Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Visit to Danby Four Corners Store - Danby, VT

If you attend bluegrass festivals in New England or New York, you’ve probably seen a black trailer and awning setup along vendor’s row saying Danby Four Corners Store, Danby, VT. Under the awning you might find Linda Ralph or her husband Harry (Butch) selling a variety of gear. If you look further, you’d find an assortment of very high quality Martin and Gibson bluegrass guitars, banjos, and mandolins. Sometimes, especially if they have plenty of space, you’ll also see musicians stopping in to play their instruments or spreading out to jam with the Ralphs. Perhaps Eric Gibson or some other touring musician will be sitting in. Their son, Harry Ralph, Jr., is likely to be there, especially if Cabin Fever, for whom he plays fiddle and sometimes mandolin, is on the bill. Sometimes the Ralph’s band, Family and Friends, is part of the lineup so you can see this actively involved bluegrass family on stage presenting classic country songs as well as Linda’s own pleasant and accessible compositions. You may have stopped at the Ralph’s booth for a chat, to buy some strings, a capo, some picks, or a tab book. Chances are, however, that you never took the next step and travelled through rural Vermont to visit the Danby Four Corners Store. We had been talking to Linda for a couple of years about coming to the store to look at a Martin guitar for our son, but we don’t think she really believed we would ever appear.

On a sunny, clear late August Monday morning, we arranged to meet Alex at Danby Four Corners Store. We drove east from Glens Falls, NY through the lovely rolling countryside with corn ripening in the fields. The verdant Green Mountains rose in the background. We crossed into Vermont at Granville in the Slate Valley. At Pawlet we found the Pawlet – Danby Road as the hills became steeper and the road narrower. Farms and country homes dotted the landscape as the timber covered mountains provided the typical Vermont scenic wonder, a sense that around each corner some professional landscaper has arranged for a picture postcard view to be placed for your pleasure alone. In a few weeks these hills will be alive with autumn colors and leaf peepers from the city and arriving in RVs from the South, but today the road was quiet and practically empty. We come to a corner intersection with Tinmouth Road just past a riding stable and there stands a small, white frame building housing the Danby Four Corners Store. A sign on the side of the building says “Martin Guitars and Gibson banjos, mandolins, dobros Sold Here.”

As we walk into the store, Linda recognizes us and says that Alex is already in the backroom playing the Martin D18 Golden Era model we had wanted him to try. Danby Four Corners Store, like many country stores, stocks a little bit of everything. The nearest supermarket is probably in Manchester, VT, an important tourist center, about fifteen miles down the road. There’s a single gas pump offering regular gasoline outside, easily blocked by the limited number of parking spaces available. Inside the double door, necessitated by the harsh winters in this part of the world, is a cramped jumble of groceries, soda coolers, boots for sale, sunglasses, bug dope, chips, candy, beer and cigarettes presided over by the busy, but smiling Linda Ralph. A few inexpensive instruments hang high on the walls. But walk through the narrow aisles into the cluttered back room and a new world is revealed.

There’s a leather office chair, a computer, a boxed snack cake available for employees, stacks of bills, letters, and papers, and, hanging from the walls, placed on stands, and in cases everywhere – acoustic instruments. A big doghouse bass fiddle stands just inside the door. Turn right and there are instrument straps, boxes of strings, racks of tab and instructional books and, sitting in the midst of all this, our son Alex strumming a guitar, a blissful smile beginning to suffuse his face. He strums and picks – Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Doc Watson. Irene sings harmony to his lead. I pick up an Earl Scruggs model Gibson banjo, but it’s too loud for him to be able to hear the instrument he’s playing. Linda suggests he try the standard model D18 and takes about a minute for us each to recognize the difference between the two instruments. Alex returns to the Golden Era. He’s beginning to nod and we quickly settle with Linda on a price. Irene writes a check. Linda sweetens the deal with some t-shirts, strings, and a humidifier which nearly makes up for the VT sales tax. She talks to Alex about ways to care for his new instrument. Butch installs the hardware for a strap and Linda throws in a leather guitar strap and we head for the door.

We go outside the store and Alex puts his new instrument in the back seat of his Volvo, neglecting to tighten the seatbelt, then opens the window to keep it from getting too hot. As we lean on the back of our truck, not kicking the tires, a load of wood on a truck passes by and a voice yells out, “Hey Alex, getting a guitar?” Vermont is really a small state. We chat and the big revelation comes out. “I’ve been listening to Bluegrass Junction [XM radio, channel 14] and it suddenly hit me. I see all these connections to Americana and roots music. I’m beginning to find all kinds of things I like about the music. I’m sorry the two of you didn’t bring your instruments.” Could there be a more wonderful day?

Linda and Butch Ralph
and Grandson Zachary

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Upper Hudson BGF - Review and Pics

The Upper Hudson Bluegrass Festival held its fourth annual event on the grounds of the Ski Bowl Park in North Creek, NY from August 24 - 26 this year. We attended the Saturday session. The grounds are quite appropriate for a festival with plenty of space for RVers as well as a covered pavilion providing shade, flush toilets (a happy addition to any festival), and room for plenty of day parking. Promoter Rusty Leigh drew together two national touring bands as well as a solid assortment of local and regional bands, highlighted by Jr. Barber and brother-sister
duo Julie Hogan and Tom Venne. Barber, a master Dobro player adds depth to the solid harmonies and instrumental work of Venne and Hogan who sang and played their own work as well as classic country and bluegrass covers. This band, known at Beartracks is always entertaining and energetic.
Beartracks on Stage

Smokey Greene, who, over fifty years has become an institution at New York and New England as well as Florida festivals is making noises about retiring, but it's difficult to imagine this seventy-seven year old trooper not being on stage singing his own humorous and serious compostions as well as tributes to Ernest Tubbs and other country artists.

Smokey Greene
Gold Wing Express was one of the two featured touring bands. This band, which makes its permanent home in Branson, MO has not been one of my favorites, but yesterday I found myself really getting into their comedy and their instrumental work is generally quite good, although father Bob Baldridge is only a mediocre mandolin player. The interplay and affectionate banter between the curly haired blonde father and his three Indian sons is amusing and usually a crowd favorite. Their first set was interrupted by a booming thunderstorm, which they endured good naturedly, and their second set, under a clear sky, was more than well received. Our friend Connie loved them. This group has come up with an interesting way of marketing their merchandise. They invite people to come to tour their bus and "shake and howdy" as well as buy merchandise on the bus. They comment that many people have asked about travelling in they bust, so they want fans to see what it's like. It's pretty hard to go into someone's home for a tour without then purchasing at least a CD.

Bob Baldridge

Shawn David

Paul David

Stephen Joseph
The Gibson Brothers, viewed as a local band by many Adironackers even though their national reputation is growing exponentially, drew everyone to the performance venue and provided one of their best sets this year. Junior Barber had been a member of this band in their early years and sat in with them for a good portion of their evening set. The Gibsons are headed for the studio to record a new CD this autumn and have been previewing new material as well as playing their performing music their fans know and love. "Tennessee Blues" offers mandolinist Rick Hayes an opportunity to shine using a new mandolin he has built. Hayes has improved measurably in the past three years and does a fine job on this tune as well as his regular play with the band. Members of this band are never satisfied with their work and continue to work to improve an already fine product with each performance. They have played on both coasts as well as in the midwest this year and will be appearing at several Florida festivals this winter. They're well worth making an effort to see.

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson

Mike Barber

Clayton Campbell

Rick Hayes

Promoter Rusty Leigh

Friday, August 24, 2007

Sketches of Sam Bush by Speedy Arnold

George (Speedy) Arnold plays guitar and sings for the bluegrass band Three Doug Knight, which appears at local bluegrass festivals in the Adirondack region of New York State. The band is most enjoyable and we’ve heard them play several times this summer. Last week, at the Otis Mtn. Festival, I learned that Speedy Arnold also illustrates children’s books. Later I saw him sketching during the Sam Bush set. As with many able and talented people who live in the Adirondacks, Speedy does a variety of things to keep body and soul together. He serves as a school bus driver in the Ausable Valley Central School District, owns and operates Arnold’s Grocery and Likker Lokker in Keeseville, NY and serves as assessor for the Town of Ausable. Information about his illustrations can be found here.

Here are two sketches Speedy did during Sam’s set.

You can contact him about others.

Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks

Reading Fiasco has elicited a mixed reaction from me, but overall, my disgust (looking for a strong enough word without lapsing into distasteful) with the administration of the war in Iraq and in our own country has grown to almost unspeakable levels. At the same time, while the picture is somewhat more mixed, my admiration for our professional military has grown immensely. The picture Ricks paints is of a military that, while prone to enormous error and hubris, nevertheless takes self-criticism and analysis more seriously than almost any other segment of our society and then uses this analysis to improve the way it approaches solving the problems facing it. His account of Lessons Learned by the Army and Marine Corps both through on the ground reports, blogs, e-mails, and articles by serving soldiers and the official and semi-official research conducted by analysts within the services shows organizations oriented to seeking not to make the same mistakes twice while at the same time prone to fight the previous war and fall into earlier failed practices because of their native (small c) conservatism.

As in any well told story, Fiasco has its share of heroes, villains, and goats. The villains are generally people on the political side of the equation who trumped up a war using false pretenses and faulty rationales to eliminate a regime without giving any thought to how difficult the rebuilding job would be. As expected, the initial military enterprise was apparently successful, although the seeds it planted led inevitably, considering the administration’s lack of vision, to the morass we now find ourselves in. The people who emerge as most responsible are the usual suspects: Bush, Rumsfeld, Bremer, and Sanchez. They either failed to provide the planning and resources necessary for success or set examples of lack of respect and sloppy analysis which set an example for those down the chain of command.

The goats emerge as those people either taken in by the administration or so deeply immersed in their previous experiences that they could not see the reality on the ground for the ideology in their minds leading to great mistakes. The most prestigious of the goats, although in many ways a minor player in this narrative, is Colin Powel, who wasted his immense prestige and moral force when he went before the United Nations and gave a speech he only later learned was a lie. Another goat is General Raymond Odierno, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, whose heavy handed, aggressive handling of Iraqi people helped energize and strengthen the insurgency that developed and still devils us. His influence for error overcame any good that might have been accomplished by his unit’s capture of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, he shows the capacity to learn new approaches as indicated by his present position as General David Patreus’ chief deputy.

The heroes tend to be two types of people. First are the people who see most closely the daily effects of the war on themselves and the Iraqi people. These people are thoughtful non-commissioned officers and middle management young officers, often graduates of West Point. They bring insight and intelligence to their experience, learning from their mistakes and striving to make those up the chain of command aware of the realities of their daily existence. The other category of hero includes senior officers who served in Vietnam or the Gulf War and then went on to a range of command and staff positions while studying for advanced degrees at the nation’s best universities. These officers, including men like Generals Anthony Zinni and David Patreus, bring an academic expertise grounded in combat experience to their analysis. These people have become experts in the nature and practice of counter insurgency warfare and see ways to apply its principles in the current conflict. When given command in tactical areas, they succeed. When given higher responsibilities for the strategic conduct of the war, they eventually achieve a level of influence that affects the highest levels conducting the war. The largest remaining question is whether they have been given such responsibility too late to have the desired effect.

Through his use of precise details of both successes and failures in the field, Ricks makes clear what no other reporting I’ve read has. In example after example he demonstrates how political concerns negated effective military action or efforts to establish relations with the Iraqi people. Military officers, having learned in places like Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia how to interact with and influence an insurgency, were prohibited from doing exactly those things that would have worked toward stated US strategy in order to achieve short term tactical goals or tamp down growing disenchantment at home by seeming to be attacking the problem while actually losing ground that had been gained.

Ricks demonstrates that much of the failure we have encountered in Iraq is a direct result of the failure of leadership from the top of the chain of command. From daily encounters with ordinary Iraqis to the shame of Abu Ghraib, officials in both the civilian and military structure have closed their eyes to the truth, denied facts presented to them, covered their errors by shading the truth or lying directly to the people and to Congress, and refusing to undertake the sort of thoughtful analysis that might have led to a different outcome. At every stage from the run-up to the war until the present day, the inconvenient analyses of responsible people within the structure have been ignored. Many who spoke and wrote the truth have seen their careers fall in tatters around them or have left military and government service in disgust or disillusionment over their inability to be heard. Perhaps the most thoughtful and insightful analysis on these issues has come from middle management military personnel writing on web sites designed to assist fellow officers in adopting effective practices on the ground in the streets of Iraq. Until the appointment of Gen. David Patreus, no American commander has been a specialist in counterinsurgency. Now in charge in Iraq, his presence may provide too little too late. Recent indications are that the administration so fears his upcoming September 2007 report that they seek to blunt it behind the testimony of the secretaries of state and defense. What remains, in the end, is the sense that American policy of containment from 1991 – 2002 was succeeding quite adequately in keeping Iraq powerless and in place. Furthermore, the war in Iraq took our eyes off the ball, which was thrown by Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan and had nothing much to do with Iraq. We will pay for this error in judgment for generations.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sam Bush and Infamous Stringdusters Lead at Otis Mtn..

Saturday evening August 18th at the Otis Mountain Music Festival in Elizabethtown, NY was cool and clear, but neither the fans nor the bands felt cold as the Sam Bush Band and the Infamous Stringdusters heated up the night. Promoter Jeff Allot has worked hard to make this small festival in the rugged Adirondack Mountains a success. In bringing one of the great bands of bluegrass history as well as one of the hottest young bands on the circuit together for a day, Allot scored a huge artistic success. Whether this proves to be a financial success and allows him to continue this great festival remains to be seen, but this festival deserves support and encouragement. I’ll write a longer appraisal of the two day even later in the week. For now, here’s a set of highlight pictures.

New England Bluegrass Band

Infamous Stringdusters

Andy Hall

Chris Eldridge

Jeremy Garrett

Chris Pandolfi

Jesse Cobb and Travis Book

Travis Book

Sam Bush Band

Sam Bush Workshop

Sam Bush Band

Scott Vestal

Byron House

Sam Bush

Sam and Jesse Jam

Bush Band and Stringdusters Jam

Promoter Jeff Allot

The closing jam provided one of those thrilling moments that may only happen in bluegrass festivals. In the encore, Sam invited the Stringdusters to join him and they jammed for half an hour to the delight of the crowd that whooped it up for more. It was simply a great night. The New England Bluegrass Band, Big Spike, and Three Doug Knight all deserve credit, too, and I'll be posting more later in the week.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Pickin' in the Pasture, Lodi, NY - Preview

Pickin’ in the Pasture will open its gates at noon on Wednesday, August 22 for campers getting ready for this really enjoyable rural festival above the shores of Seneca Lake in the Finger Lakes Region of central New York. Lodi, New York is a tiny farm town. There are few services and almost no accommodations nearby, so this festival is largely a resident experience for campers who come from throughout the region for four days of great bluegrass performance and high quality, enthusiastic field picking. In the case of this festival, the word “field” should be taken literally. Day trippers come from nearby Rochester, Ithaca, and Syracuse. Promoters Andy and Susan Alexander, along with their son Jesse, operate a sheep farm. Until several days before the festival begins, its grounds are several large sheep pastures. For the festival, the grass is cut and the sweet aroma of mown hay permeates the area. Much of the camping space, particularly closer to the main stage, is not quite level, so first time attendees should bring plenty of material for leveling their rigs. Perched on the side of a hill, the view reaches out across the beautiful Seneca Lake and rural New York. People thinking of New York as paved over have quite a surprise in store for them.

While we won’t be at Pickin’ in the Pasture this year because of a conflict, this is a very well run festival with a strong lineup and plenty more to recommend it. The vendors offer good food as well as fair food. An unusual vendor for a bluegrass festival is a booth selling lamb in several different forms. The Alexanders always offer a strong range of workshops and vendors as well. Local Amish farmers sell fresh produce and baked goods on Thursday through Saturday. Fresh water and ice are available. The chicken barbecue benefits the local fire department. Another interesting event usually held on Saturday morning, features Andy and his Border collie moving 600 sheep from one paddock to another. The skill of the dog and the interplay between master and his canine assistant are fascinating to watch.

All other attractions aside, this festival stands out because it has a good lineup and lots of Pickin. The Lonesome River Band headlines this year’s festival with their appearance on Thursday, offering as strong a kick-off as any festival could wish for. Despite recent changes in personnel, the current band, which we saw twice in Florida last winter, is as strong as anyone could ask for. The return of Brandon Rickman singing lead and playing a hot guitar and the addition of Matt Leadbetter on Dobro gives this band real depth to complement Sammy Shelor’s magnificent banjo work. Andy Ball on mandolin and tenor vocals adds still more depth.

David Davis and the Warrior River Band come to Lodi from Alabama. Their music is very finely honed traditional bluegrass. Davis is a fine Monroe style mandolin player and is ably supported by a very good band. They are only rarely seen at northern bluegrass festivals, so it’s a treat to be able to hear them here. The Steep Canyon Rangers return to Pickin’ in the Pasture after a year highlighted by their being selected as IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year for 2006. This band, which came together as students at the University of North Carolina, presents a selection of their own work in traditional style. Graham Sharpe’s “Just Like Dale” is a talkin’ song that will please any NASCAR fan. Their song “Lovin’ Pretty Women” is the title song of their new CD. Their high energy presentation and first rate musicianship make them a hit at many festivals.

Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys offer an opportunity to see one of the great first generation players whose contributions to mandolin style have complemented the early work of Bill Monroe and added greatly to bluegrass mandolin style. For many years he toured with his late Brother Jim, and well into his seventies, Jesse is still creative on the mandolin and retains a strong voice. Smokey Greene, also well into his seventies, is a fixture at bluegrass festivals in the northeast and in Florida. It would be uncharitable to call his a solo act as his guitar “Ben A. Martin” is very much in evidence. Smokey has written hundred of songs and offers from his own work as well as classic country, folk, and bluegrass selections. The Lewis Family Band has been touring for over fifty years offering their unique form of gospel bluegrass and broad comedy. Little Roy Lewis does not receive sufficient recognition as a great banjo player because of his commitment to gospel and his clowning despite the fact that he’s one of the banjo greats. He performs with his three sisters and nephew Lewis. Sister Polly has been quite ill recently.

Rounding out the touring bands appearing at Pickin’ in the Pasture are Goldwing Express and The Abrams Brothers. These are both family bands, but quite different. Goldwing Express appears regularly in Branson, MO and tours relatively infrequently. The three sons bill themselves as the Indian (Cherokee) sons of a full blooded mother and their blonde, white father. Their act contains a good deal of humor based their ancestry and the supposed dumbness of their dad. Many audiences enjoy both their comedy and their music. The Abrams Brothers, John (16) and James (14) are primarily a gospel band from Ontario, Canada, supported by their father, grandfather, and a cousin as well as a non-family banjo player. They are a developing band who have made an appearance at the Grand Ol’ Opry and whose schedule shows ambitions to become an international band.

Local bands are also an important feature of this festival. The host band is Seneca County Bluegrass, which is led by hosts Andy and Susan Alexander and will perform on the first three days. Their son Jesse will appear on Saturday. The Cabin Fever Band, based in Norwich, NY plays traditional bluegrass and their mandolin player and lead singer was also a member of Smokey Greene’s band for many years. Mike Tirella leads this quality band with humor and energy. James Reams and the Barnstormers appear on Sunday. They’re a traditional bluegrass band. Finally, Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass is a regional band on their way to attaining the national reputation they deserve. Several years ago, on the death of his father Bob, Danny Paisley stepped to the front of this excellent band. They play traditional, hard driving bluegrass with skill, speed, and respect for the traditions of the music. This is another first rate band.

Pickin’ in the Pasture runs from August 23-26 in Lodi, NY. Tickets may be ordered from their web site or obtained at the gate.