Old-Time for the New Year

The coming of the New Year is always a time to look back and look ahead.  I’ve done both the past couple of days as I’ve enjoyed seeing some new video of the “progressive” old-time banjo work of my buddy John Balch.

John and I played together in high school and college under a couple of band names – the best one being The Fiery Gizzard String Band (which we used about 20 years before another band from the area took it up).  The name comes from a beautiful and wild area in the South Cumberland region of Tennessee that I’m pleased to say has recently been saved by my friends at the Land Trust for Tennessee (winners of a 2010 National Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award).

But I digress.  I’m talking about new style old-time music.

John is a terrific clawhammer banjo player, with two stellar CDs out under his own name.  Clawhammer is known as an old-time style, but John’s music sounds as fresh and current as anything coming out in the acoustic music world today.  Don’t take my word for it.  Bluegrass Unlimited said of John’s second CD HOT Biscuit Jam:

This is 45 minutes plus of delightful string band music.  John Balch is a clawhammer player, but hold on, this music is as close to newgrass as it is old-time.  Jack Pearson’s mandolin and Shad Cobb’s fiddle don’t go anywhere Balch’s banjo can’t go.  This makes for one fine musical journey.

A couple of nights ago, John joined the aforementioned Jack Pearson (Allman Brothers, Jack Person Band) and Shad Cobb (I last heard him with the John Cowan Band), along with guitarist extraordinaire David Grier for a “Jack Pearson and Friends” showcase.  They played some of John’s music, including “Wesley” which is captured in the video below.

John is one of those folks I’m honored to have known in my life.   You can listen to his music and marvel at his talent.  If you know that he’s battled multiple sclerosis in recent years, yet continues to play, his music becomes all the more remarkable.

Nothing’s speaks to the past like old-time music.  But the past can be a great foundation for the future.

And with that thought in mind, I’m heading off into 2011.

More to come…


When Passions Collide

I love it when my passions collide.

Like when the November/December issue of Preservation magazine has a story on the saving of one of the few remaining Negro League baseball stadiums.  Any preservation story that begins with the name Monte Irvin is guaranteed to warm the heart of this old NY baseball Giants fan.  My mother-in-law thought that because of my position with the National Trust for Historic Preservation I must have chosen the cover picture for the magazine.  I didn’t (although I gave writer Eric Wills lots of encouragement as he put the story together), but I do have a beautiful print of that great shot ready for framing for my office.  And from Preservation Online comes the encouraging news that Patterson, New Jersey’s  Hinchliffe Stadium…

…may be restored. The city of Paterson and the school board entered into a shared services agreement in late October 2009, and in early November, voters passed a referendum asking for $15 million to fund the stadium’s renovation. If all goes according to plan, the city will receive permission to issue a bond ordinance and then solicit proposals to renovate the site.

Preservation is a terrific magazine, and you should become a subscriber if you want lively writing about places that matter.  But this isn’t a post about those passions of preservation and baseball, as much as I love both.  No, this is a post about the collision of my passions of preservation and music.

But before all you rockers get excited,  I’m not writing about my colleague Sarah Heffern’s great blog post on how fans turned preservationists are working to save the home where Bruce Springsteen wrote Born to Run, as terrific as that news is.

Nope, this is my quarterly love poem to The Fretboard Journal, where the story of tracing John Lee Hooker’s haunts in Detroit has a decidedly preservationist bent.  In Chasing the Echoes, writer Jeff Samoray goes looking for the places cited in Hooker’s Boogie Chillen, a paean to Detroit’s old Black Bottom neighborhood that hit the top of the R&B charts in 1949 when it was released.  It is a well crafted but ultimately sad story of how a thriving African American neighborhood that held such meaning to millions of Americans and music lovers was destroyed in the 1960s to make way for the Chrysler Freeway.  A few places remain.  The Apex Bar – where Hooker and other bluesmen use to attract crowds that lined up around the block to pay $1.50 for a show – is still open and run by the original owner’s granddaughter.  It looks and sounds like a great place to stop in to capture some of the city’s musical history.  Another place that’s just barely hanging on is the United Sound Systems Recording Studio, which is boarded up and unused.  In the day this unassuming house turned recording studio hosted everyone who was anyone.  As Samoray writes,

United Sound probably deserves to have a commemorative plaque on its front door.  The list of famous artists who’ve recorded there since it opened in 1933 is staggering:  Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Albert King, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, the Rolling Stones, the MC5, Funkadelic and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, to name a few.  Berry Gordy bought studio time there in 1959 to record his first Motown record.

Any place with that pedigree deserves more than a plaque.  It deserves to be saved and reused, so the music in the brick and mortar can inspire another generation of musicians.

The Hooker story is just one of about six interesting pieces in the Winter issue.  The cover story is on bluegrass flatpicker extraordinaire David Grier (read my review of his show at IMT last year), and it immediately drew my eye.  I enjoyed reading about his early interactions with flatpicking pioneer (and former Byrd) Clarence White, as well seeing the great pictures of Grier’s 1955 Martin D-18 that was a gift from his father, who played banjo as a Bluegrass Boy for Bill Monroe.

I had picked up an Eastman mandolin a few weeks ago when I was in Fretwell Bass Shop in Staunton and was surprised by how well it played for such an affordably priced instrument.  So serendipity being part of life,  I loved seeing the photo essay in this issue on this China instrument company that takes a different approach from the usual Asian mass-produced builders of cheap knock-off models of famous instruments.

The Fretboard Journal has more: a terrific story on guitar builder and surfer James Goodall, a fascinating tale of the rescue of a priceless collection of banjos, and a profile on the understated J.J. Cale.

But the most moving article was the last one I read on bluesman Otis Taylor and his work to reclaim the African heritage of the banjo.  It is unusual enough for an African American youngster to get hooked on banjo by being a regular in the early 1960s at the Denver Folklore Center.  But when that musician tries for years to get a record deal, then drops out of the business altogether for a number of years after a friend dies of a drug overdose, in the intervening period becomes an antiques expert on mid-century modern pieces no less, and finally comes back to music to find his heart – well that’s a great story.  Taylor tells about reclaiming the blues heritage of the banjo, working with OME Banjos on a new model, and his interests in mandolins.  The coolest picture in the entire book is Taylor holding his Santa Cruz Guitar Company signature model with a beautiful dark caramel brown stained top, no frets above the 14th position (because Otis doesn’t play up there), and stylized “OT” initials at the end of the fretboard as an honor to Otis’ father, who used to paint and would sign his art that way.  You can see the company’s picture of the guitar here, but you’ll have to buy the magazine to see their wonderful photo.

And if you love players, builders, and stories, you should buy it at Barnes & Noble, Borders or your local high-end guitar shop.  The Fretboard Journal is part of a new breed of magazine:  a reader-supported publication.  That means you pay a subscription price that’s not artificially lowered because of extensive ads.  The only ads in this magazine are from instrument builders.  The entire package is high quality, and I have issues 1-16 all in a special place on my bookshelf.  The magazine is produced by great people who love beautiful instruments and the people who make and play them.

Finally, as is my custom, I rooted around on YouTube and found this video of Otis Taylor showing the range of his Santa Cruz guitar.  Enjoy!

More to come…


David Grier at IMT

David Grier at IMTAll of David Grier’s guitar skills were on display tonight at the Monday evening concert of the Institute of Musical Tradition in Rockville.  Greir opened with a spirited version of Durham’s Bull, an old fiddle tune (and afterwards opined that all fiddle tunes are described as “old”), and then put on a two-hour tour de force of flatpicked guitar and bad jokes.

It is a tall order to keep an audience’s interest with two hours of solo flatpicked guitar, but Grier made it look easy.  With equal measures original tunes and flatpicking chestnuts – with the occasional popular tune such as Yesterday thrown in as well – Grier showed why he’s one of the best flatpickers on the planet. 

This was an evening of highlights:  the beautiful intro for Red Haired Boy, the original waltz High Atop Princess Cove, and the Stephen Foster tune Angeline the Baker among themOne of Grier’s best recorded efforts is the Bill Monroe tune Old Ebenezer Scrooge, which he worked as a duet with bassist Todd Phillips on the Grammy award winning True Life Blues:  The Songs of Bill MonroeTonight he played it as a powerful solo piece which fared much better than the “stupid fast” (Grier’s description) version of the other Monroe tune Roanoke that ended the show.

However, any complaints are nitpicking, and the numerous guitarists in the audience were there for a different type of picking.  Suffice it to say that Grier satisfied.

In poking around on You Tube, I found the following video that features a young Grier with other winners of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) instrumentalists of the year awards.  Enjoy Shenandoah Breakdown by Grier (displaying a fun use of time on his guitar break) with Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Tom Adams on banjo, and the late Roy Huskey, Jr. on bass.

More to come…


Great Acoustic Guitar in Washington

There are few things in life I like better than the sound of an acoustic guitar.  So I’m looking forward to two upcoming concerts in the Washington, DC area by three terrific players.

On Monday night, one of the best guitar flatpickers on the planet will be playing at the Institute of Musical Traditions series at Saint Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Rockville.  David Grier is well-known to flatpicking aficionados and along with a busy session schedule handles the guitar duties in the supergroup Psychograss.  Watch the video below of Grier and Wyatt Rice – younger brother of guitar superstar Tony Rice – and you’ll see why we flatpicker wanna-be’s will be in attendance on Monday, flatpicks clutched in our right hand taking in every lick.

For those of you who prefer your acoustic guitar fingerstyle (which I also love), you only have to wait two weeks to December 8th for the IMT concert featuring Al Petteway, Amy White, and Robin Bullock.  Petteway and Bullock both have inventive minds and beautiful tones.  Their holiday-flavored concert, which features the silver-throated White on a variety of instruments, is always a favorite.  Make your plans now. 

I bought some new strings today in anticipation of the playing to come after I’m inspired by these terrific musicians.  Join me in supporting live music and your local music store! 

More to come…