Monday, October 29, 2007

Riverbend Bluegrass Festival, Ocilla, GA - Review

Drive onto the grounds of the Riverbend Bluegrass Festival and you find yourself in the midst of the beauty of the agricultural south. The performance area as well as much of the campground lies in the midst of a grove of stately pecan trees, at this time of year dropping their fruit for folks to pick up and crack open. Beside the campground in one direction are fields of cotton, ripe and ready to be harvested. Nearby one of Georgia’s other major crops, peanuts, are nearly ready to go to the warehouse. In the pretty nearby town of Ocilla, the annual sweet potato festival will take place on the same Saturday as the big day of the festival. We arrive early in the afternoon on Wednesday to find many RVs already parked and the rather small covered shed nearly filled with chairs already. We’re happy to find our spot is quite near the stage and convenient to all facilities and even happier to learn that this isolated small event has a broadband service of sorts. By Friday, the grounds are nearly full, and promoter Verniece Kennedy is looking for spots to shoehorn rigs into. The vendors have set up, some of the musicians begin to appear, and the bluegrass community is set for another weekend.

Thursday evening features open mic performances, which we decide to ignore in favor of watching the first game of the World Series. Most people here appear blissfully unaware that baseball is being played anywhere and, indeed, during the weekend we only talk to one other person who cares. Music begins on Friday evening at 6:00 PM with the host band, The Riverbend Bluegrass Band opening up. Verniece sings creditably while husband Dale and the other band members are entertaining. The four of the five professional bands for the weekend follow. Fontanna Sunset is the only band we haven’t heard before. Fronted by Frances Mooney, one of the Daughters of Bluegrass, this band is one of those delightful regional bands that always provide surprises at bluegrass festivals. Frances Mooney has been in bluegrass music forever. She has a fine voice, deep timbred and full, she and slaps a pretty good bass, too. Her support is strong and this band deserves more attention. Her son Mark plays a very good rhythm guitar as well as doing some creditable flat-picking. Their voices blend as only those or relatives can, close and clear, they’re a pleasure to hear. Other band members provide experienced, solid support. Most band members are from Georgia and their schedule doesn’t take them too far afield, although they’ll be seen in Tennsessee, Florida, and Mississippi in the coming year. Frances will make some appearances with the Daughters of Bluegrass, a group which is more a recording effort than a performing one, but which will be increasingly in demand to perform together.

Four of the five featured bands appeared on Friday as well as Saturday. Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road led off with one of the best sets we’ve seen them do. The crowd was alive and responsive, lifting Carolina Road to a higher level of performance than even their usual very professional and high quality work. During the past year, this band has developed cohesiveness, increased its warmth, broadened its appeal, and raised its standard of performance. The personnel have been stabilized, yielding real variety and quality. Lorraine remains the decided band front, yet has ceded some of the emcee duties to the genial Jerry Butler, who has established a relaxed camaraderie with her that is fun to watch. Benny Greene is always reliable on banjo as is Todd Meade on bass. On Saturday, dressed in drag, we finally heard Todd sing, too, as Josh Goforth had to meet another obligation. With Josh on fiddle as well as playing a very good finger picking guitar, this band can provide a real breadth of quality music even as it adhere’s pretty closely to Monroe style bluegrass. By including some classic country and a few novelty numbers, this excellent band can always be counted on.

The Gary Waldrep Band can also always be counted on the provide a solid and enjoyable performance. Waldrep, coming from northeastern Alabama, plays in what is called the Sand Mountain style. I’m not enough of an analyst to describe the essentials of his approach, but Waldrep’s band features his blazing fast banjo in both Scruggs style picking and clawhammer, with a very strong primitive gospel component. Waldrep communicates clearly and fervently his deep religious conviction in songs like his signature, Thomas. Two standouts in Gary’s band are guitarist and tenor singer Mindy Rakestraw and bassist Jane Baxter. Waldrep is one of the few bluegrass band leaders to place two (sometimes three, although fiddler Shirley Simes has moved on.) female performers in key positions in his band and is to be applauded for this. Rakestraw plays very solid rhythm guitar and has several opportunities to sing solos as well. Baxter, who’s been in bluegrass since before she was born, is a versatile bassist and sings both gospel and blues with real depth. Stan Wilemon, an experienced bluegrasser, is excellent on mandolin and backup harmonies. Waldrep is an exciting performer who is also an extremely generous bandleader. He deserves broader exposure.

I am not a fan of Goldwing Express. This band, based in Branson, MO gives a slick, sometimes amusing, canned performance which is exactly right for Branson type audiences and attracts a number of devoted fans to their performances on the road. This being said, the band tries to have it both ways as the father, Bob Baldridge, portrays the dirty old man making allusions to his sex life and continually returning to bathroom talk while his dutiful sons try to keep him from making comments. By using this approach, the sons appear to be clean cut and straight while the father can say anything the group wants to say. His use of the insulting ethnic slur “Polock” is unacceptable before any audience. This is accentuated by the group’s double message in referring to their Cherokee heritage while calling their father “white man” and singing about the infamous “Trail of Tears.” From time to time I found myself laughing at his act and then wanting to go wash my mouth out with soap. The cynical and manipulative appeal to motherhood, country and God used as the finale to their last set set comes across as insincere and makes this group seem untrustworthy to me.

We’ve been watching the Wilson Family Band from Folkston, GA for nearly a year now and they just keep getting better. Robert Wilson has been around bluegrass music for quite some time, beginning his career touring with the River Grass Review in the eighties. He and wife Melissa have built a family band around their two children, Clint, age 17 and Katie – 12. With the addition of Drew Jones on bass, this young band is maturing almost by the day. Katie, a gifted singer/songwriter who plays the fiddle has continued to improve in every aspect of her performance. At Riverbend it was clear that she has developed a deeper understanding of her instrument and its potential inside a bluegrass band. She is taking risks and hits much more often than she misses. She has become a solid mainstay of a good band, and is not to be seen as a novelty kid who can perform. Brother Clint has also continued to mature and expand. This weekend was the first time we had seen him perform on the mandolin and guitar as well as his primary instrument, banjo. He made significant contributions at the workshop the family conducted on Saturday morning, too. Even though the band’s focus is on the kids, Melissa is taking more and more intricate mandolin breaks as her confidence before an audience increases. Drew Jones provides a solid beat at bass and also offered some strong flat picking on the guitar. The Wilson Family Band is the kind of band that audiences respond to strongly. They play a solid mixture of gospel and traditional bluegrass as well as several songs written by the kids. They will only continue to improve as they mature with their instruments and their connection to the music.

Riverbend attracted a very enthusiastic and large audience this year, completely filling the available campsites to overflowing. Gene Daniel did a good job on sound and Jo Odum was a lively and engaging emcee. A good variety of food was offered and a real sense of connection between the crowd and the performers prevailed. Riverbend Music Park offers two festivals in the year, April and October and should be considered as a stop on your bluegrass trail, particularly if you like a strong component of gospel with your traditional bluegrass.

Halloween Silliness

Gary Waldrep
Todd Meade
Lorraine Jordan

Jane Baxter

Jo Odum

Friday, October 26, 2007

Georgia Agrirama- Tifton, Georgia

The Georgia Agrirama sits on 90 acres just off exit 63 of I-75 in Tifton, Georgia. This living history museum is designed to recreate rural Georgia farm life in the south-central portion of the state known as Wiregrass after the hardy grass growing under the long needle Georgia pines of the region. We pull into the nearly empty parking lot around 11:00 in the morning and wait at the cash register for someone to take out money. Then we head out onto the grounds. Our first impression is that there’s not too much enthusiasm among the staff for this museum, and we can’t get a handle on the grounds right away. We enter a late nineteenth century home called the Tift House. Captain Henry Harding Tift, originally from Mystic, CT built this home in the thriving town of Tifton where his development efforts created a thriving market town. The house has lovely wood and high quality moldings, but seems stark and unlived-in. It is a comfortable home, but probably not of the standard a person of the same standing would have had in his home town of Mystic had he stayed there.

After paying proper respect to Captain Tift and his home, our visit to the Agrirama took a decided step upwards. The museum is divided into several distinct social and economic regions including a bare subsistence farm, a more substantial farmstead, a progressive farm of the late 1890’s, a small town main street with several businesses, and a steam powered train to help visitors get an overview of the entire operation. Buildings have been brought from various towns in the region and lovingly restored. Interpreters in appropriate costume were well informed and refreshingly candid, when they didn’t know an answer, they declined to fake it. More delightfully, almost all the people we talked with were eager to discuss their jobs, the world they were portraying, and their sense that this world is an important element for educating young people to a world that is fast disappearing. Many of the employees are retired from other pursuits and are people who were brought up on farms in the region, understand rural life in South Georgia, and mourn the loss of rural values and pursuits. We were fortunate in that on this very pleasantly warm day in late October, almost no one was visiting the Agrirama and everyone had plenty of time to chat about their role and its relationship to their lives.

We heard the wail of the steam train whistle as it chugged into the station and hurried over to board in time for a ride around the 95 acre grounds. Few people today have ever seen a steam locomotive, yet alone had a chance to ride behind one. The friendly conductor boarded us and the two other people who were on this trip, and we lurched out of the station with the whistle blowing. The trip headed into the woods and then circumnavigated the large pond dominating the edge of the facility. It circled past several of the farms and returns to the station, having given us a useful overview for the rest of our stay.

We walked away through the woods to the gristmill where the miller was grinding white corn meal on a water powered stone grinder. He described the way the mill was brought to the location in pieces and the difficulty museum personnel had in reconstructing it until a miller more familiar with the process was brought in to erect it. We happily bought a bag of corn meal which will, no doubt, produce fresh and tasty muffins soon enough. From there we walked on through the woods to the industrial area where we came upon the steam-powered sawmill. Working with thick tree trunks, the sawyer was cutting 1x12 boards with a smooth and easy familiarity. The belt driven system drove the saw, moved the log through it, and transported the sawdust to a pile. A crosscut saw, which we didn’t see in operation, was also a part of the system. The huge blade ate easily through the tree. Other buildings in the industrial area included a print shop where the Museum Guide and a mock-up newspaper of local nineteenth century paper. The printer and his assistant, a lively woman we later learned is 90 years old, provided much information concerning the equipment and its importance to life of the times. Nearby was the Variety Works building where steam driven equipment including a lathe, band saw, planer, and other tools were used to manufacture necessary equipment. A complex of buildings containing a feed store and drug store were less satisfactory as the contents of the two buildings were sparse. It’s important to note that this museum is still a work in progress, having opened on the bicentennial day of July 4, 1976. It relies on donors to give artifacts to it. Many of the exhibits would benefit greatly from continued dressing up of their contents. Many of the employees have clear ideas about ways that their exhibits could be improved.

Perhaps the highlight of the museum for us was the cotton gin. This region is still a cotton producer and during the turn-of-the-century portrayed here, cotton was an even more important crop. Powered, again, by steam, the gin shows clearly how agriculture benefitted from the mechanization of a process that must have been nearly impossible before the gin’s invention. The two hosts of this exhibit were very enthusiastic about the equipment they run.

At Miller’s house farmstead, several local school girls on a field trip were dressed in costume and doing cross-stitch under the tutelage of the hostess. They were eager to tell us about the building and really quite delightful. There were some farm animals about, including a mule being trained to haul a wagon carrying visitors.

The main building contains a museum which clearly is being developed at this time. A new exhibit, not yet completed, portrays the difficult turpentine industry. Within a wooden shack, a film runs showing an elderly black man collecting pine pitch for later distillation into spirits of turpentine. Such animated exhibits will greatly improve the overall effectiveness of this museum. This is a large facility containing 35 buildings in four distinct areas using about a third of the 95 acre tract. It depicts rural and small town life in South Georgia during a time when the rising prosperity of much of the country had not yet fully penetrated the region. One element sadly underemphasized is the importance of black people to the economy and the difficulties encountered in recovering from both the economic and social disruptions of the post reconstruction period following the Civil War.

The Georgia Agrirama is owned by the State. It provides a valuable insight into rural farm and town life in late nineteenth century Georgia, and more generally rural America. Admission is only $7.00. It is open Tuesday through Saturday and is well worth several hours’ visit.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Carolina in the Fall and The Kruger Brothers - Review

If you’re looking for a bluegrass festival, this isn’t it. How about an Americana music festival? Well…no. Mountain music? Not that either. It’s not folk music either. But if you’re after just plain great music leavened with the taste and great picking of the Kruger Brothers, Carolina in the Fall is the place you want to be on the third weekend in October. In a sense Carolina in the Fall isn’t a Music Festival as you might think of one. There aren’t a bunch of bands who come here to perform and then leave. There’s no easily recognizable schedule, so you won’t be able to return to your rig to jam until the band you want to see takes the stage. There’s no camping on the Shepherd Farm. There’s the Kruger Brothers and an eclectic bunch of their friends from the U.S. and Europe. There are old time mountain people like Maynard Holbrook, and Clint Howard, hot pickers like Scott Fore and Steve Kilby, singer/songwriters like Charles Tesh and Si Kahn, family singer/pickers like Zeb and Samantha Snyder and the Cockman Family. Over the day and a half, you’ll hear just about any kind of acoustic…well, there’s electric, too…music you may want. And overarching all are the glorious sounds and expansive spirits of the Krugers themselves.

There is simply no one who plays a banjo better than Jens Kruger. Uwe Kruger is a marvelous flat picker and rhythm guitarist and a fine singer. Joel Landsburg is incomparable on the bass. One of the three hits a chord and, as if by magic, all three are on the same musical page, playing so well they don’t have to pay attention to their instruments, leaving themselves time and energy to be totally in tune with each other. During their workshop in the morning, Jens, Uwe, and Joel just sat on stage and chatted with the audience about their instruments, strings, learning to play, making a living playing in Europe, practice, scales…the whole world of music. Whenever they wanted to illustrate a point, one would strike a chord and immediately all three were into the middle of the piece with no introduction or discussion at all. Their precision and verve not only gave the audience education in the world of music, but presented models of how people get to be in tune with each other.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about watching the Krugers work with all sorts of people during the two days was the way their performance always served the music first. It’s not as if they have no ego. Each man in the trio knows how good he is, but ego is subordinated to the music. Each performer invited to Carolina in the Fall brought a particular sound or skill level. A number of children performed. Simple country men, or at least as simple as years of performing at festivals leaves a person, talked and sang. Sophisticated singer/songwriters and world champion flat pickers sat on the stage with men of local renown. In their solo sets, the Krugers played favorites from their albums, improvised on a variety of forms, sang, and talked and joked with the crowd in a relaxed and genuinely welcoming fashion. In every case, the Krugers stayed on stage with them and provided the backup to help make their music sound its very best.

A good example of this occurred on Friday night. BackPorch Bluegrass is a very good local band composed of men who play gigs regularly in the region, but who have either by choice or necessity kept their day jobs and continued to play as an avocation and to supplement their incomes. Billy Ray Sunderlin is an accomplished banjo picker, but there are hundreds of men across the country who pick at the same level. Near the completion of their performance kicking off the festival on Friday, the Krugers took the stage to pick with them. Billy Ray indicated his willingness to let Jens, the master, take the lead, but Jens kept him forefront. Together they ripped off “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” that classic Earl Scruggs piece known to nearly everyone through the film “Bonnie and Clyde.” The obvious pride Billy Ray took in playing on stage with Jens was only equaled by Jens’ pleasure at playing with him. While it is always within Jens’ capacity to make another player appear the lesser, he never did anything but play in such a way as to make the person he was on stage with sound better.

Another example of Jens’ sheer humanity comes from a more personal place. On Friday afternoon I approached Jens to tell him I had bought a Deering 30th Anniversary banjo and how much I loved it. He said he’d like to see it and play it. On Saturday we lugged it over and early in the morning I pulled it out to show him. His eyes lit up as he looked at it and played a few notes on it. He said, “You’ve got a real professional tool here.” He then indicated the instrument needed some set-up and asked if I would mind if he changed the bridge, put on a new set of strings, and made some other adjustments. I leapt at the offer and he named a general time period later in the day. As the day went along, I decided that the Krugers were surely much too busy for the dreamed tune-up to ever happen and prepared to carry my banjo back to the truck. I was chatting with Uwe Kruger when Jens came up carrying a small tool box and said, “I’m ready.”

We went into the musicians tent behind the stage and Jens took the resonator off my instrument, played a few notes and started replaced the bridge with a new Snuffy Smith. He then put on a new set of d’Addario strings and filed the bridge and the nut as well as adjusted the tension rods and the head tension. When he sighted down the neck, I was a little worried, but he seemed happy. Every once in a while he’d play a few notes before making slight adjustments to the head tension. His movements were sure and quick, but never hurried. Before he replaced the resonator, I asked him to sign it on the inside, where he wrote “Alles sind Gutt,” and signed and dated it. He then played both his patented triplet laden runs up and down the neck as well as a bluegrass break, bending the neck to provide his particular touch. He had deepened the tone, increased the sustain, and brightened the high end all at once. He nodded, smiled and looking at Steve Kilby, the great flat picker from Wilkesboro, and said, “It sounds better than mine.” Talk about swell with pride! On Sunday afternoon I finally got a chance to play it myself. Guess what. I still don’t sound like Jens Kruger, but the instrument has a deeper and more resonant sound and is even more responsive than before. And I’ve had another priceless gift from the world we’ve only discovered in the past five years. Thanks, Jens.

Robert and Brenda Shepherd have shaped a marvelous experience for music lovers on their lovely farm located at 579 Armory Road in North Wilkesboro, NC. They say the festival developed out of their outgrowing the basement of their home where folks used to stop in to listen to and pick with the Krugers. They’ve provided an intimate two day event, which they want to remain small and informal. I guess, rather than call Carolina in the Fall a festival, I’d characterize it as a celebration – a celebration of music in almost any format, but most of all of the Kruger Brothers and the contributions they make to bringing together diverse strands into a magnificent unity.

Robert, Brenda, and Monica Shepherd

Carolina in the Fall is held in North Wilkesboro, NC on the third weekend in October each year. Visit their website for more information. Rather than write detailed analyses of the many player at this event, I’ll put up more pictures.

Andy Owens

Fiddle Jam

Steve Kilby

Charles Tesh

Maynard Holbrook

Amazing Grace

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Minton’s Music and Pawn and Hometown Opry

Music and pawn shops seem to go together in some way. Musicians travel and sometimes they get down on their luck. It’s a natural for them to seek out a pawn shop and to trade their beloved instrument for much needed cash. Most pawn shops have a collection of guitars and other instruments hanging on the walls. Years ago an uncle of mine picked up a now rare and much sought after White Laydie banjo for $50.00 at a pawn shop in California. It was a prized possession of his until someone broke into his studio in New York and stole it. In our visits to Wilkesboro for Merlefest over the past five years, we had heard much about Minton’s and the Friday morning Hometown Opry, broadcast over WKBC 800 AM from 7:00 AM until 9:00 weekly. We arrived in Wilkesboro on Sunday and dropped into Minton’s on Monday morning. Even though we got there early in the week, there hasn’t been enough time to dig into all the opportunities for learning and enjoyment we’ve been introduced to there.

Minton Music and Loan has been around for a while, owned and operated by Jerry Minton, but it has taken on a different tone and direction since Mike Palmer became a partner about seven years ago. After a career in business, Mike was looking for a change and saw the musical opportunities such a venture might offer. Every instrument has a story, and if wall could talk, there’d be some kind of noise coming from the instruments hung at Minton’s. But as long as neither the walls nor the instruments can talk, Mike Palmer has enough stories to fill the bill. Mike picks guitar himself and was one of the organizers of the first Merlefest through his friendship with Bill Young. He’s known any number of musicians through his earlier business and music contacts and met many more since joining Jerry Minton. It’s never a surprise to walk into Minton’s and find one or more people chatting about or making music. Mike’s wife Kathy says that sometimes Mike and Jerry have kept an instrument much longer than the 90 days required by the pawn agreement in order to make it possible for a musician to get his treasured piece back. Mike is exceptionally gregarious and the store has grown and changed focus over the years he’s been there. The addition of a performance area/studio/stage seating perhaps a hundred and spaces for teaching lessons along with the dozens of quality instruments on the walls provide the visible evidence.

We arrived at Minton’s just after 6:30 AM to get a good seat and watch the proceedings. The even faintly similar experience we’ve had was going to Fred’s Lounge (here’s a link, but Google Fred’s for more info) in Mamou, LA for the Saturday morning Cajun radio show and dance there. The crowd, an interesting combination of family, tourists, and local folks on their way to work, assembled. The band, Back Porch Bluegrass, Mike Palmer and the radio station engineer were setting up the sound and video systems as the audience straggled in, obviously a little short of enough coffee for this hour of the morning. Just before 7:00, the radio guy Steve Hamby, a smiling, energetic man dressed in black, bounded in, put on his headgear, made sure there was a battery in his microphone and kicked off the show.

BackPorch Bluegrass is today’s featured band and they will also kick off Carolina in the Fall, the Kruger’s Brothers’ festival, in the evening. In bluegrass country, it’s a mistake to characterize a band too narrowly as “local” guys. These are seasoned musicians who are used to performing in public and who work at their craft. What often distinguishes a touring band from a local or regional one can be found in some pretty large choices musicians must make before taking the big step of giving up a day job and going on the road. To do so, a person must give up a steady paycheck, health and retirement benefits, and take the hits to family solidarity that frequent and sometimes prolonged absence creates. This is an especially large issue in bluegrass, where even the top people don’t approach a rock band or an opera singer in income. Bluegrass is a labor of love and everywhere in bluegrass country there are bands that are worth listening to. Back Porch Bluegrass is one of these bands. We had seen Billy Ray Summerlin pick his banjo at the Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society tents at Merlefest. He’s fast and good. Bassist Randall Couch provides a solid beat and takes interesting and intricate bass breaks. Josh Winters sings a classic high tenor and contributes well on mandolin. Lead singer David Culler was fighting a cold, but the trio still worked well. Rodney Reavis contributes well on fiddle, playing fiddles he built himself.

In the end, however, the show is the enjoyment of being involved in a live, remote radio program, an historic artifact that has pretty much disappeared from the scene. There’s a birthday drawing, Steve raffling off CDs and other folderol he’s accumulated in his mail. We won a fund raiser flyer from Easter Seals. He involves a first-time visitor in an experience best not spoiled by further discussion, but funny and enjoyable for everyone, including the new person. Co-station owner Ed Racey appears as Edgar Allen Racey to read a short humorous poem and as Edgar Holmes Racey to reveal the mistakes of a dumb crook. Everyone had a good time and went on to the rest of the day as soon as the show ended at 9:00.

After the show, we adjourned to Harold’s Restaurant up route 115. Harold’s is one of those “don’t let appearances fool you” local restaurants that serves up drop dead delicious country food in an informal and friendly manner.

Minton’s Music and Loan is located at 302 E.Main St in N. Wilkesboro, NC. You can find it here. It’s one of those unique American institutions that needs to be seen to be truly experienced. Stop by and meet Jerry Minton, Mike Palmer, and their sons, sit down and jaw a while, come in and pick, or come for the Hometown Opry. You won’t be disappointed.