Start Young

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

Ricky Skaggs and Bill Monroe

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.

Uncle Vance’s Guitar

 Writing songs started for me at age 16. I have been singing, though, all my life. I sang in church, hummed to myself, started plucking guitar and piano and anything else with strings. Somehow marrying melody with words came naturally. I would memorize tunes and never forget them. So it was not completely foreign to me when I started trying to do it intentionally. I have so enjoyed in recent years the experience of learning, crafting, writing and performing original songs.

In recent years, I have completed three CDs.  My first was permanent world of pretend, the second was Overload of Bad News Blues and the third was What it Is. Recently I remastered the second and third one and re-did the artwork.  They are now available on CD Baby for purchase and download.  A few weeks ago, though, I finished my newest, four years in the writing and “trying out.” It’s titled Uncle Vance’s Guitar and it centers around the title cut, based on the story of a guitar that’s been in my family. My dad and his brothers all played and sang, and Uncle Vance had a turn playing with a well-known North Carolina performer, J. E. Maynor in the 1940s.  The song is about him, and about how music is a way to express and bear our lives.  I hope you’ll take a listen!

Last Thursday, I had an official CD release concert in Birmingham at Moonlight on the Mountain.  My good friend and fellow songwriter Keith Elder opened for me. I was joined by a very talented group of friends and supporting musicians, Brent Warren on guitars and mandolin, Don Wendorf on mandolin, banjo, drums and harmonica, Rachel Turner on bass and vocals, Mark Weldon on fiddle, and my Shades Mountain Air bandmates Nancy Womble and Melanie Rodgers were special guest artists, stepping up for some extra good work on a couple of songs.

A great crowd turned out, and now the CD is available for purchase. You can get downloads online at CD Baby by clicking here Uncle Vance’s Guitar but if you’re a CD buyer, you can order direct from me and I’ll put it in the mail to you.    The cost is $9.99 plus $3.63 for shipping.  I’ll bill you by email!  Just contact me below!

Everything’s Bigger in Texas: the Oxford American 2014 Music Issue

OA Texas
The Oxford American Music Issue

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.  Continue reading “Everything’s Bigger in Texas: the Oxford American 2014 Music Issue”

Exploring the Discography of Life

“…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”

Mapping the Bluegrass Genome

“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

Shuffler and Boosinger
Shuffler and Boosinger

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”

Johnny Cash’s Music Lives On

Johnny_Cash_-_Out_Among_the_Stars
Johnny Cash material released this week.

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.

Continue reading “Johnny Cash’s Music Lives On”

Thou Shalt Love Thy Bandmates

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!)

Image
Shades Mountain Air at Moonlight, 2013

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”