Helen Roberts Brown

Helen Roberts Brown – Mom

For the past two decades, New Year’s Day has had memories of loss mixed in with the anticipation of the coming year.  Mother passed away on January 1, 1998, and while a day doesn’t go by when I don’t think of her, the memories are especially poignant on New Year’s Day.

Thankfully, mother’s life left many legacies in her family, her church, and her community.  Mom’s love of family never changed and was unconditional. She loved each one of us as individuals who had unique gifts and ways to serve. The lives lived by her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren (who she never met) and in-laws are part of her legacy. Her commitment to her faith and her church was just as strong.  She was a life-long reader (as was my father) and she shared that love through her decades of service at church libraries in Tennessee.  She also believed in the power of women in the church, and became the first female deacon at First Baptist in Murfreesboro.  Mom served her communities in so many ways, from PTA president to her years as the children’s librarian for the city.  Mom’s commitment to reading and education was one reason the Helen Brown Scholarship Fund was established by her family at First Baptist Church.  For two decades now it has helped young people attend college.  Most of them never knew Mom, but they are blessed by her life and legacy.

As we look ahead to 2018, I’m reminded of a few of Mom’s many strengths which will help me face this new year with confidence in the future.

Treat everyone with respect.  This seems old-fashioned after the year of taunts, lies, and slander we’ve endured.  However, it still has meaning today, and Mom lived this value through good times and bad.  She was the PTA president the year our school in Cookeville was desegregated.  Very difficult times.  Mom went through that year with her values leading the way, but with an understanding of the challenges she faced.  I later heard her say that there were never any problems with the children in desegregating the schools, only with the parents.  I am often reminded of that when I speak about others who are different from me.

Be the person you were meant to be.  From their understanding of faith, Mother and Daddy gave us a blessing of unconditional love, unconditional acceptance, release to be the person God intends for us to be, and affirmation and support as we work out our understanding of who we are meant to be.  They both said it out loud, and through their lives.  Their unconditional acceptance also seems old-fashioned in a world where too many are frightened by those who are different, but to me it seems so necessary for our life as family and community.

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad, with their “Helping Hands” aprons made by their grandchildren

Money can’t buy happiness.  Mother and Daddy were never rich in money, but as Mom phrased it, they were rich in love.  Mom would relate to a note from my Dad about money:


a bed, but not sleep

books, but not brains

food, but not appetite

finery, but not beauty

medicine, but not health

luxuries, but not culture

amusement, but not happiness

flattery, but not respect

a house, but not a home

companions, but not friends.

No woman of quality has ever preferred football to baseball.  My mom never said this.  The line actually comes from Thomas Boswell’s Why Is Baseball So Much Better Than Football?  But Mom lived this.  She would watch football and basketball, but she loved baseball.  She told stories of going to old Sulphur Dell park with her father to watch the Nashville Vols.  I’ve acquired her love of baseball and have passed it along to my daughter Claire (another woman of quality).  Looking ahead to 2018, she would join me in my optimism for the Nats!

Memories live on.  I once asked the singer-songwriter Claire Lynch if she ever played her tune These Flowers — about remembering a parent who has passed on — in concert.  It was during a mid-set break, and I was hoping to hear this tune, which meant so much to me, live.  She replied that she didn’t play it live because it was too emotional for her.  I told her I understood, and added that I would probably start crying out in the audience.  So when These Flowers came up on my playlist yesterday as I was driving home from dropping Claire (Brown) off at the airport, I — true to form — started crying.

We all gathered round, and stared in the ground,

While the heavens were weeping with rain.

We smiled. We cried. We said good-bye.

And the children made handsome bouquets,

From flowers that lay on your grave.


And on the long ride home, in their warm little hands.

The blossoms were withering fast.

So we wrapped them in paper and tucked them in books,

And prayed that the memory would last.

With these flowers.


Though time marches on and memories fade,

And flowers surrender their youth.

It’s funny how old pedals pressed on a page,

Brings everything back into view.


I still picture you there, in your favorite chair,

With grand-babies held on your knee.

And its hard to believe you’re really gone.

It’s as if we have all been asleep.

What we find when we wake from the dream…

Are these flowers. These flowers.


Twenty years later, the memories do fade.  But then something…like New Year’s Day…comes around and everything comes back into view.  Miss you mom. Love.  David

More to come…


Our Year in Photos – 2014

Candice and David celebrate their 32nd anniversary in Copenhagen, March 20, 2014As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, I continue my tradition of posting family photographs from the past year on More to Come… This was certainly a year in which we had much for which to be thankful.

Both Claire and Andrew studied abroad in 2014, so all four of us had the chance to travel to new places for new experiences. Candice and I celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary (photo at the top of the post) while the family gathered in Copenhagen to visit Andrew during his studies abroad.  We continued to enjoy good health and marvel that the two of us could remain so young and yet see the twins reach their 21st birthday!  I’m not sure how that happened, but we loved celebrating with them last December as they came home for the Christmas break.

Andrew and Claire's 21st Birthday

Andrew and Claire completed their junior years in college in 2014 and are now almost halfway through their senior year. We have visited both campuses this fall and hope to make it back one more time before their graduations in May.  There is a lot to capture this year – from time with friends, to work and school activities, to family trips, and  more.  Because more and more folks are viewing this blog on smartphones, you can still see the captions by placing  the cursor over the photos, but I’m adding some commentary along the way.

As regular readers know, I love to listen to live music. One of the many musicians I saw this year was a January show with the incredibly talented Claire Lynch at one of the Institute of Musical Traditions Monday night concerts. Candice captured the two of us during the break.

Claire Lynch with DJB

Andrew left in late January for his study abroad semester in Copenhagen. Over the course of the next few months, he visited a variety of European cities, including Milan, Bratislava, and Krakow, where he sent back lots of pictures of architecture, food, and good times with friends.

Andrew in Milan

Andrew and his friend Gracie in Bratislava

Andrew visits Krakow

Andrew in Devin

In March, Claire, Candice and I made our way to Copenhagen for a two-week Scandinavian adventure, taking advantage of Andrew’s time abroad to visit this fascinating place.

Claire and Andrew do the Danish look

Candice and Claire with the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen

Andrew, Candice and David at St. Albans - in Copenhagen!

Our apartment was on the canal in Copenhagen

Claire stayed with us for the first week, but then took her first trip to England, where she saw the sites of London and more with college friends who were in the country.

Claire and Ella at London Bridge, March 2014


Claire and Susan off to Hogwarts

Claire and Susan in London

While Claire and friends were exploring the English countryside, Andrew, Candice, and I made our way on to Stockholm, where we visited museums and cafes when not simply walking the streets of the old section of the city.

Andrew and Candice in Stockholm March 2014

Cathedral Bell Tower in Stockholm, March 2014

2014 wasn’t all travel and play! I am still working, but it just so happens that a great deal of what I do takes place on the road. I had a stretch in May when I found myself in Detroit, Texas, and Hawaii in the span of less than a week. In fact, from the middle of May to the middle of June I traveled to Detroit, Texas, Honolulu, Chicago and Plano (twice), Seattle, Louisville, New York City (twice), and Hot Springs, South Dakota. I am privileged to get to work on, and visit, incredible places. The opportunity to take a private tour of the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day Weekend was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments. Of course, I occasionally do sillier things as well, such as take my first selfie at Mount Rushmore…which a colleague caught on camera.

DJB during an interview on Hawaii Public Radio

U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor on Memorial Day Weekend

Taking my first selfie at Mount Rushmore

In June, Claire left for six weeks study in Vienna.  She had a wonderful time studying Psychology and German and exploring central Europe.

Vienna, June 2014

Claire living large in a Vienna cafe

Andrew was home for an internship all summer and we loved having him with us. In June, he joined Candice and me at one of our favorite events, the Farm Dinner at Woodlawn to support Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture. It was a time of great food and fun for a very worthwhile cause.

Arcadia Farm Field Dinner June 2014

Arcadia Farm Dinner June 2014

Claire returned home on July 4th, so we celebrated with an appropriate patriotic meal. Candice and I then headed to West Virginia to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of our dear friends, Katherine and Madison Brown, which also coincided with Madison’s 80th birthday. Katherine is Claire’s godmother, and it was great to be in Parkersburg to celebrate with them.

Claire's American Homecoming July 4th, 2014

Brown's 50th Wedding Anniversary Celebration - July 5, 2014

Claire’s summer on the road continued in July and August, as she first flew with Candice to Florida to see Grandmother Colando and the rest of Candice’s family. While there, they all enjoyed a Caribbean cruise.

Caribbean Cruise

Claire learns how to navigate a casino...from her grandmother

Claire enjoying the cruise

Claire and Candice returned home just in time for Claire to pack for the cross-country car trip with me that we dubbed the Not All Who Wander Are Lost Tour.

California or Bust

Bean Selfie Chicago

Claire with Aunt Susan and Zoe

Kyra and Claire in the Big Chair

Taliesin with Claire

With Liz and Dave at the Twins game 08 05 14

Twine Ball City Limits Sign

Twine Ball and Claire

North Dakota Sunflowers

Claire and DJB at Glacier

Claire by the St. Mary Waterfall

Wallace, Idaho and the Smokehouse Saloon

Bruce and Shari Shull with Claire and DJB

Designated photographer

With Willie at ATT Park

Lunch in Claremont with Claire

While Claire and I were traveling cross-country, Candice and Andrew were exploring Washington on their bicycles, including a fun ride one day down to the Navy Yard to check out a new restaurant.

Candice and Andrew at the Navy Yard

September, October, and November were months of baseball pennant races, more work travel for me (including a quick but enjoyable trip to Galicia, Spain), dinners with friends (and their dogs!) and trips to visit Andrew and Claire at college.

Galicia Meal with INTO Ex Comm

The dome over the pool at Mondariza

Section 313 Cheer

Office Bobble heads and Banner

Candice enjoys some puppy love

Brown University Chorus

Candice and Andrew at WaterFire

Claire won’t be with us this Thanksgiving, but you can see that she and her good friend Jason are in the…ahem…spirit.

Claire and Jason prepare the turkey

I can’t think of a nicer way to end our yearly review than with pictures of Candice and me with our two wonderful children from our recent campus visits – with Andrew at Providence’s WaterFire and with Claire during a night out with friends in the charming Claremont Village. We are so blessed.

Candice, Andrew and David at WaterFire in Providence October 25, 2014

Candice and DJB with Claire in Claremont, October 2014

As we enter this holiday season, Thanksgiving blessings to you and yours.

More to come…


Congratulations 2014 International Bluegrass Award Winners

Dear Sister It took 10 months, but the 2014 International Bluegrass Awards caught up with my Best of Bluegrass 2013 post from December. Turns out, my picks were prescient.

The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards were presented on Thursday evening in Raleigh, NC.  Three of my five choices from the end of the year were winners at the IBMA showcase.

Let’s begin with congratulations to Claire Lynch for winning the “Song of the Year” award for Dear Sister.  I recognized this as a special song back in 2012, and have loved this tale taken from letters written before the Civil War Battle of Stones River in my hometown of Murfreesboro. Claire co-wrote this lovely tune with Louisa Branscomb. It is one of her best ever, and highly deserving of the award.

Claire Lynch with DJB

Thursday was a big night for banjo phenom Noam Pikelny. His Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – one of my picks in December – won Album of the Year at IBMA. This is not just a terrific concept album, it is a terrific album period. Fantastic music from a group of amazing musicians.

Noam Pikelney

Pikelny also took home a second IBMA award – Banjo Player of the Year – which is only fitting for a banjo master who takes a classic fiddler album and makes it his own.

Frank Solivan and Chris Luquette

Another pick from my Best of Bluegrass 2013 post – Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen – took away IBMA Honors as Instrumental Group of the Year. I wrote about their handling of the Tony Rice instrumental Is That So earlier this year, which convinced me they could tackle just about anything. Congratulations to this DC-area band, which is playing in Arlington on October 12th.

John Starling and Tom GrayFinally, I also want to congratulate bass player extraordinaire and my friend Tom Gray, who was inducted – for the second time – into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame this time as a member of the original Seldom Scene.

The three surviving members – Tom, John Starling, and Ben Eldridge – were honored in Raleigh and then joined the current band to play Wait a Minute.  When I spoke with Tom’s daughter Julie this morning at the Silver Spring Farmers Market, it was clear she was so proud of her dad.

She should be…what a wonderful musician and gentleman.

So there you have it.  A wrap-up to a great year of music. There were many other terrific award winners you should check out, but I especially want to congratulate Tom, Claire, and those musicians who have touched me for years.

Let’s go out with the Claire Lynch Band performing the beautiful Dear Sister at WAMU’s Bluegrass Country, here in the nation’s capitol.  Well worth a listen.

More to come…




Claire Lynch Band at Home at IMT

Claire Lynch with DJB

Monday evening’s Institute of Musical Traditions show at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church had the feeling of a “living room concert” as founder and emcee David Eisner put it. The Claire Lynch Band – in what has become an annual tradition – put on a  musically adventurous yet still familiar and engaging show for a full house of family and appreciative fans.

The 2 1/2 hour concert had all the elements of a Claire Lynch show:  great singing by Claire and the band, sick guitar work from Matt Wingate, jazzy fiddle from Bryan McDowell, and lots of fantastic bass from the incomparable Mark Schatz. There were a number of swing tunes, which fit Claire’s voice to a T, tossed in with the bluegrass and folk.  While performing songs from her most recent CD, the first-rate Dear Sister, Claire also reached back into her catalog, especially including tunes from the Watcha Gonna Do CD from 2009.  The Mockingbird’s Voice and Barbed Wire Boys were two standouts among many.

There’s so much to like in Claire’s work these days…but I’ve written about her music here, here, and here in the past couple of years…and it is getting late.  Thanks for the fantastic show – a great way to kick off the week!

I’ll end with a video of White Train, another song performed this evening by The Claire Lynch Band.


More to come…


Best Bluegrass of 2013

Dear Sister This year brought us some very good bluegrass music – much of it coming out of Alison Brown’s Compass Records in Nashville. In looking at the different albums that came to my attention in 2013, three of my top five bluegrass releases of the year came from this eclectic roots music label which has been stretching boundaries and introducing the world to exciting new artists for almost two decades.

First up in the More to Come… “Best of Bluegrass 2013” list is the wonderful Claire Lynch and her Dear Sister project (and not just because she signed my CD cover).  This is a great group of songs that include tunes I began writing about almost two years ago.  The title track comes from letters written before the Civil War battle of Stones River – fought near my hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I’ll Be Alright Tomorrow is a new working of the Osborne Brothers classic, that sounds just right in the hands of the newly minted 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Female Vocalist of the Year. Claire’s killer band gets to showcase its chops throughout Dear Sister, including bassist Mark Schatz considerable hambone skills on Buttermilk Road/The Arbours.

Claire Lynch

Dear Sister is another in the impressive catalog of Claire Lynch recordings.  Enjoy the video of Once the Teardrops Start to Fall from this project. You will get a sense of the terrific music this wonderful songbird and her band of outstanding musicians continue to make.

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen On the EdgeFrank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen‘s On the Edge is an impressive work for the second release from this Washington, DC-based band. Solivan (who doubles as a chef – hence the catchy band name) is an impressive mandolin player who has assembled a dynamite group of pickers, including IBMA 2013 Banjo Player of the Year Mike Munford and IBMA 2013 Momentum Award winner Chris Luquette.  To understand how this group jells, it doesn’t get any better than the description of the band from an Irish Times review:

If Tim O’Brien and Alison Brown ever had a love child, it might just be Frank Solivan. This newgrass/bluegrass foursome spirals through skin-tight banjo picking, razor-sharp mandolin and jazz-tinged concentric circles – all with a degree of control that balances technical precision and improvisational virtuosity.


The project begins with a bang on I Fell Short (On Standing Tall) thanks, in part, to guest Rob Ickes’ dobro. A bluegrass remake of the old Box Tops hit The Letter shows these guys can handle a wide range of styles – and make great new music in the process. M80 is a terrific instrumental, where Munford (the tune’s author) and Luquette really shine. On the Edge of Letting Go tackles mental illness – a topic not often explored in traditional bluegrass – with a sensitivity and restrained musical accompaniment.  On the Edge ends with a jazz-infused instrumental, Bedrock.

Most commentators have said this is the project to put Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen in the top-tier of bluegrass bands, and I agree.

The first video I posted with this blog has been removed, so treat yourself to the band’s version of I Fell Short (of Standing Tall).

Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill MonroeThe third Compass Records release to make my “Best Bluegrass of 2013” list is one of the coolest concept albums to come along in years – banjo phenom Noam Pikelny recreating the famous 1976 Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe album.

In Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, Pikelny recreates the twelve Monroe instrumentals that long-time Monroe fiddler Kenny Baker included on his landmark album. For those who have heard Pikelny (the winner of the inaugural Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass) with the Punch Brothers or from his earlier Compass release Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail, this is as close to straight bluegrass as Pikelny’s going to get.

The players Pikelny assembled for this project are cream of the crop bluegrass pickers:  Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Mike Bub on bass. The first track, Road to Columbus, has Pikelny beginning with a straightforward bluegrass banjo break, but on the second and especially third breaks, he explores the fretboard in ways that Earl (rest his soul) never imagined.  Jerusalem Ridge – one of my all time favorite Monroe instrumentals – gets a similar treatment.  Candice and I heard Pikelny on the Sirius XM Bluegrass Junction show Track By Track just last week, and it was fascinating to hear him talk about this project in general and Jerusalem Ridge in particular.  The ending double banjo/fiddle duet with Stuart Duncan is short, but sweet.

Noam Pikelney

For lovers of instrumental bluegrass, there isn’t a false note on this record. I’ve posted a video of “Noam Pikelny and Friends” playing the Monroe instrumental Wheel Hoss, which is a cut from the Kenny Baker/Bill Monroe project.  Pikelny, Bryan Sutton, and Luke Bulla have especially wonderful solos. Who knew fingers could fly that fast!?!  (Well, I did, but then I can’t imagine mine going at one-quarter of that speed.)  As much as I love the progressive work that Pikelny does these days, I am glad he took the time to return to some bluegrass roots on this project, and I applaud Compass for backing this type of work.  Enjoy!

The SteelDrivers Hammer DownI’ll admit it…I love The SteelDrivers type of bluegrass, even though purists would point out that their lead singer sounds more Muscle Shoals than Kentucky hills and some members of the band play a lot of commercial country in their day jobs as Nashville studio musicians.

The group’s 2013 Rounder Records release Hammer Down continues the tradition of their first two recordings – great songwriting, soulful vocals, and skillful instrumental treatments.  This is the first of the group’s three albums with Gary Nichols taking over the lead vocals from founding member Chris Stapleton, and he more than holds his own.

Hammer Down begins with the haunting Shallow Grave about the burying of an addiction. (“I buried my love with a silver spade, Laid her down in the shallow grave, Can’t keep love in the cold, cold ground, Nothing in the earth can hold her down.”) The harmonies between Nichols, fiddler Tammy Rogers, and bassist Mike Fleming are one of the things that make this band’s work so satisfying – and they are off to a strong start on Shallow Grave.

One commentator noted that a trio of dysfunctional relationship songs starts the album…but I think that’s where this band makes its living. The trio ends with the sprightly When You Don’t Come Home, Rogers’ harmonies giving this tune the perfect honky-tonk feel.  Ditto for Wearin’ a Hole (in a honky-tonk floor). The SteelDrivers do break up the fast-paced melancholy with some slow-paced melancholy on occasion (give a listen to I’ll Be There), but this is a band that is best when it is ripping through some whiskey-soaked tune. Hell on Wheels is a fun take on the story of a wild young woman living in a small rural town.  That tune, plus Cry No Mississippi (another small town story) and When I’m Gone are a very satisfying trio of songs to end Hammer Down.

The SteelDrivers have survived the departure of two founding members and yet continue to make great music.  Take a listen to the video of When You Don’t Come Home and see if you don’t agree.

The Stray Birds "Echo Sessions"My fifth choice isn’t really bluegrass and it really isn’t an album…but I’ve fallen in love with The Stray Birds and just want to write about them.

In 2013, this folk, Americana, roots music outfit put out a five-song EP recorded at the Echo Mountain Studios in North Carolina (hence the project’s name). Echo Sessions is dedicated to five songwriters that have touched the band members through the years.  I recently heard the group’s terrific take on Jimmie Rodgers’ Blue Yodel #7 (Anniversary Blue Yodel) from the Echo Sessions and was smitten.

So who are songwriters that rank with these three musicians? The EP begins with the Townes Van Zandt tune Loretta, and then moves to the beautiful Susannah Clark song I’ll Be Your San Antonio Rose.  The Louvin Brothers contribute When I Stop Dreaming, followed by Rodgers – one of the most influential songwriters of all time.  The EP ends with Nanci Griffith’s I Wish It Would Rain.  Not a bad line-up of inspirational songwriters and not a bad EP for one-day’s live session.

The Stray Birds are making a splash on the festival and club circuit (they open for the Seldom Scene here at the Birchmere on New Year’s Eve), so this is more a “keep your eye on them” note than a “Best of 2013” post.  Look for their second full-length album in the Spring of 2014. And to prove that others see them as bluegrass, I’m posting a video from WAMU’s Bluegrass Country of the tune Time in Squares.  Enjoy.

Just a final note about how this list is chosen.  Not being a professional reviewer, I don’t receive dozens of CDs to review. I do listen to a fair amount of bluegrass on WAMU’s Bluegrass Country and Sirius XM’s Bluegrass Junction.  The latter’s Track By Track show is a great way to hear new music all year long.  But I know I miss some bands and performers that others would put on any “best of” list for the year.  These just happen to be the ones that caught my ear and led me to purchase them for my own collection. I hope you find something you’ll like in this grouping.  I can’t wait to see what 2014 brings.

More to come…


Red Wing Takes Flight

Del McCoury Closes Out Day One at Red WingWell, that certainly was a promising start.

Day 1 of the 1st Annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival promised a talented and spirited mix of the roots and branches of American music.  And in spite of gloomy skies and the occasional (and thankfully brief) rain shower, this brand new festival – located deep in the heart of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley – pretty much delivered.

The festival is the brainchild of an energetic, talented, and amazingly entrepreneurial (for a bunch of roots music players) band The Steel Wheels, fronted by one of the great voices in Americana music, Trent Wagler.  Candice and I arrived back in our old Valley stomping grounds (we lived for 15 years in nearby Staunton, Virginia) after the soggy drive down from Washington just in time to walk in on the 4 p.m. set of the hosts under the tent at the Carolina Old Time Family Stage.  And given the weather, could The Steel Wheels really begin this festival with any song other than their iconic Rain in the Valley?

This was the song that turned heads at Merlefest 25, and the Red Wing crowd – made up of the band’s many loyal fans and taking up every square inch of the huge tented area – exploded when Wagner took his cymbal stick (or whatever you call that thing he slams on the floor to set the beat) and was joined by Eric Brubaker, Jay Lapp, and Brian Dickel around a single mic for some amazing four-part harmony singing.

The Steel Wheels Kick Off Red Wing 2013

The hosts had a spirited hour-long set, with old favorites (Cluck ‘Ole Hen) and songs from the new album No More Rain. If you haven’t heard The Steel Wheels – on either record or live – both are highly recommended.  This is a terrific band.

The Steel Wheels Sing at Red Wing 2013

When The Steel Wheels finished rockin’ the final number (and Candice turned to me as said, “That feels like a song you end the festival on!” and not just the first of three shows they’ll have this weekend), we scooted across beautiful Natural Chimneys Park to the main stage to hear one of my favorites – the Claire Lynch Band. Claire is one of the originals in bluegrass music and gifted with one of the most beautiful and expressive voices on the scene today.

Claire Lynch and Matt Wingate

Claire is as unpretentious a performer as you’ll see on stage.  (At one point after the group was fumbling around a bit to get itself organized, she turned to the audience and said, “Let us know if we’re getting too slick for you.” Claire’s the antidote to the Dailey and Vincents of the bluegrass world – and in my book that’s a good thing.)  But her songwriting is superb (check out the beautiful Dear Sisters – the title tune from her new album – which is taken from letters written by Civil War soldiers before the Battle of Stones River in my hometown of Murfreesboro). And her band is killer (Matt Wingate’s take on Sting’s She’s Too Good for Me is a highlight). And that voice can do just about anything…from the lick-and-a-promise gospel of Children of Abraham, to the swing of Who Knows What Tomorrow Will Bring, to the hard-core bluegrass of the Osborne Brothers’ Be Alright Tomorrow.  After her too-fast hour-long set, I renewed acquaintances with Claire (my cousin Hershey produced the first Front Porch String Band album and wrote one of her festival favorite songs) and picked up my own signed copy of Dear Sisters. That’s what good festivals are supposed to provide – plenty of space and time for these amazing performers to have a “shake and howdy” with their fans.

Tim O'Brien at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

In fact, the first person I heard use the shake and howdy turn-of-phrase was the festival’s next performer, multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien.  Performing solo at Red Wing, O’Brien can still sound like a full band as he displays his impressive chops on guitar, mandolin, and fiddle.  But as impressive an instrumentalist and singer as he is, songwriting is where O’Brien really shines in my book.  He worked in originals throughout the set, along with great traditional tunes such the gospel number Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning that he recorded with Darrell Scott several years back.  But his encore is among my favorite tunes of all time, the beautiful Like I Used to Do. 

There was a time when we’d be the last to leave
Watching the sun come up while everyone fell asleep
The music was always loud and I’d smoke and drink too much
Until I’d fall in your arms and into your lovin’ touch
Now as the years roll by, time has reeled me in
I’ve slowed down a notch or two from the way things were then

Those old ways of mine, I’ve left them behind
Those crazy days are through
The only thing I still do like I used to do
Is carry this torch for you…

Simply beautiful.

At the 7 and 8 o’clock hours, we caught a couple of performers that were new to me.  Gregory Alan Isakov had a strong show on the main stage, followed by a loud…but not necessarily to my taste…performance by the band Yarn.  That gave us some time to eat dinner, catch up with long-time friends from Staunton, and buy my raffle ticket. (Yes, I will win that beautiful Huss & Dalton guitar.) And when 9 p.m. rolled around, we were back in our chairs for the kickoff show of the summer reunion tour of The Duhks.

The Duhks at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

I first heard this Canadian band – in the original incarnation – several years ago at Merlefest.  I’ve heard them off-and-on through the years, and while always strong, this particular line-up has always been a favorite.  Singer Jessee Havey has a voice that fits this energetic and innovative group, and last evening they had the crowd clamoring for more from the traditional jigs all the way through to Death Came a Knockin’. Percussionist Scott Senior adds an especially non-traditional beat to this neo-trad band.  Great show!

Scott Senior of The Dhuks

By 10:30 p.m., the moisture in the air was heavy, but that didn’t faze the wonderful hair – or terrific spirit – of bluegrass master Del McCoury.

Del McCoury at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

Playing with sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo), Del’s voice sounded a little tired but classic nonetheless.  (A tired Del McCoury beats about 99% of the lead singers in traditional bluegrass on their best days.) Candice had never seen Del’s act, and when he opened his mouth to speak, she turned to me and said, “He sounds like your dad!” which I took as a favorable comparison, since she loves Tom Brown.

Ronnie McCoury at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

Rob McCoury and Jason Carter at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

The best place to watch a Del McCoury Band show is up-close and right in front.  There you get the interplay of the musicians – like a finely tuned machine – working that single mic.  Del mugs for the crowd, a fact which is lost in the back rows, and the sound washes over you like a rippling mountain stream.  When Del answered a request and played Richard Thompson’s classic 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, I knew that Day 1 of the first Red Wing Roots Music Festival had been appropriately christened by the master.

I said that Like I Used to Do was a favorite of mine, so I’ll take us out of Day 1 with an old video of the tune featuring a much younger Tim O’Brien (along with much younger versions of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jerry Douglas, and Mark O’Connor).  Enjoy!

More to come…


All Ages Welcome – Merlefest 25

Merlefest has a multi-generational flavor built into its DNA that was on full display Saturday.

The festival’s patriarch, Doc Watson (top of post), took his turn at age 89 on the main stage that bears his name and that of his late son Merle for an hour-long love-fest by musical friends who have played with him since the 1970s.  As soon as the last chorus of Will the Circle Be Unbroken rang out, the Snyder Family Band – featuring 16-year-old Zeb Snyder playing some amazing flatpicked guitar along with his 13-year-old fiddle playing sister Samantha – took over on the cabin stage to showcase that roots music is in good hands with the new generation.  It was like that all day.

I was dragging when I arrived on Saturday morning, but found a pick-me-up that’s better than coffee:  Jeffrey Broussard & The Creole Cowboys.

Playing the pumping accordion that’s the heart and soul of Creole music, Broussard and the Cowboys rocked out on traditional Zydeco tunes such as Don’t Let the Green Grass Fool You (described by the bassist as, “Don’t take no wooden nickles”) and Baby Please Don’t Go Down to New Orleans (Cause I Love You So).

19-year-old Sierra Hull (above) with her band Highway 111 was next up at the Creekside Stage, which was Mandolin Central on Saturday afternoon.  Hull is a prodigious talent who is growing into maturity as an artist and a band leader.  They featured songs from her most recent release Daybreak and demonstrated why she was the first bluegrass musician to get Boston’s Berklee College of Music’s prestigious Presidential Scholarship.  Hull also made everyone in the audience feel old when she introduced the bass player as “The only member of the band old enough to rent a car.”  Ouch!  What the hell was I doing at age 19!

Bluegrass veteran Claire Lynch (above and below with The Claire Lynch Band) took the main stage mid-afternoon and demonstrated right off the bat why she’s such a festival favorite.  Playing with her band – which includes two previous winners of Merlefest instrumental contests plus premier bassist Mark Schatz – she showed what a mixture of prodigious young talent and exceptional experience can produce.  May Be a Little Bit Tight Tonight was the perfect kick-off number for a sharp 45-minute set.  Of course it helps when you have one of the best voices in bluegrass, country, and roots music at your core.

Fans and performers are in close proximity at Merlefest. You can be walking through the instrument tent and see banjo phenom Noam Pikelny (below) signing an instrument, or be face-to-face with two of the most influential mandolin players – and musicians – of their generation, Sam Bush (middle below) and Chris Thile (third photo below), as they prepare to take the stage.  There’s great accessibility to these talented musicians, even in the middle of 80,000 people.

Following Lynch’s set, I had to make some choices, thanks to the amazing amount of talent at Merlefest and the limited number of hours in the day.  I caught the opening song of Tony Rice’s set on the Watson Stage, but quickly left to return to the Creekside for one of my favorite events of Merlefest:  Mando Mania (photos below).  For those who can’t get enough mandolin, this is your afternoon!

Hosted by North Carolina mandolin player Tony Williamson, this year’s Mando Mania featured Joe Walsh of the Gibson Brothers, Chris Thile (above) of the Punch Brothers (and Nickel Creek fame), Sam Bush, and Sierra Hull.  The set basically consists of one of the players suggesting a tune, and then everyone swapping solos for a couple of times through the lineup.  All are monster mandolin players. Chris Thile, however, is from another planet.

This year, the end of Mando Mania was scheduled against the beginning of my other “can’t miss” event: the Hillside Album Hour hosted by The Waybacks.  And they are on opposite sides of the college where the festival is held.  Up a BIG hill.  Yikes!  I had to run.

Begun a few years ago when James Nash of The Waybacks wanted to play an hour of Led Zeppelin tunes “just to annoy some folks,” the Hillside Album Hour (named after the stage where it is held – see crowd at this year’s event above) has become its own phenomenon.  Nash selects a classic rock album to cover and asks a variety of guests to join the band.  The name of the album isn’t released prior to the opening chords, but clues are released on Facebook and everyone tries to guess the identity of this year’s featured album.  My last visit to Merlefest was for Sticky Fingers.  It is imperative that you be there for the opening chords, or you’ll miss half the fun.

I made it (and have the t-shirt to prove it), although my knees will never be the same after an hour clinging to the top of the hill trying desperately not to slide down into the patrons below me.  When Nash hit the opening chords of Purple Haze from the Jimi Hendrix Are You Experienced album (#15 on Rolling Stone’s Best 500 rock albums), the crowd exploded.  At the end of the first tune, Nash said, “Bet you didn’t see that coming.  Your reaction to those opening chords was worth it!”  John Cowan singing Hey Joe was a highlight for me, but the entire show was terrific.

The evening sets began with Doc and friends – with the friends carrying the musical load.  Cowan again hit a musical highlight – one that was very emotional for Doc and everyone else – by singing Don’t That Road Look Rough and Rocky for Doc and his wife Rosa Lee.  There were more than a few people dabbing at their eyes when Cowan’s beautiful tenor voice sang, “Don’t my baby look the sweetest, when she’s in my arms asleep.”

The Punch Brothers (above) – an amazing group of talented musicians fronted by the other-worldly Chris Thile (below) – were the first of the evening’s two headliners.  Noam Pikelny dead-panned, when introducing the wonderful Jimmie Rodgers tune Brakeman’s Blues, that the job of “Singing Brakeman” was coming back in vogue, with the new economy and all.  At times I’d wonder when these guys were going to find the melody, but just then they would morph into Back in Time and show the rest of us why we should definitely keep our day jobs.

From phenom to phenom…Thile turned the stage over to Derek Trucks and the fabulous Tedeschi Trucks Band.  As was fitting for Merlefest, Susan Tedeschi introduced the blues tune Do As You Please, Get What You Deserve by saying perhaps Merle Watson – who loved the blues – would enjoy this tune.  I know that everyone at Merlefest certainly did.

More to come…