Last evening, we kicked off our series, “The Callings That Find Us,” with Dr. Danny Potts. An overflow crowd filled the room and was not disappointed as he shared his personal journey with brokenness and new life through his father’s long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. It was inspiring and so helpful to all who were there.
Next Wednesday we welcome folksinger Kate Campbell. Kate is a favorite singer-songwriter for many. She is a storyteller and singer with a unique voice that blends faith, justice and humanity in her writing and singing. Growing up in the south as the daughter of a Baptist preacher, Kate’s formative years were spent in the very core of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, and those years left a mark on her.
Her Two Nights in Texas CD received the prestigious Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters Award. Ballet Memphis featured several tunes from her song catalog as well as a live performance by Kate and band at a ballet entitled South Of Everywhere. Three of Kate’s songs (“Ave Maria Grotto,” “William’s Vision,” and “Fordlandia”) were recently featured in documentary films. A variety of artists have recorded Campbell’s songs including Laurie Lewis, Missy Raines, Ronnie McDowell, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band who covered her compelling snake-handling song “Signs Following.”
Campbell has played the prestigious Cambridge Folk Festival (England), Merlefest, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and Port Fairy Folk Festival (Australia), been featured on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Live From Mountain Stage, and had her story (and haunting song “When Panthers Roamed In Arkansas”) included in the debut issue of The Oxford American’s ultra-hip Southern Music series. Kate’s latest release Damn Sure Blue, a heart-felt collection of tunes that pays a respectful nod of admiration to the Man in Black and reverberates with the soulful sounds of award-winning Americana guitar whiz and producer Will Kimbrough.
Kate lives in Nashville with her husband, Ira, a minister a
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!
“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 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 (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:
Last night, I went to hear JIM HURST, IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Guitarist of the Year. That means he is a fast-pickin’ guy. “Bluegrass,” like few other labels, can lock you in. The people who love and adore it who are more on the “traditional” side (Has to be like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs played it or it ain’t bluegrass) will leave you for growing, experimenting and deviating. The rest of the music listening world (Country, whatever that is anymore, sheesh!), folk, indie, etc. is disinterested because they never get beyond stereotypes like “Deliverance” and the Beverly Hillbillies. Continue reading “Jim Hurst Can Play a Guitar”→
This has been one of the unkindest of years in acoustic music. First, Earl Scruggs, the Founding Father of bluegrass banjo, passed away (read my post on Earl’s death here CLICK) back in March. Then a few weeks ago, Doug Dillard, a rollicking banjo player who blazed a trail with the banjo across genres in the 1970s when he left the Dillards to join Gene Clark of the Byrds to form Dillard and Clark.
Of course, you’d know old Doug for another reason, if you ever watched the Andy Griffith Show. He was the poker-faced Darlin’ Brother in the family band that descended like an affectionate blight on Andy and Mayberry every
now and then, always intermixing their superstition and hijinx drama with some red-hot bluegrass while Paw (Denver Pyle) came along on the jug.
In fact, the Darlin’ Family were a rising bluegrass band discovered by Andy Griffith’s producer in a nightclub in Los Angeles. At the core were two brothers, Rodney and Doug Dillard, on guitar and banjo, and joined by Mitch Jayne and Dean Webb on bass and mandolin. They hailed from Missouri and had been performing on the folk revival scene when Andy found them. They moved to LA to have greater freedom to experiment with their music and its traditions.
The first bluegrass song I played was probably “Orange Blossom Special” with my Dad and Uncle Paul Furr on the fiddle on Uncle Paul’s porch. Uncle Paul exposed me to my first outhouse, although it was a little upscale, known as a “two-holer.” The second song I met growing up was “Bowed My Head and Cried Holy,” brought to me by my friend Paul in high school, while we were playing together. I loved it right away and got the vinyl album. In our current band, we learned Dillard’s version of this very old tune early on and still do it. “Bowed My Head” was an old time tune that Bill Monroe and others did in an old time style, but Dillard and Clark did it with drums, pedal steel and Byron Berline on the fiddle. It had an energy that would influence many others. The New York Times says,
Known simply as Dillard and Clark, their group, with Mr. Dillard playing guitar and fiddle as well as banjo, recorded two albums for A&M before disbanding. The albums did not sell well but have come to be regarded as among the earliest stirrings of the West Coast country-rock movement and an important influence on the Eagles and other bands. (Bernie Leadon, a charter member of the Eagles, had also worked with Dillard and Clark.)
Doug Dillard’s playing has shown up in all our lives somewhere. According to Billboard magazine’s tribute article, “the brothers still worked together in front of the camera from time to time, being part of Harry Dean Stanton’s band in the Bette Midler film The Rose.” The Dillards toured with many performers over the years– Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Carl Perkins, even Elton John. They left a huge influence on what would become “newgrass” and crossover music in groups like the Eagles and many others.
Doug could make a banjo sing. I read that when he first got his banjo he got his Dad to drive him to Nashville to Earl Scruggs’ house
Bluegrass banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs answered a knock at the door of his Nashville home in 1953 to find an eager-
looking banjo enthusiast on the porch asking Scruggs to put a set of his special tuner keys on the young man’s instrument. “He was so gracious,” Rodney Dillard said of the reception his older brother, banjo player Doug Dillard, received that day from the father of the bluegrass banjo. “He sold him the tuners, then sat down at his kitchen table and installed them on the spot.” (LA Times—read the story)
The fine compilation of their hits is on a single CD called THERE IS A TIME: 1963-1970. It contains all the great Darling Family songs from the show, but also a lot of the songs the Dillards did, from folk to country, old time and blended styles. You can hear Doug Dillard’s melodic licks leap from the strings.
Anyway, I especially remember another song the Dillards did that is one of our mainstays, “There is a Time.” (Listen) It is a sad, mournful, truth-telling tune about how love is weathered down and dies in time. Charlene sang it on the Griffith show and it was one of the most haunting tunes I ever heard. Andy says at the end, “Well, that’s about the purtiest thing I’ve ever heard.”
One thing is different about Doug from his Andy Griffith character, who was always poker-faccd. If you ever watch a video of Doug Dillard, he’s always smiling onstage.
Some years ago, Rodney was invited to do the song with the Dillards on the next generation of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume III.” Rodney wrote a fourth verse to add to the original three that seems somehow fitting. Originally written with Mitch Jayne, who has since passed away, he sang it in a video that I leave with you as he mentions the loss of Jayne and, perhaps, fitting to hear as we think about his brother’s passing. The new lyric says, hopefully
Time is like a river flowing
with no regrets as it moves on
Around each bend a shining morning
and all the friends we thought were gone
Rest in peace, I say once more, to another banjo legend. Thank you, Doug Dillard. The Darling Boys are no more.
Tomorrow, I’ll remember Doc Watson. Two legends deserve their own mentions.
The website “Sightings” put out an interesting piece this week. Thanks to my good friend and blog reader Lamon Brown for forwarding this to me. It is a piece on the music of Adam Arcuragi. I was unfamiliar with Arcuragi, but immediately was drawn to go read the piece and the NPR interview of Arcuragi. His album Like a Fire that Consumes All Before It, writes M. Cooper Harriss
…has raised interest in the popular-musical category of “Death Gospel,” a metaphysically attuned variety of the Americana genre named by Arcuragi. Death Gospel is not sonically related to “Death Metal” (a heavier
Heavy Metal music); nor is it overtly “gospel” music. Arcuragi describes it in a recent Huffington Post interview as “anything that sees the inevitability of death as a reason to celebrate the special wonder that is being alive and sentient. That’s the hope with the songs. . . . It is exciting that we can reflect upon it as intelligent life and do something to make that wonder manifest.” Arcuragi’s interview attributes little theological import to the gospel portion of his category, noting instead his love of 2/2 time and pointing to a number of historical antecedents such as Claude Ely and Johnny Cash, and more recent–and some might say more “secular”–acts including Neko Case and the Flaming Lips.
I was immediately drawn to this for a couple of reasons. First, because in my work as a minister, I am around death and dying on almost a weekly basis. I’m guessing my funerals are now in the hundreds over 32 years of work. I have buried old people, babies and everyone in between. Suicides, cancer, tragedies, fires, drowning, car wrecks, sweet release from Alzheimers, folks whose loved ones and friends were all gone, and those who left too soon. On only a few occasions did I bury people no one was sad to see go. One funeral prompted a member to come, “Just to see what you were going to say about him, Preacher.”
Yet in a recent gathering of ministers when I asked the question, “If you quit your job now, what would you miss most?” children and funerals were at the top of everyone’s list. Way ahead of committees, raising money, and listening to people comment on our appearance every Sunday. We all understood—there is something holy about death and the grave. It takes us to an edge of life that paradoxically renders it precious and intoxicating. All the people in one’s life, gathered together, all the stories and sadness, food and laughter in one place. Everything stops for a few days, no matter how “busy” we are, it’s not too busy for this.
Second, it is intriguing because I have, oddly, found myself writing about death a lot in songs. I have one about a man remembering the love of his life just after she has died, another about a man named “Michael” who faces death from cancer, a song I wrote in college, but added a bittersweet fourth verse years later. I have one called, “Hole in the Ground” that is so morbid I have never performed it, and another called, “Farewell, Baby Girl,” about an anonymous newborn found floating in the Chattahoochie River when I pastored in South Georgia. While some of it is fictitious, the basic story is real—a tiny infant, drowned by her parents, shortly after birth. I donated my services to bury the child in a pauper’s area where babies were buried in our local cemetery called, “Babyland.” What resulted was a song so somber that my wife never likes to hear it performed. I’ve only done it once.
I had a great time in concert last night at the Moonlight on the Mountain venue, appearing with Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne. Afterwards I found myself engaged into two intriguing conversations. One was with a fellow musician who is a Christian and an English teacher, and we had a fairly substantial conversation about suffering .
I did a little more milling around and found myself standing at the car talking with another new friend about science, evolution and the possibility of real faith. My acquaintance commented that the unreality of his childhood religion, its failure to look at its own shortcomings, made faith quite hard.
Acoustic music fans are serious about their music. I continually find the most profound conversations that happen in that place, where artists write gritty, funny and sometimes raw takes on life. That all of this happened at the end of a musical performance in which I did not do any overtly Christian songs is rather remarkable. It does make me wonder if the guaranteed happy praise and triumphalism of too much Christian music is rooted in a shallow theology underneath that cannot paint life with much reality because it renders death as unreal.
We are actually more comfortable with the denial of death. After all, when one of the most powerful commendations of many so-called “different kind of churches” is their claim that they make church fun, what in the world is that? And then we go and hear far more difficult truths from our secular songwriters, who often are actually taking all these things seriously. Strange.
I started singing in the Jesus movement in one of the early youth choirs. I remember one song in a musical called, “Life,” by Otis Skillings, when early contemporary Christian writers were cranking out material for a hungry marketplace of churches. I remember very little about the musical. I loved singing. I only remember one line, though: “LIFE, pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa.” It sounded musically like elevator music. Even then I thought, “This is pretty shabby.” True art tells truth, it doesn’t gloss over it or make it more palatable with shortcuts through the hard places. Tell the truth—onto every cheek some tears must fall. And then…REAL life can break through. I have another song that puts it this way, “Life is for real.” Without death, you never know.
Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King’s life was frozen in time for the whole world. His words keep living, his story keeps being told, and the events of his life are examined again and again. It is not that time any more. The pain is more diffuse, spread into new struggles for equality and justice.
It is worth marking the remarkable changes that have happened in that fifty years. We can go to any restaurant and drink from the same fountains. A lot of things are better, much better. But the pain he saw is still in the world–the pain of something not finished, a hope not yet realized, a brokenness needing mending.
The deepest wounds heal from the inside out, and only with the greatest of care. There will be setbacks and infections and discouragements, but there is still much reason to hope and keep trying.
I once attended the Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King day here in Birmingham and heard Diane McWhorter, whose book Carry Me Home recounts the impact of those momentous days of the Civil Rights struggle on the world. Whenever someone “remembers” how something was, it invites us to remember it from where we were at the time. I remember the civil rights era in the South, but it was not from the vantage point of an adult in the middle of Big Issues, but as a child growing up in the South.
I remember going on a hot Sunday afternoon with my father to the home of an employee. She happened to be African American. Her family member had been killed in a train accident, and my father believed that the proper and respectful thing to do was to go by to see the family.
I remember waiting in the car while he went in, a little boy watching out the window to see people who also lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, but a very different Clarksville than the one in which I lived. I had never noticed that their children didn’t go to school where I did, or that we never ate in the same restaurants, or that we barely came across one another. This separation made my trip all the more startling. It was as though I had stumbled onto a hidden cave where an entire civilization hitherto unknown to me had taken residence.
I watched people come and go, just like in my community, bringing food, dabbing their eyes, dressed in their finest. Men tugging at their collars in the hot summer air opened the door for their wives in hats to go in with the bowl or dish. It was impressive, this little world to which I did not belong. People laughing, people smiling, people crying, just like us. But not with us.
I took in the strangeness, but something stirred even deeper in me. I saw my father speaking to them, as he did to everyone, with respect and courtesy and manners. I hear people telling tales from the sixties about marching and protesting. I have no tales like those. I was young and oblivious to the invisible walls of separation. But I do remember my father treating everyone the same, kindly, decently. His employees seemed to think they all counted the same with him. He never lost his temper that I knew of, or swore or cursed at people. Just treated them alike.
My examples were different from those dramatic and provocative ones. My family mostly watched the struggle on nightly television with the rest of the world. We worried, shook our heads, weren’t too sure how it would go. We were not allowed, though, to use epithets and inflammatory words about other races.
It takes struggle and often conflict for change to begin. But there is also the task of taking change in and absorbing it, making it livable and practical and something that can happen every day without incident. It is one thing to change laws. It is another to elicit the consent of people to those laws. And quite another to live out their spirit every day. It means using words carefully, for the purpose of telling truth, not perpetuating our own version of it.
The whole world was changing before my eyes, in ways I did not understand and would not understand, but the example of my father’s kindness did sink deep in me. And I wonder about the eight year old boys and girls among us. What are they seeing? How are we doing? Is there something impressive enough in the way we are living life to sink deep in their souls and stay with them until they are adults?
In something as simple and apparently random as going by someone’s house to pay respects, in doing what is decent and right and good, you may be causing a quiet revolution in someone who is watching not only what you do, but how you do it. Someone is watching, always. So write the script you want remembered. It will live on after you for a long time, for good or for evil. I was one of those little white children that Martin Luther King dreamed about.
So I am going to do every little thing I can to not be afraid, to make friends, to pay my respects, and teach my children and grandchildren that there’s room for everyone at God’s table. Everyone.
I remember those times with a song I did on my first CD, “Lorraine.” It was inspired by my first visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Memphis, which ends at the balcony where Dr. King was murdered by fear and hate. But I like to remember what outlives fear and hate: hope and kindness and the hope of a better day.