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.
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.
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 waspermanent 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 Guitarbut 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!
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”→
“…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”→
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.
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”→
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,
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