Here is some information that is great to read about.
I came across this program during a web surf and thought that it was great. It is called Violins Not Violence, and it helps to promote music to children and young adults to keep them out of gangs and crime in California. The organization recently donated a violin and guitar to two deserving youngsters who have an interest in pursuing music as a hobby or perhaps a vocation. While there is not much information on the website (www.violinsnotviolence.net), the recent donation did receive some media coverage. I recommend making a donation to the group, as one can see that actions are more powerful than words with this non-profit group started by two police officers.
A cute T-shirt is being offered by the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum, and will also be available at the ROMP Fest September 15-18 (the same week as MerleFest, another screw-up in the roots-music traffic jam of September). The shirts says, “Pick Banjos Not Fights,” and is available at the HOF website (https://www.bluegrasshall.org/shop/shirts/pick-banjos-not-fights-t-shirt/). While no word is available on if any of the sales goes to supporting music programs directly, the HOF and the IBMA have a number of youth-oriented programs dedicated to promoting music and keeping children out of trouble.
I have talked about the Junior Appalachian Musicians program (www.jamkids.org) before, but I want to mention it again. This program has helped hundreds of kids in the southeastern region of the US with pursuing an interest in music, particularly the music form that region that was developed by their ancestors. I highly recommend going to the website and learning about it. I know that the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association (https://smbluegrass.org/, of which I am a member and part of the Education Committee) have been working to begin such a program in our area, and we have small programs such as JAM. SEMBMA currently offers an annual scholarship program for you ages 13-18, and holds a musical instrument “Petting Zoo” at many regional bluegrass festivals.
Also of note here in the Michigan area, a SEMBMA member Dixie Roy Andres has been hosting a program called Fiddlin’ Dixie with Lil’ Friends for about 10 years now at regional bluegrass festivals. Her program gets young people into music by having them build their own canjos, shoebox guitars and toilet paper roll kazoos. It is a wonderful program to get small kids involved with. For more information, go to Dixie’s website (https://fiddlindixiewithlilfriends.webs.com/).
Some of you readers have seen in my previous blogs how I have talked mostly positive about Glarry, the musical instrument company out of China that produces decent-quality guitars, basses, and violins at very affordable prices. Well, my most recent experience with the company’s PR end has changed my mind considerably about it, and not for the better.
Now, this negative reaction has nothing to do with the instruments themselves. I still feel that they are worth the money for beginner musicians. Moreover, what I am about to discuss is not only a reflection of Glarry, but of many companies promoting products by having contests.
During the past two weeks, Glarry had a contest in which they were giving away 15 instruments. The stipulation was that one had to take a photo of oneself holding his/her Glarry musical instrument, then post it on Facebook or Instagram.
Here’s my situation: I do not have a Facebook or Instagram account. In fact, I have very few accounts in the social media world. I refuse to have a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Tik Tok account (the four most popular) for two main reasons:
I do not support these networks’ stifling the free speech of one side of the political spectrum
I do not waste my time posting mundane and uninteresting news about myself or others
I have a LinkedIn account for my employment networking (which unfortunately has become a dumping ground for Facebook-like postings), a ReverbNation account for songwriting networking, a YouTube account to post songwriting clips (which is also becoming like Facebook and Twitter in its censorship; I’m considering moving to Rumble), and a rarely used Parler account, which is used even less after the whole take-down scandal.
We have seen in the news over the past year or two how these social media companies are controlling the thought process of much of the population by their censorship. I won’t get into that end of it here. I have my opinions, and do not feel like debating that with anyone.
What I do want to talk about is that Glarry, as well as many other companies out there, feel that their customers, especially the most loyal ones, MUST have a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account in order to be rewarded.
I contacted Glarry by email about this. I wanted to take a humorous photo of me with my Glarry guitar and bass strapped around my shoulders, as well as holding my Glarry violin. I was told that I could only enter the contest through Facebook or Instagram because that is how most of their customers communicate. Well, not ALL of your customers communicate that way. I am sure that any company that to enter a certain contest, one must wear a certain type of clothing or cut his/her hair a certain way, that company would be ostracized, boycotted, or taken to court.
But this is a trend among a lot of companies, and the masses are allowing it without recourse. The world is full of people that cannot live without a Facebook account. Everyone thinks that his/her voice must be heard, no matter how boring, dumb, or obnoxious the statement is. We don’t count the friends that we have around us, but instead count the amount of Likes we have on our last post. We destroy other people’s lives with the click of a mouse button, and have no remorse if we were wrong about the facts.
As for Glarry, when I wrote back stating that I did not have an account, would not open an account just to enter the contest, and would be dealing other companies in the future because of this, Glarry wrote back with a “have a nice day” reply. All right, so they won’t miss my future business, I am just one customer out of thousands. However, if more people would take a similar action, perhaps companies would take notice and make such contests available to all walks of life. Glaryr is not the only company that handles its contests as such, and unfortunately, the social media world has become so popular that those who do not wish to be lemmings are treated as less important.
September will prove to be a busy time for roots music, and the losers will be everyone involved.
For years, the AmericanaFest has happened in Nashville during the second full week of September, while the IBMA World of Bluegrass conference/festival takes place during the final week of September/first week of October. For some, it was a bit conflicting, but if one worked his/her vacation schedule right, both could be enjoyed. My previous job screwed me over the last three years I was there, so WOB was a no-go. Add to the fact that WOB was moved from Nashville to Raleigh, NC, which was a strain on driving 14 hours from Detroit, then 14 hours back.
This year, AmericanaFest has been moved to September 21-26, while WOB will be September 28-October 2. The move may be due to the fact that MerleFest, which is usually held in April, has been scheduled this year for September 16-19. So three different major roots-music festivals will be happening three weeks in a row in September. I have also been informed by a good friend in the music business that a popular European music conference is also scheduled during this time.
Now, we all know that last year as well as this Spring have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of festivals and thousands of concerts were cancelled. That hurt a lot of artists in the pocketbook. Both the AmericanaFest and WOB went virtual last year just to stay in touch with their fan base and business membership. Many artists did the same, hosting mini-concerts on Zoom or Facebook.
MerleFest lost out last year, being cancelled right at the start of the pandemic. This year, while the pandemic has been subsiding, the festival was not feasible for the usual April scheduling. Thus, the promoters and planners decided to schedule it for September. Well, now everyone is screwed.
Many fans enjoyed Merlefest in April, as it divided up the time long enough so that they could attend AmericanaFest and/or WOB in September. With all three festivals following each other in consecutive weeks, most of these fans are going to have to decide which ones to attend. Only the few privileged that are financially secure and can afford the time off, or the retired that have money available, will be able to attend more than one of these events.
I thoroughly enjoy MerleFest, but it is this event that is throwing a monkey wrench into the gears. It could have done what the others did and gone virtual for the year, or could have re-scheduled for dates not so close to AmericanaFest and WOB, perhaps in June or July. MerleFest is in North Carolina, as is WOB. Perhaps it could have been scheduled for early- or mid-October, being able to secure some of the WOB crowd for staying that extra weekend in the area.
As for me, I will only be attending AmericanaFest this year. My new job has limited vacation time available to me for September, and I have attended the conference for over 20 years. I have made numerous friends there, and have served as a volunteer in various capacities for the past 10 years. AmericanaFest already had some competition with a small roots-music festival in Bristol, TN every year, so this just hurts it even more.
The pandemic has screwed over a lot of people, businesses, and organizations financially the past year. This type of self-righteous scheduling only makes it worse.
This is the first of what I hope to be many blogs on recorded songs that I think are perfection or near perfection. They will vary in genre, but probably most in the bluegrass format. We start with a personal favorite, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by the Del McCoury Band.
The song – Written by folk-rock legend Richard Thompson, it tells the tale of a girl admiring a boy’s motorcycle. Good girl and bad boy fall in love. Bad boy can’t change his ways, and attempts to rob a store, and gets shot. On his deathbed, he gives her one last kiss and his motorcycle. Now, this is no ordinary motorbike. Manufactured from 1948 to 1952, it was the fastest production motorcycle of its time. There is a famous photo of racer Rollie Free riding one lying flat on his stomach wearing only swimming trunks and a helmet at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1948, setting the land speed record of 150 mph. There are only 19 known Black Lightning bikes in existence today. One sold in auction for $929,000 in 2018. The song is unique in that it does not have a chorus – just four long verses that tell the romantic story. It has been covered numerous times, but most prior to 2001 have stayed close to Thompson’s original with a minimal guitar and vocals. DMcB made it a bluegrass standard.
The band – Del McCoury has been a Blue Grass Boy, and has led his own band for nearly 50 years. In the mid-1990s, he formed his present band with his two sons, Rob on banjo and Ronnie on mandolin. Adding Jason Carter on fiddle and Mike Bub on bass, this band became more than a powerhouse. They were THEEE bluegrass band that no one dared challenged. When they performed, usually around one or two microphones the old-fashioned way, it is magic. Everyone of them has won an award for their musical work, as well as the band being honored numerous times. Mike left the band around 2006, but every album that this lineup recorded is an textbook example of how a modern traditional bluegrass band should sound.
The recording – DMcB’s version is the lead-off track for the band’s 2001 album Del and the Boys. With the banjo kick-off, it automatically becomes a head-turner. Rob is not using a standard G tuning on his banjo. Instead, he uses a Concert tuning, which sounds a bit darker and works well with songs in the key of C (like this one). That 10-note intro just sounds like from another bluegrass planet. It is gold! Once the band kicks in, it is a diesel train coming at you full-force. DMcB takes a standard bluegrass instrument lineup and turns it into a wall of sound. Many bluegrass bands have strived for this sound, but few can achieve it.
When Del sings, it is soulful. Soulful like Otis Redding. Very few in bluegrass can even come close. That Pennsylvania-meets-Nashville drawl makes it even more special. His accents are slightly different than Thompson’s original. Del is a master at bluegrass vocals, knowing exactly what fits. He is a teacher at it without even knowing. A distinction to the recording is that there is no typical bluegrass harmony vocals. The band has the goods for it – Ronnie and Jason have excellent harmony voices and have done the job many times. However, the song is a story with no repeats, and it forces you to listen to the narrator. Extra voices would only be a distraction.
The lead instrumental parts are perfectly fitting into the song. Expert-sounding without being flashy. Jason’s fiddle and Ronnie’s mandolin could not be any more exact for the song. During the third verse when Del sings about the boy James getting shot, Rob kicks into a 7th chord that puts emphasis onto the scene, which makes the listener pay even more attention. Then in the fourth and final verse, it begins with just Del singing and Rob’s banjo. The production lets the listener know in a musical way that James is breathing his last without having to listen to the lyrics. However, the lyrics are important, and Del’s vocal tone makes you listen to him. Overall, DMcB is extremely successful in taking a tragic story and putting it into a foot-tapping mide-tempo bluegrass song.
The results – this recording is 20 years old, and is still a mainstay with bluegrass radio programs. It has achieved that classic status, in the same category as Bill Monroe’s “Molly and Tenbrooks” and Jimmy Martin’s “Sunny Side of the Mountain.” It has become a jam standard, more so accepted because it doesn’t require harmony vocal (although some banjo players may get frustrated having to re-tune). For bluegrass fans, those first few banjo notes are that same as the first chords of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” It defines a certain sound of the genre, one that fans know that they can go to for definition. DMcB has continually put out excellent material in the two decades since this release, but this one song is a “must hear” at every band performance. It is truly four minutes of perfection.
Another likeable YouTube channel is the one set up by bassist Billy Sheehan. While I’m not big on “bass guitar as lead instrument,” I do know that Billy is one of the top bass players out there, and if he says something about bass playing, YOU LISTEN! His channel has only been up for a few months, but the videos up are worth watching. There are a few performance videos, but there are also some great videos on what he does to work on his basses to make them play better. Like me, he likes to get his hands dirty by working on things like setting up his guitars, setting intonation, and adjusting parts for better playability. He’s personable, humble, and appreciative of his success. Definitely check out his channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/BassPlayerBilly.
MerleFest is back on for 2021! Although the festivals is usually slated for the month of April, this year it has been moved to September 16-19. Unfortunately, anyone planning to attend AmericanaFest will have to either choose between the two, or hope that his/her boss will give them two weeks vacation. The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest is also on, with entries being accepted April 15-June 15. For more information, go to http://merfest.org/.
The next few weeks of blogs will be erratic in posting and size. I started a new job this week, and it has been controlling my time for the most part. Hopefully things will regulate soon.
So I picked up a copy of Slim Richey’s Bluegrass Word Book, edited by A. Stricklin (Ridge Runner Publications). I wanted to go over some of the pros and cons of this book to see if it is of some interest to beginning bluegrass players.
For $6.95 cover price, there is a lot of information within the pages. There are 294 songs listed. However, they are squeezed into 50 pages, so with five or six songs per page, the type is very small and hard to read. It looks as if it was cut and pasted the old-fashioned way, because the font changes a number of times. It is copyrighted 1977, so it most likely was physically cut and pasted onto sheets, then photocopied in place and printed by the printer.
The page numeration is completely off. The standardized way to number pages is odd numbers on the right-hand side, the even-numbered pages to the left. This book is reversed, and the table of contents is on the back cover, which is also printed small and hard to read. Extremely confusing to follow.
As far as song selection, this is a plus. Most bluegrass standards are here, along with some country standards and many gospel songs that fit into the bluegrass vein. Lots of selections from the catalogues of Bill Monroe, Reno & Smiley, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt & Scruggs. In addition, there is a load of public domain traditional songs that constantly come up in bluegrass and old-time jam sessions.
The book only contains lyrics and some chord charts. This can be helpful to basic players, especially bassists, but many of the songs are listed in keys that are not normally used. Thank goodness for capos! There are also a few songs with questionable chord changes.
In short, this is a decent quick-reference book for lyrics of the most popular bluegrass jam songs. Other than that, because of the small print, screw-up of the page numbers, and occasional strange chord changes, it should probably be passed on by more veteran bluegrass jammers. There are two more volume additions to this book, but I will probably not consider them. Sorry.
Good News! The AmericanaFest in Nashville is on for September 22-25! Last year’s cancellation of the live event due to the pandemic forced the Americana Music Association to go virtual on the web (like so many other conferences). I wasn’t too thrilled about the virtual seminars, attended a few, but did not walk away feeling better about the experience. I am sure that there will be many restrictions in place, but as I have been attending as a volunteer or participant for the past 20 years, getting back to seeing live shows and networking face-to-face (even if they are masked) will be truly welcomed. Go to http://www.americanamusic.org for more details.
The Grammys were last week, and guitarist Billy Strings won the Best Bluegrass Album Category for his recording Home. I don’t watch the Grammys, but I congratulate him winning the award. He totally deserves the recognition.
So as expected, there would be those that claim an amount of unfairness. When the news was posted on the Bluegrass Today website (https://bluegrasstoday.com/2021-bluegrass-grammy-winner-announced/), there were a few that stated that, not only was Billy Strings NOT bluegrass, but neither were the other nominees. That list included: Man On Fire – Danny Barnes To Live In Two Worlds, Vol 1 – Thomm Jutz North Carolina Songbook – Steep Canyon Rangers Home – Billy Strings The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Vol 1 – Various Artists
The complaint was that there were no “real” bluegrass artists in the list. Of course, the debate began, with about an even amount of Billy Strings is/isn’t bluegrass. I sided with the “is” party, mostly because I feel that I have a bigger acceptance of what the format entails. There will always be the debate of what instruments can or cannot be included in a bluegrass ensemble. Some feel that if there is no banjo, or if there is an electric bass, or if there is any type of percussion or keyboard, then it is not bluegrass.
I look at bluegrass not as a structure, but as a feeling. It doesn’t matter what kind of bass is playing in the background, or if there is a banjo on the song. A bluegrass song moves me in a different way that a rock song, or a blues song, or a jazz song moves me. Doc Watson played guitar either solo or with his son Merle. What Doc kicked out may not be bluegrass to some, but it sure was to me.
My problem with what one person said on the discussion was that others knew nothing about bluegrass, including calling out another participant who has won numerous awards for his bluegrass songwriting and journalism work. This person continued to state certain ideas, then a few entries later would say that he never said that. He continued to post statements that only a few people know what bluegrass is, and that others just follow bad examples.
Bluegrass music, in fact, all music, is not mathematics. There is no definite answer to what is good or bad. There is no definite answer to what bluegrass music is. As I stated in that discussion, no one person, no small group of people, not even organizations such as the IBMA or SPGBMA, can truly define bluegrass music. It is up to the listener. There can “perhaps” be some directional suggestions, such as “may have a three-finger banjo picking” or “lack of drums,” but those should only be suggestions. The Steep Canyon Rangers have a percussionist, yet their songs have a groove that is definitely more bluegrass than any other format. The Lonesome River Band often uses an electric bass. I haven’t heard a single LRB album that cannot be considered bluegrass.
Maybe what Billy Strings is playing, or Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Mile Twelve, or Hawktail isn’t nuance for nuance a Bill Monroe version of a song, but I would hate for that to be so. Do not clip the wings of the young.
I just learned today while writing this that Tom Stevens, bassist for the Long Ryders (one of the best and most underrated bands of the 1980s), passed away in late January. I don’t keep in touch much with my connections in the old days of cowpunk/Paisley Underground, so I am disappointed in myself that I am just learning the news.
If you never heard of the Long Ryders, you should have, especially if you are a fan of the Americana music format. The band was keeping alive that country-rock/electric folk sound in between the days of the Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers/Gram Parsons and the early stages of Americana/alt-country of Uncle Tupelo/Jayhawks. They had their fan base in California where they headquartered (although members were form different parts of the country), had cult followings around most of the rest of the US, but were highly revered in Europe. There were a few bassists that passed through the ranks, but Tom was the one that remained closest. He wrote many of the band’s songs as well as shared lead vocals with guitarists Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy. His bass playing was totally in the pocket. Tom left the band in 1988, and the band broke up shortly thereafter. They reunited in 2004 and 2019, put out another album, and toured the US and Europe. I stayed in touch with Tom for a while in the 80s and 90s, but as with most relationships in the business, they sometimes drift apart.
Unfortunately, I was not able to see the reunion show here in Detroit two years ago, as I was out of town at a music conference. I am still kicking myself for that. I was able to talk s friend into going to the show, and he was totally floored by the band. They were not flashy, but were straight-ahead rock-n-roll. The band also had a great sense of humor. I was a member of the Long Ryders Fan Club, and upon the breakup, the band sent their fans a cassette called Metallic B.O. (tip of the hat to Iggy Pop), which contained a number of their outtakes, demos, and banter that is just hilarious. I still have that cassette, and I cherish it.
Tom did some solo recordings as well as appeared on other artists’ albums (a lot of his stuff is available on YouTube and other sites). He moved back to his home state of Indiana, got a computer degree and job, raised a family, and became a regular guy for the most part. I do hope that he knows how much his art and talent was appreciated by those who listened. You will be dearly missed, Tom.
Last week’s blog talked a bit about harmony vocals in bluegrass music. It truly is one of the best facets of bluegrass music, yet is the one that is worked on the least by amateur and semi-professional bluegrass musicians.
There are a few video resources available for purchase out there. One of the first videos that concentrated on bluegrass harmonies is The Nashville Bluegrass Band: Vocal Harmony Workshop, available through Homespun Video (www.homespun.com). While it is great to hear and “see” (via the included booklet and if you can read music) the harmonies from this fantastic bluegrass vocal group. The downside is that there is not real instruction on “how” to get to those harmony notes.
Homespun also puts out two videos on bluegrass singing by the best in the field, Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent (Bluegrass and Gospel Duet Singing and Dailey & Vincent Teach Bluegrass and Gospel Quartet Singing). I have not seen either of these videos, so I cannot critique them as yet. Unfortunately, Homespun has made most of its videos as download-only. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to have the DVD so that I can play it on my TV with the bigger speakers and not on my laptop.
Of course, YouTube has its share of videos covering harmony vocals. Likewise, most of them seem to talk about what to sing without discussing “how” to get there. Once recent video put out by bluegrass producer/engineer Stephen Mougin comes about the closest to good instruction for harmony singing in bluegrass. He talks about having to know the melody before attempting a harmony (good point!), and he has the harmony singers (actually himself cut into three images on the screen) to move their fingers up and down to the melody so that the harmony follows the same pattern. However, this video, along with all of the others that I have seen on YT, take for granted that the harmony singer has a good enough ear to immediately follow along in whatever key the song is played. Still, this one is worth watching for some pointers.
There are also a number of book/CD/audio download resources available as well. I have not checked out many of them, so I cannot be a judge to their pros and cons. I guess what I can suggest is that, if you can afford to purchase one or two of these resources, go ahead. I do have tons of instructional books and videos at my house covering various musical instruments and such. My logic has always been affordability-meets-availability. That is to say, many of the videos that I have secured I got on the cheap either through clearance or used. Yeah, I have a few heavy metal guitar videos that I got for a buck. I probably watched them once and never again. But I figured that for the cost, I may actually pick up a pointer or two to transfer to my regual guitar playing. You can never learn too much.
Getting back to bluegrass harmonies, there is a need for video instruction to show ALL aspects of the learning process. Along with knowing the melody and paralleling the melodic pattern, the instruction should also cover some bit of actual theory. I covered this a bit in the last blog, but here it is again. If singing in the key of G, one should know the three notes that make up that tonic chord (in this case, G, B, and D). If the song has more than one chord (as it most likely will), one should know the three notes of each of those chords. Moreover, one should also know the diatonic notes for the key that the song is in. In the case of the key of G, the seven notes that will work with the song with that G chord are G, A, B, C, D, E, and F#. Same goes for the other chords within the song. And this is not even going near the variations of those chords, like 7ths, diminished, major 7ths, and so on (way too much to throw in here!).
One concept that is rarely covered (do I dare say, never?) is the idea of vocalizing hard consonants while singing harmony. You may hit the right note when harmonizing the vowel “ah,” but if that word ends with a T, and all of the singers come down on that consonant at different times, even milliseconds apart, it will sound like an accident instead of an artistic moment. For singers working together years and years, that technique of coming down on that consonant at the same time becomes natural. But it takes time, lots of it, to get there. In the meantime, I always suggest that harmony singers allow the lead singer to stress the hard consonants (B, D, G, K, P, Q, T). If harmony-singing a word with one of those consonants, perhaps approaching it softly, or not enunciating it at all (instead of singing “darling,” sing “arlin” and let the lead singer hit the D and G) may come across better to the audiences’ ears.
The best way to fully get to know how to sing harmonies is practice, practice, practice! In videos discussing bluegrass harmonies, they will say that there are the lead, baritone, and tenor singers. Concepts like that are not as important as having a good ear, knowing what note to hit, and where to go with the next note. Find a recording of a song with a lead singer, learn the key and what notes to work with as a harmony, and record yourself singing along to that recording to analyze the results. Sweet harmonies take a lot of work, but the audience will appreciate it.
This blog is a few days early due to commitments that I have this weekend.
I wrote a blog about bluegrass vocals last year (https://luegra.design.blog/2020/01/13/the-lost-art-of-bluegrass-singing/), and wanted to elaborate a bit more on the subject. I still feel very strongly that the art of bluegrass singing, especially when it comes to harmonizing, is wrongfully ignored by the jammers, yet so very much admired by audiences. Even if the lead singer is on target, it seems that most of the harmony singing is lost or unrepairable. Being off-key is the main culprit, but there is also timing and proper vocalization of consonants.
If a band is looking for a new player, say a mandolin player, a great ear and voice for harmonies can be just as influential on getting the job as fretboard flash.
I had recommended the video Vocal Techniques for Old-Time Mountain Music with Cary Fridley, put out by Homespun Videos, in that previous blog. Well, Cary has also set up a YouTube channel where she does a lot of instructing of Appalachian music, including singing leads and harmonies, as well as some instruments and other styles of music. Many of these videos were made for her lecture work at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, as well as the Junior Appalachian Musicians organization. Be sure to at least check it out at https://www.youtube.com/user/cfridley.
That thought is really the first big step in working on bluegrass harmonies. If the song is in the key of G, then you should know that the three notes for the G major chord are G, B, and D. Now let us say that the lead singer is singing his/her lyrics and hitting the D note. One can easily harmonize with that lead singer while still staying in the proper key by singing on a G or B note, and depending on the vocal range of the harmony singer, singing lower or higher than the lead vocalist.
Of course, rarely does a lead singer stay on one note throughout a verse, let alone a whole song. As the lead voice travels up and down with notes, the harmony singer has a musical responsibility to work with what will sound best to make that lead vocals sound even better. Let us say that the lead singer is following a vocal note pattern of D-D-E-E-F#-E-D, and the verse is staying in the key of G. The harmony singer can take one of two approaches:
He/she can stay on the same note of G or B on all seven notes, since the lead singer is not singing either of them.
He/she can walk up and down with harmony notes just like the lead singer, concentrating on relative notes to the key/chord playing (example: G-G-A-A-B-A-G, or a variant of G-G-G-G-B-G-G). This, of course, requires more thought and a keener ear to hear what works.
Moreover, rarely does a song stay with one chord. Typical bluegrass (as well as country, blues, folk, and traditional roots music) songs work with two- and three-chord arrangements. So, staying in the key of G, and the lead singer follows a vocal note pattern of D-D-E-E-G, with that last note moving into a C chord, the harmony singer has to do some musical thinking of a good harmony pattern. First, he/she needs to remember what the three notes for the C chord are (C, E and G). Then, especially if the harmony was staying on G and doesn’t want to sing the same G note as the lead vocalist, he/she may do a pattern such as G-G-G-G-C. Again, it take a keen ear and lots of practice.
When I was in bluegrass bands, the idea of practicing vocals alone had mixed reaction. One band I worked with was keen on it, and we would concentrate about one-fourth of our practice sessions just on vocals. Another band was apathetic, and it showed in our public performances. Harmony singing, especially with bluegrass, gospel, country, and folk music (although other formats relate as well) require either a very, very good ear, or determination to work hard to make it sound good. My situation has always been somewhere in the middle. I can hear a good harmony right off of the bat in some cases, while in others, I need to sit down and work with that lead vocal to find a good path for the harmonies.
This information is just the start, and in another blog, I will talk a bit about timing and phrasing. In the meantime, check out videos and websites dedicated to harmony singing. Also become more familiar with some music theory, such as chord structures and the “Circle of Fifths.”
I just found out that a local festival, The Hamtramck Music Festival, has been cancelled due to the continued pandemic. While I have lost interest in bar hopping, seeing dozens of bands playing loud music that I really have grown out of, in sweaty bars and drinking warm beer, I know that there are younger generations that go for it (I was once young, too). This festival was great in that monetary proceeds from the festival went to help music education programs in the Hamtramck school district. Past years raised about $10,000 annually.
While the pandemic is still putting a lot of live shows on hold, many artists, particularly acoustic-based performers, have regularly streamed shows online, whether it is through Facebook, YouTube, Zoom, or some other service. These have either been ports in the storm or band-aids temporarily fixing it, depending how you look at it.
I have seen some great performances over the past year, but have also longed for and missed out on many other shows. It seems that solo or duo set-ups seem to work best. Canadian fiddler April Verch has been doing some wonderful performances with her partner Cody. They set up in the living room and play a few songs, then check in with their audience chat to see if there are any requests. You can then tip her through PayPal if you wish. I know that many others are doing it, but April seems to make it the most like she’s performing at a house concert in your own home. They haven’t done a YouTube streaming show in a while, but I would advise checking in to her website at aprilverch.com for updates.
One thing that many bluegrass bands are learning is that they have to adapt to this situation. Social distancing means that four or five bluegrass musicians cannot be standing close together around one microphone. On the flip side, if they do distance themselves to six feet or so apart,, even with separate mics, the camera has to pull back so far that the performers are unrecognizable on screen. Some bands are downsizing, where only two players are performing together. For husband/wife teams like Darin and Brooke Aldridge, this is relatively easy. I have seen other bands such as Mile Twelve doing split-screen performances to keep the band sound. From the looks of the band’s YouTube page, they are starting to say “To Hell!” to COVID and doing some true band performances. This latest video makes me really happy!
Starting around the new year, I began to receive emails regarding bluegrass festivals for the 2021 season. Of course, all have some note stating that due to the Coronavirus, the schedule is tentative, and there is still a possibility of re-scheduling and cancellation. As of this writing, some states are lifting some restrictions, and immunizations shots are becoming more available. I don’t see hitting a show in the next few weeks, but hopefully, by Memorial Day, I can pull out my lawn chair and cooler, and enjoy an outdoor bluegrass performance. Also, I NEED to get back to jamming with others, even though I am not addicted to it! Performing along with YouTube clips and DVDs is getting to be redundant!