If I Had a Vote (Or “Quest for the Best, The Final Chapter”)

Tonight is when the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announce their awards, and for once I’m ready!

Friends who have known me for a long time will find it impossible to believe that I’ve seen eight of the nine Best Picture nominees BEFORE the Oscars are awarded…much less that I have an opinion on them.  I’m just not a film junkie.

But empty nestdom brought a change in habits, and Candice and I made a pledge to see all the nominees.  We made it through eight before life, health and work kept us from closing out our pledge…but since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is NEVER mentioned in all the pre-Oscar write-ups as having a chance of winning, I think we’re on safe ground here.

Number eight in our marathon was The Tree of Lifewhich we watched today thanks to iTunes.  Easily the most complex of the nominees, Terrence Malick’s film was not among my favorites even though it attempted to explore greater depths on issues of life and loss than some of the other, more celebrated, nominees (read The Descendents). 

But let’s cut to the chase:  which picture deserves to win the Best Picture award?

The buzz says that The Artist has a lock, due to a strong publicity campaign by the distributor and that cute little dog.  I’m okay with that, but I feel that Hugo is the better picture.  Too bad it has been publicized as a children’s film, because it is wonderful.  The story is lovingly told and the 3-D production is terrific.  I’m not among those who thinks The Descendents is a strong second choice.  It was nice, but not really Best Picture quality.  My rankings of the eight I saw came in as follows:

  1. Hugo
  2. The Artist
  3. The Help
  4. The Descendents
  5. Midnight in Paris
  6. The Tree of Life
  7. War Horse
  8. Moneyball

I had dinner Friday night with someone who is intimately connected with the film business, and her assessment that there is no truly worthy Best Picture this year rang true to me.  I’d probably watch my top three, Midnight in Paris, and Moneyball again (hey, I am a baseball fan), but I don’t think that I’ll be seeking them out two or there years from now.

So, a few other observations:  Brad Pitt won’t win Best Actor for Moneyball, but he should.  If Viola Davis wins Best Actress for The Help, she’s a deserving winner.  That was a terrific performance.  And in another pitch for Moneyball (which was a good film – just not the Best Picture), Jonah Hill should absolutely win Best Supporting Actor.  And finally, I hope that Midnight in Paris wins at least one award for Woody Allen.  I thought it was a fine picture and is probably the first one I’d pick to see a second time.

There you have it…a true layman’s (if not idiot’s) guide to the Academy Awards.  Bring on the popcorn!

More to come…


A Day at Joshua Tree

National Parks are all unique.  They have different histories, different stories of how they were saved, different challenges in today’s world.

I was fortunate today to be introduced to one of the most unusual:  the Joshua Tree National Park in California.  With a half-day to myself, I stuck my toe into the vast park where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge and was fascinated with what I saw.

What follows are photos from the northwestern edge of the park – from the village of Joshua Tree down to Key’s View, where one gets a remarkable panorama of the San Andreas Fault.  Here’s a bit from the park’s brochure about what one sees in this part of Joshua Tree:

Amid the boulder stacks are pinyon pines, junipers, scrub oaks, Mojave yuccas, and Mojave prickly pear cacti….What tells you most you are truly in the Mojave Desert is the wild-armed Joshua tree.  It isn’t really a tree but a species of yucca….Joshua trees can grow over 40 feet tall – at the leisurely rate of an inch a year.


More to come…


Baseball in America (Academic Edition)

I have found a place in America where February baseball lives!

For the Presidents Day holiday, I’m in Southern California for Family Weekend at Claire’s college.  We’re new to this whole Parents/Family Weekend deal, but if today is any indication I could definitely get use to these trips!

This morning, I visited two political science classes that were very interesting.  One compared the works of Luther and Calvin; the other focused on the U.S. Congress.  Claire joined me for lunch at her favorite dining hall  (most of her classes – of the science variety – weren’t open to parents).  But as she prepares for the conference championships this weekend for her swim team, I’ve found myself with choices for how to spend my time that are entirely up to me.

Which takes me to Baseball in America.

That’s the title of the class I attended after lunch.  It was a synopsis of a fall semester interdisciplinary class that was designed to introduce freshmen to the rigors of college-level writing.  Taught by a life-long Dodgers fan (and politics professor), we had a great discussion about baseball writers such as Tom Boswell, Roger Angell, and even John Updike (yes, for that classic Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu piece on Ted Williams’ last game).  I brought up Boz’s classic line on last September’s Red Sox collapse:  Red Sox, report to the River Styx at dawn.  After class, I recommended Elizabeth Bobrick’s Oriole Magic, about the classic writing in the Baltimore Evening Sun and the Washington Star during the 1979 season.

So what are the texts for Baseball in America?  Just a terrific list of books about baseball, cities, economics, race relations, and scandal:

  • Asinof, Eight Men Out
  • Bouton, Ball Four
  • Costas, Fair Ball
  • Helyar, Lords of the Realm
  • Kirwin (ed.), Out of the Shadows
  • Lewis, Moneyball
  • Mitchell, The Mitchell Report
  • Simon, Jackie Robinson
  • Sullivan, The Dodgers Move West
    (accompanied by a side bar about Robert Moses)
  • Zimbalist, May the Best Team Win

So what better thing to do after talking about baseball than go watch a game.  As luck would have it, the home nine was in action this afternoon on a picture perfect day with a snow-covered mountain as a backdrop.

The school knew how to pick a foe for Family Weekend:  the home team won 16-1.  I spent a good bit of the game sitting next to a father of a young woman (also a freshman) from Seattle just talking – about Ichiro, Strasburg, and everything in between.

I had no idea when I signed up for this weekend that I would be able to scratch my baseball itch.  But I’m sure glad I did.

Play ball!

More to come…


In Praise of Gallagher Guitars

Gallagher Guitars have been in my consciousness – if not my life – since first putting the landmark Will the Circle Be Unbroken album on the turntable in 1972 and hearing the most famous words ever uttered about a Gallagher:

Merle Travis:  That guitar, by the way, rings like a bell.

Doc Watson:  It’s a pretty good little box – a Mr. Gallagher down in Wartrace, Tennessee made it.

So I was thrilled to open the most recent issue of The Fretboard Journal and see a story and photo essay on Gallagher Guitars.  Regular readers know that I eagerly await the sight of The Fretboard Journal in my mailbox.

The Circle album gave me the flat-picking/bluegrass bug, and I began thinking about a new guitar.  The first Gallagher I played for any length of time belonged to my long-time friend and clawhammer banjo player John Balch, who still plays his 1975 G-50 on a regular basis.  It was a beautiful sounding guitar which whetted my appetite for one of my own.  The first picture below is from about 1976 where I’m on John’s Gallagher while he plays banjo during a parking-lot picking session at the Athens Fiddler Contest in Alabama.

Two years later (Gallagher makes less than 100 guitars each year) I had my own G-50 – serial number 954 and the guitar pictured at the top of the post.  I’ve loved that guitar’s tone since I opened the case, and still do 35 years later.  The G-50 got its name because J.W. Gallagher made the first one when he was 50 years old.  Just for fun, I pulled the original invoice, dated November 21, 1977.  G-50 #954 cost me $540!  The hard shell case was another $100.  Throw in the tax and I took home this beauty for $676.30.  Today’s retail for a G-50: $3,199.

A few years later my brother Joe bought a Doc Watson model Gallagher, to keep the tradition in the family.  You’ll see a couple of photos below of the Gallaghers going through their paces during family music sessions.

I thought I knew a great deal about Gallagher Guitars, having written an article on J.W. and Don Gallagher for The Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin in 1978 that was included in the 2009  UT Press edition of A Tennessee Folklore Sampler. But as usual, The Fretboard Journal included new tidbits for guitar lovers, with more information about J.W.’s early work designing and building Shelby guitars for Slingerland, a great picture of the template for the bracing pattern, and the fact that the old-English “G” in the distinctive headstock came from the G in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette newspaper logo.

Through the years I’ve added to my instrument collection, with special additions of a 1921 Gibson A-4 mandolin and a beautiful 2001 Running Dog parlor guitar picked up during the college visitation tour with my twins.  But there’s a special place in my heart for my first real guitar:  that work-horse G-50.

So enjoy the photos of the Gallagher Guitars below, and then you can hear my brother Joe’s Doc Watson model on the video we recorded during the National Preservation Conference in Nashville back in 2009.

More to come…


Quest for the Best Part II (Or Have We Just Seen the Winner?)

When last we visited, dear readers, Candice and I were on a quest to see all the nominees for Best Picture.

Tonight, I think we saw the winner.  Or at the very least, my choice.

I know, we still have four movies to go (who in the world came up with NINE nominations?!), but Hugo is such a wonderful story, told in a loving way, with that terrific 3D look…well, I’m ready to place my bets.

(Column interruption:  I really don’t bet.  Every monetary bet I’ve ever made in my life, I’ve lost.  My good friend John Lane said it best:  “I have the same chance of winning the lottery whether I buy a ticket or not.”  Now back to the regularly scheduled blog post.)

It doesn’t mean the other movies aren’t worth seeing.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all five.  I went to see The Artist with minimal expectations, but found it enchanting.  It didn’t hurt that we caught that movie in the restored AFI Silver Theatre here in Silver Spring – a perfect place to see a silent movie!

Seeing all nine movies before the awards show will be tough.  But we’ll keep trying.  To date, I’ve seen five of the nominees and Candice has seen four.  And our current rankings from top to bottom?


  • Hugo
  • The Artist
  • War Horse
  • Moneyball


  • Hugo
  • The Artist
  • The Descendants
  • War Horse
  • Moneyball

I don’t really think The Descendants is that much better than War Horse, but I have to say that in the case of War Horse  I always end up comparing the movie with the play…and that doesn’t help the movie.

But what do I know?  We have one more to see in the theatre, then we’ll have to scramble to find the others on DVD.  Plan B?  Catch three movies with Best Actor or Best Actress nominees.  I could always go see a movie about Marilyn Monroe!

See you at the movies!

More to come…