Bush, O’Brien and Froggy Bottom

Two of my favorite musicians – plus one of this era’s best guitar builders – are all featured in the Fall 2010 issue of The Fretboard Journal which landed in my mailbox last week.  Let’s begin with those musicians.

I’ve been listening to New Grass Revival founder Sam Bush (on the right in the picture by Thomas Petillo at the top) since about 1973.  A few years later I began to hear Hot Rize member Tim O’Brien in a number of venues.  Both are multi-instrumentalists who have stretched the boundaries of bluegrass since coming on the scene.

The Fretboard Journal has a laid back yet informative “conversation” between Bush and O’Brien as the cover story of the most recent issue.  The topics are wide-ranging, from playing with jazz pianist Bill Evans at the Blue Note to the night when Bush and Mark O’Connor joined the Hot Rize alter ego band Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers for a set.

When the conversation turned to hearing someone for the first time, my mind went back to the first time I saw Bush and the New Grass Revival.  It was probably around ’72 or ’73 at Nashville’s old Exit/In (which has gone in and out of business numerous times and is now a rock club).  NGR was playing with Vassar Clements that night and I still remember a 20-minute version of Lonesome Fiddle Blues when Sam and Vassar were smokin’ on twin fiddles and strings were breaking right and left.  I thought, “these guys are playing rock music on bluegrass instruments” and that’s pretty much what NGR was about at that time.  The Exit/In was like that.  In a two-three year period while I was in college I saw Doc Watson (for the first time), NGR (two or three times), Buddy Rich (my brother Steve was a big jazz fan), Barefoot Jerry (for a New Year’s Eve show), and Steve Martin twice…and that’s just what I can remember from visits to the Exit/In.

The guitar builder is Michael Millard, who is celebrating 40 years of building Froggy Bottom guitars.  My friend Oakley Pearson has a beautiful Froggy Bottom that he bought several years ago, and I have always loved playing that guitar when we visit Margaret and Oakley over Thanksgiving.

Quite simply, it is a beautifully balanced and easy to play gem!  When Peter Ostroushko visited the Shenandoah Valley to play the Oak Grove Folk Music Festival one year, he borrowed Oakley’s Froggy Bottom and played it for the entire weekend.  In the hands of a master, it sounded sublime…but it sounds very good even when Oakley and I play it!

I found a video on YouTube of a guitarist playing two different Froggy Bottom guitars, so I’ve imbedded it here for you to enjoy.

There’s more to read in this issue of The Fretboard Journal which is par for the course. Check out the web site or – better yet – go to your local bookstore and buy a copy.  Nineteen issues into this magazine, the editors still get it right just about every time.

More to come…


Bush and Skaggs: Coming Home, Coming Full Circle

Two recent releases by Sam Bush and Ricky Skaggs – two superstars of Americana, roots, and bluegrass music – show both artists coming home in ways that bring them full circle with their own artistic travels.

Bush’s Circles Around Me is a return to the bluegrass and early progressive newgrass of his youth in Bowling Green, Kentucky.  The album opens with the title track, a tune that celebrates “being thankful that you’re here” according to Bush.  His terrific road band – Byron House on bass, Chris Brown on drums, the amazing Scott Vestal on banjo and Stephen Mougin on guitar – plays on the majority of the 14 tracks, stretching out their musical chops on tunes such as the instrumental Blue Mountain and the old New Grass Revival song Souvenir Bottles. This latter tune, along with Whisper My Name written by original NGR bassist Ebo Walker and featured on their very first album, brings Bush back to the band where he made his name and helped shape a whole new genre of music – Newgrass.

But there’s also a strong traditional bluegrass strain on the album, especially on the tunes where Del McCoury joins in on vocals.  Roll on Buddy, Roll On is a fine piece of straight-ahead grass.  Songwriter extraordinaire Guy Clark, Bush and Verlon Thompson co-wrote the haunting Ballad of Stringbean and Estelle about the real-life tragedy of the murder of old-time country music star David “Stringbean” Akeman and his wife Estelle.  Midnight on the Stormy Deep and Out on the Ocean are solid bluegrass tunes where Bush keeps his newgrass tendencies in check.  In addition to McCoury, guests artists include Dobro wizard Jerry Douglas, McArthur genius and bassist Edgar Meyer and his family, and (posthumously) original NGR banjoist Courtney Johnson on the sweet fiddle/banjo duet Apple Blossom.

Sam Bush has put together a thoughtful yet entertaining album that should keep his fans happy while finding some converts among the traditionalists who are not as attracted to his recent solo work.

Ricky Skaggs, photo by Erick Anderson

Ricky Skaggs has been moving in a more traditional direction for a good many years since his dip into mainstream country stardom in the 1980s and 90s.  His band Kentucky Thunder is arguably the best band in bluegrass, with Skaggs showcasing some of the music’s best young talent much as his mentor, Bill Monroe, did through the years with the Bluegrass Boys.

But on his most recent album, Songs My Dad Loved, Skaggs goes solo.  That doesn’t mean you’ll just hear Ricky and a guitar or mandolin, because he plays and overdubs a dizzying array of instruments:  acoustic guitars, resonator guitar, round hole and f hole mandolins, mandocello, octave mandolin, steel string banjo, gut string fretless banjo, fiddle, piano, bass, Danelectro electric baritone guitar and percussion.

Songs My Dad Loved is an obvious labor of love for Skaggs.  There are old-time fiddle/banjo duets (Colonel Prentiss), Roy Acuff and Fred Rose-penned old country tunes (Foggy River), gospel (City That Lies Foursquare) and mountain bluegrass (Little Maggie) among the selections.  Songs My Dad Loved is dialed back from the breakneck bluegrass that Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder are known for.  But it is a little gem of an album, reminding me – as one other reviewer noted – of the classic Skaggs and Rice duet album.

Two great Americana musicians, circling back to their roots.  When you reach your 50s and have been playing professionally since you could hold an instrument, this isn’t a bad place to be.

And to give you a taste of the music, there’s a nice video of Sam and his band recording Circles Around Me with commentary by Sam interspersed.  Enjoy.

More to come…


New Wave and Old Standards Shine at Merlefest

Tony Rice

Merlefest Day 2 began bright and early for me this morning, with a rousing performance at the Americana Stage by the DC-based band Scythian. I caught the irony of having a band fronted by two Ukrainian brothers opening up the Americana stage, but that’s the joy of Merlefest and hey, it is a post-Obama election world.

Then came the first great surprise of the morning. I went to the Traditional Stage to hear the New North Carolina Ramblers, but walked in to a packed tent listening in rapt attention to 86-year-old festival patriarch Doc Watson playing a set with old time banjo wizard David Holt.  (It turns out the Ramblers were double-booked and so Doc and Holt were on-call.  And when I say packed, I mean packed.  The picture below was taken from the side because the front was crammed with kids and grandparents alike.) 

Doc was in fine form, playing guitar and singing with lots of strength and emotion. Fiddle tunes (Whiskey Before Breakfast paired with Ragtime Annie) were interspersed with Travis-style picking (Deep River Blues) and even a harp/bones duet. Holt taught everyone the Etta Baker version of Railroad Bill and had us all singing the chorus:

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill, Lights his cigar with a $10 bill and then rides, rides, rides

Watson and HoltDoc Watson (left) playing with David Holt ended their set with There Goes the Train That Carried My Girl From Town.  I’ve heard Doc dozens of times over the years (the first at Nashville’s old Exit/In as a college student), but this was a special set and I’m glad I caught it.

After watching a bit of the Welcome Home Super Jam on the main stage, I worked my way over to the Hillside to spend the afternoon. And what an afternoon it was.

The day’s second surprise was my introduction to the band Cadillac Sky. While their instruments gave the appearance of a straight-ahead bluegrass band, it took about 10 seconds to figure out otherwise.

After rocking through tunes such as Everybody’s Got a Good-Bye Story, they would shift gears and have guitarist David Mayfield play a little personal biography vignette that closes with an abrupt ending that suggests you’d much rather be listening to something else.   Mayfield’s stage persona is described on the Skaggs Family Records website as “poetic-demolition derby” and he proved it with a guitar-thrashing but amazingly entertaining solo version of Freeborn Man.  Jimmy Martin he’s not!

The Hillside Stage view at Merlefest 2009

And that’s not surprising.  Cadillac Sky cites influences such as Radiohead and Gnarls Barkley.  Not your typical bluegrass band but part of a new wave of “new traditional” (for lack of a better term)  bands that was very much on display today at Merlefest.  These guys are terrific musicians and lead singer Bryan Simpson has a great voice that’s supported by strong harmony singing by the band.  Check out Gravity’s Our Enemy, their new CD, but most definitely take the time to see them live if you get the chance.

I had heard of the teenage mandolin phenom Sierra Hull when I was at Merlefest two years ago, but I’d never heard her front her band, Highway 111.  She’s an obvious talent and a fluid mandolin player who has – as Sam Bush notes on her website – tremendous potential for future growth.  Her voice is still that of a teenager (a similar issue with the Lovell Sisters), but her mandolin work already shows a lot of maturity and musicianship.  Hull ripped through  Smashville, a new instrumental written by Mountain Heart fiddle player Jim VanCleve.

From the youngsters, the Hillside StageWayne Henderson then turned to someone who was there at the first Merlefest 22 years ago – newgrass vocalist John Cowan.   With his bandmates in the New Grass Revival in the 70s and 80s, Cowan helped redefine bluegrass and also helped set the course for an inclusive, open, and experimental Merlefest.  Cowan started with the old NGR hit Callin’ Baton Rouge and inserted a bit of Blackberry Blossom in the middle.   His jazz-influenced drummer provided a unique percussive setting for the Bill Monroe classic – and Cowan staple – Good Woman’s Love.   All in all, Cowan was Cowan – and I like that very much.

After three hours of sitting on the ground and shifting around to try and stay in the shade, I was ready for a different venue.  I stumbled across guitar builder and picker extraordinaire Wayne Henderson (photo above) in a picker’s tent just playing with festival-goers who had brought along their instruments.  I listened to a bit of the Grascals on the main stage, but I’m not big fan so didn’t stay long and caught some dinner.

But in another surprise, after dinner I came across The Duhks playing in the dance tent.  I love The Duhks, but don’t normally go looking for music in the dance tent.  But the roof was pulsing with the energy coming from the Winnipeg-based band, and so I stopped by.  And that place was rocking! 

The Duhks at the Dance TentIt was a high-energy show throughout the set, but they took it to another level with an over-the-top version of Whole Lotta Love.  Being from Canada, they even added a verse in French.  Lead vocalist Sarah Dugas has a set of pipes and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a fiddle, banjo, guitar, and drums blasting out stadium rock.  Wow!

The day ended for me in a rain-marred show by Mountain Heart with special guest Tony Rice.  I entered with the band playing  a surprisingly good version of Whipping Post.  (Everyone at Merlefest wants to be the Allman Brothers, which is appropriate since the late Merle Watson – for whom the festival is named – always cited Duane Allman as his influence on slide guitar.)  After a short opening, Mountain Heart quickly brought out Tony and started working through his cannon.  Most turned out well.  Mountain Heart has a talented lead singer, a wonderful mandolin player (Aaron Ramsey), and the aforementioned Jim VanCleve on fiddle.  When playing straight-ahead bluegrass with Tony, such as Freeborn Man, they sizzled.  But on the Bela Fleck-penned Whitewater, they couldn’t quite match the original, even with Tony playing a great couple of solos.  I know, because I listened to the 20th anniversary jam version of Whitewater on the drive home tonight.  It isn’t surprising they couldn’t top Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, and Byron House.  Who can?

Tonight Tony played a beautiful solo medley of Shenandoah and Wayfaring Stranger (see photo at the top of the post) that led into the band’s version of Tony’s classic Manzanita.  A very satisfying show all around.

Soon after they left the stage, lightening and thunder led to a pause in the main stage activities.  I was tired (it was very hot on this day where we weren’t suppose to see any rain), so decided I’d miss Del McCoury and I’d catch the Waybacks at the Album show tomorrow.  Now that I’ve posted reviews, I’m off to bed to rest up for Day 3 at Merlefest.

More to come…


Shuffling Off to…the Swim Meet

Today I took some time off to serve as a timer at the swim meet for Andrew’s school.  I do this every now and then to make sure I connect with that part of Andrew’s life during the school year, and because every parent needs to volunteer to make these meets work.  It was great fun and Andrew dropped time in all his races.  I even got to time him in the 500, when he beat his personal best.  What fun.

But this post isn’t about swim meets and getting your pants wet (which I did .  Those high school boys come in hard for the touch at the end.)  Nope, this post is about why I love the Shuffle feature on the iPod.

I have about 3,500 songs or so on my iPod.  About 2,400 of them are in one playlist that I call “Americana.”  That’s where I dump in all my albums and iTunes purchases that have anything to do with bluegrass, acoustic music, country rock, Americana, blues, you name it.  I can go for weeks listening to that playlist and not hear the same song twice.  By comparison my rock, jazz, and new age playlists are much smaller in number.

And I always keep my playlist set on shuffle.  That way the iPod decides what I listen to next.  On occasion I’ll get a bunch of tunes in a row that make me wonder why I ever chose this music.  But then there are nights like tonight when I’m driving to and from the meet.  You hit a stretch of songs and realize how wonderful it is to remember old tunes and be surprised by ones you don’t really know that well.

Steven Levy even wrote a book in 2006 about the wonderfulness of the iPod and its shuffle feature called The Perfect Thing:  How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness.   He goes a bit overboard in effusive praise of all things Apple (not to mention Steve Jobs), but I do connect with him on the wonderful randomness of iPod’s shuffle feature.

So as I head out, the first song up is:

  • Rock, Salt and Nails by the original J.D. Crowe and the New South.  This is the 1970s band that featured youngsters Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, and Ricky Skaggs.   I’ve always loved this song.  It is a modern tune, but it sounds like it was written a hundred years ago.  Thanks to Cracker Barrel Records for reissuing this classic album on CD.
  • Then I get a live version of You Don’t Have to Move That Mountain from Nickel Creek’s Reasons Why album.   Toward the end of this version Chris Thile has a little mandolin break that shows the craziness and inventiveness of this guy’s mind.  He doesn’t play a lot of notes (I know that will surprise Thile fans) but its the notes he plays that are such fun to listen to.
  • Next I get a couple of electric guitar heavy tunes from The Waybacks, a favorite of mine from San Francisco (Good God, James Nash can play), and Cross Canadian Ragweed, an alt-country band whose album I bought on a whim while visiting the wonderful Lone Star Music store in historic Gruene, Texas last year.
  • Then Patty Griffin’s Kite came on.  This was another CD I bought on a whim after hearing it played over the store’s speakers while shopping at the neighborhood Barnes and Noble.  I’ve since fallen in love with Patty Griffin.  (Shush…don’t tell my wife.)
  • Alison Brown followed with The Devil Went Down, a nice banjo tune from Fair Weather.    I love Alison Brown but every time I hear her I feel a little sorry for her parents.  She’s a Harvard grad with a MBA, and I think about all the money that went to those institutions of higher learning to turn out…a world class banjo player!  But then I think, jeez she’s doing what she loves (what parent doesn’t want that for their child) and she used that MBA to start her own successful record company.  So the feeling quickly passes.
  • Then my little mini-tour ends with three live performances.  The first was Ain’t That Peculiar by the New Grass Revival, with John Cowan doing his best Marvin Gaye impersonation.  That was followed by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives (best band name ever) with a terrific banjo/mandolin duet from their acoustic/bluegrass album recorded at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.  And in a quirk of fate that only the iPod shuffle can produce, that was followed immediately by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder playing Shady Grove at breakneck speed live at…the Ryman Auditorium.  Andrew was with me for this part of the ride and he said, “What are the odds, out of 2,385 songs, that you’d get two in a row live from the Ryman?”

The Ryman…Mother Church of Country Music.   With my playlist, those odds are actually pretty good.

And you knew this was leading up to a video.  I couldn’t find Ricky Skaggs playing Shady Grove on You Tube (even though this was from a PBS special), but I did dig out this fabulous video of Skaggs and his band playing at the Ryman with The Chieftains, as they blend folk and bluegrass (Cindy and Cotton Eyed Joe) with several Irish tunes.  This one performance is like the randomness of my musical tastes.  Stay with it to the end to catch some great dancing by members of the band.


More to come…