Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year Portfolio - The Old and the New

Many people celebrating the coming of the New Year emphasize the passing of the old with the picture of an old man leaving behind a little baby ready to face into the future. In bluegrass we do something a little different. Each person who plays or listens to the music seeks to remember and revere the pioneers of the past while finding ways to interpret and add to the music on their own. This is the bluegrass way. In this portfolio I've sought to honor this tradition. The pictures presented here emphasize the old masters we've been lucky enough to see and hear over the past few years as well as the very young pickers coming along. You'll notice a big hole in the middle, and this is done on purpose. Also, I haven't tried to include anyone whose picture I didn't take myself, thus the gaping hole. There's no picture of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music. I'm sure there are many others I haven't seen. I'll put up the pictures of the pioneers today and the new pickers tomorrow morning. I've tried to do justice to the music and its makers. Enjoy the pictures and Happy New Year!

Earl Scruggs

Bobby Osborne

Eddie Adcock

Doc Watson

J.D. Crowe

Little Roy Lewis

Earl Pickin'

Mac Wiseman

Ralph Stanley

Rhonda Vincent and Bobby Osborne

Rosalie and Doc Watson

Tut Taylor

Alan Bibey and Bobby Osborne
Earl once more!

All photos by Ted Lehmann, reproduce with permission only

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Tucker Peak by Archer Mayor - Book Review

Tucker Peak is the twelfth book in the Joe Gunther series of procedural detective novels by Archer Mayor. Set in Vermont, the series surrounds detective Gunther with a varied cast of competent misfits who he molds together into a crack investigative force. Sammie Martens, the attractive and driven woman on his squad, supplies a daring enthusiasm coupled with quick and forceful decision making, which is not always well thought out before she goes into action. One armed Willie Kunkel brings seething inner anger, deep self doubt, and an eye for the depths of human depravity. Gail Zigman, Joe’s long-time girlfriend and companion, often working from the sidelines gives Joe the political cover and connections he often needs to be successful. The books dig beneath the country charm of rural Vermont to reveal an often ugly reality of drugs, crime, and the urge for power hidden from the tourists who admire the mountains from their cars or the views through their picture windows.

The Joe Gunther character is a relative rarity in detective fiction these days. Joe isn’t a very sexy guy, nor is he brilliant. He’s a hard working, almost stodgy professional policeman who achieves his goals by hard work and careful policing. Once or twice during each book he is forced by the situation to become a man of action and performs well, although he is usually the worse for wear after triumphing over adversity. His long-term relationship with Gail is much the same. Both are happier when they are close, but not too close, together. They’re comfortable with each other, but each requires space, privacy, and independence.

Joe Gunther has recently become the number two man in the VBI (Vermont Bureau of Investigation) a newly created police agency designed to tackle major crimes at a statewide level. This agency, which apparently doesn’t exist in Vermont, gives Archer Mayor the advantage of allowing Joe Gunther a much wider theater of operations rather than having to be based in Brattleboro and loaned to other agencies on an as needed basis. Gunther can now be involved in a wider and more interesting variety of crimes taking him anywhere in the state. In fact, he’s also had forays outside the state. In Tucker Peak Gunther is called to investigate a robbery in a ski area condo because the victim threatens the local police chief with calling the governor. Quickly, the investigation expands as a murder ensues, local environmental activists appear to be sabotaging projects on the ski mountain, and there are intimations of drug sales. All this is placed within the context of the bust or boom economy of the ski industry in Vermont. Brought together, it makes an intriguing and exciting story that culminates in one of the skillful chases Mayor usually manages.

For some reason, Mayor’s previous publisher has decided not to continue maintaining a back list of his books. He has undertaken to publish them himself under the imprint of AM Press. The books are being printed in a very handsome trade paperback format and sold through the bookstore at Mayor’s web site at $14.95. They can also be ordered through your local independent bookstore. While each of the Joe Gunther novels stands alone, I always find it enjoyable to read a series in chronological order because it allows me to follow the growth of the character over time. If you’re new to Joe Gunther, take a look at the early books. If you know Joe, but haven’t reached Tucker Peak, it’s a good mountain to try. Mayor’s most recent novel is Chat, which I expect to review in a few weeks. Meanwhile, consider supporting this very fine writer who has fallen victim to the needs of the major book store chains for huge sales rather than continuing to be satisfied with good, steady sales by reliable authors.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Dawn Kenney - CD Review

Dawn Kenney is a singer/songwriter living in the Boston area. She’s been around a while, performing bluegrass, country, and folk music in coffee houses and folk clubs in Rhode Island before moving to the Boston area. She worked in sound engineering while playing with rock bands and women’s bands during the 1980’s, before pursuing a career in business for a time. Later she returned to her first love bluegrass, country music, folk, and Americana. She appeared at the Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist Showcase in July of 2007. “Feel That Light” is her first recording, a collection of seven songs she wrote and performs. This CD, backed by a good bluegrass band, contains only seven songs, all written by Kenney, and should, perhaps, be viewed more as a demo recording than a full fledged showcase of Dawn’s capability. In it she displays a range of subject matter and her very fine voice in a thoughtfully arranged collection of her own songs.

Hide Away is a domestic song. The singer awakes on Monday morning with her husband beside her, lying in bed together feeling each other’s warmth in the moments before the alarm goes off and they each must face the day ahead

Hide away, hide away,
In this whole big world there’s only just one place

Daily life and all its trouble slips away,

Come and take me in your arms, let’s hide away.

The simple ballad resonates with the security of home and family portrayed in Kenney’s warm, melodious voice. The chores of the day each of us must face are mitigated by the sense of the couple’s looking forward to a “stolen moment still to come.”

Who Shot John Cyrus, a bluegrass murder ballad with a twist provides a solid contrast to the first song.

Who shot John Cyrus with his gun this morning?
Who let his dog out the door?
Who relieved this town of half its pain and sorrow?
He’s gone and won’t be coming back no more.

The song continues, in the style of murder ballads, to sketch out a series of nasty crimes as well as an assertion of his being rotten to the core “since age eleven.” The singer views the world from her place as a waitress at the local diner, watching the town’s reaction to John Cyrus. Instrumental solos by Rich Stillman on banjo and Phil Bloch on fiddle are effective and showcase this song as belonging to bluegrass. With the line “The women of this town protect their own,” Kenney suggests a feminist tone that without rancor or anger still reflects a clear posture found in many of the songs.

Reach High can be heard as a song of faith, a proto gospel song using the metaphor of a tree in a meadow to stand for nature, the creator, the overarching universal soul.
Feel that light when it shines all around you,
Reach high up into the sky,
Dig deep, plant roots into things that ground you,
Take time; don’t let life pass you by.
Reach High.

In this song, Dawn uses her soaring mid-range voice to capture the majesty and mystery of the tree. Her melody aptly complements her voice and intention. The song inspires as it captures the listeners imagination and spirit. The tree is characterized as a mother figure who embodies home and family as well as strength to cope with the storms of life by helping us to bend and sway with life’s stresses and strains. Some might object to the lack of specific religious reference in this song, but the strong spiritual sense and metaphorical emphasis make it clear to those who want to see it.

A haunting love song, Walls Between Us captures pain of lost communication in a long-term relationship.
So now why must we build walls between us?
Though that only tears us apart?
Can’t you see how my soul is just achin’
To be with you back safe in your heart?

The song fits solidly into the country love song genre of lost love that could be resurrected if he would only reach out. The search for safety and togetherness is palpable in Kenney’s voice.

That’s God Talking speaks of the hypocrisy of organized religion in the face of encountering the eternal in the beauty of nature.
But I look around me, that’s where I find it,
In the glistening of the morning dew,
You hear that bird sing? Now that’s God talking,
And it’s in your eyes, that light in you.

The singer receives this wisdom from her beloved Grandfather, as they walk and talk. Finding the human connection with the woods, the sky, and the earth, he shares his love of life and its beauty with her. As with Reach High, this song communicates a kind of deism more native to New England than some devoted to Bible based gospel songs might find comfortable, nevertheless, this is a lovely song capturing the ranging quest of the human spirit.

Gonna Make Me Fall is another bluegrass song in the “your bad for me, but I love you anyway” mode. The singer speaks of looking into his eyes and knowing that there’s trouble ahead and going down the road anyway, even though she recognizes she’s playing a fools game. This is one of those lively upbeat songs so typical of bluegrass in which the message of the lyric sends quite a different message from the tune and the tempo. Bluegrass often wants to soften the blow by lightening the mood. The song allows Kenney to display effectively her emotional range.

The last cut on the CD, Unexpected Life, returns to the theme that pervades the disk, making the ordinary in relationships into something special and extraordinary.
When I count my blessings, they’re not things that I can hold,
You there every morning, it’s more precious than gold.
Sleepy smiles and slippered feet as the kids run down the hall,
This unexpected life we share, it’s the greatest gift of all.

Kenney keeps reminding us that while life isn’t always easy or without difficulties, persistence and shared commitment yield the small but real joys that make a fulfilled life.

This collection stands as a preview of what I hope will be a larger and more ambitious effort from Ms. Kenney. Her singing is first rate, melodious, full, and emotionally satisfying. Her melodies support and extend her lyrics. I’d like to hear her in a band setting where her voice is part of the bluegrass vocal trio, which she assures me happens when she appears with a band. On this CD, in addition to Stillman and Bloch, she is supported by Don Barry on Bass, and Eric Kilburn on mandolin and Dobro. She supplies her own guitar accompaniment on her 1973 Martin D18.

You can hear samples of Dawn’s songs on her web site and on her MySpace page. The entire CD or individual tracks can be bought from the home page of her web site.

All pictures come from Dawn's web site and will be removed upon request.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Year-End Bluegrass Portfolio #3

Here's another set of bluegrass photos from my archives. Enjoy!

Dwight McCall, J.D. Crowe, Ricky Wasson

Jens Kruger

Larry Sparks

Leigh Gibson

Lynn Morris

Mike Andes

Mike Scott

Mindy Rakestraw

Rick Hayes plays Irene's Mandolin

Ron Stewart

All photos by Ted Lehmann, please reproduce with permission only.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks, famed neurologist and physician, one of whose experiences was portrayed in the 1990 movie Awakenings with Robin Williams, explores the ways in which the brain and music are related. The title’s Greek suffix suggests a mutual relationship and love between music and the individual. Sacks examines that relationship, finding it extraordinarily complex and not fully understood. His web site describes him as being best known for his “collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience.” This is a pretty good description of his writing, highlighting both the strengths and weaknesses of this book.

Characterized on the cover as “Tales of Music and the Brain,” this book is most interesting in telling stories about the often mysterious ways in which music affects people of all kinds. The occurrence of absolute (perfect?) pitch, the appearance of musical talent after being hit by lightning where none had be apparent before, people afflicted with all kinds of music in their heads, the persistence of musical ability in cases of otherwise nearly total dementia, musical talent in those of extremely limited ability, the loss of musical talent to neurological insult…the stories are interesting and varied. Each individual has a different story. And herein lies one of the problems with this book. I had difficulty finding a linking principle to help tie together these threads until the very end. They seemed like a disassociated collection of stories not leading me to any generalizations I could make about the nature of humanity or music.

Sacks presents too much “brain geography” for this general reader to integrate into his understanding of how what goes on in the brain effects how people experience music. I had difficulty identifying with lobes and ganglia and regions and areas. These have little meaning. The stories Sacks tells became interesting vignettes as I searched for an organizing principle for the narrative to help me gain perspective on the works of the mind/brain. His heavy reliance on footnotes, some of them quite relevant, to make certain points, nevertheless proved themselves to be distracting, as they don’t add materially to the points he wishes to make but attract my attention sufficiently to require me to read them. Perhaps offering extended end notes rather than footnotes would have been helpful. At times this book skirts the distinction between a scholarly effort and an informative overview, leaning too heavily towards the former.

I found Sacks to be encouraging to my own musical ambitions in some ways. Levitin had assured me that musical ability was widespread, potentially as broad as color perceptions, and that sufficient practice would yield results. As I work on my banjo, I often become discouraged as the improvement I seek just doesn’t seem to be coming, and I wonder if what bluegrassers call “drive” or “bounce” is something I can learn. Sacks delineates any number of neurological deficits leading to inabilities to perceive or reproduce musical tones, rhythms, pitches, and so-on. Some of the cases he presents characterize sufferers experiencing music as “screeching” or “like pans clashing in the kitchen.” He tells about those who cannot recognize when one tone is higher or lower than another. As I’ve watched my wife improve steadily on her mandolin, developing skills I can only hope for myself and admire, I now recognize she has a much broader set of abilities and perceptions than I. Maybe she also works harder.

Perhaps the great lesson of the tales Sacks tells in Musicophilia lies in opening to readers the great power music has to affect the human mind and soul, although he avoids such a concept as soul. People lost to ordinary intercourse in the world, those with brain damage, dementia, or genetic differences can respond to and perform music even though their ability to respond using conventional speech or relying on memory has either disappeared or has never been present. Overall, the effect is to increase our respect for and wonder at the marvelous organ we call a brain and the mind it spawns. Arguments concerning whether music or speech came first, how we developed our musical sense, what the meaning of these stories is, in the end, pale beside the awareness of how much more we are than we know or recognize.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Thoze Gize at Fritz Fries in Keene, NH

Thoze Gize are Rich Hamilton and Bob Dean, a duo singing old time, bluegrass, country, and lite rock who appeared at Fritz Belgian Fries in Keene, NH on Friday night. Fritz Fries, recently re-located to 45 Main Street in Keene from an out of the way location across town, is a pleasant little sandwich and beer/wine place with a small performance area, comfortable seating, and a tasty, but simple menu. Thoze Gize offer an enjoyable mélange of songs played and sung with verve and enthusiasm as well as considerable skill. The coffeehouse scene and their delightful music contributed to a most satisfying evening.
Bob Dean plays guitar and sings a melodious baritone and occasional falsetto harmony. Rich Hamilton plays old-time banjo and fiddle and contributes mostly harmonies as well as high lonesome leads. Their good sound acoustic sound amplified by a modest sound system filled the room without blaring, helping to create an appropriate environment. Thoze Gize’ song selection is eclectic, ranging from old—time songs and instrumentals like Old Joe Clark and Rabbit in a Log through Clapton’s “Layla”, Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight”, and (of all things) Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Their rendition of The Grateful Dead's “Fire on the Mountain” was particularly effective as was “I Know You Rider.” This song, actually collected by Alan Lomax and appropriated by the Dead is a good example of how traditional music moves into, changes, and is changed by its use in popular music. Another good Garcia song was “Friend of the Devil.” Those Gize also sang some traditional bluegrass songs like “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” “More Pretty Girls Than One,” and “Wild Bill Jones.” All-in-all their single long set was satisfying, varied, and fitting to the setting. Both men are also founding members of The Stillhouse Jammers, a bluegrass band playing a variety of New England venues including this winter’s Joe Val Festival.

Fritz Fries offers a menu of a variety of tasty Panini and wonderful looking signature and design your own salads. Their fries accompanied by a variety of dipping sauces didn’t quite live up to their billing for me.. Nevertheless, the food is tasty and the atmosphere enjoyable. Beer and wine are sold.

Thoze Gize will be appearing in New Hampshire and Massachusetts this winter. Look up their performance schedule on their MySpace page and give them a try. You won’t regret it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

First Anniversary Assessment and More Christmas Photos

On December 22, 2006 I wrote the first entry in this blog. It was called “Why Bluegrass” and I stand by most of what I wrote on that day, when I had no idea where I was headed with my blog. Since then, I’ve written 133 posts. Of these, ninety are labeled Bluegrass, 23 Books or Book Reviews, 24 Travel or Road Notes, 1 is a CD review, and there are a few other labels, but many of them overlap in one way or another. The oldest hit counter I have on the blog is one called Amazing Counters, which counts daily and weekly page views and keeps a record of thirty days of page views and 52 weeks of weekly page views. According to Amazing Counters, my blog has had 23,400 hits as of Thursday afternoon. My biggest week during the past year occurred during the first week of October, when 1173 hits were recorded. That number may be approached here in Christmas week, due largely to my having posted a good set of bluegrass pictures and pointed to it from a variety of sources. During the last 13 weeks, I’ve only had three with fewer than 500 hits.

Google Analytics is another tool for assessing web site usage. It allows very sophisticated analysis of where readers come from, how long they stay, and what sort of search they made to get to my site on a thirty day running average. In the past thirty days, Google Analytics says I’ve had 3,574 page views on 2,323 visits from 34 countries and territories. The map overlay shows these visits having come from every continent except Antarctica. It includes most countries in Europe, a number of visitors from Australia, a few from South America, and even three from Africa. One blog that I’m aware of in Germany has me on its blog roll as well as one in Australia. Roughly 54% are new visits, leaving about 56% as returning.

During the past month, I’ve had 2165 visits from every state in the Union except Wyoming. This month, the three highest numbers came from New Hampshire, North Carolina, and New York. As we head south after the New Year the balance will shift in that direction. As people look for information about their local or regional bluegrass events as well as other interests of mine like the state parks we camp in, tourist attractions we visit, and people we meet along the way, the hits will come from those localities. There’s pretty good balance, however, as California is fifth in usage, Tennessee sixth, and Texas tenth. It makes sense that I get a large number of hits from New England because that’s where I live and write. I think it also makes a difference that I publicize my blog through the mailing list of the Boston Bluegrass Union, a marvelous regional organization supporting the bluegrass community. I’ve recently joined Bluegrass-L, and I think that will make a difference, too

About 25% of the traffic coming to my blog comes from direct hits, i.e. people who know the address and point to it. Another 18% comes from search engines, with Google leading the way. People searching for a bluegrass festival, band, or other event, a specific book title, a state park or restaurant find my blog coming up in their search and click on it. Some books and bands I wrote about months ago get hits regularly. Otherwise, about 57% come from referring sites, led by the major bluegrass forums: Banjo Hangout, Mandolin Café, and Bluegrass Rules lead the way. Festival Preview, which carries many of my blog entries, is high on the list. My new cyber friend Dr. Tom Bibey’s Web Log sends a bunch of people as do Byron Chesney’s Knoxville Trivia Blog, and a bunch of other sites which have either put me on their blog roll or mentioned me in their text. I’m very grateful to all these people and organizations for helping my blog to gain wider circulation. While Technorati, the web organization that charts blog usage and links, gives me a power rating of seven, i.e. they recognize seven other blogs that have linked to mine, I’m aware of many others that either have a single link to me or have me on their blog roll and send readers to me. Except for Technorati, all the other figures from Google reflect only the past 30 days. I try to keep an eye on this data, but I have no idea about the annual totals and how they work out. For instance, my readership concerning Merlefest will go way up beginning in March. I’ll be writing about Florida through January, February, and March, and I’ll be getting a lot more hits from there during that time. I hope to blog daily from the ETA Bluegrass Cruise, which we’ll be on from February 16 – 23.

The hard drive where I store my photographs has 50.2 gigabites of pictures. That’s 20.125 pictures held in 163 folders spread over the past three years. Nearly every picture on my blog is chosen from pictures I took myself. When I’ve used pictures that are not mine, I try to give due credit. Of course, I want a better camera and more lenses, but what photographer doesn’t?

I have a few disappointments in my blog. I would like for people to leave more messages, but, unfortunately in Blogger, you have to join to leave a message. I keep an eye on the forums, too, and try to respond to thoughtful posts. I’d like for my blog to generate more conversation, but I guess I’ll have to start a web site with a forum built into it to have that happen. I hope my readers have come to see my writing as trustworthy, and I think they have. I see I’ve written nearly a thousand words. For those of you that have hung in there, here’s another portfolio of photographs.

Alan Bibey

Ben Eldridge

Bill Keith

Carolina Road Band

Eddie Adcock

Eric Gibson

Gary Waldrep

J.D. Crowe
Ron ThomasonSmokey Greene

Terry Eldridge

Tom Gray

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bluegrass Christmas Gift Pictures

This blog is coming up on its first anniversary next week and the world of making bluegrass music is pretty quiet. In order to brighten the season and to begin a celebration of my blog's anniversary, I'm going to post a series of pictures over the next week or two. I hope you enjoy them and I look forward to your comments. I'll post some statistics about the well from which these are drawn in a few days. Meanwhile, have a look.

Leroy Troy

Alicia Nugent

Audie Blaylock and Michael Cleveland

Becky Buller

Bela Fleck

Michelle Nixon

Dudley Connell

Jamie Johnson
Joey Cox
Tim O'Brien, Casey Driessen, Darrell Scott, Steve Earle and Dennis Crouch

Tom Adams

All pictures by Ted Lehmann, use by permission only.