Stories and tales from a guitar-picking writer, theologian, speaker, blogger and entertainer. From small town quirks to the bizarre realities of family, whacky church life and slightly damaged kinfolk, insights from a reluctant son of the South takes you along. Never know where it’ll end up but it’s sure to be worth the trip.
Some years back Vickie and I vacationed near Boone, NC, home of Doc Watson. We stayed in a place with a view of Grandfather Mountain and traipsed around in the Smokies for a week. It was great. We ventured over to Wilkesboro, NC where the events remembered in the old murder ballad “Tom Dooley” happened. There are many versions of the story and many versions of the song, but here is a more traditional one I recorded a few years ago more in the style of Doc.
Read a most interesting piece on the migration of lowland Scottish people to Appalachia via a stay and invitation to leave Ireland for the new world. Fortunately they brought their music with them and a century later, thanks to their geographical isolation, they had preserved it almost without alteration. Because they were from the lowlands of Scotland, they emphasized the fiddle rather than bagpipes, for which we may be grateful. The highland pipes are wonderful, but you can’t listen to a two hour concert of them. They’re like the accordian–better confined to Lawrence Welk reruns or background. (Yes, I know the old definition of perfect pitch–you through the banjo into the dumpster without touching the sides and it lands on an accordion).
At any rate, these fierce, independent mountain people of the South were hard working, resentful of interference and suspicious of outsiders. And occasionally murderous. Wilkesboro was the capital of the moonshine runners who eventually took their souped up cars and started NASCAR. “Family Feud” was not a television show. It was a matter of honor and violence.
Thank goodness the territorial domination of men over women is no longer the same among intelligent people, but the song is a memory of a time when things were a certain way and shame was powerful. You may have heard the Kingston Trio’s version or any of a hundred folkies in the Sixties. I was attracted to that version when I started playing, but I like this one better.
In Wilkesboro they put on an outdoor drama every summer of the story of Tom Dooley and the murder of poor Laurie Foster. It starts with a Civil War re-eneactment, allowing the men and boys to shoot off blanks for way too long with almost no relevance to the story advancement, but it’s great fun. We waited out a downpour to see it, and had a great time. It’s a sad story and justice was severe in those days, but at least there were concessions. It’s worth a see. Take some earplugs.
Maybe it’s true what Elie Wiesel told us–to forget our sins is as great a transgression as to have committed them in the first place. Remembering and grieving are essential to healing.
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.
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
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
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. Continue reading Farewell, Earl Scruggs, and Thank You