Bluegrass Music

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers @ 20 Front Street

A few weeks back, I went to see Chris Jones & The Night Drivers at a small club in Lake Orion, Michigan. The place is called 20 Front Street, and it was quite a drive to get to from my place in Hamtramck. I was actually closer to Flint than I was to Detroit. However, I had a bit of a quest, and I hadn’t seen a good bluegrass show in a while, so off I went on a Saturday night.

Chris Jones is a great flatpicker, and has a low-lonesome sound, one not often heard in bluegrass. The band is a minimal four piece. Included in the lineup is Marshall Wilborn, a legendary bluegrass bassist, and Grace Van’t Hof, a great banjoist who also brings in the baritone ukelele into some of the songs. Along with Mark Stoffel on mandolin, this is what I consider “comfortable bluegrass.” There is nothing too flashy, nothing too mellow, nor nothing too loud and fast.

As for the venue, this was the first time I experienced it. The 20 Front Street is a combination small theater/coffee shop that is run by some volunteer staff. The performance room itself is quite small, with a stage that rally could not fit more than four or five bluegrass musicians, and I do not see any electric band more than a three-piece there. The seating capacity is only about 90, with a semi-circular theater-style. The sound system is perfect for the space, very small and controlled just enough to bring a slight volume to what is on stage. Looking at the venue’s schedule, a large majority of the acts performing are lone singer-songwriter types or folk duos or trios. In short, it reminds me of a miniature version of The Ark in Ann Arbor.

Lake Orion is a small town between Detroit and Flint that one can see it going for the trendy atmosphere. Lots of micro breweries and upscale restaurants, with narrow, clean streets and parking lots that fill up quickly. Those public parking lots are pretty small in size as well as spaces (the Dodge Ram Pickup that I was driving barely fit in the space that I found, and was difficult to maneuver out!).

The two sets performed (plus one encore) were enjoyable, and Chris, being a DJ on Sirius/XM, knows how to talk to a crowd. The place was packed, which when talking to regulars there, happens almost every show. I guess that being that far away from Detroit, some people would rather see a local show than drive out an hour. Fair enough. On the flipside, I would only venture out that far out from Detroit if there was a band or artist that I really wanted to see. It might be considered more now that I have my Chevy Spark compact back.

So I wanted to get Chris to try out the Sevillana 2208 dreadnaught guitar that I received last year from my friend Cherry in China ( He jammed on it for about 15 minutes after the show and seemed to enjoy the tone, which made Cherry happy when I sent her the news.

With bluegrass festivals drying up, especially in the Michigan area, touring bluegrass bands may have to find alternate places to play. The 20 Front Street may be a perfect fit for acts similar to The Night Drivers. While A-list acts such as Billy Strings and The Del McCoury Band are too big to be playing such a venue, there are a number of bluegrass bands that would fit in here if they were willing to travel.

Chew on it and comment.

bluegrass bass

I Now Own an Upright Bass!

Well, last weekend, I bought myself an upright bass. I have wanted one deep down for over 20 years, but always figured that I did not have the room in either house for one, and I could not find even a used one that I could afford. Add to that for the past 20 years, I have been driving around in subcompact cars, so I wouldn’t know how to transport it anyway.

That is why I always stuck to the electric and acoustic basses. It has limited me to who I could jam with as a bassist, so I usually went to jams with a guitar instead (along with a dozen other jammers). Knowing the cost of an upright bass, I have always promoted the use of an electric bass in bluegrass music. Go to my YouTube channel for a few lessons on playing bluegrass with an electric bass.

Then last week, everything seemed to fall into place. On the local Craigslist, there has been a seller of a 1/2-size upright bass for the past year or so, but every time I was tempted to contact him, the ad was pulled, so I figured that he sold it. This time, it was up, and for a fair price that I could afford! With my car in the shop for bumper/fender repair, I was using my brother’s pickup truck while he was on vacation. I contacted the seller, and last Sunday, I became the owner of a doghouse bass!

Now, most uprights in the bluegrass, folk, and rockabilly are of the 3/4-size variety. The 1/2-size upright is about 6 inches shorter overall, as well as about 4 inches narrower and 2 inches thinner. I haven’t tried yet, but after measuring the bass, it should be able to fit in my Chevy Spark with the passenger seat pulled back and folded down.

The doghouse bass does take some getting used to as far as switching over from electric bass. I’ll be putting tape on the side of the neck for fret reference, and building up the callouses on my fingers. But I have fallen in love with it, and will pretty much be only playing that instrument for the next few weeks, then switching around after that. I’ve already been scouring YouTube for upright bass lessons. I hope that by the end of summer I’ll be able to have enough practice to take it to jam sessions.

Wish me luck! Chew on it and comment.

Musicians Rock Music

David Lindley RIP

After posting last week’s blog, I then learned of the death of David Lindley. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you have definitely heard his definitive work on classic rock radio over the years.

David was a true character in the rock-n-roll world. He could play just about any stringed instrument that was handed to him, but his forte was lap steel guitar. His distinctive long curly hair and muttonchop sideburns were as obvious as his taste in clothing, always seen with colorful Hawaiian-style shirts and clashing pants. His bandmates and the music press tagged him “Prince of Polyester.”

However, it was his playing that made him legendary. While he did work with Warren Zevon, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, and Bruce Springsteen, it was his lap steel guitar playing for Jackson Browne during the 1970s that David is best known. And his best known work during this time was the solos on “Running on Empty.” It is a great song, indeed, but those lap steel solos truly make it a classic. Upon first hearing it, you question what kind of instrument it is. It doesn’t sound like a guitar, a keyboard, or any horn instrument. That sliding-note fill fits the mood of the song perfectly. Only one man could have created that sound, it was David Lindley.

I had the pleasure of seeing David once at The Ark in Ann Arbor about a decade ago. The man was a true wizard on stringed instruments. To make matters even more crazy, he never played the common Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul for an electric guitar choice. No, it was usually some off-the-wall Japanese or Korean clunker from the 1960s that he straightened out and hot-rodded.

The music world needed someone like David to chuckle at itself occasionally. We can take ourselves seriously with our top-notch equipment and poetic songwriting, but there needs to be that point where we realize that we are human as well, and do silly things. David could do that, but with professionalism. He was equal Paco De Luca and Spike Jones. He knew what sound fit in at the right time, but could make you laugh at a dissonant but intended note.

There will never be a rock-n-roll character like David Lindley, so seek out an album of his (El-Rayo-X and Win This Record are good choices) and put a smile on your face.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Guitar Bluegrass Music

Happy 100th Birthday, Doc Watson!

On March 3rd, it was Doc Watson’s 100th birthday. The man left us in 2012, but his amazing legacy has remained with us since then, and with the bluegrass community having such young amazing guitarists as Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, Doc’s influence will continue for years to come.

His story is legendary, so I’ll keep it short. You can find a biography on Doc on dozens of internet sources.. Born in 1923 in Stony Fork, North Carolina, his family was full of old-time musicians and singers. He became blind at a very early age, but still learned to handle farm chores as well as learned a number of musical instruments.

His forte, of course, was guitar. He started out professionally playing country and rockabilly guitar with a band in Johnson City, Tennessee. Folklorist Ralph Rinzler discovered him and recorded an album of Doc playing fiddle tunes on acoustic guitar for Folkways Records in 1961. It was the start of a 50-year career as a folk guitar icon.

There isn’t a bluegrass guitarist that hasn’t been influenced by Doc. Clarence White, Tony Rice, Norman Blake, Dan Crary, the list goes on. Each generation of bluegrass guitarists have no problem naming Doc as a favorite influence. Every one of them has at least one Doc Watson album. Even though he never considered himself a bluegrass guitarist, but bluegrass bands held his work in high esteem. When he toured with his son Merle, his grandson Richard, or Jack Lawrence, the duo would often headline festivals that had A-list bluegrass bands.

He loved playing with other musicians, always claiming that he continually learned form jamming with others. A beautiful moment can be found on Gather at the River: A Bluegrass Celebration. Doc jams with a young Michael Cleveland, with bluegrass musicians Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, and Dan Crary looking on. It is a magical moment in the bluegrass world.

There are two albums that never leave my playlist. The first is Doc Watson’s self-titled 1964 release. Raw and minimal, it is how Doc sounded best, just his voice and guitar working together. The other album is Blake & Rice 2. Doc performs on three songs with Norman and Tony that is simple wizardry.

Finally, there was the great performance called Three Pickers, in which Doc performed with Ricky Skaggs and Earl Scruggs. While each performer has a solo or band set, it is when the three of them are together that the best music is laid down. I still love watching the DVD, but here it is on YouTube.

Happy birthday, Doc! I know that you are up there making the Good Lord smile.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

Why I Respect Billy Strings

I don’t buy too many CDs any more. Mainly because I don’t get around to seeing/hearing who is out there. However, I do try to keep my ear to the ground when it comes to bluegrass. And I have been pretty vocal in my previous blogs about my admiration of Billy Strings.

A few days ago, I went out and purchased a copy of Me/And/Dad, Billy’s latest release that he recorded with his stepfather Terry Barber. Terry was the man that got Billy into playing guitar. Granted, there were some demons in both men’s lives over the years, namely addictions, that have had an impact on their lives’ direction. As for Billy, growing up in a drug-infused part of Western Michigan didn’t help, but his love for music helped him overcome much of those demons along with an understanding patriarch.

We all know how Billy has become a rising star, not only in the bluegrass community but in the live music spectrum, drawing humongous crowds from traditionalists to Deadheads. One of the things that I admire about him so much is that, to paraphrase Lester Flatt, he never got above his raisin’. His humility has always shown through, and this album is just a sample of that. He recorded a number of bluegrass and old-time country standards with Terry, and share vocal duties throughout. The album has a stellar cast of backup musicians, including Ronnie and Robbie McCoury, Michael Cleveland, Mike Bub, Jason Carter, and Jerry Douglas.

You can feel the family warmth throughout the song selection. It truly feels like Billy and Terry jamming with some friends in the living room on a Friday night. With all of the flash that Billy can have on stage at one of his sold-out shows, one can tell that this is where he is most comfortable.

I talked briefly a few weeks ago that Billy was at SPBGMA in Nashville last month (and how I missed it). You can take it for granted that he drew an amazing crowd. However, what I failed to mention is that he went there with a 13-year-old mandolin player named Wyatt Ellis. Billy knows that people come to see him play his chops, but he is very giving in wanting to showcase other talent, especially young kids coming up in the bluegrass community. Perhaps he is serving as a big brother/mentor to Wyatt, and hopefully he can keep Wyatt on the right track in life as well.

Cheers to you, Billy, it is an attitude such as yours that helps keep bluegrass going!

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music

The Jubalaires: Grandfathers of Rap

I have always been a fan of The Mills Brothers. Those great harmonies that would only need a archtop guitar for accompaniment. They were cool, to say the least, and I have spent a lot of time on YouTube watching their vintage videos.

While YT surfing, I came across The Jubalaires. Wow! Same set up (four guys singing together, accompanied by a guitar), but where The Mills Brothers had a slightly jazz feel that kept them popular with the big band crowd, The Jubalaires had some gospel influences, but could also be considered the Grandfathers of Hip-Hop/Rap. They talked a lot of their lyrics in a lot of songs, with hard rhymes that would put many modern rappers to shame.

One video of The Jubalaires has them performing a song called “Brother Bill.” This is one of those black cinema shorts popular in the African-American community in the 1930s-40s. I like the one comment stating “Guns, groupies, dollar sign on suit, they are truly the pioneer of gangsta rap.”

I won’t go on about these guys, I’ll just post these videos for you to enjoy.

Chew on it and comment.

Bass Guitar

Pet Peeve: Narcissistic Bassists

As you well know, I like to surf the YouTube spectrum for interesting videos. I particularly like to watch videos dealing with bass guitars. Although I haven’t played bass in a band for about 20 years, I still hold the bass guitar close to my heart, as that is what I started with when I got into playing in bands.

I pretty much watch all kinds of bass videos: instructional, performance, history, and reviews. While there are a lot of videos that I appreciate, there are some that are just plain annoying. The most annoying to me are the ones where someone is reviewing a bass guitar, but spends the first minute or more just wanking on it, attempting impress the viewer on how good he/she is before telling us about the features and if it is a comfortable bass to work with.

Yeah, great, you are the next Flea or Chris Squire. Then why aren’t you selling out arenas instead of showing us what every other bass player can do and giving off the impression that you are the best? If you are reviewing a bass guitar or amplifier (and I am sure this goes for other musical instrument reviews), talk about the features, and don’t play for more than 10 seconds with each feature.

Another pet peeve are the instructional videos that show some riff or pattern, but there is no actual instruction. The following YouTube short is somewhat of an example. The bassist is playing a famous Stevie Wonder bass groove note for note, but there is no tablature. So why tell us that it is something every bassist should know? As an aside, I know a lot of people that can play along with a recording, but have a difficult time playing with others and not having the recording to play along with.

One of my favorite YouTube bass guitar channels is the Leland Sklar channel. Lee Sklar is probably the most recorded bassist in history. The man has recorded and performed with James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Toto, Phil Collins, Linda Ronstadt, and Lyle Lovett just to start off. At 75 years of age, he is still showing the youngsters how it is done. Besides all of his sideman work, he is occasionally touring with The Immediate Family, which contains other famous Los Angeles studio musicians (they have recently made an award-winning documentary, please check it out at Anyway, Lee started the channel to talk about some of his more memorable bass lines, but it has grown to him discussing studio experiences, life on the road, and some great philosophy on rock and pop music. Now this is a guy who could put all of us to shame if he wanted to by laying down some bass lines on video. Instead, his humble talk makes one really want to sit and listen to a wise man. That trademark beard makes it all the better. Subscribe to the channel, and here’s a taste of one of his wonderful monologues:

Finally, one of my favorite videos from my favorite bass players. Who doesn’t know Paul McCartney? And what bass player hasn’t copied one of his Beatles or solo bass lines? He helped put the bass player in the forefront. This video is a bass lesson by Sir Macca himself for his song “Ever Present Past” from his 2007 album Memory Almost Full. Again, here is a legend, someone who can show us all how it is done, but he is so humble about his bass playing. That is why we all love him so much.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music Lutherie Songwriting

Back to Work!

Well, we laid my mother to rest yesterday, and I feel that I should get back to busy-ing myself in order to keep my mind alert and my slightly arthritic hands working.

Yes, I missed SPBGMA, but I am glad to see that it was a success. Lots of jamming, and plenty of surprises. I am committed to being there next year!

I will still be moving back into my mom’s house and selling my house, so the clean up will continue, along with cleaning out some of my mom’s stuff from her house. As for me, more selling off of music equipment, especially amplifiers and other electric guitar-related stuff that I never use any more. I’ll be also selling some jackets that don’t fit or never fit in the first place but I was too lazy to get rid of. My advice is, if you are in the Detroit area, keep checking Craigslist and look for “Dearborn/Hamtramck” as a location.

I will be trying to hit more shows as well. Not much offered during February and March, but I will keep checking and hope to find a few major bluegrass shows that I can have guitarists try out the 2208! I will definitely try to hit a bluegrass festival as well, but with Milan and Blissfield both cancelled, it will be either Charlotte or something on the west side of Michigan.

And back to practicing gutiar and fiddle, as well as songwriting. Taking care of mom took a lot out of practicing, and I was not motivated to do any songwriting, Hopefully, I can get inspired. I plan to attend more Songwriters Anonymous meetings, as they have always had supportive people.

And finally, lutherie. I definitely want to get back to maintenance and repairs of guitars. I plan to start simple, like setting up that $47.01 bass guitar that I got a few months back ( I still have a few Yamaha acoustics that I want to set up, one that needs some repairs, and a lot of other minor jobs. I really enjoy working on guitars, and I want to accomplish a few things before the Demon Arthritis takes over.

Next week, I should have a blog full of rants and raves. Chew on it and comment.


I will miss you, Matka

This morning, my mother passed away, I did see her about an hour before she passed, and I knew inside of me the time had come. She was incoherent, but she recognized my voice. She was 90 years old, lived through the Depression, married the man she would stay with for 55 years, gave the world two sons, and never completely got over the death of her husband for eight years.

I will miss her immensely. For the last six years, I lived with her and shuttered my own house. I didn’t take a vacation for over three years so that I could take care of her. My first one since then was supposed to be this weekend to SPBGMA in Nashville, I was planning to drive down there early tomorrow morning, but plans have changed.

Mary Merta will be missed not only by my brother and I, but her one grandson, her sister, and hundreds of people that she knew in the neighborhood, at church, and across the miles.

I am not sure when I will be getting back to posting the next blog. I just ask that you say a prayer for my mom if you are religious, and if you are not, just think good thoughts about your own mother.

Rock Music

David Crosby RIP

This past week saw the passing of David Crosby, guitarist/singer/songwriter and institution of the rock and roll world. He had the demons of drugs infiltrate his life in his younger and middle age days, enough to land him in prison for 8 months, but he would eventually fight them off to clean himself up and regain his artistic talents.

He was founder of two of the most popular bands in rock and roll history: The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash (and sometimes Young). In both bands, his work helped define the format of folk-rock, a politically motivated sound with less stress on guitar solos and more stress on lyrics, while still maintaining the rock and roll drive. Like Jeff Beck who passed away the week before, his presence during the formulative years of rock music cannot be ignored.

With both bands, Crosby made sure that the music moved forward. In the Byrds, the band went from covering “Mr. Tambourine Man” to creating psychedelic classics like “Eight Miles High.” He motivated the band to spend more time writing original material. However, his outspoken political views resulted in being kicked out of the band. His connections with Steven Stills (who had just left Buffalo Springfield) and the enthusiastic departure of Graham Hash from the Hollies led to the forming of probably the most popular folk-rock supergroup to be recorded.

While CSN and CSNY would continue in various forms for over four decades, the most well-known songs came during its early years. The band’s impact cannot be denied. Those harmonies in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” are textbook examples of how it should be done. They are beyond barbershop quartet harmonies, more like Gregorian chant put to a rock and roll beat and arrangement.

Crosby’s later life was being a helping hand to others as well as getting back to the music. He mentored actress Drew Barrymore out of drug addiction, showing off not only his success at rehabilitation, but to show that there is fun and excitement in the rock music world without having to resort to drugs and alcohol. In interviews, he was very vocal about his past habits, the demons that he fought, admitting that he was not sorry that he participated in such revelry, but from his experiences, he knew that it was better to be off the stuff.

Crosby appears twice in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the Byrds and CSN. His presence in rock music cannot be denied, and his legacy will remain for decades to come.

Chew on it and comment.