Bush, O’Brien and Froggy Bottom

Two of my favorite musicians – plus one of this era’s best guitar builders – are all featured in the Fall 2010 issue of The Fretboard Journal which landed in my mailbox last week.  Let’s begin with those musicians.

I’ve been listening to New Grass Revival founder Sam Bush (on the right in the picture by Thomas Petillo at the top) since about 1973.  A few years later I began to hear Hot Rize member Tim O’Brien in a number of venues.  Both are multi-instrumentalists who have stretched the boundaries of bluegrass since coming on the scene.

The Fretboard Journal has a laid back yet informative “conversation” between Bush and O’Brien as the cover story of the most recent issue.  The topics are wide-ranging, from playing with jazz pianist Bill Evans at the Blue Note to the night when Bush and Mark O’Connor joined the Hot Rize alter ego band Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers for a set.

When the conversation turned to hearing someone for the first time, my mind went back to the first time I saw Bush and the New Grass Revival.  It was probably around ’72 or ’73 at Nashville’s old Exit/In (which has gone in and out of business numerous times and is now a rock club).  NGR was playing with Vassar Clements that night and I still remember a 20-minute version of Lonesome Fiddle Blues when Sam and Vassar were smokin’ on twin fiddles and strings were breaking right and left.  I thought, “these guys are playing rock music on bluegrass instruments” and that’s pretty much what NGR was about at that time.  The Exit/In was like that.  In a two-three year period while I was in college I saw Doc Watson (for the first time), NGR (two or three times), Buddy Rich (my brother Steve was a big jazz fan), Barefoot Jerry (for a New Year’s Eve show), and Steve Martin twice…and that’s just what I can remember from visits to the Exit/In.

The guitar builder is Michael Millard, who is celebrating 40 years of building Froggy Bottom guitars.  My friend Oakley Pearson has a beautiful Froggy Bottom that he bought several years ago, and I have always loved playing that guitar when we visit Margaret and Oakley over Thanksgiving.

Quite simply, it is a beautifully balanced and easy to play gem!  When Peter Ostroushko visited the Shenandoah Valley to play the Oak Grove Folk Music Festival one year, he borrowed Oakley’s Froggy Bottom and played it for the entire weekend.  In the hands of a master, it sounded sublime…but it sounds very good even when Oakley and I play it!

I found a video on YouTube of a guitarist playing two different Froggy Bottom guitars, so I’ve imbedded it here for you to enjoy.

There’s more to read in this issue of The Fretboard Journal which is par for the course. Check out the web site or – better yet – go to your local bookstore and buy a copy.  Nineteen issues into this magazine, the editors still get it right just about every time.

More to come…


Bluegrass in the Barn

There are many great places to hear bluegrass – heck, just about any place will do.  But Candice and I have found a spot that’s become a favorite:  the barn at Evensong Farm.

Which is how we came to listen to live bluegrass on 10.10.10.

Evensong is a farm we support at the Silver Spring farmers market.  Here’s how owner Julie Stinar  describes their work:

Heritage. Health. Harmony. These are the chords of Evensong Farm in historic Sharpsburg, Maryland, growing natural foods that sustain our land, our neighbors and our souls. Healthful, heritage foods cultivated at nature’s pace without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or genetically modified inputs. Heirloom vegetables and herbs, pasture-fresh eggs, grass-raised poultry, pork and beef – healthful food grown to the rhythms of the seasons, to the patient melody of time.

We’re just glad that part of the rhythms of the season includes hearing great bluegrass by Darren Beachley and Legends of the Potomac on the Columbus Day weekend in Evensong’s historic wooden barn.

Beachley is a fine tenor singer who has played with Doyle Lawson.  Banjo player Mark Delaney was with the Country Gentlemen.  Mandolinist and natural comedian Norman Wright was also a Country Gentleman as well as a member of the Bluegrass Cardinals.  But the two gentlemen who really make the “legends” name ring true are two founding members of the Seldom Scene:  bassist Tom Gray and dobroist Mike Auldridge.

The Legends of the Potomac played a great two-hour show this afternoon on a beautiful fall day.  Strong instrumental chops were on display throughout.  One of the treats was an impromptu mandolin/banjo duet to fill the time while Beachely replaced a string.  The set closed with classic Auldridge:  Walk Don’t Run. Our friends Tom and Paul marveled at the musicianship with us on the ride home.

I took a number of photos, and I’ve posted some here.  The Legends don’t have very good video up on YouTube (although this should change soon, as they videotaped today’s concert).  I’m using that as an excuse to post an old Seldom Scene video of John Duffey and his remarkable (crazed?!) version of After Midnight. It is classic Duffey as he mugs for the crowd, but it also shows the remarkable musicianship of Gray and Auldridge (at a much younger age).

Thanks to Julie (Tom Gray’s daughter) and Evensong for hosting this wonderful afternoon.  A great way to enjoy bluegrass in a great venue.

This photo says it all.  Check out the sign:  Grass is Good!

Enjoy the Seldom Scene, and two of the legends in their younger days.

More to come…


London 2010

After a day of work on Wednesday, I took an overnight flight to London and plunged into two full days of meetings with the Executive Committee of the International National Trusts Organisation (or INTO).  The days were full, including a lecture on Thursday night at the small and wonderful Garden Museum by my INTO colleague and friend Jeanine Perryck of The Gelderland Trust in The Netherlands.  I was running on adrenaline (because it sure wasn’t sleep), but the trip was very useful (from a business standpoint) and it had the added benefit of being in one of the world’s great cities.

Thursday was an off and on day weather-wise (typical London), but Friday was a glorious fall day.  I went out on our lunch break, crossed the street from the English National Trust and INTO London headquarters on Queen Anne’s Gate, and strolled through St. James Park.  I’ll share a few pictures of that beautiful day.

Before leaving for home on Saturday, I took a two hour walk in the more typical overcast morning.  I had been to Westminster Abby for an Evensong service on September 11, 2003 (so very moving), but I wanted to take it in again, and see Westminster Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament along the way.

So, here are a few photos from my whirlwind trip to London, as I prepare to depart.  I’ll begin with the Queen Victoria Memorial in St. James’s Park.

Here are some gate details, first from Buckingham Palace and then from St. James’s Park:

The flowers in St. James’s Park were beautiful.

I loved this wonderful little stairway off of Queen Anne’s Gate, which led to our host’s offices at 32 Queen Anne’s Gate.

And I’ll end with a nice fall shot from the Dean’s Yard at Westminster Abby.

More to come…


War Horse

I saw my first London theatre production this evening.  Wow!  I picked a great one to start.

A colleague on the Executive Committee of the International National Trusts Organisation (INTO) pulled together a group of six of us to see the New London Theatre’s production of War Horse, at the end of two days of meetings at the National Trust’s London headquarters.   After a late afternoon tour of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (motto:  it is amazing what you can build when you have the world’s treasures at your disposal), we walked past St. Martin’s in the Field, the National Gallery, and into the theatre district.  London is a great place at night!

War Horse is an incredibly moving story of horses conscripted to fight in World War I, told in a remarkable way with life-sized puppets.  The trailer that I’ve attached to the end of the post gives an idea of the realism these actors and puppeteers achieve, but seeing it live tops any video.  As one of my colleagues said, “I knew I was going to cry at the end of the show, but I didn’t know whether the story would turn out well or sad.”

I won’t tell, just in case you get the chance to see it.  If you do, please treat yourself.  It is, quite simply, one of the best shows I’ve seen in live theatre in a decade or more.

I’ll give other updates from London later, but wanted to post this while the euphoria from the evening was still strong.  The Sunday Times got it right, when they called the show “Stunning.”

More to come…


The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

My daughter Claire goes to a wonderfully creative and nurturing school, where the administration and faculty are especially thoughtful as they work to bring important issues before the students and their families.

Which is how I came to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

At the beginning of the summer, the Head of School sent out a letter to the entire school family – faculty, rising freshmen, and high school students – and asked everyone (faculty, students, and parents) to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  This is not the type of book I would normally read.  As a former history major I generally run from books about science.  (I still remember my high school biology teacher grabbing my ears in class one day to demonstrate to my classmates how ear lobes differ from individual to individual.  I wasn’t in favor of involuntary testing on human beings then and I’m still not!)

But I’m so pleased we were “required” to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks because this is a wonderful work of biography, history, science, and ethics all rolled up into a page-turning book.  The short synopsis:  In the 1950s a poor Southern tobacco farmer named Henrietta Lacks died of cancer after being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.  Cells were taken from her body without her knowledge or consent and now – some 60 years later – those cells (known as HeLa for the first two letters of her first and last name) are still alive and being used for research around the world.  In fact, the cells have been grown so frequently that if you could pile all HeLa cells onto a scale they would weigh more than 50 million metric tons – as much as a hundred Empire State Buildings.  Henrietta Lacks’ family didn’t find out about the existence of the cells until 20 years after the fact, and the knowledge had a life-changing impact on them.  Skloot weaves the story of HeLa, Henrietta Lacks, the Lacks family, and her own search into a well-told and well-crafted book.

Although I didn’t know it when I opened the book this fall (I have to admit, I didn’t meet the school’s September deadline), this is a work of history.  It is the story of the HeLa cells – and the flesh and blood people behind them.  Skloot spent a decade on the research and writing, and the complicated nature of the story shows why it took her 10 years to sort through the facts and the science and to weave a tale worth telling.

In mid September, Claire’s school held a round table discussion on the book with Michele Norris of NPR’s All Things Considered, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health at HHS Bruce Gellin, and molecular biologist Jonathan Brody.  All had ties to the school.  There was an engaging 90 minutes of discussion between the panelists and the members of the school community.  You find when you read the book of the multimillion dollar industries that have been built around HeLa, and yet the family is so poor they can’t afford the health care that Henrietta’s cells made possible.  The question of Skloot’s profiting off the Lacks family was even raised in the discussion, and I was glad to hear that she’d established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide scholarships to the descendents of Henrietta Lacks.

The discussion raised all the issues that the book explores:  the use of human tissue for research, informed consent, racial prejudice, scientific responsibility.  A New York Times review captured the success Skloot achieves:

In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot introduces us to the “real live woman,” the children who survived her, and the interplay of race, poverty, science and one of the most important medical discoveries of the last 100 years. Skloot narrates the science lucidly, tracks the racial politics of medicine thoughtfully and tells the Lacks family’s often painful history with grace. She also confronts the spookiness of the cells themselves, intrepidly crossing into the spiritual plane on which the family has come to understand their mother’s continued presence in the world. Science writing is often just about “the facts.” ­Skloot’s book, her first, is far deeper, braver and more wonderful.

The reviewer hits it on the head.  This is a deep, brave, and wonderful book.  It is worth your time.

More to come…