Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Meeting Summer

Lord but I love summer.

Even with the tender pink sunburn I'm still carrying around, and the fact that I already broke down and turned on my air conditioning, I love it like crazy.

Summer always brings a sensation of opening up, letting go, being a little light and breezy. It's also my favorite time of year because I hate the deep cold and dark days of winter. Summer lightens my introspective side and helps me just drink in the beauty and wonder of everything I'm fortunate to be surrounded by.

I had a childhood full of great summers. They never seemed as short or as cool as they do now. Each day seemed to stretch almost endlessly in front of me. At my disposal were nearly 20 acres of Ohio farm stead, on which stood a brick home built by Quakers in 1825. (Jefferson County, where I spent my first 12 years, was home to one of the North’s first Quaker settlements, as many Quakers, who originally coming from England had planned to settle in the South, headed north because of the practice of slavery.) The home had in one of its cellars a portal to the Underground Railroad. We also had an old barn which was host to old wagon wheels, horse stalls, and other hidden treasures of the property’s past. Next to our property was the Friends’ graveyard in which the home’s builders and original occupants, the Robinsons, were laid to rest. My brothers took over the lower half of the barn and turned it into a practice area for their band, and a garage in which they worked on motorcycles, cars, and early adulthood.

There is almost no way to convey adequately the boundless sense of earth and sky that governed my life as a young girl. What I have finally come to terms with is that it still governs me, and likely always will. I’ve described to people recently that I have what I’d call a sentimental fondness for Cleveland, but I’ll never, ever fit in here. I love the people I work with, the people I used to work with, the civic and public leaders I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, the organizations I’ve served, the friends I’ve made, the precious assets in the Orchestra, the Botanical Garden, the museums, the universities. It is a marvelous, gritty, unrelenting city. But it will never truly be home.

I’m fine with that.

I’m also fine with the fact that underneath my typically well-coiffed, tidy, professional, exurbanite exterior, I will always be a young girl in home-made clothes running barefoot through grass after a zillion lightning bugs or riding my bike down a hill into the field or picking perfect black raspberries that my mother will bake into The Pie from Heaven. I will always prefer sitting on the porch doing little else but enjoying a glass of tea (or, as is the tradition among the women in our family, a glass of ice with a little tea poured over it) and talking with family or friends. The smell of flowers that open in late evening, a scoop of Isaly’s peach ice cream in a sugar cone, the combined sound of frogs and crickets and other night creatures will always edge out the din of air conditioning or the sound of traffic that surrounds us near and far.

I’m glad that in my advanced age I finally came ‘round to bluegrass and old-timey music. It’s a good soundtrack for all the things I love so much about summer, and about being from a different kind of place.

I’m sure I’ve raved on here before about the Lonesome (not Little) River Band. Despite the fact that they can at will sing higher than I do, I love them. Their high energy playing, crystal clear singing, and polished but warm and casual showmanship are a true delight. You'd have to be in a coma not to enjoy these guys. My son and I plopped ourselves right in front of the stage during their IBMA performance last year, and he enjoyed meeting mandolin man Jerry Parker after the set.

One of my favorite LRB summertime songs wasn’t available, so I’ll direct you instead to this ripping version of a very old tune, Raleigh and Spencer. It’s a bit over the top for some who may be used to the sparer mountain version, but it definitely puts the Band’s roaring style front and center. The Band’s founder and banjo player Sammy Shelor is a vision, ok, a VISION onstage (although we enjoyed watching him try out a few Gibson mandos, too). When you click on the link, just take a second to register and go in to hear Raleigh and Spencer and four other full length samples. Y'all enjoy, now.

PS: OOOH, make sure you hit "Pretty Little Girl" which I think is an old fiddle tune. Jawbone, you out there? Probably another of those tunes that has a different name.

Monday, May 29, 2006

For the Fallen

I was so busy enjoying this Memorial Day that I forgot why I had the day off.

For The Fallen
From Two Journeys
(©1999 Tim O'Brien and Phillip Aaberg, Howdy Skies Music/Universal Music Pub/Big Open Music/ASCAP)

The seeds of this war were sewn in our father's time
And every bomb will plant some more fear and hate
Let's break this chain of history before it gets too late

How many men will choose to run with the mad dog
How many more will have to die at his bloody hand
And who will shield our children from this plague that kills our land

I close my eyes and ears, don't want the news
I will not watch them play the scenes again
Don't ask me who's side I'm on, or what I think about it
Cause I don't want to play that game, I'm not buyin in

What do you need to get through the daytime
What do you need to get through the night
Who made these rules and who's to say who's wrong and who is right

Saturday, May 27, 2006

What Did We Ever Do Before...

I'm becoming less and less interested in sitting at my computer, and more and more interested in playing music. This is being helped along some by technology. This morning, when I awoke and decided it probably was time to check my email, the static on my first floor line was so formidable as to render the line useless, and eventually, it went completely dead.

It took me half the day to realize I had another line in my bedroom upstairs, which was in fact completely fine, and so I hooked up for a bit to find a good tilapia recipe and check my mail.

Now, at 11 p.m., I'm sitting on my floor, listening to the boys from next door skateboard in the warm summer night. My kids are probably sound asleep after a long full day which we capped by watching Narnia. It was pretty much the only TV they had except for a bit while I got my shower.

This week yet another report was released about the effects of TV and other electronic entertainments on developing brains. The story is always the same; despite the mounting evidence that prolonged exposure to TV and other distractions changes the way young brains work, more and more Americans delegate hours that could be spent engaging their children to the Video Sitter. We ourselves spend hours in front of the computer, working, shopping, gaming, cherry picking our future mates out of an online scrapbook, looking up recipes for tilapia. We are a nation that has forgotten how to be with our kids, to be still, to be with ourselves, to be with each other, to be alone and think quietly, to be alone and make noise with an instrument, to unplug. We are allowing ourselves to be reprogrammed.

I didn't have access to my computer for a long while today because I believed I didn't have it. And of course I didn't need it. I haven't missed anything, really. My friends still called me, I planned a get together, the kids and I went to the park, I took them with me to a party at which we all had a blast, we came home and played outside more, then enjoyed the movie. The day was a whirlwind without TV, without video games, without much time spent in front of this screen.

At the same time I appreciate having this medium to share information, feelings, and observations about music. I wish I could invite more of you out there to comment. Nonetheless, it has a small way of helping me feel heard, not necessarily to be believed, but simply that the stuff I write about gets a wayward glance now and then.

In the old days, people played the music. People still do, like my friend Ed who graciously plays through tunes with me, which must be painful for someone who has been fiddling since he was 10. When we add a medium, like a Web site or a Podcast, we are not, and cannot, take another medium away, like listening to a field recording or learning a tune together. We have to play the music, talk about it, stream it, write about it, teach it one on one, extend ourselves beyond the electronic and yet use it to our every advantage.

The Digital Library of Appalachia is an example of this vision at its best. Media can preserve what we hold dear and therefore make it possible for us to share it with others, and with some of those others, the desire to know and hear and do more might catch on and a new practitioner is born.

It's a paradox for me. With fluffy pillow so closeby, maybe I'll just sleep on it. But I don't think things will change much. I'm a girl whose heart and ears are in the past but who lives now and for the future. It's got to all work together, or none of it will.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Girl Friday #16: Go On Now, Make Nice

Readers, I’d like to take us back a few lessons to our session on “bullying.” I probably wasn’t all that clear what I meant by that, but this weeks’ Girl Friday offers up another example.

Let’s pretend you’re a talented, attractive, successful all-female bluegrass band, and you state your opinion publicly about the state of the nation. You say things about the president that people don’t like. But it’s not enough that they don’t like it. Your songs are pulled from the air, former fans run over your cds with bulldozers, and you get death threats. That’s right. DEATH THREATS AGAINS WOMEN BANJO PICKERS.

THAT, friends, is bullying. Bullying of the most despicable kind. Bullying of the most anti-democratic, third-nation, backwards-ass, head-up-your-ass, not-in-my-backyard variety.

All three of these performers are mothers. Two have sets of twins. I remember their gig on Sesame Street. I bet that the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU didn’t know there was a hate group called “So-Called Patriotic Can-Crushing Conservative Nutjobs Against Mothers of Multiples Who Speak Out.” What lesson is in that for our children? Give me strength.
What’s really sad is that those events took place three years ago around the start of the war in Iraq. And the war rages on, and on, and on, with little to show for the thousands of American men and women, and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis, who have been killed during that time. Natalie Maines is quoted on the Music Row Democrats web site as saying, “Every time a soldier dies, I’m more proud that I spoke out.” She should be.

The Chicks released their new albeit rock-infused album, Taking the Long Way, this week. It features a tribute to their experience, "Not Ready to Make Nice," an autobiographical recap of their side of the story. I can't blame 'em for not being ready to make nice. At the same time, this kind of oppositional dynamic that pervades the dialogue – if you can call it that – in our nation is remarkably unhealthy. I respect a strong opinion when I run into one, but I expect you to do the same. That almost never happens, and it breaks my heart. I don’t expect you to argue with me until my head blows up while you try to convince me that I’m wrong, off base, in left field, stupid, inexperienced, unqualified, unenlightened, or whatever else you think I am just because I disagree with you. It’s actually good to disagree, great to agree to disagree. I've learned that most people are surprisingly bad at it.

However, a couple of months ago I had an enormously heated, fiercely emotional argument with a dear friend over a deeply divisive subject. When it became clear that we were not going to agree, the individual wrapped things up by saying, “You mean more to me than this discussion.” I had never heard that before, and I think it goes a long way to demonstrate what’s really necessary today.

More love.

"More Love"
Released on The Dixie Chicks “Home”, 2002
(Tim O'Brien,Gary Nicholson--Howdy Skies Music/Forerunner Music, Inc./Gary Nicholson Music,\nASCAP)

I'm so close to you baby, but I'm so far away
There's a silence between us and there's so much to say
You're my strength you're my weakness
You're my faith you're my doubt
We gotta meet in the middle
To work this thing out

More love I can hear our hearts cryin'
More love I know that's all we need
More love to flow in between us
To take us and hold us and lift us above If there's ever an answer, it's more love

We're afraid to be idle, so we fill up the days
We run on a treadmill, keep slavin' away
Until there's no time for talkin'
About troubles in mind
And the doors are all closed
Between your heart and mine

More love I can hear our hearts cryin'
More love I know that's all we need
More love to flow in between us
To take us and hold us and lift us above
If there's ever an answer, it's more love

Just look out around you , people fightin their wars
They think they'll be happy, when they settle their scores
Let's lay down the weapons
That hold us a part
Be still for just a minute
Try to open our hearts

More love I can hear our hearts cryin'
More love I know that's all we need
More love to flow in between us
To take us and hold us and lift us above
If there's ever an answer, it's more love

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

UPDATE: Kent Stage Show Live on Folk Alley

Finally! The moment three or four of us have been waiting for!

Thanks to Fearless for alerting me that now has the download of the April 8 Kent Stage show featuring Tim O'Brien, Casey Driessen, and Dennis Crouch -- and most of my family a-hootin and a-hollerin from the fourth row!

So get on over to listener-supported today!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Shirt Off Their Backs

In the rant I posted yesterday you may have noticed a little mention of this guitarist I saw Saturday night, Tony Rice, and that not too old Bluegrass Boy, Peter Rowan (pictured above in 2001).

Did you think I was going to let that one slip by? HA.

I hadn’t planned on writing about it but decided that for a few reasons I might as well. Fans of various Rice Brothers, searching out news about the recently departed Larry Rice, have stopped by and set a spell. I appreciate that, even if you don’t share your comments.

Another is that I felt badly not promoting the show beforehand, and Tony Rice is a player that everyone should see regardless of musical taste. The third is that Pete and Tony are touring with two top female talents, the incredible Bryn Bright on upright bass (she’s now Davies – uh oh, what’s up with that?) and the amazing Sharon Gilcrist on mandolin (when I grow up, I want to be her).

Not a single moment in the show was wasted. Four players acting on pure synchronicity and peerless musicianship, playing as smooth and flawless as a fine silk wrapping us in ribbons of sound. This wasn’t just a show. This was stewardship.

No mention was made of Larry’s passing, nor any suggestion that anything was amiss. Tony Rice took the stage in that quiet unassuming way he does, provoking a cascade of gracious appreciation from a predictably warm Kent Stage audience (the house was nearly packed; it was an accident that I nailed a second row seat). Folks had driven from Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania to see this show. There was no cold on any shoulder that night.

Pete Rowan is always an equally gracious showman. Brought up as a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, he is a warm and generous performer, a mix of Bluegrass boy and Southwestern cowboy, easing us from tune to tune. To look at him is to know a kind heart, to listen is to welcome a warm, gentle spirit

I give Tony and Pete enormous credit for presenting alongside them women in less traditional, less glamorous band roles. Sharon is recognizable as mandolin player from Uncle Earl; with these guys she flexes her bluegrass mando muscle, inspiring me to come home at midnight and practice (but not too loudly and not for long). Bryn is just a gift. She is unafraid, and pours herself out in her bass playing. She is exceptional.

At one point during the long single set (broken only by the three encores we demanded), I sat back in my chair, listening to a solo Tony was playing, and felt my eyes well up. Was I unhappy? What were these feelings? Why now? And then I realized that I was feeling completely grateful. I am grateful, grateful for Tony Rice’s playing which always brings me peace and inspires me to work harder. I’m grateful that I have had the opportunity to see him play in person. I’m grateful for the recorded treasures he left behind as a singer before cancer claimed his voice. I’m grateful that he’s still here showing us what it means to lead peacefully.

Be sure to catch this quartet if they swing near you. You’ll be grateful, too.

Enjoy one of the most beautiful songs you'll ever hear by clicking here:
Shirt Off My Back (Pete Rowan and Tony Rice)

Listen to Larry, Wyatt, Ronnie, and Tony

Sunday, May 21, 2006

“It may be different elsewhere. But Democratic society – in it – the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may.”

President Kennedy spoke those words in reference to the response of artists during his time. But it could easily be said, and should be said, of all of us, in any occupation, any time, and especially now.

As things continue on their downward spiral in this world while most W-eary Americans grind away trying to make ends meet, I’ve gotten angrier, and angrier, and angrier. Like many of you I feel a bit defeated in trying to do or say anything, because the agenda just rolls along in what appears to be our President’s own personal direction. People around me are baffled by his behavior, but having raised two toddlers, I can say, that’s what he is: a toddler, testing his ability to defy the authority (of Congress), conceiving a world that is solely about him and an economy that exists for his benefit only. I feel so often that the rest of us are invisible at best, unwelcome at most.

I go back and forth with myself about the intent and purpose of this blog. For the most part, I want to introduce to a few people some new music, artists they may not know, or for seasoned visitors well steeped in the traditions and the people, maybe a new way of looking at an artist or a song or an instrument. There is so much. But, at the same time, I have established a public platform. I could use that platform to share niceties about things like how absolutely extraordinary the Tony Rice show was last night. Or, I could take an opportunity now and then to remind readers that, for example, our President (Ok, yours; I didn’t vote for him) is simultaneously propelling our nation higher into debt and trying to make new friends by passing a $70 billion tax cut, which will be taken out of the hides of education, health care, human services, arts and culture. (Just go on now, most arts and cultural organizations have already been warned.) A roster of the most decorated former generals of the United States Army stood up and said Rummy’s gotta go; in his most formidable preschooler voice the President said, “No. He’s not going anywhere. Na-na-na-na boo-boo.”

We have essentially before us six months until a critical election in which many gubernatorial and congressional races will be decided. Don’t sit on your duff if you have time or energy or half a brain you could devote to change. I get that many readers are tired of politics; here’s my response: I’m tired of hearing people whine when they haven’t done anything to solve the problem. I’m tired of hearing people who get paid handsomely whine about the jobs they are lucky to have. I’m tired of hearing how people are getting hit with high gas prices but continue to purchase and drive SUVs. (Before it starts: Yes, I drive a station wagon. It’s paid for with my poor dead mother’s money, and with it I haul bicycles, kids, guitars, friends, luggage, recycling, plants, and someday, probably a dog. And I’d trade it for a Prius today, but I can’t afford a car payment so I’m stuck with eliminating vacations and reducing the number of unnecessary errands I run.) I’m tired of people talking about how expensive everything is when half the crap they buy they don’t need anyway. There are exceptions: One is food prices, which are skyrocketing, and show no sign of slowing. That is likely tied in no small way to fuel prices, and the freight charges are being passed on to us. I’m no longer embarrassed to admit I clip coupons – and use them. Another clearly is energy prices, and I’m not just talking petroleum. You explain to me how my natural gas bill can still be so high when the gas recovery rates and demand both have gone down after this mild winter.

Another big one for me: religion. I am sick and tired of being sick and TIRED of hearing politicians on any side of the aisle use God to justify ANYTHING. How about doing the right thing because it’s the right thing? So to all those theocrats all worked up about The War on Christianity: how many times has our President used the word, “CRUSADE”, in describing his attacks on the Muslim world? Are the members of that entire administration really so stupid as to imagine the rest of the world shouldn’t hate us? PUT THE PRAYER BOOKS DOWN AND SHUT UP ALREADY.

That’s just politics. Think of all the other things wrong with the world because of our nation’s corporate greed, our racism (why isn’t more being done in Darfur? I bet that $70 billion could go a long way to feed a hungry African child or move AIDS research along, don’t you think?), and our institutional inability to allow that our ideology might not be the best for advancing humanity. Look what’s it’s done for us.

So. There’s really quite a lot that needs to change. And frankly, any artist who doesn’t use his or her platform to advance change is denying part of the responsibility that goes along with fame. I know a lot of people make the conclusion that people of any sort of fame use their platforms as publicity stunts. When I saw a segment on Bono the other night, I fully expected the blogs to roll with bitching about how yet another famous artist was using the world’s plight as his gain. But as far as I’m concerned, if you’re in a position to do something, ANYthing, that might win over our media-obsessed society and get them to pay attention for five minutes, you sure as hell had better try.

My experiences and observations of and within the bluegrass and traditional music community have taught me that it is a community of diverse political and social views. I want to offer a forum here that helps the music we all love reach a wider audience and become more practiced. At the same time, I have a hard time believing the world is going to be a place where anyone has time to make or enjoy music if things continue on in their present course. So our paths may divide here to a point.

But before you give up on me, visit Music Row Democrats. Remember when big fat greedy commercial radio pulled the Dixie Chicks (and many of Tim O'Brien's sweet royaltied songs to boot) off the air because they spoke truth to power? That is precisely the kind of anti-democratic behavior we'll get more of until we kill the fear. Here's a clue for those who disagree: how long until someone doesn't like what you have to say? Go ahead and pull the plug, you fat bastards. We're not shutting up, and down the road, like it or not, you'll thank us.

When you go to the site, click on the "play" button on the box that looks like this:

Scroll down the list of tunes and click on Republican Blues. That oughta get your toes tappin and your heart feeling light.

Not what turns your screws? Try another, or visit the forum, or read some of the articles.

And decide what you'll do this week for change.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Girl Friday #15: Neighbor Girl Next Door

Somewhere a few months into immersing myself in bluegrass music and absorbing all that I could, I smacked into the old-time mountain tradition via the film, Songcatcher. Hearing some of those old songs awakened an awareness, sense of longing, and "rightness" in me that I had never felt, even in the throes of the St. Matthew Passion (the only other music that claims my attention the way bluegrass does is pretty much anything written before 1750). There was something more to this music than just the sound. It was an essence, a moment in time, a real slice of living.

My friend Ed introduced me to the music of Cary Fridley, who was for a time part of a string band called The Freight Hoppers, which some readers might know. Hers is a traditional warm, clear singing style that in her bell-like voice perfectly demonstrates the simple, direct, engaging character of old-time songs.

Cary is another gracious tradition bearer who has grown up and around the music and is carrying it forth so that the rest of us can enjoy the gift it offers. I am enjoying getting to know her work, and I hope you will, too.

Here's one of the songs I'm inspired to learn. You can sample a few others at Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Taking the Bad with All the Good

Dear readers, I am illin'. How is it that a small child can vomit the contents of an entire day and be fine a few hours later, when we grownups get the slightest viral or other intestinal irregularity and are felled for an entire day?

It's actually been a while since I've been sick, sick enough to be concerned about disinfecting everything, anyway. My sister had some horrible variety of this malady a few weeks ago and all I could think of was, of course, what if? And if came, and so if had to call "X" who graciously carted sprightly well daughter to school. I did manage to get son to school for a camping trip, but the rest of the day, aside of said disinfecting, has been a few work emails and an attempt to reintroduce solids. And it appears to be a beautiful warm spring day -- not the kind of day that, if you're lucky enough to get one, you want to spend it inside on the couch sleeping to History Channel reruns.

Days like this I begin to appreciate just how much we all run around and overdo. It's a daily process at my house and more intense when my kids are here. Bit by bit I'm learning to carve out time for practicing while they do something else for a few minutes. But I don't usually give anything else up. An intense work environment, while wonderful, also adds to the pace.

And so every now and then, nature just comes up with a way to slow us down a bit. I'm not completely miserable, just underfed and underslept. The birds are singing, I have a job I really do enjoy, and the vanilla yogurt I'm eating feels pretty good. My kids' dad was understanding and came to the rescue when I know that he, as I do, always want to squeeze extra time in at the office when it's not a "kid week." I'm very fortunate.

And tired. So, hopefully I'll nap so that when I retrieve my busy little girl, I'll be able to keep up with her for a couple of nights of just us girls as big brother enjoys camping (hopefully virus free!). Yep, life is really pretty darn good.

I do enjoy the recordings of Jimmy Martin, who died just about a year ago. He was kind of the quintissential bluegrass singer complete with high lonesome vocals. This is a nice little tune that perfectly expresses how I feel. Hopefully I'll still feel this way next time.

The Good Things Out Weigh The Bad
Jimmy Martin

I've been sitting here thinking back over my life
All of the good thing the trouble and strife
Well my share of heartaches yes so many I've had
But I still think the good things out weigh the bad

Well I've rocked my babies at night when they'd cry
I've seen the teardrops turn into smiles
And that's when I realize all the bad luck I've had
And I know all the good things out weigh the bad

Well I've never had riches or money to spare
Just a share croppers wages is my only fare
Yes making my living just working the land
But I still think the good things out weigh the bad

Yes I worked the cotton in the heat of the day
And then paid the landlord nearly all that I'd made
Well I've seen high taxes take all that I had
But I still think the good things out weigh the bad

Monday, May 15, 2006

Larry Rice, Gone Home

The world lost a great mandolin player and bluegrass pioneer yesterday in Larry Rice. Larry, who succumbed to cancer, began his career in his father's band, and went on in the early 1970s to found the New South with JD Crowe (who still headlines the band), Doyle Lawson, Red Allan, and Bobby Slone. In 1976 he was replaced by a youngster named Ricky Skaggs when he set out to tour and make a solo career.

Larry Rice was also a brother. Together with Tony and Wyatt, the Rice brothers had more than parents in common: their down-to-earth, close-to-home simple approach to everything from picking to praising has placed them among the most respected, sought-after, and cherished players in bluegrass.

I'm not a huge guitar fan, but there are a handful of players I adore, and Tony Rice tops the list. He has not had an easy life, but he models dignity and grace in hard times. I can't imagine losing one of my brothers at this or any point in my life, and I haven't shared half as much with them as the Rice Brothers have shared with each other and with all of us over the last three decades.

Larry died in the arms of his mother and Tony, surrounded by family. Godspeed Larry to that other shore, and may the loved ones left to carry on find strength and courage in the love you gave and the music you made.

Click here to hear an old recording of Tony and Ricky Skaggs sing a tune fitting the occasion.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Unbroken Circle

With all that is swirling about in my life and the many new wonderful milestones my kids and my nieces and nephews make each day, I do so miss my mother.

I'm not sure what she'd make of these troubled times. I know she would never believe Bush was elected to a second term. I can just imagine, sitting with her now at her kitchen table after everyone else was in bed, going on and on.

But then again, by this time, maybe we'd have had the music to share.

The thing I'll never know is just how much my mother knew about the stuff I'm learning now. I know that she loved banjo, and loved her guitar (which I cannot seem to find new tuning pegs for -- it's a 1931 Framus so if any lurkers out there have a clue, please email me). She used to sing a silly twangy song or two but also loved classical music. She and my dad both grew up in the hills near Pittsburgh, and as some of her family was from even further out, it's possible and even likely that she heard growing up any number of the songs I'm trying to get under my belt right now.

I wish she were here to share these things with me, to spend time with my children and all her grandchildren, to make us all laugh or roll our eyes one more time. Just say the word, "taxes," and you'd be stuck the rest of the night.

My great grandfather was actually born in Virginia. I'm not sure how old he was when he came up to Ohio. But I'm guessing he may have picked up a few mountain tunes in his subconscious. Some of those same songs were collected and passed along by another very famous Virginia family, the Carters.

Mother Maybelle Carter was married to Ezra Carter. A.P. Carter was her brother-in-law, who married her cousin, Sara. Together this trio not only formed the first major rural country singing group, but also forged a path in the collection and recording of hundreds of songs we now take for granted. Ezra and Maybelle had three daughters, one of them June, future wife to Johnny Cash. So, the man in black had some help from Country's first family. (No, I haven't seen the movie yet...)

Mother Maybelle was a multi-instrumentalist. She played banjo, auto-harp, and guitar, for which she developed a unique style of playing both melody and rhythm simultaneously. At the time she was a maverick. In 1970, the Carter Family became the first family inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

But back in the day, before country music even was, Maybelle and her inlaws were on to something. And that something is still with us today.

All our mothers leave something behind, with us, and with people we don't even know. Bits and pieces of legacy are strewn about in the universe and now and then we will bump into them. As much as I do miss my mother, those moments when I stumble across a song or a person or a story that has a piece of her in it may have gone unnoticed while she was still around.
Enjoy your mother's day, with your mother if you can, with things you shared wtih her if you can't.

Here an NPR story about The Carter Family here.

To learn more about The Carter Family and their musical legacy, click here.

Girl Friday #14: Playing with Fire

Yes, yes, I know…enough with the fiddlers already! Allow me just one more. I’m postponing my Mother’s Day edition to tell you that Sara Watkins may be coming to a stage near you.

When I first heard about Nickel Creek, I was in the early stages of my discovery of bluegrass and being a snob overall, thought, “Yeah, but it can’t really be bluegrass or so many people wouldn’t be listening to them.” Well, I was partly right, in fact. But when I first heard this band on an incredibly stormy, rainy night on top of a little Appalachian mountain in Harpers Ferry, WV, I was awestruck at the musicianship and sophistication of these very young talents who played under some pretty awful circumstances – like, having to tear down the stage to avoid being struck by lightning. The band adjourned into an old farm house nearby where they continued to jam until it was permissible to come back outside and finish the show. I miss having that kind of stamina.

Young Sara Watkins, brother of Nickel Creek guitarist Sean Watkins, is the band’s fiddle virtuoso. Yet another musician trained in the traditional fiddling techniques, she could nonetheless give the best classical violinists a real run for their Juilliard, Curtis, or Eastman diplomas.

Sara is coming to The Kent Stage this Saturday, and I’m hoping my kids and I will be able to take in the show to celebrate mom’s day. She’s opening for Darol Anger. (Whoops, I got in a bonus fiddler name, didn’t I? Hee hee.) If that’s not in your neighborhood, I hope you’ll treat yourself to one of her live appearances soon. Visit for a complete list of her upcoming dates.

And listen to a snippet of one of my favorites, House of Tom Bombadil, or check out Bluegrass Journey's opening frames for their take on a favorite fast-moving Alison Krauss tune, We Hide And Seek.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Calling Banjo Clark

Despite my commitment to making sure that bluegrass and traditional music remain living, breathing practiced art forms, a fairly strong interest of mine is the history of the music, and understanding the point at which traditional or old-timey music split itself somewhat along racial lines. What went in one direction remained as blues or evolved into versions of gospel and jazz and soul. What went in the other became Monroe’s bluegrass and later country, and somewhere in the middle you had parlor music and ragtime and other forms of popular music. Eventually, we ended up with rock with its own subgenres fusing any and all of the above or more.

But, in the beginning, there was music. And it was good, and it was shared pretty evenly among neighbors regardless of race or creed. Music, like any other language, develops dialects along the way; a single tune can have hundreds of versions, verses, points of view. Ultimately, what started out as a shared musical point of view diverged somewhere along the path tread by Lee and Grant. But until that point, the discourse of social class structure and its relationship to race was an issue that had not been forced, despite the legacy of slavery and its clear social message.

I'm not saying that "message" wasn't there before the Civil War. It was rooted in a perspective that European traditions and education were far superior to the social and cultural norms of African slaves and their descendents, even among our self-aware founding fathers. Even Thomas Jefferson wrote, in referring to the Banjar, that this forerunner of our beloved banjo was "...the instrument proper to them." Despite being so loved for more than 300 years, the banjo was primarily relegated to minstrelsy for the better part of its initial popular run. It wasn't until much later when clawhammer playing was exchanged in bluegrass for the more sophisticated three- and four-finger style playing that it suddenly became regarded as a specialty bluegrass instrument, popularized by mostly white players.

I'm not trying to grind an axe, here, but just find a way of asking, what happened to all the people of color? As the months roll forward and the summer festival season unfolds, stages will be populated with family bands, popular recording artists, and a few well-known legends of old-time. I'm searching for something different, for a change in how we talk about this music, who presents it, who represents it. I want inclusion, the darling of the corporate annual report, but in a real way.

A visit to my newest obsession, the Digital Library of Appalachia, turned up this clip of Clarence Tross b. 1884, interviewed by Roddy Moore. There was a time when not all bluegrass was so neat and tidy and even-metered, let alone, whitewashed.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Cool Release Tuesday in 3-D

What would the world be like without Casey Driessen? Actually, I don't even want to think about that.

The first time I saw Casey Driessen was my first solo trip to Nashville. I was at the crossroads that eventually let to the decision to end my marriage, and pursue a different life than I had been living. I stayed down off of music row, walked to the city, made myself get to know it a bit. And I dragged my sister and brother in law to the release concert for Tim O’Brien’s Traveler.

After a wonderful dinner, we were primed and ready. We headed on over to The Belcourt Theatre, not sure what to expect, but we were having a lot of fun, and as anyone who’s read any part of this blog for a half-minute, knew we’d enjoy the show because Tim’s music had caught us hook, line, and sinker.

Not only were we not disappointed, but completely enthralled. The lineup was extraordinary – Tim, Kenny Malone, John Doyle, Dirk Powell, and the amazing young fiddleventurer, Casey Driessen.

Watching Casey play is like watching someone else have great….well, ok, how about a religious experience. He refuses boundaries. He is both a highly-talented and well-trained fiddler, and a unique stylist. The influences of his early training still ground him, but he’s unafraid to take fiddle and bow where none has gone before. Readers familiar with the nontraditional sound of Nickel Creek and fiddler Sarah Watkins might have some idea of where Casey leads you. It’s not what you’re expecting, but you won’t mind.

About a month ago my brothers and their families joined me and my kids and friends Lynne and Shannon at The Kent Stage for the Tim O’Brien show (which at this point you should be able to download from When I found out that Casey Driessen was in the lineup, I was ecstatic. It was truly a treat to watch my family fall under his spell, red shoes and all.

I entreat you to give him a listen. This new recording is what some friends have suggested has material of an “acquired taste,” but, based on the help he gets on 3D – including Darrell Scott, Tim O, Jerry Douglas, and Bela Fleck – I am sure it offers one helluva kick. Lord knows I could use that!

Enjoy a tune called Uncle, performed live with Casey, Steve Earle, Tim, Darrell Scott, and bass wizard Dennis Crouch.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Hard Row to Bow

In the last week I've made the acquaintance of a fiddler, which is something that doesn't happen every day, although if I had my druthers, it probably would. Nonetheless, it has been wonderful getting to know someone who essentially has been living the life I've been trying to learn and understand and get behind the last few years.

The other day we got to talking about the hard reality of that life. When the music takes you, it has you, and you can think of little else but how to make it, teach it, grow it, share it. I imagine that I am under the same sort of spell as someone with an addiction, although at least being addicted to old time and bluegrass doesn't pose any real threat to my life or my family save that friends and family probably get sick of hearing about it. If they have, so far they have been polite enough not to say anything.

So. Imagine that this is your chosen vocation. You play music, and you're very good at it, and, you love it like a priest or nun loves the vows. But, to put food on the table, you must teach, perform, drive a truck, sell insurance, and whatever else it takes to make ends meet. Essentially, that's what entrepreneurs do. But for about 99 percent of us, we get up, we go to our job working for someone else, we take care of business, we pay our bills, we save for college or buy new carpet, we come home, watch the news, eat the food we bought and cooked, read a bit, go to sleep. And we sleep pretty well because we know we have a snowball's chance at retiring somewhat comfortably or securing our childrens' futures.

Someone needs to explain to me why, in the richest nation in the world, the people who make our life pleasant are not rewarded as equitably. I'm not asking this on anyone's behalf; I really just want to understand how something so important to me and to many other people is so undervalued. Not all caretakers of American folk culture teach at the college level. Do y'all get that? And not all purveyors of culture are paid what they're worth. In fact, none of them are.

This is not a hypothesis. I work with museums, orchestras large and small, and many other types of cultural institutions that are suffering the demise of Americans' interest in cultivating society through creativity. Frankly, it sucks, and it doesn't bode well. Dick Cheney gets a $1.9 million tax refund, and people who want to work for orchestras have to figure out how to pay for health insurance? Um, I don't THINK so.

Over the last several days, while trying to make sense of stuff like this as well as a number of personal and professional things, one thing has become clear to me: I understand what it is to build wealth, and I believe that many people are successful at building wealth for their families doing what they love and what they believe in. I also believe that many people build wealth in jobs they hate or do only because they have become addicted to the financial benefit. But America will have to be a different country before loving, living, promoting, presenting, teaching, studying, demonstrating, and preserving America's indigenous musical forms is regarded as a sustainable and worthwhile part of our economy.

I'm going to put my shoulder to the wheel to be sure my friend and many other talented musicians can continue to put bow to fiddle. If you visit this blog and enjoy what you read, please do get out and support live music or pick up one of the many recordings that are mentioned here throughout. I am going to do weekly updates on live music in Northeast Ohio; if you live elsewhere, get in touch with what goes on in your neck of the woods. There is great music hiding everywhere.

If this music is not so much your thing but you care about America's cultural future, get off your computer, go to a museum, a chamber concert, a historical site, a botanical garden, a play. Take your friends, kids, family. Sign up for a class in painting, photography, dance, hammer dulcimer. Or maybe even, fiddle.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Girl Friday #13: Trad is Rad!

About a year ago, there was a fun Rolling Stone cover story about the children of rock's greats. This mini-edition of Girl Friday pays homage to a couple of the kids of trad's best.

Fans of the Ken Burns Civil War series likely remember the sad but lovely and evocative "Ashoken Farewell" that set the tone for the documentary that focused not so much on the generals and the geography as the geography of the heart. The theme was not an old fiddle tune, but rather penned by Burns' friend Jay Unger, a multi-instrumentalist, humorist, and well-loved fiddler. Jay's daughter, Ruthie not only carries forthe the fine tradition of fiddling, but gives it a new twist in her band, The Mammals, which she co-founded with Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, grandson of folk giant Pete Seeger.

Ruthie also powered up an all-female band called The Wayfaring Strangers after the ballad of the same name. They offer up a unique jazz-infused stylizing of some of trad's best-loved tunes. At Grey Fox several years ago, no fewer than a dozen top fiddlers, from Ruthie to Dirk Powell to Tim O'Brien to Darol Anger piled onstage for an outragous round of Cluck Old Hen. It was, indeed, rad trad.

In a house where the breadwinner is a fiddler and music is the entertainment, education, and source of economy, chances are pretty good that it's gonna rub off. With Ruthie and her pals, it did, in spades.

Click here to sample several tunes.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

I Was The Everything

The other day I was telling a friend about my latest project of having to load decades of acquired music onto my PC. This has required my re-entry into earlier periods of musical taste, not all of which were bad. In fact, if I had known better then, I would have seen coming my near obsession with the music I now love. Anyway, my friend and I discovered we share a favorite tune in REM’s “You Are The Everything” from the band’s 1988 release, Green.

I always loved REM, from the first time I heard them. These days, some of what they did 20 years ago would likely be labeled "Americana" for what was then an undecidedly UNpop breakaway sound. I always felt an undercurrent in their music that carried me away. Years later I can now identify that quality as the band’s unabashed use of rural idioms alongside their very straighforward storytelling that favored the folklore inside the everyday. Instruments I didn’t know I cared about then made regular appearances. I give Peter Buck credit for bringing the mandolin into my life, even though it took me another 15 years to appreciate it.

This song just reminds me of many nights falling asleep to the sounds of crickets, the hum of activity in the rooms beneath me, often music -- albeit jazz, big band, or some other than bluegrass -- and no doubt conversation over a wide range of topics. Our homes both in the country and later, after we moved into town, always a little hub of gathering and music and conversation. This song also reminds me of many trips drifting off in the backseat, or in the very back of our wood-paneled Ford station wagon surrounded by luggage and the smell of Pampers on our way to North Carolina.

It’s been satisfying to tread back over musical territory I haven’t covered in a long while. As I steer myself in a new direction and prepare for new challenges, new growth, and hopefully new experiences and opportunities where my career and interests are concerned, I take some comfort in the fact that none of it is really new. It was always there, like something in this song, an invisible thread connecting me to my future.

Here's to the modern day balladeers hiding in our pop culture, who have in their hearts the same passion for old stories and themes and bits and pieces of tunes, and sneak them into their work just to bring the rest of us an uncommon, unfamiliar joy.

Sometimes I feel like I can't even sing (say, say, the light)
I'm very scared for this world
I'm very scared for me
Eviscerate your memory
Here's a scene
You're in the back seat laying down
The windows wrap around
To sound of the travel and the engine
All you hear is time stand still in travel and feel such peace and absolute
The stillness still that doesn't end
But slowly drifts into sleep
The stars are the greatest thing you've ever seen
And they're there for you
For you alone you are the everything

I think about this world a lot and I cry
And I've seen the films and the eyes
But I'm in this kitchen
Everything is beautiful
And she is so beautiful
She is so young and old
I look at her and I see the beauty
Of the light of music
The voices talking somewhere in the house
Late spring and you're drifting off to sleep
With your teeth in your mouth
You are here with me
You are here with me
You have been here and you are everything
(repeat 1st verse)

Monday, May 01, 2006

Meet Me in the Alley

Anyone who has been reading this a while knows by now that I’m not the techno-savviest blogger out there. It’s not an area I’ve invested in as far as my personal or professional development goes, and I do regret it. On a daily basis, as a recruiter and as a world citizen, I am reminded how far we all need to go to stay competitive in this techno world. Even in the most remote Appalachian locations, broadband –- underwritten by government and foundation grants to ensure that rural populations, particularly students, have access to information and learning tools available on the Internet – is king. I’m still suffering through dial-up, but I’m also revenue-challenged at the moment.

My resistance to going fully high-tech has hinged on two other points aside of affordability: getting past the unfounded notion that I’m not intellectually capable of handling technology, and exhaustion or laziness that sets in at 9 or 10 p.m. But there is no question that I have to conquer it, and I’m taking steps in that direction. This blog is, in a way, part of my little experiment with self-directed learning. And by the minute, electronic media is changing the way the music industry operates and sustains itself. Ask any troubled orchestra exec and he or she will tell you: in the game of survival, relevancy is everything.

Folk was at the curve a few years ago when Internet-based radio took off. The brainchild of WKSU FM, my own personal favorite NPR station, is an incredible gift to us folk-wonkies. Spearheaded by WKSU folk host Jim Blum, one of Northeast Ohio’s best-loved personalities, FolkAlley has attracted world-wide attention and faithful listeners from all over the world. A team of hosts and other professionals keep the wheels moving, 24/7.

There are a number of impressive internet radio efforts out there, but obviously I’m tipping my hat to FolkAlley for keeping the world in tune with the latest folk, bluegrass, and traditional recordings, news about artists, interviews, downloads of live shows, and much, much more. Be sure to stop by, check out the many downloads – including Tim O’Brien’s April 8 show at The Kent Stage – enjoy the interviews, see what’s coming up, and stream the best of folk.

Special thanks to Jim Blum, a true local hero and dedicated and tireless steward of the best acoustic music in Northeast Ohio and beyond. In addition to FolkAlley, you can catch his original show on WKSU 89.7 FM every Friday evening at 9:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 8:00 p.m. He’ll spin you some good stuff, tell good stories, and keep you in our region’s live acoustic music loop. Tune in!