Thursday, May 11, 2017

Birthplace of Country Music Museum - Bristol VA/TN

The Birthplace of Country Music Museum is located in an unprepossessing industrial building in the midst of a rapidly redeveloping area in downtown Bristol VA/TN. What has come to be known as the "Big Bang" of country music took place only a few blocks away in a building that no longer exists. It's fitting, however, for this wonderful small museum be placed where it is, as it becomes a magnet for those interested in experiencing where the music they love originated, who the people involved in this explosion of music were, and how an industry developed on the talents of some country people, widely called "Hillbillies" at the time, who appeared in response to some newspaper adds run by Ralph Peer for a recording session that took place in Bristol from July 25 - August 5, 1927.

Ralph Peer

During this brief period in 1927, dozens of artists, responding to what they heard and read about Peer's recording sessions and the previous successes experienced by Earnest V. (Pops) Stoneman, who had gone to New York to record some songs, descended on Bristol from the surrounding hills and hollers in Virginia and Tennessee to record and get paid for recording their music to provide Peer with content for the burgeoning popularity of the Victrola, for which he was seeking to find new markets. The Carter Family, from nearby Maces, VA and Jimmy Rodgers, who became the "Singing Brakeman," kicked off what became two strands within the larger world of country music: country and bluegrass. 

Jimmie Rodgers with the Carter Family

The Carter Family Sings
Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree
August 1, 1927

Jimmy Rodgers
 The Soldier's Sweetheart
August 4, 1927

In a delightful interactive setting, The Birthplace of Country Music Museum tells the story of the origins and spread of traditional music as well as its development into commercial areas that have since become concentrated in Nashville and other centers. As a major stop on the Crooked Road, however, it stands as a venue that tells where country and traditional music came from while suggesting where it might be going. Along the way it showcases, through films, recordings, and artifacts the fascinating story of how peoples' love of their music and the commercial needs of the growing recording industry met and expanded to the country and the world. 

Interactive Table Explores Early Recordings

Film of Ralph Stanley Recorded at the Museum

Space for Special Exhibits

Visually Attractive Exhibit

Museum Director: Dr. Jessica R. Turner

Bristol has become a bustling center for the celebration of country music. Three areas of activity focus the city's centrality and maintain its relevance. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum explores the story of the development of country music in this city and region. Radio Bristol, located physically and emotionally within the museum, broadcasts locally and world-wide on three channels covering all the country music bases. Bristol Rhythm and Roots, held each September, is a large, eclectic music festival drawing thousands to the streets of Bristol.

Kris Truelsen - Producer of Bristol Radio

Bristol Radio broadcasts on three separate channels, streaming worldwide on an Americana, a Classic, and on local radio and streaming at WBCM 100.1 FM with an "eclectic mix of American roots music and live performances. The Museum contains a small (approximately 100 seats) live performance auditorium where ticketed live events are presented, including a monthly recreation of the 1950's WBCM radio program "Farm and Fun Time" broadcast live on the third Thursday of every month. A monthly calendar of ongoing and special live events can be found here. Watch Bill & the Belles recreate the Eastman Credit Union commercial for Farm and Fun Time below:

Museums not only put exhibits out for public display, they collect, preserve, archive, and prepare for exhibit huge amounts of collected material. These archives, maintained by specialists in such activities contain a treasure trove of materials for scholars to study closely and for potential display to the public. Sometimes, archives take up more space than the display areas of major museums and collections. An enlarged archival space is currently under construction to increase the available storage and restoration spaces of the Museum. We spent a few minutes in an archival area with Curator of Collections Emily Robinson:

Emily Robinson

An Early Electronic Microphone

Various Primitive Instruments Including Bones 
and a Jaws Harp

Harp Guitar

The collection also includes old audio tapes, recordings, and sheet music. The Museum is always glad to consider relevant contributions to its ever-widening archives. Such contributions are tax deductible, for anyone interested. 

What Is Genre?

The placard above takes up little space in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, but suggests one of the major emphases represented there. Beginning with simple country people appearing at a recording session to share their music, country music, along with blues, has influenced music around the world. Once separated into distinctive radio genres, the barriers between varieties of music are being erased by wide availability of all kinds of music. An engrossing film shown in a small space in the museum shows performers from the Carter Family through Johnny Cash to contemporary roots bands, showing how the idea and the song dominates. Bristol Rhythm & Roots Festival in September raises and, perhaps, answers the same question.

Bristol Rhythm & Roots

The Bristol Rhythm & Roots festival takes place this year on September 15 -17, 2017 in downtown Bristol. A street festival, almost every inch of the downtown area is filled with musicians performing on the streets and in a variety of venues. The music ranges from primitive mountain music to far out progressive country. Are their connections to be found? Sure! Can individuals reject much or all of what they see? Certainly! Is it an exciting happening? Definitely! With over a hundred bands ranging from The Earls of Leicester, twice IBMA Entertainer of the Year, a Flatt & Scruggs cover band and Carl Shifflett & the Big Country Show to The Infamous Stringdusters and Dead Man Winter, the full range of what's become known as Americana Music is available.

How to Get to the 
Birthplace of Country Music Museum
Place Your Current Location in the O and Click

Admission to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum ranges from $13.65 for adults, $11.55 for seniors, children, military and groups, and free to children under 5. The Museum is a Blue Star Museum free to military personnel from Labor Day to Memorial Day. 

Our visit took place early on a weekday morning, when few people were in town and fewer still at the Museum. During the high season, which lasts from mid-May through late October, you can expect to see many more people at the Museum. However, museum spaces are well-designed to separate crowds and increase movement through them. Depending on how thoroughly you wish to explore this deeply involving museum, you should plan to visit for a minimum of a full day. Check the events schedule for special events and ticketed ones. The museum programs and opportunities are more widespread than what's been covered here. Take a good, careful look at its web site.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The New Analog by Damon Krukowski - Book Review

Damon Krukowski is a musician, poet, and publisher who has written a book exploring the ways that the move from analog recording and distribution of music to digital has effected the way in which music is experienced. In The New Analog:Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World (The New Press, 2017, 224 pages, $24.95/15.48) he examines, in some detail, the history and development of transmitting both print and recorded versions of sound to make it available to those wishing to reproduce and hear it. From printed notation to player piano rolls, wax cylinders, records, CDs, to broadcast from radio signals to streaming digital, he examines copyright issues as well as the complex nature of sound and its reproduction. Along the way, he discusses copyright issues as they affect those wishing to make a living from recording (musicians, writers, engineers, recording companies, sound distribution) providing the most cogent explanation of “mechanical royalties” I've ever read.

I'm not a techie. I haven't understood what's meant when my more knowledgeable friends talk about the compression or lifelessness of CD's as compared with earlier vinyl recordings. I've even suggested double blind listening tests to determine whether even highly sensitive listeners can actually tell the difference, but I've never read or heard of any being conducted. Krukowski, almost talking in two languages, techno speak and fan, makes these issues clearer for me. He writes about context, signal, and noise in ways that make sense to me. Krukowski is able to make most technical issues clear, only loosing me a few times. Written with an eye to clarifying certain issues in recording and hearing the distribution of those sounds, The New Analog helped me to understand much of what I have been missing, in trying to understand this revolution.

According to Krukowski, human beings hear in stereo sound. Having two ears allows us to make the minute mental distinctions placing us in space and providing context for the world around us. He describes a woman bike rider falling down while riding a bike with earbuds because, focused on the sounds being delivered to her ears, she was unable to integrate other cues. Our stereo hearing is remarkably accurate at providing context for what we hear while our brains separate signal from noise.

Signal is the foregrounded sound we are supposed to concentrate on...the music. Noise is the supposedly unnecessary sound that interferes with our being able to focus on signal. The role of the technology in separating signal from noise gives us the purer sound that comes to us through digital transmission, eliminating noise. But is music without noise what we really wish to hear?

The studio itself becomes a character in this dichotomy. A wooden studio provides a warm, wood-like sound. But a completely baffled and sound-dead studio, for a listener inside it, is still filled with sound, as one's internal functioning – respiration, heartbeat, blood flowing in the veins – can be heard. There is no silence. But the digital studio seeks to eliminate noise, while increasing and layering signal. The work of the studio technician is to take a series of signals, layer and sequence them, and create a larger complex work that turns out to be all signal with no differentiation about what to foreground or background – no sense of context. Loudness has become a substitute for subtlety.

Along with the changes in sound have come a change in the delivery system of those sounds. The invention of file sharing, though Napster, while only lasting for two years, spelled the end of record stores and will soon sound the death knell of the compact disk as a means of distributing music. All our music will be downloaded to digital devices to be heard through ear-buds simulating stereo sound, but actually have no separation and providing no contextual cues. Furthermore, those features record lovers, and even CD purchasers no longer have available the kind of information once provided by liner notes. Planned noise has been substituted for by social media, a very noisy place. However, the algorithms of FB, Twitter, Snap Chat, Goodreads, etc) quickly limit exposure to only the noise you wish to hear, increasing isolation and tribalism. We are not fully exposed to the range of noise that once took place in the record store, or other gathering places where people discussed and debated the values of content. However, the algorithms of FB, Twitter, Snap Chat, Goodreads, etc) quickly limit exposure to only the noise you wish to hear, increasing isolation and tribalism. Older mail lists, for instance, were relatively unfiltered, providing more choices of what to consider for the receiver. Who decides what the noise surrounding the signal will be?

Damon Krukowski

Damon Krukowski is the editor/publisher of Exact Change, an independent publishing house, along with Naomi Yang, with whom he performed as David & Naomi. He has been a member of rock band Galaxie 500, a 1980's and early nineties indie band, as well. He attended Harvard University and lives in Boston. He blogs at International Sad Hits.

The New Analog:Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World (The New Press, 2017, 224 pages, $24.95/15.48) by Damon Krukowski examines the physiology, acoustic science, and effect of the changes from analog to digital sound in the rapidly changing media environment. By placing our audio experience of recorded music into a larger context of how human beings interact with the world, he offers a more nuanced view than many who decry the emergence of digital music as it's experienced through devices like head phones and iPods. He recognizes that digital delivery of music has been responsible for the loss of community represented by the teeming record store where people could hang out and discuss the music, as well as the quickly developing death of the CD as a means of delivering music. He calls for the re-introduction of the noisy environment once surrounding music, which would lessen the isolation with which people now experience it. While he sometimes gets caught up in the tangled weeds of detailed technology and psycho-physiology, he nevertheless delivers a thoughtful and readable examination at how rapid technological change leads to unanticipated social disruption. I received the book at an Advanced Reviewers Copy from the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle app.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival: June 1-4 - Preview

The Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival will celebrate its fortieth anniversary at Strawberry Park at 42 Pierce Rd. in Preston, CT from June 1 - 4 this year with a strong lineup in a beautiful amphitheater setting from a stage with excellent sight lines with sound provided by real pros who know what acoustic music sounds like. This year's lineup features top notch national touring bands, many familiar to and well-loved the Strawberry Park audiences as well as popular regional bands who provide much more than fill-in entertainment. Returning after some years absence will be Rhonda Vincent & the Rage while Sideline, a breakout band from North Carolina celebrating more traditional sounds, makes its debut performance at Strawberry Park. This historic New England festival convenient to fans from Boston to New York will please your musical taste in a setting with plenty to offer including a strong history of lots of wall-to-wall jamming.

The Lineup
Rhonda Vincent & The Rage

Rhonda Vincent & the Rage makes her return to Strawberry Park after several years' absence from Preston. As one of the most able and most entertaining figures in the bluegrass world, as well as the hardest working, Rhonda continues to deliver. Her daughter Sally has joined the band, singing harmony and playing rhythm, on the family side of the band, consisting of two sons-in-law and a daughter. There's no nepotism here, though. Only talent! Rhonda will perofrm two sets with country singer Daryle Singletary intervening.

Daryle Singletary

Described in his bio as a hard core country traditionalist, Daryle Singletary uses his resonant baritone voice to recall country legends like his idol, George Jones, as well as other country singers like Dwight Yokum, Johnny Paycheck, the immortal Merle Haggard and others. His show, accompanied by a solid country band featuring pedal steel, drums, and electric guitar often serves as a welcome change-of-pace during a bluegrass festival. He has recorded with Rhonda Vincent, and they are frequently seen in the lineup together.

Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing
Bob Amos

Bob Amos, founder of and former lead singer for 90's band Front Range, has returned to northern Vermont, where, over the past five years, he has assembled a first rate bluegrass band and begun recording and performing again. As both a traditionalist and creator of new and thoughtful songs, he captures some of the spare qualities of life in the Northern Kingdom with a fine ear for nuance. Band, featuring Steve Wright on guitar with fiddler Freeman Corey and his daughter Sarah Amos' quality vocals is worth hearing and seeing.

Steve Wright

Kruger Brothers
Jens Kruger

The Kruger Brothers arrived from their native Switzerland a little over twenty years ago, settling in Wilkesboro, NC to be near Doc Watson. After years of traveling and playing across Europe, they found a new home in the center of Appalachia, where they could soak up mountain music and learn from one of the most simultaneously traditional and versatile musicians who ever picked up a guitar. Using bluegrass and mountain music as a springboard, they have forged a sound and approach which brings European classical sensibilities to American music. Last September, we sat in the Red Hat Amphitheater at IBMA in Raleigh to hear Jens' orchestral suite Spirit of the Rockies with a full symphony orchestra. With new music always in their hearts and minds, Jens, brother Uwe, and third brother Joel Landesburg provide joys and musical insights with their magic. Don't miss these two sets, where you can sit back and soak up beauty and excitement!

Uwe Kruger

Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers new CD In the Ground is the first collection they have released containing solely their own compositions. While digital streaming has effectively killed the compact disk, this recording, in its entirety, continues to grow as each song contributes to a musical portrait of the celebrated brothers' development. I've chosen to picture the entire band, above, as the ensemble sound Eric and Leigh have surrounded themselves with over the years contributes depth and individual virtuoso qualities that fully serve to enhance their singing and writing. Mike Barber, with the band since it began, is a subtle driving force in the band. Clayton Campbell's fiddle soars while always enhancing and never seeking to dominate. Jesse Brock, twice IBMA mandolin player of the year is lightning fast and deeply evocative, while his subtle baritone singing is the only third voice ever to join the brothers. This band never fails to uplift its audience or provide musical food for thought.

The Hot Flashes
Amy Gallatin

The Hot Flashes, begun (I think) as something of a lark, have emerged as a smart, witty, versatile band that captures the humor and depth of seasoning. With their supporting crew, The Men 0'Pause, the play music without consideration for genre across a spectrum of moods and highlights from bluegrass to swing and pop. Don't miss this fun band, which will be appearing on three days of the festival. . 

Gail Wade

Peggy Ann Harvey

Jr. Sisk & Ramblers Choice

A shy man whose greatest love is to be in the woods finding deer to fill his freezer, Junior Sisk has established himself as, perhaps, the foremost neo-traditional bluegrass singer. His great model is the Stanley Brothers, but his new songs in traditional style capture many of the themes of bluegrass with a contemporary perspective. His band has become a fine supportive instrument for him, with long-time banjo player Jason Davis one of the best around. 

Steve Dilling

Sideline's no sideline any longer. The band, composed of a mixture of seasoned pros and young hotshots has gone from being an off-season band designed to keep the fingers supple to over 100 dates from coast-to-coast. Built around Steve Dilling after more than twenty years with IIIrd Time Out, go-to bassist Jason Moore (Mountain Heart), and Skip Cherryholmes (Cherryholmes) the band has expanded to feature Brad Hudson on Dobro and vocals and Nathan Aldridge, a fiery young fiddler. The most recent addition to the band is Troy Boone, just having completed his formal education at ETSU, has joined the band on mandolin and lead vocals. Singing material from the first three generations of bluegrass' development, you'll enjoy the energy, humor, and versatility of this band.

Brad Hudson


The SteelDrivers
Richard Bailey

Winners of the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album, The SteelDrivers began their career a dozen years ago as a nighttime hard driving, beer swizzling sound relying largely on the song writing and gravely voice of Chris Stapleton. Now, while singer/guitarist Gary Nichols is undergoing some kind of treatment, the band has announced that Adam Wakefield, a recent contestant on The Voice, will be filling in. With Brent Truitt on mandolin and a change in emphasis, the band is less boozy and more serious, but a better band, too. In many ways, fiddler Tami Rodgers has become the heart of the band, with her blazing fiddle, song writing and fine harmony singing. Watch for banjo master Richard Bailey's subtle, yet powerful banjo work and Mike Fleming's excellence on bass. The band the brought the blues back to bluegrass won't disappoint.

Mike Fleming

Lonely Heartstring Band
George Clements

The first time I heard The Lonely Heartstring Band's cover of Paul Simon's "Graceland,"chills ran down my spine. This still happens each time I hear them play this classic. With their first CD Deep Water released by Rounder Records, they have moved rapidly upwards in the staunchly traditional world of bluegrass, where longevity and traditional roots count for much. Beginning life as a Beatles cover band, this band has defied convention and prospered. Instrumentally and vocally well rounded, the band is a constant joy to hear. Outside their classic rock covers, much of the rest of their glowing material is written within the band.

Patrick M'Gonigle

Dry Branch Fire Squad
Ron Thomason

Dry Branch Fire Squad has appeared at all but one of the forty Strawberry Park festivals. Combining wry wit, piercing social commentary, and raw, from-the-heart traditional bluegrass and gospel singing, Many people who might leave early on Sunday morning, wouldn't consider leaving until after Dry Branch's Sunday morning gospel set and Ron Thomason's "Sermon." Some observers complain that many bluegrass bands lack entertainment value. This band entertains, enlightens, and delights!

Tom Boyd

Twisted Pine

Twisted Pine is a hard to categorize genre busting band filled with talent, tunefulness, and teamwork. Based in Boston, they're one of the few bands from their who seem to downplay any connection they might have to Berklee College of Music. Nevertheless, their march toward success is studded with important wins and nominations at FreshGrass, Thomas Point, Rocky Grass, and IBMA the band is filled with musical enterprise and surprise. 

Rachel Sumner

Blackstone Valley Boys

The Blackstone Valley Boys are a Massachusetts band composed of players well-known in New England. They play upbeat, traditional and not-so-traditional bluegrass music from across the genre while having lots of fun on the stage. Since all of New England is, roughly, the size of Indiana, its surprising that so many high quality bands have developed here. The rich variety of bands hearkens back to the post World War II Appalachian diaspora as well as the efforts of traditional collectors like the Rounder Records team to bring mountain music north. The Blackstone Valley Boys and other bands like them point back to this development as well as reaching forward to where acoustic music might go.

Dry Branch Fire Squad
The Stockwell Brothers

The Stockwell Brothers, Barry on Guitar/lead vocals, Al on mandolin, and Bruce on banjo now joined by Bruce's wife Kelly on bass have been in and around New England for at least forty years. Their music is an eclectic mix of bluegrass, swing, rock, folk, and anything else that takes their fancy. Bruce is recognized by his banjo peers as a highly accomplished banjo stylist, having won the Merlefest banjo contest back in 2005. They're on the bill for two sets on Sunday afternoon. Stick around to relax in the sun and soak up their vibe drawn from a deep and wide catalog.

Workshop Stage, located adjacent to the snack bar and near the swimming pools, has programming offers a more informal program of performances and instrumental workshops. Workshops are often an interesting feature that allows you to get to know members of a band better, come to understand their music more thoroughly, or see them in a more intimate setting. Check to schedule for what's happening up there.


Tickets: Tickets to Strawberry Park can be ordered online or by  calling 1-800-356-2460. 

Camping: Strawberry Park has about 300 full hookup campsites available only to ticket holders during the festival. There is also free rough camping for people holding tickets for the bluegrass festival. There are two areas available for rough camping. The ball field is the traditional area where jammers gather in groups to camp. Camping areas are lined out on the field. Jamming continues long into the night as well as often during the day on the festive ball field. Another area, just outside the gate, contains almost unlimited space for additional rough campers.

The Park also owns and/or manages a number of trailers which may be available for rent. These comfortable alternatives for people who don't camp. Reservations can be made by calling 1-800-356-2460.

Facilities: Strawberry Park is a comprehensive camping resort featuring spacious swimming pools, tennis courts, horseshoe pits, and much more. The snack bar serves full meals at reasonable prices as well as ice cream and snacks. Situated between the Amphitheater and the snack bar is an area that accommodates craft and a few food vendors. You'll find plenty to keep you busy at Strawberry Park. 

Getting To Strawberry Park
Place Your Location in the Space Marked 0
and Create A Custom Map

Carl Landi

Under the direction of festival promoter Carl Landi, an executive of park owner Elite Resorts, the Strawbery Park Bluegrass Festival has returned to the quality it had achieved before falling on hard times about a decade ago. This year's event, running from June 1 - 4 offers a range of national and regional bands presenting bluegrass music from a variety of perspectives from traditional to progressive. The air will also be filled with music from the jam sessions around the campground. See you there! 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Old Smoky Distillery & Dollywood - A Taste of East Tennessee

Gatlinburg Nestled in the Mountains

Tennessee is a long, narrow state stretching from Memphis, famed for jazz and barbecue,  on the mighty Mississippi,through state capital Nashville, home to the commercial country music industry and the Grand Old Opry, to the Knoxville area in the East with the majestic Smoky Mountain National Park along its eastern border, and the three tourist meccas of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg lying just west in their shadow. The 440 miles of its length encompasses lots of history, including huge pieces of the core of American music. 

Mitzi Soward, Irene, and Joe Soward

On Tuesday night, our friends Joe and Mitzi Soward, owners of Dumplin Valley Farm RV Park and Promoters of the wonderful Dumplin Valley Bluegrass Festival, joined us for supper at the delightful  Pottery House Old Mill  in Pigeon Forge, through the edges of the Great Smoky National Park, where only five months ago a huge fire raged killing at least fourteen people, and down in the thriving tourist destination of Gatlinburg, to visit the Old Smoky Distillery.

The Fire Reached the Edges of Gatlinburg

The picture above, taken from an outlook on the edge of the Park, shows how close the fire actually got to Gatlinburg. Lives and houses were lost, but the forest has a way of recovering and soon, only remnants will be seen. Just now, there's the smell of burned wood hovering over the area. 

Darrell Webb Band at the Old Smoky Distillery

The Old Smoky Distillery is well named. The open air courtyard, where there is live music all day from noon until 10:00 PM, features a distillery for corn whisky on the left side of this picture, an open-air courtyard, where people gather to listen to live, free music, and a sales area to the left of this picture where quart jars of legal (taxed) corn liquor line the walls, and, for a small charge, tourists line up to sample the wares. These days, corn is no longer the raw, harsh stuff of the chase through the mountains with the "revenoors" hard on the bootleggers, heels. Rather it's refined, sweetened, comes in multiple flavors, and the signature beverage of the Appalachian chain, along with sweet tea. If you know the right people, you might even find a quart circulating at some of the jams at local bluegrass festivals. 

The Darrell Webb Band

Darrell Webb established himself, while still a teenager, as one of the hot, young, traditional bluegrass pickers and singers who enliven the bluegrass world. Darrell's high lonesome tenor voice and virtuoso mandolin play quickly placed him high in the ranks of sought after side men. He played with a number of bands (J.D. Crowe, Lonesome River Band, Marty Raybon) before a several year stint with Rhonda Vincent & the Rage. He finally established his own band, which, over the past five years or so, has gone through a number of changes of both personnel and sound, with guitarist Jarod Hensley being the only constant. 

Darrell Webb

Darrell's present five piece band represents the coming together of musical ideas and approaches that Darrell has been flirting with and developing through the years. A hard driving band capable of great subtlety, its repertoire ranges from classic early bluegrass with the emphasis on Ralph Stanley, to plaintive mountain/coal mining songs reflecting Darrell's mountain heritage, through rock and blues inflected show stoppers such as his version of the Robert Johnson/Eric Clapton piece, Crossroads, performed here at the Sertoma Bluegrass Festival. 

The current band brings together fine musicians sharing a strong sense of Darrell's musical vision and his leadership. Jarod Hensley, his long time guitar player is fast and polished. Banjo player Collins Miller contributes the characteristic banjo rhythms and style of bluegrass along with contributing a somewhat quirky mountain humor. Carl White, a seasoned trouper and animated performer, makes the bass guitar speak a number of languages and often fills in as band emcee. Carl's wife Rachel Maye, absent for family commitments the night we were at Old Smoky, contributes a smoking hot fiddle with more than a touch of fine jazz improvisation built in.

Jarod Hensley

Carl White

Collins Miller

The audience at Old Smoky Distillery seems to be a combination of hard core bluegrass fans stopping in to watch a band for free, tourists, perhaps getting their first taste of this stimulating and exciting music, and drop-inners coming for the moonshine and stopping to listen. This evening they heard a first-rate bluegrass band.

On the Street

There's more than one distillery

The Smoky Mountain String Band & Dollywood

Jerry Butler has been a friend of ours almost since the time we became interested in bluegrass music. His history goes back to the days he played with a young band called The Knoxville Newgrass Boys, during the late seventies. He played at the 1982 Knoxville World's Fair and even at the White House. He was a featured performer with the nationally touring Knoxville band Pine Mountain Railroad, and helped bring new life to Lorraine Jordan & Carolina during the early years of this century. He toured with his own band, Jerry Butler & the Blue Jay's. Always, he has contributed a distinctive, clear, and mellow voice capable of ranging through a variety of moods and subject matter. Recently, he has been featured in The Smoky Mountain String Band, one of the featured bands in the Dollywood performance venues.

The Parking Lot Shuttle

Our always useful GPS quickly and easily helped us navigate to Dollywood, located on the eastern side of Pigeon Forge, past the impressive Dollywood's DreamMore Resort, and through what seemed like miles of almost empty parking lots. The Park itself had opened for the season only a couple of weeks earlier, and the we were early for the soon to come vast summer crowds. We easily navigated the ticket booth....

The Ticket Booth

...and stepped onto the Main Street of another era created to reconstruct the imagined world of hillbilly life enriched by rides, shops, eateries, and, what we had come for, performance venues. We quickly discovered that we had almost certainly aged out of the pleasures of the multi-purpose amusement park that now promises a thrilling, and tiring day for, as the circus ringmaster used to say, "children of all ages." I think we may have graduated to museums. The world depicted, never, of course, existed, but it is clean and well-shaded, offering a variety of opportunities from thrilling rides to quiet places to sit and listen to music.

The Main Street at the Entrance

We walked over to the Back Porch Theater, where The Smoky Mountain String Band performed four half-hour sets during the day. On other days, the band performs in other locations around the grounds. The theater, seating about 500 people is surrounded by small shops and a couple of places to stop to eat, either a snack or a full meal. Here's a map of the grounds:

Click to Go to the Interactive Map

Every place you see the musical  note on the map is a venue where some kind of musical experience reflecting the interests of visitors and the regional culture of Appalachia is represented in an elementary, though informative fashion reflecting the tastes the designers of the park and the spiritual, as well as actual, mother of this theme park, singer/songwriter and entrepreneur: Dolly Parton.

Smoky Mountain String Band

The Smoky Mountain String Band is a very good bluegrass band. It's personnel are all experienced players who have played with some of the best. It presents a half hour of pretty traditional bluegrass music representing what a person who might attend a concert or festival with something that would never be out of place in either setting. At the same time, it doesn't challenge the audience with controversial or unusual music or subject matter. There's no pushing for innovation here, just good, solid bluegrass music. All four pickers in the group represent the qualities expected from their instruments in fully professional and satisfying ways. And in this setting, that's what's called for. The audience came to enjoy a bluegrass show as part of the whole Dollywood experience without devoting a whole day to the music, always knowing that there was more to do than could be accomplished in a single day.  In other words, they delivered what was expected with skill, providing tuneful fun for their audience.

Jerry Butler

Ashley Bradley

Ashley has played with a variety of bands and served in a range of roles during her thirteen years at Dollywood. She has a warm, well-modulated, and pleasing voice, which blends with other members of the band nearly perfectly. She'd be a strong addition to any bluegrass or country band.

Roger Helton

We've enjoyed Roger as a featured performer with other bands, so we knew what to expect here. He's equally adept on the banjo, Dobro, and guitar, playing a variety of kinds of music adapted to the setting and the song. He's always a pleasure to see and hear.

Kerry Kooch

Kerry Kooch has toured nationally with several major country and bluegrass bands as well as currently with the Jerry Butler Band. He's lively and pleasant, as well as pushing the band with his driving bass beat.

Bands like The Smoky Mountain String Band always raise a question in my mind about bluegrass bands specifically, and, more broadly, about musicians and bands. How many fine musicians and highly entertaining bands are there that we never, ever hear of? As we've traveled the bluegrass trail for what's now exceeded fifteen years, we hear the same litany almost everywhere. "You should hear the _______________ Bluegrass Band! They're as good as any band on tour." Usually, the statement isn't completely true, for there's no substitute for the daily grind of touring and the practice it provides. But just often enough, we encounter really good local bluegrass bands, which would do just fine on tour. Many musicians we've met have spent their time on the road before opting for a more reliable life, a steady job, and the home fires. They've had the road experience and decided to stay closer to home. An outstanding example which comes quickly to mind, is the Grass Cats, a North Carolina Band which seldom strays from home, but whose recording career and media support suggest a possible much wider audience. There are lots more, too!

As we moseyed  towards the gate, tired and increasingly aware that we are getting a little old, we strolled past some of the other attractions of the park.

A Southern Belle Makes a Little Girl Happy

Smoky Mountain River Rampage

The Lightning Rod

Jukebox Junction

Towards the Exit

The Dollywood Express

As we ambled out of Dollywood, we appreciated the day's small crowd, the friendly, helpful employees, and the clean environment. We boarded the shuttle, not crowded yet, as we were leaving early, and returned to our truck satisfied we had seen what we wanted to see.