Thursday, June 28, 2018
In the first paragraph of the over forty page liner notes booklet accompanying Epilogue: A Tribute to John Duffey, on Smithsonian Folkways curated and produced by Akira Otsuka, he writes, “In the mid-1960s when I was learning to play mandolin in Japan, one artist really stood out for me—John Duffey of the Country Gentlemen. He had an amazing tenor voice and unique style of mandolin playing. I tried to copy his breaks note for note—he was my idol.” This opening characterizes both the liner notes and, even more important, the content of the marvelous CD he has made, a labor of love for the past fifteen years. It’s tempting to quote extensively from the history of Akira’s relationship with John Duffey, the legendary tenor singer and mandolin player for both The Country Gentlemen and The Seldom Scene, but I’ll leave it to you to fill in the details. Suffice it to say that reading and studying the liner notes can only serve to increase the pleasure of the wonderful songs selected for this recording, sung by some of today’s most prominent bluegrass musicians.
Written by Akira, veteran D.C. deejay Katy Daley, Seldom Scene stalwart Dudley Connell with Track Notes by Jeff Place, the liner notes are worth the modest price of the CD or the digital download ( https://amzn.to/2KdK7pB) and can be downloaded. For collectors, this is a “must buy.” Akira, who first arrived in the U.S. in 1971 for a U.S. tour with the Japanese bluegrass band Bluegrass 45 was brought here by Dick Freeland of Rebel Records. The recording, begun as a project of Ronnie Freeland, Dick's son, and Akira in a hotel room in Owensboro, KY., contains seventeen songs notably connected to John Duffey. All told, fifty-three musicians contributed to the recordings over a many years’ period. For those of us who never met or heard John Duffey live, Katy Daly’s profile is a revealing masterpiece. For instance, Daly comments on Duffey’s onstage demeanor, “Equally influential on John’s onstage persona was Johnny Carson of The Tonight Show. Duffey studied Carson’s monologues, quips, and emcee work and then made them his own. His humor was aimed at the urban audiences that came to their shows. It was current and over-the-top.” Along with Dudley Connell’s essay on his own joining the band and relationship with Duffey, the liner notes provide historical context to bluegrass in the Washington, D.C. area as well as the growth and development of bluegrass music more generally.
John Duffey (1934 – 1996) was one of the most influential musicians in the development of bluegrass from a regional variant of country music to an increasingly urban and urbane sound relying with increasing emphasis on folk music from the folk revival of the sixties and seventies along with jazz and rock & roll music. As the founder of two of contemporary bluegrass’ seminal groups, The Country Gentlemen and The Seldom Scene, and as a dynamic, witty personality with a distinctive voice and personal style, Duffey’s continuing influence on the popularity and development of the genre and it’s broad appeal cannot be overestimated. With a vocal range of over four octaves and a seemingly unhinged sense of humor, echoes of his voice are found throughout the genre. Now bluegrass standards, many of the songs he introduced to bluegrass were revolutionary at the time. He wrote “Bringing Mary Home,” and was associated with songs like “Hickory Wind,” and many others. He helped bring the music of Bob Dylan into bluegrass.
Here’s a version of “Wait a Minute” with Duffey singing during the Phil Rosenthal period, probably sometime in the late seventies to mid-eighties.
Recorded and assembled over a period of fifteen years, Epilogue smoothly brings together many musicians from early Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene aggregations, combining them with some of the finest voices of bluegrass of the twenty-first century in seamless and wondrous combinations. The CD features, for instance, Randy Waller, son of Country Gents great singer Charley Waller, with current Seldom Scene tenor Lou Reid on “Sad and Lonesome Day.” Amanda Smith, Jonathan Edwards, Dudley Connell, Sam Bush, James King, John Cowan and more. Fifty-three musicians in all, appear on the present recording, all singing songs closely associated with John Duffey. The recording values are evocative and stunningly inventive in their tribute to John Duffey, his singing and his instrumental work. Sadly, it’s not possible to represent his iconoclastic stage personality and electric presence.
Here’s another clip recorded at a festival in Louisville, KY in the md-eighties that captures some of his virtuosity as well as the stage presence that captured the imaginations of so many, including Akira Otsuka.
Akira Otsuka, the creator and producer of this fine tribute to John Duffey, was associated with him from their first meeting in Dick Freeland's living room, at festivals, through tours to Japan, collecting and preserving John Duffey’s mandolins and, now, his music. Here’s an interview recorded with Tara Linhardt which gives further insight into both Duffey and their relationship, in which he serves as Duffey’s Boswell.
Epilogue: A Tribute to John Duffey is a labor of love and admiration assembled and produced over a period of fifteen years. It also represents a picture of the movement from the mountains to the suburbs as rural and mountain people moved from the hills to the mills to the cities and suburbs following new opportunities due to the industrialization of farming along with the rise of digital technology and big government. The Baltimore – Washington axis arose and the composition of The Seldom Scene represented the change: a physician, a cartographer, a mathematician jamming in the basement and avoiding travel because of their other commitments. Now, the spirit of John Duffey, through the recreation of songs he’s noted for singing, lives on in this recording, while the originals can be heard in online streaming services and seen on YouTube. As Akira said, ““It’s hard to believe John Duffey left us more than two decades ago now and that there is a whole generation of Bluegrass fans and artists who never saw John perform. If this tribute album causes those young people to turn on YouTube and listen to John, I would say my mission has been successfully completed. On the other hand, for an older generation member like me, it’s sweet to stroll down memory lane with John.”
John Duffey's Mandolin - The Duck
Sunday, June 24, 2018
David A. Poulsen has written Last Song Sung: A Cullen and Cobb Mystery (Dundern, 2018, 352 pp., $17.99/5.38) the third volume in a detective series set in Calgary, British Columbia. The lead characters, journalist Adam Cullen and private detective Mike Cobb seek to solve a fifty year old mystery set in the world of 1960’s folk revival and political chaos. Their back story involves the still unsolved murder of Cullen’s wife Donna in a fire set by an arsonist. When the police cannot identify the killer, Cullen hires Cobb, who also fails. Two books later, the two have become partners in detecting and solving crimes, with Cullen serving as researcher and co-investigator. He has also gone on with his life, developing a relationship with Jill Sawley and her daughter Kyla, both of whom he loves and is deeply involved with.
In Last Song Sung, the duo is hired by Monica Brill to discover the fate of her grandmother, Ellie Foster, a folksinger who was abducted from The Depression, a coffee house in Calgary fifty years earlier during an incident in which two of her fellow musicians were killed in an adjoining alley as Ellie was forced into a car and driven away. Recently, a CD has been mysteriously placed in Monica’s car. On listening to it, she has become convinced it’s the voice of her grandmother singing a previously unknown song containing elusive language she thinks might prove to be clues to what happened to Ellie and perhaps to help find her, if she’s still alive.
Meanwhile, Cullen has been requested by Marlon Kennedy to take on a surveillance task undertaken twenty-four years before when Faith Unruh was brutally murdered. Kennedy has quit the police force to obsessively video and maintain surveillance of the former Unruh home where he believes the killer will one day return to the scene of the crime, leading to his identification and capture or death. Kennedy must be absent for a few days to tend to his dying ex-wife. Cullen, who Kennedy had almost killed several years before thinking he might be the killer, has been asked to camera-sit while Kennedy travels to his ex-wife’s side.
A third plot line is introduced that, at least at first, makes no sense. The rescue mission where Cullen’s lover Jill works is in financial distress, with their funding running out. Cullen arranges to meet with the leader of a motorcyle gang called MF to seek, for some unknown reason, a donation from them to the mission. At the end of the meeting a threatening suggestion that if they decide to donate might put Cullen, Jill, and even Kyla in jeopardy is introduced, but never fully developed. The connections between the three plot lines are tenuous at best.
I found this book to be ploddingly slow, without much happening as Cullen and Cobb pursue their slender clues eventually leading deep into the Canadian coffee house scene of the 1960’s and the political radicalism of that era. Eventually they travel to to Canada’s capitol Ottawa for the resolution. The dialogue is plodding at best, barely substituting for more extensive description, which would have been worse. The action sequences are few, far between and unconvincing. There’s never a moment in the novel where the action is heart stopping or the dialogue snappy and lively. Poulsen’s insertion after the climax of a cliff hanger designed to get me to read the next volume is transparent, while taking away from a potential for a more immediate and interesting ending to the current volume. The end is more than unsatisfying without succeeding in being seductive.
David A. Poulsen
David A. Poulsen has been a teacher, actor, cowboy, high school football coach and, most of all, a writer. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, including YA titles and the current novel, the third outing of Cullen & Cobb. According to his online profile, he is also a noted rodeo competitor, announcer, and former rodeo clown, with over 1500 performances to his credit.
Last Song Sung: A Cullen and Cobb Mystery (Dundern, 2018, 352 pp., $17.99/5.38) by David A. Poulsen leaves too many balls in the air without raising the heat enough to make any of them really interesting, breathtaking, or satisfying. Set in a period still of interest to people because of the folk music era it tries to evoke and the time of political disruption not unfamiliar to us today, this should be an intriguing and involving story. Sadly, it falls way short of the mark. The plot is plodding, the dialogue lacking spark, and finally, through the device of a nakedly obvious concluding cliff hanger, dishonest. I received the book as a pre-publication electronic galley from the publisher through Edelwiess. I read it on my Kindle.
Thursday, June 21, 2018
Thursday May 31, 2018
The Strawberry Park Amphitheater
The Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival opened for its 41st go-round on a cool, slightly overcast afternoon promising four days of wonderful music in an iconic setting featuring both the well-known open-air amphitheater, shaded by trees, raked to provide excellent sight-lines, and some of the best acoustic qualities to be found anywhere. Often plagued by periods of rain at this time of year, this large all-purpose resort campground also features a covered performance stage for use when serious rainstorms threaten to interfere with fans' enjoyment. With 2018 having served up a cool, wet Spring, there was no reason not to expect extensive use of both venues during the four days. Everyone's expectations were met, while the music continued with several changes of venue from the amphitheater to the secondary stage, close to the snack bar and extensive swimming pools. For us, it was our first attendance at an outdoor festival where we didn't live in our own camper, beginning the next stage of our adventure in a convenient rental unit only steps from the entrance to the amphitheater. As usual, in this blog, when bands appear on more than one day, they are only covered them once.
Twisted Pine is a young, exciting, and increasingly tight, entertaining band which has show remarkable growth during each of the three years they have appeared at Strawberry Park. Featuring a fusion of folk, bluegrass, Americana roots music influences, their tight singing and play crosses generations and genres with charm and smooth musical finesse.
Twisted Pine - Kentucky Waltz
A Relaxing Thursday Afternoon
The Stockwell Brothers
The Stockwell Brothers have been staples at festivals, small venues, and concerts around New England for more than a generation. Oldest brother Bruce is well-known among banjo players nationwide, often serving on the staff of banjo workshops. Brother Barry promotes music and cultural events, having recently developed The Next Stage in Putney, VT while brother Al owns and operates a recording studio. Bruce's wife, Kelly, who he met when she took banjo lessons from him, has joined the band on bass. They always entertain with their combination of bluegrass, folk, and softened rock music.
The Stockwell Brothers - Single Handed Sailor
Hunter Berry Looks on from the Walkway
Rhonda Vincent & the Rage
Rhonda Vincent is a dynamo. Performing over 100 dates year after year, featured on Larry's Country Diner on RFD-TV and singing harmony on dozens of recordings a year, she seems to be everywhere, but not overexposed as audiences come to hear their favorite bluegrass singer, who never sits down after a show until the last fan has left the Rhonda Vincent Boutique. At Strawberry Park Rhonda closed out the evening on Thursday, following her set with a jam with fans, then two sets and a guest appearance on Friday. Wow!
Rhonda & Josh Williams
Rhonda Vincent & the Rage - Momma Tried
Friday opened at Strawberry Park threatening rain, which soon came in buckets, driving the festivities under the pavilion next to the snack bar just up the hill from the amphitheater. While the noise of people coming for late breakfast and lunch along with kids in the nearby swimming pools providing something of a distraction. Having a dry day, even though it was pleasantly warm, was welcomed by almost all but the most diehard traditionalists. Unhappily, this is not a good setting for me to do videography, so there are no videos from this venue.
This is the third year for The Boxcar Lillies to appear at Strawberry Park. More a folk/Americana group than a bluegrass band, they offer a tuneful, lively mix with strong singing and instrumentals. A good act to open the second day of this fine festival.
Mile Twelve has been steadily rising regionally and, now, nationally as they garnered ten second round selections in the nominations process for IBMA awards. The third round, for members, usually rolls out in late July. Be sure to consider this worthy band in your voting. Coming out of Boston, Mile Twelve has an international as well as broad American flavor to draw on in its work. Young, enthusiastic, and thoughtfully creative, they bear deserve your attention.
The Gibson Brothers
The Gibson Brothers have ascended into the stratosphere of bluegrass bands through hard work, dedication to their craft, superior song writing which has become increasingly dominant in their performances, the high quality of their musicianship, and the nature and quality of their brotherly banter, all demonstrated in the video below. While fiddler Clayton Campbell appears to be on sabbatical from the band, the high quality of interaction and musical excitement remains. Jesse Brock's work on mandolin draws cheers for his intense solos. Their performance tonight as part of a single ninety minute set was highlighted by Rhonda Vincent's guest stint, which is also part of the video.
Eric & Rhonda
Leigh & Rhonda
Three Song Medley
Kathy Ward & Son James Ward
Emcee - Jim Beaver
Phillip Wells - Scholar, Radio Personality, Friend
Dailey & Vincent
Dailey & Vincent brought their big show to the stage of Strawberry Park to close Friday night. Their performance was fast paced, varied, and lively. The addition of Gaven Largent on Dobro as well as banjo, the two quirkiest instruments to play, has strengthened the left side of the band. Since Dailey & Vincent feature a number of songs, particularly gospel and patriotic ones, where the banjo might not be seen as an appropriate instrument, the addition of the Dobro to the instrumental mix is welcome. Largent, while young, is a master at both. Seth Taylor's return to the band, on an semi-regular basis while he also continues to perform with Mountain Heart, is welcome for both his excellent guitar work and pleasant stage personality. Patrick McAvinue, 2017 IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year, continues to deliver pure excellence here, as he has at each stop in his career. This very good ninety minute performance closed an excellent day at Strawberry Park.
Jeff Parker & Jamie Dailey
Jeff Parker, the last remaining member of the original Dailey & Vincent beside the two founders, will be missed when he departs to form his own band. He's been a reliable vocal addition as well as serving as a useful comic foil with grace and good humor.
Darin Vincent, Aaron McCune & Patrick McAvinue
Saturday at Strawberry Park was saved by the ability of the festival events to move fairly quickly from the amphitheater stage, one of the most pleasant venues in bluegrass when the weather is fair, to the covered pavilion in the pool/snack bar area just a few dozen steps away. As the day wore on, with the weather turning from pleasant to downpour to promising and return, the flexibility of the setup, the skill of Ace Audio at providing excellent sound in two widely different venues, the ability of the Strawberry Park Staff, and the good nature of the hardy fans used to such quirky weather in late Spring all turned the day into a positive experience, though a times a bit damp. I was not able to record any videos on Saturday.
Around the Campground
Sideline has moved quickly from being, just as its name signals, a group of longtime professionals seeking some side work for the off season when their regular gigs were on hiatus to one of the busiest and popular bands on the bluegrass circuit, traveling in their new (to them) bus to over one hundred performances a year from coast to coast. Three original members (Steve Dilling, Jason Moore, and Skip Cherryholmes), all long-time professionals in major bands, remain. Meanwhile, mining the rich supply of available bluegrass tyros to be found in North Carolina, the band has improved with each change. Troy Boone on mandolin and vocals and Daniel Greeson on fiddle bring first rate skills honed at ETSU, while Bailey Coe contributes his fine vocals and rhythm guitar after several years singing with The Grasscats under the tutelage of Russell Johnson. This is a first rate band deserving recognition from IBMA in its nomination process. This year, Sideline has reached the second round of the IBMA awards process in eight categories: Entertainer of the Year, Vocal Group, Instrumental group, Song (Thunder Dan), Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar.
The Kruger Brothers
The Kruger Brothers don't simply sing songs, they provide a musical experience bringing their audiences from tears to laughter as they weave folk songs, bluegrass, rock covers, and Jens Kruger's classical compositions for bluegrass band and symphony orchestra together into music that touches the heart while challenging expectations of what music can be. Jens is well-recognized as one of the world's finest banjo masters, while brother Uwe on guitar is without peer. Joel Landsbrrg, the "third Kruger brother," is crucial tying their music together on the bass. While the Kruger Brothers on record are excellent, their live performances defy description. See them if you can!
The Kruger Brothers, wisely, closely control the amount of their content they allow online. The segment below, reocorded at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants)in California in 2017 was one of their offerings played at Strawberry Park, representing a wonderful example of their versatility and appeal to audiences across an incredibly wide spectrum of music fans, including bluegrass. This video includes two movements from Jens' Appalachian Concerto and Uwe singing Sting's "Fields of Gold."
The Lonely Heartstring Band
The Lonely Heartstring Band only needs to sing and play, both of which they do at least as well as any other band, but they also bring a light-hearted personality to their performances drawing them closer to audiences. A Boston band with roots from coast to coast and northward to Canada, their sound stands out among young, emerging bands for its purity and power. Their rock covers recreate and then, almost, surpass the band they're covering. First with the Beatles, but now with Paul Simon, John Hartford, and Credence Clearwater Revival, they constantly bring surprise and delight. Their singing, highlighted by the brother harmonies of twin George and Charles Clements blend as only twins can. Gabe Hirshfeld is emerging as one of the finest young banjo players because of his brilliance and restraint. His sense of humor permeates the band's approach to its audience. See, hear, and become captivated.
Charles & George Clements
The Grammy winning SteelDrivers reflect Muscle Shoals and Nashville as much as they do Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs, but they're one of the most popular and successful bluegrass bands of the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Their bluesy, boozy sound works best, and they've been most effective after dark, often bringing a dark sensibility to their music. They've been a pretty stable band except at the crucial blues singer vocalist spot, which now sports Kelvin Demrell singing and playing guitar as the band's fourth singer. On a wet Saturday night he introduced himself with enthusiasm, his energy fitting right in with Tammy Rodgers' fiddle and the always elegant Richard Bailey on banjo.
Rodgers & Fleming
Sunday dawned warm and sunny, ready for the morning gospel show to be followed by two excellent regional bands providing solid, entertaining music as those who haven't too far to drive home or who aren't yet quite ready to give up the magic relief from the outside world provided by bluegrass festivals.
Dry Branch Fire Squad
Dry Branch Fire Squad opened the morning with it's traditional Sunday morning gospel program featuring old time gospel music punctuated with some of Ron Thomason's patented story-telling and a few words that manage to send a humane, faithful message while pretty much leaving any reference to formal religion out of the mix. This program always includes some old time country church gospel music and ends with "If I Could Just Touch the Hem of His Garment" drawn from Matthew 9.21, always leaving the crowd yearning for more. A highlight of Dry Branch Fire Squad's two shows this weekend was the return of Brian Aldridge on mandolin, guitar, and vocals to the band after several years' absence. This represents his third stint with the band, which was much welcomed by those who know him.
The Gail Wade Trio
Gale Wade has a warm, winning personality and writes good songs, often about her love for horses. Like many New England musicians, she performs with at least three bands we've seen as well as singer/songwriter sessions in coffee house settings. We've seen her from New England to Tennessee. Along with Tim St. Jean on squeeze box and mandolin and Joe DeLillo on bass, she earned the enthusiastic encore the audience awarded her.
Tim St. Jean
The Blackstone Valley Boys
The Blackstone Valley Boys closed the festival with a pleasant set of traditional bluegrass as well as some newer material and a few songs written within the band. The Dick Brothers have been playing in and around New England for a generation, as have the other members of the band, all familiar to bluegrass fans from the region.
Tim St. Jean
Bob Dick & Ken Taylor
The music was finished about 1:30 or so, as we picked up our chairs to return to our rental park model trailer just outside the top of the amphitheater. It was our first festival without our trailer, which the Park has actually bought to become part of its rental stock. We look forward to experiencing our bluegrass from a somewhat different perspective but with our enthusiasm for the music and the community that supports it. Tired, we packed and drove our new, much smaller, vehicle home.