60 Lessons From 60 Years

Here are 60 things I’ve learned in my (now) 60 years of life:

1.  Discipline is remembering what you really want.

2.  The graveyard is full of folks who thought the world couldn’t get along without them. (Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and others)

3.  Baseball is (much) better than football.

4.  I have been lucky in love.

5.  Few things sound better than a solo acoustic guitar played by Doc Watson (Deep River Blues), Tony Rice, (Shenandoah), or Norman Blake (Church Street Blues). Or, if you want to go next generation, Bryan Sutton (Texas Gales).

6.  Good things can come from bad situations, if you’ll stop wallowing in your sorrow and seek out the good.

Tom Brown 1948

Tom Brown, 1948

7.  I have become my father.  I repeat many of the same stories. (Did you know that I paid more for my last car than for my first house?)  I read funny articles from the newspaper out loud at the dining room table, sometimes to the consternation of my wife and children. I cackle when I laugh. I am a dyed-in-the-wool Southern liberal who believes that government can make our life better, and I have TVA to prove it. I have good-looking legs, even at age 60. I can’t see worth a damn without my glasses and – if you ask Candice – my hearing is suspect. I think Molly Ivins (God rest her soul) and Gail Collins tell more truth in one short newspaper column than any politician tells in a book-length campaign bio. I love to read. Body and Soul and the St. Louis Blues – the only two songs my father could play on the piano – are still among my top 10 favorite songs of all time.  I wish I had more of my father’s faith and compassion, but I still have 30 years to work on that and catch up with him.  I think it is pretty neat, at age 60, to have a father who turns 90 this year – especially when that father is Tom Brown.

8.  I will cry at the movies, so I need to bring a handkerchief.

9.  Neckties are a highly overrated – and in my case an increasingly irrelevant – piece of clothing.

10.  All things considered, I’d rather live in a community full of old buildings.

Downtown Staunton

Downtown Staunton, VA

11.  The movie Selma was not – in my opinion – the “Best Picture” of the year in 2015, but it was the most important.  Everyone (and especially Southerners) should see it. We forget too quickly how difficult it was to attain rights for all, and how much pressure there is, even today, to restrict or even take away those rights.  We are nowhere near a post-racial society.  I grew up in the South in the 1960s. I remember those images on the television. I saw how blacks were treated then.  It was terrible. In some ways, it is still terrible. After seeing Selma, Southerners should also visit the High Church of Doing the Right Thing – otherwise known as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.  We can do better.

12.  A colleague gave me this big, 1950s-style ashtray for my office with a quote attributed to Amelia Earhart that says, “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” He thought it sounded like me, and I couldn’t agree more.

13.  Stephen Carter, in his book Civility, captured much that is wrong in America today when he said, “The language of the marketplace, the language of wanting, of winning, of simply taking – the language of self – (has supplanted) the language of community, of sharing, of fairness, of riding politely alongside our fellow citizens.”  The best description I’ve read of Libertarians – who epitomize the language of self – is that they’ve politicized the protests of children who scream through tears, “You’re not the boss of me.”

14. “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.”  (Jane Jacobs)  I love old buildings.  I always have.  We grew up in an early 20th century house on Main Street in Murfreesboro, and I loved visiting my Grandmother’s Victorian-era house on Second Avenue in Franklin. Candice and I renovated two old houses in Staunton, where we spent the first half of our married life.  Old houses are especially nice for putting you in a physical and spiritual continuum – there were people in that house before you, and you realize you are just a steward of this place for the next generation.  You can connect with the joys and hardships of those who came before, and you can prepare the house for those who come after.  The best places I’ve been in life have a real connection to the past, and yet feel remarkably livable for the modern world.

WWJJD T-shirt

Andrew’s WWJJD (What Would Jane Jacobs Do?) t-shirt

15.  Education, experiences, and travel trump “things” hands down. When you have a limited amount of money to spend, go for the things that feed the soul and widen your perspective, not the things that will collect dust in your house or take up more space in your garage (or, God forbid, a storage bin).

16.  “Baseball is like church; many attend but few understand.”  (Wes Westrum)

17.  Take the train whenever possible.  It is civilized and, short of walking and riding a bike, it is the most environmentally friendly way to travel. I am writing this right now on a train home from New York City.  In a few minutes I’ll wander back to the cafe car. I ride a train to work every day.  Even with Amtrak working as a second-class citizen when it comes to transportation systems and the Washington Metro suffering breakdowns from lack of funding and maintenance, train travel still beats the alternatives.  Unfortunately, American mass transit is dying. Imagine how well our transportation system could run if people demanded, and politicians funded, train travel.

18. Try to see yourself as others see you.  In more than half of my career, I’ve worked with an executive assistant.  The good ones – who are perceptive and honest – see you in a myriad of situations and understand you in ways that few people do.  One of the best I had the privilege of working with wrote what I took to calling a “Users Guide to DJB” when she left.  It was rather eye-opening to read.

19.  When you buy something you plan to keep for a while (shoes, cars, a home), buy the best quality (not necessarily quantity) you can afford, without overextending your budget.  This approach is why Candice and I tend to keep our (one) car for a decade or more, and why we raised two children in a house with about 1800 square feet. Oh, and you need much less “stuff” than you have.

20.  Those who accept life and their own limitations are likely to find more in life.

21.  The 9th inning of the 5th game of the 2012 NLDS never happened.

22.  If YouTube had existed when I was young, I don’t know if I would be a better guitar player, but I know I would have saved myself a lot of trouble picking up the needle and putting it back (and back, and back) in the grove to try to learn that special lick.

23.  “Make yourself useful, as well as ornamental” is good advice I learned from my Grandmother.  (Mary Dixie Bearden Brown.)  My Grandmother worked hard her entire life, but as you can see in the picture below, my Grandmother was very pretty as a young bride.  Naturally, I inherited my big ears from the Brown side of the family.

Grandmother and Granddaddy Brown

Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and George Alma Brown – my Grandmother and Grandfather

24.  Fear isn’t a solid foundation for any healthy relationship.  So why is so much right-wing fundamentalism based on a fear of God’s wrath?  In my experience, She cares for all her children, not just the ones who have drunk the Kool-Aid.

25.  Speaking of fear, Kris Kristofferson hit the nail on the head about hatred of things we don’t understand in Jesus Was a Capricorn. Truer words than “Reckon we’d just nail him up if he came down again” were never spoken. Thanks to Darrell Scott for resurrecting this song (pun intended) on his wonderful Modern Hymns CD.

26. Don’t you just love it that 2015’s Super Bowl (#49) was hailed by many (I’m looking at you Sally Jenkins) as the “best Super Bowl ever.”  What did it feature?  One confirmed concussion, and one probable concussion that the Patriots covered up.  (The Onion had a telling headline:  “Super Bowl Confetti Made Entirely From Shredded Concussion Studies.”) A horrendous arm injury by one player.  Oh, and a fight in the end zone on the next to last play.  Yep, that about sums up the NFL these days.

27.  I think Wondrous Love is just about the best hymn ever – in either version (traditional as heard below from Blue Highway, or reworked for the Episcopal hymnal).  I hope my family remembers – when I’ve gone to my reward – that I want it sung at any service/celebration in my memory.  And remember to sing the last verse (in the Episcopal hymnal) a cappella“And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on” sounds incredible when unaccompanied.

28.  The intelligent mind is able to live with paradox.  Such as the paradox of why I’m proud to be a Southerner. (Read this piece from The Bitter Southerner, as it sums up my views on the subject pretty well.) Yes, we have this awful racial history that continues to this day, which I wish our region could overcome. And yes, we have bourbon.

Bulleit bourbon (photo credit: The Adventures of Sarah & Derrick)

(Photo Credit: The Adventures of Sarah and Derrick)

29.  Women who seek to be equal to men lack ambition.

30.  When you are paying the bill at a restaurant out of your own pocket, tip at the high-end of the scale – 20% – unless the service is awful and the server is rude.  If the service is great, consider giving a bit more.  This is especially true at breakfast.  Many people don’t understand this idea, and it is generally because they have never waited tables.  Waiting tables is very hard work, when done right.  I did it for a year almost 40 years ago, and I still remember the long hours on my feet, the late nights, the times when you do a terrific job and the diners still stiff you.  It never hurts to thank someone, and tipping a bit more than expected is a way of saying thanks.  (The tip up to the norm is payment for service.)  This lesson doesn’t apply in places like Copenhagen, where they pay service staff a living wage. But I think I’ll go to my grave in the U.S. with service staff just scraping by.  Many waiters and waitresses are working two jobs (or more) just to cover basic costs of living.  Tipping at the high-end of the scale is one way I can help them out.  (And while it is a little different, I also recommend tipping street musicians – or buskers – when they are good.)

NOLA Street Musicians

A New Orleans Jazz Trio

31.  If you are going to share a car with someone for more than two weeks, it would be hard to beat Claire as a traveling companion.

Claire and DJB at Glacier

Hiking in Glacier National Park with Claire as part of our two-week cross-country trip in 2014

32.  “I believe that ignorance is the root of all evil. And that no one knows the truth.” (Molly Ivins)

33.  Chris Thile is from another world.  There is no other explanation.

Chris Thile at Merlefest 2012

Chris Thile with the Punch Brothers at Merlefest 2012

34.  The Christian Right is neither.

35.  I definitely “married up.” Candice is very intentional about our life together, as a couple and as a family.  I would probably miss half (or more) of the wonders of our time together, but she has helped me see the little grace notes that make up our life.  Almost thirty-three years later, I would do it all again.

Candice and David celebrate their 32nd anniversary in Copenhagen, March 20, 2014

With Candice, on our 32nd anniversary, in Copenhagen (March 2014)

36.  Visiting all the Major League Baseball stadiums is a worthy bucket list goal for any red-blooded American.  I’m proud  to say I am more than halfway there.

37.  Everyone should have the chance to be surrounded by – and learn from – passionate and talented people at least once in their lifetime. My entire work career has been one when I’ve been surrounded by such individuals.  However, on the personal side, I was lucky in my “earlier life” to sing as part of the Shenandoah Valley musical group Canticum Novum.  I’ve seldom heard such a pure soprano as Custer LaRue, who was one of our eight-to-twelve singers (depending on the gig).  Among other highlights in her career, Custer was the “singing voice” of Reese Witherspoon in the movie Vanity Fair. (I should probably add that she sang a solo at Claire and Andrew’s baptismal service!) I count myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to sing with Custer, and with Debbie, Lucy, Kay, Peter, John, and Dick, (plus others) under Carol Taylor’s direction.

38.  We have an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”  (Daniel Kahneman)

39.  “Bad trades are part of baseball – now who can forget Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas, for God’s sake?” You should watch the movie Bull Durham twice a year – in February/March, to get your juices going, and in November, to put the season you’ve just lived through in perspective.  Best. Baseball. Movie. Ever.

40.  I still miss my mother every day.

41.  Barbecue is a gift from the gods.  One of the wonderful things about my job is that I get to travel to cities all across the U.S.  When I can, I eat at great barbecue places, such as Arthur Bryant’s in Kansas City and The Rendezvous in Memphis.

42.  My father (as he nears age 90) likes to say that growing old is not for wimps.  I’m beginning to worry that I understand what he means.

43.  Nineteen years out of twenty, the lowliest man on a World Series-winning baseball team can give better quotes than the Super Bowl-winning coach.  Baseball players and managers speak with eloquence and  intelligence (even if it is Yogi Berra-type eloquence).  Football players and coaches either talk gibberish (“We used the cover 2 and flex”) or just grunt.

44.  One thing I have not figured out in life is how I happened to have such wonderful, talented, and thoughtful children. It is a mystery. Andrew and Claire taught me so much before they turned 21, and I continue to learn life lessons from them.  I feel blessed and humbled every day.

Andrew and Claire's 21st Birthday

Andrew and Claire’s 21st Birthday

45.  There are many things said in churches that I find hard to believe.  What I do believe is that love is more important than doctrine.

46.  World War II was shorter than the NBA playoffs.

47.  I was fortunate to grow up in a town where I could walk or bike to school, church, the grocery store, and my job.  It was a great way to live as a child.  I have since lived in three towns that were compact, walkable (or had great transit), and human-scaled. My children can get around major cities all over the world because they learned to walk, bike or take the bus and train here in Washington. I feel we have given them a great perspective on how to live in community.

48. When someone needs help – a word, a card, a lift, a meal, a changed tire – try to be there for them. I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of each of these things, and I can tell you how much they mean to both the giver and the receiver.

49.  “Cowardice is easy. Courage is hard.” (Ron Johnson, Missouri Highway Patrol, after his work in Ferguson)

50.  “There is no substitute for excellence – not even success.”  (Thomas Boswell)

51.  There is no crying in baseball.  Oh, and there should never be a pitch clock.

52.  It is wonderful when your children take up your interests.  I have always loved photography and music.  So I was thrilled when Claire showed a real talent for photography (especially black and white) and Andrew likewise showed a talent for music.  We do our job as parents when we open up the world’s possibilities to our children.  I simply count myself lucky that among their many talents are two that I can understand and appreciate.

Lake at Mohonk Mountain House by Claire

The Lake at Mohonk Mountain House (Photo credit: Claire Brown)

53.  I have been loved by some wonderful people. All I can say is thank you.

54.  Never underestimate the impact one person can have on the world. Dean Smith, the famous basketball coach for the North Carolina Tarheels, died last month. One of the most amazing things I heard about Coach Smith through the many tributes that poured out in early February is that the Baptist Church where he worshiped and that shaped his advocacy for minorities was booted out of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1992 for licensing a gay man to minister.  (Being booted out of today’s SBC wins “bonus points” from me, and I grew up a Southern Baptist.) His former pastor said of Smith, “He was willing to take controversial stands on a number of things as a member of our church – being against the death penalty, affirming gays and lesbians, protesting nuclear proliferation.”  I also read a great appreciation in the Washington Post by John Feinstein.  After asking Smith to provide more details about his helping to desegregate lunch counters in North Carolina in the 1950s, Feinstein recounted that Smith asked him who told him the story.  Told that it was his pastor, Smith responded that he “wished he hadn’t done that.”  Feinstein replied that Smith should be proud of that work. And here was the kicker: Feinstein wrote, “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.’” 

55.  There have been times when I did not get something I thought I really wanted.  But in most cases, I found something better.  (Or, in the immortal words of Mick Jagger & Keith Richards, “You can’t always get what you want…but you just might find, you get what you need.”)

56.  I have always enjoyed a wide variety of music.  I’ve been privileged to play bluegrass and to sing Josquin des Prez…and lots of things in-between.  I subscribe to the words of the immortal Duke Ellington: “There are two kinds of music.  Good music and the other kind.”

57.  I am fine with the fact that not everyone wants to hear my opinion and is eager to know what’s on my mind. Opinions are like noses…everyone has them.

58.  I believe in the Church of Baseball.

59.  A  few years ago I became intentional about saying “thank you” to someone every day.  It is one of the smartest things I ever did. Thank you.

60.  Savor every moment. It passes faster than you can ever imagine.

(With hopefully much) More to come…

DJB

My Turn on Music Row

Studio A Press Conference with Ben Folds - Photo Credit Rick Smith

(Photo Credit: Rick Smith)

I’ve often said I have one of the best jobs on earth.  I work with amazing people to save some of the best places in the country. I get to see some amazing sites. I have the chance to explain why these places matter.

Last Monday was one of those days.

The National Trust designated Nashville’s Music Row as a National Treasure. Nashville is undergoing an amazing transformation, where growth is putting pressure on some of the most important places in the history of country music. When a threat arose last summer, Musician Ben Folds and several other Nashville insiders worked hard to save historic Studio A from demolition. We joined them in this fight and – in the process – expanded our reach to all of Music Row. Knowing of my Tennessee roots and my love for roots and country music, our team asked if I would help launch our campaign.  It took me about 3 seconds to say yes.

As you can see above, we had a great turnout from the media and from friends in Nashville.  It was a great day professionally and personally. Ben and Mike Kopp of the Music Industry Coalition were incredibly articulate spokesmen for the preservation of Studio A and Music Row – and two very nice guys. Sharon Corbitt-House – who runs Studio A for Ben and Mike – was ready to fight the bulldozers to save this treasure. Aubrey Preston – one of the huge heroes in this saga in that he bought the building at the 11th hour – was already a preservation hero of mine for his work to save the historic Franklin Theatre, where my father had been a projectionist in the 1930s.  I had a chance to talk Doc Watson and Gallagher guitars with Congressman Jim Cooper. Heck, I was even in the “Picture of the Week” from the Nashville Business Journal laughing as Ben was taking a photo of the media taking pictures of him.

Studio A Press Conference, photo credit Nathan Morgan, Nashville Business Journal

(Photo credit: Nathan Morgan – Nashville Business Journal)

So, it was another great week in my job.  But the threat to Music Row is real – and it isn’t going away.  There’s much to be done. I know that my colleagues and I will work hard to help the good folks in Nashville to save this special place.  And I hope that my words last Monday will help.  Here are my remarks from the press conference last Monday in Studio A after I was introduced by Ben Folds:

Ben Folds has been one of the heroes of the fight to save Studio A – telling the story of this place as persuasively as he tells stories in his music. And he fits into a great tradition.

Singers and songwriters in Nashville have been telling stories of life’s ups and downs for decades. Some of the stories I remember are Sunday Morning Coming Down. He Stopped Loving Her Today. I Fall to Pieces. Jolene – which was recorded in this very space.

Music Row has had its share of ups and downs. But like so many characters in a country song, it survives. It is time we ensure that we tell the story of the place that produced these classics. It is time we ensure that the buildings that made that story possible have a bright future.

So as a native Tennessean who grew up with a deep love for the music of this city, I’m pleased to be with you as we look toward a future for Music Row that fits Nashville’s role as the heart and soul of country music.

We have much to celebrate today – the designation of Music Row as a National Treasure….

The formation of the Music Industry Coalition to help secure a future for this landmark….

And, of course, the fact that we are gathered here in this historically significant studio which was saved from demolition just a few weeks ago.

Although it seemed Studio A was destined to be lost, we can see today the new partnerships that emerged along with the enthusiasm and commitment to plan a future for Music Row that honors its unparalleled place in America’s cultural life.

I am delighted to be here today to officially name Music Row as one the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s National Treasures.

The National Trust is the nation’s largest private organization dedicated to saving America’s historic places, with more than three-quarters of a million members and supporters.

While the Trust’s awareness of Music Row’s challenges began with the short-term “save the place” campaign for Studio A, the need to address the long-term sustainability of Music Row quickly became apparent.

The challenges for Music Row are different from those we frequently see in our preservation work across the country. In many places we are faced with economic distress and a lack of jobs.

In Nashville, the opposite is true. By 2035, the city will be 20% larger. More than 12 million visitors each year come to experience Music City.

We only have to walk out this door to see the result. Construction is everywhere. Development has begun pushing toward Music Row creating pressures to sell properties to make way for new apartments, condos and hotels.

As residents have watched what is happening, a citywide conversation has emerged: What is the future of Nashville and where is the place for our culture and heritage? Particularly important for all of us here today is the question: Do we want to imagine a Nashville without Music Row? I don’t. It’s the heart and soul of this great city and a national treasure.

In 1954 Owen and Harold Bradley opened the first music business in a Quonset hut on 16th Avenue. For the last 60 years music businesses have worked here in late 19th and early 20th century residences or larger commercial buildings. This eclectic mix of buildings and businesses has created a unique environment – the kind of cultural district that cities across the country are spending millions of dollars to create as part of a creative economy. We have it here in Nashville. Right now!

Through events and activities in the coming months, the National Trust and our partners will continue to increase awareness and appreciation for Music Row’s history, the impact it has on Nashville’s economy and the worldwide recognition Music Row brings for Nashville.

Music Row joins a diverse portfolio of more than 50 places around the country that are threatened and face an uncertain future. These National Treasures include historic buildings, neighborhoods, communities, landscapes, ships, and engineering landmarks.

Our National Treasures campaigns demonstrate the value of preservation by encouraging Americans to take direct action to save places and promote their history and significance. As the Presenting Partner of the National Treasures program, American Express has pledged $2 million to help promote and enable the preservation of these cultural and historic places. The National Trust is mobilizing its more than 60 years of expertise and resources to help protect this place.

Although we know the music came from here, until now the story of Music Row has not been fully told. Nashville’s visitors know the singers and the songs that were recorded here. It is “their” music as well.

All of which bring us back to this building and the studio which holds so much of Music Row’s history. We look forward to working with the Preservation Partners as exciting plans develop to celebrate Studio A’s 50th anniversary and to position the studio for another 50 years as an irreplaceable part of Music Row.

But we will not work alone.

I want to applaud the work that Mike Kopp and the board of The Music Industry Coalition have undertaken in the past six months, bringing together property and business owners, musicians, artists, songwriters and others who will work together to plan and advocate for Music Row.

Historic Nashville, Inc. – with special thanks to Melissa Wyllie and Robbie Jones – held its annual “Nashville Nine” announcement here last September, adding more voices of support to save the studio while they contributed funds to our first project of documenting the history of Music Row. Historic Nashville is the newest official local partner of the National Trust, and we look forward to working with them in the months and years ahead.

I want to thank Metro Nashville Historical Commission executive director Tim Walker for his leadership in raising funds for our historical research and documentation project, especially in his work to gain contributions from the newly formed Metro Historical Commission Foundation and our statewide preservation partner, the Tennessee Preservation Trust.

Our thanks also go to Terry Clements, vice president of government and community relations, and Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corporation for their financial support of the historical research project.

To Gail Danner and the Danner Foundation – thank you for your financial support of our historical research project.

I’d like to recognize Congressman Jim Cooper who is here with us today. Congressman Cooper is a hero to the music industry – thanks to his work to enact new legislation that now allows musicians to carry their instruments onto planes as carry-on luggage. For any of us who have seen our guitars disappear into the bowels of an airplane, we say “thank you!”

Finally, there are four people I would like to recognize individually:

• Thank you Mayor Dean for joining us today and for your support and encouragement these last few months as we have all worked together to organize and prepare for today and the work that will come in the months ahead.

• Ben Folds for sounding the alarm and making all of us aware of the impending loss of this historically significant building and the importance of planning for Music Row’s future. As he has said, “He was the one with the flashlight” shining it on this special place.

• Trey Bruce for organizing a “Save Studio A” campaign that quickly built a network that included over 13,000 Facebook friends and kept the media focus on the studio throughout the summer and early fall.

• And especially we say thank you to preservation hero Aubrey Preston for his understanding that this building holds much of Nashville’s music history and for stepping in to save it. We are also excited about the newly formed “Preservation Partners” with Mike Curb and Chuck Elcan joining Aubrey to renovate and revitalize this building.

The National Trust’s designation of Music Row as a National Treasure brings our commitment to demonstrate the value of preservation of this place and to plan for its sustainable future. We have assembled a team with expertise in historic preservation, real estate development, heritage tourism, community engagement and public relations to work with our local partners. Many of you have already met and have been working with our National Trust team, but I will quickly introduce them – Carolyn Brackett, who lives here in Nashville, is our project leader and an indispensable part of this effort. In addition, I want to recognize and thank Alicia Leuba, Grant Stevens and Erica Stewart. You will be seeing a lot more of them.

Four years ago I wrote an op-ed for the Nashville Tennessean, in which I said, “It matters how we build our communities and how we preserve them. When we lose the places that matter to us, we lose more than buildings—we lose the sense of community and the sense of civic pride and responsibility that follows. Being thoughtful stewards of these places is hard work. But it’s a job worth doing. We’re not just hanging on to yesterday, we’re building tomorrow.”

Some of my favorite country music songs – like the ones I mentioned earlier – are tinged with sadness. But that will not be Music Row’s fate. We look forward to working with all of you in the coming months to help forge a happy ending for this national treasure, so its studios and musicians can keep moving us with their stories for decades to come.

Thank you.

More to come…

DJB

Remembering Doc Watson

Doc Watson at Merlefest 25 in 2012I know when I’ve been inspired by a performer or a piece of music…I change the strings on my guitars. Since hearing a wonderful Tim O’Brien remembrance of the late Doc Watson, I’ve got brand new strings on two of my guitars.  It’s that good.

Friday evenings I’ll often ramble through YouTube videos, starting with a musician I enjoy and seeing where the recommendations take me.  More times than not, I will find a video or two that opens up a new perspective on a well-known performer.  Such was the case last evening.

I’ve always enjoyed Tim O’Brien, seeing him live most recently at this summer’s Red Wing Roots Festival.  But until I heard this video from a 2012 Kennedy Center performance, I didn’t know that Doc was his musical hero – although the news wasn’t much of a shock.  I believe it was Bill Clinton who said – when giving Doc the National Medal of Arts award – that every baby boomer who picked up an acoustic guitar tried, at some point, to emulate Doc’s playing.

In this 13 minute “Talking Doc Watson Deep River Blues,” O’Brien expands on a blog post he wrote for his website all the while playing the signature Delmore Brothers’ Deep River Blues that Doc made his own.  O’Brien – a wonderful songwriter – packs whimsy and wisdom into this story of stopping by Doc’s house a few months before Doc died.  It is another take on Doc’s amazing legacy.

And I totally get the desire to sit down and talk with Doc for an afternoon – a desire that O’Brien acted upon even in the face of a North Carolina snowstorm.  Several years ago, a former colleague (who thankfully was a colleague for only a short period of time), asked me that stupid parlor game question of “Who would you like to have for dinner if you could pick anyone in the world or in history?”  I know the correct answers are ones like Thomas Jefferson, Nelson Mandela, and then you have to throw in an unexpected one that shows how clever and sophisticated you are.  Well, the first name out of my mouth was Doc Watson, because it was true.  She scoffed, but I’m sorry that I never had a chance to talk to Doc and tell him that he was a hero of mine as well.

So pull up a chair and enjoy Tim O’Brien’s remembrance of the day he decided to act and reach out to a musical hero.

More to come…

DJB

The Sound of Genius

I opened the paper this morning to the wondrous news that Chris Thile – celebrated l’enfant terrible of the mandolin – was one of the 2012 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grants.

You gotta love it when a kid who starts off in bluegrass ends up being recognized as a MacArthur “genius” – the popular term for the winners of the $500,000, no strings attached annual award.

Here’s the description from the MacArthur Foundation website:

Chris Thile is a young mandolin virtuoso and composer whose lyrical fusion of traditional bluegrass with elements from a range of other musical traditions is giving rise to a new genre of contemporary music. With a broad outlook that encompasses progressive bluegrass, classical, rock, and jazz, Thile is transcending the borders of conventionally circumscribed genres in compositions for his own ensembles and frequent cross-genre collaborations. Although rooted in the rhythmic structure of bluegrass, his early pieces for his long-time trio, Nickel Creek, have the improvisatory feel of jazz; his current ensemble, Punch Brothers, evokes the ethos of classical chamber music even while adhering to the traditional instrumentation of the bluegrass quintet. The Blind Leaving the Blind, a song suite on Punch Brothers’ first album (Punch, 2008), extends the sound of bluegrass in its range of harmonies and polyrhythms. Thile further explores the symphonic dimensions of the string quintet in both the improvised and elaborately composed works of Antifogmatic (2010). Among his many collaborations, Thile has expanded the reach of the mandolin in Ad Astra per Alas Porci (2009), a three-movement mandolin concerto, and in his solo mandolin interpretations of Bach’s works for violin, which showcase his technical mastery and fluid, soulful phrasing. Through his adventurous, multifaceted artistry as both a composer and performer with various ensembles, Thile is creating a distinctly American canon for the mandolin and a new musical aesthetic for performers and audiences alike.

Chris Thile studied music at Murray State University (1998–1999). From 1989 to 2007, he was a member of the trio Nickel Creek, and in 2006 he formed Punch Brothers. His additional recordings include Here to There (1997) and Why Should the Fire Die? (2005) with Nickel Creek; Who’s Feeling Young Now? (2012) with Punch Brothers; and the solo albums Not All Who Wander Are Lost (2001), Deceiver (2004), and How to Grow a Woman from the Ground (2006).

That’s all true.  But for those of us who have been listening to this phenom for a decade or two, he’s simply otherworldly.

There are many musicians who paved the way for Thile’s genius to bloom. His current band, Punch Brothers, plays with the same configuration of instruments – with the mandolin at the center – that the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, established in the 1940s. Traditional music virtuosi such as Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs showed that roots music could include branches outside the strict confines of bluegrass and folk.  Monster string players such as Tony Rice and Mark O’Connor demonstrated that traditional musicians can play with a speed, tone, touch, and musicality that raised the bar in the acoustic music world to levels once thought to belong only in the jazz and classical genres. Dobro master Jerry Douglas and Newgrass pioneer Sam Bush bring a physicality to their playing that helped shaped this key aspect of Thile’s music. Composer and bandleader David Grisman almost single-handedly took the traditional string band instrumentation and showed how gifted players could play a wonderful blend of jazz, world, bluegrass, and classical.

Thile combines all of these talents, and more, in one incredibly energetic and creative individual.  Take, for instance, the Nickel Creek live classic, The Fox. In this version from a Merlefest performance that Claire and I saw a few years ago, Thile and his band mates take off on a traditional tune, and then find all sorts of ways to venture out into other music and genres, before meandering back to the original.

But Thile doesn’t have to be in a band setting to shine.  Listen to this wonderful Bach E Major Prelude, which Thile takes to the mandolin:

Jerry Douglas’ We Hide and Seek is a tune known to most fans of Alison Krauss + Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas.  However, in this trio version with Thile on the mandolin, you get more space to hear (and see) Thile’s work with one of the masters of Nashville.

Why not show TWO MacArthur genius grant recipients together?  Because, the talent here might just blow you away.  But if you are game, take a look at Thile and double bassist Edgar Meyer playing Farmer and the Duck.

This could go on for days.  So to wrap things up, let’s end with a fun tune by the Punch Brothers, Brakeman’s Blues, where Thile gets to channel his inner Jimmie Rodgers.

Congratulations, Chris Thile.  Well deserved!  And congratulations to the folks at the MacArthur Foundation for recognizing genius in some of the hidden places of American life and music.

More to come…

DJB

Doc Watson, R.I.P.

Doc Watson, who passed away today at age 89, was among the most authentic, talented, and influential musicians to emerge from the 60s folk music revival.

He was also the reason I play guitar, attempting to flatpick fiddle tunes or pick out a lead note or two on traditional bluegrass and country songs. Of course, I have to get in line behind tens of thousands – if not more – guitarists who would make the same claim.

So read the New York Times story I’ve linked at the top of the post if you are looking for Doc’s history, background, and influence.  This is a personal post.

I was in high school in the early 70s, learning to play guitar and noodling around with music by singer songwriters and their ilk.  Then one day I brought home this funny looking album – Will the Circle Be Unbrokenand my life was changed forever. Here’s how I described that moment in a More to Come… post in 2009:

In fact, I suspect that the first two songs on side two clinched the deal (i.e., hooking me as a life-long lover of this music).  I had heard a bit of the blind singer and guitarist Doc Watson over the previous year or two, but no one – before or since – quite captures the beauty of Doc’s guitar and the wonderfulness of his spirit the way producer William McEuen did on the Circle album.  Side Two opens with Doc doing a terrific version of Tennessee Stud that became a signature piece for him for many years.  Then he follows it with a version of Black Mountain Rag, where Doc flatpicks the old-time fiddle tune on guitar and shares the solo spotlight with master fiddler Vassar Clements.  By the end of that track my jaw had dropped and I was hooked.

I began buying every Doc Watson album I could lay my hands on, and I still have essentially every new album he produced over a career that began in the 1960s and lasted into the second decade of the 21st century. (I didn’t need to buy the compilations or collections, because I had all the originals.) I had Doc as the folkie phenom, Doc and a very young and shy Merle when his son joined him on the road, Doc in Nashville, Doc with Chet, Doc with Dawg. Hell, if Doc played with someone, I had it.

And for a long time, Doc’s rich repertoire of American music was mine. In those pre-internet/YouTube days, I never nailed the great Travis-style picking of Deep River Blues, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. My picking on Black Mountain Rag has deteriorated some with age, but I sure played that tune enough, moving the needle back time and time again, until I could work through that flashy lick that wraps up the last section of the tune. I learned about the Delmore Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, and so many more of the pioneers of American southern/country music from Doc.

I quickly decided I had to have the guitar that Doc played, so I saved up my money, traveled 30 miles out in the country to Wartrace, Tennessee, and bought a G-50 Gallagher guitar – the same model that Doc played on so many of his recordings and live shows. It remains among my most important possessions.

And I also started looking for chances to hear Doc and Merle play live. My first experience – at the Exit/Inn in Nashville in the mid-1970s – remains among my most memorable musical experiences. The place was packed, and I was near the front with some college friends, all clutching our flat picks. To hear that voice and to see the musicianship in its prime was sublime. Over the next four decades I saw Doc perform countless times, with all sorts of musicians.  The last time was just last month, when he made an appearance at Merlefest, the festival he helped found following Merle’s death. The picture below shows Doc with New Grass Revival founder Sam Bush at Merlefest 2012. The respect everyone had for Doc could be seen in Sam’s playing. A monster player who loves to rock and roll, Sam always toned it down and played the traditional licks that worked with Doc’s style and sensibilities.

Doc’s music is well documented on YouTube.  And while often cited for his pioneering work as a flatpicker, Doc was also a terrific finger-picker.  This first video shows a young Doc Watson as he appeared when he first hit the “folk scare” (as he would laughingly call it in later life), playing one of his signature arrangements, the Delmore Brothers’ Deep River Blues.

From there, I’ve posted a video from the early 1980s, before Merle’s death in 1985. Doc and Merle are joined by long-time bassist and companion T. Michael Coleman in John Hurt’s classic Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.

Doc was an inspiration to countless guitarists, and you can see his influence in this video with Tony Rice, Dan Crary, Jack Lawrence, and Steve Kaufman.

Rest in Peace good Doctor.  You were one of a kind and we were all blessed to have you with us for so long.

More to come…

DJB

Remembering Merlefest 2012

A week ago I was sitting under the North Carolina moon listening to Sam Bush, Derek Trucks, and a host of talented musicians at the 25th anniversary of the Americana music festival Merlefest.

Today was back to reality.  At 6:30 this morning I posted the following status on my Facebook page:

What kind of airline doesn’t know where their planes are? Waiting at a United gate for a flight to Chicago that was to leave 10 minutes ago. The gate agents say a plane is being towed from the hangar. I just heard the pilot calling someone asking, “Can you tell me where our plane is? The gate agents don’t seem to know.” Welcome to the Third World.

I made my meetings in Chicago (in spite of the plane in hiding) and came back to DC without incident, but tonight seemed to be a very good time to breathe deeply, take it easy, and reflect on Merlefest 2012.

This year was my fifth Merlefest, and it was – by a good measure – the best one of the five.  As always happens, I heard bands and musicians who were new to me.  I heard old favorites who can still wow a crowd.  And I saw some of the best musicians in the country (not just in this genre) playing together in configurations that surprise and delight.

So here are a few specific memories:

Band that had the best Merlefest:  This would be The Steel Wheels (top of post), who took the crowd by surprise on the Cabin Stage on Thursday evening and didn’t let go until they left town after three strong performances to large and appreciative crowds.

Bittersweet moment: For me, this came when 89-year old Doc Watson – the patriarch of the festival – came on stage Saturday night with long-time collaborators T. Michael Coleman (left of Doc in the picture above) and Sam Bush (on Doc’s right) and other musicians for a celebration.  Doc was clearly having trouble keeping up, but he hung in like a trooper.  The crowd was showering him with love, while Michael and Sam were keeping a kind eye on the good Doctor.  However, when John Cowan sang Don’t That Road Look Rough and Rocky for Doc and his wife Rosa Lee, Doc was visibly moved – which led me and others to shed a tear as well.  There will be future Merlefests when Doc’s no longer around, but they won’t be the same.

Best jazz quintet masquerading as an acoustic string music band: The Punch Brothers (two photos above) are an incredible ensemble – all strong musicians led by the other-worldly Chris Thile. I don’t pretend to understand all they have going on in their music, but I was more impressed live than I expected.  I’ve been among those fans mourning the old Nickel Creek days for Thile, but this is a wonderful band that moves as one. Is there anything they can’t do?

Musician having the most fun:  Claire Lynch, shown above dancing with bassist Mark Schatz.  Claire’s show started with a bang and she seemed to smile through the entire set. The audience responded with great enthusiasm, and her band – a terrific group of musicians – kept the energy going strong all the way through her traditional closing number, The Wabash Cannonball.

Best band reunion: It was great to see the original lineup of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones onstage at Merlefest. Howard Levy was always a strong component of the early Flecktones sound, and he didn’t disappoint in the reunion set.  This was a band that wasn’t focused on the past, but had new material to showcase as well.

Best musical moment: Everyone who saw Friday night’s set of the Sam Bush Band was buzzing about it the rest of the weekend.  I certainly wrote about it late that evening. Sam and the band had a great opening, but when they brought out Derek Trucks, his wife Susan Tedeschi, John Cowan, and Bela Fleck it was magical.  Luckily, there’s a great video of the entire set of three tunes on You Tube.  Take a look at Sam Bush’s face at about 2:06 when Trucks plays an amazing lick.  That’s how everyone felt.

Thanks for the memories, guys!

More to come…

DJB

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…

DJB