Friday, December 23, 2016
Bill Clifton: America's Bluegras Ambassador to the World by Bill C. Malone (University of Illinois Press, 2016, 184 pages, $19.75/995) is a scholarly, yet readable, biography of bluegrass and country music singer, collector, and entrepreneur Bill Clifton, whose long and productive career in the United States and around the World spread bluegrass, country, and folk music throughout Europe and to Japan during a long career that extended from the late forties through the early 21st century.
If you're a jammer or a singer of traditional bluegrass, mountain, or country music, Bill Clifton's life work of preserving and popularizing the roots of American rural music is familiar to you. You probably have used his songbook to learn songs and listened to his many recordings in one format or another. His long and productive career contributed volumes to the public awareness of country, mountain, and bluegrass music. Malone points out that when Clifton was first hearing country music, in the late forties and early fifties, radio didn't yet differentiate between its styles and formats. Thus he heard a range from Gene Autry through the early recorded country singers, to Bill Monroe, the Carter Family, and, probably, Jimmy Rodgers.
Clifton, born William August Marburg in 1931, was the son of a prominent and wealthy Baltimore family. His father was an investment banker and his mother was a member of a socially prominent Baltimore family. Clifton's youth seems to have been a concerted effort throughout adolescence to reject values and lifestyle of his family in order to follow his own inclinations to play country and old time music. An aborted and dangerous sojourn in Mexico ending in a serious automobile accident presents a fine example. He enjoyed a charmed life of wealth and comfort throughout the depression. Clifton enrolled at St. Paul's School in Concord, NH, but was expelled before graduating. His parents sent him to an exclusive school which alternated locations between the Adirondack Mountains and Florida. Similarly, his college career was spotty. He attended the University of Virginia, but appears not to have graduated, although his enlistment in the Marines during the Korean War did much to fuel his fascination with travel to foreign climes.
Clifton, however, was early attracted to country music and made much of his life's work around recording and collecting country and mountain music in an era when the lines between country, mountain, and bluegrass music were not so clearly drawn. For instance, early programs at places like Sunset Park in West Grove, PA and New River Ranch in Rising Sun, MD featured country music stars like Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and (later) Johnny Cash beside the early bluegrass greats Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and Jim & Jesse McReynolds. These venues drew a mixture of audience from local farmers, factory workers, folkies, hippies, and others, creating a unique cultural and social mixture to which Clifton was drawn, first as a fan and later as a performer and band leader. He is credited with the second one day bluegrass festival, held at Luray, VA in 1961.
Malone points out that Clifton's commitment to country music (hillbilly) probably came from a mixture of conviction that the music represented the expression of authentic blue collar naturalism and a romantic sense of the uncluttered life of country existence. Clifton traveled widely the U.S, becoming a staple on the local radio broadcasts that were a feature of bluegrass music in the mountain regions and nearby cities in the forties and fifties, while meeting lots of important bluegrass early lights. Particularly important to him were developing and long-lasting relationships with Woody Guthrie and A.P. Carter. He brought the sensibility of a museum curator to his song collecting and, later, publishing efforts. Since Malone's writing characteristically, and with scholarly thoroughness, lists the call letters of as many radio stations as he can verify, as well as the naming members of many, or even most, of the bands Clifton picked up to accompany him at festivals or join him on short tours, the text often devolves into what seems to be a series of lists. Since this is both a legitimate approach for scholars and mother's milk for many people who take a curatorial view of performances, the approach is appropriate and useful. For the general reader, however, it sometimes makes reading of the book something of a chore. Nevertheless, the book is very enlightening regarding the career of an important figure in the popularization and spreading of a more urbane and less localized bluegrass music.
Regarding the early recordings in Clifton's career, Malone comments, “Like most bluegrass musicians, Bill could easily write and sing about cabin homes he had never inhabited, country churches he had never attended, and dead mothers to whom he had never been related.” On listening to his voice in his recordings (many of which are available on Spotify), I was intrigued by his clear, unaccented voice, which avoided trying to achieve a “country” accent while presenting the songs straightforwardly with clarity and genuine emotion. Clifton, throughout most of his life, preferred the old songs and continued to sing them. Later in his performing career, he allowed his repertoire to become more expansive.
Bill Clifton in Later Years
Clifton moved to England in 1963 to pursue old time, country and bluegrass full time. During this time, Clifton traveled and performed widely himself while introducing important folk and bluegrass artists like Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, and the Stanley Brothers to England. He promoted tours by Mike Seeger and the New Lost City Ramblers. His background, use of language, and social ease made it possible for him to move easily through British society while his knowledge of American roots music helped make valuable connections to England. He also spent three years as a project director for the Peace Corps in the Philippines. Later he made several trips to Japan and brought Japanese bands to the U.S. Clifton became a major force in helping to internationalize old time, old country, and bluegrass music.
Bill C. Malone
Bill C. Malone is a noted scholar, popular writer, and broadcaster. His doctoral dissertation was turned into Country Music, USA, the first academic study of country music. He is retired from Tulane University and currently lives in Madison, WI where he hosts a weekly country music show on public radio.
As Bill Clifton: America's Bluegrass Ambassador to the World by Bill C. Malone (University of Illinois Press, 2016, 184 pages, $19.75/995) progresses through Clifton's travels and his problems with money, a picture emerges of Bill Clifton as torn between his family and social obligations as the son of an important banking and brokerage family in Baltimore, MD and a somewhat conflicted itinerant musician and even counter culture personality who preferred staying on the road, playing music and helping people make connections. It cost him wives, and relationships with some of his children. Similarly, his scholarly work in collecting and performing old time bluegrass, country, and folk music were somewhat at odds with a sensibility open to a wide range and variety of musical styles and content. Thus, he emerges as a complex and conflicted person. Nevertheless, his importance in helping keep old time and early bluegrass alive and acting as an ambassador abroad in spreading the music worldwide is incontrovertible. Late in his career, Clifton was awarded a Distinguished Achievement Award by IBMA in 1992 and inducted in the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2008. I bought the book as a digital download from Amazon.com and read it on my Kindle app.
Monday, December 19, 2016
We had scheduled ourselves to travel up to Ellenburg Deport for the Gibson Brothers North Country Christmas on Saturday, but when the weather became threatening we decided to head up there a day early to avoid the incoming storm. Since there was no room at the Inn, we decided to spend the night in nearby Plattsburgh, in order to have only a half hour drive to get up to Ellenburg instead of the usual four hours or so. On a beautiful Friday afternoon we drove across Vermont through Ludlow, where the snowmakers were busy on Okemo Mountain, across Lake Champlain, and then up along the shores of the Lake and into Plattsburgh, where I had taught some courses a generation or so ago. After a pleasant supper at a nearby Thai restaurant, we bedded down just as the snow was picking up. When we awoke on Saturday morning, there were about six inches of new snow on the ground, and we knew we had made the right decision. Late in the morning we continued north towards Ellenburg Depot.
Northern Adirondack Central School
Eric, Leigh, Mike & Jesse Rehearsing
It's Pretty Serious Business
Sam Zucchini & Mike Barber
Sound's Shaping Up
Erin Joins in to Practice One of Her Songs
Rob Barber at the Board
Ready to Go
It's Cold Outside
So the Doors Open at 5:39 for 7:00 O'Clock Show
Fellow Photographers and Fans
Debbie DiFulvio & Amy Lee
It's a home town crowd, or is it? Fans have come from Quebec (not so far), California, Ottowa (Canada's Capitol), but many of the people there are classmates of the boys, teachers with Erin, and friends from their youth. Many had stories to tell about the boys in school, singing at their wedding, or playing ball with them. Almost universally, local people call Eric & Leigh "the boys."
Erin Gibson LaClaire Sings
Away in a Manger
Eric and Leigh had their early musical experiences at Dick's Country Store Gun Shop and Music Oasis, located a few miles west of Ellenburg in the midst of a wind farm. Unless you needed to stop for some food supplies or ammunition for your hunting trip, you might just drive past the store, thinking, "What sort of music store could there be out here?" If you were really curious, you might stop for a look, and discover a large and varied music shop with hundred of instruments. Proprietor Dick Decosse was one of the boys' earliest teachers and mentors.
Photo by Amy Lee
New Star Rising by Dick Decosse
Kelley Gibson, often seen with his Dad, Eric, at nearby New York and New England festivals during the summer, is now a student at SUNY Plattsburgh, his Dad and his Uncle Leigh's Alma Mater, as well as a blooming song writer, multi-instrumental performer, and photographer. Recently, his photographic interests have concentrated on bird pictures. Here he performs a Ryan Horn song.
Never Alone by Kelley Gibson
Julie Hogan and Tom Venne
Julie Hogan and Tom Venne are a brother and sister who have performed together in the Plattsburgh area with their band Beartracks for years, while recently being seen more broadly in New England, Pensylvania, and Colorado. They also appear as The Clem Hawkins Revival Band, an electric, country band for whom Eric often plays the Telecaster when he's in town. You can see them at The Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival in June entertaining the crowd after the Wednesday evening pot luck supper. When they're not performing, Julie is an elementary school guidance counselor and Tom a retired U.S. Customs Service officer.
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree
The Gibson Brothers North Country Christmas Show has become a local institution. A portion of the proceeds go to support Northern Adirondack Central's Future Farmers of America (FFA) Club, and the show is always sold out. But, if you can get there and if you order your tickets early enough, you'll get the opportunity to gain insight into the character and quality of these two men whose band is one of the most in demand bluegrass bands in the country. It's filled with fine music, oozes Christmas Spirit, and exemplifies why, despite our burgeoning urban and suburban lifestyle, rural America still sends our country some of its best.
O Holy Night
For those of you who haven't had enough of this show, I'll be writing my Wednesday column for No Depression from a different perspective, but including all different songs. Take a look at it!
Thursday, December 15, 2016
Collision Low Crossers: Inside the Turbulent World of the NFL by Nicholas Dawidoff (Little Brown & Co, 2013, 475 pages, $13.63/11.99) belongs to a sub-genre of sports books, “A Year with the Team”, including books from John Feinstein's Next Man Up, and Season on the Brink, and Michael Gaffney's The Champ: My Year with Muhammad Ali. In these books, the authors spend a year, or a season, as a fly on the wall, watching the action, assessing the personalities, and providing readers with an “inside” view of the sport. In Collision Low Crossers (the title is a reference found in the Jets playbook to linebackers hitting potential pass receivers within five yards of the line of scrimmage) Nicholas Dawidoff spent the 2011 season with the NY Jets. He was given “a security code, a desk in the scouting department, and freedom to roam.” He does not posit himself as an expert, but was given unusual access to complement his keen eye for detail, ear for nuance, and sensitivity to individuals. These qualities come together in Collision Low Crossers to provide a real understanding of the violence, intimacy, and job insecurity each person associated with an NFL football team experiences. As Dawidoff's year with the Jets develops, so does the reader's empathy with the team, and, for me at least, a much greater appreciation of the athletic skills and human vulnerability of these uniquely gifted men.
Dawidoff came to the Jets two years after Rex Ryan had come from the Baltimore Ravens, where he had been Defensive Coordinator, to the New York Jets as head coach. Ryan, a larger than life personality who tried to stay above the fray, preferred to run the team from a distance, although his reputation for stout defensive football clearly influenced the way the team drafted and how they trained. Early in the book, Dawidoff points out that football is the most watched and least understood sport of all. Even the coaches don't fully understand what's happened in the game until after they've viewed the films.
Dawidoff was given unparallelled access and soon was viewed by the coaches and players as a member of the team. He was often the butt of jokes and pranks, responded appropriately, thus earning the trust and affection of players and coaches alike. He apparently came to “the facility,” the Jets offices and practice fields in New Jersey, each day, going to meetings, watching practices, and interviewing all parties on the team. Because he took the time and did his research, the reader comes to see the players as real people. He doesn't duck the prior life experiences various parties bring to the team: poverty, absent parents, violence, or the communities from which they come. With two thirds of the players coming being African-American, race is often an underlieing issue. On the Jets, such possibilities are minimized because they're talked and joked about. Furthermore, there's a solid mix of races in the coaching staff, perhaps easing some of the issues.
For coaches work at the facility is a full time business. Numberless hours looking at college films and assessing possible free agents leads up to the draft, seeking to bring together the team within a salary cap negotiated between the league, the players, and the teams' managments. With the average professional career lasting less than three years, turnover is always a problem, while maintaining a balanced squad is essential. The amounts of money are large and the pressure is constant. Tempers among and between levels within the organization can erupt easily and need to be dealt with. The athletes, despite their size, strength, and agility are often emotionally fragile. Managing all this stands on a pyramid with the head coach at the top. Dawidoff, with literary skill and psychological insight brings this all together in rich detail. The stories are funny, touching, horrifying, revelatory and useful in understanding both individuals and groups. If there's a major problem in the book it lies in the number of people and the difficulties growing out of trying to keep over 100 characters straight. The provision of a complete appendix listing all the personnel and roles helps with this issue.
I was first introduced to Nicholas Dawidoff through his book In the Country of Country, a trip through the world of mid-twentieth century country musicians, written with rare insight into the music and the people who made it. I liked the book enough to order several more of his books with Colission Low Crossers being the first I read. This volume is as good about the world of professional football as the previous one was about country music. Dawidoff graduated from Harvard College and won several fellowships for advanced study. He wrote for Sports Illustrated, resigning to freelance. Since then, he's written five books covering a variety of topics from his own life story through music and more sports. His range is wide, his viewpoint broad and comprehensive, his mastery of descriptive language and dialogue superb.
Collision Low Crossers: Inside the Turbulent World of the NFL by Nicholas Dawidoff (Little Brown & Co, 2013,475 pages, $13.63/11.99) sets a standard for sports books that won't be easily surpassed. Dawidoff's facility with description and dialogue makes his books believable and readable. He humanizes people whose careers have often given them iconic qualities setting them apart from ordinary people. Dawidoff finds ways to make the people he writes about approachable and distinctive at once, a rare skill. Most important, I have been watching football with new eyes since reading the book. I find that I both enjoyed the book and learned how to appreciate its vast complexity better through reading it. I bought the book from Thriftbooks.com, my go to online used book dealer of choice. My experience with them is that they provide lots of choices and their descriptions are always accurate. Their delivery costs are reasonable (free with multiple orders, even from different vendors), accurate, and timely. I highly recommend the book and the vendor.
Monday, December 12, 2016
Okeechobee Agri-Civic Center from the Air
Agri-Civic Center from the Ground
The YeeHaw Music Fest (once known as YeeHaw Junction Bluegrass Festival) opens for its second season at the Okeechobee Agri-Civic Center in Okeechobee, Florida on January 12, 2017 and will run until Saturday night, January 14th. As is usual with Promoter Ernie Evans festivals, there's always plenty happening on the days running up to the opening of the event. The Gates will open for festival attendees at noon on Monday, January 9th. This year, The Darrell Webb Band will be performing on Tuesday and there will be the usual opening covered dish supper on Wednesday in addition to workshops, jams, and other activities, to be decided. This year's lineup is the strongest at the top that Ernie has offered, while the quality and diversity of local and regional bands continues to improve.
The Darrell Webb Band
Inside the Agri-Civic Center
The Festival Lineup
Gibson Brothers - Eric and Leigh
The Gibson Brothers new CD will be coming our in the next month or two with a full set of new Gibson Brothers songs. They've been playing some of the best material from the new recording as well as fan favorites from their very deep and popular catalog of songs going back over twenty years and ten records, each of which reached the top of the Bluegrass Unlimited album charts. They'll be appearing on Thursday and you'll want to be there for their patented brand of brother harmonies and playful bickering combined with one of the best groups of sidemen anywhere.
Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out
IIIrd Tyme Out is one of the most rewarded and popular bands in bluegrass music. Russell Moore has been named Male Vocalist of the Year five times, more than any other singer. The band is filled with talent. This year they have been celebrated their 25th anniversary tour with a program containing their many favorites from through the years as well as a chart topping new song. This band is always a pleasure to hear and see.
The only problem with Monroe Crossing is that we don't get to see them often enough. They're based in Minneapolis and tour extensively in the mid-west and further west. They're a versatile, musically interesting group which plays plenty of traditional music while also reaching into a new basket of material that is filled with quality and, often, humor.
Caleb Cox, Tony Shorter, Mike Andes
Nothin' Fancy provides a refreshing change of pace at any festival where they appear. Often under-rated, their performance has become increasingly solid and their recent recording is a first rate effort (disclosure: guess who wrote the liner notes.) I find their combination of classic covers, the heartfelt writing of mandolinist and band emcee Mike Andes, novelty songs, and plain clowning to offer delightful stage craft and musical enjoyment.
Remington Ryde - Ryan Frankhauser
The last time we saw Remington Ryde was last spring at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival where they put on the best performance of theirs I had ever seen - musically controlled and restrained while still presenting their material with enthusiasm and good, clean humor.
Penny Creek - Susan Pounds
Penny Creek has been around for more than a decade playing gigs around their base in Melbourne, FL. During the past few years they have emerged on the festival scene with their tuneful covers of second and third generation songs as well as some of their own, particularly from guitarist/singer Chris Paganoni. Penny Creek's enthusiasm and their musicality charm and audience.
Dave O'Brien, a member of the Cunning-Hams, quotes the late Evan Carl as having said that they "play songs you don't usually hear at bluegrass festivals." Not seen recently at YeeHaw Junction, the band will be joined by Spider Prevatt on guitar and her twin sister Moe on bass. Frank Cunningham has been a fixture in Florida bluegrass for a generation and Dave O'Brien is a member of a number of bands, including Southern Country Classic, also playing at YeeHaw.
Alliagator Alley describes itself as a "new band from South Florida composed of members of other local bands." It offers what it calls "Bluegrass with Bite."
South Country Classic
South Country Classic was created to fill a void after Ernie Evans put together a pick-up band at the first Bluegrass Classic in Brooksville last spring. He had observed the reactions of the bluegrass festival audience to hearing classic country. The tryout was a hit and this band, consisting of local players who have backgrounds in both country and bluegrass, was born. I'm looking forward to hearing this band for the first time and confident they'll be very well received.
Blue Cypress returns to YeeHaw after a successful appearance last year. Their music is largely first and generation traditional covers, which they play with energy and enthusiasm.
Greg Bird is Florida's resident country karaoke guru. He'll be offering his own song interpretations as well as encouraging audience members to grab the mic and take a shot themselves during the run-up to the festival.
Jan Ladd, along with her husband Larry, will be leading a Sunday morning gospel jam.
Jo Odom - Emcee
The Festival flier can be viewed here, and may be printed. It contains details about ordering tickets. Early bird tickets will be available for another week, until December 19th at a saving of $10.00 from the gate price available thereafter. Reserved seating in the front rows is available for an additional $5.00 per ticket. There is extensive camping available, but a limited number of water and electric hookups. Call to make a reservation. You can make a campsite reservation and obtain a reserved seat by calling (904) 886-8378.
The Agri-Civic Center is located at Agri-Civic Center 4601 FL-710, Okeechobee, FL 34974. Here's a map of how to get there:
How to Get to the Agri-Civic Center
Click No Options for larger Map then input your address at O
Your Route Will Appear
Thursday, December 8, 2016
YeeHaw Music Fest - January - Ocheechobee, Florida
For the past dozen years or so, we've headed south to Florida in early January. After retrieving our trailer at Ocean Lakes Family Campground in Myrtle Beach, we hustle to the southernmost event we attend. This year, what was once the YeeHaw Junction Bluegrass Festival moved from the open field it had been held in for many years to the modern Agri-Business Center in the agricultural, retirement center of Ocheechobee, Florida, at the north end of Florida's largest lake. Despite chilly weather and the encountering some of the issues always presented by a new venue, this distinguished older event has been re-imagined and revived as YeeHaw Music Fest.
Promoters Ernie and Deb Evans
Nothin' Fancy - Mike Andes
JR Davis - Florida's All-Purpose Singer
The Atlantic City Boys Brought a Taste of Old Time Rock & Roll
Alabama's Gary Waldrep Brings Showmanship and Fervent Gospel
Mindy Rakestraw - Gary Waldrep Band
Susan Garrett Pounds - Penny Creek
Usually, when we're in Florida. We like to stay at one of Florida's many beautiful (and crowded) state parks between events. I often don't take a lot of pictures in these lovely spots. Resolution: write more about the parks and sites we visit in Florida.
The Palatka Bluegrass Festival
The Palatka Bluegrass Festival, held each year at the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch in northeastern Florida, is a benefit for the ranch, helping raise money to support this independent institution dedicated to helping boys whose parents can't carry their load. It's the largest festival we attend in Florida, promoted by bluegrass promoter Norman Adams, who runs a number of other events along the southeastern seaboard.
Mississippi's Alan Sibley
Victor Dowdy - The Bluegrass Brothers
Cody Farrar - Breakin' Grass
Johnny Adams Jam - A Fixture
The Gibson Brothers
Terry Eldredge and Kristin Scott Benson
Kristin Scott Benson
Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Little Roy Lewis
The Lonesome River Band
Chris Paganoni - Penny Creek Band
Red Jones - Bluegrass Artist Host
Sherry Boyd - Emcee Extraordinary
Greg Cahill - Special Consensus
The Spinney Brothers - Rick & Allan
The Steep Canyon Rangers
Charles R. Humphrey III
The Mad Fiddler - Nicky Sanders
Florida Bluegrass Classic - Brooksville, FL
Michael Reno Harrell - Singer/Storyteller
For a variety of reasons, mostly the inadequacy of the previous venue and too far north location, the festival once held in the world-famous speed trap of Waldo, FL moved south and west to near Brooksville, FL on a large open setting that had been used as a park for dog shows for many years. Ernie and Deb Evans, through their production company Evans Media Source, hit a home run on The Florida Bluegrass Classic, despite some very chilly weather.
Songwriter Mark Brinkman Conducts Workshop
Keeping Warm Evenings
Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road
Nothin' Fancy - Mitchell Davis
Emcee Jo Odom - Baby It's Cold Outside
Steve Dilling & Jason Moore
The Shed at Brooksville
The Newell Lodge Bluegrass Festival in Folkston, GA has never quite lived up to its promise. The setting and the stage, in the midst of a large grove of live oak trees just thirty miles north of the GA/FL border, it has, sadly, never attracted a large enough audience to thrive. We'll not be returning.
Deeper Shade of Blue
Irene Spent Some Time Watching
Irby Brown - Emcee
Greg Bird - Master at Country Karaoke
The Larry Gillis Band
Claire Lynch Band
Sertoma is a service club which owns a lovely campground outside Brooksville, FL is home to a number of events including the Sertoma Bluegrass Festival held in late March.
Dry Branch Fire Squad
Ron Thomason - Hamboning
Adam McIntosh & Greg Byrd
Marty Raybon & Full Circle
Ron Thomason Looking On
Back Porch Pickers
Jo Odum - A Warmer Emcee