Home to Tennessee

Playing bluegrass with Joseph and JoeOne of the great things about going home has always been the chance to get together with my brother Joe and play a little music.  So last week when the children and I were in Tennessee, I eagerly looked forward to heading out to Joe and Kerry’s house with my guitar and mandolin in tow.

Joe (with a beard grown for a play at the Arts Center of Cannon County) had told me that his oldest children had begun to pick up the banjo, guitar, mandolin, and fiddle.  And sure enough, as we pulled out our instruments my nephew Joseph joined in with some clawhamer banjo.   It was great fun to play along with the next generation of pickers.

Joe is an ornamental blacksmith and we had a good time checking out his new wares as well as his expanded shop.  Joe and Kerry essentially built their house by themselves, and it was great to see the new stairway they designed and constructed to open up the living room.Living Room  Joe’s shop is usually on the annual studio tour for the Murfreesboro area, and I encourage those in Middle Tennessee to keep an ear open for the next tour opportunities.  Joe also shows his work at the TACA Spring Crafts Festival in Nashville’s Centennial Park , at the Arts Center of Cannon County, and online through his web site.

After a great visit with Joe, we spent the afternoon and evening with my sister Debbie, her husband Mark, and their three daughters and their families.  We had a wonderful time catching up and getting to know Debbie and Mark’s energetic and beautiful grandchildren.   All our nieces have married wonderful young men and their families are growing and growing.

Of course, we spent a great deal of time in Tennessee with my father.  Daddy and I made multiple trips to his favorite Main Street restaurant – the City Cafe – where the waitresses call you “Hon,”  wear t-shirts that proclaim City Cafe as the “Original Meat and Three,” and the mugs for sale are labeled “Stolen from the City Cafe.”  And yes, the southern style food hits the spot!  Just another great Main Street establishment.

Thanks to my father and siblings for helping to make coming home such a great experience.

More to come…


On the Trail of Uncle Dave Macon

Uncle Dave Macon Historical MarkerAndrew, Claire, and I spent much of today in Readyville, Tennessee, with my brother Joe, sister-in-law Kerry, and their family (more on our visit in a later post).  Joe is an ornamental blacksmith and fellow lover of bluegrass and old-time music.  So it seemed fitting – after a day of playing Old Joe Clark and other tunes with Joe and his son Joseph – that I take Andrew & Claire on an educational trip by hallowed ground:  the burial place of Uncle Dave Macon.

Affectionately known as the “Dixie Dew Drop,” Uncle Dave was a vaudeville performer and one of the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry.  He came out of a 19th century performing sensibility, but also was one of the first country musicians to take advantage of the new technology of radio.

Uncle Dave Macon TombstoneAfter his death in 1952, Macon was buried between Murfreesboro and Readyville in the Coleman Cemetery.  A new road to Cannon County now bypasses the cemetery, but I turned off the four lane and went over to the Old Woodbury Road to stop by Uncle Dave’s burial place.  The state erected a historical marker (see photo above) to help mark the spot.

Uncle Dave’s legacy continues with the annual Uncle Dave Macon Days celebration in Murfreesboro each summer, with the crowning of the Old Time Banjo championship.  This year’s celebration takes place on July 10th – 12th.

One of the best books on Uncle Dave and the early days of the Grand Ole Opry is entitled A Good Natured Riot: The Birth of the Grand Ole Opry. It was written by my college professor, world-renown old-time music expert Dr. Charles K. Wolfe, and is both an insightful and fun read.  For those coming to Nashville for the fall’s National Preservation Conference, there’s no better work to introduce you to the birth of the commercial country music industry in the city.

There are a few videos taken late in Uncle Dave’s career.  My favorite is the following clip from the Grand Ole Opry Movie, with Uncle Dave and his son Dorris playing Take Me Back to My Old Carolina Home. Enjoy.

More to come…


Taking the Steam Powered Aereo Plane to that Desert Island

Aereo-PlainThe last album in my review of top five albums to take to a desert island may be my all-time favorite.  I’ve long loved John Hartford’s quirky, hippy-bluegrass Aereo-Plain album.   So it was only fitting that last night, as I was returning from a dinner in Nashville with a long-time friend, I turned on Del McCoury’s Hand Picked show on XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction and what was coming out of the speakers but Steam Powered Aereo Plane.  Damn, Del has great taste in music!  I was reminded all over again of why this album is on my list.

What do I love about this album?  Let’s start with the cover. 

My mother hated this cover when I was a teenager and my wife hates it still.  I loved it so much that I had the father of a high-school friend who was a commercial artist do a charcoal drawing of Hartford with his shaggy beard and aviator glasses.  (My friend Judy’s father had a side business of doing spot-on drawings of photographs from 1970s record albums.)  Mother never wanted to see it and Candice makes me hang it in the closet…but how could a scruffy 17 year old guitar player who was getting into bluegrass not love a picture of a scruffy, hippie, banjo picker who had just made a fortune as the writer of the monster Glen Campbell hit Gentle on My Mind. 

Then there are the songs. 

The first thing you hear is a gospel quartet led by Hartford singing a snippet of  A.J. Brumley’s Turn Your Radio On.  This morphs into a set of the most amazing mixture of original Hartford tunes he’s ever produced.  Steamboat Whistle Blues recalls his days as a riverboat pilot.  Back in the Goodle Days has a bunch of old-timers lamenting the end of bluegrass and old-time music and has the great preservation line, “It looks like a ‘lectric shaver now where the courthouse use to be.”   That’s followed by the infectious Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie, which my friend Ben Jamison and I sang at a Baptist talent show (with slightly cleaned-up lyrics) and brought down the house.  The next tune is simply titled Boogie.  Its about sex and may be the weirdest tune this side of Revolution #9.  I was going to tell you what it features, but this is a family blog.  First Girl I Loved and Presbyterian Guitar are two very sweet and simple tunes that showcased Hartford’s guitar playing.   Side two began with Vamp in the Middle, as Hartford describes how his fiddle tune “with a vamp in the middle” got the girl.  Fiddler extraordinaire Vassar Clements plays a mean vamp.  After a short instrumental (Symphony Hall Rag) followed by an even shorter ditty entitled Because of You, Hartford launches into the best tune on the album and the title track Steam Powered Aereo Plane.  (Yes the spellings are different for the song and the album title.)  Then since this was the early 70s, there’s a song about drugs (Holding), a preservationist’s lament (They’re Gonna Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry) and the traditional fiddle tune Leather Britches played as a fiddle/banjo duet by Vassar and John.  Hartford’s vocal take on radio station announcers (Station Break) then leads into the reprise of Turn Your Radio On.

You may not believe this, but I love the production values of Aereo-Plain.

David Bromberg, who is a pretty fair picker in his own right, was the album’s producer.  Hartford has said he gave Bromberg almost total authority in putting this record together, and the choices were inspired.  Bromberg had the band play everything live, and it was all completed in a few short takes.  There were many more songs recorded during the sessions, but Bromberg stuck primarily to the originals and produced the entire album with a freshness and originality that one didn’t see in albums from the period.

Finally, I love the players.

Besides Hartford on banjo and guitar, Aereo-Plain featured Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, Vassar Clements on fiddle, Tut Taylor on flat-picked dobro, and Randy Scruggs on bass.  They were among the best in the business and here they were on top of their game.   I’ve heard their playing on Aereo-Plain compared to that of a jazz quintet.  It is hard to believe that both Hartford and Vassar Clements are no longer with us.

For so many people who played acoustic music, Aereo-Plain gave them permission to try new things.  Sam Bush has described it as a seminal recording for the newgrass movement.  Hartford simply showed how to mix a hip, youthful sensitivity with a love for bluegrass music.

There’s been some great stories and reviews written about the album through the years.  Here’s one on Amazon that hits the nail on the head;

“Aero-Plain” has been called the “Revolver” of bluegrass. This 1971 release by John Harford, preceded the Dirtband’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (presumably the “Sargeant Peppers”), by well over a year. “Aero-Plain” is a song cycle which celebrates the rise and fall the old time music subculture. Ironically, Hartford’s coda to bluegrass was premature, as “Aero-Plain” found a hip young audience. As a result, bluegrass began to morph into “new-grass” and “progressive” variations for 30 years. Producer David Bromberg had as much to do with the success of “Aero-Plain” as Hartford. Bromberg, a fellow traveller in folk circles, resisted efforts to do second takes, or embellish the tracks with overdubbing. Bromberg captured a pristine sound quality with the freewheeling ambience of a back-porch picking session.

On the same site, another reviewer wrote about the impact on musicians:

Well, many here have said it more eloquently than I, but I was a friend of Hartford’s, and spoke off and on to many musicians over the past 30 years and every one, including myself, point to this recording as Life Changing. After we all heard this, we stopped being afraid. It’s that simple. Sam Bush, Tim O’Brian, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, everybody that ever played progressive Bluegrass or New Grass points to this Album as the shining beacon that inspired them to take the risks that lead them to where they are today. I’m still trying to imitate what Vasser was doing on this album 30 years later… It’s one of the few Perfect recordings of all time that I can genuinely recommend and say if you don’t like it, I’d be absolutely amazed.

Here’s Hartford and a group of all-star acoustic musicians (including Clements) playing Steam Powere Aereo Plane.  Go back to the Goodle Days, do the Boogie, and enjoy…

More to come…


You Know You’re in Nashville…

…when the pick-up truck in front of you has a bumper sticker with the saying:

God bless Johnny Cash

More to come…


Five Albums for a Desert Island – Sgt. Peppers

Sgt. Pepper'sThere’s not a lot you can add to all the words that have been written about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  The Wikipedia entry for the album is one of those that drives people who hate crowd sourcing to rants, because it probably runs longer than the Wikipedia entry for World War II . (I haven’t actually checked that out, but it makes a good line so I’m sticking to it.)  If you want to read about the echo effects, the engineering, the late night recording sessions, even how that great, thunderous E chord at the end of A Day in the Life was produced – you’ll find it all there on Wikipedia.  And that’s just one of countless articles and books written about the Beatles and this music.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been a source of endless fascination since it was released, and I was certainly smitten as a young teenager.  This is probably on my list as much for what it represents about my youth as for the album itself.  The Beatles were constants in our house growing up, because my brother and I listened to them all the time.  My first record purchase was the 45 I Want to Hold Your Hand and Steve and I collected countless Beatles albums and 45s through the years.  In some ways, I like the last half of the second side of Abbey Road better (beginning with You Never Give Me Your Money), but for an entire album’s worth of music, it is hard to argue with what Rolling Stone listed as the greatest album of all time in 2003.

At this point you have a right to ask, “David, have you listened to any music that was made after 1976?”  And the answer would be yes, but like those editors of Rolling Stone my favorites tend to come from my formative years.  And for my generation, the Beatles influence was pervasive.  Sam Bush, the great mandolinist and band leader, has cited the Beatles as an influence in his branching out away from bluegrass into newgrass and beyond.  From the other side of my musical heritage, I sang with an eight-person vocal group called Canticum Novum for about ten years in the Shenandoah Valley, where we did everything from Jan Sweelinck to  Benjamin Britten.  So imagine my surprise when our director – a wonderful woman named Carol Taylor who is married to George Taylor of the world-renown Taylor & Boody Organbuilders – mentioned one night that she loved to listen to the Beatles sing.

Anyway, enough of this rambling.  I always enjoy listening to this album and it is one of the few that I won’t put on “shuffle” mode on iPod.

As for the video, the Beatles, of course, didn’t make any videos around Sgt. Peppers.  So you’ll have to make do with this version of Paul McCartney and U2 singing the title song live.  (This, incidentally, is how my kids came to know the song and the album.)   Bono is not quite John Lennon, but enjoy this version anyway.

More to come…


Time Out – For More Albums for a Desert Island

Time OutThis is album #3 that I’d want on my iPod on a desert island (see the earlier two posts below), and it is the only pure jazz album on my list.

Growing up, my brother Steve was the jazz fan and my father had always enjoyed Teddy Wilson (one of the two pieces he could play on the piano was “Body and Soul” in the Wilson style.)  I grew up  listening to rock and then gravitated to acoustic folk which led me to bluegrass, Celtic, Americana, blues, and the like.  I wanted to listen to music I could play, and I never stayed with the piano or guitar long enough to be a jazz player.  But I’ve always enjoyed the music and have a healthy sampling on my iPod – everything from a lot of Miles Davis to a lot of Oscar Peterson.

Time Out was the first jazz album that really caught my ear, and that’s the reason it is on my top five list.   I was captivated by the changes in time signature and rhythm.  It all sounded so effortless and so cool.  Paul Desmond was a wonderful soloist, and even my untrained ears could hear that he was special.

Amazon.com’s Essential Recordings has this to say about Time Out:

Boasting the first jazz instrumental to sell a million copies, the Paul Desmond-penned “Take Five,” Time Out captures the celebrated jazz quartet at the height of both its popularity and its powers. Recorded in 1959, the album combines superb performances by pianist Brubeck, alto saxophonist Desmond, drummer Joe Morrello and bassist Gene Wright. Along with “Take Five,” the album features another one of the group’s signature compositions, “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” Though influenced by the West Coast-cool school, Brubeck’s greatest interest and contribution to jazz was the use of irregular meters in composition, which he did with great flair. Much of the band’s appeal is due to Desmond, whose airy tone and fluid attack often carried the band’s already strong performances to another level. Together, he and Brubeck proved one of the most potent pairings of the era. –Fred Goodman

The album was recorded when I was four years old, but the fact that I found it some ten years later – not to mention the fact that it is still in print and available – speaks to its staying power.

I found this great black & white video of the band playing the signature Take Five.  Enjoy.

More to come…


Good Food, Good Friends

Clancy'sI’m in Louisiana for work and took the opportunity to meet one of our volunteer leaders and his wife for an early dinner in New Orleans.  Jack and Mimi are incredible preservationists who enjoy life…and especially the part of life that involves good New Orleans food.  What could be better?

They took me to a neighborhood restaurant named Clancy’s.  It has been a favorite of Mimi’s family for decades and Jack sent along the following review to let me know where we were headed:

Classic New Orleans restaurants fall into three basic categories: Originators, Innovators and Upholders. Originators have been around as long as the trees and specialize in dishes of the same vintage. Stimulated by the originators’ example, innovators create food that in some instances barely resembles its inspiration. Upholders are the bridge between the two. They are created by restaurateurs and chefs who express their passion for traditional New Orleans cuisine by giving diners another outlet for enjoying it. In the process, these restaurants develop specialties. Some are personalized versions of established regional classics — shrimp and grits, say, or crawfish etouffee. Some are house originals such as fried oysters draped in melted brie or cold-smoked fried soft-shell crabs. All are dishes you can find at Clancy’s, an Upholder whose central premise is described above. The restaurant is essentially the sum of the personalities you find in it, from the loosened-up establishment crowd and tuxedoed floor staff to institutional fixtures like long-tenured chef Steve Manning, owner-vinophile Brad Hollingsworth and maitre d’ Nash Laurent, a man whose hand seems to be permanently clasped around that of a good customer. There is no official timeline that marks the spot where a great New Orleans restaurant becomes a classic. Whatever the line is, Clancy’s has crossed it.

Upon Mimi’s recommendation I had the fried oysters covered with melted brie cheese for an appetizer.  Oh my!  How can you describe delicious?  But then it got even better, with a fried soft shelled crab covered with lump crab meat. 

My Southern roots are kicking in.  Thanks to friends like Jack and Mimi for sharing such special places.

More to come…