Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Keene Valley, NY - Fireman's Field Day

The 2000 census lists the population of Keene Valley, NY at 1063. In summer the population nearly triples, and this influx of summer residents is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because the village is largely dependent on the business generated by summer residents and taxes raised from these (generally) wealthy summer people to fund its necessary and more optional institutions. Furthermore, pressure to buy land and build second homes on it has driven the cost of living here to levels that make it nearly impossible for young locals to stay at home, work, and raise families. It’s a blessing, because the money makes it possible for this village to thrive in many ways, providing retail opportunities, service, and government jobs that otherwise might not be available.

Essex County, located in the northern corner of the Adirondack Park, is huge, about 500 square miles larger than Rhode Island, but has amassed a population of only 38,000. This rural village in the heart of the Adirondack wilderness is a thriving and lively place and the home of the annual Keene Valley Fire Department Field Day. Volunteer fire departments in the US are facing something of a crisis. Volunteerism has declined while the performance standards for membership have risen. Members of volunteer fire departments, at least in New York, must constantly train to upgrade their skills and raise money to upgrade their equipment. But a village like Keene Valley would be in jeopardy if it weren’t for the existence of the KVFD and its ambulance/rescue squad. Almost all the housing in the village and on the surrounding hills is wood frame. The nearest hospital is thirteen miles away. Without the fire department and the ambulance squad, houses would burn and people would die.

Each year on the last Sunday in July the KVFD holds its annual field day. After years of running this annual event, the Fire Department has got it down to a science. The day begins with a demonstration of fire fighting and rescue equipment and techniques. Continues with a range of activities for young children, including face painting and Tim Dumas, a magician, offers a variety of raffles and Chinese auctions with small and large prizes donated by local businesses, and culminates with a widely known and justly appreciated barbecue chicken dinner, which each year sells around 600 meals, many eaten in the fire house meeting room, while others are taken home. A local bluegrass band, Three Doug Night, plays bluegrass through the late afternoon and early evening. Several 50/50 drawings are held during the day with half the proceeds going to the fire company and half to each lucky winner. All is calculated to encourage people attending the event to gladly let loose of goodly amounts of cash in an easy and enjoyable way to provide needed support for the fire company. Big sellers each year are the KVFD t-shirts, collected and prized by local and summer people alike. Beer flows. Music abounds, Drinking laws are enforced. People come for the party and stay to spend. While the Keene Valley Fire District is tax supported and pays the major portion of the fixed costs of operating the fire company and ambulance squad, the fire department itself runs the field day. Proceeds from this event are often earmarked for purchasing a specific, needed piece of equipment or helping defray additional costs not covered by tax revenue. As such, the Field Day stands as the major annual fund raiser for the fire company.

Perhaps as interesting as the economic needs met by this annual party are its social implications. While it has narrowed in recent years, a social and economic gulf between local residents and summer visitors has long existed. Summer people come to stay in their cottages and purchase services, which they expect to be prompt and efficient. Local people offer these services, but the gulf cannot be denied. That is, except on field days. It’s as if the fire department serves as a leveling ground, providing a place where people can meet on neutral ground and, for a fairly brief time, interact on a more equal than usual basis. Captains of industry, construction workers, media moguls, corrections officers, retired military officers, retired town workers, slackers, entrepreneurs, you name it; they’re all here. Some may seem like out of place creatures checking out the “local scene,” but real affection and cordiality is also plainly in evidence. Relationships in this community run deep and old and have a long history. They are complex and convoluted, perhaps more the stuff of a novel than a blog entry. The American story of narrowing the gulf between classes and economic status is writ large in this gathering.

In recent years the KVFD Field Day has become more contained and less wild. The hours have been shortened, beer sales curtailed, kids activities increased, bluegrass music added, and a community party has been established. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Keene Valley Fire Department. You should mark your calendar, too.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Bluegrass Pictures

I haven't posted much bluegrass-related material lately, so I thought I'd put up a set of selected pictures from the last year or so for your pleasure. I hope you enjoy these. Look for some previews and reviews in August.

Bela Fleck and Sam Bush

Chris Thile

Del McCoury

Del McCoury and Sam Bush

Rhonda Vincent

Rhonda Vincent and Bobby Osborne

Rob Ickes

Ron Thomason

Sammy Shelor

Kenny Ingram

Tony Rice

Sam Bush

Earl Scruggs

If you like these, let me know and I'll put up another set.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Promise Me by Harlen Coben - A Review

Promise Me by Harlen Coben, Signet Books, 2007, paper, $9.95,
When you first meet a girl you think might be a good date, you start by working around the edges, feeling your way into meeting and getting to know her as you seek to establish a new relationship. Meeting a writer new to your reading experience is much the same. You nibble around the edges, seeing if the book is one you will want to experience completely. First impressions make a big difference, but sometimes keeping at it turns out to be rewarding. Some authors never make the cut, some grow on you as you get deeper into what they have to offer. Others hit you right away and you want to give them your all. I first started a Harlan Coben novel some years ago and never got past the first chapter. I just put it down and wrote it off. The other day I picked up Promise Me, started reading it, and fell head over heels for Coban’s character Myron Bolitar and the premises of the story. Whether Coban becomes a long term relationship is still up in the air, but for now, I’m going to keep dating him.
Myron Bolitar has been on a seven year break from “helping people” while his creator Harlan Coben has been writing stand alone novels. Now, perhaps because of popular pressure, perhaps because Coben has some new ideas, perhaps because he needs the money, Bolitar gets involved in a new adventure. Bolitar is a graduate of Livingston High School in New Jersey, Duke University, and a enjoyed a brief stint in the NBA before blowing out his knee and becoming first a sports agent and then a representative for all sorts of celebrities, thus widening the scope of venues in which he could intervene. He is surrounded by a compelling group of characters including Win (Windsor Horne Lockwood III) a Duke classmate and now reigning Myron backup psychopath, the lovely Esperanza, a former lady wrestler become secretary, Big Cyndi, and Vera, a transvestite with a bunch of interesting skills. I’m sure there are others that I didn’t meet in this book. Bolitar brings brains, likeability, athletic ability, and a tendancy to leap into situations too quickly. His brains and ability coupled with the lethal skills of his team provide for lots of action sequences and general good fun. Coben is a master of page turning surprises that don’t telegraph themselves and therefore work very well. Right up to the final twist, this book keeps a reader involved and interested.
For anyone who’s spent time in high school, this novel has the capacity to chill to the bone. Life in an upper middle class suburb, the college admissions rat race, the anxiety of hiding from parents and other adults provide the ingredients for an increasingly complex plot line. Myron Bolitar, retired from helping people for seven years, involves himself in the lives of two high school girls by offering to pick them up wherever and whenever with no questions asked merely by calling him. Those of us who have been parents of teenagers recognize this offer as one born of a desire to allow our kids to grow up and become independent while, at the same time, trying to reduce their risk to life and limb. Of course, one of the girls takes him up on the offer and Bolitar becomes involved in a complex web of suburban hell. An aura of menace settles over the comfortable suburbs so many of us grew up in. Local police, school teachers and officials, your typical run of New Jersey tough guys, as well as a wonderfully rendered pair of sociopathic killers known as The Twins, and parents obsessed by their desire for their children’s success help Coben brew up a potent stew of intrigue and confusion. Myron’s growing romance with one of the mothers adds interest to the situation.
I can recommend this book wholeheartedly, but this is a first time out, and I’m not willing to say that Coben should become a steady date. I’ve got another of his books and will get to it pretty soon and will kiss and tell no matter which way it goes.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Archer Mayor's Joe Gunther Novels - A Review

For some reason I’ve waited until now to write anything about Archer Mayor’s Joe Gunther series of police procedurals centered in Vermont. In the past few weeks I’ve read Bellows Falls (Joe Gunther Mysteries), The Disposable Man, and Gatekeeper. Two of these I read in the order in which they were published, while Gatekeeper is situated a little later in the series. When I read from a series of detective novels, I like to read them in chronological order, although doing so isn’t necessary to develop an appreciation of the writing, the characters, the plots, or Mayor’s wonderful sense of place. Despite the fact that his stories take place mostly in Vermont, Mayer is not a regional writer any more than Robert C. Parker whose Spencer lives and works mostly in Boston or than George Pelicanos whose characters live and operate in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. Mayor is merely a first rate writer who writes very good police procedurals.
Joe Gunther is head of the detective squad in Brattleboro, Vermont a small city in southern Vermont along the Connecticut River and on the route of Interstate 91 running north through the state. A town peopled with a variety of characters escaping from both the cities to the south and the rural farms to the north, Brattleboro is home to avaricious business men, ambitious politicians, angry feminists, drug dealers, money launderers, and plenty of others suitable to populate a series of crime novels. Along with the perpetrators come a variety of folks who surround Joe’s daily life, complicating and enriching it. His long-time lover Gail Zigman, Willy Kunkle, a man wounded in both body and soul and a great cop, Sammie Martens, a young and ambitious police woman, and other continuing characters enrich the novels as they develop from book to book.
Gunther is a thoroughly decent man who, though not brilliant, brings a dogged intelligence to his job. He keeps on working until the evil doers are cornered and require Joe’s precipitate action. Often he acts when he should seek support and ends up in life threatening situations filled with tension and danger. Mayer’s skill lies in setting Joe into a situation requiring him to challenge himself morally, intellectually, and physically beyond what he thinks his capabilities are. Gunther always shows a deep respect for his colleagues as well as many of the less fortunate people he encounters whose lives have not been easy and who have found themselves in trouble. Criminals in Gunther’s world tend to come from the extremes of society, while the good and decent folk are often hard working middle class people.
Another underlying theme in Mayor’s work is the effect of politics on the ability of the police to do their jobs. Politically ambitious prosecutors and office holders from the local board of selectmen to the governor’s office often interfere in the administration of justice in order to attain their own political objectives. Sometimes people dedicated to a cause, such as women’s rights, become such active advocates for the needs of their group, that their attitudes or behavior make Joe’s job more difficult. Another force hindering Gunther from doing his job effectively is the press, who’s over aggressive reporting raises resistance to his always pure motives. The obstacles to Gunther’s doing his job effectively accurately mirror the countervailing forces in society that balance the police function and force the police to operate within the constraints of a complex society.
For many years I have lived in states bordering Vermont and one of our sons lives near enough to Brattleboro that locations in these books are near his home. For me, Vermont has provided a bucolic face, each turn in the road offering a postcard pretty vista of cows in a field backed by the gentle, tree covered Green Mountains. In any season, Vermont has seemed to me to be a lovely and friendly place. Mayor has made it a more menacing, dangerous, and interesting locale altogether. For instance, in The Dark Root, an Asian gang is terrorizing the owners of Chinese restaurants while laundering money and immigrants through the frightened owners. I’ve never looked at a small town Chinese eatery in the same way since I read this taught thriller. Similarly, in The Disposable Man, a trendy, rural bed and breakfast becomes the sinister center of international intrigue.
While Mayor’s works are centered in Vermont, his work should not be seen as of merely local or regional interest. I’ve long enjoyed reading the detective fiction of Tony Hillerman, whose books take place on the Navajo reservation near the four corners region, and Michael McGarrity who writes about a police detective in New Mexico. In each case, the author uses local knowledge and a keen understanding of local culture and mores to build interesting and gripping novels. A reader can follow these stories on a road map, but the human map they follow is more universal than the landscape described. Mayor’s novels belong in such company.
The other day I was in a Border’s bookstore in Pennsylvania and found three Mayor novels on the shelves there, but his books are not widely sold outside New England. He says in his web site that he is a “bookstore kind of person” and recommends purchasing books at independent bookstores who are members of a network called book sense. This having been said, his books are readily available through Amazon.com in hard back and paper. I prefer reading them in chronological order, because I like watching the characters develop as their experience changes their perspective on life. Most interesting in this respect is Gunther’s relationship with his lady friend, Gail. It is not, however, necessary to read these delightful books in order to enjoy them. Give Archer Mayor and his character Joe Gunther a try.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell - A Review

Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, Little Brown and Co., NY, 2000, $14.95 (paper)

Are you concerned about how to stop global climate change? Does the increase in world violence frighten you? Do you cringe and wonder how people can do such things when you see pictures on television of another car bomb killing dozens in the streets of some middle-eastern city? When people set off bombs strapped to their bodies, do ask the same question? If you can answer “Yes” to these questions, then The Tipping Point can offer you insights and may even contain the solution. That this important and interesting book is also very readable only makes it even more useful.

Gladwell, who is a staff writer for “The New Yorker,” asserts that ideas, social movements, fashion fads, diseases, television program popularity, and many other elements of the world situation are subject to a set of principles that govern human behavior and make isolated events move into the world of innovators and from their become viral, infecting more and more people until, like spreading infections they die of their own weight. He calls the point at which an event moves from being a more or less isolated phenomenon to being a more important phenomenon “the tipping point.” Using examples culled from the worlds of fashion, medical and psychological research, crime statistics, science, and world news Gladwell helps us to understand how movements large and small develop. Using Big Bird and Hush Puppies as examples, he explains how global terrorism and climate change might be successfully addressed.

Beginning with the example of the remarkable decline in the crime rate in New York City during the 1990’s, Gladwell suggests a set of principles that govern epidemics. He posits three sets of rules that govern all epidemics – The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context. Each of these elements is described and then enriched with numerous and interesting examples that most readers will readily recognize and nod their heads as they apply the examples to their own experience.

The Law of the Few says that any new idea, product, or disease begins with a few key people whom Gladwell divides into three categories: Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen. Mavens are people who have a special interest in a particular event or item about which they become specialists. For example, the early adopters of the Lexus automobile were car people who selected this new automobile because it offered all the qualities a person knowledgeable about cars might want. The adoption by Mavens, however, would not be highly effective if it were not for Connector, people who have a broad network of acquaintances and who communicate with them frequently and effusively about what they see and hear. Salesmen are people who want to share with others the great opportunities that have come their way and do so with huge enthusiasm and conviction. Together these three categories of person move a new idea or enthusiasm from being the province of a chosen few to being known about by thousands or millions of people. Such spreading takes place remarkably fast.

Stickiness is a somewhat more difficult idea to get one’s head around. Some things are more sticky than others. How did “Sesame Street” and “Blue Clues” stick so soundly to children’s attention when many other television shows failed to have an impact on them? Why is the Columbia Record Club with its late night advertising and low profile appeal such a successful way to sell recordings? How do you get university students to go to the health center to get a tetanus booster? Each of these problems can be addressed by paying attention to how to make an idea stick in the conscious or unconscious minds of people. The converse is also addressed. For instance, what could be done to make smoking less sticky and serve to reduce teen smoking? While not once mentioning Osama bin Laden or the use of suicide for political purposes, Gladwell suggests how the virus of what’s called Islamic terrorism has spread and by implication what kinds of approaches might serve to cut them off. Not surprisingly, these approaches are not the ones being used by our government.

The final factor lies in the Context in which events occur. To explain the power of context, Gladwell begins with the example of Bernie Goetz who pulled out a gun and shot four young black men. The context of the subway, the New York crime wave, and Goetz’s personal life combined to make his reaction to harassment by these young men almost inevitable. In another example, Gladwell examines how a fashion maven named Dee Dee Gordon functions to watch how a few young people who are viewed as fashion adopters purchasing clothes from used clothing stores and turning them into fads. From this beginning he explains how Lambesis, a manufacturer of specialty shoes for skate boarders, expanded from the skate board boutiques where it initially flourished into a mass market item and then to collapsing due to its very popularity. Similarly, he explores the spread of more serious concerns like smoking and suicide, using context as the central matter.

The richness of example provided by Gladwell helps us to understand how the tipping point not only explains how things spread, but to think about how to intervene to affect those things. While barely mentioning the Internet, he points to an astute reader the possibility for social networking web sites like Facebook and MySpace and the power of YouTube to spread ideas and behavior faster and wider than has ever before been possible. Because he has chosen such vivid and interesting examples, the book is extremely readable. Because he has taken on a big idea, it is important. This book deserves your attention and will provide enjoyment as you read it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival - Preview

Grey Fox is not a festival for everyone. Let’s start by saying this thirty year old festival is one of the oldest and most respected events in the northeast, if not the country. It features one of the strongest lineups of any festival and enthusiastic participants return year after year, wait in line for up to a month, and create a large, boisterous, and fun-filled community on the top of the Hill from which they jam, party, socialize, and listen to great music.

This year is no exception. Where else can you hear four days of Dry Branch Fire Squad? How about promised jams with The Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still, and the Duhks? (Well, it happened in April at Merlefest, but where else in the northeast?) The music is eclectic, featuring traditional bluegrass bands like James King, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and Michael Cleveland and Flamekeepers, Barefoot Bluegrass, and of course Dry Branch Fire Squad. For those who want to hear traditional bluegrass, Friday is the best day to attend.

A stronger element at this festival is the choice of progressive and innovative bands offered. The Waybacks, Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still, Uncle Earl, Duhks, Biscuit Burners, and The Greencards are just a sample of the superb new, young bands performing as individuals and in combination. Older performers who have led the way in making it possible for these bands to emerge include Sam Bush, Peter Rowan & Tony Rice, Mountain Heart, and more. Also included are bands more difficult to categorize like The Kruger Brothers, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Danny Barnes, and Tony Trischka’s Double Banjo Spectacular. All in all, it’s difficult to find a place where you can hear more or better bands than Grey Fox, except…the hubbub, noise, and freedom of audience self-expression sometimes make it hard to hear and enjoy the music.

Getting a seat on The Hill is a problem for most people attending Grey Fox. A relatively large contingent begins arriving for this festival in late June. They set up camp in a field prepared for them just outside the main entrance starting in late June. By July 18th, when the gates open, there are hundreds of people in line to set up camp at the top of the hill and claim preferred seating areas. These early liners are thus rewarded for waiting in line for weeks. (Note: A great way to gain access and to have a lot of privileges at this festival is to volunteer. Grey Fox volunteers are, appropriately, very well treated.) Last year we arrived in the line at about noon on Thursday and it took nearly three hours for us to move into the quiet camping area, which we preferred. The Hill itself is quite steep, so much so that the rear legs of seats must be dug in to permit flat seating. Festival rules call for low seats and low backs, but these rules are pretty much ignored, making it somewhat more difficult to see, although the steepness of the hill takes much of this problem out of play. Nevertheless, arriving early on the first day the gates were open and hurrying to the hill before even setting up camp, we only found space to place our chairs well behind the sound booth, about forty rows back.

Located on a rather steep hill that is usually farmed as a hay field, Grey Fox is wide open to the elements. Weather is a major factor in this festival almost every year, whether it rains or is clear and hot, the weather affects the experience more than it does many other festivals, even those others held in the open. When the sun shines hot, the hill can be dangerous. Attendees need to keep themselves covered and hydrated. Often hydration is accomplished through the consumption of copious amounts of beer carried in coolers to the performance area. The festival helps here by providing a misting tent, but there is no shade on the hill not provided by people who erect shelters. Rain is actually less of a problem than sunshine as its effects can be more easily mitigated.

Grey Fox web site and promotional materials talk about “The Grey Fox way.” The “Way” suggests a set of guidelines and principles for behavior, which can be lumped together into a sort of golden rule consideration. If these guidelines were followed, Grey Fox would be an ideal festival to attend for all. However, like the sixties communes on which many of these guidelines are based, the Grey Fox Way is adhered to where convenient and ignored whenever it gets in the way of an individual’s doing whatever he or she likes. We found that people shouting out requests and yelling drunkenly to each other in the audience, dancing in front of the stage, smoking tobacco and marijuana, and chatting incessantly rather than listening to the music trod unnecessarily on our enjoyment of the music. While I’m more tolerant of those differences than is Irene, nevertheless, we both deserve to have a full and fun experience.

Vendor’s row at Grey Fox is one of the largest and most diverse of any we see. The food is excellent and not too expensive, but you can still buy a funnel cake. Cash is not accepted at any vendor’s tent, but Grey Fox scrip is sold at a booth and can be redeemed at the end of the festival. People wishing to buy beer in vendor’s row must also get a proof of age wrist band attached. There is a good festival shopping on the hill, too with fine instruments, modish clothing, and stuff for kids. Cash is, as I remember, good at bands’ sales booths. A problem attendant to vendor’s row is the steady rumble that can be heard by spectators sitting on the right side of the sound booth. This steady, busy noise is distracting to wishing to concentrate on listening to the music.

Camping at Grey Fox is truly camping in the rough. There are no fixed facilities available. The festival provides trucks full of fresh water, which you may walk to to draw water and carry back to your campsite, (Perhaps this is why so much beer is consumed. It’s easier to carry to your campsite.) There is a place to take showers, which cost, I think, $5.00. There are three designated camping areas. The top of The Hill is a free for all camping area where people, many of whom have come to Grey Fox since the beginning, set up elaborate camping areas with kitchens, jamming areas, living quarters, and so-on. People claiming space on The Hill are allowed to reserve up to five 20x20 foot areas for their friends to inhabit at a later time. These people also lay down large tarps in the seating area to later come back and dig in their chairs. These compounds may accommodate twenty or more people, but are not walled off with tarps or wall hangings the way they are at Springfest. I understand that multi-story structures will not be permitted this year at Grey Fox. Jamming in this area is permitted 24 hours a day and the number and quality of these jam groups is very high. Below the performance stages is an area called Lower Camping area which has a time limit on jamming, but is still close to the action. About a quarter mile away, down the hill in a large meadow, is an even quieter camping area where little or no sound bleeds over from the sound stage, there is no jamming, and it’s relatively easy to get a good night’s sleep. Regular bus transportation is provided from this area to The Hill. This area is also used as an overflow, so some people camping there are not so enthusiastic about maintaining the quiet, but they responded very cooperatively to a reminder one morning at 2:00 AM. The entire camping area provides very few level spaces. People planning on using some sort of RV should come equipped with plenty of boards and jacks to use for leveling their rigs. Grey Fox claims to limit camping tickets to 4,000 and I see no reason to doubt this, but this many camping units probably translate to more than 10,000 people. In addition, there are many day trippers.

Grey Fox has all sorts of other activities going on in addition to the music. Pete Wernick’s Jam Camp precedes the festival and his jam campers perform from the main stage on Thursday afternoon. At the Masters stage a number of bands and performers talk about their art and give demonstrations. The Grass Roots tent offers clinics and workshops. Last year we attended workshops by Ron Thomason for beginning mandolin players and one by the legendary Bill Keith on banjo. There’s a dance pavilion where first rate bands play for dancers late into the night. This brings up the issue of dancing near the main stage. Since bluegrass in primarily a performance art, it isn’t really designed for dancing, yet many people can’t seem to sit still. While Grey Fox attempts to keep dancers from getting in front of watchers, they still can be a distraction. Because there is so much offered at the dance tent, it seems that those wanting to express their love for the music through movement could confine themselves to doing it at the dance tent. There’s a Family Stage where there are performances aimed at young people as well as a Bluegrass Academy for kids. In other words, there’s plenty to do and many choices to make at Grey Fox.

Having catalogued all the good stuff I have, why won’t we be there? Too loud, too boisterous, too chemical induced, too noisy, too drunk, too much….The Hill. There are some bands that draw us to bluegrass festivals, but they aren’t at Grey Fox this year. Perhaps in another year, we’ll be back for a day or for the whole festival, but this year we’re staying home. That doesn’t mean you should. Perhaps the very issues I raised are the elements attracting you to a festival. We found our interactions with other attendees to be almost all positive, and there is a spirit that pervades this festival. We have spoken to other people, though, who don’t want to go back either as well as those who are highly enthusiastic. Give it a try.

Addendum: An anonymous commenter informs me that I'm mistaken about volunteers getting preference in seating, that they must wait for several hours after the gates open to put down their seats. I've made the appropriate changes in the text.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Infamous Stringdusters CD "Fork in the Road" - Review

The Infamous Stringdusters, for me, have taken a little getting used to, but as I listen to them and begin to get what they’re doing, they grow and grow on me. This talented group of young musicians has hit the bluegrass festival circuit hard, but their music transcends bluegrass while fitting very comfortably into the genre. Having seen them twice now, at the Spirit of Suwannee Bluegrass Festival in Live Oak Florida in March and at the bluegrass festival at Strawberry Park in Preston, CT and listened to their CD, I’ve decided to try a first for this blog and write a review of their CD while trying to look at the band from a larger perspective. Please let me know your reaction to this new effort by leaving a comment at the end of this piece or hitting the e-mail icon and sending me an e-mail reaction.

The Stringdusters are composed of six musicians who, while young, bring a world of experience to their work. Each performer has located in Nashville and they came together from work with other bands and as session musicians. They bring broad experience from a variety of kinds of music within and without bluegrass. Jeremy Garrett, fiddler and in performance the band’s spokesman, has performed with Bobby Osborne, Chris Jones, and Audie Blaylock as well as with country artist Lee Ann Womack, he plays a lively, expressive fiddle as well as contributing as lead singer.

The Stringdusters debut album is called Fork in the Road, aptly named as many of the songs emphasize choices made, both good and bad, and the results of these choices. The strength of the songs work to emphasize the value of whole works rather than individual songs as the structure of this work is thoughtful and thought provoking. The songs touch some of the traditional themes of bluegrass while imbuing them with a sound unique to this band. A traditional murder ballad, a prison song, a longing love song, and a road song each place the story teller in a context expressed both musically and lyrically. The instrumental works feature each instrument and ensemble work in a seamless pattern of complex interaction and massed sound that is wonderful to listen to.

Banjoist Chris Pandolfi has the distinction of being the first person to major in banjo at the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston as well as studying under Tony Trischka. His intricate figures and rolls as well as the careful modulation of his instrument is much more distinct and clear in this recording than it has been in live performance. This has shown me, once again, the importance of sound mixing in the studio and sound engineering in live performances. Pandolfi is an unassuming performer, but the power of his vision and his skill come through clearly in this recording.

The lead-off song of the disk No More to Leave You Behind opens with a plaintive Dobro solo from Andy Hall. The singer comes in saying:

Riding at night through the wind and rain,

Trying to find my way home,

This weary Traveler’s been gone too long,

I return, never more to roam.

This is a road song that could be a cliché if it weren’t for the haunting tone conveyed by the music as the “weary traveler” tries to find his way home to his loved one. The wailing tone – the light in the cabin door, the lonely road, the girl waiting are all themes found in many bluegrass songs, but the tone stands the cliché on its ear, establishing a distinct and delightful Stringdusters sound. A good test of a band lies in its ability to strike a chord and have its audience know immediately what band is coming. This song sets an establishing standard maintained through most of the disk.

The CD/s title song, Fork in the Road, as its name suggests, establishes the theme of choices.

There’s a fork in the road, cain’t seem to make up my mind,

Don’t know which way to go, and I’m still running out of time,

I’m all alone with my suitcase in my hand,

Cain’t find my ticket to the Promised Land,

There’s a fork in the road, cain’t seem to make up my mind.

The singer senses the chill air, finds himself sitting on the fence, and the land of milk and honey isn’t anywhere he can find it. The singer senses the choices coming up symbolized by the fork, but doesn’t know where each leads and is reluctant to make the choice. Jesse Cobb’s mandolin both in his quick and sure solos and his solid chop sets the tone and tempo on this one. Cobb, who’s been around Nashville a while has mostly been a country musician, having worked with Mike Snider, a Grand Ol’ Opry member whose novelty songs are funny and innovative, as well as Melanie Cannon, the Fox Family, and Jim Lauderdale. The transitions from instrument to instrument, including Jeremy Garrett’s sure lead voice is always smooth and sure.

In 3 x 5 the Stringdusters take on bigger stuff. The singer begins by saying, “I’m writing you to…” suggesting separation from his loved one and his desire to share, but as the song develops the 3 x 5 he’s speaking of emerges as the frame of a camera through which he has viewed the world and shared his understanding of it.

Didn’t have a camera by my side this time

Hoping I would see the world through both my eyes,

Maybe I will tell you all about it

When I’m in the mood to lose my way

But let me say you should have seen that sunrise

With your own eyes.

The lyric captures the need to engage the world rather than erecting a wall between self and experience, or between two people. If we’re together, we can really share by not having the camera, or anything, between us. Thus 3 x 5 becomes a metaphor for what separates people from each other. The music, gentle and reflective, mirrors the lyric, without ever taking attention away from the song’s message. Rather, it intensifies it and amplifies it. The singer concludes that “Today I finally overcame trying to put the world inside a picture frame.”

40 West is an instrumental suggesting the speed and lack of control on the Interstate Hiway running straight through Nashville. The highlight here is Chris Eldridge’s stunning guitar break. Eldridge in performance seems to drift inside himself, his face registering his pleasure or self recriminations as his fingers fly along the fret board. Chris comes from a family distinguished for its contributions to innovation in bluegrass. His father, Ben Eldridge, is one of the founding members of The Seldom Scene and continues to play his remarkable banjo with them after more than thirty years. His own experience is deep, too. He has toured with The Seldom Scene, studied under Tony Rice, and appears on Chris Thile’s How to Grow a Band disk. At Springfest in Life Oak, FL this past March he sat in with several bands, always making his presence felt.

In another instrumental, Moon Man, Chris Pandolfi’s genius emerges as here he is mixed in a way that seldom, if ever, happens in live performance. Travis Book, on bass, provides a lively solo as well as his customary strong beat. At one point he uses his bass as a drum. Jeremy Garrett’s fiddle soars, growls, and howls in this one – melodic and somehow threatening at once. There is, however, such strong ensemble work that the individual virtuosity is always subordinated to band excellence, yielding a unified and consistent total sound.

Poor Boy's Delight has been the most requested song on this album. The singer asks:

Would you dance with me Molly?

Do you think it be wrong,

If you let down your hair,

Let them play us a song?

Come dance with me Molly,

You got nothing to lose,

But to dance off the soles,

Of your old dancin’ shoes.

This song communicates all the longing, yearning, chaste desire, and soulfulness of a young man in love with what he fears is unattainable. We never learn whether Molly deigns to dance with him or he goes of unfulfilled, but it doesn’t matter. The instrumentals once again never strike a wrong note in supporting and extending the power of the lyric. Andy Hall's precise and inventive dobro is always tasteful and provides a depth of sound that strikes just the right note. This song captures for each of us a dark, quiet night in our youth where hope and wonder cross paths with beauty.

Much bluegrass music treats unhappy subjects with music sending the opposite message by insisting on staying upbeat and happy. While the Stringdusters don’t give up the speed of traditional bluegrass or its themes, their sound is often darker, more menacing, and sadder, perhaps reflecting the uncertainties of today’s life in a fuller and more true fashion than the prison, murder, and lost love songs of an earlier day did. Their music communicates a palpable
sense of loss and tragedy while always leaving room for hope and the future. It’s tempting to want to write about each of the cuts on this remarkable debut album. This is one to purchase in its complete form as the whole complements each of the parts and comes out offering more than any single offering. The Infamous Stringdusters have set a high standard for themselves to maintain, but it appears that the talent and will are there.

The Infamous Stringdusters record for Sugar Hill and you can order their CD here. You can sample three of their songs here or here.