Thursday, April 24, 2014

Acoustic Stories: Pickin' for the Prez and Other Unamplified Stories by Bill Amatneek - Book Review

Acoustic Stories: Pickin' for thePrez and Other Unamplified Stories by Bill Amatneek is self-published series of thirty-three tales and vignettes first published in 2003 and now updated, with a few new chapters and released in 2013. The stories, clearly labeled as based on Amatneek's experiences but, perhaps, embellished and run through the wringer of memory and nostalgia, and then burnished to an often polished and lyrical shimmer shining through the years of experience and memory. While self publishing still lies on the fringes of the publishing world, it should not be looked upon as barren ground. Many new books are self-published these days, and a good portion of these are at least readable, while some have become best sellers, thanks largely to the new distribution patterns championed by Amazon. Amatneek, in his introduction, cautions the reader that although there are thirty-three chapters which might ask to be skimmed, readers should read the book straight through to pick up all the nuances and inter-relationships. I found, however, that while I read all the chapters through faithfully, some are much better than others, and a few might better have been left out of this 2nd edition altogether.

Bill Amatneek grew up in Manhattan's Greenwich Village during the 1950's and 1960's during the folk craze at a time when people like Pete Seeger and his band The Weavers were often guests in his home because his Dad was an engineer for Consumer Reports, and the latest in recording devices were often available in his home for musicians to be able to hear themselves. Amatneek was a regular in the folk scene, attended the first Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1963, began playing the bass, and eventually left for the West Coast, where he has been a regular on the music scene playing bluegrass, jazz, folk, and ethnic music in a number of settings, sometimes as a regular with a band, and at others as a fill-in for bands making a western swing. His stories are all filtered through his very personal lens and brand of left wing politics, which I often found myself agreeing with while, at the same time, wishing he had left them out of the complex, inter-related mix. His writing focuses on putting what he hears onto paper often shows the greatest insight, and was the part of his stories I appreciated most.

He writes with insight about Tony Rice's passion and precision in powering out the famous Clarence White guitar. His views of Rice's tone and drive gave me insights I have read from no-one else. He accompanied the David Grisman Quintet to Paris where he details the Rice and Grisman's discovery of a Gypsy luthier who had a large supply of tortoise shell picks he was willing to let them pick through. The profile of Lou Gottlieb, organizer and the force behind the Limelighters, helped me better understand this group I loved so much in the late 1950's and early sixties. Gottlieb's forcing him to take a close look at the lyrics of “Danny Boy” provides a lesson into finding one's way into a song. Many of Amatneek's tales capture that period through the sixties and seventies with a level of respect and love both rare and unfashionable today. He refers to people who are too young, who've only known “the Greed,” as having forgotten the communal ideals of the counter-culture, or hippie days. I found his description of his visit to France for the D-day fortieth anniversary and the dedication of monument to the Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War held in San Francisco to be less rewarding, but they might reach successfully into other people's hearts. So much has been written about Pete Seeger that Amatneek has little to add to the story. For people interested in how to get the good interview, his afternoon with Aretha Franklin speaks volumes. His chapters, I think new chapters in this addition of the book, on Roland White and Jim Hurst are wonderful. In the chapter on Hurst he captures the dilemma of bluegrass music in the 21st century. With chapters on Bill Monroe and Eric Bibb he finds a way to access the essential blues elements in bluegrass while exploring the issue of race in America in almost the same breath. And don't miss the love affair in his mind with Mary Travers through the decades.

In his Preface to this edition, Amatneek is clear that a story-teller has a different responsibility than a journalist when it comes to separating truth from facts. Journalists, typically are charged with finding facts and allowing the reader to infer the facts. A story teller is more likely to spin a tale which seeks to illuminate truths he finds in his experiences. Whether such truths will be experienced in the same way by different readers or how the author wishes is up in the air, and should be so. So, as Amatneek wends his way from the folk sixties to the multi-culural twenty-first century, finding himself playing bass in a belly-dance band, the reader is treated to the lifetime of experiences and insights gained by a seeker of truth who had the opportunity to play with some of the finest musicians of his era. Many of the stories are engaging and illuminating. The writing is filled with both love and insight. Acoustic Stories was provided to me by the author in a hardback format, which, these days, is unusual for me. It can be ordered from the author at