Category Archives: Creativity
We must face our losses. Courage does not spare us from them.
Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.
Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death. It is, in many ways, our most universal experience. It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship. The question is, “What are we to do with it?”
I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.
One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is this one:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 1 Thess. 4:13
I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.
The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Read the rest of this entry
For many years, a member of my church who knows my weird tastes in music (if most people have never heard about it, I might have; if mass media doesn’t write about, I will) gives me the annual Oxford American Southern Music Issue. Given my roots and rootlessness around and on the edges of this bizarre and wonderful region (politics=absolutely bizarre; unelected people generally fascinating and gracious; land, music and layer of cultue—wonderful), he knows it lines up with my interests.
The OA is a journal with as colorful and eccentric history to match the region it writes about, but plenty has been written about it elsewhere. Just a few lines to mention the music issue, which isn’t cheap ($12.95) but well worth it. Every year, a particular state’s rich heritage of famous and not-so-well-known songwriters and performers are showcased. Read the rest of this entry
“…there is a playful randomness about what we find and read. Or rather, what finds us”
When I first rekindled my interest in songwriting and music again, sixteen or seventeen years ago, I began hanging out in music stores, playing the guitar again and digging out songs from my memory and on faded notebook paper from years ago. One day, a worker in the store I frequent most, Fretted Instruments of Birminghm, said, “Are you just starting to explore the discography?” I had just said that “I was getting into bluegrass music” and that was his reply.
I began to delve into just that—listening, going to shows, scooting to Nashville now and then. I bought a collection of Bill Monroe’s music. Over the coming years, I heard a lot of music live—Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Nickel Creek, J. D. Crowe, Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, as well as a lot of lesser-known but excellent players and singers coming through the Station Inn in Nashville or here in Birmingham, Read the rest of this entry
Johnny Cash, in many ways, lived as a prism of
the last half of the twentieth century,
at least a Southern version of that.
Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003, going out in a blaze of recording glory with his last work, four albums titles “American I-IV”. Ever experimenting and interacting with the musical world, the series, produced with the help of Rick Rubin, was highly acclaimed. “Hurt,” and the accompanying video, appearing three months before June’s death and seven before Johnny himself succumbed to diabetes.
The brilliant video serves as a summary and eulogy for the man in black. But apparently it was not the end of his recording career. This week the world is meeting the music of Johnny Cash once again. “Out Among the Stars,” a never-released album of songs recorded in 1984, was unearthed by his son and released to the public. I just got it and am listening through.
The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South,
is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.
Surely by now you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, PADDLE FASTER—I HEAR BANJOS PLAYING. It’s an allusion to the worst movie for the banjo’s image since the minstrel era—“Deliverance.” Despite the wonderful “Dueling Banjos” song, which was written by the talented Arthur Smith, whom I used to watch on TV from Charlotte, NC as a boy (and who also wrote the “Guitar Boogie.”), it was an image I’d as soon forget.
The banjo is associated with rednecks, hillbillies, and racism in the American mind. We think of it as an instrument of uneducated mountaineers in the rural South. We remember white people in blackface mimicking the music of the plantations that makes us wince in pain now. And that’s too bad. The banjo is an instrument that contains a shared history in black and white. It is an African instrument that white people—especially the poor–came to love.
Unfortunately, the searing history of the plantation, slavery, with all of its terrible damage to the people brought here against their wills, left us with a bizarre and tragic legacy of contradictions that perhaps reflect in our music. The notion that an African instrument, the banjo, would embody racism is odd indeed. The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South, is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people. From the painful memories of the minstrels to the accusations against Elvis as “race music,” the musical inventions of southern culture—jazz, gospel, rock, soul, R&B, blues, country, folk and bluegrass—all formed bridges across a divide that was stupidly attempted by law and cultural taboo.
A couple of video explorations that will open up that world for you differently. One is “Give Me the Banjo” NARRATED
BY Steve Martin on PBS. You can watch it online here CLICK It is a wonderfully told narrative of the instrument through its complex history and cultural settings. It will introduce you to a lot of players you’ve never heard of, black and white, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and other styles.
Like so many cultural artistic expressions, you will find yourself realizing that all your surface shorthand stereotypes are nearly worthless. Finding the worlds under the music is like the difference between taking a tour of a country and living there.
Finally, I recently found Bela Fleck’s wonderful documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.” A camera crew follows the master banjo player and his sound man as they traipse through Africa to reintroduce the instrument to its home and play along with native folk musicians across the continent. Movie reviewer Lou Novacheck wrote of it in 2009:
The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar
trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.
Early in the ninety minute film there is an astounding clip of a group of men playing what is a gigantic “xylophone” made of small logs calibrated to different notes. Fleck, the great jam musician he is, finds a place to play along. The music is haunting, joyful, and you see as many smiles as any film ever has, genuine and pure.
Truth is, most music through time was not primarily entertainment as we have created it in the last century but participative. Music was a way that common people found relief from the dreariness of life and connected in their sorrows, joys and hopes my sharing the gift of music. The image for the banjo to me is not the “minstrel” or the sinister condescension of “Deliverance” at all. Those terrible truths existed and still do. But the image of the banjo is the jam, where people sit together and make music. There is an etiquette to old-time and bluegrass jams about taking turns, learning a canon of tunes, being invited in, and initiating the newcomer.
This year I finally broke down an bought a banjo (to go with my guitars, acoustic and electric, mandolin, harmonicas, keyboard, violin, dobro, bass, two ukuleles and penny whistle, among other things. I just love sounds—any and every. I have a Gold Tone BG-250, a gorgeous instrument that prices at the beginning of the high end banjos. I bought it from my good friend and banjo wizard, Herb Trotman, at Fretted Instruments of Homewood Alabama.
And playing it is not a political event to me at all. It is simply soothing, a connection to ancestors and the mystery of all life. When I sit alone and play, I am not alone. I connect to the ages and to all things. While I’m not very good yet, here is an MP3 I came up with as a first composition, called, “Dynamite Hill” with banjo and keyboard on my recording. LISTEN TO GARY PLAY “DYNAMITE HILL”
In a time when people sit, docile, in front of Blueray screens and passively watch other people live life, the jam seems pretty healthy by comparison. So I offer, in closing, a wonderful group from North Carolina, “The Carolina Chocolate Drops,” play “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” who keep alive that this music belongs to all of us. In the weary, tiresome deadness of current politics and economics, we desperately need the arts to help us find our souls again. A good jam is a great start.
The national outpouring of gratitude and mourning over the death of Andy Griffith goes on. It has spawned a jillion tribute video clips on YouTube and endless comments below each one about the comfort and familiarity each one brings. So here’s one of my favorites.
I have been plowing through James Davison Hunter’s book, To Save the World, which isn’t about Andy Griffith, but about culture and faith. It is nearly 400 pages, and reads like a scholar summing up his work to me. Mostly it is about the misguided foray of the church into politics over the past few generations—but also a recognition of the reduction of everything in our culture right now to national politics. Davison laments this, for cultures hold together by so much more than elections and news cycles.
He argues that we misunderstand the deepest work before us—to move the culture toward the divine vision of a kingdom that comes not through weapons, kings and coercion but through the power of persuasive love in human lives, ethos and story. It is a vision large enough, rightly conceived, to make a place for those who disagree with us without the need to punish, coerce and control them. This life we talk about begins with a man named Jesus and the character and depth that resonates out of stories and teachings that keep stirring up our thinking 20 centuries later.
Those stories in the Bible, like all stories worth reading, and like good acting, convey something that leaps from the core of the speaker and connects to us, resonates deep inside and keeps speaking long after we read it or see it. There is nothing like a life lived with its energies concentrated to something good and meaningful.
One of the tenets of Christianity is that we gain life by resignation from the egocentric self. In other words, while an “ego” is a normal part of human life, an egocentric life, obsessed with its own security, safety and control, can be quite destructive to the person and the people around them. This lives out large in the Stalins and Hitlers of history, but also in everyday life.
David Mace, the found of marriage enrichment, said at the end of his life that after all those years of talking about communication, money and sex with couples that success in marriage came down to one key—the ability to deal creatively and redemptively with one’s own anger. After 33 years as a professional minister, counseling, listening to troubled people, and coaching young newlyweds-to-be I believe he was right.
There is one key about the anger we have—the capacity to step back away from ourselves and take ourselves with less than ultimate seriousness. “Getting my way” is second to “getting it right,” don’t you think? But the egocentric self says, “It has to be my way or all is lost!” And you know what comes next.
I am watching “Andy Griffith” reruns with my wife in the evenings. Since they are recorded you can watch one n about 18 minutes when you take out the commercials. So when the news looks repetitive (as in EVERY night) or so dreary, or when we just don’t want to watch one of our history or biography programs, we pull up an Andy Griffith from the DVR and soothe ourselves.
This week, we watched one of our favorite episodes, “Dogs, Dogs, Dogs.” It was written by Everett Greenbaum and James Fritzell, who wrote many of the great “Mash” episodes and for many great comedy shows (a great blog about them here by Ken Levine CLICK
Opie finds a stray little dog, who disappears and comes back with some doggie friends. Andy and Barney are expecting an inspector from the state, so they have to get the dogs out of sight. They try sending them home with Otis Campbell, the town drunk, but they come back with more. Finally Barney drives them out into the country and dumps the dogs in a field to run and play. Opie becomes anxious when a thunderstorm begins, worried about their safety. Barney tries to explain that they will be okay, and in the course of his explanation hits of my favorite lines of all time. Dogs are not like giraffes, Barney says. They take care of their own, and they are low to the ground. Not giraffes. “Boy, giraffes are selfish. Just running around, looking out for #1 and getting struck by lightning.”
A marriage, a neighborhood, a church or synagogue, a club or a nation can only abide a certain quota of giraffes. Now dogs? More the merrier. I’d say Barney was exactly right.
I’ll admit it—I long for Mayberry and simpler living.
Maybe it never existed, but something in us says, “It ought to.”
Andy Griffith died today on the Outer Banks of his native North Carolina where he lived. A few years ago, I took my senior adults to the Outer Banks, and, other than seeing the place where “Nights of Rodanthe” was filmed and hearing about how one native got to be examined by Richard Gere as a bit part, the biggest thrill was hearing that Andy
lived there still. “You can still see him in the grocery store and he is an active part of the community,” she said solemnly.
We were the Baptist version of medieval pilgrims tracing the steps of a saint. Andy Griffith, though Moravian, taught more Baptists their character virtues than almost anyone I knew.
Being a native of North Carolina, I fastened onto the Andy Griffith Show at an early age. I was in elementary school when the show was on the air. Andy, Aunt Bee, Otis Campbell, Thelma Lou and Helen, Goober, Gomer, Opie and Barney Fife were childhood friends. I know a lot of the bits by part—I’ve watched and re-watched the reruns my whole adult life. “Why do you watch the same shows over and over?” my wife asks. But even she will watch “Aunt Bee the Warden” (she has a secret desire to imprison lazy men and beat them with a broom) and “Class Reunion,” and “Mr. McBeevy,” and all the others over and over.
It has been analyzed to death, of course. From its lack of diversity to its nostalgia overdoses, the show has taken its share of hits. And we all keep watching. Having lived in small towns, of course, I can say “The Andy Griffith Show” was half of the equation—the ideal, good half. Andy did capture the foibles, silliness and pettiness, but missing was meanness, racism and evil. Read the rest of this entry
We prefer a safe mediocrity to a persuasive truth telling.
Baptist news wires recently carried the story about a successful protest by a Baptist preacher to remove a movie from Lifeway stores. The movie is “The Blind Side,” starring Sandra Bullock. It was based on the book by the same name by Michael Lewis, who also wrote, Liar’s Poker and Moneyball.
I happened to meet Michael Lewis years ago when he was writing the book, and he told me he was working on a “really interesting story.” It was about a young man from the meanest streets of Memphis who was adopted by a family and placed in a white private Christian school. The story is well known by now—Michael Oher went on to be a football star at the University of Mississippi and now plays for the Baltimore Ravens.
I bought and read the book when it came out, and went to see the film. Football movies are pretty well required viewing in Alabama. So I was more than amused with all the other moral problems at the moment—debt, wars, racism, the disintegration of families, and do I need to go on?—that a PG-13 movie could cause such an uproar. According to the report,
LifeWay Christian Stores will no longer sell videos of “The Blind Side” after a Florida pastor proposed a resolution for next week’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting protesting the sale of a PG-13 movie that contains profanity and a racial slur…[the stores decided to] pull the movie, an inspirational film starring Sandra Bullock that tells the true story of a white Christian family that adopted a homeless black teenager who went on to play in the NFL, to avoid controversy at the June 19-20 SBC annual meeting in New Orleans. [The pastor who brought the resolution] said there is much about the film to be commended, but there is no place in a Christian bookstore for a movie that includes explicit language that includes taking God’s name in vain.
I get it. It’s Baptist to speak your mind. I know language has become debased and misused. And, it’s the right of any store and its owners to sell or not sell what it wishes. Still, it stirred a few thoughts about the mostly non-existent tie between Christians, especially evangelical ones, and the world of the arts. And why fewer people want to be Baptists.
Walter Brueggemann once said that in the book of Leviticus, which for some odd reason has become a moral center for a lot of people today, there is an emphasis on holiness as “purity.” There are other forms of holiness in scripture—moral and ethical righteousness, for one, that sometimes comes into conflict with the notion of purity. Jesus encountered this among the Pharisees, who could not do the deeper right things for fear of disturbing their own ethic of remaining personally removed from what might compromise, taint and violate their ethic of purification holiness.
I have thought a lot about Brueggemann’s distinction since I first read it. Somehow, a fully biblical notion requires more than avoiding “impurities.” Yet purity is important. An obsession seems to lead always to a rather puny moral energy that dispirits more than it inspires. Inevitably, it ends up with an account of morality that is always boycotting, removing itself from sinners and sin, and circling the wagons.
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.
LISTEN TO DOC
CLICK TO LISTEN With Earl Scruggs on “Cripple Creek” at Doc’s House
CLICK TO LISTEN to Doc sing and play “Sittin’ On Top of the World” He tells about his blindness.
CLICK TO LISTEN to Doc play “East Tennessee Rag/Beaumont Rag” medley
CLICK TO LISTEN to “Amazing Grace”
The Darling Boys are no more
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.