Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Man in Song: A Discographic Biography of Johnny Cash by John M. Alexander – Book Review

The Man in Song: A Discographic Biography of Johnny Cash (University of Arkansas Press, 2018, 296 pages, $35.95/31.81) by John M. Alexander, with a forward by Larry Gatlin, presents the life of country mega-star Johnny Cash in terms of his recorded music, seeking to find and explicate the singer’s life story through the songs he wrote, selected, and sang. This book offers both an interesting take on the man and his life as well as presenting problems for analysts seeking to separate the man from the artist. While this can be seen as a flaw, it can also become a significant asset. Alexander is at his strongest in recounting the story of each song he selects from Cash’s massive catalog and lengthy career, stretching over fifty years. The book is at its weakest in evaluating individual songs, as Alexander is either reluctant to find fault or unable to separate the truly excellent work from songs that are either mediocre of worse. Serious criticism requires serious analysis. 

Structurally, The Man in Song moves through the Cash catalog, first as it reflects incidents in his life and mileposts in his recording history, with emphasis on the relationship between the singer and his record labels. Having cataloged Cash’s music in terms of labels, Alexander then returns to pick up missed or lost and forgotten recordings by theme and then by periods in his personal and recording lives. This gives Alexander a chance to provide more detail on the Highwaymen, the effects of Cash’s frequent subtance abuse and its effect on his singing and writing, as well as his personal life, although the personal is sublimated to the work in this volume. It concludes with Cash’s collaboration with Rick Rubin, who encouraged Cash to create new songs and revisit old ones in arrangements that he wanted to record, rather than in the commercial versions preferred by mass market labels like Columbia and Mercury, This approach serves the work and those wishing to study it, while beginning to seem repetitious to readers seeking entertainment.

As Alexander points out, many see Cash’s singing and subject matter as precursors of today’s increasingly conservative bent in country music, heralded in more by Merle Haggard, a friend deeply influenced by Cash’s Folsom prison performance, which he witnessed as convict. While current country music basks in flag waving patriotism and uncritical self-indulgence, many of Cash’s best songs celebrate a more nuanced and mature view of America and its role. In many songs celebrating the lives of the downtrodden and misunderstood of all races, backgrounds, and creeds, Cash celebrated the diversity of America as well as gua own deep roots in Christian faith. In songs like The Ballad of Ira Hayes, and collaborations with Mahalia Jackson, Trini Lopez. Bob Dylan and more, Cash demonstrated his openness to using music from a wide variety of traditions and with performers not usually associated with the largely white world of country music. His writing and song selection ranged from a deep love of gospel music through folk, rock, rockabilly, and pop to which he always was able to attach his own unique stamp. As long as there’s a comprehensive catalog of songs, it might have been useful to create additional ways of sorting Cash’s catalog. This might be a very good online project for the publisher or a graduate student. In addition, a comprehensive playlist on one of the streaming services would support the text extremely well.

John M. Alexander (R) with Larry Gatlin

John M. Alexander, a graduate of St. John’s University and the City University of New York, where he earned his Ph.D. in English Literature, is currently a senior editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which apparently is primarily an online publication with a weekly print edtion bearing no relationship to the historic newspaper from which it draws its name. He describes himself in Linkedin as a “...Senior Music Editor and Producer who takes pride in leading visionary print, music, and digital products to profitable releases in national markets.” He says, “I’m an expert at collaborating with producers, artists, designers, photographers and production crews to develop and execute award-winning soundtracks, compilations, and digital audio content.” He served as a Senior Music Editor and Producer at Reader’s Digest for eighteen years, where he produced nearly 400 box set compilations. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

The Man in Song: A Discographic Biography of Johnny Cash (University of Arkansas Press, 2018, 296 pages, $35.95/31.81) by John M. Alexander is elegantly laid out and very attractive looking with lavish pictures of album covers, family, and studio photographs. Its print layout is two column, which detracts from its readability for what I imagine is its major audience – scholars wishing to do further research on Cash. In print, I would suppose it would make a highly attractive coffee table book, but would be less useful as a resource read online, which is how I read it. I found reading down one column then shifting my gaze to read down another to be distracting. The photographs and album covers, however, added greatly to the book’s attractiveness, as they surveyed the man’s character and increasing depth of feeling as he aged. This is a very useful work to add to the resources of Johnny Cash scholars and avid fans whi collect Cash memorabilia or reference works. I read the book on my Amazon Fire as a digital download supplied by the publisher.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Ten Great Days in Shelby, North Carolina

Shelby, NC lies near the center of the bluegrass world, at least the one Irene and I have lived in for the past twenty years. Located in Cleveland County, on the South Carolina border. Shelby is near the birth place of Earl Scruggs, it emerged from the rich history of migrations from Appalachia to the mill towns of the South, many of which were located in or nearby.  Shelby was also the home of Dr. Bobby Jones, known to most of the wider world as blogger Dr. Tom Bibey, but in his real life a beloved physician to the local residents, regardless of social position, an avid golfer, a skilled mandolin player active in the local bluegrass community, and, of course, a loving husband and father.

Dr. Bobby Jones (Dr. Tom Bibey)

Soon after I began this blog, late in 2006, comments started appearing on it signed by Dr. Tom Bibey.  They were thoughtful and encouraging, while urging me to visit his own blog, which detailed the life of a small town physician, musician, golfer, husband, and father living in a fictitious southern town. After a rather long dance, we finally met, enjoyed each other's company, and began coming to Shelby for increasingly long and treasured visits. Sadly, Bobby Jones died, too soon, in 2012, attacked by a brain tumor. However, we kept coming to Shelby to spend time with the people we came to know through him - his widow Marta, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Rick Dancy (their friend and guide after Bobby's passing), and many others. Bobby's book, The Mandolin Case, is still available.  A week or so ago, we returned for a ten day stay at our lake cottage, in the nearby John H. Moss Reservoir campground, What follows is a little bit about our stay.

Our Lake Cottage on John H. Moss Reservoir

Wayne Taylor and the Carnegie Tradition - Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms

On Wedneday we got a surprise call from our friend Wayne Taylor, who, after a distinguished career as a member, lead singer, and emcee of the U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band - Country Current, has retired to his home in North Carolina where he lives in the country and continues to perform. We met him and his long-time friend Pam Cooper for supper and a catch-up at the local Ruby Tuesday. Wayne is working with several bands and has recently released two CD's, one called The Carnegie Experience, which captures the excitement and music of Flatt & Scruggs. His other CD is called The Great American Country Band, with fine covers of 1970's and 80's country classic songs. With the two bands together, he is touring with a ninety minute show. Contact Wayne Taylor Productions for more information.

Wayne Taylor & Great American Country Band - Hank Williams Medley

As we were finishing our supper, Wayne looked up and said, "Here comes Carl White, now!" Now, this certainly wasn't an accidental meeting, but I quickly was glad that Wayne had invited Carl to join us. Carl White produces a television show called Life in the Carolinas which can be seen on a number of television stations in North Carolina. Some episodes can be seen on YouTube, too. He also writes a syndicated column, and you can subscribe to his newsletter. When Carl shows up, his trusty iPhone comes out, and, suddenly, you're in an interview...and it's fun! Carl has an infectious personality, asks piercing questions, and shows up in interesting places showcasing his home state.
Carl White

Wayne Taylor & Pam Cooper

U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band Country Current - The Bluenose
Wayne Taylor's Last Bluegrass Festival in 2010

Wayne Taylor

Darin Aldridge Teaching  at the Earl Scruggs Center

We were first introduced to Darin Aldridge at a jam in a semi-buried cinder block building built during the early fifties when nuclear attack was a legitimate scare in the U.S. The building, known throughout the area as the Bomb Shelter, is home to a regular Wednesday night jam, which Dr. Bobby brought us to. We heard a lot of hot pickers, but Darin Aldridge stood out, along with his fianee Brooke Justice. Since then we've gone to churches, concerts, festivals, small jams, and more as our friendship with Darin and Brooke grew and ripened. Here's an early recording I made of their first band:

Darin & Brooke Aldridge - I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart - 2011

Darin has been an integral part of the development of the Earl Scruggs Center since its inception. He helped to prepare some of the exhibits. For instance, it's his hands demonstrating three styles of banjo picking in an interesting filmed display. On Friday morning, he was scheduled to teach two groups of elementary school students about the history of bluegrass. The kids would then go downstairs to the museum, with a series of questions to answer before they reconvened. Below, Darin is preparing his hardware including all three instruments he will play during his presentation, his boom box to play examples of music, which are coordinated with pictures he shows on the big screen behind him. Suffice it to say that few classroom teachers with advanced degrees would have a classroom preparation so well prepared in order to orient students ideas and concepts new to them.

Darin Aldridge Prepares

...And in Action

Darin's presentation introduced and illustrated bluegrass music from its country origins with the Carter family and the Big Bang of country music in the 1929 Bristol recording sessions to Chris Thile's leadership of Prairie Home Companion, and much from in between, all in about 40 interesting minutes. He varied pace, means of input, and modes of presentation while providing lots of opportunities for kids and ask questions and interact. His presentation provided a model of preparation and skill for professional teachers. 

Kids Listening Intently

...While Half the Group Experienced the Exhibits

After Darin's presentations ended, the kids, under the direction of a music teacher from their school, sang "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains" on the Scruggs Center Steps, while their proud parents look on.

My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains

The next day, we had scheduled ourselves to have lunch with Katie Wilson Espenshied and her husband Ace, who many of my readers will remember as they watched her grow up in a family band singing a song they loved, but she grew to dislike, "Five Pound Possum." When I turned the ignition switch to start our truck, it ground away without catching, a problem we had had repaired only two weeks previously at Rountree Monroe Ford in Lake City, FL. Sadly, we had to cancel lunch and call the tow truck, again!

Leadership Bluegrass Regional Seminar

Leadership Bluegrass is an annual intensive professional development program begun in 2000, which each year invites about thirty people from all areas of the bluegrass community to come to Nashville for a very well organized and useful conference of professional and personal development. Over the years, there have been over 400 graduates. Under the leadership of Ron Raxter, a retired attorney from Raleigh, a spring meeting was planned and held on Tuesday and Wednesday as the guests of the Earl Scruggs Center, which offers a large number of music related activities throughout the year under the direction of Executive Director Emily Epley. A group of ten Leadership Bluegrass graduates assembled for two days of discussion and planning. They included artists, a broadcaster, a member of a couple of IBMA Boards, a singer/songwriter, and several others. The discussions were enjoyable, active, and productive, as we sought to find a worthwhile project to pursue as a group for the good of the bluegrass community. More information about this effort will be forthcoming. The event also included an evening at the Newgrass Brewing Company, where those inclined jammed, enjoyed themselves as they enjoyed a beer and a sandwich. We were joined by Brooke Aldridge for a couple of her wonderful songs. Altogether, it was an enjoyable two days of fellowship and purposeful seeking. 

Facilitator - Ron Raxter

Scruggs Center Executive Director - Emily Epley

Bill Foster & Laurie Greenburg

Daniel Ruth (Nu Blue) and Mitch Coleman

Darin Aldridge

The Group with Earl Scruggs Statue

 Supper at the Newgrass Brewery

The Jam
Ron Raxter, Brooke, Darin, Daniel, and Bill

Here are the Darin & Brooke Aldridge Band singing Ian & Sylvia's great song, "Someday Soon," which helped win her the 2017 Female Vocalist of the Year Award from IBMA.

Darin & Brooke Aldridge - Someday Soon

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Chesapeake Bay in Focus by Tom Pelton - Book Review

The structure of Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World by Tom Pelton (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018, 280 Pages, $24.95/19.31) is designed to appeal to both the general reader and to the environmental specialist. In undertaking to appeal to two audiences who share similar concerns, but not identical levels of expertise or understanding, author Tom Pelton has taken on a difficult task, which he, largely, achieves. In each section, he seeks to maintain a focus divided between the various constituencies involved, aware of the contextual history of the use and misuse of the Chesapeake Bay, and describing the efforts to save the Bay from both those who love it and those who couldn’t care about it one way or the other.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States. At least a dozen rivers contribute to its 200 mile long course through Maryland to the sea, with the Susquehanna River, originating in Lake Otsego, in central New York as the largest. Other major rivers include the James, Patuxent, Potomac, and many more. The opening section of the book takes readers to each of the major tributaries to Chesapeake Bay, telling something of its historical and ecological importance, as well as describing its beauty and degradation. As I read, I realized that my own acquaintanceship with the Bay and its contributing rivers goes deep into my own life.

As a youngster, I attended a camp on Lake Otsego, the source of the Susquehanna River, the largest and longest river flowing into and helping form Chesapeake Bay. My early Susquehanna canoeing experience was on a river usually no wider than 25 or 30 feet, at the end of the day skinny dipping in it with my friends. As a high school student, I sailed the upper reaches of the Bay with my mother and sister in small sailboats based near Northeast, MD. As a young married couple, Irene and I spent a wonderful weekend on the Eastern Shore with a school classmate’s family, and later camped on the James river for a weekend with them. As adults we’ve camped on the eastern shore near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, crossing the bridge several times on our way to Myrtle Beach. We’ve walked the shores of the Potomac with our friend Katy Daly and visited Washington, DC, Williamsburg with our kids, and Annapolis. The Chesapeake Bay has often been part of the background of our lives. And it’s been slowly dying for decades, killed by farmers, watermen, politicians, developers, cities, politicians, and more, each seeking to meet their own needs, while ignoring the environmental, recreational, health, and safety needs of a 200 mile long body of water that has been a part of our history since before English explorers landed there in 1607.

Pelton begins the story by describing the Bay and its constituent tributaries, the rivers feeding it and the lands surrounding them. To do this, he must describe cities placed along the river which often introduce raw sewage into the river, farms whose owners permit runoff from commercial fertilizer and animal excretion, factories that allow dangerous chemicals to enter into the river, and developers who build along the Bay as well as in the great suburbs around Baltimore, Washington and other cities, allowing rain and sewer runoff to further pollute the Bay. He also describes the rugged independence of farmers and watermen who refuse to accept responsibility for pollution and over fishing. Pelton uses profiles of politicians, farmers, and environmentalists to give a human face to what might otherwise be only dry statistics, although there are plenty of these, also.

In a series of marvelous portraits, he describes the life cycles of crabs, oysters, striped bass, eels, and sturgeon, showing how each species relies on clean water being in the Bay for reproduction as well as being left alone enough to be allowed to reproduce in sufficient numbers to survive. He also profiles some of the humans who use and rely on the Bay to bring the conflicts and needs of various groups into sharper focus.

Finally, Pelton looks at the policy solutions which often place the needs of rural America in conflict with both cities and suburbs as they each seek to function effectively in an ever more competitive economic environment, and in the face of a changing climate that further threatens the life of the Bay and the existence of towns, cities, and institutions located on and near it. In formulating solutions and policy suggestions for saving the Bay, he suggests that without strong regional and national cooperation at the government level, there may be little help for the Bay. He cannot escape the reality that such cooperation in an age of decreasing cooperation and increasing competition for ever scarcer tax dollars make the likelihood of such cooperation visionary beyond current realities. The larger national implications of his policy prescriptions lead inevitably to consideration of national and worldwide action which, sadly, probably won’t happen under current circumstances.

Tom Pelton

Tom Pelton is the host of the public radio program The Environment in Focus. A former staff reporter for the Baltimore Sun and Chicago Tribune, he has also written for the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Harvard Magazine, and other publications. He has served on the staff of various environmental organizations focused on the Chesapeake Bay.

The Chesapeake Bay in Focus by Tom Pelton, is a readable, useful, and important book for the environmentally aware, those who love the Bay, policy makers, and as a case study of the broader implications of regional, national, and international planning efforts in an age of selfish individualism and political rigor mortise. While at times the narrative gets pretty deep into the policy weeds, it is largely highly readable, even entertaining. Serious readers interested in these issues will find much of value. I was provided a pre-publication electronic copy of the book by the publisher through Edelweiss which I read on my Kindle app in my Amazon Fire.

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Monday, April 2, 2018

Loser's Bracket by Chris Crutcher - Book Review

I met Chris Crutcher at a National Council of Teachers of English convention in Orlando (could have been Anaheim) in the late 1980’s where he was giving a presentation on Young Adult fiction. He was a trim, handsome, athletic looking man who was a school counselor and an athlete. Someone asked him what set young adult fiction aside from other fiction works. He responded, “The length.” I was intrigued, bought a couple of his books and devoured them avidly. I was teaching English at the time and chair of a large English Department in a Pennsylvania school district. I enjoyed the books, thought them useful for non-readers and less able students in our district, and encountered strong resistance to using them as assigned reading when I suggested it to my colleagues. Since heading in other directions, I rarely read Young Adult (also called Adolescent Literature) these days, but when I do, I usually enjoy a good read dealing with the problems of developing young people whose feelings are close to the surface and whose experience is limited, to be interesting and arresting reads while not demanding too much of me. They deal with the real problems adolescents encounter: popularity, over-weight, dis-functional family life, adjustment to sexuality, and maturation, and more. These are all real problems that young people often find it difficult to discuss with adults. Thus the novels can provide help to them, or a platform for such discussions. As such, reading them can be crucial to helping with problems young people are encountering in their real life in ways that can displace the problem onto others they encounter in the pages of a book. They can discuss these issues with other kids or adults who know how to listen in constructive and useful ways. English teachers who say, “I’m a teacher, not a therapist” are missing the point as well as a chance to involve their students in literature which can turn them into lifelong readers.

Loser’s Bracket by Chris Crutcher (Greenwillow Books, 2018, 256 pp, $17.99/9.99) is told in first person narrative by Annie Boots, both a gifted athlete and student, whose life has been fractured. Her mother Nancy is over-weight, an alcoholic and drug abuser. Her sister Sheila a drug abuser in and out of rehab, an absent father, and Sheila’s son, who has his own problems. Nancy has been removed from custody, and Annie has been fostered by an upper middle-class family named Howard, which has its own problems, but, despite the father’s controlling needs to make her a star athlete, which she is anyway, Annie’s in a good situation while yearning to stay connected to her biological family. The story revolves around the interactions between and within these two families and the custody system. Annie describes the situation in breezy, accessible language with a degree of understanding and anxious good humor. She comes across as likable and insightful while trying to deal with her own problems.

In the guise of a book club held at the local library, and definitely not in school, Crutcher includes a chapter about the writing process that, for any student struggling with writing anything contains some of the best advice I’ve ever read about how to achieve a desired outcome, no matter what emerges and how surprising it might be. Annie, carrying all her load of Nancy, her mother, Sheilla, her sister and Sheila’s missing son, as well as her foster parents and all the talents and skills she has remains, as she has been throughout the book, an open conduit to experience with a blockage for internalizing what she learns. As the story moves along, the characters learn that unlike in the books they read to each other, they are the authors of their own stories. Thus, the novel moves the characters and the reader toward an understanding of each of our capabilities for taking charge of our own lives. The disappearance of her brother creates dramatic tension, keeping the story moving forward as does the tension between Annie’s foster parents and within her biological family.

Chris Crutcher

Chris Crutcher is the critically acclaimed author of twelve novels, an autobiography, and two collections of short stories. He has won three lifetime achievement awards for the body of his work: the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Outstanding Literature for Young Adults, the ALAN Award for a Significant Contribution to Adolescent Literature, and the NCTE National Intellectual Freedom Award. Drawing on his experience as an athlete, teacher, family therapist, and child-protection specialist, he unflinchingly writes about real and often-ignored issues that face teenagers today. He lives in Spokane. (Amazon profile)

Chris Crutcher writes stories that address issues not unlike similar issues dealt with in any novel focused on adults, but revolving around the lives, concerns, and developmental problems of teenagers. Telling this story in first person put the reader inside the skin of an adolescent girl facing and surmounting problems that would be difficult for anyone. He uses lively dialogue bringing the kids to life while the adults are not the adult stereotypes often found on television and in lesser books. These are real people living real lives. Loser’s Bracket is not just a good young adult novel, it’s a good novel. I was supplied a digital copy of the book by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it using my Amazon Fire tablet.

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