of noted country singers. My problem lies with mandolin player Dennis Cash‘s singing of a song called “God’s Been Good to Me.” There’s a line in the song where the singer speaks of “all my Christian friends.” Somehow, Dennis manages to make the word Christian sound as if these were the only friends worth having. It gets my back up every time I hear it. Probably my problem.

The Grascals are reigning IBMA entertainers of the year and deserve it. On the road together for only three years, this band of experienced bluegrassers hit the circuit hard and has kept running. They offer high energy, fine musicianship, and an interesting mix of traditional bluegrass and country. They have improved with the addition of Aaron McDaris at banjo, strengthening both the banjo spot and the trio, which now features bassist Terry Smith along with Terry Eldridge and Jamie Johnson. Jimmy Mattingly plays a first rate stomping fiddle. These guys are terrific showmen without coming across as being too slick or polished. All the band members served apprenticeships with some of the biggest bands in the music and came together working with Dolly Parton.

Friday – Norman Adams and Tony Anderson, promoters, have skillfully provided a lineup with something for everyone. In each day of the festival they offer at least one performer who, while perhaps past his prime, is deeply imbedded in the history and traditions of bluegrass music. Performers like Larry Sparks, Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne, and The Lewis Family have been recording and appearing at festivals for more than forty years. The Lewis Family practically defines gospel bluegrass. McReynolds and Osborne, particularly, were there at the beginning and contributed significantly to the development of bluegrass music. McReynolds is still creating new music and passing his legacy down through his very talented grandson, Luke McKnight.

Adams and Anderson also provide the current top bands in bluegrass. On Friday this means that Larry Stephenson, The Cherryholmes, and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver all appeared. Each band, by itself, is one that fans will pay to see. As part of a day’s program, they offer about as good as it gets. Stephenson uses his clear tenor voice to deliver some of the sorriest murder ballads available, filled with death and loss. His already good band featuring Dustin Benson on guitar, Kyle Perkins on Bass, and Kriston Scott Benson on banjo has been immeasurably strengthened by the addition of Jason Barie on fiddle. Barie is both a brilliant soloist and one of the premier backup fiddlers in bluegrass. The Cherryholmes, a family band, have hit the bluegrass world fast and advanced to numerous IBMA and SPBGMA awards in only three years on the road. They provide a high energy show and daughter Cia, now 23, has been named banjo performer of the year at SPBGMA. With three teenagers in the group, it remains to be seen whether this band will continue its growth and develop its sound in years to come. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, however, bring years of stardom and one of the most solid reputations in both gospel and bluegrass music. They are highly professional, amusing, and musically impeccable.

Saturday – The Rodeheaver Boys Ranch was founded in 1950 on nearly 800 acres south of Palatka by Homer Rodeheaver. The Ranch provides a home for 43 boys who come from troubled backgrounds but have not themselves been involved in the judicial system. Generally, they are chosen because, for one reason or another, their parents cannot care for them or supervise their development. The boys live six to eight boys to a house with a pair of house parents and attend the local public schools. On the ranch they work and play in an environment of Christian love, discipline, and what appears to be a good mix of fun and work. During the festival, these boys are much in evidence cleaning, collecting trash, helping out at meals, and enjoying the scene. Our interactions with them have been always pleasant. The staff is friendly and helpful. The fact that the ranch is filled with boys, paid staff, and volunteers means that this festival can provide services no other festival we attend does. For instance, when we bought a bag of oranges, the staff delivered it to our trailer.

The highlight of the festival, for us, was the festival debut of the new superband, Grasstowne. Composed of the principal members of three bands, Grasstowne is fronted by Alan Bibey on mandolin, Steve Gulley on rhythm guitar and as lead singer, and Phil Leadbetter on dobro. They are ably supported by the young Jason Davis, who, at age eighteen, has played banjo with several top bands, and Lee Sawyer on bass. Each of the three lead players has won multiple awards and is noted for his playing and singing. When we talked with them, they each asserted their having left their previous bands on good terms and spoke of their desire to hew more closely to a traditional bluegrass base while taking the band in a variety of new directions.

Grasstowne has only been together for a couple of months and has spent much of this time in the studio and disentangling its members from previous commitments. Thus they have not had much time to put together two sets of fresh performance. Nevertheless their initial sets, composed of only a couple of new numbers as well as pieced together songs from each of their former groups, provided attendees with sufficient promise of things to come to earn standing ovations and an encore at each performance. Since they have not had time to assemble their own CD as well as a selection of T-shirts, hats, and other gear, their merch table was stocked with a selection of solo albums and songs from former groups. Steve Gulley’s first solo album is in the pipes, but was not yet available for this performance. A new Grasstowne CD will be available this summer. The band members made themselves graciously available to fans and will soon enough be busy with sales as their reputation moves from potential to reality. I was pleased later in the evening to get a picture of Alan Bibey and Bobby Osborne together, a great mandolin innovator from the first generation with one from among the best contemporary players.

The day continued with first rate performances from the always entertaining Nothin’ Fancy and Bobby Osborne and The Rocky Top X-Press. Nothin’ Fancy combines Mike Andes first rate song writing with excellent covers of Country Gentlemen standards. Their rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Darby’s Castle” and “Two Little Boys” by the Country Gentlemen are truly excellent. Chris Sexton’s fiddle offers depth, humor, and quality. Osborne, supported by a scratch band and his young son Bobby Jr. played classic Osborne Brothers tunes capped off by their great song, “Rocky Top,” which has become the state song of Tennessee. Bobby’s reminiscences of times with his brother and a trip to Europe with Bill Monroe provided contact with the early days of classic bluegrass. The Lewis Family followed with their always entertaining combination of deeply felt gospel singing and Little Roy Lewis’s masterful instrumental work on banjo, guitar, and autoharp along with his brilliant clowning. Despite the illness of his older sister Polly, Roy Lewis keeps the energy high and always satisfies his fans. His corny humor still elicits laughs, no matter how familiar the material is and the group reaches out to the faithful at an elemental level.

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage brought the festival to a rousing conclusion with two great sets. Singing a duet with Bobby Osborne of their Grammy nominated song “Midnight Angel” with a new verse provided a truly touching moment. To see Rhonda, one of the most dynamic of contemporary players, looking respectfully at Bobby Osborne as he sang says much about what bluegrass means to its fans and performers. Vincent’s own song, “All American Bluegrass Girl” says much about the connection of present day players with the roots of the music. Her good looks and obvious niceness have a marvelous appeal. One fan I talked to said he had attended 117 Rhonda Vincent appearances. I can’t imagine this is a record.

On Sunday morning the community breaks up, to reappear next week somewhere else. We wend our way across the peninsula to Crystal River where we’ll stay a few weeks until we rejoin this mobile group of bluegrass adherents for another festival in a new venue. For now, our plate has been filled with a fine weekend of wonderful music put on in one of the best settings on the bluegrass trail.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Crusader's Cross by James Lee Burke

James Lee Burke, Crusader’s Cross, Pocket Books, 2005, $7.98

I don’t remember when I first met Detective Dave Robicheaux, but by the winter of 1999 I was pretty well hooked. We drove around Acadiana visiting Lafayette, Ibreville, Eunice, and Youngsville during Mardi Gras. At Youngsville, while waiting for a local Mardi Gras parade, one of those parades where kids in their red wagons parade through town throwing beads to an appreciative audience of their parents and friends, where the junior high school marching band plays flat to a crowd that thinks they’re just great. I was sitting in the driver’s seat of our truck reading a Dave Robicheaux mystery when a guy walked by and said, “Great book!” I looked up and there was a guy wearing a Raubichaux’s Bait and Tackle Shop T-shirt. I gasped and said, “Is there really a Raubichaux’s Shop?” “No,” he said, “No,but there’s a great book store called Books Along the Teche in New Iberia.”

After the parade we drove down to New Iberia, the town where Dave Robicheaux works as a city detective and James Lee Burke, the author of the Robicheaux series of mystery novels lives for part of each year. I bought a Bait and Tackle Shop T-shirt and a cap, and we arranged to have notice of new autographed books sent to us. We walked up and down the streets of New Iberia and found a run-down former drive-in with varying formica tops and chrome legs surrounded by chairs from half the kitchens in Louisiana where I ordered my first crawfish boil served in a wok sized metal bowl with one boiled potato placed on top of the pile. The joys of crawfish soon became evident. We drove along the bayou, looked through the gates at Shadows, a magnificent ante-bellum mansion, but we never found our way into the dark world inhabited by Dave Robicheaux.

Crusader’s Cross, published in 2005, joins a worthy group of predecessors in a line of novels following the life of this troubled character. An alcoholic, tortured by memories of childhood, Vietnam, two lost wives, and an angry and violent past, Robicheaux is now aging and more reflective than earlier, but still fighting the same ghosts. He has an unerring eye for the dual lives led by the rich and powerful oligarchy of Louisiana, the mix of patrimony, sin, and guilt that leads to unspeakable violence and degradation. He is both attracted to and repelled by what he sees. To escape it, for many years he dove into a bottle. Now, after years of sobriety, he is still always at risk to “slip.” For Robicheaux, slipping leads to drunken binges and a new round of guilt and self-recrimination. Burke cannot allow Robicheaux a moment of joy, peace, or self-fulfillment before he makes the world intrude with the mindless chaos imposed on it by evil.

This book introduces another twisted, Faulknerian family bitter violence to hide its secrets, a secular nun who Dave finds himself attracted to, and a serial killer leaving raped and degraded bodies from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. While not Burke’s best book, it is a must read. I would recommend reading the Dave Robicheaux novels in order. Dave develops as he ages, gaining some wisdom, but no self control. You can find a complete, chronographic list of the books here. These novels are filled with anger and violence as well as character and tension. Burkes creates situations in which a reader can become fully immersed. No crime writer, maybe no other writer at all can use color, smell, and texture to create an environment as well as Burke. His.descriptions of nature filled with color, smell, and texture punctuated by sudden, explosive, realistic violence create an atmosphere of looming disaster much like Robicheaux’s life itself. Yet Burke’s writing takes him far beyond regional writers. His sweep is local in setting and international in appeal.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Extreme Makeover - Home Edition - Myrtle Beach

Here’s the scenario: Renee Wilson, a grandmother who has taken in her four cute as button grandchildren because their mother can’t raise them, lives in a ramshackle house trailer which she fears will leak buckets every time it rains. She is nominated as a candidate for Extreme Makeover – Home Edition by two of the children’s teachers and is chosen to be given a new home. The show’s producers send her and the children to Walt Disney World for a week while they construct a brand new 3,400 square foot home for her on the site of her former residence. Local builders and businesses provide the labor, materials, furnishings, and landscaping to give Ms. Williams and the kids a dream home. The community rallies around the project providing everything she could need, including college scholarships for the four kids, when they graduate from high school. According to North Myrtle Beach on-line, “Renee Wilson and her four grandchildren not only got a great new home but the funding necessary to pay taxes, insurance, utility bills and maintain it for years to come thanks to the generosity of local people.” What could possibly be wrong with all this?

Myrtle Beach and the communities around it, generally lumped together as The Grand Strand, have been breaking their arms patting themselves on the back for the past two weeks. The Sun-News offered this: “"It was a rewarding experience to see everybody in the community coming together to love and share with a family in need,” Diana Ray, owner of Garden City Furniture said.”I think it speaks to how we need to reach out and love each other a little more and try to help those who are trying to help themselves." A local restaurant chain set up a support tent to provide food, drink, and a resting place for workers on the project. I was in Books-A-Million while three people pushed a cart through the store, spending $500.00 to provide books for the family. They had been prepped about the kids’ interests and were carefully piling up books, taking care to get plenty of mileage for their money. A Wilmington, NC concrete contractor poured the cement and got plenty of recognition, as did each of the other contributors to the project. And they deserve the recognition. So, I ask again, what could possibly be wrong with all this?”

Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand represent perhaps the most middle class of all American resort areas. Spreading over a length of about sixty miles north to south, the Grand Strand offers accommodations from luxury to low-budget, high rise to campground. Rentals in houses, apartments, condos, and condo-tels come in all price ranges. Known around the world as a golf destination, golfers and beach lovers flock here in great numbers through at least ten of the twelve months. The crowds of people flocking here come in all colors and speak many languages. Where do the service people to support this structure come from? Many are poor, black women who must ride buses for up to two hours and pay hefty fares to get to their menial jobs. Making a good living here for poor people is difficult, at best. The boom of inexpensive building has been fueled by an influx of Hispanic workers.

As I watched the excitement development in local media concerning this event, several questions came to my mind. Since there was lots of local television coverage of the build, I was able to observe some, too. My questions:

· Where were the black and Hispanic faces in the work crews on this building? Watching the progress each morning on WPDE, I saw loads of happy white contractors congratulating themselves for their work, but not a minority face in the bunch.

· How will this "build" affect efforts to improve housing the large number of similarly situated people in Horry County? WPDE ran brief piece on this issue this morning, but unless the behavior of local people changes as a result of this effort, it's nothing more than a feel good story for commercial television to exploit.

· What does Extreme Makeover do to affect institutionalized poverty, racism, and classism in our society? How have local institutions been challenged to continue a program of helping poor people get homes? Habitat for Humanity accomplishes such goals without government interference, but I doubt Extreme Makeover provides anything real or lasting to communities. I suspect it only provides a feel good experience for viewers who can feel better themselves for having watched it. Nothing is done to challenge the institutions of society to make housing and life better for poor people.

If Wilson fails, people will find ways to show that it’s all her fault, after all, the community “gave” her a chance and she blew it. But what has been done to give her the skills to maintain her new home and thrive in a new environment? How has she been readied to succeed? How is she different from the lottery winners we seem so happy to see both win the big money and to fail at knowing how to live and thrive with their new found wealth? And last, to what extent does building a house for Renee Wilson allow people to look away from the rest of the poor and dispossessed and to feel that the job has been done and their obligation met?

The program airs on ABC on March 25th.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge

Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, William Morrow, 2006, $29.95

In The Great Deluge Douglas Brinkley succeeds in bringing to absolute clarity the devastation, human loss, craven indifference, and total incompetence of many, while celebrating the heroism, selflessness, ingenuity of others. In this long, but never dull, book, Brinkley tells the story of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath. In piling detail upon detail he speaks volumes about both the strengths of weaknesses of our country. He shows clearly how many of us stood, and stand, by, watching and blaming the victims of this great disaster, while others disregarded their own personal safety and welfare to provide help and life-giving succor to those in need.

While bureaucracies fiddled, and the President and his staff went down in flames, individual people stepped in and created a massive rescue effort. It makes me uncomfortable to emphasize the role of individuals and private or corporate rescue groups, because it suggests that such efforts can ultimately replace the local, state, and federal governments in providing relief. Such is clearly not the case, when leadership at the top provides the impetus for agencies to marshal their efforts and jump into action. However, when government is more interested in covering its ineptitude and playing politics than it is in providing relief, we’re fortunate to live in a country where people step up. Brinkley portrays with novelistic immediacy the individual efforts of scores of people who saved thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, Mayor Nagin hid out in the Hyatt hotel, quavering in fear and refusing even to put in an appearance at the Superdome where thousands lived in need of assurance and help. Katherine Blanco, who comes across better in this book than she did in the course of the storm or in its aftermath, shows insufficient experience to take on a disaster of this magnitude. Michael Brown, too, does better than we have been led to expect by the events as we watched them from afar. Brown vainly sought to motivate Michael Chertoff, Director of Homeland Security, and President Bush to take a more active role in providing leadership to get buses rolling and guardsmen into the area in order to create order and move those who had no longer any control over their own lives. Chertoff showed cold, heartless indifference, while the President viewed from afar and did little. Brinkley clearly suggests that political maneuvering overtook humanitarian impulses, as the White House preferred to shift blame for its ineptitude to a Democratic administration in Baton Rouge.

Stories of the New Orleans Police Department stealing Cadillacs for their own personal use or of armed mobs looting stores and defecating on the floors are too familiar to all of us. Less familiar are the tales of extraordinary courage on the part of individuals who just pitched in to help others regardless of race or their own personal safety. Imagine how many more lives could have been saved had the police and National Guard worked with such people rather than standing in their way as they sought to help. These stories truly leave room for hope about our human condition.

At times during my reading of this book I had to put it down as just piling the unbearable onto the unendurable. At other times, the sheer number of stories sometimes numbed me to the enormity, much as individuals caught in the midst of the hurricane and flood must have been. Other stories brought me to tears as I tried to empathize with the disaster. This book stands as a must-read for anyone interested in coming to an understanding of the human tragedy that hurricane Katrina visited on the Gulf Coast, New Orleans, and our country.