I Hate to Say Goodbye, So I’ll Just Say So Long

Speaking at the Ryman

Speaking from the pulpit at the Ryman Auditorium: The Mother Church of Country Music

(Note:  The following is adapted from a note I wrote to my staff at the National Trust for Historic Preservation on the Monday of my last week as the EVP and Chief Preservation Officer with the organization.)

In a typical three-point sermon from the Baptist church of my youth, the preachers would:  1) tell you what they were going to say (the introduction); 2) then say it (the sermon); then 3) tell you what they had just said (the conclusion).  To keep up the symmetry, the sermons themselves often had three points.  The last of my Monday morning emails will be my personal three-point sermon.

The Introduction

 I’m going to expand my audience beyond the Preservation Division and write to the full Trust staff along with a number of friends outside the organization.  In doing so, I’ll use the first part to explain a bit about these Monday emails.  Second, I want to say a few words about what the past twenty-two-plus-years at the National Trust have meant to me, both professionally and personally.  Finally, I’ll end with information about how we can stay in touch after Wednesday, my last day in the office.

DJB in Cedar Mesa

The Bears Ears National Monument in Southeast Utah

Point 1: So What Is the Purpose of These Monday Emails?

As I returned from sabbatical at the American Academy in Rome in 2016, I began sending an email every Monday morning to the staff in the Preservation Division as a way to connect personally with these 200+ individuals located all across the country. The topic was not always preservation. In fact, it seldom was.  Instead, I used this forum to mull over conversations I’d had with colleagues and friends, comment on things that were on my mind, reflect on events in the broader world, share stories from my experience in leading teams and organizations, and provide recommendations from my reading list.  I often said that I wrote about things that I needed to hear.

Over time, these Monday emails were passed around and people asked to be added to the distribution list. Now about a quarter of those who receive them are outside the Preservation Division and the National Trust. I began repurposing these emails on my personal blog site under the category of Monday Musings. If you want to go back and read several of the top ones in terms of views, here they are:

  • Let’s Start It Up and See Why It Doesn’t WorkA story from historian and NTHP Honorary Trustee David McCullough on the ways that failure can lead to the unpacking of assumptions, new perspectives, the acquisition of knowledge, and new paths to success.
  • Hope Is Grounded in MemoryThis little meditation, written on the occasion of my 20th anniversary at the Trust, revolves around the idea of hope in the context of life’s milestones.
  • Complicity in a Shared Work of the Imagination – I wrote this post after launching the National Treasure campaign at Clayborn Temple in Memphis, the church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to the striking sanitation workers.
  • Be Present When Serendipity StrikesI received wonderful (and often humorous) feedback from this story about the time I (finally) woke up on a flight home from Nashville, only to realize I was sitting next to Muriel Anderson, one of my guitar heroes.
  • Kindness – This is a post I wrote in January about the response I received after announcing I was stepping down from my position at the National Trust.

If you are simply interested in finally figuring out how my mind works, the best place to look is the 60 Lessons From 60 Years post that I wrote on the occasion of my 60th birthday a few years ago.

Seersucker Day

Seersucker Day at the National Trust

Point 2: These Past 22+ Years

I became a member of the National Trust in 1975, and working for the nation’s largest preservation nonprofit was a long-held dream. It has been the privilege of my professional life to help the National Trust do its vital work over the past 22 years, working alongside and learning from so many of you. I won’t name any names because I will inadvertently leave out someone who is very important to me. But I will say that together—and with partners and others outside the Trust—we saved some of the country’s most important places that continue to link past, present and future generations together—or as the poet Remo Fasani phrased this—having “the past live in the present and in the future both, to have time again vibrate as one.”

TN Main Street Contingent

With the Tennessee Contingent at the 2008 National Main Streets Conference

Together we shared and celebrated stories from America’s past that opened up new understandings of the nation’s history and why we are the people we are today.  Together we have worked to make the Trust a leader in the fight to ensure that old places are part of our individual and collective memories, connecting over a continuum of time, to create community and national identity. Together we have shown that there is a future for our past.

DJB during an interview on Hawaii Public Radio

Interview with Hawaii Public Radio on Saving the Natatorium

I have also shared personal milestones and events with many of you over the years, including a great send-off party earlier this month.  In a 1994 commencement address at Vassar College, Bernadine Healy, M.D. said the following;

“As a physician who has been deeply privileged to share the most profound moments of people’s lives, including their final moments, let me tell you a secret.  People facing death don’t think about what degrees they have earned, what positions they have held, or how much wealth they have accumulated.  At the end, what really matters is who you loved and who loved you.  The circle of love is everything and is a good measure of a past life.  It is the gift of greatest worth.”

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

Saving Music Row (Photo Credit: Rick Smith)

Point 3: Not Goodbye, But So Long

I don’t plan to retire, but I do plan to take some time to travel, reflect, and figure out what’s next. Am I finally getting a gap year forty years after graduating from college, or having an encore career? Who knows? One of our trustees recently stepped down from a high-profile position. Building on that experience, she told me, “Don’t be afraid of some blank days or weeks (on your calendar).  It’s where the good things begin to happen.”  That sounds like good advice.

The Conclusion

Here is one final story of mine from 2014 that is about children, but is—in reality—about life:

“I was in the line at the pharmacy this morning, waiting to drop off a prescription.  A mom with a set of boy-girl twins was in front of me, with the children in their two-seater stroller.  (The heavy equipment phase of child-rearing, as we used to describe it.)  The kids were beautiful, and they were having the most wonderful conversation about shoes.  The mom was so patient and kind.  It was a joy to simply stand there and watch the love. After passing along their prescription, the mom gathered her things to leave.  I asked about the twins age.  She replied that they were two-and-a-half.  I smiled, and said I had 21-year old boy-girl twins, and this brought back many memories.  The mom asked if I had any advice.  I replied simply, ‘Savor every moment.’”

As roots musician Tim O’Brien says so eloquently, “I hate to say goodbye, so I’ll just say so long.”

Have a good week.

More to come…


An Amazing Day of Music at Red Wing

Sarah Jarosz at Red Wing 07 12 14Saturday at the Red Wing Roots Music Festival was one of those days when the music starts off great and then – when you think it can’t possibly be sustained – it keeps getting better.  (The last day that rivaled this one at a festival was day two of Merlefest 25.  It is interesting to note that the Steel Wheels were involved with both!)

Duets were the order of the day in the early afternoon at Red Wing II, beginning with Bernice and Bryan Hembree playing as Smokey & The Mirror.  He writes great songs (St. Alban’s Day, Will and Woody) while she has a powerful and beautiful voice (showcased on a cover of Dylan’s Buckets of Rain).  They were the first out of the chute today, and the Hembrees set a high bar.

Mandolin Orange – an acoustic duo featuring Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz – were up next and played a beautiful set that we caught while eating lunch (and Kline’s ice cream!).  With just a guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, they crafted songs that were  simple yet compelling.  At the end of this post, I’ve included a beautiful video from FreshGrass at MassMOCA with Mandolin Orange playing Hey Adam.

This year the Red Wing folks figured out how to stage their shows where it was possible to walk back and forth between two stages and hear all the major acts with no interruptions.  So up next was another duo, Eric Brace and Peter Cooper.  I met Eric a few years ago when his band – Last Train Home – played at the National Trust conference in Nashville.  And when we caught up later in the day, I was able to tell him what a terrific job he and Peter Cooper did in the blazing afternoon sun.  Cooper has my dream job – professor of country music at Vanderbilt – but he’s a pretty good songwriter and musician in his own right.  Both Brace and Cooper had strong originals in their show, but the first highlight of their set was a beautiful cover of Herb Pedersen’s Wait a Minute, which Brace dedicated to the late Mike Auldridge.

The Stray Birds at Red Wing 07 12 14The duos gave ways to a trio as The Stray Birds followed Brace & Cooper.  I called out The Stray Birds as a band to watch in my Best of Bluegrass 2013 post, so I was eagerly awaiting their set at Red Wing.  They didn’t disappoint, with a wonderful hour of soulful country singing. Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven, along with Charles Muench on bass, sing and play songs that sound as old as the hills, but with an understanding that seems impossible given their relative youth.  Craven contributed an original (Come Back Today So I Can Sleep Tonight) and their version of Blue Yodel No. 7 is sublime.

Maya de Vitry at Red Wing 07 12 14

The only bluegrass band (of sorts) on the bill on Saturday followed, as The Brothers Comatose from San Francisco took the main stage for an energetic and satisfying set. Two brothers – Alex and Ben Morrison – front the group, which included a terrific fiddle player named Philip Brezina.

Tim O'Brien at Red Wing 07 12 14

At this point in the afternoon, I joined my friends Oakley and Kay at Tim O’Brien‘s songwriter showcase.  He began with his well known hit for the Dixie Chicks, More Love, and then worked his way through songs he’d written (a recent one about the Charleston, WV, chemical spill) and those of others he admired (Mick Ryan’s Lament). The hour zipped by.

Red Wing Festival Sarah Jarosz 07 12 14

The incredibly talented Sarah Jarosz (photos at the top of post and above) then took over the main stage. Playing a beautiful octave mandolin for much of the set, she displayed impressive songwriting, singing, and instrumental chops (the latter featured on mandolin during the instrumental Old Smitty).  Alongside a cello and fiddle, this roots chamber music recalled everyone from Norman and Nancy Blake to Crooked Still and much more.  Check out the video of Build Me Up From Bones.

It would take two old pros like Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott to follow Jarosz without feeling intimidated by the youthful prodigy. And these two incredible instrumentalists, songwriters, and singers put together a hell of a show.  I can’t recall the last time I stood for an hour to listen to music and felt like the time rushed by.  That happened today.

O'Brien and Scott 07 12 14

Darrell Scott 07 12 14

I’ve heard With a Memory Like Mine on multiple occasions, but Darrell’s gripping tale of a father meeting his soldier son returning from war – written with his father Wayne Scott – was especially powerful this afternoon.  Likewise, these guys ripped through Long Time Gone and traded licks until you figured they had to have used them all up…then they had some more.  O’Brien’s Not Afraid O’ Dyin’ led to some on-the-spot arranging, as Tim called out chords for Darrell in a bit of an improvised interlude stuck in the middle of the tune.  Seeing Scott play guitar up close – and hear him sound like an orchestra on just six strings – was a revelation.  It was an unbelievable set, that they closed with the gospel tune House of Gold.

Then finally, it was time for our hosts for the weekend.

Steel Wheels 07 12 14

The meadow in front of the main stage was full-to-overflowing for The Steel Wheels – hosts of the Red Wing Roots Music Festival II.  The set was largely familiar, but that’s just what the friends, family, and fans had come to hear.  Trent Wagler has one of the most distinctive voices in Americana and roots music, and he was supported by the tight and talented Steel Wheels.  Rain in the Valley ended a 70 minute set that closed out all too soon for most at the festival.

With a drive home set for early tomorrow morning, we took off knowing that whatever followed, we had heard an amazing day of music in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  Thanks Steel Wheels for a second great year.  May there be many more to come.

Let’s end with two beautiful videos – Mandolin Orange and Sarah Jarosz.  Enjoy!

More to come…



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…


Red Wing Takes Flight

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

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

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

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

The Steel Wheels Kick Off Red Wing 2013

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

The Steel Wheels Sing at Red Wing 2013

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

Claire Lynch and Matt Wingate

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

Tim O'Brien at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

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

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

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

Simply beautiful.

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

The Duhks at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

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

Scott Senior of The Dhuks

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

Del McCoury at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

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

Ronnie McCoury at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

Rob McCoury and Jason Carter at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

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

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

More to come…


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…


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…