Month: May 2020

Saturday Music: Brooks Williams

Singer and guitarist Brooks Williams hails from Statesboro, Georgia, the town made famous by country-blues legend Blind Willie McTell. Williams’ backstory provides a bit of context as to why this Cambridge, England resident has a love for country blues — evident throughout his three decades of work — that comes so naturally. “Ranked in the Top 100 Acoustic Guitarists, he’s a mean finger-picker and a stunning slide guitarist. Plus, ‘he has a beautiful voice,’ says Americana UK, ‘that you just melt into.’ Not one easy to pigeon-hole, Brooks’ music is the love-child of country-blues and soulful Americana.” Williams has been playing live and releasing albums since 1990. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of his first record, Williams recently recorded an album of 12 of his favorite songs from his back catalogue. Called Work My Claim, the recording features musicians John McCusker (Mark Knopfler), Christine Collister (Richard Thompson), and Aaron Catlow (Sheelanagig) in addition to Williams. We’ll begin our tour with a soulful and bluesy version of You Don’t Know My Mind from Work …

Incalculable Loss. Enduring Grief.

Yesterday the United States passed a tragic milestone: 100,000 of our fellow citizens have died because of the COVID-19 virus. The true number is certainly much higher. Sunday’s New York Times featured a front page full of names and simple obituaries of just 1% of those who have died. They spoke of the incalculable loss we have suffered from the impact of the pandemic. Because of a botched response to the coronavirus from the administration that continues to this day, many more people died than would have with competent, credible, and empathetic leadership. The United States is, unfortunately, a world leader in an area where we once relegated so-called third world, developing nations. We have lost our minds. But more importantly, we have lost all that those lives that are being cut short could have contributed had they not been felled by a disease that was allowed to run rampant in support of a political ideology. We have lost world-class scientific knowledge. Soul enriching music. Literature that touches our heart. Hugs and smiles from grandmothers. …

Hope, Redemption, and U.S. Grant

Last evening the History Channel began a three-part mini-series entitled Grant. The series* is based on the Ron Chernow magnificent biography of the same name. I decided to repost my 2018 review of Chernow’s work here to provide readers with some background along with encouragement to watch the mini-series. I was thinking of the themes of hope and redemption and how much impact they can have on our lives as I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  Chernow is one of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact.  David McCullough’s works on Truman and John Adams come immediately to mind as examples of this type of national reassessment, but Chernow has also worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this biography of Grant. The historical stereotype of U.S. Grant — especially if you grew up in the South — is of a failed …

Remembering the Uncounted

Today we pause to honor and mourn the military personnel who have given the last full measure of devotion for our country. As we fight a worldwide pandemic on this particular Memorial Day, we would do well to recognize the global identities of those American service men and women we honor. Let us remember the more than 57,000 Filipino soldiers who died fighting as members of the U.S. Army from 1941-1945. We should add our gratitude for the 23 members of the Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment, a segregated Hispanic unit made up primarily of Puerto Ricans, who were killed in World War II while participating in the battles of Naples-Fogis, Rome-Arno, central Europe and Rhineland. And we should never forget the more than 600 soldiers who died while serving in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the most decorated unit for its size in U.S. military history and almost entirely composed of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry (Nisei) — fighting valiantly in Europe against the Axis powers although many had families confined to internment …

Saturday Music: Quarantine Essentials

Eleven years ago I posted a short series on More to Come entitled Five Albums for a Desert Island. It was a way to expand on a Facebook challenge at the time to list your five favorite albums. And while the original posts sound slightly dated, they nonetheless stand up pretty well in describing five albums that have shaped my musical interests. I thought about these albums again in this time of global quarantine. If I had to choose only five albums to have on my live-stream for a long period of sheltering-in-place, how would these do? Well, I think I could more than live with these five…I’d still very much enjoy them! Yes, I would miss not having Nickel Creek‘s self-titled 2000 album to enjoy. (Click the link to read the recent NPR article about the album: “How Nickel Creek made Americana the new Indie Rock.”) And I love The Best of John Hiatt. Nonetheless, with the original five I would not only survive, but would thrive. I’ll encourage you to go back and read the …

Widening the Circle of We

A friend recently raised concerns about the increase in messages when discussing the COVID-19 pandemic using an “us-vs-them” frame. His point was that in this day and age, public health emergencies should not be cast as fights between tribes. Yet, that type of framing began almost immediately after the outbreak, when some labeled COVID-19 as the Chinese virus. The attempt to separate us into groups as we consider and respond to the coronavirus has since increased in countless ways, against multiple targets. Us-vs-them framing is dangerous. It is tribal in nature and uses fear to inflame prejudices, driving hostility and hate. Such reactionary framing, legal- and social-policy writer Stephen L. Carter noted in another context, is “designed to bypass the rational faculties of its targets.” Framing conversations and thinking as us-vs-them reduces the number of people we feel responsible for or connected to. It contracts the circle of “we,” usually by highlighting how others are different from our “tribe” and therefore not worthy of our support or concern. I sometimes write about topics that I need to …

Saturday Music: Hawktail

Hawktail — composed of fiddler Brittany Haas, bassist Paul Kowert, guitarist Jordan Tice, and mandolinist Dominick Leslie — plays some of the most beautiful, complex yet accessible music from the American contemporary acoustic music scene you’ll ever want to hear. After beginning life as a trio, this band’s first album, Unless, was released in 2018, and earlier this year their second offering, entitled Formations, hit the streets. Both are excellent, but in Formations the band really hits its stride. Kowert and Haas are probably the two best-known members of Hawktail, although Tice and Leslie more than carry their musical weight. Kowert is the bassist for The Punch Brothers (with mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjoist Noam Pikelny and violinist Gabe Witcher). A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Kowert has also played with David Grisman Quintet (DGQ) alum Mike Marshall and David Rawlings. Haas began touring with DGQ alum Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings at the age of fourteen and at seventeen released her debut, self-titled solo album. Haas continued to tour and record while simultaneously earning …

Finding Our Way

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt’s powerful 2019 book Biased has been where I turned over the past week when I had wanted to read more than New Yorker cartoons or internet comment boards. And it has been worth the investment of time. As an African American scientist helping to teach and train groups as disparate as the Oakland Police Department, prisoners in the San Quentin penitentiary, and Silicon Valley tech companies, Dr. Eberhardt is helping us understand the way that prejudice hides below the surface of polite society yet shapes so much of what we see, think, and do. She calls on the latest neuroscience to track how our brains develop, react, and think. Then she lays out stories and studies that establish the pervasiveness of unconscious bias, even in those of us who work to fight tendencies toward prejudice. The widely-hailed book looks at bias against a range of individuals and communities, yet Dr. Eberhardt speaks most often about our prejudice towards African Americans. “In this country,” she writes, “blacks have become a reminder of the racial …

Stiff-Necked

Last week I was reading the Daily Office.* (Hint to the non-liturgical: the Daily Office is not an e-newsletter about the five best ways to work from home.) There, as part of the tale of the Jews wandering for years in the desert, we find the Lord telling Moses to lead his people to the Promised Land. After saying he would send an angel ahead to drive out their enemies, God Almighty throws this rather peculiar curve ball: “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” Whew! It’s pretty bad when even God can’t stand to be around you! Think about how you would feel if the CEO told your manager to have your team complete some task, but then threw in, “But I’m not going to be there with you, because I’ll lose my cool just being around you stiff-necked people!” Stiff-necked is a term I heard my Grandmother use. It …

Saturday Music: Eric Skye

Making my way through the most recent issue of the Fretboard Journal (FJ #45*), I came across sixteen splendid pages on fingerstyle guitarist Eric Skye. The photos of a beautiful twelve-fret 00-sized Santa Cruz guitar were sumptuous, and I was soon to learn that this was the company’s signature 00-Skye guitar. Likewise, the writing catches you right from the beginning, with a story — and quip — about using a wedding band as a slide. (“It’s why I got married, man!”) Skye was new to me, but the Portland, Oregon-based acoustic guitarist certainly has a devoted following, and not just from Richard Hoover and the folks at Santa Cruz Guitars. He has a very broad minded approach to music, which he explains came in part from a classical guitar teacher who turned him on to blues and jazz as well. As his website notes, while often billed as an acoustic jazz guitarist, “Skye actually occupies a unique niche between traditional acoustic music, modal jazz, folk, and blues. With a technical approach that is somewhat informed by …