Friday, May 31, 2013

Strawberry Park 2013 - Thursday

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival combines one of the best natural amphitheaters found anywhere with sound by Cobra Sound to produce some of the most watchable and listenable bluegrass available. Combine that with a family friendly environment and you have a setting for a fine weekend of bluegrass that has survived much to continue into its thirty-sixth year. Thursday was warm and a little muggy, providing a comfortable climate well into the evening attended by an excellent, knowledgeable opening evening audience who recognized excellence and recognized it with applause and standing calls for "More!"

The Usual Suspects Begin to Assemble
in the Jamming Area

Dale Ann Bradley

The great Dale Ann Bradley opened and closed Thursday's show. Five time and reigning IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year, Dale Ann continues to have one of the clearest and most vibrant voices in bluegrass while a new confidence seems to be present in her performances. The addition of lifelong friend and frequent singing partner Steve Gulley on bass, singing harmony, and contributing his own solos has relieved Dale Ann of some of the pressures of having the whole show on her shoulders, freeing her to sing even better.  It was also a real pleasure to hear  Dale Ann in a solo performance on the Americana/workshop stage sing some of her favorite songs as well as requests. Accompanying herself, seated and interacting informally with a too small audience, she was simply superb.  Dale Ann Bradley is a true treasure to bluegrass music.

 Dale Ann Bradley

 Steve Gulley

Vic Graves

 Greg Hodge

Jason Burleson

 Dale Ann

The Workshop Stage 

Hot Mustard

 Hot Mustard is a somewhat unusual band in that it features two - count them...two, banjos. With Bruce Stockwell, a virtually unknown, except among the top banjo players in the country, banjo master and his former student Bill Jubett on banjo, it works. April Hobart Jubett, fresh back from childbirth, is a fine traditional singer, and Bruce's wife Kelly has become an excellent bass player. The band is well-liked regionally, and deserves further attention.

Bruce Stockwell

Kelly Stockwell

Bill & April Jubett

 Baby Jane Jubett & Grandmother
at her First Festival

 Dave "Tex" and Robin Orlamoski

The Honeydew Drops

This engaging folk duo,  Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish, presented a low keyed, pleasant set, and will be seen on the Americana/Folk Stage on Friday. Based in southwestern Virginia, they combine a mountain sensibility with a contemporary feel.

 Laura Wortman

Kagey Parish

 Kathy and James


Grasstowne, when it was formed, seemed like a great idea. Three well-known bluegrass pickers with impeccable musical pedigrees coming together to create their own unique sound. As so often happens, the reality, despite artistic recognition, didn't quite jell. Of the three, Alan Bibey has stayed with the sound and vibe of Grasstowne, while changing personnel and looking for that elusive something that helps it to take off. With its current configuration and interesting interpersonal interactions, Grasstowne is poised to accomplish it's goal, if they can be heard and seen enough to make it happen. Alan Bibey, long recognized as one of the premier stylists among mandolin players, remains at the top of his game. His new CD with friend Wayne Benson serves to confirm this, and a new Grasstowne CD is being released in the next few weeks.New singer Blake Johnson has a remarkable bluesy voice. Veterans Adam Haynes and Justin Jenkins are both fine pickers and harmony singers. Kameron Keller on bass is steady as a rock. If you haven't paid attention to Grasstowne recently, now's the time. 

 Alan Bibey

Blake Johnson

Adam Haynes

Kameron Keller

 Alan Bibey

 Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival appears to be successfully coping with changes in ownership and leadership. The Park is being spruced up and the lineup is as strong as ever, with a blend on varied national bands, local favorites, and new entries. It's going to be hot here in more ways than weather for the next three days.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Junius and Albert's Adventurres in the Confederacy by Peter Carlson - Book Review

Junius & Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey by Peter Carlson (Public Affairs, 2013, 288 pages, $26.99) tells of a harrowing journey through the Confederacy by two newspaper reporters both working for Horace Greeley's abolitionist newspaper, the New York
Tribune. Written from the unusual on-the-ground perspective of two newspaper reporters rather than the elevated one represented by great Civil War chronicles like The Battle Cry of Freedom, Grant's Autobiography, or Shelby Foote's great three volume history of the Civil War, Junius & Albert depicts both the adventure and the suffering of life for a Yankee newsman held captive in the Confederacy during its long decline and eventual fall. As employees of Greeley, the two intrepid newsmen were incarcerated in horrific prisons, but often received somewhat better treatment than the average soldier might. The book captures the early insouciance as well as the dawning horror of being prisoners behind enemy lines through the eyes of two very good writers who could tell the story better, perhaps, than a soldier writing home to his wife.

Junius Henri Browne, born in Cincinnati, attended the local Jesuit school and college where he developed the rhetorical skills and requisite skepticism to become a reporter. He studied philosophy for fun. Albert Dean Richardson came from Franklin, MA, growing up on the hereditary family farm, which he gratefully left when he was seventeen, heading west. A voracious reader, he became a reporter in Pittsburgh before moving to Cincinnati. The two met in 1853 as 19 year old reporters for rival Cincinnati newspapers and became fast friends. Richardson covered the emerging conflict in “bleeding” Kansas, and was later hired by the Tribune to cover the west.

On Lincoln's election to the Presidency, Richardson became an undercover reporter for the Tribune in the South, covering Memphis, New Orleans, Jackson (MS), and reported on a slave auction and the secession convention. When Ft. Sumter fell, he was the last Tribune reporter to return to New York, whereupon he was assigned as Tribune chief reporter in the West. When he moved to Cairo, IL, he immediately hired Browne. The two men covered Grant's campaign on the Mississippi, the fall of Ft. Henry and Ft. Donnelson, and then tried to join Grant south of Vicksburg for the coming campaign. Perched on a hay barge trying to run the Vicksburg heights, the two men were bombarded off their barge and captured by the Confederate army, beginning their long sojourn.

Unlike many Civil War accounts, both military and political, this book views the war through the eyes of two war correspondents who were both adventuresome and fine writers. It adopts a tone of adventure while not stinting the drama, danger, and death on the battlefield, nor boredom between engagements. Richardson's ability to gain access to high ranking people through his charm often meant that they were in a privileged position to watch and report on officers in key moments. Richardson was at Antietam and wrote later about McClellan's reluctance to chase Lee across the Potomac, which may have hastened Lincoln's firing of the general and issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. After Sherman ejected a journalist who was writing about the army, Richardson appealed directly to the President for freedom of the press. He wrote a portrait about their meeting which successfully painted a picture of Lincoln's subtle political skill as well as being a man of great humility and humor.

After Browne and Richardson were paroled from prison in Vicksburg, they were sent to Libby Prison in Richmond to await exchange for Confederate prisoners and return to Union territory. They were treated relatively well, however, the Confederate agent of prisoner exchange, Robert Ould, consistently refused to exchange the Yankee journalists who worked for archenemy abolitionist Horace Greeley at the New York Tribune. From this point on, Richardson and Browne's incarceration become increasingly difficult as, after the fall of Vicksburg and the Battle of Gettysburg, conditions in the Confederacy continued to disintegrate. The two journalists were transferred to the prison at Salisbury, NC,  where, after Andersonville in Georgia, the prison with the worst conditions in the South for Union prisoners existed.

At Salisbury, Richardson worked in the prison hospital, while Browne cared for the sick and dying soldiers outdoors where they lived under light tents or dug holes to burrow into for some relief from the bitter cold. While, as usual, their circumstances were somewhat more comfortable than the average prisoner of war, life at Salisbury was never easy. As conditions worsened the need to escape to freedom became ever stronger. They soon discovered an underground organization of Union sympathizers called The Heroes of America. Salisbury lies on the western edge of North Carolina's Piedmont region, not too far from the foothills of the Smokey Mountains. The mountain region of western North Carolina and Virginia as well as East Tennessee and eastern Kentucky had never been slave territory and was deeply divided about the Confederacy. Throughout this region, small militias of slave catchers, bushwackers, pro-Union soldiers, and others criss-crossed the mountains, fighting and pillaging. The story of their journey across the mountains to Knoxville shows both their courage and determination.

Peter Carlson

Presented with both a both a sense of adventure, devotion to a cause, and high good humor, this riveting tale is well worth reading. Peter Carlson is the author of K Blows Top, which has been optioned for a feature film. For 22 years, he was a reporter and columnist for the Washington Post and is now a columnist at American History magazine. He has also written for Smithsonian, Life, People, Newsweek, The Nation, and The Huffington Post. He lives in Rockville, MD.

 Junius & Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy: A Civil War Odyssey by Peter Carlson (Public Affairs, 2013, 288 pages, $26.99) provides readers with an exciting view of life in the South during the Civil War through the eyes of two journalists who traveled and were later imprisoned there. I received the book in electronic galley format from the publisher via Net Galley. I read it on my Kindle.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick - Book Review

Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2013, 416 pages, $32.95) successfully fills a gap between Philbrick's own fine book Mayflower and books like David McCoullough's 1776 Ron Chernow's fine biography of George Washington by describing in detail the events surrounding the Battle of Bunker Hill and the siege of Boston during the period 1774 to 1776. Philbrick draws a direct line from the Mayflower Pilgrims he detailed in his earlier book through 150 years of increasing freedom, wealth, and independence to become the unruly and independent crowd know as the patriots and the Founding Fathers. He shows the colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as resentful of reasonable taxes assessed by Parliament to pay for administrative costs of maintaining their colony and details the increasing resentment leading to anger and violence ginned up by John Adams, Sam Adams, Joseph Warren and others. The parallels (and differences) between the efforts of the Patriots of Massachusetts and the today's latter day Tea Party are obvious, placing those of the eighteenth century in a better light.

As Britain seeks to control the colonists and pay for the expense of governing them, the colonists engage in a series of town meetings at Fanueil Hall and in all the New England colonies that define and refine the meaning of being an American as it emerged in their concept of shared decision making and consensus development. The book emphasizes how the culture of the town meeting affected both civil and military decision making in helping to forge the American character. They were seeking their own independence without recognizing the goal. The similarities to today's Tea Party are too obvious, as the colonist's leaders use the Stamp Act and the Port Act as “opportunities to to exploit” local anger at Britain rather than as problems amenable to a reasonable solution. As the colonists become increasingly aware of their sense of isolation from Britain along with differences that have developed between them and the mother country over the past century and a half,their anger increases and their determination to resist reaches new levels. The Boston Massacre becomes a symbol of the increasing tension and violence in the situation.

The events detailed in Bunker Hill concentrate on three seminal events which occurred after the occupation of Boston by the British in 1774, the British expedition to seek to eliminate supposed stores of gunpowder in Concord leading to the battles of Lexington and Concord, their Pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill in 1775, and the Siege of Boston under the newly appointed commander of the Patriot army, George Washington in 1775. Philbrick relies on contemporary accounts, diaries of both British and American participants, and other extensive research in his riveting account. He details the importance of the lesser known Dr. Joseph Warren, who might have emerged as a political and leadership rival of Washington, had he not been killed at Bunker Hill. Warren's balanced view and mature understanding of both the Patriots and the British helped avoid war for a time and then helped engage in the early hostilities as they became inevitable.

As the redcoats approached Lexington, the militia assembled, Philbrick says, not to oppose the Stamp Act or other legislation, but to assure their freedom. “It was a sense of promise that made the militiaman's resolve to oppose these troops all the more powerful.” However, he continues, it must be remembered that the freedoms that inspired them were for people just like them, as loyalists, though born and nurtured in America, were not heeded. His descriptions of the massed British troops marching in their red coats and the Patriot minute men fighting guerrilla style from behind stone walls during the British retreat to Boston confirm the mythology we have all grown up with.

The descriptions are vivid. The text reads with a narrative style that's lively and suspense filled, even when the reader knows the outcomes. The history laden characters (Hancock, Warren, both John and Sam Adams, Gates, and, later, Washington) all take on human form. Post-holing history provides the kind of detail that brings it to life when the reader is ready. This book becomes more meaningful with a solid background in the biographies of George Washington and John Adams as well as the broader reading in more superficial overviews of the flow of the revolution and the development of America. After 150 years of living an independent British life, the colonists had developed a society relying more on competence than on birthright. After generations spent defeating the Indians and subduing the land, they had become independent in spirit, a spirit which was ready to spend the next eight years establishing full independence and begin to occupy and exploit the entire continent which they had become heirs to.

While the Battle of Bunker Hill, which actually centered by mistake on Breed's Hill and poor leadership, a short but crucial distance away, represented a British victory, it proved to be a Pyrrhic one, as they were never able afterwards to sally out of Boston successfully. British casualties were large and the psychological effect they suffered was even greater as they realized that they were fighting their own countrymen on foreign soil. The Battle of Bunker Hill convinced the British that they must eventually abandon Boston for New York or further south and invade the colonies should they hope to salvage them. Before George Washington arrived as the new commander of the colonists, the British had decided to leave.

The appointment of George Washington as commander in chief represented a changeover from a relatively local insurrection to the development of a national cause uniting the various colonies. Washington's well-documented disdain for the New Englanders is balanced in this account by the understanding that they were not easily persuaded to accept the command of a leader who looked so much like the people they were seeking to defeat. Washington's development as a leader, his ability to control his own strong, previously almost ungovernable, emotions, in order to marshal the talents of the New England leadership and soldiery were crucial to his later leadership at Valley Forge, Trenton, and onward. The siege of Boston and the building of breast works on Dorchester Heights inevitably drove the British from the city and led to the next steps in a war that might have been won sooner had sufficient gunpowder been available for them to defeat the British in New England. 

Nathaniel Philbrick

Nathaniel Philbrick's account of the events surrounding the Battle of Bunker Hill provides an essential linchpin for understanding the development of the American Revolution in a context of a growing sense of the colonist's vision of themselves as a separate people. It is highly readable with a narrative style that draws the reader forward while never sacrificing accuracy. Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2013, 416 pages, $32.95) is fully annotated, deeply researched, taughtly written. A fine book. I received Bunker Hill from the publisher as an electronic galley through Edelweiss.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Gettysburg 2013 - Sunday & Final Assessment

Sunday at bluegrass festivals often bleeds attendees as they head home for church, Sunday chores, and to prepare for the dreaded Monday morning. Gettysburg has two features on Sunday morning that many die hard fans build into their schedules. Dry Branch Fire Squad has appeared at all 66 iterations of this classic festival while The Seldom Scene has been to nearly that many. For this Sunday, Dailey & Vincent were chosen to close with a long set beginning at 4:25 PM. This generated the largest crowd I've ever seen on Sunday at any festival except Merlefest and thus introduced many people to our surprise band of the festival, Steel Wheels. More about them later. Let's get on with the show.

The day dawned still dripping and misty from last night. Sunday breakfast back stage was quiet as people began to assemble for Dry Branch Fire Squad's traditional Sunday gospel show.

Ron Thomason & Tom Boyd at Breakfast

 Chris Lauer, backstage major domo, and Irene

Dry Branch Fire Squad

 For over thirty-five years Ron Thomason has been serving up his unique combination of topical satiric humor, primitive gospel songs, and socially conscious bluegrass songs about life in the mines and the poor hollers of Appalachia. He's never missed a Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. At every appearance since his son left to serve in Iraq (he's since returned in fine shape), Ron has sung the Civil War song "He's Coming To Us Dead" with conviction, and often obvious pain. This morning's rendition seems particularly heartfelt. He talks with deep conviction about the importance of the military for protecting our rights, which we, as voters, may be willing to give away. Agree or not, Ron Thomason generates thinking about the basic assumptions many of us live under.

Ron Thomason

Dan Russell

Brian Aldridge

Brian Aldridge & Tom Boyd

If I Could Just Touch the Hem of His Garment


Circa Blue

Promoter Rich Winkleman often successfully mines the under-exploited bluegrass resources of West Virginia. Circa Blue, whose name is most aptly chosen, is one of these bands. Circa Blue's music is an enjoyable blend of bluegrass and bluegrass related songs and covers with a good deal of humor. 

Steve Harris

Ron Webb

Gaven Largen

Matt Hickman

Lorne Sprague

Marty Raybon & Full Circle

Marty Raybon brought his wonderful voice and a good young band along with reliable veteran bass man Randy Barnes. He sang plenty of bluegrass as well as well-loved songs from his days in country music with Shenendoah.  Marty's a good emcee and has some amusing stories to tell as well as a bunch of great songs.

 Marty Raybon

 ? - Help

Zach Rambo

Chris Wade

Randall Barnes

Seldom Scene

The Seldom Scene has a long history as a much sought after bluegrass band. Initially begun in 1971 by a group of D.C. musicians who preferred not to tour widely, they created a new sound drawing on folk, pop, and rock influences to transmogrify into bluegrass. They were originally seen as revolutionary, but over time their repertoire has become standard. Their catalog of songs is wide and deep, and their fans know it and want to hear the great songs from the eighties and nineties. There's a rumor that the current edition of The Scene is headed for the studio again.

Dudley Connell

Fred Travers

The Elusive Ronnie Simpkins

Ben Eldridge
The Only Remaining Original Member

Lou Reid

Betsy Voss - Die Hard Fan

Frank Baker - Photographer for Bluegrass Today

Steel Wheels

We were at Merlefest 2011 where we heard Steel Wheels from the Cabin Stage, a small subsidiary stage where bands are showcased between major acts on the main Watson Stage. They only had about fifteen minutes, and we didn't get an opportunity to get a feel for their full impact, although there was significant buzz about this superb band during the weekend. Their next to closing performance at Gettysburg, however, was simply jaw dropping.  Steel Wheels music manages to combine a raw mountain sound with a highly sophisticated, melodic presentation always moving forward, grasping their audience at the heart, and shaking them hard enough so they know they've been in contact with a band bridging old-time, bluegrass, and some of the newest and most emotionally engaging song stylings we've heard.  For the past two days we've been listening to their CD's, and they only get better. We're naming them not only our surprise band of the festival, but they stand out among all the new, to us, bands we've heard this year. Steel Wheels is hosting the Red Wing Roots Music Festival from July 12 - 13 in Mount Solon, VA. We're sorry we won't be able to be there, but it looks like a wonderful, varied lineup in a fine setting.

Trent Wagler

Eric Brubaker & Jay Lapp

Brian Dickel

Trent Wagler & Jay Lapp

Eric Brubaker

Steel Wheels

Solitary Warmup - B.J. Cherryholmes

B.J. Cherryholmes & Seth Taylor

Dailey & Vincent
Jamie Dailey

Darrin Vincent

Dailey & Vincent continue to present a carefully designed show which has something for nearly everyone: deep Christian faith expressed in song, classic traditional bluegrass, gospel quartets, Statler Brothers songs from their epic Cracker Barrel CD, patriotic fervor, and broad comedy. It's all delivered with pace and style. I was curious if even Dailey & Vincent could hold a Sunday afternoon festival crowd into the late afternoon and was surprised and happy to see the largest Sunday crowd we've seen outside of Merlefest. Dailey & Vincent delivered their show with its usual class and polish, concluding with their very moving rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. As the weekend closed, many were sad to see it end.

Jeff Parker

 Christian Davis

Jesse Baker

B.J. Cherryholmes

Seth Taylor

The Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival has run twice a year since 1979, sixty-six consecutive festivals. Promoter Rich Winkleman exercises a light supervisory hand on the event, and, for the most part, his trust for the fans is returned with good behavior. It's a happy, music-loving, loyal crowd. As often happens at festivals, we were dismayed by the amount of smoking in the audience area. In the evening, the secondary smoke near the back was nearly overwhelming.  Emcees did little to discourage smoking and there is no posted No Smoking area in the beautifully shaped amphitheater. Sound was superlative. The lineup was nearly unparalleled for a festival of this size. We've re-upped for next year, and only wish our schedule would permit us to come twice a year. The Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival is one of the greats.