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

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

DJB is listening to…

Many of my younger (read “hipper”) Facebook friends have regular status updates that read, “Joe Cool is listening to Still Sound by Toro Y Moi  on Spotify.”  Or something similar.

I’m behind the times (what else is new), so somehow I haven’t gotten around to letting everyone know what I’m listening to at any time.  Plus, my children would be mortified.  They run from the room when my iPod is in the dock.

But every now and then I listen to something and want to tell someone.  I have to do it the old-fashioned way:  through my blog.

I don’t usually drive in to work, but today was different.  And so instead of the iPod, I picked up a couple of CDs (you remember them) – Norman Blake’s Live at McCabe’s (which I’ve written about before) and the Tony Rice/Norman Blake duet album.  These are two beautifully simple albums that are anything but simple musically.

Blake and Rice are in the upper pantheon of acoustic country/bluegrass/newgrass guitarists.  They’ve both played on seminal albums that set the direction for acoustic music for a generation:  Blake on Will the Circle Be Unbroken and Rice on the inaugural offering of The David Grisman Quintet.  But on the two CDs in my car’s player today you get to hear them at their most basic.  Most tracks just feature a vocal and one or two guitars (or the occasional mandolin and guitar).  With the sun roof open and the windows down on a glorious early spring day, I could have been on a country road instead of 16th Street.

Enough of the rhapsodizing…take a listen to Norman Blake and the Rising Fawn String Ensemble play the old Delmore Brothers tune Nashville Blues.

More to come…

DJB

Economic Meltdown, Transitions, and Roots Music: Recent Books on the Nightstand

My last post said More to Come… was going on sabbatical, but in cleaning up the  nightstand today I realized I’d been holding four recent books that I planned to review on the blog.  These represent my eclectic interests (which is what More to Come… is all about) as well as priorities in my life at the moment.  So in the hope that I can now hold to my promise to take the blog on sabbatical,  I’ll pass along thumbnail reviews of the four and put them in my mental “checked off” category.

The first is Michael Lewis’ terrific (as in well-written) and sobering (as in scary) The Big Short:  Inside the Doomsday Machine. This is, by far, the best known of the four and much has been written about the story of three small hedge fund managers and a bond salesman who knew what was coming before the economic meltdown of 2008.

I don’t need to elaborate because Steven Pearlstein said it all in a Washington Post review I highly recommend.  As Pearlstein  writes, “If you read only one book about the causes of the recent financial crisis, let it be Michael Lewis’s ‘The Big Short.'”  Agreed.

Lewis also has an opinion piece in today’s New York Times.  I hope that means he does not intend to stop writing about the causes and outcomes of the financial crisis anytime soon.

The second recommendation is the new book by brothers Chip and Dan Heath entitled Switch:  How to Change Things When Change is Hard. I am a big fan of their first book, Made to Stick which focused on communicating ideas that stick.  We even exchanged some correspondence to discuss a few real-life examples.  Switch is another winning book in the Heath brothers tradition.  It goes beyond the intended “business book” audience to speak to anyone trying to move individuals, families, offices, or organizations to change.

You’ll find this to be a valuable read if you’ve ever thought that “your brain isn’t of one mind.”  But change can come during times of transition, especially when you believe – as the Heath brothers do – that change isn’t an event but a process.

Now for something completely different:  Still Inside – The Tony Rice Story. Rice is – in my humble opinion – the best acoustic guitarist on the planet, and this work covers his entire life’s story and musical development.  Much of it is written in Tony’s own words or comes from remembrances from fellow musicians and friends.  The section on the development of David Grisman’s Dawg music, when Rice left his bluegrass roots and joined the seminal David Grisman Quintet in 1975, is worth the price of the book.  As Tony says, there are now at least 10 guitarists who can play circles around him while playing Rice’s own music, but none have the tone and touch…and none came up with the beautiful combination of roots, bluegrass, jazz, and even classical influences that makes the best of Dawg music still fresh some 30+ years later.  After reading the book, I recalled all those great Rice albums that I had listened to on vinyl and immediately went online and downloaded several CDs worth of music from Tony’s four decades of music.  Backwaters is Tony’s favorite, and with fresh listening I can see why.

The best part of Still Inside?  My copy of the book is inscribed “To my old pickin’ pal, David – Tony Rice.”  Now, there’s not a shred of truth in that, but my grandchildren (should I ever have any) will never know!  Thanks to my friend Leti, who stood in line at Merlefest when I couldn’t go this year and snared the best inscription ever for a guitar lover.  There are so many different phases to Tony’s music which would show his prodigious talent, but I’ve chosen his solo guitar version of Norman Blake’s Church Street Blues in the video below.  Enjoy.

The final book is another roots music work, chronicling one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century.  Meeting Jimmie Rodgers is an extensively researched work about the influences of Rodgers on a wide variety of pop and roots music of the 20th century.  There are few individuals who know more about this field than Bill Malone, so his blurb carries a great deal of weight:

Until I read this book, I had assumed that the last word had been written on Jimmie Rodgers, the great country blues musician. But, buoyed by Barry Mazor’s keen insights, innovative research, and felicitous writing style, I have become aware of new dimensions of the Singing Brakeman’s influence on American popular music. While Rodgers drew upon a wide array of styles and genres to build his own career, it has been his legacy to shape the sounds and styles of generations of musicians, both in and outside of country music, right on up to our own time.

My father heard Barry Mazor speak and quickly knew I’d enjoy this work.  So I jumped in when my father’s gift arrived, and haven’t been disappointed.

A best seller on the economic meltdown and four people who knew about it beforehand, a thoughtful work on transitions, and two new works on roots music pioneers.  Take your choice, and enjoy.

More to come…

DJB

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…

DJB

Getting Ready for Merlefest

Erin's FiddleLater this week I’ll head to North Carolina for four days of bluegrass, blues, and Americana music at Merlefest.  I was reviewing the lineup tonight to begin to get a sense of how to schedule my time among the 14 stages.  In the process, I was reminded of recent stories about some of these musicians on More to Come…:

Tony Rice

Missy Raines and the New Hip

Wayne Henderson and Doc Watson

Jerry Douglas (with two posts)

and the Lovell Sisters.

I’ll be adding reviews and updates from Merlefest later this week, so return to find out what’s caught my fancy.

More to come…

DJB

Five Albums for a Desert Island

David Grisman QuintetFacebook is full of lists – 25 Random Things About Me just being the best known of a recent flurry.  When I was on Facebook tonight, I saw a friend’s posting of Five Favorite Albums and thought, “Now that’s a list I could enjoy compiling.

It took me less than 3 minutes to come up with five albums that I’d want on my iPod if I were stuck on a desert island.  But the Facebook application doesn’t let you say much about the choices.  So I’ll turn to More to Come… and over the next few nights will tell you about:

  • The David Grisman Quintet
  • Will the Circle Be Unbroken
  • Time Out
  • Sgt. Peppers
  • Aereo-Plain

The David Grisman Quintet’s self-titled debut album blew me away the first time I put needle to vinyl back in the mid-70s and I still love to listen to the amazing musicianship of Grisman, Tony Rice, Darol Anger, Todd Phillips, and Bill Amatneek.  The cover of the album (see above) told you this record was all about the instruments and their players.  It looked like a bluegrass-influenced album, but from the opening notes of E.M.D. the listener was quickly dispelled of that notion.  Grisman, Rice, and Anger – taking the leads – were playing a type of string jazz influenced by gypsy, blues, and bluegrass  music that had a beauty and clarity I certainly hadn’t heard before.  At the time it was so unique that it was jaw dropping in its inspiration.  Now, 30+ years later every acoustic musician worth his or her salt can work their way through similar tunes, but the originality of Grisman’s vision in the 1970s reminds me of the breakthrough of bluegrass when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the 1940s and a whole new American music was created.

CD Universe actually has a pretty good review of the album and its impact:

David Grisman’s first album as a bandleader comes flying out of the speakers from the word go, crackling with the excitement of a group of musicians heading somewhere nobody has ever quite been before. Grisman’s band may have looked something like a bluegrass group but was modeled on Stephane Grapelli and Django Reinhardt’s Quintet of the Hot Club of France. Just as Reinhardt hired one or two other guitarists to beef up a drummer-less rhythm section, Grisman has Todd Philips here on second mandolin to add snap to the grooves.

Guitarist Tony Rice had been around for a while, as had Grisman himself (most notoriously as member as member of Old And In The Way alongside Jerry Garcia). But this record was as much a coming-out for Rice as it was for Grisman. Rice’s application of flawless bluegrass technique to more jazz–inflected material sets high standards for the “new acoustic” guitarists who inevitably entered his slipstream over the next decade. Most of the tunes here are Grisman’s, and they are noteworthy for their balance of detail and simplicity. He makes elegant ensemble statements yet leaves room at times for everyone to just play.

The following video is of E.M.D., the opening track of The David Grisman Quintet.  This version is not played by the original Quintet, but instead is a quartet.  Grisman and Rice handle the mandolin and guitar respectively, but Mark O’Connor who played both guitar and violin at various times in The DGQ is featured here in a truly hideous outfit playing some very nice violin.  The bass player in this version is long-time Grisman bassist Rob Wasserman.  Enjoy!

More to come…

DJB