Blog Archives

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)

So, then, to continue from my last post, If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us.  We should grieve as people of hopeso what does that mean?

Here is where grace enters in powerfully.  “Grieving as people of hope” means that God’s grace is in the picture with us as we sorrow in life.  Grace does not magically take away our pain or make it hunky-dory wonderful.  I have heard preachers stand up and talk about heaven and hope in a glib and superficial silliness that emotionally slaps the faces of the grieving ones sitting in front of him or her.  If it gives them a moment’s comfort, the dark shadow will soon come.  If Jesus wept over Lazarus, there is something important in it for us as well. Whatever we believe about the life to come, it is always in faith, in part, clouded by the contrast between the only reality we know with some certainty against a promise that is yet to be.

Paul helps us in a second passage from the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 he wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; s_s_hopestruck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”

  1. Perplexed but not driven to despair
  2. Persecuted but not forsaken
  3. Struck down but not destroyed

What sustains us in life is not to escape affliction, questions, persecution and suffering.  It is being rooted in the life that transcends it. This means accepting

  1. The reality of death—as well as the truthfulness of grace. It not only does not avoid the worst features of human life, it enters into them.  Grace is seeing the worst about us and still loving us. I once wrote a song to try to express the anguish of this, called,
  2. The necessity of grief— Grief is part of life just as death is on its path. If we are to imbibe life as a gift, we have also to taste its bittersweet transience.  In the nineteenth century, Ray Palmer wrote the great hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and penned these wonderful words:

When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!

I have written about 110 songs at this point, bits and fragments of maybe 250 more, but looking over them, I realize how much time grieving has occupied in my mind. I am sure much of this has to do with my vocation–I cannot avoid walking through the valley of someone else’s shadow weekly–but I am also impressed with the massive  energy spent on avoiding the subject in our culture–and the price we pay for it. One song on this subject for today, “Trying to Remember” Read the rest of this entry

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, Read the rest of this entry

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, Read the rest of this entry

Musical Profile: Laura McGhee

Laura 2

Laura McGhee

Laura’s talent is immense and her music full of heart…,I hope you get to hear Laura sometime.  She’s a terrific musician and … You’ll find these tunes getting in your head and your voice humming along!

 

Laura McGhee performed together with Shades Mountain Air on Saturday evening, then came and performed at our church on Sunday morning, doing her two beautiful compositions, “Roxburghe House” and “Commemoration,” the former a musical reflection on a house in Scotland where hospice work now takes place, the latter a piece she composed for a 9-11 memorial in New York.  Set in the context of worship, they affected the congregation deeply.  It was quite a weekend, one in which I was able to spend more time than I often do with a fellow performer in a co-bill.

I met Laura last year when we shared a performance at Moonlight on the Mountain in Hoover, Alabama, near where I live.  It was a delightful evening, and her talent and musical chops were evident to all of us.  When our host on Saturday evening scheduled a retirement party for all of her friends this weekend at the same listening room, Read the rest of this entry

What’s In a Name? Or, a 59 Year Old Songwriter Finds the Milk Carton Kids

 “Gillian Welch & David Rawlings-meets-Simon & 

Garfunkel with a splash of The Everly Brothers

I am and always have loved the process of how books, music, ideas and people find me.  Life, for the most part, is an odd assortment of intentional seeking and being found.  Some people major on the former, others on the latter.  Freedom and providence is what we call it in theology.  Too much of either leads to bad theology and a distortion of reality. This is about “how the Milk Carton Kids Found Me.”  I love music.  Two of my parishioners, Kenny and Katherine Worley, love the Milk Carton Kids.  I love Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.  They figured, “he might like the MCK 800px-The_Milk_Carton_Kids(Milk Carton Kids from now on!).  So they had an extra ticket and invited me to Workplay,  a great venue in Birmingham.  I listened to them on YouTube, of course, but I was distracted by the handkerchief Pattengale tied to his Martin 000-15 and waved in a circular motion that reminds me of David Rawlings so much.  I came ready to dismiss them as wannabes, to tell you the truth.  I was so wrong. Wikipedia’s article about them describes them as:

…an indie folk duo from Eagle RockCalifornia, consisting of singers and guitarists Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, who formed the group in early 2011. NPR has described their approach to music as “gorgeous contemporary folk”[1]and “Gillian Welch & David Rawlings-meets-Simon & Garfunkel with a splash of The Everly Brothers“, which fairly represents the band’s music while also appealing to the intended audience[i] Read the rest of this entry

Fiddle Tunes, Old Time, and “Jamming”

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.

IMG_7462 (2)

Taking turns ain’t so bad.

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,

 

My newest CD project is done!

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.

A conversation without words. That’s what it is…

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

You can also get there by going to http://www.reverbnation.com/garyfurrmusic

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. Read the rest of this entry

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”

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