Categories
Bluegrass Music Coronavirus Musicians

Enjoying Music Visually

With the COVID thing going on, most musicians and bands have had to cancel live performances. To make up for the lost income, the more industrious performers are either doing virtual concerts, stepping up to online teaching, or being creative on sellable swag.

So most of you know that I am a contributing writer for Fiddler. In my years of writing for the magazine, as well as my involvement with the bluegrass music scene, I have become friends with a lot of bluegrass fiddlers.

Two fiddlers that stand out in my friendship are Brittany Haas of Hawktail, and Bronwyn Keith-Hynes of Mile Twelve. Both are amazingly talented, as well as absolute sweethearts. They can call me any time if there is something that I can do for them, and are always there if I need a quick quote for an article. Something both of them have done (apart from each other) that I absolutely applaud can prove to be a great gift for the holidays.

Fans can only purchase so many CDs and T-shirts to keep bands afloat. A few months back, Hawktail made available 12-by-18-inch prints showing musical notation of songs from the albums Unless and Formations. Printed on parchment style paper, it looks as if it was taken from sheet music printed over a hundred years ago.

As for Bronwyn, she has recently released her solo album Fiddler’s Pastime. One of the more clever items available on her website is a handwritten page of musical notation from one of the songs on the album. Viewing it, you actually see what Bronwyn sees, hears, and thinks as the pen meets the paper.

Why do I bring up these two visual items up? Because they are awesome to say the least! Frame them, and you have a fantastic gift for someone into either or both artists. If you cannot find a fan, them get them for yourself!

Hanging a painting of a portrait or landscape on your wall is so typical. As I am a music aficionado, what hangs on my walls is mostly music-related, such as concert photographs and posters. Now, I will include framed music notation. There are a number of reasons why putting this on your wall is a plus. Here are just a few:

  • It is a lot more eye-catching than the typical painting.
  • As you look at it, you tend to create the shown melody in your head.
  • If you are not so competent on a musical instrument, you can at least follow what is written when you listen to the song.
  • You are getting inside the performers’ heads.

While some people do frame and hang old piano music, it is usually done as more of a historic representation, or perhaps enjoyment of the cover illustration. That type of printed music was meant to be read and performed, not framed. However, in the case of Hawktail and Bronwyn (and perhaps any other musician/band doing the same thing that I am not aware of), the music has already been presented in a listenable format. Now, these artists want to show you what the music looks like, perhaps even why they took it in a certain direction.

The most heartwarming thing about these printed notations to me is that the artists wanted the listener to be a part of their process and outcome. It makes the music more encompassing, just like reading liner notes of an album WHILE you are listening to it. There is so much more to soak in from the music as you look at the notation. I hope that others appreciate these personal connections like I do.

For more information on the music notations:
Hawktail – https://hawktail.bandcamp.com/merch/sheet-music-print

Bronwyn Keith-Hynes – https://www.bronwynkeithhynes.com/shop

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Music Stores Musical Instruments

YouTube Find: Casino Guitars

Although I’m not the guitar nut that I was, say, 20 years ago, I still like to pick up different guitars, be they acoustic or electric, and strum away! Some things only a guitar enthusiast would understand goes on during this ritual, like the feel of the neck, the tone coming off of the body, and a few dozen other actions. Whether it is cars, motorcycles, beer cans, baseball memorabilia, or guitars, enthusiasts have a passion about something that the people around him do not quite understand.

That’s why I like these guys. Casino Guitars is a music store in North Carolina that is not just another Guitar Center. They treat the buying and selling of guitars like an adoption agency, which means that they REALLY love and care about guitars. The store has a YouTube page that is absolute entertainment. Two of the employees/owners(?) of the store (Baxter Clement and Jonathan Robinson) post a video about once a week to discuss guitars or rock/pop music in general.

When I first watched one of their videos, I thought that it looked like someone from Duck Dynasty talking guitar smack with Robert Smith from The Cure. They both look like guitar geeks somewhat, but also look like they would NEVER be in the same room together. However, as I got to listening to them, they were a lot like me. Not in looks or in presentation, but in passion for the guitar.

What is more likeable about Baxter and Jonathan is that they totally respect their fan base viewers. I’ve commented a number of times on their vlogs, whether it be praise, disagreement, or just to swipe a humorous insult. Sure enough, within a day or two, one of them will reply with a comeback or even a simple thanks for the suggestion. In short, they actually READ the comments, which 99% of YouTube vloggers do not. They make you feel like you are part of the conversation, and know that the people watching them are just like them – guitar enthusiasts.

Watching Baxter and Jonathan is like sitting in with them and talking guitars as well. Think of sitting around a music store that is welcoming, not a big-box place, and being able to BS about stuff we all love. The only thing missing is the bottle of bourbon to pass around (although I do have a rocks glass of Makers Mark close by).

Enough of the talk! I recommend that if you are into talking about guitars and guitar-oriented music, then check the Casino Guitars YT page and enjoy.

Chew on it and comment.

PS: Rest in Peace Alex Trebek and Sean Connery.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

The New Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine: Some Thoughts

I received my November 2020 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited yesterday. Now that it is being published by the Bluegrass Hall of Fame & Museum, one could expect a few changes in the appearance. Well, a lot has changed visually, and here’s my take on it.

A first glance at the cover tells you that there is a new sheriff in town. Gone is the laid-back look of a sit-down magazine. Instead, we are treated to a more in-your-face look. The use of multiple fonts can give your eyes a workout, to say the least. The design leans more toward a fashion magazine. Instead of simply stating who or what will be covered within the pages, the cover shouts what is ahead with subtitles.

Opening the magazine, one can see that larger advertisements for instruments and accessories seem to remain the same, although there seems to be a lot less of them than before. This could be due to the Coronavirus (lack of festivals scheduled for 2021) or an editorial choice. There are also a lot less half- and quarter-page ads. The departments in the early pages (General Store, Notes & Queries) are still there, although it is a bit confusing to read with all of the new fonts on text and titles. Also, before N&Q, there is a new column called The Tradition that seems to be an op-ed style essay on a specific time/date in bluegrass (in this case, it is about one of Bill Monroe’s quotes and how it originated).

Featured articles are now each part of a section. Before, there seemed to be a flow of the cover story, a few other artists’ stories, an article on a popular festival, then concluding with a bluegrass gospel artist profile. Now, there are sections on The Artists, The Sound (apparently covering instrument makers and dealers) and The Venue (covering festivals and concert halls). As for the artists, there are the usual A-list articles, but there is also an article on Lindsay Lou, a performer more in line with the jamgrass and progressive grass culture – something not usually found in the previous incarnation of the magazine. Personally, I like seeing a more diverse listing of artists. I was finding the previous coverage a bit tedious, with some artists being interviewed only a year or two after an earlier article. However, I do see the possibility of some traditionalists complaining.

The rear of the magazine contains the stalwart inclusions of reviews and the national survey. As for the reviews, there seems to be a lot less included, with only the more outstanding albums appearing. The old BU used to have a good handful of mini-reviews that were helpful to interested parties. Also there are no book reviews, only announcements.

This issue includes the yearly Talent Directory. In previous years, the directory was about a dozen pages of small print listings of artists that sent in their particulars. This year, the print is bigger, there are a lot less artists listed (deadline concerns?), and a few of the more popular bands have photos along with their listing. My listing is in there (actually, it is in there twice due to a printer error), but I do not remember an offering of publishing a photo for payment (the listings are free).

There is one big amateur slip-up here. An article in the Tradition section covering a tribute to guitar luthier Preston Thompson was incomplete, with no “continued on page XX” or conclusion. Given that it’s the premier issue from the HOF, one can understand, but the managing editor Dan Miller has handled print magazines in the past and should have caught this before sending it to printer. He does have an editorial introduction at the front of the magazine outlining the intent of the publication. These op-eds rarely appeared in the previous incarnation of BU, so it will be interesting if this continues.

Overall, one could see that the magazine is looking to get more readers, especially ones outside of the normal bluegrass scene. One thing is for sure, it does not look anything like the old style. In fact, one could easily mistake it for American Songwriter Magazine, as the look is nearly identical. The editorial slant also seems to lean more toward its Americana counterparts than the magazine ever did previously.

Only time will tell how BU will weather the future. As it is the only true print magazine covering bluegrass exclusively, readership should not change much. They may gain some hipster types but lose some hard-nosed traditionalists. If they are trying to be more like AS, I do hope that they don’t follow its editorial path and become a lot more politically liberal based. That is the reason I stopped subscribing to AS. I wanted to read about music in a music magazine, not politics.

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.

Categories
Folk Music

Na Zdrowie! Eastern European Folk Music (and Comedy)

Like I said before, not everything on the blog will be related to bluegrass music. While it is still my Number 1 passion in music, I still love to discover other forms and genres. I will always love most of the stuff lumped under Americana, but lately I have been getting into listening to Eastern European folk music, especially performed by female vocalists.

First, Let us look at Rokiczanka. They sing Polish folk songs with a small ensemble backing them up. They are a combination of male and female singers, but it is the two female lead singers that garner much of the attention from the audiences (at least from what one can tell by the videos). This is pure Polish folk music that has been polished up to be presentable live to all audiences. The whole group looks like they are having fun performing the music at concerts. I especially enjoy their interpretation of the folk song “Lipka.” Just an enjoyment to watch. The website is https://rokiczanka.pl/en/ .

About two years ago, I found Beloe Zlato on YouTube, and continue to be amazed by their harmonies. Over the years, the lineup has changed, but three of the ladies have been there for a long time keeping the group active (Daria Luneeva, Valeria Grigorieva, and Maria Baranenko). Besides being very easy on the eyes, they harmonize so well that it sounds more like a human pipe organ. This literally sounds angelic. If they ever were to come to the US, whatever city, I would make the trip just to hear these beautiful voices live. They almost do not seem real. They make videos singing around tourist spots in Moscow. Most of the early videos were a capella, but more recent ones include being accompanied by an accordion or balalaika. Sometimes they appear in traditional dress, sometimes in jeans and t-shirts. They are as addictive as potato chips. The website is https://beloezlato.ru/ . Be sure to check all of their YouTube videos!

While looking around for other Polish folk groups a few weeks ago, I came across Trio Mandili. Wow! They are actually from Georgia (the country in East Europe, NOT the southern US state), but sing Polish, Russian, and Turkish folk songs as well as Georgian. They are like a Cossack version of The Andrew Sisters! They have been around for about six years, but have only recently been putting out videos, which consist of the one original member, Tatuli Mgeladze, filming them with her iPhone. They walk around sites in Georgia singing, with one member, Mariam Qurasbedian, playing the three-stringed panduri (a cross between a dulcimer and a cigar-box guitar). The third member, Tako Tsiklauri, dances around in the background and is always smiling. The group came into notoriety when in 2014 they posted a video of them singing a folk song while walking down a dirt road. The harmonies were beautiful. The video has had over 6.5 million views on YouTube! About two years later, a punk metal trio added backing music to the video, and it came out sounding really cool! You have to check them all out! Their live shows are a bit tacky, with choreography that definitely looks Eastern European or Middle Eastern and not from New York, London, or Paris. I have seen a few other Georgian “Trio” groups on YouTube, but none compare to the originality of Trio Mandili. Unfortunately, the website is extremely slow to upload – I have yet to get it fully up to see anything. So trying to order a CD is impossible. Good luck at trying it yourself: http://triomandili.com/ .

Last on this list is not really a musical group, but a comedy troupe. I don’t know exactly how I came across Kabaret Hrabi, but I am glad that I did. Think of a Polish version of Saturday Night Live or Second City. The three gentlemen and one lady take on modern topics and satire them to the fullest. Yes, it is all in Polish, and I can only make out about 10 percent of what they are saying, but what I can make out is hilarious. If you do understand Polish, you will not be disappointed. The one skit that got me rolling on the floor crying from laughter was “Kultura Naradowa.” They recite old Polish folk songs as if they are seriously reading Shakespeare! Hearing “Miała Baba Koguta” (About a woman that puts a rooster into a boot. My father, God rest his soul, used to play a 78 of this all of the time!) read like a soliloquy just gets to me. The website is http://hrabi.pl/ .

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music Musicians

Tidbits #2: Eddie Van Halen, Finger Torture, IBMA Awards, Glarry Violin

Eddie Van Halen RIP – There wasn’t a lot of coverage in the news of his death, but anyone that grew up in the 80s or was a big music fan took notice. I was never a big fan of Van Halen, but I did know that Eddie was an amazing guitarist. He is LITERALLY up there with Hendrix, Clapton and Page. He may have not been the first to try out double-tapping on the guitar fretboard, but he perfected it and made it an art form. There was not a lead guitarist in any hair metal band that did not emulate Eddie. He had his demons with drugs and alcohol, but had a great demeanor. I have never seen an interview with someone that, when asked about Eddie, that person talked about how humble of a guy he was. I remember seeing a cable television tribute to Les Paul many years ago, and all of these guitarists came on stage to laud over Les. Eddie went one step further and hugged and kissed the man. His last years in life were fighting throat cancer, which eventually took his life. He will be missed by many, especially other musicians, but his guitar work on Van Halen recordings as well as others (that was his magic playing lead guitar on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”) will never be forgotten. Rest easy, Eddie, you have definitely changed the music world for the better.

Finger contraption – My fretting/fingering hand for guitar, bass, mandolin, and fiddle has never had great dexterity. I could never get that pinky finger to stretch out for that illusive fourth fret, or have enough strength to form a true barre chord. I relegated my fingerings to a lot of open chords and lead playing rarely went past the ring finger. So a few weeks ago, while ordering some music stuff off of the Wish website, there was a deal that if you purchased a certain amount of items (which I did), you get a huge discount on a few other related items. There wasn’t much to choose from, so I ordered a finger stretcher. It is four plastic rings spaced apart in a straight line. You slip your fingers through the rings, and press down on the contraption as far as your finger spread will allow. Yeah, it looks like something from the Spanish Inquisition and was painful the first few times, but I have been doing this every day for about 20 minutes, and I have noticed that the pinky on my left hand does have a little better stretch. Playing the fiddle lately, I find it easier to finger those high notes. I’m not sure if this thing is doing the job, but I got it for next to nothing, and if anything, I feel like it is helping. If you can get one of these things for under a few bucks, and you have trouble stretching the fretting fingers, you might consider trying one of these gigamadoos.

IBMA Awards – The awards were handed out last week, and here is a list of the winners: https://bluegrasstoday.com/2020-winners-of-the-international-bluegrass-music-awards/ . I would have taken the list off of the official IBMA website, but they still have not posted it yet. I’m glad to see my friends Mile Twelve winning Best New Artist, and another good friend Becky Buller winning Song of the Year (“Chicago Barn Dance”) and Collaborative Recording of the Year (“The Barber’s Fiddle”). Talk about a Who’s Who of bluegrass fiddling, check out the video.

Glarry: I picked up another fiddle, this time from Glarry. This is the model GV306, the most expensive violin they carry. At $89.99, that is really not expensive. I based the purchase on a review from my hero, Jerry Rosa at Rosa String Works. I am relatively satisfied with it. There were a lot accessories included (shoulder rest, tuner/metronome) that it wouldn’t matter if they were there or not. One drawback is that it only has a high “E” string fine tuner, not on all four strings like the lower-priced models. I ordered and put on three more fine tuners before setting it up. Another drawback is that the bridge is really thick. I had to file down a lot of wood to make it more like a true violin bridge. I plan to get a better bridge in the future. Finally, the strings that Glarry puts on their instruments are horrible. I’ll be replacing them soon with a decent set. However, the tone of the violin is nice, very woody and low. My other violin sounded like a screech owl compared to this one. It inspires me to keep practicing. The video below is Jerry’s review. The first violin he reviews is the GV306.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Songwriting

I Am “Just” a Songwriter

I have never considered myself a singer-songwriter. Yes, I write songs. When I was in bands, from my punk days in the 80s to my last incarnation of a bluegrass band about 10 years ago, I wrote songs for the projects. It started out as due to no one else taking the initiative to write material (or at least, write presentable material), but as I concentrated on it more and my band formats changed, I valued the art of songwriting.

The term “singer-songwriter” never fit with me. I was never comfortable going on stage by myself with a guitar and perform alone. I would do it on occasion if someone asked me to do a set for a special occasion or benefit. I have no problem doing an open mic night of one or two songs, especially if I want to see what a song that I just wrote sounds like live. However, most of the material that I write has a band feel to it, especially the more recent songs that have a bluegrass slant. For a few years, I was in a band that had a female vocalist fronting the band. It was pretty awkward writing songs from a female perspective, but I trudged through it. In fact, some of my best and more recognized work was those songs.

I never felt that I had either the voice or songwriting persona of a singer-songwriter. One thinks of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, or my personal favorite Tom Russell, when one thinks of a singer-songwriter. No, I consider myself just a songwriter.

I don’t even consider myself a performer any more. I have lost interest in performing with bands for a number of reasons. There is a lot of great music out there that I enjoy listening to, but do not have an interest in playing it live. I will still occasionally pick a Beatles or Clash song on the bass or guitar when I’m sitting around the house, but would not consider playing them on stage. My great music love currently is bluegrass. I immerse myself into it constantly. Heck, I started this blog series because of my passion for bluegrass and what I love/hate about it.

However, I have even become disinterested in performing bluegrass with a band on stage. Oh, if someone were to ask me to sit in as a substitute for a show or two, I probably would do it as a favor. There are a lot of factors though that have turned me off from playing in a bluegrass band.

First, a band has a unique personality. It exists somewhere between a job and family. You are working with three or four other people to move a project forward like one would do as an employee of a company, but you are also joining together to create an entity because of mutual passion, like a family. If all of the members of the band are not on the exact wavelength, it will fail. Girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse issues, dedication to the “real” job, other hobbies and time constraints will all affect the band’s existence. It is possible to find replacements, but then the cycle begins again, and again, and again.

As a songwriter, I found that I was always becoming frustrated that other members were not giving the same dedication that I was. When it came to bluegrass bands, it seemed that a majority of players (especially banjo players, sorry to those reading this) were only interested in performing the same 20-30 standard covers. I always felt that people come to see a band to hear its individual sound, and that includes original material. Yes, the big bluegrass acts like Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, the Gibson Brothers, Rhonda Vincent, and others will put a cover or two on their albums. However, a large majority of the songs that they record are either written by a band member or by songwriters the band has sought out.

I have mentioned this in an earlier blog, but again, it can be frustrating to see bands continually play only old standards on stage and consider themselves a viable bluegrass band. In my opinion, they are nothing more than a jam session that has perfected itself. I did not want to fall into that hole, so I chose to walk away from being in bands and stick to just songwriting, with the intent of getting my material to the ears of established artists who will then consider recording my songs on an upcoming album.

I’m in my mid-50s and have been involved with music for over 30 years. That includes playing, booking, promoting, managing, and songwriting. I have reached a point that I am tired of butting heads with others to try and keep a band going when it is obvious that it is dead in the water. So as a songwriter, I can make personal choices on how to move forward and only have myself to either reward or complain to.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Tidbits: Garcia, Ellis, SEMBMA, Circle TV, YouTube

Hey! Remember back on May 16, 2020 when my blog was about how the IBMA refuses to recognize Jerry Garcia as a viable influencer on bluegrass music (https://luegra.design.blog/2020/05/16/why-wont-the-ibma-recognize-jerry-garcia/)? WELL! It seems that this year’s World of Bluegrass virtual conference is having a presentation on Jerry and his work with the bluegrass music industry. Hmmm, I wonder where they got that idea from. Anyway, here’s a link to the description in the schedule: https://worldofbluegrass.org/schedule2020/ . It will be on October 1 at 11:00 am. I’m not expecting a thank you from IBMA, if you want to know.

Last Saturday the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association had its annual Hall of Honor ceremony. I was proud to see that Marvin “Red” Ellis was inducted. I wrote about him in a previous blog (https://luegra.design.blog/2020/03/15/red-ellis-and-the-forgotten-history-of-michigan-bluegrass/), and will continue to research the history of bluegrass music in the Detroit area. On a related note, there was a good article on the Miller Brothers in the September 2020 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited. The Miller Brothers were originally from Kentucky, lived for a while in Indiana, them moved up to the Detroit area for auto factory work. While in Michigan, they recorded a few bluegrass albums in the early 1970s. They are definitely a group that I hope to research more for the SEMBMA Hall of Honor.

Speaking of SEMBMA, the Association is now awarding scholarships to youth 13-18 years of age who are interested in pursuing further education with bluegrass music. The scholarships will be paid directly to the instructor/institution, and lessons can be in-person, over the internet, or some form of video. Students can be studying a stringed instrument (guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dobro, autoharp) or studying vocals. For more information on the scholarships and to secure an application form, go to http://www.smbluegrass.org . Submission deadline is January 1, 2021 and may require a personal interview of the applicants by SEMBMA board members and/or the scholarship committee.

Late to the Party Department: I just discovered that Circle TV (www.circleplus.com) is available in my area over the air (I don’t have cable, and my mom’s cable service sucks to say the least). I don’t watch television much, maybe an hour a day, but now that I can watch Circle, I may make use of it since the pandemic still won’t let us go to see live music. I get to watch the Opry on Saturday night (although host Bobby Bones irritates the crap out of me), reruns of Hee Haw and The Beverly Hillbillies, some Ditty TV programs, Daily & Vincent, and even some CMA songwriter programs. Pass me the Doritos!

YouTube fiddle lessons videos: I may have mentioned FiddleHed here before, but if not, I highly recommend checking him out, even if you don’t play fiddle. I have an article on him for Fiddler magazine coming up in the Winter 20/21 issue. I bring him up because he is one of the few that actually “teach” the tunes. I recently did a search for fiddle instruction for the Bill Monroe song “Uncle Pen.” A lot of videos came up, but most of them were hardly instructional. They are usually just a camera pointed at the fingerboard during the “lesson,” and no slow downs or explanation of what the fingering is. That is not instruction, that is just showing off that you can do the lick. Thank you again, FiddleHed!

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

We Need a New or Updated Bluegrass History Book

I’m big on updates. Every time I read a book or watch a documentary that overviews a subject and I see that the copyright date being over a decade old, I’m griping that there needs to be an update. Call me a curmudgeon.

My latest update concern is a book on bluegrass music, especially its history and current situation. There really has not been an authoritative book on bluegrass in decades (there have been some book published within the past few years, which I will discuss later). The two bluegrass bibles that most people look to as far as history, artist profiles, and essential recordings are Bluegrass: A History by Neil Rosenberg and America’s Music – Bluegrass: A History of Bluegrass Music in the Worlds of Its Pioneers by Barry Willis. There are other books, but none covered the bluegrass scene like these two. Unfortunately, they were both published in the 1980s, and have not seen any updating (Rosenberg’s book was given a new preface on its 20th anniversary reprint, and Willis’ book saw a second edition in 1992).

I lent out my copy of the Rosenberg book years ago and haven’t seen it since. I still have my copy of Willis’ book, which I picked up for $4.99 when Border’s was going out of business. To give you an idea how much these texts are still valued, a web search shows that a used copy of the Willis book goes for $50.00 and up. The Rosenberg book can still be had for a reasonable price used (around $15.00).

Reading the Willis book is incredibly enjoyable. There are lots of direct quotes from first- and second-generation pickers, which give it that down-home family feel. However, the first generation is all but gone, and second-generation bluegrass musicians are disappearing quickly as well. The scene has changed, and we need to have colloquial conversations with the newer players.

This is not to say that nothing good has been published since the 1990s. In 2004, two great books on bluegrass were put out: The Bluegrass Reader, edited by Thomas Goldsmith, and Homegrown Music: Discovering Bluegrass by Stephanie Ledgin. Both books take a good look at the music format, with Goldsmith compiling a number of insightful interviews with bluegrass personalities, and Ledgin giving a brief overview of styles, instruments and performers, as well as extensive appendices of resources.

However, both of these books are now 16 years old, and a lot has happened in bluegrass since the. Ledgin spotlights an 11-year-old Sierra Hull, who is now 28 years old, a graduate of Berklee, and has a number of albums and awards under her belt. There is a need for some coverage of the most recent generation of bluegrass artists such as Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, and Sarah Jarosz to name a few. Nickel Creek was getting some notice back then, but now all three members have tons of achievements on their resumes.

I think about all of the bands that have had an impact in the past decade and a half. Some have come and gone, while others still carry on. Bands like Della Mae, Mile Twelve, Flatt Lonesome, Sideline, and the Becky Buller Band are the tip of the iceberg. While Ledgin has a large list of resources in the appendices, many of these publications and companies listed are no longer in business.

Yes, an updated almanac on bluegrass music is needed in order to keep the attention of the younger generation interested in the genre while still holding on to the older fans. While the music continues to move forward, it also needs to have excellent representation with its history and archival notes.

Short note: Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, fiddler for the bluegrass band Mile Twelve, has recently put out a solo album entitled Fiddler’s Pastime. This is one of the best fiddle albums that I have heard in a while. It goes beyond bluegrass. If you want to hear some tasteful fiddling, consider picking up this disc.

Chew on it and comment.