Monday, October 31, 2005

The Perfect Sound

After almost 40 years being surrounded by music, after classical training, of practicing, of going to symphony concerts, rock concerts, bluegrass concerts, chamber concerts, jazz sessions, a capella performances, I've settled on something I believe.

There is no sound as perfect or as beautiful to me as the human voice.

Nothing is as revealing, as intimate, as poignant, as powerful. And I forget this until I lose my own voice, as I did in the last few days to a cold all the while surrounded by some of the most beautiful, belllike, riveting voices performing today. While I can't sing as well as all of them, I can keep up, and when I can't sing a note, my heart sinks with the weight that cries for release. Singing is the way I give up all my pain and joy, and let go.

There were few moments at the IBMA World of Bluegrass Fan Fest that moved me as much as those moments when these leaders in bluegrass set down their instruments and gathered around one mike for a sweet and enchanting quartet. Or, as in one of my favorite moments, when Molly Skaggs was accompanied by her famous father, Ricky, on clawhammer banjo, in rendering one of the saddest and most mournful mountain songs I've yet heard. Molly's young bell-like voice rang true and sad and lovely the way you'd expect the story to come from the young heartbroken girl in the song.

The clip you will hear above is a cut from an old recording by Ricky Skaggs and the extraordinary guitarist Tony Rice ( Rice had one of the most beautiful voices in bluegrass until he lost it in the mid-1990s. Now I watch him on stage with Pete Rowan (, just a giant of a fingerstyle artist, virtually the leading virtuoso of his genre. If I look very closely, his lips still move as his fingers glide up and down the neck of his instrument.

Only singing is singing.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

'Til We Meet Again

Soon the time will come when I'll be leaving
And these parting words are breaking my heart
But my leaving is only temporary
Soon we'll meet again and never have to part
--Ralph Stanley, "Til We Meet Again"

(Above, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder at the
2005 IBMA Awards Show, photo

Well, here it is, Sunday night, and I'm already pining for next September when we go back to Nashville and do it all over again. Somehow, sitting here alone at my dining room table just doesn't cut it.

Being immersed in complete bluegrass mayhem was, as I expected, once again overwhelming. This year, I had my eleven-year-old with me, and I had almost as much fun taking in his wonder as enjoying my own. It made the experience a little less intense, but more magical in a way, and we were sad to leave it all behind this morning.

While festivals have their season, the World of Bluegrass event is for the truly bluegrass dedicated diehards. As one gentleman pointed out as my son and I rode the elevator very late Friday night, "Folks don't come down here to sleep."

Moving the show from Louisville, KY to Nashville was a bold one for IBMA, but it seemed there was little trouble filling the gigantic Nashville Convention Center. While the rolling jam sessions were not one on top of another as in the old Galt House, there was music all around us and, wherever we walked, another picker or two carrying their instrument to and fro. One exhibitor told me that attendance was up 43% for the three days of FanFest alone.

My one regret is that I somehow managed to get sick for the weekend, losing my voice to some crud that lodged in my throat, preventing me from singing a single note. It was really serious punishment after waiting all year for these three days, but, I guess the lesson is that I shouldn't make excuses for not singing on the other 362 days when I'm well.

Truly, that's what any personal mission is about -- it's about the action. Whatever we love, whatever inspires us to act, it is in the action that we are really living. I might miss a few chord changes or slur notes on a mando run, or get the verses to "Gold Watch and Chain" mixed up at a jam session. But if that's what it takes to get others to try, it probably won't kill me.

Much more to come. In the meantime, keep on the sunny side!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Never Enough Music!

This here blog, already pretty darn quiet, will be all the moreso over the next few days as I head down to Nashville with my kidlets, to enjoy three days of nonstop bluegrass.

The International Bluegrass Music Association's World of Bluegrass and FanFest is the pinnacle event of the year for everyone from the grammy winners to gawking, admiring, wanna-bes like me. You know you're in Music City when you have to request a "jamming" or "non-jamming" floor when you make your hotel reservation.

In addition to the highly-acclaimed performers, you can catch all manner of jam sessions, from old friends to family bands, as you stroll through the event. Last year, I saw a family band with a slew of children, all performing. The youngest couldn't have been more than 4 or 5 years old. He sang lead and played fiddle. Unbelievable. Now, that's a family that probably doesn't watch much TV, I'm guessing.

I will be taking my little Kentucky mandolin along, because you can't help but catch the fever. You just have to play something, and this will prevent me from buying another instrument. Not only would that be expensive, but, I'd have to leave one of my children behind and use the spare seat for the instrument.

I plan to come away inspired and more dedicated than ever to encouraging the enjoyment, practice, and preservation of what some consider a flaky little corner of our history. And, I hope this blog will become fertile soil for ideas to grow interest in and practice of traditional musical forms right here in sunny Northeast Ohio. Stay with me, and stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks Goes Home

America has lost a great prizefighter. Last night, at the age of 92, Mrs. Parks died peacefully at home with her loved ones beside her. She was living proof that one person can turn the tide of history and make a difference in the lives of millions of people. Any act of kindness, defiance, or generosity, no matter how small, has some impact, somewhere.

I first heard this beautiful song as recorded by the contemporary bluegrass band, Hot Rize. They sang it in quartet format along with the traditional bluegrass breaks. Not long after the recording the band lost guitarist Charles Sawtelle. The day after I heard it, I lost my mother. So it has been a special song, one that helps me to understand that great passage we all must travel someday.

Hazel Dickens has dedicated her life to this music. A native Appalachian born and raised in Mercer County, West Virginia, she has been a powerful force in bluegrass music.

Now set and sing a spell for Rosa.


I feel the shadows now upon me
And fair angels beckon to me.
Before I go today, my brother,
Won't you come and sing for me?

Sing the hymn we sang together
In that plain little church where the benches are worn.
How dear to my heart, how precious the moment

We stood shaking hands and singing a song.

My burden is heavy, my way has grown weary.
I have traveled a road that is long.
And it would cheer my heart, my brother
If you would come and sing one song.


In my home beyond the dark river
Your dear faces no more I will see.
And when we meet, well there's no sad parting.
Won't you come and sing for me.


Sunday, October 23, 2005

And Now Back to Banjo!

All right now, I realize that last post was a bit heavy. And for the most part it's not what you're likely to see here on this blog. But I needed to take a moment to process, and I hope you'll forgive me. I hope Dirk Powell forgives me, but it's my guess he'd understand.

Now, look to your right. Aren't they gorgeous? This is a collection of Ome open-backed banjos. The open-backed style is what delivers that honest, raw, just-came-down-from-the-mountain sound, as opposed to the more polished bluegrass style.

This little snippet from one of my favorite bands, Polecat Creek, gives you a taste of what I mean. Enjoy.

For the Motherless Child

Today, someone I love used a term so hateful and vile that it took my breath away.

He was reacting to the horrible news of a woman who had left her 7 month old baby for dead, for three weeks. I understand something of what led him to say what he did, and I would not ever censor him or challenge something as real as those feelings. But, as unfathomable as it is to imagine a mother could do this to her own children, as unimaginable an injustice it is to a child of any age, it’s not my place to forgive her, judge her, or condemn her.

I wouldn’t mind knowing, however, what in the name of God her so called “friends” were thinking that they couldn’t be moved to step in. I can’t help but wonder whether anyone one of them didn’t ask her how she was feeling. Nobody asked Andrea Yates, either. If a handful of average white men were to suffer but a moment of that hell called Post Partum Depression, I believe suddenly there would be a lot fewer dead or abandoned baby stories in the news.

I think the world might be better served by extending the culpability all the way up the human food chain, to the pundits and policymakers, to the Founding Fathers who themselves couldn’t bring themselves to free their slaves, to the Haves and the Have Mores that split us all apart, rather than lay it all at the feet of the person squarely at the bottom. Had she had better chances like I did, made better choices, she might more easily have thrown off the shackles that hold her in this horrible, dark place she might not even call her life.

Still there is the child. There can’t be any worse feeling than to know your mother doesn’t love you – or worse, to not ever know that she does desperately love you but is completely incapable of showing it or caring for you. Believe it or not, that happens.

Tonight when I am holding my own children close, I'll say a word of thanks that I can be here for them for however much longer I'm given. And I'll keep motherless babies, and the women who could not love them, on my heart.

Friday, October 21, 2005

"I don't know if you know this part or not, but all the music in the world is not bluegrass music."

When I got hooked on bluegrass, I started out with the music, but I stayed for the people. Ron Thomason is one of those people.

Ron Thomason founded and still leads today a traditional bluegrass and gospel band called the Dry Branch Firesquad. These fine players have been host several years now to the annual Greyfox Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale, NY, which I had the pleasure of attending in 2004.

That year, on a sweltering July day on beautiful Rothvoss Farm, I sat with other would-be mandoliners and drank in his wit and wisdom along with a little bit of actual instruction. I had more fun and learned more about how to use my instrument in those 90 minutes than I had since I bought the damn thing. Later, in front of a crowd of some 15,000 bluegrass fans, in his thick western (not, West) Virginia drawl, he spun out his usual stream-of-consciousness editorial on the state of humanity, the wonders of nature, the stupidity of politics, the futility of war, and the beauty of spirit. Add to this that the gentleman taught both Shakespeare and math to kids whose parents might not even have known how to read, and you get a sense of the order of human being you'll find in Ron Thomason.

If you're not able to join me next week at the IBMA World of Bluegrass FanFest to hear Ron rant in person, I hope you'll jump to the link below, which will take you to the Rounder Records page featuring the Squad's latest, "Live at the Newburyport Firehouse." Listen a while, laugh, and remember: "The big difference between bluegrass music and folk music, is that people LIKES folk music."

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Broke Down and Lonesome

It seems there's an awful lot of grief and sorrow running around these days. My friends and family, not to mention yours truly, all seem to be done under by one worldly affliction or another. Sometimes it's a hurt from the past come back to haunt, or a situation bringing a new lesson we weren't necessarily asking to learn, or just the latest kick in the head for no apparent reason. All I know is a number of people I hold dear feel that they're at the bottom of the mountain, the rest of their lives are at the top, and they've got bare feet.

It's not fun, but it's real. And that's what life on this earth is about, feeling every bit of the joy and sorrow, because that's all we've got. We all know the only thing to do is keep on climbing, and hope to get something out of the journey.

Music is what helps me on that journey. When the cosmic caca comes a callin', even when I'm in the foulest of moods, I find that a little bluegrass brings me back to a happier place.

So in honor of my troubled loved ones and everyone out there carrying around their own 20 pound bag of troubles, I direct you to this track from King Wilkie's latest, Broke, a fine recording by a fine assembly of very talented young musicians. It's not the happiest of tunes, but like life, it's real, so turn up the volume, sit back, and enjoy. Or pick up your favorite instrument and play along. Whatever you do, I hope it brightens the journey for you today.

Stay real!


Monday, October 17, 2005

Wildwood Flower

Welcome to For the Love of Bluegrass, a place dedicated to the people, history, and living practice of traditional, mountain, old-timey, or bluegrass music. I hope you'll stop by often, share a story or song of your own, spread a little excitement about the music, or just come sit a spell.

While the formatting and presentation all have a long way to go, I don't want that to hold us all up. So to get the ball rolling, here's a version of Wildwood Flower, one of my favorite tunes. Come back with other verses you know, your favorite version, where you first heard this (for me 'twas Robin and Linda Williams and their Fine Band), or any other story or trad trivia tidbit.

I look forward to hearing from you!

Wildwood Flower

I will twine and will mingle my waving black hair
With the roses so red and the lilies so fair
The myrtle so green of an emerald hue
The pale emanita and violets of blue

Oh he promised to love me, he promised to love
To cherish me always all others above
I woke from my dream and my idol was clay
My passion for loving had vanished away

Oh he taught me to love him, he called me his flower
A blossom to cheer him through life's weary hour
But now he has gone and left him alone
The wild flowers to weep and the wild birds to moan

I'll dance and I'll sing and my life shall be gay
I'll charm every heart in the crowd I survey
Though my heart now is breaking, he shall never know
How his name makes me tremble, my pale cheeks to glow

I'll dance and I'll sing and my life shall be gay
I'll banish this weeping, drive troubles away
I'll live yet to see him, regret this dark hour
When he won and neglected his frail wildwood flower

Alternate verses:
I'll twine with my ringlets and waving black hair
With the roses so red and the lilies so fair
And the myrtles so bright with emerald dew
The pale and the leader and eyes look like blue

I'll think of him never, I'll be wild and gay
I'll cease this wild weeping, drive sorrow away
But I wake from my dreaming, my idol was clay
My visions of love have all vanished away

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Opening Refrain

Welcome. If you don't already love bluegrass, you will. Trust me.