Stories and tales from a guitar-picking writer, theologian, speaker, blogger and entertainer. From small town quirks to the bizarre realities of family, whacky church life and slightly damaged kinfolk, insights from a reluctant son of the South takes you along. Never know where it’ll end up but it’s sure to be worth the trip.
Corporations are not necessarily evil in and of themselves, but the net effect can be the disappearance of everything that makes the place where you live distinctive.
Got a notice from my friend Steve Norris that our friend Dale Short put us on his “Music From Home” radio program yesterday. (LISTEN) (SMA is on the first program)
Thanks, Dale! “Music From Home” is local artists. I appreciate that there are still programs here and there in a world in which globalized corporate mass culture (which is short for “controlled by a few people who are not always interested in the music”) threatens to gobble up everything. Music and making money have a long and unhappy marriage. They love one another and need each other but they can’t make each other happy. Their families were so different. They hurt each other and use each other all the time. Sometimes they have to separate to get on with life.
The internet and programs like Dale’s provide hope that artists, musical worlds and songwriters can collaborate and pursue their craft in different ways. The web is already having a salutary effect on music. It is possible to skip the narrow funnel of corporate mass marketing that has produced some great stuff but also turned away some great music that people would like. This is why listening rooms like Keith Harrelson’s Moonlight On the Mountain and other great places struggle to make it and deserve our support.
These changes will be painful for a while, as they are in publishing and in every field. But as with all things human, there is also possibility for many good things, too. Hope you’ll support local artists, internet radio and local radio programs, and local venues and businesses. Corporations are not necessarily evil in and of themselves, but the net effect can be the disappearance of everything that makes the place where you live distinctive. Supporting local life (which means “I am willing to pay more for what I like’) is a way to protest the gobble ’em up and kill ’em off so I can have a house in Santa Fe culture.
We need to pay attention–how we spend our money, what we listen to, and where we direct time has massive implications for our future. Be purposeful in your life. It matters.
There were times as a young man when I complained to myself
A memory of Dad…where do you start? I have pictures in my mind. First, of looking up at this tall, silent man. Looking up in fear sometimes, in awe most of the time as he went about life. He was strong, good, quiet, rarely angry with us. I looked up when I read his scrapbooks, hook shots flying through the air, frozen forever as the ideal athlete. Playing catch in the backyard or playing basketball while he watched, always the same. You were the mount Everest of my childhood.
I have pictures of you with tools, hammering, sawing, sweating, up on ladders, on the roof, in the garage, in the yard. You weren’t still very much. I wanted to be like you. When I got married and got desperate enough, I got a job pulling nails and then driving them. You gave me my first hammer. I still have it, by the way. I barely knew which end was which, but I always watched you as a boy, so I tried to draw on that and learned enough to do for myself and become a certified carpenter, which convinced me that preaching and air-conditioning was a pretty good way to go. But still, you showed me how to use my hands.
Pictures of you at the store, day in, day out, working long days, all day, nearly every day, and never really griping about it. How tired you must have been! But, come the next day, up you got, out the door and on about your business. It was a mystery until we all did our time on the McCrory’s Christmas chain-gang in the toy department. Then we wanted it to be a mystery again. But I would watch you, handling things, helping people find what they wanted, setting up displays, really enjoying it, to tell you the truth.
I have pictures in my mind of you at my wedding, at my ordination, reading my charge, coming to see us. You stood around at the edge of all the noise and stories and excitement and grinned, taking it in, feeling no need to say much, but delight shining from your eyes. My girls adore you for your sweetness and gentle spirit.
Oh, and what would I do without those images of you sitting in the bedroom in the evening, by yourself, plucking that black Sears Silvertone electric guitar, singing, “I Want to Go Home” and Hank Williams. You gave me bluegrass and my first guitar and the love of music. Mother gave me method and lessons, but I have you to thank for playing by ear and the instinct for improvising. The joy of your retirement years has been sharing music together, rediscovering the music you knew as a young man. How I wish Uncle Paul were still here when I could really enjoy it!
And I remember some pretty short but wise proverbs you gave me. “We’ll be there when we get there.” “People do what they have to do.” Lots of stories. And as far as jokes, some of the worst groaners I’ve ever heard. Corny, but we told them to our kids anyway.
There were times as a young man when I complained to myself that you were so busy and I wished I could have had more time with you. But now I look back and see that my life is full of images you gave me. Work, family, music, faith. Plenty of good things for life. And I realize what a big, cool shadow you cast over my life in the heat of growing up. You were always there to provide for us, show us, and delight in us. I am grateful and I love you.
A few days ago, I wrote about the too-soon loss of Doug Dillard, an extraordinary banjo player who was a bridge figure between Bill Monroe and the “pure bluegrass” (which is itself an irony, since Monroe was actually an innovator himself. He took a hodgepodge of what is ssometimes called “old time music,” consisting of fiddle tunes for
dancing, old folk tunes, blues and other music that flowed from Appalachia and the south and forged a unique sound dominated by the mandolin and banjo and fiddle. He was not beyond experimenting himself, even bringing an accordion in a time or two. (Old banjo joke: “Perfect pitch—throw the banjo into the dumpster without hitting the sides and landing on the accordion).
What became the new “bluegrass,” newgrass, new acoustic and everything else flowed from the sources in Scotch-Irish music from the mountains and all of those streams, and several powerful innovators, like Monroe, Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and the Carter family. They influenced pop, rock, country and Elvis, all of whom (including the Beatles) declared their love for Monroe. This melting pot of music was, I sometimes think, an artistic shadow world where segregation couldn’t reach. The great traditions of music inevitably touched, borrowed and intertwined in ways that Jim Crow could not control.
The musicians themselves might simply say, “Music is music.” Can’t pen it up or lock it down. It flows out of a life, a tradition, a stream, and then when it meets another one, something new and wonderful is the result. In music, uniqueness and blending and mixing can’t help it. If our politics and culture are corrupted by control, domination and resistance to the new, art is the great underminer. It remembers tradition and changes it at the same time.
Which brings me to Arthel Lane Watson, known affectionately as “Doc.” Doc Watson is like Woodstock. Seems like everybody met, heard or saw Doc at sometime or other.
I am an exception. I have only known Doc on YouTube and CDs and guitar tablature and stories and books. That’s an extraordinary fact, given that I’ve been going to hear acoustic music at festivals, clubs, and concerts pretty seriously over the past fifteen years. I’ve gone to guitar camp three times at Steve Kaufman’s acoustic “kamp”, where Doc is revered and talked about like a medieval monk would think about St. Anthony. I just never got there. Preachers don’t get weekends off in May, generally, to go to “Merlefest,” the acclaimed festival that Doc started as a perpetual memorial to his son, Merle. Merle and Doc performed together for many years, but after he died in a tractor accident, Merlefest became Doc’s homage to his son. It is one of the largest music festivals around and you will hear the top acoustic players and performers there.
So I may be the only person in the world who never met Doc Watson AND missed Woodstock. Some lives, however, manage to go way beyond themselves. Every guitar player worth anything has favorite “licks,” a little four or eight or sixteen note chop that you can pop in now and then in an open space, something that says, “that’s me in there.” I have the famous “G-run” that every bluegrass guitar player knows, of course, but I have a dozen others that, when I don’t know what else to do, I call on it. I have one I got years ago when I learned “Beaumont Rag,” one of Doc’s most famous pieces, and one that nearly every picker learns eventually. Glenn Tolbert taught the lick to me in another song, but then I began to hear that little eight note signature in a lot of places. “That’s a lick from old Doc Watson,” Glenn told me solemnly. So I kept it and since it was one of the first licks I learned for songs in the key of C, I found it coming along pretty often. So I expect Ol’ Doc will be with me right on to my end.
So Doc has immortality. There isn’t a guitar picker in rock, country, blues, bluegrass or jazz that doesn’t know Doc. Pretty good for a blind old country boy. When Arthel Lane Watson came along, sixth of nine kids, and lost his eyesight before age two, the prospects didn’t look bright. When he died recently, every major newspaper in the country from the New York Times to LA ran a story about him. They refered to him as a legend, a “guitar wizard,” and other superlatives.
Arthel dropped out of school in the seventh grade and began working for his Dad. He could fix a car by sound and rewired his own house. How a blind man did that and passed inspection I’ll never know. Doc Watson was a wonder. But it’s the picking you need to hear. You can read about him in one of the stories online—Just type in “Doc Watson” and read. I’d rather you listen and hear. Yes, since he came along there are faster pickers, but nobody was doing what he did until he did it.
The very last one below is a haunting rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Yes, indeed. “I once was blind, but now I see.” Sing it, brother. I like to think about you laying those new eyes you get from God on Merle for the very first time.
This has been one of the unkindest of years in acoustic music. First, Earl Scruggs, the Founding Father of bluegrass banjo, passed away (read my post on Earl’s death here CLICK) back in March. Then a few weeks ago, Doug Dillard, a rollicking banjo player who blazed a trail with the banjo across genres in the 1970s when he left the Dillards to join Gene Clark of the Byrds to form Dillard and Clark.
Of course, you’d know old Doug for another reason, if you ever watched the Andy Griffith Show. He was the poker-faced Darlin’ Brother in the family band that descended like an affectionate blight on Andy and Mayberry every
now and then, always intermixing their superstition and hijinx drama with some red-hot bluegrass while Paw (Denver Pyle) came along on the jug.
In fact, the Darlin’ Family were a rising bluegrass band discovered by Andy Griffith’s producer in a nightclub in Los Angeles. At the core were two brothers, Rodney and Doug Dillard, on guitar and banjo, and joined by Mitch Jayne and Dean Webb on bass and mandolin. They hailed from Missouri and had been performing on the folk revival scene when Andy found them. They moved to LA to have greater freedom to experiment with their music and its traditions.
The first bluegrass song I played was probably “Orange Blossom Special” with my Dad and Uncle Paul Furr on the fiddle on Uncle Paul’s porch. Uncle Paul exposed me to my first outhouse, although it was a little upscale, known as a “two-holer.” The second song I met growing up was “Bowed My Head and Cried Holy,” brought to me by my friend Paul in high school, while we were playing together. I loved it right away and got the vinyl album. In our current band, we learned Dillard’s version of this very old tune early on and still do it. “Bowed My Head” was an old time tune that Bill Monroe and others did in an old time style, but Dillard and Clark did it with drums, pedal steel and Byron Berline on the fiddle. It had an energy that would influence many others. The New York Times says,
Known simply as Dillard and Clark, their group, with Mr. Dillard playing guitar and fiddle as well as banjo, recorded two albums for A&M before disbanding. The albums did not sell well but have come to be regarded as among the earliest stirrings of the West Coast country-rock movement and an important influence on the Eagles and other bands. (Bernie Leadon, a charter member of the Eagles, had also worked with Dillard and Clark.)
Doug Dillard’s playing has shown up in all our lives somewhere. According to Billboard magazine’s tribute article, “the brothers still worked together in front of the camera from time to time, being part of Harry Dean Stanton’s band in the Bette Midler film The Rose.” The Dillards toured with many performers over the years– Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Carl Perkins, even Elton John. They left a huge influence on what would become “newgrass” and crossover music in groups like the Eagles and many others.
Doug could make a banjo sing. I read that when he first got his banjo he got his Dad to drive him to Nashville to Earl Scruggs’ house
Bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs answered a knock at the door of his Nashville home in 1953 to find an eager-
looking banjo enthusiast on the porch asking Scruggs to put a set of his special tuner keys on the young man’s instrument. “He was so gracious,” Rodney Dillard said of the reception his older brother, banjo player Doug Dillard, received that day from the father of the bluegrass banjo. “He sold him the tuners, then sat down at his kitchen table and installed them on the spot.” (LA Times—read the story)
The fine compilation of their hits is on a single CD called THERE IS A TIME: 1963-1970. It contains all the great Darling Family songs from the show, but also a lot of the songs the Dillards did, from folk to country, old time and blended styles. You can hear Doug Dillard’s melodic licks leap from the strings.
Anyway, I especially remember another song the Dillards did that is one of our mainstays, “There is a Time.” (Listen) It is a sad, mournful, truth-telling tune about how love is weathered down and dies in time. Charlene sang it on the Griffith show and it was one of the most haunting tunes I ever heard. Andy says at the end, “Well, that’s about the purtiest thing I’ve ever heard.”
One thing is different about Doug from his Andy Griffith character, who was always poker-faccd. If you ever watch a video of Doug Dillard, he’s always smiling onstage.
Some years ago, Rodney was invited to do the song with the Dillards on the next generation of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume III.” Rodney wrote a fourth verse to add to the original three that seems somehow fitting. Originally written with Mitch Jayne, who has since passed away, he sang it in a video that I leave with you as he mentions the loss of Jayne and, perhaps, fitting to hear as we think about his brother’s passing. The new lyric says, hopefully
Time is like a river flowing
with no regrets as it moves on
Around each bend a shining morning
and all the friends we thought were gone
Rest in peace, I say once more, to another banjo legend. Thank you, Doug Dillard. The Darling Boys are no more.
Tomorrow, I’ll remember Doc Watson. Two legends deserve their own mentions.