Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bluegrass Bluesman: Josh Graves - Book Review

Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir edited by Fred Bartenstein with an introduction by Neil Rosenberg, (University of Illinois Press, 2012, 133 pages, $21.95) is a slim volume filled with Uncle Josh's wit, wisdom, and life experience. Bartenstein's work as an editor is reminiscent of Studds Terkel as he lets Josh Graves speak for himself by carefully stitching together three major interviews done over the years into a thought provoking and coherant whole. He allows Graves to maintain a clear, distinctive, and authentic voice while not sounding too “hillbilly” or regional. The result is a must read volume about the musician, the man, the innovator, and the vast influence of Josh Graves in bluegrass music and beyond. He was said to have the same kind of influence on the Dobro that Earl Scruggs had on the banjo.

Josh Graves was born Burkett Graves in Tellico Plains, TN in September 1927. He grew up in the proud mountain poverty and simplicity that nurtured so many of the bluegrass pioneers, falling in love with music as a child and quitting high school after one year to leave home and hit the road as a professional musician. He was influenced by local musicians as well as the country music he heard on a battery powered radio in his home. Another important influence in his music was a black farmer who lived on the property adjoining his family's who played blues on a slide Hawaian guitar. Later he was also influenced by other blues musicians like Lightnin' Hopkins. His professional peers and musical heirs all speak about the bluesy quality to his Dobro play.

Josh Graves joined Flatt & Scruggs seven years after they left Bill Monroe in 1948 to form their own band primarily as a bass player but soon became featured on the Dobro. His move to Dobro was based largely on their desire to establish a distinctive sound from that of Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys. Throughout the book, Graves emphasizes the importance of creating one's own sound, or not copying the greats. He talks about the fallow quality that grows from slavishly copying a person's playing or his renditions. He credits Earl Scruggs with teaching him to use rolls as a component of his Dobro style as well as teaching him much about performance and professional discipline and the business end of music. Nevertheless, he consistently emphasizes the importance for a musician of creating an idiosyncratic style of his own. He generously acknowledges the musicians who took time to give him pointers and to help him develop. According to the many Dobro masters who contributed to a chapter of reminiscences about Uncle Josh, he was equally generous with his support and help for younger musicians, frequently handing them one of his fabled instruments to play and then listening helpfully and supportively to their work.

Graves married his wife Evylyn when she was fifteen and he was already a touring musician at age seventeen. They had four children, each of whom became musicans, and Josh was a dedicated husband and father despite spending huge amounts of time on the road as a traveling musicians with bands or as a solo artists. He also worked a great deal as a session musician.

Graves was a true innovator on his instrument. He says, though, that “ can't go back to the original thing” but that it's crucial for musicians to know and study the foundations upon which their music is based. He also decries the prevalence of jealousy in bluegrass saying, “One (group) don't want to see the other get ahead.” He emphasizes the need to change with the times, though seems, also, to say that the contemporary music he was hearing toward the end of his life lacked the heart found when he was doing his early touring. Perhaps the lesson to learn is that only the very best of any era will survive to entertain and influence new musicians and bands coming along. Josh Graves always gave his time and energy to helping that to happen. 

Fred Bartenstein

Fred Bartenstein is President & CEO of Bartenstein & Associates, an organizational development firm headquartered in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He is a 1974 cum laude graduate of Harvard College, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Growing up in bluegrass, Fred Bartenstein had the privilege of knowing and working with virtually all of the music's first generation. The editor of Muleskinner News from 1969-1974, he has also been a broadcaster, musician, festival MC and talent director, composer, record producer, compiler of the first bluegrass market research, founder of a regional association, and a lifelong fan. He has written many of the oral histories of musicians to be found in the International Bluegrass Music Museum. Modestly billing himself as editor of Bluegrass Bluesman, he has stepped into the background in a project where his work is what turns this from an incoherant collection of memories into an interesting and valuable bluegrass portrain and history.

While Bluegrass Bluesman by Josh Graves is a slender volume, it is filled with useful thoughts about the origins and deveolopment of bluegrass music. Beyond that, Graves' reflections on life, family, honesty, friendship, the road, drinking drugs, and the road life are both forward looking and representative of his background and the times. The personalities of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe others are sharply delineated. Graves takes no prisoners while still being generous and thoughtful. A concluding chapter contains testimony by most of the Dobro greats of the last couple of bluegrass generations. Their appreciations of Josh Graves for his influence on them and the help he gave them as they came up brought tears to my eyes. This book belongs in the library of every person interested in bluegrass music as a fan or performer, amateur or professional.

Bluegrass Bluesman by Josh Graves was magnificently edited by Fred Bartenstein. It is published by the University of Illinois Press (2012, 133 pages, $21.95) in trade paperback and is available from the usual sources in print and electronic versions. I bought the book.

Monday, January 28, 2013

YeeHaw Junction 2013 - Review

YeeHaw Junction completed a successful four day run on Sunday morning with Mike & Mary Robinson's well attended Gospel Jam & Sing.  The three days of professional bands preceding were responded to with enthusiasm and strong attendance. The model that promoters Keith & Darlene Bass have developed for their festival works well, offering fewer bands that stop play early enough in the evening to allow for jamming and also offer a leisurely morning for visiting. The provision of a supper break encourages people to eat and cook together as well as to take advantage of the offerings of a good variety of food and craft vendors. They successfully extended the 30 amp electric service to more campers as well as offer in almost unlimited rough camping. Held in a cow pasture just beyond the intersection of the Florida Turnpike and Highway 60 between Vero Beach and Lake Wales, the grounds are convenient for festival goers from much of Florida. This year the music was varied and of high quality.

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road

 Hard working Lorraine Jordan brought her familiar program and hard-sell merchandizing to YeeHaw Junction. She has a well-established fan base who travel to see her and has taken good advantage of the Daughters of Bluegrass franchise to keep her name in front of the public. Josh Goforth's pleasant personality and versatility and Ben Green's hard driving Scruggs style banjo continue to be a highlight of the band's performances. Newcomer John Bradley (Dale Ann's son) is an accomplished traditional and contemporary bass player.

Lorraine Jordan

Josh Goforth

Ben Green

Tommy Long

John Bradley

Chris Sexton - Fiddle Workshop

Justin Tomlin - Workshop
Cumberland Gap Connection

 Mike Bentley

Rob Smith

J.D. Messer

Bryan Russell

Albon Clevenger

Mitchell Davis - Workshop

Mitchell Davis

Saturday dawned sunny and warm and only got better. The bands were strong and varied, the audience large and appreciative, the evening a bit on the brisk side. 


Still-House is a young band with lots of professional experience, a broad repertoire of classic bluegrass and contemporary bluegrass styles, and fine virtuoso performers. As they develop and gain broader exposure they deserve careful attention as they could be one of the finest of the young emerging groups about to make their marks on the bluegrass scene.  They showed their bluegrass chops early with lots of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs delivered with drive and enthusiasm. After establishing their deep connection to the traditions of bluegrass music, they also showcased their mastery of covers from the last two decades and Chris Harris's fine originals. The addition of Harris to this already good band has served to ice the cake. Meanwhile, Justin Tomlin has gone on to Nothin' Fancy where he is establishing himself as a fine singer and guitarist. These young men have been playing together since they were kids, and it shows in their joy in making music together, their range, and their skill. I've already posted a good selection of their work on my YouTube channel with more to come in a couple of weeks.

Chris Harris

 Kevin Mackinnon

Keith Mackinnon

Jamie Harper

Kameron Keller

 Keith Bass & the Florida Bluegrass Express

Keith Bass & the Florida Bluegrass Express are emerging as one of the top traditional bluegrass bands in Florida, playing well-paced as well as covers of the first three generations of bluegrass. They do a credible job with the founders as well as taking on songs by the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene.  Fiddler Jason Baker provides fine fiddle as well as a good dose of corny humor. Clint Dockery is solid on the mandolin. Several of his students appeared in the program over the weekend. Shane Stuart is a good lead singer and his wife Kathy has improved enormously on bass during the past year.  Keith Bass is a solid banjo player who has molded together an enjoyable band.

Keith Bass

 Shane Stuart

Clint Dockery

 Jason Baker

Kathy Stuart

Mike Robinson - Emcee

Cody Shuler & Pine Mountain Railroad

You never know exactly who Cody Shuler will show up with at a festival for a performance of Pine Mountain Railroad. Beyond the accomplished singer Jerry Cole, it's often a sort of grab bag. This weekend he brought a very strong band which presented two of the best sets I've ever seen from this band. Veteran banjo master Terry Baucom and accomplished young bassist Matt Wallace provided the drive that pushed this band to a level of excellence we haven't seen before. Matt Flake on fiddle returned to the band he traveled with for several years with his first rate fiddling and subtle humor. Shuler's voice was in good form as they played a strong program with plenty of their signature gospel music. Their gospel trio included several songs from 1930's black gospel groups that brought a strong response. 

Cody Shuler

 Jerry Cole

Terry Baucom

Matt Flake

 Matt Wallace

Bob Landry with
His Autographed Airstream Door 

The Golf Cart Brigade

Little Fan

Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice

Junior Sisk stands head and shoulders above all the other practitioners of traditional bluegrass music in that, while he sounds old, almost all his material is new, written by and for his band and carefully selected from a stable of writers. Juniors love for the old-timers (especially the Stanley Brothers) and the best of the third generation recreators of traditional music (particularly the Johnson Mountain Boys) is clear both in the new music he plays and in the covers he selects. His voice is distinctive and eminently listenable while he is also one of the foremost rhythm guitar players in the business. (It's really too bad that IBMA doesn't break the Guitar Player of the Year into two categories, one for hot flat-pickers and the other for rhythm guitar.) Junior has become an able, even funny, emcee, largely overcoming his natural shy reticence. He has surrounded himself with the best band of his career. Chris Davis, the latest edition on mandolin and vocals, rounds out exceptional crew. Jason Davis, no relation to Chris, quietly provides powerful drive and sharp, accurate banjo picking. Billy Hawks is at times quiet and reflective and at other times hot and piercing, always exhibiting the three T's in abundance. Jason Tomlin has productively switched to bass and fills in the high tenor part on vocal trios with energy and enthusiasm. It's a wonderful band.

Junior Sisk

Billy Hawks

Jason "Sweet Tater" Tomlin

Jason Davis

Chris Davis

The Vocal Trio - Davis, Tomlin, Sisk

The Sound Guys
Phillip? & George Wells

Bluegrass Gospel Sing & Jam
Mike & Mary Robinson

Itinerant bluegrass preacher Mike Robinson and his wife Mary have been ministering to the gospel community and conducting Sunday morning devotions with a heavy emphasis on singing old time gospel songs, for ten years. Their ministry is welcomed at many bluegrass festivals where Mike also serves as an able emcee. 

The Jammers

The Congregation