Red Wing Swings

John Jorgenson at Red Wing Festival 2013The sun broke through on Day 2 of the inaugural Red Wing Roots Music Festival just as John Jorgenson hit the stage.

Somewhere, Django Reinhardt was smiling.

Jorgenson’s quintet – channeling the Hot Club of France – displayed an amazing level of musicianship while having a great time in the process as one of the headliners at the Shenandoah Valley’s first Red Wing Roots Music Festival.  Now some may ask how jazz fits into the Americana roots music pantheon, but the European string jazz of Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli from the 1930s had a direct and transformative impact on roots musicians from David Grisman, to Saturday evening’s headliner Sam Bush, to fiddler extraordinaire Mark O’Connor, to mandolin phenom Chris Thile.

Jorgenson’s quintet got to show their chops on Mediterranean Blues, a song written by a Vietnamese-born composer who grew up in England and now lives in Amsterdam.  Every solo was inventive and exhilarating – which is just as true about the songs in Jorgenson’s entire set.

Ana Egge with Sarah Siskind and Members of TSW at Red Wing Festival 2013

Saturday’s music began for us with Staunton native Nathan Moore’s performance on the main stage.  We knew the Moore family a bit when we lived in the Valley, so it was great to hear this young and impressive singer-songwriter who has already won a Telluride Troubadour Award.  His Get Me Off the Chain was dedicated to all the folks (like me) who are not on Facebook. Moore’s songwriting, to quote a friend from Staunton, is seriously good. Ana Egge (photo above, with Sarah Siskind and members of The Steel Wheels) was another new find for us.  Her Hole in Your Halo was just one of a full set of smart songs.

Brooklyn-based Pearl & the Beard were easily the most unique band of the weekend.  Their website description of “three voices, one cello, one guitar, one glockenspiel, one melodica, several drums, one accordion, ninety-six teeth, and one soul” is pretty accurate.  This was one band that Candice and I were still talking about on the ride home on Sunday.

Eilen Jewell at Red Wing Festival 2013

Eilen Jewell, the Queen of the Minor Key, has a fine honky-tonk voice that worked well on Loretta Lynn’s Give Me a Lift.  Her original Bang, Bang, Bang with the tale of Cupid at a Texas gun show really showcased her alt-country sensibilities.

That little cupid, he’s a real sharp shooter
I don’t believe he’s got an arrow and bow
People all think he just couldn’t be cuter
But I saw him down at the gun show

He appeared to be about two years of age
A really freaky thing to see
He was bragging about his sawed-off six gauge
Hidden right up his tattered sleeve

I asked him if the gun had a sight
How can you hit your mark that way
Little cupid, he just laughed outright
He said I don’t take aim I just bang bang bang
I don’t take aim I just bang bang bang

He fired off a few hot rounds
Right into the sorry crowd
No blood, no gore, no one hit the ground
They all just fell in love
With whoever they happened to be around

It’s funny, till it happens to you
But be sure you stay well out of his way
Love is careless, random and cruel
He don’t take aim he just —
He don’t take aim he just bang bang bang

He don’t take aim he just bang bang bang
He don’t take aim he just bang. Bang. Bang

Well worth a listen.

Steel Wheels on the Main Stage at Red Wing Festival 2013

After a break for supper, we were ready for the main stage set of the host band, The Steel Wheels.  I wondered if I would tire of the group after three performances in three days, but they wear well.  The set was familiar, but the musicianship and energy on their big night as hosts more than carried the day.  The light rain that came and went throughout the evening mostly stayed away during their set, and the crowd was definitely not going to let a little moisture dampen their spirits.

Trent Wagler of The Steel Wheels at Red Wing Festival 2013Earlier in the day a white-haired fellow a couple of years older than me, in a New York Yankees cap and a Tony Rice t-shirt, walked up and said, “I don’t like your hat, but I like that shirt.”  I, of course, had on my Washington Nationals cap and a Sam Bush Band t-shirt.  So I looked him over and said, “The feeling is mutual.”  We laughed, and he said, “Are you prepared to stay awhile?  The last time I saw Sam he played late into the night.” I allowed as how that was my experience as well and off we went – just your two, typical Sam Bush fans.

Sam Bush at Red Wing Festival 2013

It took over 30 minutes for the band set-up, and a number of the festival-goers who came for The Steel Wheels abandoned ship as the light rain continued.  Sam isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (Candice isn’t a fan), but I’ve loved Sammy’s energy, chops, wicked sense of humor, and musical sensibilities since I first saw him in Nashville one summer evening in the early 1970s at the old Exit/In with the first incarnation of The Newgrass Revival (yes, Ebo was playing bass that night) with special guest Vassar Clements.  I had never seen such energy and rock sensibilities fused with bluegrass chops on acoustic instruments, and I became a lifelong fan.

Scott Vestal at Red Wing Festival 2013

Sam opened with the Delmore BrothersFreight Train Boogie – which surprised me a bit until at the end of the tune when he said it was in memory of Doc Watson. Doc single-handedly kept the memory of Alton and Rabon alive through the years, and Freight Train Boogie is considered by some the first rock-n-roll song. Sam was a long-time occasional sideman for Doc, and one of my last full-length concerts I heard Doc play was when he and Sam played the Birchmere a few years ago.

Casey Jones he was a mighty man
But now he’s resting in the promised land
The kind of music he could understand
Was an eight wheel driver under his command

He made the freight train boogie
All the time
He made the freight train boogie
As he rolled down the line

Sam Bush plays Red Wing Festival 2013

Sam’s set included old favorites (Riding That Bluegrass Train; One Love) and “a song by a band that never played this venue” (I’ve Just Seen a Face). Even in the rain, the energy and musicianship were there in abundance.

Gospel Time at Natural Chimneys Park

By Sunday morning when we returned, the sky was blue and the crowd gathered next to the Natural Chimneys that give the park its name was ready for some gospel with the Steel Wheels.  The group and a few friends helped get us all ready for the festival’s final day.

Robin and Linda Williams at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

The band we most wanted to see on Sunday was long-time Shenandoah Valley (and Prairie Home Companion) favorites Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group.  Robin was recovering from a recent fall and cracked ribs, but he hung in there with the rest of the group and helped put out their own brand of Americana.  (Robin and Linda were Americana before there was an Americana.)  Linda’s voice is still powerful, the two still harmonize like songbirds, and they continue to write terrific songs (like Rolling and Rambling:  The Death of Hank Williams).  Their recent trip to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville led them to write a song to two of the more iconic instruments in country music:  Maybelle’s Guitar and Monroe’s Mandolin. Forty years into their act (and marriage), Robin and Linda still have a playful sense of humor that – as Garrison Keillor says – is all you need for a good time.

So to go out with that good vibe from a wonderful inaugural Red Wing Roots Music Festival, here are two videos of Robin and Linda: the first from PHC – with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Stuart Duncan as their backing band – singing Rolling and Rambling on New Year’s Eve.  Then enjoy Maybelle’s Guitar and Monroe’s Mandolin.

Long live Red Wing!

More to come…


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…


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…


Back to the Future(man) – How Are We Going to Top Merlefest Day Two?

At 12:30 on Friday afternoon, I thought I had seen the best show I was likely to catch on Day Two of Merlefest.

Well, when I’m wrong, I’m really wrong!

And I’m here to be the first to admit it.

The day started strong.  As I expected, The Steel Wheels had a huge crowd on hand at the Americana stage for their morning set, and they didn’t disappoint.  The Shenandoah Valley band – at both this set and a later gig at the Creekside Stage – played to large and enthusiastic crowds.  I heard more than one person turn to their friend/partner/spouse and say, “These guys were incredible last night.”

Spider Wings (“When you got too much, you don’t got anything”…or something like that) was my favorite, but they had so many good tunes coming out of them all day long it was hard to pick out just one.  Lead singer Trent Wagler’s piece about his grandfather’s response to Alzheimer’s – entitled Can’t Take That Music From Me – was lovely.

The juggling of schedules began almost immediately, as I had to leave The Steel Wheels set before it was over in order to catch the James Nash Making the Acoustic Guitar Rock workshop.  But am I glad I did.

Nash (above) is the front man for one of my favorite groups, The Waybacks, and he’s a monster guitar player.  On my Facebook page today I posted the status that “When I grow up, I want to be James Nash…He’s incredibly talented, creative, funny – and looks like a rock star to boot!”  He put on a 45-minute clinic on how to bring a rock attitude to acoustic guitar playing.  Rule #1 for learning to play fast:  don’t practice while watching the ball game.  Guilty!  Nash, playing a beautiful Santa Cruz 1990 OM guitar, worked through a lovely arrangement of the Beatles tune In My Life, showed how to cheat to get a string bend when you don’t want to rip your fingers like Stevie Ray Vaughan, and had the entire auditorium in the palm of his hand.  He even ended with some Grateful Dead, and told the crowd that they probably wouldn’t be hearing much Dead tomorrow afternoon at the Hillside Album Hour.

Nash – and just about everyone else in the auditorium – left immediately and headed to the Hillside Stage for a “virtually unrehearsed” show that Nash says you can only do, “When you  have no shame (if you fail).”  Playing with The Greencards’ Kym Warner and Jens Kruger of The Kruger Brothers, this was the “international” show – from Australia and Switzerland respectively  – and the entire band came out rocking on Calling Elvis and their Earl Scruggs tribute Too Late Now.  

Kruger (above) is an amazing banjo player who kept with Nash and Warner lick for lick (even when he mouthed, “I don’t know this tune” to Warner’s lightening fast Talking With Zeus instrumental.  When the Hillside crowd finished singing the old Ray Charles song Hallelujah, I Love Her So with the band, I thought, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Did I mention that I was wrong?

I drifted in and out of sets during the afternoon, catching bits of Peter Rowan and The Free Mexican Airforce, the Steep Canyon Rangers (above – loved their Tennessee Blues), The Greencards, and a few others. But I went outside the festival grounds late in the afternoon in search of something green to eat!  (Don’t get me started on limitations of the Merlefest food tent.)

I returned in time to catch most of the wonderful set (above) by John (The Cow) Cowan, song-writer extraordinaire Darrell Scott, and Doobie Brothers founder Pat Simmons.  They shared songs they had each written, sang covers (including the second Beatles sighting of the day), and ended with a spirited version of the Doobie classic Without Love.  (It was great to hear Simmons play those opening riffs on an acoustic guitar…and they sounded so perfect!)

Then the night really got interesting.

Bela Fleck and the Original Flecktones lineup took the stage to great anticipation. Roy “Futureman” Wooten (at the top of the post) with his drumitar, brother Victor Wooten on bass, and Howard Levy – one of the world’s great harmonica players – make up that original lineup, and they took the crowd on an hour-long journey through time and space (as Futureman would probably describe it).  I was always sorry to see Levy leave the band in the 1990s, and his return gave the creative spark to a group of musicians that didn’t need that much encouragement to try new works.  It was an amazing evening, made all the more memorable when Fleck sat down with just his acoustic banjo and played a medley of tunes “For Earl” that began with a simply beautiful You Are My Flower (which Earl always played on the guitar) and ended with The Ballad of Jed Clampett (and I believe some Dear Old Dixie thrown in the middle).  Heartfelt and lovely.

Sam Bush has played at each of the 24 previous Merlefests, and you figured he had something up his sleeve for the 25th anniversary.  The Sam Bush Band opened with John Hartford’s Vamp in the Middle (a terrific tune) and went off on an exploration for the old NGR instrumental Crooked Smile.  After a few songs, Sam said, “I want to be the first person to welcome these two folks to the Merlefest stage,” and proceeded to welcome Derek Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi of the Tedeschi Trucks Band – Saturday evening’s headliner.  The band kicked off Bell Bottom Blues – a song played by Derek’s namesake Eric Clapton – and the night, which was already special, turned magical.  Bush played a perfectly serviceable electric lead break, but Trucks stepped forward and showed what the #16  and youngest member of the Rolling Stone list of the Top 100 Guitarists of All Time sounds like.  God, how does he get that sound out of his guitar?!

Next came Gimme Shelter, a “song by a band that has never played Merlefest.”  Susan Tedeschi’s vocals were incredible and the mountains behind the Watson Stage were beginning to rock.

As if that wasn’t enough, Bush then called out former New Grass Revival band mates Bela Fleck and John Cowan (above) for an impromptu reunion and – as has been happening throughout the weekend – led off a tribute to the late Levon Helm. Bush, Cowan, and Tedeschi traded verses on Up on Cripple Creek, but the entire crowd was singing along.  When the tune morphed into the old fiddle/banjo standard Cripple Creek, banjo wizards Fleck and Scott Vestal (below) traded licks and choruses.

Incredible musicians playing incredible music together…often in new juxtapositions that take them out of their normal zone. When that set was over, I had to leave.  I stopped by a packed Dance Tent to catch just a bit of Donna the Buffalo but what I really wanted was to get in the car, drive those North Carolina country roads back to my hotel, and savor an amazing day.

More to come…


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…


Catch Some Acoustic Music during May in Washington

Del McCoury BandThe Washington, DC area will be host to some terrific acoustic music acts during the month of May, ending with a stellar lineup at DelFest over the Memorial Day weekend.  With the coming of beautiful spring weather, this is a perfect time to hear some live music.

Regular readers know that I’m a big fan of the Monday Night Concerts of the Institute of Musical Traditions.  The 2008-2009 season wraps up in May, but not before a May 4th concert in celebration of Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday (I bet they’ll be some righteous sing-alongs) and the final DC-area concert of the Canadian band Tanglefoot on May 11th.   According to the IMT website, Tanglefoot is “Stan Rogers meets Van Halen.”

For some straight-ahead traditional bluegrass, check out the DC Bluegrass Union’s Spring Concert on May 9th with Dan Paisley & Southern Grass.

Bluegrass ExpressThen over the Memorial Day weekend, all bluegrass lovers in the Mid-Atlantic region will be heading to Cumberland, Maryland, for the second annual DelFest, hosted by the Del McCoury Band.  There’s a stellar line-up, including Old Crow Medicine Show, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush, J.D. Crowe and the New South, Tim O’Brien, the Infamous Stringdusters, and Joe Craven.  If you really want to be authentic, take the Bluegrass Express train from DC to Cumberland for the festival!

Speaking of Tim O’Brien, he’ll be teaching masterclasses this summer at the DC Bluegrass Union Bluegrass & Old Time Camp, July 13-17th, in Westminster, Maryland.  O’Brien is a very talented multi-instrumentalist who can play any type of music and does it well.  Wish I could take a week off!

I love Del McCoury’s version of Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightening, so I’ve added the video from a performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.   Hope to see you around at some live music venues this month.

More to come…