Categories
Comedy Musicians

I Will Never Be a Good Fiddler / Norm McDonald

I know that I will never be a decent fiddler. Sure, I practice almost every day, but it’s usually for 15 minutes or less because of my schedule. It’s not like I’m not motivated, it just has a lot more to do with my life’s situation.

Age: I’m 57, and it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I’ve been practicing regularly for about two years now, but it’s hard for a lot of things to sink in when you have so many other concerns in your life.

Health: I’m overweight, a diabetic, and the arthritis is starting to kick in. Time that could be spent practicing the fiddle is spent exercising just so I don’t have a heart attack in the near future. The arthritis is affecting not only my fingering of the violin, but fretting the guitar as well. I have a tough time playing simple bluegrass leads on guitar that were easy to do just a few years ago.

Responsibilities: I’m taking care of an 89-year-old mother now, pretty much all of the time outside of my job. I squeeze in writing, music practice, and lutherie whenever the opportunity arises, but it is usually just a few minutes each day. Even doing this blog, which I commit to once per week, has to be planned out by getting up earlier than usual. My laptop is always open because, if mom decides to nap for a few minutes, I can run over and type a sentence or two.

Lessons: I thought about getting lessons from a live teacher, but COVID killed that idea a year ago, and now that the possibility exists again, my schedule will not allow for me to drive somewhere else for the help. So I resort to my instruction books and videos, but there is not that extra care that comes from a live teacher. Moreover, a lot of the videos on YouTube lack motivation. You do a search for a certain technique, say, learning the Georgia Shuffle. So you find a dozen videos, but it seems that most of them are 10 minutes long with 7 minutes of rambling talk and 3 minutes of playing without any pausing for slow learners. Oh, there are some good videos, but slushing through all of the garbage becomes defeatist.

So I am pretty much accepting that I may not be able to play much with a band, do solos, or even learn tunes that I want. I will keep doing the few minutes every day, with the hope that things will change in my life for the better.

Last week, comedian Norm McDonald passed away form cancer complications at the age of 61. The man had the most dry sense of humor I have ever witnessed from a comedian. I remember his time at Saturday Night Live, although I did not watch it that much at the time. SNL hired in comic actors for their writing capabilites, ability to impersonate famous people, and of course, ad-libbing. Norm was stuck on the show doing impersonations of Bob Dole and Burt Reynolds, but his forte was anchoring the Weekend Update News skits. He could deliver fake news and truly make you believe it while you were laughing your head off. They kicked him off the show because he let it all out. He was a comedian’s comedian. His laid-back way of telling jokes was like a good friend telling a great story. There was no obnoxious, in-your-face delivery. He just stated the schtick in a matter-of-fact way that was perfect. You sat for a second wondering if he was serious about what he just said, then he would move on and you would finally get the joke. He never lamented on his cancer, and went on with his comic lifestyle as if nothing was wrong. More people should be so humble. Norm, your sense of humor will be missed, especially during these divisive times.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Acoustic Guitars Bluegrass Guitar

Yamaha Acoustic Guitars: The Poor Man’s Martin

First off, it was 20 years ago today that the US experienced one of its greatest tragedies. We lost thousands of citizens, the Twin Towers completely disappeared within a few hours, the Pentagon saw heavy damage, and a few dozen ordinary citizens became heroes losing their lives by fighting terrorists and crashing an airplane into a Pennsylvania field instead of the White House. I can remember it like it was yesterday, and it hurts a bit every time that I think about that day. For a few months afterward, we became a true united country. No democrats or republicans, just Americans working together. Let us never forget.

Last year in some earlier blogs, I was talking about the positive aspects of Glarry acoustic guitars and how they would make great beginner guitars, especially for the price. At the time, you could secure a new one directly from Glarry for about $50.00. The price seemed to go up a few dollars with each passing month, to the point now that the GT-502 Dreadnought Cutaway Acoustic is selling for $90.00. While it is still a good guitar, at that price, you may be able to shop around and find a quality used guitar that is much more durable and sounds better.

The Glarry acoustics just don’t have that look about them that makes you want to show up at a jam session with one, even as a beginner. You want to have an acoustic guitar that looks like a true dreadnought. While a Martin D-28 and its sisters are the standard for folk and bluegrass guitarists, new models cost at least $500 for the X series (which do not have that great of a reputation as far as volume or tone), around $1,200 for the made-in-Mexico Road series and 15 series, $1,600 for the 16-17 series, and the Standard series starting at about $2,500 for a D-18 (if you can find one). Don’t even get started with the prices of Limited Edition, Modern Deluxe, and Authentic series models. Used models vary in price, but not by much, due to Martin having a great reputation that the guitars age really well and the company stands by their work.

There are also a number of boutique brands like Collings and Bourgeois that cost even more, and some competitive brands such as Taylor and Guild that float around the same prices as Martin, although they are not as popular tone-wise. Face it, as a bluegrass guitar, Martin is the first choice by many.

Generally, Martins have gone up in price over the past decade or so, even with the lower-end models. My first Martin was a DXM model (which they don’t make any more) that I purchased online with gig bag for $300. It was good, but did not have the true Martin tone. Fortunately, I was able to sell it a few years later for the same price so that I could purchase my current Martin, a used 1981 D-28, which I have had for about 10 years now.

But back to what I am writing this blog about. What about the person that has less than $200 but still wants a decent dreadnought guitar that plays well and has a decent tone? My recommendation is the Yamaha series of acoustic guitars. There is a reason that Yamaha has been around in the music industry for over 50 years. They put out quality products for affordable pricing. We are talking about instruments across the board. Plenty of drummers use Yamaha drums as their regular kit. The DX-7 is a standard with keyboardists. I have had a Yamaha electric bass in my arsenal once and sold it for what I paid for.

A great beginner acoustic guitar is the Yamaha F-325. This is the model sold in the US, while in Europe and Asia the same model is called the F-310, with the only difference being the pickguard (F-310 = black, F-325 = tortoise pattern). This is a standard dreadnought size, with an easy-playing neck and a great full tone. These can usually be purchased for about $170 new. Online dealers like Sweetwater sell a package called GigMaker which includes a F-325 with a gig bag, tuner, and other accessories under $200.

Out of the box, these are set up really well. Mind you, they will not be as good tone-wise or heft-wise as a Martin D-28. They are lighter than your average dreadnought and, due to a laminated top, there’s a little less bottom end to the tone. Also, these models have rosewood necks, compared to high-end acoustics that usually have ebony necks (which give a more deeper tone when fretted). However, as a quality beginner bluegrass rhythm guitar, the F-325 is well worth it. I know of a few Martin players that have a Yamaha as a backup guitar. Yamaha does produce many other models, but all are more than reasonably priced as new.

As the F-325/F-310 was made for beginners, there are a lot of them out there that were purchased for aspiring youngsters only to be put into a closet when the student lost interest. This can be rewarding to you as the buyer. My winter pastime of working on instruments led me to scout around Craigslist and eBay for some good buys. I have snagged three of these models (two F-325’s, one F-310) used for around $100 each. Only one requires some body work (whoever owned it actually put a few small holes into the backside, either by drill or BB gun), but the other two are pretty solid. I plan to work on getting the tone a bit better with each of them through some basic modifications, which I will cover of the next few months here.

In the meantime, if you can get one of these guitars for a good price, say, $120 or less used, I would recommend at least trying it out. I leave you with a comparison of a Yamaha F-310 versus a Martin D-35 video from YouTube. It is a bit long, but you get the idea. The Martin has a better deep tone, but there is a difference between $200 and $3,200.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Classical Music

Perfect Song #4: “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin

After the last few weeks of writing about musical artists that have left this world, it feels nice to write about something positive, or at least thought-provoking. This is another installment of a perfect song. I go a bit further from the basic roots music (although I did go pretty far off with John Philip Sousa a few weeks back), looking at what I consider the best in American classical music.

“Rhapsody in Blue” is often described by scholars as “orchestrated jazz.” True, when it first debuted in 1924 as part of Paul Whiteman’s “An Experimentation in Modern Music” concert in New York, it was performed by a medium-sized jazz ensemble. It received mixed reviews after the first performance, and carried on as a jazz piece until 1942, when Ferde Grofe arranged it for a symphonic orchestra. It was then that it became a true American classical masterpiece.

However, to fully understand this masterpiece, one must step back to when it was first created. Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to compose a concerto for an upcoming jazz performance. With five weeks to finish, Gershwin created most of the music on a train ride to Boston. His brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, suggested the title.

For the first performance, as well as the debut performance in England, Gershwin played the piano. It has been arranged for solo piano as well as ensemble, but most know it from its symphonic arrangement. It is there that one can hear what pictures were going through Gershwin’s mind while writing. That opening upward glissando performed on clarinet tells you that this is no ordinary classical piece, but it is not trad jazz either. There is a lot of blues thirds and seventh flats throughout, along with numerous slurs and roller-coaster dynamics. It is all of this that makes classicla and jazz slam into each other to create a unique aural experience.

Just listen to it. Close your eyes and listen. From the opening, what do you see in your mind? I see a 4-in-the-morning New York City street, just waking up with perhaps a street cleaner doing his business and a truck dropping off a stack of newspapers at a stand. As the song progresses, the streets get busier. Taxis and busses speeding around, people rushing to get to work, vendors selling fruits and flowers. There’s the hustle and bustle of the office workers, as well as cooks and waitresses getting ready for the lunch crowd. That’s when the tempo slows a bit, some people eating their lunch fast, while other are lounging in the park, savoring the brief rest period. Again, it speeds up for the afternoon work and then the homeward bound rush.

Finally, there is that powerful, nine-note slow climax, followed immediately by the pounding chords of the piano. Think about the nighttime in NYC, especially Broadway! The bright lights, the people dressed in their best going to shows, wanting to be seen. It drops off a bit, just for a few moments, as if there may be trouble, like a traffic accident or a lost child, but it is momentary, and goes back into that fabulous strong ending.

Gershwin was a genius in my ears. He truly heard “scenery” in music. He could create washes of life and living with his songwriting. No words needed, only sounds, and it motivates the listener to interpret those sounds into visuals. “Rhapsody in Blue” is probably his best example of this technique. I just feel that it is disheartening that very few American composers such as Gershwin, Aaron Copeland (whom I will cover in a later blog), and Leonard Bernstein do not get the same overall respect that the European composers of the earlier centuries do.

I implore you to take time to listen to this work of art. I guarantee that you will be moved, or at least understand why others such as myself are moved.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music Rock Music

Don Everly/Bill Emerson/Charlie Watts RIP

This past week has not been good in the world. Way too many deaths. Before I get into my coverage of the three musicians, I ask that you pray and keep in your hearts the 13 soldiers that were killed at the Kabul airport by an insane ISIS-K bomber, as well as pray for the soldiers’ families.

Don Everly of the Everly Brothers. Man, those sibling harmonies were beyond human comprehension. Think about the hits that the duo had in the 1950s and early 60s. “Bye, Bye Love,” “Cathy’s Clown,” the controversial “Wake Up, Little Susie,” and my favorite, “All I Have to Do is Dream.” They came from a musical family, guitarist Chet Atkins promoted them passionately, and with the songwriting contributions of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the brothers were at the top of the music world. They both joined the Marines in 1961, and along with drug concerns as well as conflicts with their publishing company, the Everly Brothers lost footing in the pop music field. By 1973, they grew tired and resentful of each other, and there were a few reunion concerts until Phil’s death in 2014.

But those vocals were hypnotizing. Listen to recordings of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Bee Gees. You can tell where these groups learned to harmonize. However, one of the greatest gifts Don Everly gave to rock-n-roll was back in the mid-1960s. The duo was on tour with the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards asked Don how he got that great rhythm guitar sound. Don showed him the open G tuning and what fingering to use to change chords. Listen to Keith’s iconic rhythm guitar on “Brown Sugar,” “Honky Tonk Women,” and “Start Me Up.” That’s all the result of Don Everly.

Banjoist Bill Emerson. A true gentleman musician, beyond performing with the Country Gentlemen. His style was tight, yet not too flashy. His early career was with the Gentlemen as well as with Jimmy Martin. Those early years taught him a lot about the banjo, as well as timing with other musicians in a live setting. In the late 1960s and early 70s, he worked with guitarist Cliff Waldron, helping to advance the newgrass sound by combining bluegrass with country, rock, and soul music.

His big achievement came in 1973 when he joined the US Navy and helped to form the military band Country Current, which consisted of Navy servicemen performing as a bluegrass ensemble. He served as the band’s leader for 20 years before retiring as a master chief petty officer. Upon his retirement, the Stelling Banjo Company issued a Bill Emerson signature model. He performed irregularly the past few years, and passed away August 21 from complications of pneumonia at the age of 83. After Earl Scruggs and Don Reno, most banjo players today would name Bill as a major influence.

Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones. This one hit me hard this past week. The Stones were one of the main reasons I got into playing music as a teenager. Charlie was the perfect rock-n-roll drummer. Seriously, he defined how a drummer should play a rock-n-roll song. The drummer should be felt and not heard. Yes, you can hear his drums in so many Stones songs, like the intro to “Get Off of My Cloud.” But when you listen to the full recorded work, his drumming is felt within, while Mick’s vocals and Keith’s patented rhythm guitar riffs fill the ears.

He was quiet when it came to the public persona, but he was a Stone. Just as much as Mick or Keith. The band could never have gotten to where they are without having Charlie in the drummer’s seat. He knew exactly what would fit in the song. You knew that Keith, Bill Wyman, and Ron Wood valued him more than anyone. He loved jazz drumming, studying the great like Max Roach, and implemented that attitude into the Stones’ songs. There will never be another drummer like Charlie, and I am so glad that I was able to appreciate him during my formative music years.

My favorite Charlie Watts story? Back in the 70s, Mick was going on a rant ab out the Stones being his band. He kept referring to Charlie as “his drummer.” Late at night in a hotel, Mick kept calling for “his drummer” to show up at his room. Charlie dressed up in his best suit, polished his shoes, went to Mick’s room, and when Mick opened the door, Charlie punched him hard in the face and walked away, telling Keith what he just did. That is classic rock! I leave you not with a Stones video, but a great video of Charlie doing a pre-show backstage warm-up. Just look at Keith’s reaction!

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Country Music

Tom T. Hall RIP

Another week, another sad news reception while attempting to write the blog. This one really hurts.

My buddy that told me about Nancy Griffith last week just sent me another text. My songwriting hero, Tom T. Hall, passed away earlier today. Information on his passing is still being gathered, but we do know that he was 85 and had removed himself mostly from public appearances since the death of his wife Dixie back in 2015.

His songwriting thumb print ruled the 1960s and 70s. The classic “Harper Valley PTA” has been in constant rotation on hundreds of stations, with the most popular version sung by Jeannie C. Riley. However, the actual songs, be they performed by him or others, are textbook examples of what a song should be. Hall was always called The Storyteller, and songs like “I Like Beer,” “(Old Dogs and Children) and Watermelon Wine,” “I Love,” and “ Me and Jesus” would make any songwriter envious. These WERE stories! In three minutes, Hall told a great short story that John Updike would approve of.

Born and raised in Kentucky, he played in various bluegrass and country bands as a teenager, then joined the US Army, where he performed on Armed Forces Radio, writing songs about military life. He returned home to do disc jockey work at a number of radio stations. In 1963, Jimmy C. Newman recorded the Hall song “DJ For a Day,” which helped to launch his glorious career with guitar and pen. The biggest country stars of the time, including George Jones, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings, recorded Hall’s amazing work.

Just take “Harper Valley PTA.” Seen through the eyes of a young girl who gives her mother a letter from the local PTA about how risque the mother dresses. This was dangerous ground to tread in a song as it was during the 60s, but Hall made it into a comical lore. The mother goes to the PTA meeting and tells off all of the members by reporting on all of their hypocritical lifestyles. And Hall makes each line rhyme in a way that the whole stanza sticks in the listener’s mind so picturesque.

Then there’s the numerous songs that he wrote for children. “I Care” became a hit on the country charts in 1975. He married Dixie in 1969 (it was his second marriage; he married Opal McKinney in 1961 for a short period and had a son, Dan). The two of them wrote a number of hits for bluegrass bands, winning songwriting awards with both the International Bluegrass Music Association and the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America. Even as the modern country music producers and executives were looking at him as past his prime, bluegrass artists knew that he still kicked out aural gold, and country stars such as Alan Jackson knew how great he truly was.

Hall was inducted into the Country Music Hall fame in 2008, the Bluegrass Hall of Fame (along with Dixie) in 2018, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019 (way too long of a wait for that one). He preferred mowing his lawn over going to Nashville parties, and rarely collaborated with others excepting Dixie. Perhaps that was his charm in his songs. He could see the human characteristics best on his own. And each three-minute story made the listener realize that he was singing about someone that everyone seemed to know in some way.


I love all of Hall’s songs, but my all-time favorite is “Ballad of Forty Dollars.” A cemetery worker has to set up chairs for a funeral, and as it turns out, he knows the deceased. He goes on to talk about the shady way the widow handled selling some of the man’s possessions, and finishes off the song by saying that the dead man owed the singer forty dollars. The poetry that Hall uses to tell the story makes you continually listen for the next line. You want to hear it again because it’s a great short story. And that Ton T. Hall gravely voice makes it sound like a common Joe Six-Pack telling his woes. Pure gold.

I met Hall once years ago at The Station Inn in Nashville. It was at a show that was the night before that year’s AmericanaFest. Not too many people were aware he was there, but how could I not recognize one of my songwriting heroes? I went up to him and shook his hand, telling him how much his songs have meant to me and my dad. He looked tired, not in a sociable mood, but he was cordial and seemed grateful that a regular guy appreciated him. I didn’t get a photo, I’m not big on those types of pics. But I can remember everything about that few minutes. Visually clear as, say, a Tom T. Hall song.

Tom, you don’t owe me forty dollars, but I owe you a million thank you’s. Your songs have inspired my writing in so many ways. I could only hope that one of my songs could even come within spitting distance of one of your classics. You will be missed by so many, but will always be remembered and held in high regard by me.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Songwriting

Nanci Griffith RIP

Toward the end of every week, I start to get frustrated thinking about what topic to post on my blog. When something comes along prior to tthe time to write, I feel relieved and happy. However, today I am not so happy with the news that came to me earlier in the day.

While driving home, my buddy texted me to say that singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith passed away. Although she left us on August 6, it was her wish that her death not be made public until a week afterward. Nanci was an Americana treasure. She wrote fantastic story songs. “Love at the Five and Dime” is an absolute classic. She rode the fence between folk and country music. She liked to call her music “Folkabilly.” Anyone that appreciated fine songwriting knew how great she was with a pen and guitar.

I was fortunate to see her perform twice. Each time, it was not a concert. She had an aura that made each audience member feel like she was singing and talking to that person alone. I know that sounds cliche, but with Nanci, it was true. Her banter between songs was so down to Earth, like you were sitting with her at a coffee house or bar. If she ever felt nervous on stage, you could not tell. She looked at you when she spoke.

She always looked like that girl you knew in high school, the one who was into poetry, but wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty changing the oil on a car if need be. She had an innocence on stage, yet was known for her cussing off stage. That is human, that is personable, that is what you want in a friend.

She was equally at home with a band or solo. Each song was a chapter in an American novel, like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Every story, she was there, either as a reporter or protagonist. You could see the location in her words. After seeing one of her performances, it was guaranteed that you walked away emotionally satisfied.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, her record company was trying to pigeon hole her into the wave of neo-traditionalist country music performers. Nanci was much more, and she could not be put into such a category. Yes, her songs were like the country songs of old, but she and her songs were were beyond barriers. Folkies latched onto her. Other country artists looked to her for compositions and inspiration. She was so much better as long-standing singer-songwriter than she could ever be as a short-lived pop star. And the music world is so much better for it.

Like many songwriters, she went through a blockage for a few years, hers during the mid-2000s. She came back strong in 2009 with The Loving Kind. If I were to choose my favorite of her albums, it would be Flyer from 1994. Other great discs include 1987’s Lone Star State of Mind and 1993’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, which won her a Grammy. She collaborated with so many other songwriters, the list is almost endless. I implore you to visit her catalog and listen to a few songs. You will surely be motivated to buy a few of her albums.

Goodbye, beautiful lady, dearest Nanci. You were a crush of mine, if only for your amazing writing. You are taking a piece of my heart with you. I pray that your songs will continue on for generations to come. I imagine some young girl who is just learning guitar and wants to sing, and she gets a hold of one of your albums, and learns from it.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Milan Bluegrass Festival

OK, this is a day late, but there is a reason. I spent two days at the Milan Bluegrass Festival here in Michigan, and it was the first time I’ve been anywhere in two years!

I don’t get to attend too many bluegrass festivals, and since I’m skipping the AmericanaFest, I figured that I needed some musical escape. It was a blast for a number of reasons, and the best two days I have had in a long time.

  • A great place to people watch. Every character that you can think of, you can usually find at a bluegrass festival, and they are all friendly.
  • You can talk one-on-one with the artists. Any other genre of music, the performers are pretty hard to meet, let alone talk with. They are usually hiding backstage or away from the people, only coming out for the performance and maybe a few photo ops. No, bluegrass bands always stand at their merchandise tables after a show to meet-and-greet with the fans. They know a lot of people by their first names, talk about previous shows, and lots of non-bluegrass stuff like cooking, fishing, hunting, and people back home.
  • You will make friends. People love to talk to each other about music and things in common. And lots of times band members come into the audience to watch another band. I spent a good hour with fiddler Hunter Berry (from Rhonda Vincent’s band) watching another band and talking some.
  • The bands look out for each other. If someone needs to borrow a guitar for a song, another band is handing over its Martin acoustic.
  • There is always greasy food to eat if you forget to bring your own. You can go back to eating healthy when you get back home. In the meantime, enjoy that order of fries or onion rings!

One thing that was missing at this festival that is at others is the parking lot jams. Most people here seemed to have come for the show and not to play. There were a few people walking around with instrument cases, but they all seemed to be interested more in either getting noticed or having an artist autograph the instrument. On a related note, I took some instruments to sell there, and did sell a mandolin to an older lady who wanted to learn to play it. I talked her into taking it to Rhonda Vincent to autograph, and Rhonda, the sweetheart that she is, took the woman aside and showed her a few chords to play. THAT is what makes a bluegrass festival special.

One of the main reasons that I went to Milan this year was to see the band High Fidelity. They are a younger group that is heavily influenced by the sound of Reno & Smiley, my personal favorite bluegrass band from the past. The fiddler Corrina Rose Logston is a ball of energy to say the least. The vocals are old-time Gospel-ish, and they are very personable on stage as well as off.

But the most important reason that I love this band is the bass player, Vickie Vaughn. We first met in 2014 at the IBMA Leadership Bluegrass conference and have stayed friends ever since via emails and Christmas cards. Our personal lives have paralleled a lot during this time, with fathers passing away and bouts with cancer, but we have both progressed. This was the first time that we have seen each other in over five years, so it meant a lot to be able to see her again. The band was supposed to play at the festival last year, but COVID cancelled that, so this was the first opportunity. It was a true blessing to see her again. I call her my “bluegrass kid sister,” and she totally agrees with the moniker. She will always be in my heart, and I am proud of the success that she has achieved. Plus she has a voice that would make any singer jealous! Thank you, Lord, for letting me see my kid sister again!

Let us hope that we can get back to bluegrass-festival normal like this again. Next year, the Milan Bluegrass Festival will be five days long! Ain’t no reason not to attend at least one day!

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music

Dusty Hill RIP

Late last week one of the great rock-n-rollers passed away. Dusty Hill, the bassist and co-vocalist for ZZ Top, died in his sleep. What can one say about that band? For 50 years they provided some of the best music on classic rock radio.

Visually, the band had its forte. Dusty and guitarist Billy Gibbons had those extra-long beards (Texas goatees), which ironically, the band’s drummer Frank Beard didn’t have one. Early in the band’s tenure the boys would wear either Nudie suits or dirty coveralls. From the time the band released its iconic album Eliminator in 1983, Dusty and Billy were often seen with some visually creative and cartoonish guitars and basses on stage and on the popular videos (who can forget the white furry guitars that spun around in the video of “Legs”?). That album (as well as some successful videos on MTV) took ZZ Top from arena rock to pop music realm.

But even before that, it was a band that every fan of rock-n-roll loved. They could fit in with Southern Rock, Hard Rock, Pop Rock, and even some aspects of Punk Rock. It had that Texas sound. And Dusty was a big part of that. His slightly distorted bass guitar sound helped fill out the three-piece situation amazingly on stage.

Live shows were legendary. The band would often bring out farm animals on stage, and the shows would go on for hours. After the 80s success, it became a lot more flashy on stage, but still kept the music close to its Texas blues-rock roots.

Before Eliminator, ZZ Top had some classic rock gems. Think about it: “Tush,” Cheap Sunglasses,” and “La Grange” are continually played on classic rock radio, and has inspired so many to take up the guitar or bass. Dusty’s bass sound on those cuts were raw, heavy, and in-your-face! I always loved that he preferred the Fender Telecaster Bass, which is a bit different from the standard Precision Bass. The Telecaster bass was not contoured, had a Telecaster-style headstock, and was wired with a single-coil pickup, which was centered on the body. It gives a more midrange sound to the bass, which allows for those distorted harmonics without sounding muddy. Perfect for what ZZ Top ways doing as a three-piece band.

Dusty cited Jack Bruce of Cream (another classic three-piece rock band) and Jazz bassist Charles Mingus as influences, and it showed in his playing. He wasn’t content with just thumping on the tonic note, but wasn’t flashy either so that it conflicted with the lead guitar. Just listen to that guitar/bass crawl from E to G on “Tush.” Everyone recognized that as a ZZ Top move, even though it had been done dozens of times before. Dusty had an amzing ear for what his bass playing should do.

In the late 1970s, the band took a haitus, and Dusty actually took a regular job at the Dallas Airport. People would often ask if he was the guy from ZZ Top, and he would deny it. He had some difficulties along the way. In 1984 he accidently shot himself with a small derringer gun. In 2002 he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, and in 2014, he had an accident in the tour bus, which forced him to bow out of a performance, and the band’s guitar tech Elwood Francis sat in on. Dusty had later told Billy that if something should happen to him, Elwood should take his place. The band is currently planning on continuing with Dusty’s wishes.

I cannot count the number of times that I have strapped on my bass guitar, put on one of my ZZ Top albums, and played bass along with the record. Dusty had a groove that controlled the way the song would go, yet still letting Billy go all out on lead guitar. The “thump” of those fingers on the strings was like a sledgehammer. It was hard, forcing the beat along with Frank’s bass drum. I always found myself bopping my head while soaking in the bass line of “Tush” and “La Grange.” In short, THAT is how a rock bassist should play! If you have any questions, get a copy of 1973’s Tres Hombres, Fandango from 1975, or Deguello from 1979 and pay attention.

Thank you, Dusty, for keeping rock-n-roll in my blood all of these years. Your bass playing will be missed.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Alison Krauss Inducted into Bluegrass HOF

The International Bluegrass Music Association has made its announcement for this year’s Hall of Fame induction. The three inductees are definitely worthy. The Stoneman Family should have been inducted years ago, given the fact that they had been playing bluegrass music for years, especially Pops Stoneman. Lynn Morris was at her peak of popularity in bluegrass when health concerns forced her to step away from the stage about a decade or so back.

Then there is Alison Krauss. For some music fans who dabble in bluegrass, she is the first thing that comes to their minds, even before the thought of Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs. She developed a style that put bluegrass music close to soft rock or easy-listening pop. Traditionalists frown upon her sound, but one has to admit, her music was extremely popular, and did bring a lot of interest into bluegrass as a whole.

Alison was a child fiddle prodigy, winning numerous contests before signing with Rounder Records at the age of 17. She was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry at 22, and has won 27 Grammy Awards during her career. Her voice is definitely not high lonesome, but that is what attracts many to her. It has carried her into many other music formats, including the award-winning work with legendary rock vocalist Robert Plant and country music star Brad Paisley.

Her band Union Station provides an amazing canvas for her, yet she does not look at them as backup musicians. Members have shared lead vocals with her, and have gone on to great recognition as well. The live shows of AKUS have always been powerful. One of my favorite live albums of all time is the band’s album from 2004. Every song is spot-on! It sounds as fresh today as it did 17 years ago.

Yes, the past 15 years or so has seen very little bluegrass output from Alison. But unlike s many others, she never let bluegrass be a barrier to her. That remarkable voice was meant to sing different genres. It is so recognizable that you can tell it is hers from the first note. Moreover, the role of the female in bluegrass today owes so much to Alison. Not only was her voice different, but she made it possible for a woman to lead a bluegrass band, play an instrument with amazing skill, and be taken seriously. Take a look at a list of today’s bluegrass bands, and one can see that at least 10 percent of them have a lineup that parallels what AKUS has been doing since the 1990s.

Alison’s work changed the face of bluegrass music. Not for better or worse, but for exposure. She helped keep it in the spotlight during her early years as well as was a major part of the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, especially her vocal performance of “Down to the River to Pray.” Through it all, she has kept up a humble and warm personality. People love her, and she is very appreciative of that. There is a reason that she received the National Medal of the Arts form President Trump in 2019!

So congratulations, Alison. I am happy for all of the success that you have had, and my one hope is that you put out another straight-ahead bluegrass fiddle album in the future.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Fiddle Bluegrass Music

Byron Berline RIP

Last week right after I posted my blog, I learned about the death of Byron Berline, one of my favorite fiddlers. Having the status of being a Blue Grass Boy is enough reward for any bluegrass musician, but Byron went so much further with and without the fiddle in his life, that he would become a hero to many.

Byron was from Kansas, but spent most of his life in Oklahoma, where he picked up a Texsas Swing style to his fiddle playing. He went to the University of Oklahoma to receive a teaching degree in Physical Education, but soon joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He co-wrote the jam standard “Gold Rush” with Monroe, but was then drafted into the Army in 1967. After his two-year stint in the military, he went all-out with his fiddle playing.

Besides being a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Stephen Stills’ Manassas for a short time, he also recorded the famous fiddle solo on the Rolling Stones’ “Country Honk” from the Let It Bleed album. Along with a number of fiddle contest wins, he also helped form the bands Sundance, Country Gazette, and California, working with such luminary musicians as Dan Crary, Alan Munde, and Vince Gill. He also worked with Emmylou Harris, The Eagles, Elton John and The Doobie Brothers among many others.

He appeared on a number of documentaries, as well as some commercial ventures. He was a musician in the film The Rose with Bette Midler, and had a minor role in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he plays a member of the Enterprise that performs with an 18th century string quartet.

In 1995, Byron opened up a musical instrument store in Guthrie, Oklahoma called The Fiddle Stop, where popular jam sessions would happen constantly. While on vacation in Mexico in 2019, the shop was destroyed by fire, taking with it many of his prized violins. He would open a second shop across the street. However, on July 10 of this year, Byron passed away from complications of a stroke.

If one was to talk about the penultimate musician, Byron would be in that small group. He did everything that he wanted to do as a musician, all the time with that big grin on his face. He played traditional and progressive bluegrass music, but was not afraid to touch other genres such as country, rock, ragtime and Cajun. He performed with so many of the biggest names in the music industry. Add to that his getting to appear on a Star Trek episode, something every Trekkie dreams of.

Mostly, he was a legend with bluegrass fans. Not just for his amazing fiddle work, but Byron will be remembered for his continual pushing of the envelope with the format of bluegrass songs, while still holding the traditional structure close to his heart. Listening to his work, one can hear his one foot in the old-time style, while the other foot is splashing away in some psychedelic pond. A great example of this is his performance with California as they perform the newgrass composition “California Traveler.”

With Byron’s passing, I do hope that he realized how much of an impact he had on musicians, especially bluegrass fiddlers. Rest easy, sir.

Chew on it and comment.