Category Archives: Bluegrass

Grief Work in the Basement Garden 2: Songs for the Journey

I once heard someone say that Loretta Lynn described country music as consisting of three kinds of songs:  “Songs about love, cheatin’ songs, and songs about Jesus.”  That may be so, but I don’t know of anything that a good song can’t touch.  In my last post, I mentioned songs that had spoken to me in my own grief through the years.  Usually they are songs that simply “find us,” a synchronicity of expression and need.  You hear it and it unearths sorrow or whatever from the deepest part of you, puts it up where you can feel it and when it’s done, you have a sense of relief or having found a treasure.

There is no “this will speak to you like it did me” list.  Maybe it will, maybe not.  But I do like to hear about songs others have liked.  So here is a partial “songs that touched me in the journey of grief and pain.”  You probably have some great additions to this.

  • Peter Rowan, Legacy   “Father, Mother”   This is one of the most poignant, most beautiful songs about sorrow and hope mingled.  A family walks together on a cold morning to the cemetery and remembers.  It is achingly beautiful with a stunning vocal ending.
  • Pierce Pettis, Everything Matters  “God Believes in You”
  • Emmy Lou Harris, Roses In the Snow    “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Green Pastures,” “Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” and “Jordan.”  Rickie Skaggs, and a ton of talent plays and sings on this old CD, but Emmy Lou’s voice and these haunting old gospel songs is beautiful.
  • Lynda Poston-Smith, Sigh of the Soul, Songs for Prayer and Meditation
  • Ashley Cleveland, Second Skin  “Borken Places”  I had the privilege of opening for the Grammy winner a number of years ago.  After a long career singing with people like John Hiatt and others Ashley went through a dark place in life, but during recovery rediscovered her faith again by remembering the hymns of her childhood.

    Ashley Cleveland’s “Broken Places” is one of my favorites

    Second Skin is a wonderful collection original songs in collaboration with her gifted husband Kenny Greenberg.   is a terrific talent the song that spoke to me so much on that CD is called broken places

Chained to the past, chained to the fear  
chains on the floor, broken for years
Freedom is calling me and my heart races

I feel it in the broken places.
Every diver knows there’s a lot at stake
But to the depths he goes as the water breaks.
And for every secret, well there’s a pearl he takes

  • Vaughn Williams, “Five Mystical Songs” with the London Philharmonic.  Based on the poems of the Anglican priest and mystic, George Herbert, the whole set of songs is worth listening to again and again, but “Love Bade Me Welcome” and “The Call” have been constant companions in my listening life.
  • Hugh Prestwood, “The Suit,” performed by James Taylor.  I like Hugh’s own recording of the song, about an old  Nebraska farmer.  The song speaks for itself.  Listen to James Taylor do it here with Jerry Douglas.  CLICK TO LISTEN
  • Johnny Cash, American IV, The Man Comes Around.  “Hurt.”  I guess everyone has seen this one, but the video is one of the most overwhelming music videos ever made.  It’s not his song, but Johnny sings about the train wrecks of his life and makes it his song.  The moment when his beloved June looks at him with sad eyes brings me to the edge of tears every time in a genuine way.
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber, Requiem   “Pie Jesu,” sung by Sarah Brightman and a boy soprano.  Webber wrote his Requiem in tribute to the death of his father.  I listened to it again and again in the 1980s.  “Pie Jesu” is so tender, and the innocence of the child’s voice in their duet conveys a transcendent feel for me.  Classical music is filled with great help in this journey, too many passages to mention, but for a couple of decades I listened through the great classics just for my own enjoyment and found so many great expressions of sorrow and grief.
  • Rosanne Cash   Black Cadillac   This makes a wonderful companion to your Johnny Cash collection and a necessary correction to the simplification of the movie, “Walk the Line.”  When Johnny died, daughter Rosanne did this musical tribute to her experience of her father.  Even without respect to Johnny’s life and music, it stands on its own as a great artistic accomplishmenr.
  • Vince Gill, When Love Finds You, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.”  Originally Vince started this song as a tribute after Keith Whitley died.  It languished for a while, but then upon the death of his own brother, he completed the song.  It has become one of his most lasting and loved songs.  It is out of synch with the tone of the rest of the CD, mostly country love songs in vintage Vince style, but I have been asked to sing this song at more than one funeral (a half octave lower, of course!).  You can listen to it all over YouTube.  It continues to speak to those who grieve.
  • Kathy Chiavola, From Where I Stand: A Personal Tribute.  Kathy is a well-known backup singer, performer and vocal teacher in Nashville.  It was recorded as a tribute to her partner, Randy Howard, a great fiddle player from Alabama who died in 1999.  Randy is on part of the CD, as the album was underway when he died.  My own favorite song is “Across the Great Divide,” a Kate Wolf song that describes death through the metaphor of that mystical peak in a mountain range where the rivers begin to flow the other way…

     I’ve been walking in my sleep
     Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep
     Where the years went, I can’t say
     I just turned around and they’ve gone away
 
     I’ve been sifting through the layers
     Of dusty books and faded papers
     They tell a story I used to know
     And it was one that happened so long ago
 
      It’s gone away in yesterday
      And I find myself on the mountainside
      Where the rivers change direction
      Across the great divide
 
     The finest hour that I have seen
     Is the one that comes between
     The edge of night and the break of day
     It’s when the darkness rolls away

  • Could I even talk about death and grief without mentioning the hymns?  They have been my companion and comfort and for countless others.  Everyone has a list, but mine are often connected with memories of funerals I have conducted over the years—now in the hundreds.  Singing “Victory in Jesus” congregationally years ago at the widow’s request as the recessional, while the wife, left penniless by her pastor husband, walked out with the family, head lifted up, tears streaming down her face, and defiant hope on her countenance.  My other favorites (only a few!):

“The Old Rugged Cross”
“It is Well With My Soul”
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
“Blessed Assurance”  I sang this one with a group of pastors in Israel in 1983 in Jerusalem while one of our leaders stood on a hill and wept over a loss in his family shortly before the trip.  I will never forget his silhouette in the morning sun, hand braced against a solitary tree, head down, face buried in a handkerchief, while we sang, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior, all the day long.”
“Amazing Grace”
“Shall We Gather At the River”

Doc, Doug and Earl…Bluegrass Goodbyes

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

Old Doc Watson. Nobody quite like him. He called himself, “just one of the people.”

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.

Doc and Merle in happy times.

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”

Doug, Doc and Earl…Bluegrass Breakdown and Cry

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

The Darling Family, “that one makes me cry, Paw”

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-

Dillard and Clark, whose songs “Polly” and “Through the Morning, Through the Night” were covered by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their hit CD a few years back, “Raising Sand”

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.”

Doug Dillard, Banjo player, also graduated with a degree in accounting.

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.

 

 

 

Farewell, Earl Scruggs, and Thank You

1964, on top of the world, with Lester Flatt

Earl Scruggs, “pioneer” as the Huffington Post put it,  of the Three-finger Banjo style, has died.  For some of us, he has been a mentor and inspiration our whole lives.   He was not merely a pioneer, he was the King.  And there are many legends on the banjo–Bela Fleck, Ralph Stanley, Jens Kruger, Don Reno, J. D. Crowe, and many greats.  But no one like Earl.

As a displaced North Carolina boy moving around the country, my Dad kept me connected to music.  He had a Silvertone electric guitar from Sears and a Harmony archtop acoustic guitar.  The electric would shock you if you played in bare feet on the garage floor so I tended to play the acoustic.  I didn’t know much about Earl Scruggs, but I kept running into him over the years.

When we moved to Irving, Texas in the late Sixties, I learned to play very slow rhythm guitar to a very slow “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” (LISTEN) with my seventh grade friend,  Brad Phillips, who was the odd combination of a banjo playing Episcopalian. Read the rest of this entry

Weather or Not

Weather.  Someone said to me not long ago, “It is humbling to consider that when you come to die, the crowd that day will be determined by the weather and they’ll sum your life up in twenty minutes or less.”  Humbling.

“Shelter” is such a “taken for granted” in America that we live more disconnected from the fragility of life as it is exposed to the elements.  It breaks in on us now and then—in California, by earthquake, in other places, snow or tsunami.  Here in the South, we live chronically subject to the tornado and hurricanes.

Hurricanes are different in that they are coming for days.  There’s always time to get away if you want to skeedaddle, even though it is some sort of honorable foolishness in this part of the country that there is always some guy named Leonard or Dude who never leaves and is filmed with a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth while he grins and nails up plywood on his flimsy house and shrugs his shoulders.  “I’m going to ride ‘er out.”  Sometimes Leonard is never seen again, but often he makes it.

I don’t have any expertise on weather, but this global warming issue seems persuasive.  How could billions of us NOT have an impact?  Now, what we can do, or whether it’s too far gone, who can tell?  We’re going to have to ride ‘er out.

If a hurricane is like watching an approaching army from a mountaintop, a tornado is more like running

Take shelter!

into Jack the Ripper.  Here in Alabama, when our local weatherman star says, “The sky is falling,” the local Publix grocery store looks like the aftermath of a locust plague and everybody heads for the house and their safe place.  My wife and I have sat through more than a few in the dark, sitting down in the basement where my office-studio is, listening to the weather radio and praying for strangers nearby.  After last April, the anxiety only went higher.

The closest I ever got to death out in the elements, other than almost drowning when I was six (I got hit by a car crossing the street that year, too, so I have to say, vulnerability I do know as a friend), was out in a rainstorm on a mountaintop in Colorado in the summer of ’73.  It came on quickly, and we were surveying in a remote area where there wasn’t even a road.  All we could do was crouch under a little hollow in a mountainside and wait.  By and by, a bolt of lightening and a thunder clap came simultaneously.  I saw the lighting hitting the ground about 100 feet away.  My arm hair was standing straight up.

The three of us on that survey crew hollered.  I think I yelled, “Whoa!”  Surely the most useless word I ever spoke, but I didn’t have time to compose any elegant thoughts.  As fast as it came, it was over.  And, Lord, we were glad to be alive, we were.  Exhilarating.

That’s what tornadoes are like—Jack the Ripper comes down the street and goes on by, and you are so grateful.  Missed it this time.

Reminds me, like the time I huddled in the rain, that life is very precious, never guaranteed, and worth treasuring every day. Electric lights, indoor plumbing and the delusion of endless electricity have fooled us.  We’re riders in the rain who still have to take cover when the siren sounds.

Since the weather Chicken Littlin’ is going on today, thought I’d post a couple of storm songs.  Bluegrass, country and folk have always written songs about duststorms, avalanches, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes.  Take a listen to two if you’re huddling down somewhere.  “Galveston Flood” by Tony Rice and “California Earthquake,” a Rodney Crowell song performed by the Seldom Scene.

This earth is where we live.  You have to respect it.  Like Clint Eastwood said, “Man’s got to know his limitations.”

The Seldom Scene

“Just a Little Talk With Jesus”

“Just a Little Talk With Jesus” is a famous old gospel song.  Last night, our band, Shades Mountain Air, had a grand time at the American Gospel Quartet Convention in Birmingham and sang this crowd favorite.  I knew that it was a song that black and white audiences in the South had shared since it was written.  It’s been covered by just about everybody—Bill Gaither, Elvis Presley, the Stanley Brothers, and innumerable mass choirs, quartets and Sunday night gatherings around the piano in little country churches.   (click this link to listen to the song by Shades Mountain Air)

It’s so heartfelt, so soulful—are you in trouble?  Look in and up—just a little talk to Jesus will make it right.  This song first found me in my seminary church, where I was minister of music and youth (a lofty, long title for a part-time staff member in a blue-collar white church).  My church was southern, small-town North Carolina Southern Baptist folk, barely scratching to stay above the black folk in the town—marginal at best.  Ever Sunday night we gathered around the piano and pulled out our “Number 8s” our name for the red songbooks we loved full of familiar gospel music.  Anyone who wanted to be in the “kwarr” (choir) would gather with us, and people would call out a favorite.  “My God is Real,” was the one Mr. Jernigan always requested.  “They Tore the Old Country Church Down,” “Whisper a Prayer,” “Troublesome Times Are Here,” Mansion Over the Hilltop,” “If That Isn’t Love,” “Hide Me, Rock of Ages,” and, of course, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” because the bass singers got to show out.

I’ll never forget the day that a black family showed up at our church door and one of the men sent his little boy back to tell them they couldn’t come here.  I tried to get the church to put up a basketball goal in our parking lot for the little black children who were always playing when we drove up for Sunday night church.  But it was 1978, and our world was cracking but the walls hadn’t come down.  I lost my first church vote of my career as one family who barely came to church brought their entire extended clan to vote my proposal down.  It was a hard lesson for a 24 year old future preacher.

It was our little church, where we came for comfort.  We didn’t want change, just the comfort of “a little talk with our

Rev. Lister Cleavant Derricks, author of "Just a Little Talk With Jesus"

Jesus.”  Lawd, we loved that song.  What a trip to find out that this white gospel favorite was written by an African American composer named Cleavant Derricks.

The website “Southern Edition” has a fine biography about Rev. Cleavant Derricks.  He was a wonderful musician who was born in Chattanooga in 1910 and had a stellar career as a minister, musician and pastor.  A gentle, kind man, his songs were sung by tens of thousands.   The website says that

The same songs that ministered to impoverished blacks enduring discrimination in the Jim Crow South spoke to the hearts of disadvantaged whites whose lot seemed similarly dismal due to hardships spurned on by the Great Depression and the World War II years. Like Dorsey, Tindley and Morris, Derricks would write songs that addressed daily hardships, praised a loving, sustaining God and spoke of the heavenly reward believers would gain following their labour on earth. Butler adds, “And, too, his songs were sung in the Pentecostal churches back in those days. Those people were considered the poor class—you know, the common man. They were struggling, and so his songs were accepted very rapidly because they did have that hope.”

Butler points out that “most people didn’t know [Derricks] was a black man when his songs first started being published by Stamps-Baxter.” James R. Goff Jr. concurs in his book, Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel, stating, “With an unmistakable influence from the shape-note convention arrangements and a style that often featured the bass part on the chorus, Derricks’s songs found their way into Southern shape-note hymnbooks, though few in the South would probably have guessed the author’s racial origins.”

The colossal stupidity and sinful ignorance that was racism kept us apart, but music and common suffering ignored what our systems and conscious minds erected to supposedly “protect our way of life.”  We always were one and the same.  Thank God we at least sang his songs.  So today’s song, in honor of Rev. Derrick, is “Just a Little Talk With Jesus.”  Thank God Almighty, we are further down the road to being “free at last.”  Free to love one another and sing the songs of Zion.

Shades Mountain Air last night at the More Than Conquerers Church in Birmingham, hosts of the American Gospel Quartet Convention

 

Wade Mainer, Uncle Vance and This Old Guitar

Wade Mainer

Wade Mainer died this week at the age of 104.  A mountain banjo player who came out of the mountains of Weaverville, NC, Wade and his brother J. E. were part of my life even though I never met either one of them.  They split up and had separate careers after 1936, and were a big part of the foundation of what Bill Monroe fused into “bluegrass” music.  Wade became the more famous of the two, playing the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt.

Uncle Vance Furr, my Daddy’s oldest brother, died at the age of 74.  He lived, all of the time I knew him, within several miles of the house where I first lived after I was born.  He and his brothers, including my Dad, were all carpenters and brickmasons, men of the earth and builders.  They worked with their hands.  Dad built that first house we lived in himself.

Uncle Vance lived on a main road, on a corner with a long drive going to his garage and shop.  If you turned and went on down the road, there were houses where moonshine could be had if they knew you.  Uncle Vance loved to fish and he loved music, among other things.  My brothers, Mike and Greg and I had nicknames he gave us–I was “Big Mully,” and Greg and Mike were “Middle Mully” and “Little Mully.”  I think that was short for “mullet,” as in the fish.  In those days, there were no mullet haircuts, and he didn’t mean we were stupid.  It was affectionate.  We were like three little fish.

Uncle Vance, right. J. E. Mainer playing the banjo in "The Mountaineers"

Vance, Dad and all the six brothers played music.  They lived near J. E. Mainer, who came to Concord to work in Cannon Textile Mill, so he could have a steadier living than music.  Vance played in a lot of bands around Concord, and played with J. E. Mainer some, according to Dad, including on the radio.  J. E. would come around and say, “Any you boys want to go to Charlotte with me and play?”  That was the music business then.

My cousin, Vance Jr., shared Uncle Vance’s old guitar, a 1949 Gibson J45, with my Dad so he can play it and enjoy it as the last surviving brother.  He played that guitar in a band he was in, “J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers.”  We took it to Nashville to Cotton Music, where the fine craftsman there put it back into stellar shape again.  He insisted we leave the scratches on the guitar, where apparently the fellow he bought it from had his initials scratched onto the body and Vance scratched them off.  Those are hallowed marks, he said, you leave ‘em.

It smells good and looks good–a guitar with a lifetime etched into its scars.  They are meant to be played, banged, nicked and strummed and sung with.  Remembering is important.  Someone is alive as long as they are remembered.  The Bible says that God remembers us–and that means everything about us, good bad and ugly.  But that remembering is life.  As long as we are remembered,  inseparable from the love of God, we are still around.

Uncle Vance was never famous, never moved from where he lived during my life.  He never got elected to anything, so far as I know.  But he had a story.  Some of it I know–an early marriage that ended with an early and untimely death of his wife during childbirth.  Years of work and some hard-drinking and music and fishing.  A journey back to the Bible in his later years and, I surmise, peace with God.

And then there are stories I will never know–his thoughts during the journey of grief, coming through the Depression and World War II, sitting alone with his guitar and deedling.  It doesn’t matter.  Somehow when I hold this guitar, I know those stories and those notes are nearby.

Neil Young has a song called, “This Old Guitar.”  I love it.  The lyric says, in part,

This old guitar ain’t mine to keep
Just taking care of it now
It’s been around for years and years
Just waiting in its old case
It’s been up and down the country roads
It’s brought a tear and a smile
It’s seen its share of dreams and hopes
And never went ou
t of style
The more I play it, the better it sounds
It cries when I leave it alone
Silently it waits for me
Or someone else I suppose

This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar    (Listen to the song)

Old-time, folk, country, blues, bluegrass, jazz all share a reverence for the heritage that helped them be born.  Somebody had the guitar before you.  Somebody played those songs their own way and gave you some ideas.  Before you change it and make it your own, tip your hat and honor your ancestors.

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Q. How many bluegrass musicians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?..:

A. Three. One to screw it in, and two to complain that Bill Monroe never did it that way.

I take Bluegrass Unlimited, and by far the most interesting part is the “letters to the editor.” Bluegrass fans are unusually obsessive about their music. I have pondered this, and perhaps it is in part because it is the living memory of a time and a way of life that is passing away, and in part because when we find something and love it we want to hold onto it forever

I am a Baptist minister, and reading those letters made me happier about the craziness of institutional religion. I told my staff, “Hey, there are fundamentalists and liberals everywhere. Month after month, the argument rages: “What is REAL bluegrass music and what isn’t?” Well, I think, “Who cares?” Obviously the purists.

I write songs, and sometimes when people say, “What kind of songs do you write?” I have to scratch my head and say, “I dunno.  Mine, I guess.”  Some are country, some are folk, some are whatever.  But once you record them and start fooling with them, and listen, you even wind up turning them into something else.  You just want to see where they will go.

I ran across this not long ago when I stumbled across (Okay, I was straying from what I was supposed to be doing) a Wikipedia article about pop classical entertainer Andre Rieu, who plays those  happy concerts on PBS that apparently purists in classical music call “Schlagermusic.”   One critic said this, according to Wikipedia:  “Boyd assesses the low points of the concert as the “Three Tenors-style” rendition of “Nessun dorma” which he finds was an “abomination”, while saying the concert’s highlights included “a sugar-shock sweet rendition” of “O mio babbino caro” as well as Strauss’s Emperor Waltz and Blue Danube, Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary and the Boléro.”

My response to this is to recall one of my favorite conversations in the movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” when Napolean goes to work at a chicken farm for a local farmer to earn some money.  He is hired to go into the chicken houses and is worried about getting hurt and asks,

Napoleon Dynamite: Do the chickens have large talons?

Farmer: Do they have what?

Napoleon Dynamite: Large talons.

Farmer: I don’t understand a word you just said.


I have the same reaction.  I enjoy the classics, but don’t know enough to get indignant.  Sometimes we all need to stand down about our tastes.   There are legitimate arguments about good, better, and best, but it isn’t all that hard for one’s own ego to slip in unannounced.  That said, snobbery is not limited to elitists.  Plenty of snobs in low places who sneer at anything they don’t understand.

Music, like authentic religion, is LIVING and dynamic. So let there be experiments and fusions. Labels are something for catalogs and libraries, but not for creative work. Music is nothing more or less than trying to get to that place where we say, “Wow, I love the way that sounds!” And something in the heart is stirred. There’s a place for honoring tradition and a place for breaking it all to pieces. And the world is big enough for all of it. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it and don’t worry about it…