Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe

(for KDHX) I’m just going to come right out and say it: I love everything about this album. The only way to make it any better would be to have it autographed. The art, the concept, the musicians, the arrangements, the production—in any way you care to look at it, Noam Pikelny’s latest release, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe is a delight from start to finish.

The first thing that I love is that, on the face of things, the concept is so unabashedly geeky: It’s a track-for-track, in sequence recreation of one of the most respected recordings in bluegrass music, one that Kenny Baker released in 1976. It’s right up there, in terms of cool, with Civil War re-enactment and stamp collecting. For the cover, Pikelny is wearing a Baker-era suit, tie (yikes!) and the same brand and style of Stetson that you see on the initial release.

The risk, perhaps, it that it could come off as mockery, though he negotiates that line carefully and we see the impulse for what it is: respect. Baker had been a long-time fiddler with Monroe, and spent longer playing in that band than any other musician. He was a master of phrasing and interpretation, and also such a Monroe die-hard such that when he went to make a solo recording, he did a collection of Monroe’s songs. Famously, Bill Monroe came by the studio for little more than to say hi and ended up staying throughout the sessions, and playing on every track.

That album, rightly, is prised for the approach that Baker brought to the music, though the subtleties can be hard for those less steeped in the music to hear. At the time, Baker’s playing stood out from the crowd for its polished feel and the elegance that it added to the music. It became a classic recording, a status that it retains to this day.

The concept of recreating it began, as is noted in the liner notes, when Pikelny joked in a text to Ronnie McCoury “Could I get away with calling an album Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe?” The idea stewed a bit and, a year later, he decided that it actually was a very attractive one. Pikelny spent months transcribing Baker’s solos in order to bring them faithfully to the banjo. Why? Well, maybe it was fun, or whatever, but he did it, perhaps to work through the interpretations of a master with the intention of learning from them as much as building on them.

Once done, Pikelny brought together some musical friends that are all operating at the very top of their instruments: Mike Bub on bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, and Bryan Sutton on guitar. All share a deep, abiding sense of the tradition of bluegrass music, yet all project their own personalities and their own voices through the music they play. Each is a delight on his own, and together they could play “Happy Birthday” and no doubt it would be absolutely entertaining. They are just that good. The album was produced by another great, fiddler Gabe Witcher, and the only regret is that we don’t get to hear him on here too.

The result is an album that is simply impossible to resist. It includes some very common bluegrass tracks, such as “Jerusalem Ridge,” and “Brown County Breakdown” as well as some pieces that are somewhat less heard theses days, such as “Road to Columbus.” The recording quality is crystalline, and while there is a dedication to what Baker and Monroe brought to this music, the voices of these players come through as well and there are a wealth of “ahh!” moments. McCoury is such a deft student of Monroe, though he doesn’t parrot the playing, instead using it as a means to explore new musical ideas. Stuart Duncan , well, there is no better or humble player out there today.

I could go on, but I won’t. It just doesn’t get any better than this. If you are a fan of acoustic music, and have a CD player in your car, get a copy of this album. If it doesn’t win a Grammy, then those awards aren’t worth a 70s-era tie.

Interview with James Alan Shelton

Update: When this piece was posted, Shelton emailed saying “I just wanted to say thank you so much for the wonderful story. It was one of the best I’ve ever had done about me and my music. I could tell from the interview that you were familiar with my guitar playing and I certainly appreciate that. It was truly a fine piece of work.” Not long after that he very sadly passed away after a battle with cancer. He was a wonderful musician, and a wonderful person.

(for KDHX) James Alan Shelton has been playing, touring and recording with Ralph Stanley for twenty years, longer than any guitar player Stanley has ever worked with. I reached him by phone to talk about what it’s like to have your dream job.

Continue reading Interview with James Alan Shelton

The Definitive Doc Watson

(HVBA) You can be forgiven for thinking, “Do we really need another collection of Doc Watson recordings?” When I heard of this release, that’s what I thought. My initial impression was that Sugar Hill was just releasing something in order to drum up some sales in light of Watson’s passing in May of last year.

Once I got my hands on this collection, I realized that the answer is, actually, yes, you do need another collection of Watson recordings, and this is it. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into selecting the tracks here, and Jack Lawrence, long-time guitar player with Watson, was one of the people involved. As well, the tracks have been remastered, evening out some of the sonic anomalies of the very early recordings, allowing them to sit well alongside the later recordings, the most recent of which is a duet with Bryan Sutton on “Whiskey Before Breakfast” recorded in 2006.

But then there is this: while there have indeed been many Watson releases over the years—he recorded more than 60 albums, and they were in turn redistributed in countless collections of one sort or another—this is the first one to jointly anthologize the Vanguard Records and Sugar Hill Records periods of Doc’s discography. The only thing better (and who knows, maybe one day we’ll get it) would be a collection that also anthologizes recordings from the Smithsonian releases, which were the earliest recordings of Watson ever made available. The first recording ever made of him was a field recording at a fiddle convention when he was still just in his early teens. It’s a rough recording, and the intro is brutal to endure, but once Watson plays, it’s fascinating. Smithsonian released the duets of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley and later the duets with Bill Monroe and Jean Ritchie. You really feel those absences on this collection, as you do the duets he did with Chet Atkins, an album called Reflections which is now inexplicably out of print. (People in the US can get it in digital download through iTunes, and if you don’t have it, do yourself another favour and download it. I live in Canada, and can’t buy it through iTunes … so much for free trade.)

Nevertheless, this collection includes the broadest selection of Watson’s work ever released in a single product: 34 tracks recorded from 1962 to the last recording he made, that one with Bryan Sutton. From beginning to end, it’s a delight. There are lots of familiar tunes here, such as “Tennessee Stud,” “Shady Grove,” and “Black Mountain Rag.” But, there are also a fair number of tunes that, unless you are a diehard Watson collector, you may not have heard much of. There’s nothing rare, and everything is available on the original albums, but with so many albums out there, really, it’s hard to hear it all. I like that they begin this collection with “The Cyclone of Rye Cove,” and I like that they included “Southbound,” one of the few songs that Watson wrote that really entered his performance repertoire.

It’s interesting, too, that they choose material that sits well together, deciding not to include tracks from some of the albums that he did that were a bit further from the core of his work, such as the Docabilly album. What this collection comprises is a very informed collection of songs, chosen by people who worked with Watson. As such it collects a range of the material he released, not just the songs that get all the attention. There are some interesting absences—“Midnight on the Stormy Deep” doesn’t appear here—but, in fact, that adds to the collection as a whole, in that you don’t feel you’re just hearing all the familiar stuff all over again. It all sounds fresh and alive. And, with two wonderful liner essays, you really couldn’t ask for much more. This is the collection that really will remind you of how charming, talented, and entertaining Doc Watson was.

Old Time 101

(KDHX)

Photo courtesy Ray AldenToday we call the kind of music that Rhys Jones, Jeff Miller, and Jim Nelson play “old-time music,” though that wasn’t always ever thus. Prior to the 1920s, it was just called music, and it came to America with the English, Scottish, Irish, and German settlers. In the US the music naturally kept growing, changing, and evolving, creating a number of variant styles throughout Appalachia. In time, musical styles throughout the eastern United States were as unique and clustered as English accents are even today. You could tell, within a few miles at times, where a player was from just by hearing them play.

Continue reading Old Time 101

Second Time Around

(ParentsCanada; CBC)

For most people looking down the barrel of retirement, the thought of having another baby isn’t one they’re willing to entertain. Yet when Steve Heming said “I do” three years ago, he also said “I will.” For wife Tammy, having kids was always in the cards. Sure enough, nine months later, Steve welcomed his third child, Lucy, into the world. Then a year later, Thomas arrived. Steve is 58. This past year, while Steve was home changing diapers and singing lullabies, his eldest son, Shawn, 26, was a tree planting foreman in B.C., and his daughter, Kerry, 24, was a concierge at a yoga studio in Toronto. Continue reading Second Time Around

Revisiting Tommy Dorsey

When we were teenagers we defined ourselves through the music that we listened to, and I suppose that that is something which remains true for teens today. I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to James Taylor (even if I sat enthralled with “Sweet Baby James” when no one was around) and the same was true for big band music. In the 70s, big band music was the soundtrack of our parents’ lives, which was synonymous with lame.

Well, I’m older now, and with age comes the freedom to be lame in my children’s eyes. It’s a great freedom, because it allows me to listen to music in ways I never did before. Since I got a turntable for Christmas, I’ve been buying LPs at garage sales, thrift shops, wherever. As a result, I have a new fave: Tommy Dorsey.

No, “Tommy Dorsey” doesn’t sound very hip, does it. Dorsey was a famous bandleader, arranger, and trombonist. But there’s something otherworldly about so many of his recordings that I find myself resisting saying the kinds of things that David Sedaris quotes from his father, like “Listen to this! They really don’t make records like this anymore!” (But, seriously, they don’t. I’m not sure anyone even could.)

The frontrunner Dorsey album for late night summer listening is, hands down, a collection called “Yes, Indeed.” I say collection because it was never a proper studio album, but a collection of hits of a sort, some from the early 30s and then on up to a couple from the post war years. There was a time when this music was pop, but now it sounds veiled, clandestine, and mysterious. “Star Dust” “Song of India” “Marie” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” The album features a young Sinatra and the Pied Pipers, a vocal group. Group shouts, brass, mellow reeds—lots of variety and the kinds of intense arrangements that Dorsey was famous for. It just makes you feel like you’re someplace else. Someplace like Europe with an American regiment during the war.

Vinyl is important, because it really makes you feel like you are eavesdropping on another place and time. There’s something about knowing that the album is a thing that has made the trek from back then. It was once bought new from a record store and held in, perhaps, a young pair of hands. The copy I have was pressed in the late 40s, and the pops and background hiss add to the exoticism of the album. It just sounds like plantation humidity to me. There is a laziness to the record going around and around until the hiss, pop, and then silence when the needle lifts at the end of a side.  The liner notes are great too, including the ubiquitous note to “Beware the Blunted Needle.” There isn’t a hint of irony or sarcasm anywhere, which can seem disingenuous to a modern reader.

There’s nothing sarcastic or ironic about the music, either, even though the modern ear can play some tricks in that regard. But alone, late at night, if you just give yourself over to it, this is the kind of music that can remind you that it’s  a very big world out there.  I’m not sure why, but it just does. And it is. Bigger than I ever imagined.

Now what?

(McMaster University Department of Pediatrics)

As a nation, we’re getting heavier with each passing year, and the health effects of obesity—from depression to heart attacks to some forms of cancer—are on the rise, too. So what do we do? Well, not perhaps what you might think. New studies,  such as those led by Dr. Karen Morrison at McMaster University in Ontario are changing the way we think about obesity. They’re also challenging some central ideas about what we can do about it.

In the 1980s, Susan Powter became a celebrity by challenging widely held notions of why individuals are obese and what they can do to change it. Her mantra, repeated endlessly through her late-night infomercials, was “eat less, move more.” Getting healthy was, as she drilled into thousands of late-night couch potatoes, simple, easy to understand and easy to do. All you needed was to get up and do it. Right?

Well, no. Dr. Katherine Morrison, an associate professor within the Division of Exercise and Nutrition, says, “We know very clearly that if all you say to an individual is, ‘You know, you just have to eat less and move more,’ you can save your breath. Because we know that doesn’t work.” Continue reading Now what?

Don Rigsby’s “Doctor’s Orders”

(HVBA) Don Rigsby has been around a while, and as such he always seems to be there, not too far away. Many probably came across him for the first time in the movie Bluegrass Journey where he’s onstage with the Lonesome River band (in what some consider their best line up) at the IBMA’s and then later, in the hallway of the hotel at the conference, playing his heart out with Don Rigsby and Friends. Maybe we’d seen him in Lonesome River, but with the movie and the subtitles, he finally had a name.

There are some very memorable scenes in that movie, but the ones with Rigsby aren’t among them. He doesn’t have Rhonda Vincent’s teeth, or Chris Thile’s looks. He doesn’t have Tim O’Brien’s quick sense of humor, or Tony Rice’s cool, or Dolly Parton’s dress. He’s just Don Rigsby. His default expression seems to be worry. He’s playing and singing beautifully, though perhaps not transmitting across the footlights the way some of the others do. Even when he’s with his own outfit, he’s still playing the sideman.

That’s the Don Rigsby we find on this new album, too. He is self-effacing to a fault in the liner notes, which is dedicated to childhood memories of his hero, Ralph Stanley, to whom this release is a tribute. Stanley is on the cover, and he’s collaborated on a song, “The Daughter of Geronimo.” That song is a highlight, to be sure, but it’s just one song, so the gush of the liner notes seems, initially, a bit over the top.

When you listen closely though, even if Stanley doesn’t have such a personal presence here, the fact is that his music, and his influence, is everywhere. Where Jim Lauderdale pushed Stanley out front like a stage prop on his collaboration Lost in the Lonesome Pines, this album from Rigsby is much subtler, and is far and away the finer tribute. “Little Maggie” is a song that he requested at a Ralph Stanley concert on his sixth birthday, and it’s covered beautifully here; the reference to the banjo ring is as much an homage to Stanley as you can get.

There are some high-powered guests here in addition to Stanley, including a vocal turn from Ricky Skaggs on “Home in the Mountains” and “Tennessee Truck Driving Man.” Barry Bales is on bass throughout, and James Shelton and Larry Sparks are pretty equally represented on guitar. The song selection is strong, and the production serves the material as much as the stilted album cover photo (get it, “Doctor’s Orders”?) and liner notes undercut it.

This is a lovely album, and bluegrass fans will enjoy its calm confidence. “Sinner Man” is a gorgeous a cappella piece, and “Walking up the Hill on Decoration Day” is a highlight as well. Still, Rigsby is good enough to set himself clearly out in front, and if I were his manager, that’s what I’d be begging him to do. Rigsby has been a sideman for the vast bulk of his career, and it seems that he’s trying to be a sideman on this recording as well, which becomes the one fault of the project. Yes, he’s got lots of musical heroes, but there are musicians out there for whom he could be a hero if he let them perceive him in that way.

Adam Steffey’s “New Primitive”

(HVBA) The first track on Adam Steffey’s new album New Primitive opens with a pop music flourish of a kind that you don’t typically find on oldtime albums. It’s a statement that this isn’t just another album of traditional tunes. And, certainly, it isn’t.

It’s his third solo project and one that Steffey says he’s been hoping to do for some time— namely to record some of old time tunes that are rooted in the musical history of Appalachia. All the pieces here are traditional ones that have been handed down in the traditional way, from player to player over the course of generations.

That’s how Steffey learned them too, and his pedigree for this material is as good as it gets: his maternal grandfather was Tom Carter, a cousin of A. P. Carter of Carter Family fame. In the liner notes that accompany this CD Steffey writes of Tom Carter that, “he was … a midwife/country doctor, of sorts. My grandfather (Fred Carter) once told me that the first time he heard a phonograph record was when A.P. Carter brought a phonograph over and played the records of the first Carter Family sessions that they had recorded in Bristol.”

He adds, “This music is something that is very dear to me and I count myself very blessed to have grown up in the East Tennessee/Southwest Virginia area. Having been allowed to hear and perform with so many terrific musicians from this area has made me the musician that I am.”

It was at The Carter Fold in Hiltons, VA, the home place of The Carter Family, that Adam first heard this kind of music. It is a place that still has traditional music every Saturday night and where Steffey occasionally performs. He has taken it around the US, and around the world, and traditional music could scarcely have a better ambassador. Steffey is a Grammy winner and IBMA mandolin player of the year … nine times. For a time he was a member of Alison Krauss’ band, Union Station, and has recorded with everyone from James Taylor to his own award winning band, the Boxcars.

But on this CD he mixes things up a bit; he returns to his roots, though he does it with an energy and an enthusiasm that is infectious. Some of the tunes are well known, such as “Cluck Old Hen” and “Raleigh and Spencer.” Others are a bit more esoteric to listeners less steeped in the Appalachian traditions. All sound absolutely fresh and alive. This recording isn’t a museum of old tunes, but rather a vehicle for Steffey to pay homage and also have a lark with some of the material that is so familiar to him.

Here he also presents the Snyder Family Band—a group that we’ve profiled in these pages—in a way that they’ve been featured before. Zeb Snyder plays guitar throughout, and absolutely tears it up on the faster tunes, such as “Chinquapin Hunting.” He’s coming into his own as a guitar player, just as his sister, Samantha, is as a fiddle player and singer. This CD includes a gorgeous vocal track featuring Samantha, “Who Now Will Sing Me Lullabies.” Her voice has matured even since her last recording with the Family Band, “Building Bridges” which was released this year.

Ron Block’s “Walking Song”

(HVBA) Listening to this disc, I wished that I had no idea who Ron Block is or any of the things he’s done in his career. By any measure, he’s done a lot, most notably as a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station for twenty years. On his own, he’s released two collections prior to this one, and they—as this one—are populated by a lot of very high-powered musical friends, though his previous releases were more overtly dedicated to his gospel writing, which can often come off as preachy and lacking much depth or dimension.

This disc, Walking Song, is the first of his albums that I’ve really loved, and there is a lot to love. The musicianship is really beyond compare, and the guests comprise a group of players that is simply hard to get enough of. The main ‘band’ throughout this project is Union Station, with Krauss and Dan Tyminski taking turns on backing vocals, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Barry Bales on bass. Other guests who appear here include Sierra Hull, Sam Bush, and Mike Compton on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. Also sharing vocals are Suzanne Cox and the stunning Kate Rusby. Like I said, there’s a lot to love, and all of it works brilliantly. Block isn’t a scintillating lead singer, perhaps, and his delivery can be flat, but the material and the settings make up for the shortfall. The material ranges from old-time (“Devil in a Strawstack”) to folk (“Summer’s Lullaby,” “Chase Me to the Ocean”) to traditional bluegrass (“Nickel Tree Line,” “Shortnin’ Bread”) to celtic (“The Fields of Aidlewinn”).

Throughout, it’s a lovely tour through some great ideas and sounds. The album is relaxed, free of some of the big ideas that he’s tried to present in the past, and the collection really benefits from the lighter approach. “Some of these songs are just fun,” says Block. ”They’re fun and they’re sweet and they’re just for a moment of relief or respite from the hum-drum everyday world. ‘Ivy’ is one of those, just a sweet little song. It’s not some grand philosophical idea; it’s a guy wanting to get back home.”

I wished that I didn’t know anything of his history because I wonder how it would be to come at this material absolutely fresh, with no baggage in terms of expectations, or all those thoughts that tend to crowd in. The reason is because this is an album that stands so beautifully, and brilliantly, on it’s own. If you had no idea of the background, you’d feel that you’d made a great discovery, and that in itself would be so exciting.

Anyway, it is what it is, which is easily one of the best albums released this year.

“Tell the Ones I Love” by the Steep Canyon Rangers

(HVBA) Culturally, we seem to like the idea of the struggling artist, someone who suffers for their work and who’s work seems to benefit from the struggle that goes into it. Would we revere people like Hemingway, for example, if their lives were idyllic and the only drama was in the pages of their books. I’m not sure the work would seem as honest, and that’s true in music as well. Roni Stoneman was a banjo player with the storied Stoneman family, and her relatives were there with the Carter Family at the Bristol sessions. She went on to star on Hee Haw and, when that was over, descended into crushing poverty and abuse at the hands of her husband. I heard her in interview once when she was asked to give advice to a 12-year-old musician. Stoneman said, “Enjoy the music that you play, because, most of the time, that’s about all you’re going to get out of it.”

If there is an opposite to that story, at least in the world of bluegrass music, it’s that of the Steep Canyon Rangers. There is a goofy, frat party quality to them, but in a good way—they seem to be five young people with good hygiene, great senses of humor, out to have some fun. Then, when they caught the ear of Steve Martin at a party in rural North Carolina—his wife is a friend of a friend of the band—they became his touring band and, ever since Martin’s Rare Bird Alert (2011) they’ve been his studio band as well. As a result they’ve gone to places—Carnegie Hall, recording with Paul McCartney—that most bluegrass musicians can only ever dream of. They’ve toured big halls and done a wealth of media, again, which most bluegrass musicians, including some of the greats, never attain.

It’s easy to envy them, but then again, it’s equally easy to wonder what might have been had they not had (at least what seems) such an effortless rise. Martin himself considers this idea from time to time, as in the current issue of Fretboard Journal when he says, thinking of when he first started working with the Steeps, “I was a little bit worried. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll taint them a bit. They’re a traditional bluegrass band, and they’re teaming up with a comedian.’”

The fact is, he indeed may have. The hard luck story is central to bluegrass and country music, and the gaze within the writing, let’s face it, is rarely from they heights down. Instead, bluegrass, like the blues, is about being down and trying to look up.

I say this because there is a tension in the work of the Steep Canyon Rangers along these lines. On their latest release, Tell the Ones I Love, they break from tradition with bluegrass (actually, they never were avowedly traditional in their presentation) by adding many of the sounds of that other hard-luck music: country. Here are drums, lap steel guitar, and lots of swoops and swoons. They sing of hard times, as on “Bluer Words Were Never Spoken” though the music never really meets the sentiment of the lyric, nor does the lyric ever really develop the idea.

The musicianship is, of course, professional in every way, as these are five guys who know their way around their instruments. Songs like “Stand and Deliver” have a lovely sonic quality (and, in that case, is sung by Graham Sharp, providing a nice counterpoint to the typical lead voice for this band, Woody Platt).

The album was recorded in Woodstock in a barn on the property of the late Levon Helm, the drummer for the Band. Prior to Helm’s death he had been producing a series of events he called the Midnight Rambles, and the Steeps were involved with those. Not surprisingly, some of the material and production here approaches a tribute to Helm. “Camellia” has that lope-shouldered rhythm and harmony vocals that we associate with the Band.

But, again, I’m not sure I buy what the songs are intending to sell. Helm, too, lived a life of hardship and discord that made so much of his best music really shine. When he sang of lost love and hardship, it had an honesty that, in so much pop and rock, is hard to come by. The Steeps make very nice music, and I wanted to love this release which, it has to be said, is the best work they’ve yet done. They are at their best in songs which say closer to home, as on the instrumental “Graveyard Fields” and “Take the Wheel.” They make up for more derivative material, such as “Las Vegas.” But, as I’ve thought with each of their past releases, it still sounds like their best work is still yet to come.

The Spinney Brothers’ “No Borders”

(HVBA)

Dick Bowden recently wrote a compelling cover story about the Spinney Brothers for Bluegrass Unlimited. Titled “On the road with the Spinney Brothers” (April, 2013) Bowden gives an account of one leg of the Spinney Brothers’ summer 2012 tour, following the band from the moment they leave the Bluegrass in the Hills festival in Hopedale, Ohio, on Friday to the moment they leave their next gig, Saturday/Sunday sets gig at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival near Norwich, Connecticut. Continue reading The Spinney Brothers’ “No Borders”

Review, “The Music is You: a tribute to John Denver”

(KDHX)

There are lots of tribute albums around, though they are a curious bird. The assumption we make as consumers is that the people who contribute do so because they were inspired by the person whose work they are paying tribute to. I once bought a tribute CD to Jimmy Rogers that opened with a track from U2, “Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes.” It was hard to imagine that U2 had ever heard of Jimmy Rodgers, and even harder to imagine that they had been influenced by him.

Continue reading Review, “The Music is You: a tribute to John Denver”

Ashes

When I arrived at my mother’s house she was still getting ready. I asked if I could take the things out to the car. There were three boxes of clothes—some of which were intended for my grandfather, some of which were going to charity—and a blue velvet bag. The clothes had belonged to my father, while the velvet bag was my father, at least in a sense. It held his ashes. When my mother had picked them up from the funeral home, the director kept referring to the bag as “him” or “Richard” as in “would you like us to put Richard in the front seat with you?” and “Would you like us to buckle him in?” My mother quietly asked him if he could please, really, just put it in the trunk.

Inside the bag the ashes were contained in a nicely carpentered, overpriced wooden box. The funeral director called it an urn, and had asked “Have you given any though to an urn for Richard?” Of course we hadn’t—this was raised at our first visit, the morning he died—and my mother and I both independently tried to picture the kind of people who would have.

Still, I think my father would have liked the box. He had been a hobby carpenter, and wood was one of the few languages he chose to express himself in. The fact that it cost $600 would have impressed him as well. He wanted to have a sense of permanence, and he wanted an urn and a plot and a stone. If nothing else, he wanted his name someplace where it could be found. He wanted, I think, something real and lasting, a wish that was sparked by his own understanding of how little his ancestors had left behind. There wasn’t much more than headstones and a few undated, unlabeled photographs.

Perhaps because of all the blanks in the family tree, when I was young my father went through a genealogy phase. We toured cemetery after cemetery taking pictures of stones and scrutinizing dates and names. Dowdy. Wills. Howick. Keenan. Dilts. One of the cemeteries we visited a number of times that summer was Hillside, the one where my grandparents’ stone was. Their headstone was in place and their names were engraved on it despite the fact that at the time both were still alive. It sat next to the stone of my grandfathers’ father’s parents, which was next to my grandfather’s father’s father’s parents. Like birds on a wire, the generations set neatly in a row beneath a stand of mature maples.

My father said even then that he wanted to be part of the line, though he was aware there may not be room for my mother. And at any rate, he said, she didn’t really want to be in a cemetery, so it should be OK. At the time, those thoughts seemed entirely theoretical, so entirely out of touch with the immediate realities around me. If there was ever going to be a discussion about it, I thought at the time, it would come in a future so distant as to be unimaginable. Now, three decades later, on a crisp, bright autumn morning I gathered the boxes piled just inside my mother’s front door and took them and a blue velvet bag out to the car. We were taking the ashes to be interred.

The conversation on the drive to the cemetery was just what it would have been had my father actually been alive and sitting in the back seat. My mother talked about the book she was reading, the election coming up, the latest gossip at the knitting club—things my father wouldn’t have had anything to say about, anyway.

At the cemetery, a narrow gravel road continued in past an old gate and rows of headstones leaning with age, covered in lichen, some of which have been standing since the time of the US civil war. My father’s plot was marked with an orange road pylon. Mark—I don’t think he refers to himself as an undertaker; he called himself a city parks employee a couple times while we were there—leaned on his shovel, wearing Day-Glo coveralls and a baseball cap, talking to my aunt through the window of her car.

Across from them was a small dais made of three stacked boxes, each covered and tacked with Astroturf and set next to a lump. The lump was the backfill that Mark had removed from the hole, now covered with a sheet of Astroturf held down by four square granite shop samples. Each sample was named on the edge in black sharpie marker, and the edge I could see as we approached was marked “Paradiso,” a black granite that would serve equally nicely as a kitchen island or a grave monument.

As I took the box—the urn—out of the bag and moved to place it on the dais I noticed an envelope Scotch taped to the bottom. I pulled it off and saw that it was marked “Cremation Certificate.” Proof I guess that the ashes were really him, should we feel that these were two dots—my father, the ashes—that we needed to connect.

Mark turned to my mother and me and said, “I’ll give you a bit of time.” It sounded abrupt given that he had been talking to my aunt about mutual high school friends, including one who had just died of a massive heart attack.

“Well,” he continued, picking up his story, “it’s either the ticker or cancer, isn’t it?” He and my aunt are in the generation that has outlived high school car accidents, and yet is still young enough to not yet be in the cohort of strokes and dementia.

“Yeah,” she said, “I guess it is.”

Then he walked over to the equipment shed just up the hill and at the back boundary of the cemetery, just where the stones give way to a stand of forest and the farmers fields beyond that. Next to the backhoe, in those orange coveralls, he stood with his hands grasped behind his back as if to suggest, despite all the hard edges of the situation, a last-ditch bit of reverence.

Were it a movie, we had arrived at the moment when someone would have said a few words. Something like “He could be a bastard, but God I’m really going to miss him.” Or the son would turn to the mother and say, “He would have wanted it this way.”

Instead we were struck by the need to determine just what was expected of us.

“Is he going to come back?” my aunt said. “How much time does he expect us to take.”

My father had been ill for years and while the reality of the end was distant at first, it had always been plainly in view. It inched forward like Omar Sharif riding across the Sahara in Lawrence of Arabia. Beginning as a spec, by the time it finally arrived, we’d pretty much made peace with it, if not a little bit amazed at how long it took for whole thing to ultimately play out.

“Do you want me to go and get him?” I asked.

“No, I can do it,” my aunt said. “Do you think we can just wave, or do we need to walk over there.” Then after a beat in which you could hear the rustle of the leaves overhead, she demurred. “Actually, I guess I’ll just go and get him.”

I was still holding the empty velvet bag. “Do you want this?” I asked my mom. She said, “I don’t know what I’d want it for, but I guess I have to take it. I can’t imagine that I’d ever use it for anything.”

I thought of a kid who lived up the street when I was growing up who always had a wealth of Crown Royal bags. He had lots of bags for his marbles, but everyone knew that it was only because his dad was an alcoholic. As a result, it was hard to envy him. Likewise, using a cremation remains bag for anything other than cremation remains runs the risk of sending an unwanted message.

When my aunt came back with Mark he was carrying the shovel perfectly, and all but inevitably, on his shoulder, his free hand casually in the pocket of his coveralls. As they approached, my mother and I entered their conversation mid sentence.

“… and that’s when he took over the Ford dealership on Effingham Road,” my aunt was saying . “Just near Eff and Main. His wife was a bitch.”

“Yeah, they all went really quickly there for a while,” said Mark. “I felt terrible for him. You know, to have so many go at once. His daughter especially. That was the worst one.”

He turned to me, adding details that presumably my aunt was already aware of. “She committed suicide. Hung herself. Four o’clock in the morning, you know, he comes down and finds her dangling in the garage. It’s terrible when a kid blames herself for the break up of her parent’s marriage. You never get over something like that.”

Then, turning back to the hole, “Anyway, would you like me to fill it in while you are here?”

My mother said yes, perhaps because the only other option—getting into our cars and leaving the box there on the Astroturf—didn’t seem to be a realistic one. Though, in truth, watching someone indistinguishable from a construction worker bury the remains of a loved one felt equally surreal.

“Yeah, he had a rough go,” Mark said as he began filling in the space around the box. “And then the high school kids. Three of them. The cops never said if there was booze involved, though it’s hard to think that there wasn’t booze involved. So they come to the corner of Canboro road, you know there by the Avondale, and stopped in the middle of the intersection. And John Dilts, did you know him?” he said turning toward my aunt. She nodded that she did. “Used to live next to where Hanson’s Furniture used to be, across from the fair grounds? Well he comes along and ran right into them, going like 80 clicks. T-boned em. Had to use the jaws of life just to get the bodies out. Anyway, Matt, a friend of mine used to work for the town, he comes along first. All of them gone. Absolutely quiet, you know? Just like that.”

“They’re all over there,” he said, pointing to a newer section in the opposite corner of the cemetery, “even John.”

As he talked, he lifted shovels full of dirt from the pile and placed each one gingerly in the hole. “We make these holes pretty big. Some people come in with vaults, metal things. I dunno. And if they don’t tell you ahead of time, well, it’s pretty embarrassing if it doesn’t fit. I’ve had to dig holes bigger, all with the family standing here!”

He said this as if it were something we ourselves could imagine, that we could implicate ourselves into the experience of standing with a bereaved family as we dug a hole to accept a burial vault.

As he filled closer to the top, he tamped each shovel full down with his foot, leaving deep impressions of his tread. “So, has Nancy told you how many more you can fit in here?” he asked, gesturing to the row of family plots.

My aunt said that she had been in touch with Nancy, but wasn’t quite sure.

“Well, the rules have changed you know. The city says you can have one full burial and three cremations in each plot. Used to be just two cremations. Now it’s three. Not sure how they come up with this stuff. But you should ask Nancy to let you know how many you can fit in here.”

My aunt said that she wasn’t sure, because one infant burial, Susan, could be considered a full burial.

“And that’s what? ’53?” He craned his neck to check the date on the back of the headstone. “Probably nothing left there now. Bones are really small and soft at that age, you know. You might find a bit of plastic, but maybe not even that. I really doubt that you’d find anything.”

He shrugged his shoulders as if to say “who knows?” and then turned to lift the plywood board that he had used to pile the dirt on, tilting it to send the loose bits of earth onto the top of the hole now filled flush with the surrounding grass. He leaned the board up against a neighbouring headstone and then replaced the sod.

“You know,” he said, motioning to the right side of my grandparents’ headstone, “That’s your dad, eh?”
My aunt answered that he was. “He’s at Portal Village now, in Welland. He’ll be turning 98 in December.”

“Well, again, you should check with Nancy on this, but when he goes, you could put him … Uh, is he going to be a full-burial or a cremation?”

My aunt answered full burial.

“That’s what I thought. Well when he goes, you could choose to put him down an extra three feet. That way you could get another full burial on top.”

Of course, the only person left in our dwindling family that this could benefit was my aunt, the very person he was talking to.

“I’ll have to look into it,” she said. “Do you think she’s in tomorrow?”

“Here, I’ll give you her number. She’s in and out, but if you leave a message, she’s usually good at calling you back.”

I thought that while the setting could easily have been in a movie—it was the prime of fall in the country, bright yellow leaves set against a brilliant blue sky, tires groaning along a gravel road—the experience would never be. In movies, it’s only gesture: a person is mourned, and honoured, not buried. An urn sits on a mantle, or a dais, but no one needs to buy it, or fill it, or put it there. Mourners mourn a death, they don’t shepherd the mechanics of the memorial or hand over credit cards. But in life a monument needs to be bought, the hole needs to be filled, and a person needs to do those things. We need to do those things. And, in time, we do. Still, for some reason it’s all just as surprising as it is, well, obvious.

We left Mark there—he was going to get the power tamper to even out the bulge in the sod—and we drove off, my aunt following in her car, to a local diner for lunch. Over BLTs and house salads we talked about my brother’s recent move to China, about the mysterious impulse people have to deep fry turkeys, about a coming meteor shower. We had lunch, said our goodbyes, and no one mentioned the ashes.

Review: Della Mae, “This World Oft Can Be”

(HVBA)

Well, if you want to get on my good side, cover a song from Laura Boosinger, and indeed that’s how Della Mae starts this collection. “Letter from Down the Road” is a traditional song with new words and arrangement from Boosinger, and the version included here is a very faithful romp through a delightful piece. From there, Della Mae keeps the energy up on what is easily the best release from them to date.

Continue reading Review: Della Mae, “This World Oft Can Be”

Review: Dailey and Vincent’s “Brothers of the Highway”

(HVBA)

There are lots of good bluegrass albums, and there are a few great ones. There are also some that stand out even above those ones, and this new release from Dailey and Vincent is going to prove to be one of them.

Continue reading Review: Dailey and Vincent’s “Brothers of the Highway”

Interview with Greg Cahill

(HVBA)

Greg Cahill - BanjoGreg Cahill is, in so many ways, the embodiment of bluegrass music: honest, friendly, and in it not because he wants to be, necessarily, but because he has to be. I was fortunate to reach him at his home on a day that he was, as he says, unpacking his suitcase, doing the laundry, and packing it all in again in order to head back out on the road. Through it all, he tries to be an ambassador for the music and, frankly, you couldn’t find a better one.

Continue reading Interview with Greg Cahill

Heidi Talbot’s “Angels without Wings”

(KDHX)

Here’s how every review of Heidi Talbot opens: Talbot is from County Kildare, Ireland, and famously was a member of the Irish-American all-female supergroup Cherish the Ladies. The reviews for her new album, “Angels Without Wings,” likewise will all tell you in the first paragraph that Jerry Douglas and Mark Knopfler play on this disc, so there now I’ve done it too.

Continue reading Heidi Talbot’s “Angels without Wings”

Interview with Chris Eldridge

(KDHX)
I reached guitarist Chris Eldridge at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., during a break from a tour that will eventually bring Punch Brothers to St. Louis and the Sheldon Concert Hall on January 25.

Eldridge noted that it was nice to have a break from the road, to see friends and to sleep in his own bed, so I began by asking if being the son of a very successful musician — Ben Eldridge of the Seldom Scene — had prepared him for what life would be like as a professional musician.

Chris Eldridge: Despite being very successful at what [the Seldom Scene] did, they were never a band that toured. They were always guys who had regular, white-collar jobs that went to work from 9 to 5, and then they played, basically, on the weekends, or they’d take a couple days off work and they got to be successful despite that.

So, I think I had a bit of a wacky view of what it was to be a musician. And the thing is, I love doing what I do and feel extremely grateful. There aren’t a lot of people who get to do what they love and make a living at it. Despite some of the craziness that goes along with not being at home for months on end, I feel very lucky.

Glen Herbert: Perhaps despite the craziness of the road, nevertheless, whenever you are on stage or on TV, it seems that the five of you [in the Punch Brothers] are having an absolute ball. Is it really as fun as you make it look?

Yes! I think it is. Especially when we get to actually be on stage. We all like each other, we get along really well. And I don’t mean that it’s some great relief to get on stage, but it really is the best part of the day, when we actually get to play and to be there with the people who come to the shows and are ready to have an experience with us and we’re ready to have an experience with them. It’s a joy to get to do that.

There was a video I saw that you did, and you were playing in a trailer, an Airstream trailer of some sort, and it looked like any one of you was about to laugh at any point. It seemed that it was a joy that was coming directly from the music you were making.

Yeah, that was an on-air streaming thing. Yes, we love playing music and we like each other and we’re very lucky. It can be easy to take it for granted and to get dark about being on the road all the time or being away from home, but there’s definitely a flip side to that.

It seems that you play to a pretty unique audience. Do you get a sense that that’s true? How would you characterize the people that come out to see the shows?

Our audience is really great. We’ve been around for a while now, and we’ve kind of built our audience slowly, and as a result it’s a pretty varied audience in terms of stages and backgrounds. I don’t really know — it would be funny for me to try and identify what the common thread is — but the development of our audience wasn’t a flash in the pan.

So the cool thing for us is that we’ve developed our fan base over a long time, and therefore we have a longer-term relationship with them. I think it’s cool that when they come to a show that they’re very willing to let us lead them someplace. Part of their expectation is that we might take them someplace they may not expect, but they’re totally prepared to be along for the ride.

What kinds of plans are you hatching for the year ahead? What can we expect from the Punch Brothers in the near future?

We’re doing a tour that carries through mid-February, and then we’re going to take some time off from touring. We’re still going to play shows here and there, but our priority is going to shift to writing the next Punch Brothers’ record, which is something that we’re all really excited about.

There have been some really interesting and exciting sparks for songs when we were on the road last year, some stuff that feels just really good and slightly different than what we’ve done in the past, but I’m really excited about it.

So there’s some writing that we’re going to do as a band, but it’s also good that we have time as individuals this year to do other things. I’ve just finished working on a score for a little independent film. I’d never done that before, so that was a cool project for me to embark on. I did a little project with Julian Lage, a great guitar player.

So those are two things I have on my immediate horizon, and I know everybody else is doing similar things in their downtime from the band — which is, I think, really important. It’s important to be able to step away from something like that and rejuvenate your creative energy; to put yourself in a different context where you really have to quick on your feet. I think doing that and having those experiences you bring them back to the band.

The “Ahoy” EP has been getting some attention, and it has some material that is a bit different, too. Is it true that those are tracks that didn’t make it onto “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”

It is. Those are all things that we cut for the record. And, actually, as individual songs, some of those tracks were some of our favorites, like “Another New World.” But they were misfits. Those songs didn’t really belong on the full album that we trying to make. They weren’t a part of that album, and they would have taken away from [the creative vision for that album]. So, it’s actually kind of fun that they still got to see the light of day. That’s the nice thing about over cutting for an record, you get to have little treats like that afterward.

88.1 KDHX welcomes Punch Brothers to the Sheldon Concert Hall on January 25.

Audie Blaylock and Redline, “Hard Country”

(HVBA)

Hard CountryOne reviewer noted of Audie Blaylock that he “puts music before image.” If you’ve seen the cover of his latest album, Hard Country, you’ll see some of the truth of that statement: this is one of the best albums of 2012, and it has one of the worst album covers.

Continue reading Audie Blaylock and Redline, “Hard Country”

John Driskell Hopkins and Balsam Range, “Daylight”

(HVBA)

It’s pretty much impossible to discuss John Driskell Hopkins without discussing Zac Brown, and there are a number of reasons for that. Brown, though still young, is one of those people who has more energy than any single person rightfully should—he’s a Grammy winner, he’s run a restaurant, tours incessantly, is a father of four. He’s also the founder of the label Southern Ground, which he runs as a stable of talent. Those signed to the label, which includes Hopkins, are virtually indistinguishable from the Zac Brown band. They tour together, and Brown’s shows can feel more like a label sampler than a concert. Everyone gets a chance at the mic, and keeping them all straight can be a job. I saw their show at Merlefest last year, and it felt like an extended advertisement for Southern Ground records.

Continue reading John Driskell Hopkins and Balsam Range, “Daylight”

Choosing your baby’s gender: Separating science from fiction

(ParentsCanada)

In 1996, Monique and Scott Collins were among the first couples in North America to choose the gender of their child. It’s called family balancing and they took advantage of medical technologies that, to some, represent a great stride forward in family planning. In an interview some years later, Monique said “After having two boys I thought they needed a sister.” Continue reading Choosing your baby’s gender: Separating science from fiction

Making the most of every day

(Kruger Brothers online)

Skip Vetter was a very dear friend of the Kruger Brothers, one who offered his talents to a number of their projects, including the cover art for the second volume disks of the Carolina Scrapbook. More so, he was a friend and ardent supporter. Yesterday, Skip passed away from the complications of cancer.

Continue reading Making the most of every day

The Deerings and the American Dream

Published in the Kruger Brothers Newsletter, December 2012.

It’s one of the great stories in the history of fretted instrument building in the US: In 1970 Sam Radding began a small manufacturing shop to serve a local community of musicians in the greater San Diego area. Small, unassuming, not a little bit rag-tag, it was run like no other shop had been before, or likely would since. And, in just four years, it left a legacy like none other. “It was like co-op,” recalls Sam Radding of the American Dream Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company, a grand name for what was a small and very fluid organization.

“Everybody set their time. and put their effort into it. It was Just a group of people who were equally interested in building and repairing instruments. And we just tried to make it work.”

Radding’s hiring practice was simple, and perhaps emblematic of the time. “If you want to work here, that was enough for me! And we picked up a very interesting collection of people.”

The aspect of the shop that Radding feels was most unique was that kind of open-minded approach to people and ideas coupled with a culture of learning, growing, and sharing. He says, “I left hopefully, even back then, a small legacy of ways of thinking about what you’re doing. This thing about sharing information. I honestly believed that sharing information about building something, it’s what one has to do if they have that information.

“I could never understand why anybody would look me in the eye and say ‘I can’t tell you what that glue is.’ You know, you might use that glue and do a better job than I do. And I’ve always felt that if someone can do a better job than I do, then they should be doing the job. And there was the knowledge that, you know, you may have to scrape and scratch, but you can make a living building something.”

By his own admission, in his book Guitar Lessons, when Bob Taylor started working at American Dream he was just 18 years old and “didn’t have any of the necessary skills.” Taylor had been building guitars as a hobbyist and approached Radding to buy supplies, such as fret wire and abalone for inlay. He brought guitars around for “show and tell” and otherwise just hung around, simply to be near like-minded people.

He pestered Radding into letting him have a bench in the shop in order to do repairs to clients’ guitars, and soon he was rubbing shoulders with a roomful of people who gained in enthusiasm and dedication whatever they lacked in skill, including Geoff Stelling, Kurt Listig, and later Kim Breedlove, Larry Breedlove, and James Goodall. All had the same perspective and the same dedication to what Radding was trying to do, and little else.

One of the builders who had been there virtually from the start was Greg Deering, who was often tasked with training those new to the shop. But, even for him, the initial impulse was fairly basic. In an interview with David Holt in 1988 Deering said of his initial interest in the shop, “I wanted a better banjo and couldn’t afford it, so I built one. Then another one and another one, and the next thing you know I was doing it for a living.”

While the shop was short lived, it’s easy to see that the lessons learned there have carried on long since, including that desire to share ideas. Geoff Stelling and Greg Deering worked together on the first instruments in the Stelling line. When Bob Taylor and Kurt Listig bought the shop in 1974, they transformed it into Taylor Guitar. Larry Breedlove and Bob Taylor worked together on many of the technological aspects that make Taylor guitars unique today.

Greg and Janet remained within that community of builders, and Greg worked for a time at Taylor, ultimately founding Deering Banjos in 1977. Working out of their home, Greg and Janet made their first Deering model to have “Deering” on the headstock: an intermediate model with a steel drum. Their next model was a basic one with a lightweight rim, a precursor to the extremely popular Goodtime Banjo which they would premiere in 1996.

The business grew and in 1978 they moved to a shop in Lemon Grove and hired seven employees, using hiring practices that were not unlike those at American Dream. Deering noted that, for him, skill was less important than commitment. In 1979 Chuck Neitzel was hired away from his job as a house painter after Greg saw him in action painting his banjo teacher’s house. He’s been with them ever since. Joe Falletta was an electronics engineer. Many other long-time employees began, literally, sweeping the floors.

“It’s really surprising how much you learn about somebody when their job is to sweep the floor,” said Deering. “When you don’t have to keep pushing him, and you don’t have to keep pointing to what he didn’t do, you know you’ve got a competent individual. And that’s what we look for more than anything, people who are just competent individuals. If they really care about what they do and are conscientious, then you can train them to do anything and they’ll learn. But if they don’t care, you can’t train that into somebody.”

Those values remained as the company grew, later acquiring one of the most famed brands of banjo, the Vega Banjo Company. It was the company that built the instruments that were used in the folk boom of the 60s and which created for Pete Seeger his iconic long-neck banjo. Greg jokes that he had always wanted a Seeger long-neck banjo, though to get one he ultimately had to buy the company and build one himself.

While the American Dream Musical Instruments Company is now long gone, it’s ripples are still being felt throughout the musical instrument industry and can be seen on the headstocks of guitar shops from coast to coast: Breedlove, Taylor, Stelling, Goodall, and Deering.

These days, Deering has an impressive legacy of it’s own. John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has said, “The Deerings have a mission that I’m totally behind. They want to change the world five strings at a time, and I think they’re doing it.”

Old Man Luedecke’s “Tender is the Night”

(KDHX)

Tender Is the Night is the fifth solo collection from Old Man (Chris) Luedecke, and it feels like some of the musical ideas he’s been working with are really beginning to gel. His writing has always been very strong, remaining true to the roots of American folk and country music, though dealing with modern themes and ideas.

Continue reading Old Man Luedecke’s “Tender is the Night”

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s “We’re Usually a Lot Better than This”

(KDHX)

In 2000 Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott released “Real Time,” a gorgeous album of duets by two complete masters of instrumentation, arrangement, and performance. Beautiful. Then they toured it, and pretty much immediately demonstrated that there was a dimension to their playing that the recording lacked; it was a studio piece, and didn’t entirely capture the energy, spontaneity, camaraderie and humour that both O’Brien and Scott share. In a live setting, the pairing of these two performers—who can be absolutely commanding of an audience on their own—was pure unadorned fireworks.

Continue reading Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott’s “We’re Usually a Lot Better than This”

An interview with Darrell Scott

(KDHX)

There are no easy labels for Darrell Scott. In his career he’s been a first-call session musician in Nashville, a songwriter, performer, collaborator and producer — and he recently toured with Robert Plant as part of his Band of Joy.

In Scott’s world, it’s not that he’s all over the map, but rather it’s just a very big map. In the end, as he discussed with me on the phone from his home in Nashville, whatever it is that he’s doing or wherever he is, it’s all music.

Glen Herbert: What’s the new project, and when is it coming out?

Darrell Scott: I’ve got a new record coming out in January called “Long Ride Home.”

How does it differ from the other things you’ve done?

This one in terms of style is very country. Still singer-songwriter oriented, I’ve written all the songs, but if someone were to hear it they’d probably know within the first 10 seconds that this is old-style country.

This is country music from my childhood basically. In my band for that [album] was a guy named Pig Robbins on piano. His first hit that he played on was 1961, George Jones, a song called “White Lightning.” And Pig has just been a central piano player for the next 30 years after that, I would say. And so when I wanted to make this record, sort of an old country sounding record, I simply hired some of the people who played on old country back when it was old country. Pig was one of those. And a guy named Lloyd Green on pedal steel. I used upright bass, which is the old sound of country music, as opposed to an electric bass.

I tend to make records that have a sonic kind of theme, for example on this one old country music would be the theme, or other records that have a subject matter of a theme, like “A Crooked Road,” a double CD that to me was based on the idea of how did I get here. So that becomes a subject, a theme that will try to hold the record together.

So that’s the musical theme on that one. On “A Crooked Road” it was looking at 30 years of relationships, just somehow taking off on this road of chasing love and marriage and romance and all this stuff. Thirty years of it and being a 50-year-old man. And that’s the other thing — I turned 50 while I made the record — and somehow that seems significant as it related to the subject, looking at this crooked road of me chasing love and relationships. So it just seemed like, OK, this is a record for me to play everything on it. Because it’s such a personal note and a personal view. I’ve always wanted to make a record where I played everything, anyway. And so I just went ahead and did that. And it seemed the appropriate record to go ahead and do that.

On the title track from your last album, “A Crooked Road,” you sing that you are a happy man, though it comes off like you are convincing yourself a bit. So I’ll ask you in the words of the song: Do you “have the makings to be a happy man”?

Absolutely! Part of it is not even what they are. It’s that you doubted that you even had the makings for, like, decades. If you didn’t think you ever could be happy, which is where I come from, the idea that you had the makings, not that you even had them. It’s so humble, it’s so beaten, and all that you can muster, of recognition of yourself, is just that you have the makings of it, not that you even have it. But I mean it that I have the makings, and that I’m even working at it. Because [happy] was never even a word that could ever describe me, say, years ago or beyond. That it could be or would be is a very, very recent piece of information.

You mentioned playing with others on the new project, though on “A Crooked Road” you played all the instruments yourself. Was that a more difficult process than working with a band in the studio?

It’s just another way to do it. I love playing with musicians. I love playing a solo show and it’s just me. I love being in the studio with great bluegrass players, and making another record that had more country in it, or more rock. I love it all. I didn’t sense anything that was difficult. It’s just another way to do it. And, I probably won’t do that again, probably because I don’t need to. Plus I love playing with other musicians. But it seemed appropriate to the personal subject matter.

In an interview you once noted that you like to bring something unique to the songwriting community. What do you bring to the songwriting community, or what do you hope to bring to it?

I’d like to think that I bring authenticity. I’d like to think that. [laughs] I hope that’s what I bring.

What is the skill of a songwriter?

Well, it’s a number of things, on some level. I don’t mean this as crassly as it will sound. It’s not just songwriters, but any artist, to be able to manipulate — and that sounds like a terrible word, but I don’t mean it as such — to manipulate emotional things, and kind of direct it somewhere. To direct emotions and focus them into a 3 to 4, or maybe 5 minute kind of thing so that there’s something revealed or expressed in that 3 to 5 minutes. And then it was worth taking the ride on if you were a listener. It’s like, “That was worth spending 5 minutes on.” You know? For now that’s what comes out answering that question [laughs]. Tomorrow it could be different.

Often when people introduce or interview you they begin with a list of all the many things you’ve done in your career as a musician, from the writing and performing to the collaborations, to the awards you’ve won. But if you were to introduce yourself, what is the thing that you are most proud of, perhaps that you would put out front? What is the aspect of your career that you are most proud of?

I think it’s the ability or the luxury to slip in and out of all sorts of different camps, from very personal singer-songwriter records to being in a band with Robert Plant, to having been in the studio world where I’ve helped to produce a Guy Clark record. Slipping in and having a song that goes number one out on the country charts — I like it all, I really do. And I really feel that I bring it all back to my own personal records, but I don’t know if anyone else would see it that way or agree.

But I like that freedom, because to me that is what creative freedom is — the ability and freedom to jump over here in this world a little bit, come back into my own records, jump over into that world, and come back to my own records. I like that, I’m proud of that. I’m kind of glad that you can’t easily nail down exactly what I do, because I could do something that, to me, doesn’t look like some crazy, giant leap or move.

It’s all music, is really what it amounts to. Whether it’s a number one country song that I’ve written, and being in Robert Plant’s Band of Joy, having my own records, and playing festivals that most of the music world doesn’t even know about. I like just jumping in and out of all that stuff. To me it’s fun. And I like to be a part of something that works in all of those capacities, and that I’ve not made some musical mistake or decision. I just see it all as music.

A Fiddler’s Holiday, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band

(HVBA)

Partnering with an orchestra seems to be the thing to do these days. Bela Fleck did it last year with his concerto, as did the Kruger Brothers, as did Ricky Skaggs with the Boston Pops a few years ago, as did Cherryholmes before they disbanded. It’s easy to wonder what the impulse is. The pessimist might say that it’s a desire for respectability or, in the case of the Jay Unger and Molly Mason Family Band, a desire to take their music into bigger markets. Continue reading A Fiddler’s Holiday, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason Family Band

Claire Lynch, “Hills of Alabam”

(HVBA)

While “The Hills of Alabam” is a new release, the material all dates from the early 1980s or thereabouts—it’s a compilation of material from two Front Porch String Band albums (the only ones that were ever released) with the one exception being “The Day that Lester Died” which comes from Mark Newton’s album “Follow Me Back to the Fold.” Continue reading Claire Lynch, “Hills of Alabam”

Mark O’Connor and Rieko Aizawa, “American Classics”

(KDHX)

I thinAmerican Classicsk it’s probably safe to say that this album won’t appear on many year-end best of 2012 lists this year, likely because it’s really a kind of teaching tool: a presentation of the pieces that O’Connor included in his fiddle method books. O’Connor is interested in building a sound fiddle teaching method based in the cadences and tunes of American music, and this album is ancillary to that project. And, yes, there are pieces like “Rubber Dolly Rag” that perhaps don’t bear repeated listening for those without an interest in the curriculum. Nevertheless, there are other pieces that are breathtaking, such as, believe it or not, “Old Folks at Home.” Continue reading Mark O’Connor and Rieko Aizawa, “American Classics”

Music for the fall: Art Tatum and Ben Webster

(KDHX)

The things we desire in the fall—the movies we want to watch, the soups we want to cook, the music we want to hear—are expressions, I think, of what we want the fall to be. For me, if summer is the colouring outside the lines of the Grateful Dead—what I think of as quintessentially summer music—fall ushers in a need for the familiar, the organized and the small. Summer music is expansive; autumn music is chamber music, closed-in and close.

The album I think of first is an old one, recorded for Verve in 1956, and which has been released under a number of different titles over the intervening years. It was initially released as “The Art Tatum-Ben Webster Quartet” though these days is better known through a 1992 CD release, “The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Vol. 8″ or “The Album.” All present the same sessions: the great jazz pianist Art Tatum with saxophonist Ben Webster supported by Red Callender (bass) and Bill Douglas (drums). Tatum is that early god of jazz piano, and plays with the kinds of embellishments that you don’t hear a lot of these days. Webster’s saxophone is breathy, rich, and beautiful—the perfect accompaniment to Tatum.

Part of my association between the album and the autumn is because Woody Allen used it as a de facto soundtrack to his movie September. Whatever you think about Woody Allen, there’s no doubt that he’s a very keen and knowledgeable jazz consumer, and it’s not by chance that he chose this music for his film. It just really feels like fall: close, inward looking, contemplative. Like all great instrumental music, it gives us a chance to sit down and to quietly think about some of the important things in life.

Dave Gunning’s “No More Pennies”

(KDHX)

Sometimes with new albums, as is the case with David Gunning’s “No More Pennies,” it’s as much about the packaging as it is the music.

First the music: David Gunning is very much a songwriter of the Canadian Maritimes, and in this release he  revisits so many of the themes we commonly see from that part of the world. In “Living in Alberta” we hear about the displacement of the young people to travel west to look for work.  “A Game Goin’ On” is another anthem to the joys of hockey. Hard work, hard times and coal are the themes of “Coal from the Train.” Also here is homesteading (The Family Name) rootlessness (“All Along the Way” and “Too Soon to Turn Back”) the Lone Musician (“The Weight of My Guitar”). Continue reading Dave Gunning’s “No More Pennies”

The fiddles of Phil Elsworthy

(Penguin Eggs)

Make even the slightest adjustment to a violin design—add a string, use a different scroll shape—and you can turn heads, which is true of the work of Phil Elsworthy, an instrument maker from Waterloo, Ontario. Extra strings, fingerboard inlay, a square scroll—in the staid world of violin design, Elsworthy’s fiddles aren’t for the faint of heart.

“Most people say ‘I haven’t seen anything like this before!’” notes Elsworthy. “And certainly they wouldn’t have. I call them Hardanger fiddles’ after the Norwegian ones, and that’s kind of where I got the idea.”

The most obvious aspect of Elsworthy’s work is the ornamentation, which on some instruments can include inlay extending the length of a fingerboard bound with maple binding. Different, yes, but he’s quick to note that it’s nevertheless a much older and perhaps more traditional idea than we might think. “Certainly if you go back to the baroque era with viols, they varied enormously, and the same was true for violins. Stradivarius made a set of instruments for the King of Spain that were elaborately inlaid.”

Continue reading The fiddles of Phil Elsworthy

What we talk about when we talk about life

Herbert, Richard Louis Passed away peacefully at McNally House in Grimsby, on Wednesday, September 26, after a long illness. He was in his 72nd year. A longtime resident of Fort Erie, Richard was a dear husband and best friend to Judie (nee McNally) and loving father to Peter (Nady), and Glen (Laura). He was a cherished “Beepa” to Grace, James and Charlie. Richard is survived by his father, Harry, brother Barry (Shirley), and sister Cathy (Jack). He is also survived by nieces Lesly, Lisa (Randy) and nephew Rick (Judy). Richard was predeceased by his mother, Vera, and infant sister Susan. Words cannot express the gratitude we feel for the loving support of Dr. Heather Roelfsema and the McNally House Hopice. Visitation will be held at 10 a.m. at Trinity United Church at 100 Main Street in Grimsby; a memorial service will follow at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, donations would be appreciated in Richard’s name to McNally House Hospice, 148 Central Avenue, Grimsby, Ontario.

Continue reading What we talk about when we talk about life

Caroline Herring’s “Camilla”

(KDHX)

I’m not certain that this is Herring’s best album to date, and then again I’m not sure that it isn’t. But what I am sure of is that it continues, beautifully, what she has been up to since her first solo release, “Twilight,” in 2001.

Herring writes, it would appear, because of a desire to say something and to engage her listener. That’s uncommon in the world of popular music, which is one of the reasons that it is has been so distinct from the other arts, such as painting, sculpture, dance, writing. Popular music for a large part of the 20th century was about commerce; “good albums” were the ones that sold. Getting signed was an end to itself — as brilliantly skewered in the Cameron Crowe movie “Almost Famous” — not the desire to say something, or affect listeners, or to turn over ideas. Continue reading Caroline Herring’s “Camilla”

Chris Smither’s “Hundred Dollar Valentine”

(KDHX)

As I listen to this new collection, which is just as good as anything he’s done in his career if not better, I can’t help wondering why Smither isn’t better known.

In 2006 he released the glorious “Leave the Light On,” with a title track that feels like an instant classic (though, in a real head-scratcher,  Rolling Stone chose another track, “Diplomacy,” for their list of top 100 songs of the year). Smither has got star quality, magnetic presence, A-list chops, and can write songs like, well, “Leave the Light On.” Again, it’s one of those songs that simply should have a larger life than it does. Continue reading Chris Smither’s “Hundred Dollar Valentine”

Kruger Brothers’ “Best of the Kruger Brothers”

Liner notes from the Kruger Brothers’ 2012 release, Best of the Kruger Brothers

best of“ … and you know you won’t turn back, as you move along the track … ”
–“Choices”

In the liner notes to the album Forever and a Day Uwe wrote that, “When we began our career in 1975, nothing could have prepared us for the journey that lay ahead.” As we approach the 40th anniversary of that beginning, it is difficult to comprehend the full extent of what is, by any measure, a truly remarkable journey.

Continue reading Kruger Brothers’ “Best of the Kruger Brothers”

Bob Dylan’s “Tempest”

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’re aware that Bob Dylan released a new album today, and with it the canonization continues. With the reflex of a congregant, Jody Rosen, who reviewed it for the New Yorker, calls it a collection of “beautifully written songs.” The voice is rough, he admits, but wonders “If he sauces up his vocals with a little extra wheeze and rasp—well, what do you think the Voice of Experience sounds like?” If that’s correct (caps and all) I suppose the Voice of Experience sounds like Shit. Rosen compares the sound of his voice on this album to Tom Waits, which must infuriate Waits fans. Waits is a persona, not a codger playing at the rebellion of youth; Waits conjures narratives, Dylan conjures other things, like a missed retirement opportunity. Continue reading Bob Dylan’s “Tempest”

Kelly Joe Phelps “Brother Sinner and the Whale”

(KDHX)

So much of the traditional, roots, and country songbook, is about death, family, and God, with likely an over-representation of the latter. Ralph Stanley, both with his brother Carter and later in his solo career, seems to rarely about much else, though I don’t think we’d call him a gospel artist. And while I’m not of the flock, I find so much of Stanley’s work compelling. His sense of the gospel seems to come from some other exotic, ancient place. His connection to family, too, comes with a sense of tragic depth. His songs may be about his mother but they have none of the sweetness and shine of Mother’s Day cards. Rather, they are about a desperate provision of care, love, and connectedness, set against all the odds of poverty, hard work, and discord. Each song is a point in a longer narrative. I’d say that his presentation of gospel is much the same: it’s less about the product–a communion with God–than it is the process, the rocky road that leads a person there.

For the secular listener, at least in my experience, the power of the work comes from those longer narratives. We are interested in the sins more than we are the forgiveness. It’s an important distinction, and one that is missing from the material Kelly Joe Phelps’ presents in “Brother Sinner and the Whale.”

The concepts come from the biblical book of Jonah, so says the PR for the release, but the poetry of that book is transformed, at times, into something dangerously close to bible-belt road signs. “Goodbye to Sorrow” is a two-dimensional presentation of a modern interpretation of faith, and in which Phelps sings “In the eyes of the Lord I am redeemed.” Okay. So too in “Hope in the Lord to Provide” where the narrator states “ There are days when I can’t stop singing/let’s say you and I hold hands/keep on for the promised land/ the lord to provide.” Elsewhere he asks, “Why do I choose to suffer when I can live with God?” On “The Holy Spirit Flood” he spends the breadth of the song simply proclaiming that he is a sinner and asking for forgiveness; we’re left to wonder what exactly he’s done or why he should be forgiven for it. To believers, I suppose those are rhetorical thoughts.  The rest of us just really want to know what he did. When not preaching to a choir, Phelps’ writing lacks the kind of rigor we’ve grown to expect of him.

That’s perhaps not true of all the writing here, and a standout on the other side of the ledger is the beautiful blues ballad “Sometimes a Drifter.” But even on that track, it’s hard to get beyond the album concept that Phelps has set for himself. In his review of the album, Jason Verlinde of the Fretboard Journal writes “whether or not you consider yourself religious, this gorgeous album is well worth checking out” and from a guitar/production standpoint, that’s exactly correct. Phelps’ guitar playing is a lesson unto itself, with some fantastic slide work—as on the instrumental “Spit Me Outta the Whale”—something that he is returning to from a hiatus of sorts. His brilliant collaboration with Corinne West, “Magnetic Skyline” has left a lot of listeners wanting more, though lacking the harder blues presence that Phelps’ core fan base has grown to love.

But Verlinde mentions and dismisses the gospel aspect of the album in a way that (I suspect) he may not when approaching the recordings of Ralph Stanley. And he does it, I’m speculating, because the gospel concepts, in the way they are handled, provide some very conspicuous stumbling blocks. “I’ve Been Converted” comes dangerously close, or worse, to proselytising. There Phelps sings “I know I’ve been converted, oh, do you?/ God knows I made a change/I’m not afraid to call my Jesus name/ I know I’ve been converted, oh, do you?”

So, yes, it’s worth checking out. Phelps is a compelling musician. For those who share his belief, this album is truly a gift. For the rest of us, it can leave you feeling like you entered the wrong room and wondering how long you have stay before you can leave.

Finding Appalachia

Liner essay for the Kruger Brothers’ CD release Appalachian Concerto

 

The Appalachian Concerto is a very different kind of recording for the Kruger Brothers, and is without any true precedents within their catalogue to date. Still, if there are any real surprises in this work, perhaps the greatest is how entirely natural and obvious it was to pair the Kruger Brothers with a string quartet. The Kruger Brothers’ sound, after all, is principally an ensemble sound, with each of the players refining and contributing to a singular presentation. In that sense, it’s as far from a traditional bluegrass arrangement—with instruments alternating between accompaniment and soloing—as you can get. Likewise, a classical string quartet, with its close harmonies, counterpoint, and the lack of a true “soloist” in a jazz or bluegrass sense, is an accurate analogue for the kind of ensemble playing that Jens, Joel, and Uwe have been doing for years. On hearing the concerto, we’re less apt to wonder why they would choose to pair with a chamber orchestra than we are to wonder why they haven’t done it sooner. Continue reading Finding Appalachia