Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Coot-Williams Road Bluegrass Festival - Cherryville, NC - Preview

We've spent most of the summer attending large bluegrass festivals where most of the bands appearing have been THE headliner band at other, smaller events.  Such festivals are well-designed to help attendees maximize their entertainment dollar in these difficult economic times.  The two day Coot Williams Bluegrass Festival, running on September 9 - 10 at Coot Williams Road in Cherryville, NC is, however, much more like the kind of smaller festivals that have, since the very beginning, provided the bedrock for bluegrass festivals. It features a couple of well-known national bands and a variety of rising regional and local bands seeking performance opportunities either as an opening to bluegrass careers or performing within their local area to fans and friends who know and like them, and who wish to support their music. Tickets for the two day event are $30 in advance.  Further information can be found here

John and Linda Hunsucker - Promoters
Promoters John and Linda Hunsucker have placed the pleasant tent and stage only a couple of hundred yards below their home in a natural bowl.  Dry campers can ring the spacious area along a tree line and there's plenty of space for day parkers within a very short walk.  A food shed provides tasty, home-cooked food.prepared by local organizations.  Using their imagination to help enlarge the supply of  local and regional  bands, they are sponsoring a Battle of the Bands event the the Saturday (Sept. 4)  prior to the Coot Williams festival.  First and second place bands at this event will earn slots at the next weekend's Coot Williams Festival. 

There will be a Jam and Supper on Thursday evening.  Friday's festivities open at 5:00 PM.  The evening's headliner will be The Darin & Brooke Aldridge Band.  With a CD that has reached the Bluegrass Unlimited charts and two songs in the top thirty list of BU, this band, which is based in Cherryville, has reached national prominence by dint of their talent, hard work, and commitment.

Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Darin & Brooke's band, with its roots deep in southern gospel, has had a very successful touring season on the bluegrass festival trail, with appearances at Strawberry Park in Connecticut, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, and Red, White & Bluegrass in North Carolina, among many others this year.  They have appeared in a track-by-track radio program with Kyle Cantrell on Sirius/XM radio.  Their tuneful program, Brooke's stunning voice, Darin's playing, singing, and songwriting, and the band's power have combined to bring audiences to their feet and their name before the public with increasing frequency this year.   

The Darin & Brooke Aldridge Band

Deeper Shade of Blue

Deeper Shade of Blue is a regional North Carolina Band which also has its feet in gospel and has performed at festivals and concerts throughout the region.  They feature first rate picking and the strong, traditional tenor voice of Troy Pope on lead guitar.  Jim Fraley on banjo and his son Jason on mandolin are strong, as is founding member Brian Hinson on bass.  

Jim Fraley

Local band Unspoken Tradition will also appear on Friday.  This band is interesting because its members were all students of Darin Aldridge's and they came together during jam sessions at the legendary Bomb Shelter, a noted local jam site often mentioned in Dr. Tom Bibey's web log and found only by those who know where to look.  The Catawba Valley Youth Band will also play on both days.

The Main Tent

Saturday offers a good variety of touring bands in addition to a strong selection of local offerings. The Goldwing Express, a Branson style show band which has developed a strong fan base despite not receiving air play on bluegrass radio, will feature its blend of family humor, familiar songs, and over-the-top patriotic fervor which puts fans in the seats at festivals everywhere.

The GoldWing Express

Bill Yates and the Country Gentlemen Tribute Band sounds remarkably like Charlie Waller, and their program pays tribute to the many great songs the Country Gentlemen brought to us during the Waller years will perform on Saturday.

Wayne Taylor & Appaloosa

Perhaps the most interesting band to take the stage on Saturday will be Wayne Taylor & Appaloosa.  Taylor retired a couple of years ago from Country Current, and began touring with his current band about eighteen months ago.  The band will be releasing its first CD within the next couple of weeks and will be showcasing at official and after hours events at the upcoming IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) meetings in Nashville.  They have appeared to very appreciative audiences at a number of festivals this spring and fall, and their bookings continue to increase.  At Gettysburg they sang a combination of familiar Wayne Taylor songs from his Country Current Days, newer or previously less frequently performed works from his catalog, and a fine bluegrass setting of a Bob Dylan song.  Taylor has one of the finest lead voices in bluegrass and his flat picking is very solid.  The band, featuring mandolin virtuoso Emory Lester and the able, young banjo player Lee Marcus, becomes tighter and stronger with each performance.  Keen Hyatt on bass is strong, too.  This band will be receiving strong responses from festival fans and from CD sales during the coming year.  This small event represents an excellent chance to see and hear them now.

Wayne Taylor

Vendor's Row

The Food Shed

Cane Creek, a busy bluegrass band from South Carolina, will also be appearing on Saturday as will the first place winner of the Labor Day Weekend Battle of the Bands.  The Coot Williams Bluegrass Festival will provide a good transition into the post Labor Day season with its combination of well-known national bands and solid local and regional groups.  Here's how to get there.
Map To Coot Williams Road

Join promoters John and Linda Hunsucker for a weekend of good bluegrass music.  I look forward to meeting you there.


Monday, August 30, 2010

Giving Back - The Importance of IBMA

The following essay is an edited version of a column I wrote for the Welcoming Page of the California Bluegrass Association.

The Annual World of Bluegrass Conference and Fan Fest of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) will be rolling around within a few short weeks and the voting for IBMA awards is nearly complete as you read this. The opportunity to vote to the IBMA awards is enjoyable, but not terribly important in the larger scheme of things. But membership and taking an active role in your professional organization, if you’re a bluegrass person, is. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about giving back to bluegrass and the importance of developing a sense of professionalism. Here are some of my thoughts.

When we became involved in bluegrass music, only about eight years ago, we were amazed at the welcome we received and the warmth of that reception. An example would be the reaction of bands to Irene’s offer to cover their merch tables while they were performing. The first time she offered, Mike Andes of Nothin’ Fancy thanked her, told her the prices and handed her the cash box. These days, bands blithely leave her with several hundred dollars in cash and all their merchandise while they perform, or even go rest. Where else? Meanwhile, my photography and writing have gained readership and, I hope, respect. While we both pick a little, we’re a long way from being bluegrass musicians, but we find ourselves a part of a community we value, cherish, and want to continue contributing to in some fashion. I don’t think we’re much different from many people who discover the genre.

As a profession, bluegrass music is somewhat different from others. The biggest difference lies in the fact there are no standards for entrance. Entering other professions (teaching, law, medicine, plumbing, hair cutting and styling, electrical work, and many other skilled trades) requires applicants to complete certain educational goals, pursue an apprenticeship, and/or take a test in order to get a license to practice. No such standards apply in bluegrass. Go to some festivals, form a band, play at open mics, enter a few contests, play a few gigs at the local old folks home, get booked for a gig at the local live music joint, open for a touring headliner and, lo and behold, you’re a professional bluegrass musician; part of a flourishing and exciting sub-genre of country music.

Bands that are good enough may gain local and then regional recognition, sometimes even being asked to travel to events. At some point, the ones who begin to stand out have to decide whether to “go for it” by becoming full time touring musicians or remain within more limited parameters. Some achieve remarkable success and become icons of our music; others manage to make a living, while many more continue to provide genuine pleasure to many people, especially including themselves in jams around fires or in their living rooms, in local or regional settings. All that being true, there are no standards. Almost all professional bluegrass musicians began as field pickers at fiddler’s conventions and festivals. It may be one of the truest meritocracies in America.

This lack of entry requirements also may lead to a split between the touring bands and local or regional bands, which also perform. Think for a moment about a similar, though certainly not exact, difference between the PGA and the PGA tour. Teaching golf professionals and people who compete in local and regional tournaments are usually far removed from the skills and problems of touring golf professionals, yet each group considers themselves to be pro’s. There are certainly shared concerns among bluegrassers like health care, coordination of festival dates, ability to plan pensions, creating reasonable fee structures, and many others. But there are also elements of competition, distrust, jealousy and secrecy keeping such cooperation from even beginning to occur in many places. The various elements in the bluegrass community including musicians, promoters, publishers, broadcasters, luthiers, and most certainly fans all have an interest, and, in bluegrass, a voice. Imagine giving fans a vote in the American Medical Association! Yet avid fans must only join IBMA in order to become active, voting members with a voice in this large, but scattered and often conflicted community.

This brings us back to IBMA. I’ll start with this: not everyone is going to be happy with every decision IBMA makes. They may wish the event were still held in Owensboro or Louisville. Many people may think the festival is too expensive, or too Nashville oriented, or encourages music that is not really bluegrass, or that the awards ceremony doesn’t select the right people, or jamming is discouraged, or, or, or. But in the end, the International Bluegrass Music Association is your professional organization if you’re involved in bluegrass music. It seeks to make health care more easily and affordably available to you. It raises and invests funds to help distressed elderly musicians. It holds meetings and conducts seminars designed to help members of the bluegrass community become more effective at doing their jobs, particularly in marketing their music in these fast changing times. It encourages and develops new leadership from within its ranks. And it holds an annual convention which is a musical and social feast for professionals and fans at every level from within the community. And you can be a part of it all by determining to be a part of the profession rather than apart from it.

You can become a part of all this by deciding to pay annual dues of $75 for a professional membership or $40 for a grass roots membership and starting to give back to the music which has given you so much pleasure in so many ways. A person who has been with NPR for many years once told me fans come up and say, “I’ve been listening to you for years, but I’ve never given NPR a cent.” They say it with a note of pride, as if they were getting away with something. Most of us benefit in some way by the work and efforts of IBMA. The benefits increase in proportion with our willingness to become a part of this worthwhile and lively organization. As with any sort of organization or relationship, the seeds of growth and development need to be cultivated and nurtured to come to full fruition. It’s time for all of us to help cultivate this growing, vibrant, and living organization.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival 2010 - Sunday and Final Assessment

Late on Sunday morning at Gettysburg we started preparing for our trip home.  As I walked into the day lot to drop some chairs off in our truck, I glanced at the license plates on the cars there - West Virginia, Virgninia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, D.C., Ohio, and our lonely New Hampshire one.  Within a few hours drive of at least thirty million people, Granite Hill Campground, only a few miles west of the town of Gettysburg provides a nearly ideal site for a bluegrass festival.  The beautiful, spacious, and remarkably uncluttered stage is one of the best to be found anywhere.  As a photographer, I've never seen a better one for getting great images of performers against a background of warm, welcoming, natural wood.  The ground slopes gently up away from the stage giving excellent sight lines from every distance.  There's plenty of room for those attending this festival to spread out in comfort while still being close enough to see well.  Vendor's, including food, gifts, and instruments, are well placed for easy access, and there's plenty of covered viewing space for those wishing to avoid direct sunlight.  The pool sparkles and glistens just a few feet away from the stage, while the pond and old farm buildings behind it offer a setting the supports the music.  The campground itself is spacious and well-appointed.  Sites are mostly grassy and natural, but there are a few level full hook-up sites available for campers wishing fuller amenities.  Promoter Rich Winkleman, having succeeded his father-in-law as promoter of the twice yearly Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival a couple of years ago, says he still has much to learn, but this event was professionally run, well thought through, and seriously customer friendly.  The lineup was nothing short of superb!  There can always be quibbles over small issues, but this event gives great value for the price and stands at or near the top of eastern bluegrass festivals.

Rich Winkleman

The day opened with a slight drizzle that grew to, perhaps, ten minutes of rain before the expected "cold" front came through clearing the sky and leaving fleecy clouds and lowering humidity for the remainder of the day.  The slight rain provided fodder for those regulars who told us it "always rains at Gettysburg," while we marveled at a festival so generally dry and pleasant.  We never took out our rain gear nor put on warm clothes during the weekend.  Not bad....

Dry Branch Fire Squad

As they do at a number of events where they are a featured band, Dry Branch Fire Squad presented a Sunday morning gospel performance notable for the non-sectarian nature of its message.  In his message Ron Thomason made what sounded to me like a strong pleas for greater tolerance for our difficult to distinguish immigrant population, which may have been missed by many there.  His closing rendition of "If I Could Just Touch" ended with the audience rising and singing the refrain along with the band in a truly moving moment.

Ron Thomason

Betsy Voss

What often seems like small details are the core of creating a fine bluegrass festival.  In these difficult economic times, too many promoters seek to save money on two of the most important elements.  Saving a few hundred, or even a few thousand, dollars in a less than top notch sound company is never a good idea.  Every performer coming off the stage and talking where it didn't much matter spoke of the excellent sound provided by Southard Audio.  Artists commented that they could hear themselves very well on stage and we, in the audience, were treated to a uniformly high quality audio experience.  The second important element that the promoter assure there will be regularly pumped and clean porta-potties, or whatever other less colorful name you wish to assign to them.  My experience was that these were pumped daily and there were plenty of them.

The James King Band

The James King Band arrived tired after a four day trip that took them from their base in Virginia to Maine to Virginia and to Gettysburg.  The economics of bluegrass make it essential for a touring band to hit too many gigs on a weekend during the festival season, but good scheduling makes travel considerably less taxing.  Nevertheless, James and his band put on a spirited performance with plenty of the "sad, pitiful" songs James specializes in.   

James King

Ron Spears

Tony Mabe

Bobby Davis
Kids Academy

The Gettysburg Kids Academy worked on a variety of skills for two and a half days.  They had a chance to  strut their stuff on Sunday, and strut it they did.  The Kids were well schooled by the very capable staff and acquitted themselves well.  Here are a few pictures from that performance.  Below is a key to a web album you can access to download a full set of pictures from the Kids Academy Performance for your own use.

Kids Academy Parents

Raffle to Support Kids Academy
Seldom Scene

The Seldom Scene switched tracks for its Sunday set, presenting a lot of their sweet sounding harmonies and good cheer.  A wonderful set.  
Dudley Connell
Ben Eldridge
Lou Reid
Fred Travers
Wayne Taylor & Appaloosa

Wayne Taylor has been on the bluegrass trail long enough to have established himself and his music as separate and distinct from his time spent with the U.S. Navy Band Country Current and is close enough to his time there to continue to honor and support his commitment to the military through his singing and the continued service of his family.  His second band album will be released in a month or so featuring his current touring band with no guest musicians.  If the portions of it sung and played at Gettysburg are a good indication, this CD should help establish Taylor as a significant emerging artist on his own.  The body of solid work he has written combined with his taste in song selection and leadership in his excellent band all speak to his successful future.  Emory Lester on mandolin has long been an acknowledged master of his instrument.  Young Lee Marcus from South Carolina has emerged as a subtle and accomplished banjo player as well as an able harmony singer.  Keene Hyatt on bass comes from a jazz background and has adapted well to playing bluegrass bass with flair and imagination.  This is a band to look for at your local festival and to book for next season.

Wayne Taylor
Emory Lester
Lee Marcus

Keen Hyatt

Nothin' Fancy
Nothin' Fancy is a long-established bluegrass band featuring the solid baritone voice of lead singer and frequent song writer Mike Andes and a polished group of entertaining and accomplished musicians who have worked together long enough to present their humorous routines with verve and polish.  The humorous musical playing and physical comedy of fiddler Chris Sexton and banjo player Mitchell Davis play off against each other and Andes to create delightful byplay.  Tony shorter joins in and tenor Gary Faris is often the straight man.  Nothin' Fancy has a large fan base, making them a very strong band to close this festival on Sunday, often not an enviable job, but well done by them this week.  

Mike Andes
Chris Sexton

Mitchell Davis
Gary Faris

Tony Shorter
Faris, Sexton & Andes

As we headed out for the long drive north to New Hampshire, we reflected on the high quality of the weekend.  One way or another, we'll be back.