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.
“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.
I have just finished a new CD entitled, “What It Is.” I have been writing and working on these songs for about two years now, and finally got to a point where they were ready. I performed many of them in my last couple of concerts and got great audience response.
I have written about 80 songs now in my lifetime. One songwriter said after you have written 100, you are ready to write really GOOD songs! 20 to go!
I am very proud of these songs. They are personal, emotionally candid, and like children to me. The musical styles are eclectic. What I am most thrilled about is the opening of my “store” online that now has all three albums on it. You do not have to mail me checks anymore and wait for me to wrap and mail a CD. You can purchase them online by credit card either as download, tradiltional CD, individual song download or even a ringtone!
I hope you’ll take a listen and would be honored if you like one to buy. It is produced, shrink wrapped and shipped directly from the factory to you on demand. Click this link to visit the store
Last Friday night, I was in concert with Adler & Hearne at the Moonlight Music Cafe. We had a great time, as always, and my incredible bandmates from SHADES MOUNTAIN AIR joined me to back up several songs. It was a great night. This album is about love in its endless variety and mystery. It is love, known first from God, and embodied in my incredible wife, Vickie, my family, my friends and neighbors, that make life so worth living. Continue reading “My newest CD project is done!”→
A new friend from New York reminded me of the Cash bio I read a few years back. Like everyone, I loved “Walk the Line,” the bio-pic of the life and love of Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash that came out years ago. It is not a true biography, really. Robert Streissguth’s JOHNNY CASH: THE BIOGRAPHY is where you get more than the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version.
Johnny’s story was, of course, about a many coming out of hard times, his well-known descent into drugs and alcohol that ruined his first marriage and nearly destroyed his career in mid-stream. The movie ends at the point where he turned his life around, married June, and got his act together again in the late sixties. It was not “happily ever after,” but for a movie that’s okay.
Johnny was (and still is—he stays on my IPOD) one of my musical heroes in the late sixties, along with Bob Dylan, Willie, James Taylor, Neil Young and a lot of groups you haven’t heard of.
It is also about how the love of a woman saved his life at its worst moment. He struggled with the poverty of his childhood and of early loss in his life. He carried a lot of that pain into his adult life and it nearly killed him. But he rose from the ashes of those shadows. A part of his journey was returning to the Christian faith of his childhood. Johnny Cash was earthy and blunt, but he was also unabashed about his love for Jesus Christ.
He once said this of his earlier failures:
“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space…I learn from my mistakes. It’s a very painful way to learn…You miss a lot of opportunities by making mistakes, but that’s part of it: knowing that you’re not shut out forever, and that there’s a goal you still can reach.” (Streissguth)
Listen to those last words again: knowing that you’re not shut out forever, and that there’s a goal you still can reach. Not a bad word for now or anytime. Our mistakes are not the final word as long as we’re breathing. If you’re dwelling in the past—the songs you used to write, the band you once had, or the retirement nest egg you watched dwindle away, hey, it’s time to box up and change addresses to now.
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. Today is a new day, even if you’re greeting at Walmart until a better gig comes along…
For today, here’s a link my daughter sent me from Seattle a few years back when her nephew was part of a guitar recital. Another little guy, five years old, did “Folsom Prison Blues.” Pretty awesome if you ever have five year olds still singing your songs after you’ve gone, even if they do say, “I shot a man in Wee-know”
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.
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 out 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
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.
I was reading about Hank Williams, went to hear Gillian Welch, and wound up thinking about Elvis Presley. Just finished the late Paul Hemphill’s wonderful biography of Hank Williams, Sr. This being “the Year of Alabama Music,” I have decided to do a study of some great Alabama musicians. It’s a pretty great list. Anyway, sometimes secular musicians, especially in folk, country and blues, are windows into what Stephen J. Nichols calls, “the gospel in a minor key” I call it, “the rest of creation that never finds its way into church.” We’re pretty long on the resurrection side of things, so that means we don’t often enough spend time down in the human soul and its perplexing alleyways.
Hank Williams knew all about those hard places of life. Dead of damage by drugs and alcohol by the age of 29, Williams was the first and arguably greatest country music star ever. A high school dropout from South Alabama who knew how to make people feel his pain and write about pain everyone feels. After his death, Williams’ popularity and legend grew, but about the time of his untimely death, Elvis arrived on the scene.
Hemphill says Elvis was almost the end of country music. Both he and Hank perfectly represented their ethos and time—Hank the rural and small town world that still lived inside most people raised in the Depression, and Elvis the bombastic musical fusion of the world that America in the 1950s began to aspire to be. Both sons of the South, about to blow wide open by the searing Civil Rights movement, all of its contradictions laid out where the whole world could see us exposed.
Last Friday, Vickie and I went with our friends Gay and Dan to hear Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at Workplay Theater on the Soundstage. If you don’t know her, you have probably heard her somewhere. She writes and sings a plaintive, almost “old time” style. Their concerts usuially only feature two guitars and an occasional frail or two on the banjo. Spare, haunting, perfectionistic, well- crafted songs and harmonies. Gillian and David joked a lot about how “down” their music is.
They write about hard times, pregnant teenagers and careless men, broken hearts and do it in a voice she described to NPR in an interview as a “stoic” voice. Surely she and Rawlings are the only duo to emerge from the Berklee School of Music with a sound like they have. They seem to have plopped down into the twenty-first century by mistake. They should have been playing on porches in 1946. Instead, they perform for middle class lawyers in jeans and t-shirts grooving on soul music of a world they barely remember.
That was August 12, a week ago as I write. Then, four days later, came the day Elvis died. Especially here in the South, August 12 is still considered tragic because the federal government didn’t declare it a national holiday. I still remember where I was—working as a carpenter in Dunn, NC, framing a house for a rich lawyer out in the country. We listened to radio all day, the only relief to the scortching Carolina summer. But sometime in that day, the news came. “Elvis Presley died this morning.”
I was nothing like Elvis, but he was one of us. His music filled our cars on long trips, helped us date, and was the background music at Myrtle Beach. The world never understood the part we all shared with him –a Southerner out in the wider world, never really at ease with it, overwhelmed by it, ashamed of ourselves in ways we could never explain, but still having something to say. Not unlike Hank.
Maybe that’s what keeps killing people like them, I don’t know. They carry something heavy about them, something they would sing about and live out, but never could quite exorcise it. Restless, haunted by hounds of heaven and hell, searching, adored and showered with wealth but never able to carry it off. And then they were gone.
So it was good, last week, before I even knew we were about to remember that it was August 16, 1977. Elvis was dead, and I was in Dunn, NC, putting up rafters. Thirty four years ago, the King was gone. Hank abdicated his throne and Elvis took it but it took him, too. What they lived, what they sang about, what finally killed them both, is too important for us to keep out of religion or life. So I mourn these two poets, storytellers, prophets of the broken heart, laureates of human longing. If you don’t realize that there is something spiritual about Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart” and Elvis singing the old “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” the old Carter family tune that Elvis turns into a soul shiver, or the maudlin “Long Black Limosine:”
So Hank, Elvis, it’s been an oddly moving time to be with you both. You are the troubadors of where we come from and where we tried to go. We won’t forget you. Let me end with the song Gillian and David sang from their Time the Revelator album, “Elvis Presley Blues”. Rest in peace.
I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.
I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.
Just a country boy that combed his hair,
and put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air.
And he shook it like a chorus girl.
And he shook it like a harlan queen.
And he shook it like a midnight rambler, baby,
like you’d never seen, never seen.
like you’d never seen, never seen.