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.

Categories
Americana Music Songwriting

Perfect Song #3: “Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa

I probably should have written this blog last week during the Fourth of July holiday, but better late than never.

There is a reason that John Philip Sousa is called “The March King.” Look at all of the great marches he composed: “Semper Fidelis,” “El Capitan,” “The Washington Post,” “The Liberty Bell,” and his most famous, “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I consider this last one to be a perfect song, especially for its intent.

Sousa spent most of his life conducting military bands. He enlisted into the US Marine Band as an apprentice at the age of 14, and would eventually serve as its conductor for 12 years starting in 1880. Afterward, he led his own marching band until his death in 1932. However, during World War I, he was commissioned a lieutenant commander to direct the US Naval Reserve Band in Illinois. Most of his composing was done after his time in the Marine Band, which included 130 marches along with 15 operettas and 11 suites.

Sousa wrote “Stars and Stripes Forever” returning to the US after a trip to Europe in 1896, and it was first performed in Philadelphia a year later. The structure of the march is typical Sousa fare. A four-bar introduction. Followed by the first strain two times, the second strain two times, a break strain, the third strain (recognizable by the piccolos), break strain, and the final third strain, this time with the second strain in the background.

What makes this song so powerful is that it totally describes the land that was the United States so perfectly without any words, although lyrics do exist for this composition. The introduction comes in bluntly, like a battleship cutting through the ocean waves. Next comes a strong first strain, a musical interpretation of the industrial strength found in the northeast part of the nation. The second strain gives off a feeling that one is in the agricultural and laid-back South. The break strain reminds the listener of the conflicts that the country has faced and triumphed over to keep the nation as one (the first break strain could represent the Revolutionary War, the second could represent the Civil War). The third strain represents, as Sousa once stated in an interview, the expansion toward the West, discovering new adventures across the land.

My only differing opinion is that third strain. To me, those piccolos represent the voice of the common man, the voice that has kept the US a wonderful democratic republic that is still the envy of the world, despite all of the internal conflicts going on. Sousa had a musical mind that was comparable to the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. He knew exactly what he wanted from all of the instruments in the band throughout the entire composition, This song, as well as most of his other marches, have amazing counter melodies working against the main melodies is a subtle but fulfilling way.

How can any American not be moved once those piccolos come into the mix? I can’t think of a time when I have heard the song performed in public and the audience doesn’t applaud for that moment. While most people think of brass horns when it comes to marches, Sousa had equal respect for woodwinds and percussion in his bands. All contribute to making this and his other marches ones that any army would be proud to march to. Just listen to that final strain! The song represents the US so well that, in 1987, Congress passed an act that declared it the official National March of the United States.

I give you some great examples of this work. First is the song performed by “The President’s Own” US Marine Band. This is followed by the Dallas Winds, which included 94 piccolos in the final strain. We follow that up with a touching rendition performed by The Band of the Grenadier Guards in Great Britain (when another nation is so moved by one of your country’s songs, you have to be proud). Finally, the day after the tragedy of the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001, Queen Elizabeth requested her regimental band to perform the song during the changing of the guard. As an added tribute, the band performed “The Star Spangled Banner.” I cannot lie, I was totally moved to tears the first time I saw that video.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Music

So Long, AMA!

Well, with a heavy heart but no regret, I have decided to not attend this year’s AmericanaFest, and I am not renewing my membership to the Americana Music Association. My decision is similar to why I left the International Bluegrass Music Association.

The AMA has decided to for a committee to find ways to promote musicians based on race, gender choice, and sexual preference. The IBMA launched a similar program a few years back. Both were supportive of the BLM movement (a Marxist organization that it fully admitted to on its website until recently when the co-founder was caught red-handed purchasing five homes around the country), yet when the BLM/Antifa riots reached Nashville last summer and vandalized the Bill Monroe statue outside of the Ryman Auditorium, neither organization did anything to either condemn the crime nor help support the clean-up.

I left the IBMA a few years back,, but I remained in the AMA primarily due to my friendship with other members, board members, and staff. However, I had been on the fence the past two years because of the organization’s political involvement. This recent decision by the AMA helped make my decision to bow out. I had been a member for over 20 years, and had served in a volunteer capacity for about 15 years. This included stage management, chauffeuring, showcase organization, and a dozen other jobs. I met a lot a good people along the way, including artists, managers, booking agents, and publicists. The networking was great, to say the least. However, the time had come where I had to decide between my beliefs and going with the flow.

Music organizations such as the AMA and the IBMA are there to promote music first and foremost. The color of one’s skin or the choice of one’s personal identity should not matter if the talent is there. Both organizations have reneged on their original philosophies and are now more interested in an artist’s identity instead of the talent. Political correctness has led to being woke.

With the AMA, one can see that it would eventually lead to that direction. Many of the artists come from a more liberal background. Being a member for over 20 years, I could see that it was an almost inevitable move. I highly doubt that my leaving will affect anything. I will miss going to Nashville and working the conference, seeing old friends and making new ones, but I have my standards as well.

In the case of the IBMA, I have gone over this before, but the direction it is taking may have different consequences. The bluegrass community is a wonderful melting pot. Liberals and conservatives, hippies and rednecks, traditionalists and progressives, all coming together for the enjoyment of acoustic music. Debates consist of musical matters (Percussion? Electric bass? No banjo?), not anything about the race, creed, sexual orientation, or political views. A few years back, the powers-that-be discreetly began implementing more woke philosophies and actions. Now, most of the IBMA membership only care about concerts and such, but are dumb to how the organization is spending membership dues. There were a few like me that left, including one or two A-list bluegrass performers. The IBMA marches on, but it will be interesting to see what it will be like in five or so years as the organization becomes more woke. I don’t see too much negativity happening with the AMA as it moves in that direction.

So I leave the AMA. The only national music organization that I am currently a member is the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, which has much smaller representation than the IBMA but is much more dedicated to the music. There are a few local groups that I belong to, such as the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association and the Michigan Fiddlers Association. For now, I will work harder with those groups to promote the music that I love.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Music

YouTube Finds: Otis Gibbs, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush

First off, I will be making a big announcement (at least to me) in next week’s blog, as I haven’t completed my actions yet. The announcement will be shocking to some, expected by others, but it is something that I feel that I need to do in my heart.

Now, let’s get to some quick business. I briefly mentioned it in my last blog, but I implore you to check out the Otis Gibbs channel on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYX2MTovE0vYjD8touqRH7Q)! I have been fortunate enough to hang out with Otis on occasion at previous AmericanaFests in Nashville. While a few of the videos are of his songs and performances, the truly enjoyable ones are of his interviews with people in the music industry. These people are not stars or business moguls. These are the roadies, back-up musicians, and technicians that have amazing stories about working with the big-time performers. They are filmed in a way that is less like a documentary and more like a barroom conversation. A great one is of bassist/producer Mark Fain talking about working with Tom Petty. Just about every one of the videos is a treasure, so you won’t be disappointed.

Another great YouTube channel is one by Marc O’Connor (https://www.youtube.com/user/markoconnor). Do I really need to tell you who Mark is? Besides being a phenomenon on the fiddle, he can put anyone to shame on mandolin and guitar as well. In fact, many of his recent videos showcase his guitar skills recorded for his Markology II album. There are also fiddle duets with his wife Maggie, some instructional tidbits based on his successful O’Connor Teaching Method, and some amazing live performances throughout the years. He also has some videos of classical violinists performing some of his compositions. Of course, you could never go wrong seeing Mark jamming with Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark Schatz.

Speaking of Sam Bush, he’s been loading up his YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxoxShg3clxxwKg9nKQeHNw) with a lot of great videos of him jamming in his living room with guests like Ronnie McCoury, Tim O’Brien, Bryan Sutton and Jeff Hanna. Plus, there are a few vids of him discussing his admiration of Jethro Burns while holding Burns’ mandolin. Sam is one of those guys that you wish was your next-door neighbor. Over the fence, you would be talking music, baseball, and the weather. Sam is a treasure, to be sure.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Music

MerleFest/AmericanaFest/World of Bluegrass

September will prove to be a busy time for roots music, and the losers will be everyone involved.

For years, the AmericanaFest has happened in Nashville during the second full week of September, while the IBMA World of Bluegrass conference/festival takes place during the final week of September/first week of October. For some, it was a bit conflicting, but if one worked his/her vacation schedule right, both could be enjoyed. My previous job screwed me over the last three years I was there, so WOB was a no-go. Add to the fact that WOB was moved from Nashville to Raleigh, NC, which was a strain on driving 14 hours from Detroit, then 14 hours back.

This year, AmericanaFest has been moved to September 21-26, while WOB will be September 28-October 2. The move may be due to the fact that MerleFest, which is usually held in April, has been scheduled this year for September 16-19. So three different major roots-music festivals will be happening three weeks in a row in September. I have also been informed by a good friend in the music business that a popular European music conference is also scheduled during this time.

Now, we all know that last year as well as this Spring have been affected by the Coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of festivals and thousands of concerts were cancelled. That hurt a lot of artists in the pocketbook. Both the AmericanaFest and WOB went virtual last year just to stay in touch with their fan base and business membership. Many artists did the same, hosting mini-concerts on Zoom or Facebook.

MerleFest lost out last year, being cancelled right at the start of the pandemic. This year, while the pandemic has been subsiding, the festival was not feasible for the usual April scheduling. Thus, the promoters and planners decided to schedule it for September. Well, now everyone is screwed.

Many fans enjoyed Merlefest in April, as it divided up the time long enough so that they could attend AmericanaFest and/or WOB in September. With all three festivals following each other in consecutive weeks, most of these fans are going to have to decide which ones to attend. Only the few privileged that are financially secure and can afford the time off, or the retired that have money available, will be able to attend more than one of these events.

I thoroughly enjoy MerleFest, but it is this event that is throwing a monkey wrench into the gears. It could have done what the others did and gone virtual for the year, or could have re-scheduled for dates not so close to AmericanaFest and WOB, perhaps in June or July. MerleFest is in North Carolina, as is WOB. Perhaps it could have been scheduled for early- or mid-October, being able to secure some of the WOB crowd for staying that extra weekend in the area.

As for me, I will only be attending AmericanaFest this year. My new job has limited vacation time available to me for September, and I have attended the conference for over 20 years. I have made numerous friends there, and have served as a volunteer in various capacities for the past 10 years. AmericanaFest already had some competition with a small roots-music festival in Bristol, TN every year, so this just hurts it even more.

The pandemic has screwed over a lot of people, businesses, and organizations financially the past year. This type of self-righteous scheduling only makes it worse.

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
Americana Music Songwriting

Billy Joe Shaver RIP / YouTube Channel

Last week it was Jerry Jeff Walker. This week it was Billy Joe Shaver.

My buddy texted me Wednesday with the sad new that Billy Joe Shaver had passed away after complications from a stroke. He was one of the true outlaws of country music. His songs were never hokey. They had grit. He wasn’t in the spotlight like Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson, but everyone close to the outlaw movement loved him and his songs.

His memorable songs are endless. “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” and the classic “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train.” How can one not laugh and nod his/her head to the religious yet sarcastic “If You Don’t Love Jesus”? The greats covered his songs. Johnny Cash, Waylon, Willie, and yes, Elvis. Dylan held him in high esteem. So did so many Americana music fans.

Shaver lived the “outlaw” lifestyle. Not in the way of Jesse James or Billy the Kid, but in his own way. He served in the Navy, married and divorced the same woman several times, lost two fingers in a sawmill accident (yet still earned to play guitar), lost his wife and mother to cancer, and lost his son/bandmate to a heroin overdose. Yet he still carried on, writing amazing songs that will stand the test of time.

My big Billy Joe moment was in 2002. The Americana Music Association was still in its infancy, and they decided to hand out Lifetime Achievement Awards beginning that year. The award for Songwriting went to Shaver. Well deserved, and it was presented to him by The Flatlanders. I ran into Shaver a few minutes afterwards. I had seen his shows many times, but it was the first time that I ever met him face-to-face. I told him, “Billy Joe, a handshake just won’t do” and proceeded to hug him. Well, he hugged me back so hard I had to catch my breath. You could tell that he was humbled to receive the award, but more moved by the fact that people really knew and admired him.

He will be truly missed, not just by me, but by thousands of songwriters, performers, and fans. I could put “Slim Chance and the Can’t Hardly Playboys” on Repeat and not be disappointed.

Just a quick note: I put up a few beginner bass guitar videos on my YouTube page, and will be doing some more in the near future. I also have some videos of me performing my own songs. I would appreciate any feedback that you can give.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC0ID9z7AR8-0WWGDM-TrsIA

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Music Music Industry

Jerry Jeff Walker RIP/Sturgill Simpson and Downloads

Two things.

First, my heart dropped this morning when a buddy texted me that Jerry Jeff Walker passed away at 79 years of age. I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t heard his classic song “Mr. Bojangles.” It is a standard up there with “Gentle On My Mind” and “Yesterday.” But Jerry (real name Ronald Clyde Crosby) was way more than that. His catalog was amazing to say the least. There were the humorous and crazy tunes like “Trashy Women” and “Pissing In the Wind.” Then there were the tender and heartfelt songs like “Navajo Rug” and “Morning Song to Sally.”

He was from New York, did some time in Greenwich Village, but moved to Austin, Texas and helped to create the city’s live music scene. Once could say that he was Texas’ favorite adopted son. He lived the rowdy lifestyle (he wrote “Mr. Bojangles” after an experience in a jail cell arrested for intoxication), but was always humble and giving. He helped Guy Clark get noticed by recording Clark’s songs “L.A. Freeway.” Legend has it that he influenced Jimmy Buffett to move to Key West, Florida.

Jerry spent his last few years in the grips of throat cancer, the one ailment that only the Devil could place on a singer-songwriter. He continued to write until this past week when he died. His songs are timeless, stories that are not so much feel-good/happy-ending types, but ones that are truly descriptive, soul-wrenching, and life-like.

Thank you, Jerry, for showing all of us other songwriters how it is done.

Late last week Sturgill Simpson released Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1, a collection of his own songs done bluegrass style. I love Sturgill! Not just the fact that his songs are fantastic, but I love his attitude that he has taken toward the country music industry. After winning “Best Country Album” at the Grammy Awards in 2017, the industry didn’t even bother to invite him to the following year’s CMA awards. So what did he do? He busked in front of the theatre that evening. That takes balls!

With the release of the bluegrass album, he did some crazy stuff like putting lawncare signs on music biz buildings in Music Row (https://www.whiskeyriff.com/2020/10/20/sturgill-simpson-continues-his-a-cma-trolling-puts-ddss-lawn-care-sign-in-front-lawn/). He has also been very vocal on the way Merle Haggard was treated by the industry in the years before Haggard’s death. Well done! And while I’m not in agreement with a lot of Sturgill’s politics, I do applaud him for doing legwork and not just talking the talk.

However, my gripe here is how he has chosen to release his bluegrass album. While the streaming version was released last week, the CD will not be available until December, and vinyl is not available until January! While mainstream pop markets are pretty much going the streaming/download route, there is still a large fan base in the roots-music formats that crave the physical part of owning music, myself included. We want to be able to hold in our hands something that is attached to the music. The album cover means a lot to us. We soak in the liner notes, the musician lineup, the choice of photos and artwork. We involve our sight and touch sensory functions along with hearing. This becomes a disappointment to say the least, and may involve me forgetting to purchase the album next month.

This is not to say that streaming and downloading should be banished. If there is an audience for it, then by all means, market that as well! It also serves its purpose in the music business area. I was contacted by a musician who was releasing her album in two months, but wanted me to listen to the songs beforehand so that I could review it for a magazine. She sent me the download link, and I was able to get the review published right about the time the CD was becoming available. Perfect!

But with downloading as a primary or only way to purchase music, especially with bluegrass or other roots music formats, it is one way to lose music fans like me. I am from the old school. Like I said above, I like the physical aspect of being a music fan. I also like having a big stereo system. Downloading music to your iPhone or MP3 player and wearing ear buds makes that music private and closed in. The stereo system lets others know what I am listening to as well. It fills the room, not just my head.

CD sales are down because of the music industry, not the music fans. The industry will still charge you a dollar for a download, which when considering that the average album has about 12 or 13 songs, it’s the cost of a CD anyway, but they don’t have to manufacture anything. They save that cost. It is also more difficult to track download sales for the performance right organizations like ASCAP and BMI. Thus, songwriters get cheated out of royalties. Vinyl sales are still rising thanks to hipster audiophiles. However, that rise is still not enough to get the money collected by the record companies into the hands of the workers that deserve and earn it. Besides, I like having a wall of CDs towering over me.

Sturgill has a lot of top-notch bluegrass artists like Tim O’Brien, Sierra Hull and Stuart Duncan appearing on his album. Fans of these musicians will gladly bring Sturgill into the bluegrass fold. Most of the bluegrass fans still rely on CDs. He is making a big mistake by not making his bluegrass album available in CD so that roots-music audiences can fully enjoy his work.

Chew on it and comment.