Categories
Bluegrass Music

A Perfect Song #1: Del McCoury Band “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”

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.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Music Musicians

Bluegrass Unlimited/Billy Sheehan/MerleFest

A short but sweet blog.

While I am still on the fence regarding the Bluegrass Unlimited magazine’s format (https://luegra.design.blog/2020/11/05/the-new-bluegrass-unlimited-magazine-some-thoughts/), I truly appreciate the YouTube channel that the publication has established. Every few days they post a new video that is either a quick lesson on how to improve your playing on guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, or dobro, or it is a jam track. These consist of standard bluegrass instrumentals with a lead guitar handling the first verse, then followed by a few verses of just rhythm guitar, bass, and rhythm mandolin. Perfect for practicing your own lead work! Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxNYVomNcDI-5mrOy3KgoHA.

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/.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Music

Book Review: Bluegrass Word Book / AmericanaFest

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.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Music Music Industry

Billy Strings & The Grammys / Tom Stevens RIP

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.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music Bluegrass vocals Singing

Bluegrass Harmony Singing Part 2: You Gotta Work On It To Be Good!

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.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music Bluegrass vocals Singing

Bluegrass Harmony Singing Part 1: Either You Have It, …, Or You Can Learn 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.

Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick is probably the biggest supporter of bluegrass jam sessions. Aside from his banjo and jam camps, he also posts a number of helpful essays on his website (http://www.drbanjo.com/). In one of his essays, he briefly explains bluegrass harmony theory by remembering the three notes of a chord as well as knowing the diatonic pattern of the key the song is in (https://drbanjo.com/ask-dr-banjo/jamming/161-bluegrass-vocal-harmony/).

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music Coronavirus

Is Live Bluegrass Within Sight?

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!

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Music Industry

More on Peavey and the Music Business

I’m not a television watcher. Other than the news occasionally, Jeopardy, and a few shows on the History Channel, I rarely have the thing on. I would rather read or practice one of my musical instruments.

So it came as a surprise to me when, doing some research on Peavey guitars (see last week’s blog), I came upon some information on the company that had me taken aback. It seems that the company was highlighted on an episode of the reality show Undercover Boss a few years ago, and what is worse, had some bad fallout prior to the finished production airing on TV.

It seems that the COO of the company (Courtland Gray) went undercover at Peavey Electronics to see what was happening with quality control. During the show, Gray learned that one employee had numerous bills to pay due to cutbacks, and another was turning in his two-week notice for better employment. At the end, Gray was able to give the first some financial assistance, and convince the second to stay with Peavey. Happy ending?

Not really. After the filming but before the airing, Peavey announced that it would be closing the factory that these two employees worked at, screwing them and others royally. The second employee got transferred to another facility, but he was pissed to say the least. The first lost her job entirely. Now this was all back in 2014. I can only hope that the both of them found better opportunities. A number of YouTube channels are showing this episode, so just Google “Peavey Undercover Boss.” Here is Casino Guitars talking about the situation:

Peavey was not alone during the past decade of music instrument soap opera drama. In 2018, Gibson (home of the Les Paul guitar and Bill Monroe’s F5 mandolin) filed for bankruptcy protection. The company has proceeded on, but news like that does not just get pushed under the rug.

So many companies have gone overseas for operations to save costs, with varying amounts of success (Fender = big rewards!, Peavey = way too late for the bus). Also, think about the music stores that have had varying amounts of success. Mars went belly up (again, see my previous blog on that company), Guitar Center keeps surviving despite multiple bankruptcies and legal woes, yet Sweetwater proved to be one of the most successful businesses out there, not just of music businesses, but of ALL businesses, during this last year with the pandemic.

With the interest in learning musical instruments while stuck at home this past year, one can see that an online music store would be successful. The downside was that in-store shopping was temporarily halted, and many stores, especially independents, are starving or closed altogether. As I stated in last week’s blog, prices for used equipment has also skyrocketed, I guess due to a renewed interest in musical instruments.

As for Peavey and its history, it makes me sad. Hartley Peavey started this company to bring affordable, durable products into the hands of blue-collar musicians. Between overseas competition, a drop in quality, and a change in the taste of musicians, it has become nearly a joke of what it once was. I still swear by those old bass guitars and the durable amps, but I know of so many people who look down on that equipment as lame.

What about the rise in learning a musical instrument? It is great to see, but will it last long-term? Everyone is stuck in the house, and after getting burned out on TV and video games, some people want to be educated, even if it means learning a guitar or some other instrument. Heck, I am sure that other hobbies are booming just as much. But what about a year from now, when it is expected that there will be a full return to going out, attending shows and restaurants, and not having to be forced to stay at home? I do see a small benefit for those of us who are passionate about the music. There will be a lot of guitars, basses, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and keyboards for sale on the cheap.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Musical Instruments

Non-Vintage Guitars at Vintage Prices?

What is with the skyrocketing prices of used non-vintage musical instruments lately?

Here’s some background: My first “real” bass guitar was a Peavey T-20 that I bought new for about $350 at Wonderland Music in Dearborn, Michigan back in 1983 (the store has long since closed, but it was so cool back in the pre-Guitar Center days). Anyway, I sold it a few years later, but I did some collecting over the years, and one of my goals was to own a set of all three T-series Peavey basses (T-20, T-40, and T-45). I was able to get a T-40, but it was stolen shortly after. I did get another T-20 about 10 years back in bad shape and am currently working to restore it to playable condition.

I was looking online for a T-40 and T-45, and was floored by the sticker shock. A fair- to good-condition T-40 is going for well over $800, and if you can even locate a T-45, it’s going for twice as much.

These T-series basses (along with the T-series guitars) were the first attempts at Peavey to put out durable instruments made in the USA at reasonable prices. The guitars were completely manufactured by machines, which was unheard of back in the early 1980s, but is now pretty common with mass-produced guitars. While Peavey amplifiers had numerous celebrity endorsements, the guitars and basses did not get much promotion. There were some innovative features on the guitars and basses, but they were generally poo-pooed for their bulky weight and necks that were much wider and harder to fret than instruments from Fender or Gibson.

So why would second-hand non-vintage guitars and basses from a company like Peavey cost so much? There are a number of probable reasons, but most likely, it is the greed in the sellers’ market. I’ve written about this before, but I will state it again. Shows like American Pickers, where Tom and Frank will pay $200 for some beat-up banjo or guitar with no brand name, makes people think that what they have in their closets is a buried treasure. That program, along with PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, often have appraisers talking about some gem of a find being worth thousands of dollars. Yeah, a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop or a pre-war Martin D-28 is going to be worth a lot of money. However, these were unique when they were built, they were built with a lot of care at the time, and have structure and tone qualities that cannot be truly duplicated. Many have disappeared through time, so the ones that have survived are near priceless.

Another factor is visibility on some lower-end guitars. An old Airline guitar from the 1960s being played by Jack White, which before could be had for $10 at a garage sale, now command many hundreds of dollars. Thus, anyone with a old guitar sitting around (it doesn’t even matter what the name brand is or if there even is one) thinks that he/she owns a fortune with strings on it.

I recommended watching the Casino Guitars channel on YouTube before (https://luegra.design.blog/2020/11/14/youtube-find-casino-guitars/). Baxter and Jonathan have touched on this phenomenon briefly. I remember a similar situation happening back in the 1990s, where cheapo guitars were going for big prices. I admit, I got caught up in the hysteria and started buying a lot of guitars. I lost a lot of money in reselling them when I needed cash. I don’t ever plan on going that route again, but I still am interested in securing the three original Peavey T-series basses.

But not at what is being asked these days! I can wait it out to see how the market is moving. I would be doing it more as a personal love, and not to do some profitable trading. I can understand rare Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, or Martin guitars being valued due to the quality of workmanship as well as celebrity exposure, but for something like a first-generation Peavey guitar, something that was built specifically to be a cost-effective (and less-quality) alternative to the major brands, I don’t think that they are worth to rising cost. Buyers, both private and dealers, will eventually be honest with the sellers to say that these lower-end guitars are not worth that much money. Also, I am sure that those thousands of T-series guitars and basses sitting around in closets and attics will eventually come out to the market from owners that have not used them in years and have no use for them. Again, I can wait.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Covers of Pop Music

I received an email press release a few days ago that I deleted after a quick read-through. A bluegrass artist (the name escapes me) was releasing a new single that was a cover of a mainstream pop-rock song (again, the name escapes me). I do remember that the song, in my mind, did not seem like something that would sound good as a bluegrass tune.

Now I am all for pushing to boundaries a bit when it comes to songs in bluegrass. I really do not like hearing bands covering the same 20-30 established bluegrass standards. Some bands are able to write their own songs to varying degrees of palpability. Other artists like to secure the talents of established songwriters to provide a hit. Then there are some artists that listen to songs outside of the bluegrass realm, especially in the country, pop, and rock categories, and try to interpret hits from those formats into a bluegrass sound.

(Note that this will not discuss the “Pickin’ On” series of bluegrass albums performing songs from various rock bands, released by CMH Records. See my previous post on this at https://luegra.design.blog/2020/11/26/bluegrass-is-in-the-ear-of-the-beholder/)

This of course is not a new thing. Bill Monroe had done this throughout his entire career with the Blue Grass Boys (then again, Bill Monroe could do whatever he wanted when it came to bluegrass). In the 1960s, King Records out of Cincinnati had both bluegrass and R&B acts on its roster, so the execs would try to cash in on royalties by having bands record songs from the other format. The best example was the Stanley Brothers recording a version of Hank Ballard’s “Finger Poppin’ Time.” Ballard’s version was a hit, the Stanley’s version never made it to the charts.

Jim and Jesse McReynolds recorded a whole album of Chuck Berry classics. Flatt & Scruggs recorded a number of Bob Dylan songs. The Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene were known for finding great pop songs and converting them to a more progressive bluegrass sound. The New Grass Revival also made use of covering pop songs (I still say that NGR’s version of Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” is one of the best covers EVER!). I wouldn’t even begin to count the number of times a Beatles song was covered by a bluegrass band. Then there is Tony Rice, who was a big fan of Gordon Lightfoot and recorded a number of the folksinger’s tunes.

In more recent times, there has been a resurgence in this action. Dale Ann Bradley has recorded a number of songs originally performed by Tom Petty, U2, and others. Of course, one fantastic bluegrass cover is Del McCoury’s version of “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” written and performed originally by English folksinger Richard Thompson.

There are a number of younger bands in the bluegrass fold that are also going to the pop music folder to pull out a gem. The one thing that I have noticed, though, is that there is not much thought into making the song “feel” like a bluegrass tune. Instead, it sound more like an attempt at playing the pop song as a pop song, only with acoustic instruments.

Again, I am all for bluegrass bands trying to find new material to perform, whether it is self-penned or searching for unique covers. However, bands also need to truly listen to the song and decide if it can become a good bluegrass tune. There are a lot of non-bluegrass songs that I love, be it pop, rock, metal, R&B, country, polka, or folk. And there are a lot of times that I listen to those songs and think if they would make good bluegrass tunes. Well, 99% of the time, they do not.

I am not saying that bands should not try, but they also need to be discerning. I have a lot of friends in bluegrass band with national prominence. Some of these band have recorded covers of pop songs and attempted to put a bluegrass slant to them. I have to be honest, I haven’t heard one lately that has been a treat to which to listen. I can understand that many of these bands are trying to get a wider audience, but at what cost? I like to think about the Beatles and their cover of “Mr. Moonlight.” The band was on top of the world, and was doing a lot of other covers along with some fantastic original material. However, that particular cover, with the tacky B3 organ and drum slap after each verse, just did not cut it, and has always been an inside guffaw to many fans.

Established bluegrass bands love to jam, and with that jamming comes creativity. With creativity also comes intelligence. Be smart enough when something creative sounds hokey or sounds like a hit.

Chew on it and comment.