I have a modest guitar collection if you compare to some. Each instrument I have and play, though, is as unique as a child. Each has its own “voice,” and no two instruments are exactly alike, even if they are identical models. Each piece of wood sounds a little different from all the others. You learn this if you are a serious player.
Instruments have their oddities, too. Sometimes, tuning is not precisely right on every fret, or the “feel” of the instrument varies. Some applies to guitars, violins, banjos, mandolins, any instrument of wood and wire. This eccentricity, like that of human voices, is a source of delight, not frustration. The reason I generally hate a lot of electronically created music is the sameness of it.
Human voices are like that. I like gravely voices, deep voices, angelically soft voices, and raspy voices. Each voice expresses who that human being is, at least in part.
My very first guitar of my own was a Yamaha FG-230 Twelve String guitar. My parents got if for me for Christmas of 1971, I think. I had started playing music with two great friends who were musicians.
Both would go on to professional music careers, one still in it. My friend Woody had a Hoffner bass like Paul McCartney played in the early Beatles’ music, but that year got a Fender Jazz bass. Paul, who already played a Fender Telecaster like a pro by age 17, got a Yamaha six string the same Christmas. We both loved old country music and bluegrass. Paul introduced me to everything else in the world–he liked all kinds of things, from Grand Funk Railroad to Dillard and Clark to the Incredible String Band.
“Christmas TIme’s a-Comin'”is the name of a bluegrass Christmas song. When I was playing a lot more often than these days on the bluegrass and banquet circuit, I was always struggling to come up with bona fide mountain and bluegrass Christmas tunes. Generally we would simply take regular carols and hymns and sing them with a banjo and a mandolin. The few tunes from that world I came across were thanks to Emmy Lou Harris, who introduced me to“Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.” And then there was Bill Monroe’s tune, “Christmas Time’s a-Comin’,” whose words contained a single sentiment, “I’m going home. The house is ready, can’t wait to see all my people.” One verse goes
Holly’s in the window, home where the wind blows
The cane foam’s a runnin’, Christmas time’s a comin’
Can’t you hear them bells ringin’, ringin’? Joy, don’tcha hear them singin’?
When it’s snowin’, I’ll be goin’ back to my country home
Most of us have never seen “cane foamin’.” The irony is that the song was written by Tex Logan, an electrical engineer from Texaswho worked for Bell Laboratories with a Master’s degree from MIT and a Ph.D. from Columbia, where he pioneered what became
digital audio. Like his father, he was a fiddler. He played with a lot of famous people, including the Bee Gees. So much for the “country” roots.
But maybe that’s what Christmas music of all kinds does for us—connects us to deep and old roots, the places that were “home” no matter where we are now. This past Sunday we were inspired by beautiful music, some new, most familiar to us, but all around the theme of peace was woven also a sense of “home.” This season is the one in our church that is most deeply traditional. Amid all the rapid changes and chaos of Continue reading “Christmas Time Is Coming”→
If you don’t know who Ricky Skaggs is, then you really don’t know anything about bluegrass and old-time music. It’s important to distinguish those two terms. “Bluegrass” technically didn’t exist before the 1940s. It was literally invented as a form by Bill Monroe, recasting the traditional old time music of his Kentucky and Appalachian roots with a new sound built around his unique mandolin playing. The mandolin took a new role as a centerpiece performing lead instrument in
Monroe’s vision. He was truly a unique American music phenomenon.
Monroe inspired an entire generation of musicians and his influence lives on in all the varieties of bluegrass, newgrass, swing, jazz and a hundred other variations of playing involving the mandolin, but no one has embodied that variety more than a kid from Kentucky named Ricky Skaggs. His father started him out with a mandolin around age 6 and before he was out of his teens, he played on stage with Monroe himself, with childhood buddy Keith Whitley, Flatt and Scruggs and toured with the Stanley Brothers.
Bluegrass and its predecessor, the “old time” music, that was originally the dance music and music played in homes and small communities of the South that had traipsed across the Atlantic from the border regions of Scotland through Ulster and Ireland as immigrants to the New World, settling in the mountains of the South. They brought with them the instruments of their folk music, and it underlay their common life for generations. Like all immigrants, their music was a powerful identity that helped buffer them against the hardships of fitting into a new and strange country that did not always want them.
Like all people, the love for their children motivated their work, way of life, and the sharing of their music. Today, like few other music forms, you will see men in their eighties at a bluegrass festival sitting in a circle jamming with teenagers strumming guitars and 6 year old fiddle and mandolin players. Ricky Skaggs was one of those children.
It gives hope to look at our children and imagine what they might do. They are not jaded yet by our own deep prejudices and ignorant opinions
about “how it is.” So today, I share this video I came across of little RIcky Skaggs, age seven, playing on television with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Teach your children well. And maybe their elder’s failures will give way to something wonderful, unexpected and new.
Doesn’t conflict at this moment in Lent to me at all, when we are wringing hands, troubled in mind, struggling with hope and anxious to the gills, to pick up my mandolin at home, play a tune, and feel something lift out of the room. Wherever that sound came from (and as a man of faith, I think I know), it says, “There’s still something unexpectedly beautiful up ahead. Go on, and don’t give up.” If you don’t know any seven year olds, I suggest you enlarge your life and bit, get out of yourself, and look for hope in the strings and paintings and delightful voices of the young.
It’s a good time to polish up friendships, love family, forgive, thank and bless.
So I turned sixty, and for some reason the people around me celebrated for a week. I know with Ebola, the Ukraine, ISIS and Israel causing the end-of-the-worlders to crank out their book my firthday isn’t a big deal globally, but it has been to me.
Over the last five years I have laid to rest a close friend, a father-in-law (who was a second father to me) and a mentor and colleague I have known for 21 years and was my predecessor. The Shadow has been around lately. I have grandchildren. There is likely more life behind than before me years-wise. You know—morbidity hangs around. Joints ache a little more.
You’ve poured a lot of concrete by sixty. Decisions, patterns, character, and events harden into tracks out of which it’s hard to escape. On the other hand, those same tracks give a certain comfort and stability to life. It’s hard to break them up.
The upside has surprised me, though. A certain amount of “I just don’t care about that anymore.” I don’t care very much at all what others think about what I think. I don’t need to correct them all Continue reading ““Sixty is Just Alright””→
“…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, Continue reading “Exploring the Discography of Life”→
“The genetic code of bluegrass and old time music is more sophisticated than that. It carries stories of birth, life and death in the old days. It tells of children dying young, tragic love, shame, murder, alcoholism and faith. To learn the code, no stereotype will do. You have to descend into the music and listen.”
In 2005 I took a three month sabbatical to study, pray, and feed the senses. I went to art museums, read books, went to Nashville to learn about the music industry and played at open mic at the Bluebird Café, reaching one
of my bucket list items (the ultimate would be a gig on the “Prairie Home Companion Show” while Garrison Keillor is still on earth!). But a lot of that time was “exploring my roots,” musical, theological and spiritual—which led to a week at Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp.
I’d been to the Kamp before, in Maryville, Tennessee. Unless you are a devotee of the guitar and acoustic cousins like the mandolin, the “fiddle” (violin played a certain way), bass, banjo or dobro, you don’t realize that hundreds of camps happen every year across the world where musicians gather and play and learn the heritage of “roots” music—folk, jazz, country, celtic, and so on. In these places, campers rub shoulders with the legends of bluegrass, swing, fingerpicking and new acoustic music. I met legends like Bill Keith, Clarence White, Continue reading “Mapping the Bluegrass Genome”→
Anyway, riding in a van for a week turned us from “Friends
and Brothers” to angry inmates who couldn’t wait to bust out.
Fifteen Years. That’s how long Shades Mountain Air has been together, at least the core of Greg and Nancy Womble, Gary Furr, and Don Wendorf. We have spent a couple hours a week most of that fifteen years weekly at Greg and Nancy’s house, practicing, horsing around, composing, arranging, learning and growing from one another. We’ve only had one personnel change in all that time–Don’s son, Paul, our outstanding fiddle player, left us to move on with wife, kids, career, to Texas, and so, we were four again for a while, then found Melanie Rodgers. Mel has added dynamic new joy to our sound, and is now a part of our 15th Anniversary Live Album that is now available. (Go to the website store for our new CD click here!)
The album sounds great! We hired Fred Miller of Knodding Off Music to record and engineer our live concert. Fred did a fantastic job and we are so happy with the result. He captured our live sound and energy. It sounds like us! There is NOTHING like live music, and though it’s fun to be in a studio and monkey around with something until you get it “perfect”, there is a corresponding loss of that spark that performers-audience and a venue provide. We did it at our favorite gig–Moonlight On the Mountain in Bluff Park in Hoover, Alabama, with Keith Harrelson, as always, handling lights and sound.
I say all this because Shades Mountain Air is more than a band. We have become family together. We love playing together, singing, creating, whether anyone is listening or not. Greg and Nancy’s kids grew up having to hear us every week in their house. We have been through life crises, griefs, and changes Continue reading “Thou Shalt Love Thy Bandmates”→
Last night, I went to hear JIM HURST, IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Guitarist of the Year. That means he is a fast-pickin’ guy. “Bluegrass,” like few other labels, can lock you in. The people who love and adore it who are more on the “traditional” side (Has to be like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs played it or it ain’t bluegrass) will leave you for growing, experimenting and deviating. The rest of the music listening world (Country, whatever that is anymore, sheesh!), folk, indie, etc. is disinterested because they never get beyond stereotypes like “Deliverance” and the Beverly Hillbillies. Continue reading “Jim Hurst Can Play a Guitar”→
When you jam, you shoot for fun and participation, not showing off
Well, the other day Nancy called me and said, “Hey, we’re going to have a jam over at the house.” Jim Brown and his daughter are coming to play fiddle, and a couple of neighbors are coming, one plays the guitar.” So I went. We had a grand time.
Jam sessions used to terrify my when I was still learning the “discography,” as they say. The bluegrass, celtic, Irish, old-time and folk worlds are an oral tradition of literally thousands of songs. Just the familiar American fiddle tunes common in jams, like “Blackberry Blossom,” “Bill Cheatham,” “Whisky Before Breakfast,” “Salt Creek” and so on, number in the hundreds. And there are different ways they are played. Anyone wanting to learn guitar, and especially folk and bluegrass music, does well to practice these tunes until the most common 30-50 of them are familiar to you.
The most powerful truth about “fiddle tunes” is that they were originally not for performing but playing together and dancing. In other words, they were communal. It was something people did before blood-spurting video games, cruising the next and texting, all solitary expressions that tell who we are. Modern Airports are museums of eccentric anonymity—looking at their screens and ears plugged with those ubiquitous white Apple ear deafeners. Lots of people carrying instruments somewhere, but not a dern one of us pulls it out of the case and gathers new friends to pick. Shame. It would sure help us forget how much we hate the airlines.
When you jam, you shoot for fun and participation, not showing off. Off course, plenty of the latter happens, but it’s better if you don’t go for it. Showing everybody else up is, well, obnoxious, same as in regular life. It’s like beating your two year old in basketball. And it proves what?
Anyway, the world of this music is a world of sharing, courtesy, respect and encouragement. Not mostly about showy breaks, but all things decently, in order, and as widely involving as possible. I’m reading Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina, and in it, the author cites the “Ten Commandments of Jamming” by Laura Pharis.[i] Here they are, in case you decide to gather a quick jam at the airport next time so it can have a smidge of humanity amid the sterility of moving masses on the flying tubes.
1. Thou shalt not forsake the beat.
2. Thou shalt always play in tune.
3. Thou shalt arrange thyselves in a circle so thou mayest hear and see the other musicians and thou shalt play in accord with the group.
4. Thou shalt commence and cease playing in unison.
5. Thou shalt stick out thine own foot or lift up thine own voice and cry, “This is it!” if thou hast been the one to begin the song, this in order to endeth the tune, which otherwise wilt go on and on forever and forevermore.
6. Thou shalt concentrate and not confound the music by mixing up the A part and the B part. If thou should sinneth in this, or make any mistake that is unclean, thou mayest atone for thy transgression by reentering the tune in the proper place and playing thereafter in time.
7. Thou shalt be mindful of the key of the banjo, and play many tunes in that key, for the banjo is but a lowly instrument which must be retuned each time there is a key change.
8. Thou shalt not speed up nor slow down when playing a tune, for such is an abomination.
9. Thou shalt not noodle by thine ownself on a tune which the other musicians know not, unless thou art asked or unless thou art teaching that tune, for it is an abomination and the other musicians will not hold thee guiltless, and shall take thee off their computer lists, yea, even unto the third and fourth generations. Thou shalt not come to impress others with thine own amazing talents, but will adhere to the song, which shall be the center around which all musicians play.
10. Thou shalt play well and have fun.
Far as I’m concerned, ought to send it to the United Nations, Congress, and the G8. Some good jamming would resolve many of the biggest diplomatic crises of our time. Look at the dictators and tyrants of history. You wouldn’t find a banjo or mandolin within a mile of ‘em. That’s where the problems started. As the late Briscoe Darlin once said on Andy Griffith, “You got time to breathe, you got time for music.” Or, a man that ain’t got time to pick a tune, well, he’s trouble waitin’ to happen.” Stay back so the explosion doesn’t get you.
[i] Pp. 161-162, Hannah Allen is a contributing writer for the North Carolina Arts Council blog, NCArtsEveryday,
Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become
friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other. Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together. He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together. The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.
Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South. It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence. (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)
One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches. We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years. Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that. We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.