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 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.

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.

Bluegrass Music

Perfect Song #8: “Thirty Years of Farming” by James King

James King (1958-2016) was widely known in the music industry as The Bluegrass Storyteller, a moniker given to him by the great Tom T. Hall. With his hefty baritone voice and his Appalachian inflections, the listener would hang on to every word. Moreover, he put himself into every song, especially when he would sing live to an audience. He admitted to shedding tears and getting choked up on occasion while singing one of his many heartfelt songs.

King has a number of great songs in his catalog. “Bed by the Window,” “Carroll County Accident,” and “Just As the Sun Went Down” are a few of his classic bluegrass and gospel classics. However, the one song that he made a standard in the bluegrass jamming world, and stands out as probably his best-known bluegrass song, is “Thirty Years of Farming.”

James Elroy King was born in Carroll County, Virginia. His father occasionally sang with the legendary Reno & Smiley. After a stint in the Marine Corps, he worked with Ralph Stanley, eventually forming his own band as well as working with the bluegrass supergroup Longview. He received a number of awards and nominations from the International Bluegrass Music Association and the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. Unfortunately, he dealt with alcohol issues later in life and passed away in 2016 from liver complications.

The song “Thirty Years of Farming” was written in 1987 by Canadian singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith, an artist known for writing some tender and tragic songs about farming. In 2002, King recorded it and released an album titled after the song. Since then, it has remained a favorite of bluegrass fans and jammers everywhere.

The subject matter is comparable to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Told through the eyes of a little child, he and his siblings see a sign posted at the home’s front gate. It reads that their farm has foreclosed and will be auctioned off. The chorus repeats the tragic news, only this time, the sign is posted at the local general store for everyone in town to see. The second verse talks about the family matriarch alone in the garden while listening to the auctioneer calls off sales. The third verse talks about the family packing up what little they have and driving away from the farm forever.

King’s voice hits the heart with every word. You can see a 50-something older man telling of a sad event in his life when he was a kid, soaking in the sight of his mother crying and reading the Bible, while his father is so distraught that he has nothing to say about the matter. Every syllable that he sings is gut-wrenching, and when the harmony chorus comes in, those voices are just as hard and powerful. There’s no place for lovely singing in this song. It’s heart-breaking, but it is still in-tune.

The song itself is a medium-fast tempo, almost a breakdown speed, which if you didn’t already know the song, that instrumental intro would make one think that it was going to be a happy song. But when King belts out the first line, you know that something is just not right in the world. By the third line, when we learn that the children are starting to cry after reading the posting, it is all hurtful from there.

The banjo sound keeps it from being an all-out depressing song, which is a trademark of bluegrass music. It seems to make the listener imagine that, despite the tragic story, perhaps there is some positive news on the other side of the hill. Even the mandolin and fiddle solos are laid back so as not to change the mood. However, it is the last chorus, with the first two lines sung a capella with perfect bluegrass harmonies, that hits the heart the hardest. The emptiness of the song, with just those voices, will give anyone chills of loneliness. Without directly saying it, there is that sense of asking God what more does He have planned for this farmer.

I challenge you to listen to this song and not be moved in some way by the time that last chord is strummed.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

Review of 2022 Resolutions

I decided to use this final day of 2022 to look back on how much I followed/missed on my resolutions for the year (

As for getting my house cleaned and sold, that hasn’t moved too far along. Mom is now 90, and I am literally at her house taking care of her when I am not at my job. I have been able to sell a few things on Craigslist, but there is a ton more. Every time I think that I have something big accomplished with that house, I turn my head and see something bigger that needs to be done. My getting that new job then quitting two days later did not help, as I could have been taking some PTO (that I lost when I returned to my old job) to get in there for a day or two to make a dent.

The guitar and fiddle practice has also slipped. I picked up the guitar for a bit around Christmas, but the fiddle has been dry since around Thanksgiving. Well, this weekend I should grab both of them for some refresher. The arthritis is starting to kick in more with the fretting hand as well as the first finger of the picking hand, so I may need a bit of aspirin or put something on them before diving in to a regimen with the two instruments.

The Songwriters Anonymous group has been getting together in-person since the spring, and I have been able to attend a few meetings. However, because of mom’s care, as well as getting up early for work, I have missed the past few months. I hope to be able to hit a few more over 2023.

Songwriting itself is still lukewarm at best. I have jotted down a lot of ideas, and even bought myself a little pocket recorder to record some lyric ideas just in case a pen and paper are not around. However, no complete song for 2022. God, I hope something inspires me enough for a full song or two in 2023!

Attending SPBGMA last year fell through, but not this year! In a few weeks, I will be in Nashville! Everything is set – hotel, registration, and a rough itinerary. This is my first vacation in over three years, so I won’t let anything screw it up!

As for lutherie, that was also slow. I did some minor work on one of the Yamaha guitars that I bought specifically to clean up and make more playable. But again, I wish that I could have done more.

I was able to get to two days of the Milan Music Festival this past August. Unfortunately, the festival has been retired for good, so I am hoping that something else will take its place, at least for that weekend or near it. Other than that, Bela Fleck’s show, a few indoor shows at the Kentuckians of Michigan Hall and the Michigan Old-Time Fiddle Contest, I really didn’t get to see much live music. I’m not interested in large concerts at all, and The Ark still has high COVID restrictions, so I don’t plan on attending that venue soon. I do find myself scanning the internet for live music in the area, especially bluegrass shows, a lot more than I used to.

So for 2023, it seems that I am on Repeat from 2022. More songwriting, more guitar/fiddle practice, more cleaning of the house, and more searching out live music.

One thing that I did do this past year was video myself performing one of my old songs in my Kitchen Koncert series.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

Christmas 2022

Well. I don’t have much to say. This past year has not been the best for me, but I am still on two feet. Here’s to hoping that 2023 will be better for all of us. I will try to have more to say next week for the year’s end. In the meantime, I’ll be hitting Midnight Mass at my church, where they sing Polish Christmas carols before mass. Keeping it low on Christmas Day.

Have a safe Christmas, and try to enjoy it. Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

Kate Lee O’Connor and Your Help

This week’s blog is a little different. Instead of me ranting about something that irritates me, or lauding about something that makes me happy, I want to tell you about someone dear to me who is going through a rough time, as well as asking for your help with her.

Kate Lee O’Connor is one of the most talented young ladies that I know. An fine fiddler, wonderful vocalist, and a personality that outshines her extreme beauty. She is married to Forrest O’Connor, mandolinist and son of legendary fiddler Mark O’Connor. The three of them, along with Mark’s wife Maggie, have performed together for the past few years as the Grammy-winning O’Connor Band. Forrest and Kate Lee have also recorded and toured as a duo.

I got to be acquainted with Kate Lee a few years back after a performance of the duo during an AmericanaFest showcase in Nashville. It led to me doing an article on her for Fiddler in the Summer 2020 issue. She is one of the few artists that I have interviewed that have thanked me personally for her coverage, and has posted her appreciation on her Facebook page. Since then, we have stayed in touch through emails.

During the beginning of the COVID pandemic two years ago, her doctor at the time had her taken off of a medication that she has needed since she was a child. The result was Kate Lee suffering from a severe case of SSRI Discontinuation Syndrome. Despite trials of other medications, they failed to curb her bouts of heavy anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. She had attempted the act this past September, which caused her to be in a coma for one day and required a number of surgeries.

Medical bills have been piling up for the couple. As so many are aware, musicians, especially in the bluegrass fold, are not wealthy enough to have substantial medical coverage. Forrest has set up a GoFundMe page to seek assistance in covering the bills. I implore you to visit the page, read more about Kate Lee’s situation, and make a donation if you can.

Kate Lee O’Connor is a talent that only comes along once every few years, so it is crucial that we in the music world help when we can. Please keep her and the O’Connor family in your prayers, and provide assistance in any way that you can.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music Bluegrass vocals Lutherie

What To Do During The Winter?

Winter is around the corner. More time indoors, most of the time outdoors (especially north of the Mason-Dixon Line) is spent shoveling and snowblowing instead of out on the road heading for a festival or jam session. There is little to look forward to during the next few months. Even most bluegrass bands go into hibernation, since most of their in come comes from performing at outdoor events.

This doesn’t mean that everyone (including you) have to forget about anything musical until March or April. This is the perfect time to better yourself for the 2023 bluegrass summer season. There are a number of activities that you can do to busy yourself at home while improving on your musical skills.

Practice – That concept cannot be repeated enough! There is always something that you can learn to improve on your playing. Time spent outside gardening or lawn maintenance can be spent indoors (once the driveway and sidewalk are shoveled) learning new things on your preferred instrument. There are tons of books, videos and YouTube channels devoted to lessons on all stringed instruments. Moreover, I have discussed jam-along videos in previous blogs that can help you improve your playing with others ( I have also mentioned checking out instructional videos from other genres (rock, blues, jazz, Celtic, etc.) to see if there is any tips that you can pick up.

Learn Another Instrument – So you play guitar and that is the only instrument that you own. Get a beginner bass guitar rig, or a mandolin, and transfer some of your skills to one of those instrument. How about a tin whistle? Those are extremely inexpensive, and you can pick up a few tunes within a week or so. If you want to stick with strings and have a little more dough to blow, start working on a good banjo, dobro, or fiddle. Make yourself more viable at the jam sessions next year.

Vocals – If you are a lead singer, keep stretching those pipes! Do warm-up exercises every day. Sing loud, like in a band, not in a lower talking volume. If you are not a singer, then start working on it! I did a two-part blog on bluegrass harmonies ( and Bluegrass vocals depend on great-sounding two- and three-part harmonies. Some people have an ear for harmonizing naturally. Others need to work on it. Now it the time. Find some bluegrass recordings with great harmonies, and pay attention. Then, tune-in to those harmonies and see if you can match the pitches. Find some solo-singing bluegrass vocals and try to harmonize. This is something that takes a lot of work, but again, makes a bluegrass performer more viable. If anything, you can check out Cary Fridley’s YouTube courses on singing.

Basic lutherie – This does nto mean to try and build a guitar or mandolin on your own (although if you have the time, money and passion, go right ahead!). Do some basic maintenance besides changing strings. Clean the fingerboard, polish the instrument, perhaps even do some more advanced work like crowning frets or adjusting the truss rod. Again, there are a number of books on guitar/musical instrument maintenance out there, plus dozens of videos on YouTube that can walk you through simple maintenance.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Fiddle Bluegrass Music Lutherie

Tidbits #5: Hillbilly Thomists, Brittany Haas, Iris Carr

I have talked about The Hillbilly Thomists before on this blog almost two years ago ( I just picked up the band’s latest CD, Holy Ghost Power. If you are into The Earl Brothers/Mumford & Sons/Avett Brothers style of bluegrass, you definitely need to pick this disc up! While every song has religious overtones, it is not the strict gospel songs that one hears in church. The best cut IMHO is “Good Tree.” The mood that this song sets will move your heart.

What surprised me to see in a pleasurable way was finding a YouTube video of the band performing live on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville! If they weren’t wearing their Franciscan robes, you would think that they were another quality bluegrass band. Besides good musicians and excellent harmonizing vocalists, they have a great stage personal, and communicate will with the audience. This performance was in conjunction with a convention of the Knights of Columbus being held in Nashville. I guess that the only bigger stage for a band like this would be the Vatican!

Brittany Haas is probably my favorite living fiddle player. I am so amazed by her work with Hawktail, as well as numerous other projects. While her forte is bluegrass, she can easily spin into old-time, country, Celtic, Texas swing, and the blues. Her playing never lets me down, and I am so proud of her accomplishments over the past few years. I want to let everyone know that she is putting out a new video instruction series through ArtistWorks called “Old-Time & Bluegrass Fiddle with Brittany Haas.” This promises to be a rewarding educational series for beginner and intermediate fiddlers from the best in the business. It comes out in December, and the ArtistWorks YouTube channel has a sneak preview. Great lessons from a great lady!

Also be sure to check out two new videos on Darol Anger’s YouTube channel where he is duetting with Brittany. Here’s one of them.

A luthier that I have been following for a while is Iris Carr from England. She writes a blog about some of her more exacting repairs to violins, violas, and cellos ( I absolutely love to see her expert work, which is so professional that I often call her “Dr. Carr” in the comments section of her posts. Iris has recently started an online course for repairs and restorations of stringed instruments. From what I have seen of her previous repair work, a beginning luthier will learn a lot from this lady.

Chew on it and comment.