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Jim Hurst Can Play a Guitar

Jim Hurst picks.  He came dangerously close to Herb Trotman's "10,000 note limit"

Jim Hurst picks. He came dangerously close to Herb Trotman’s “10,000 note limit”

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. Read the rest of this entry

Doug, Doc and Earl…Bluegrass Breakdown and Cry

The Darling Boys are no more

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

The Darling Family, “that one makes me cry, Paw”

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-

Dillard and Clark, whose songs “Polly” and “Through the Morning, Through the Night” were covered by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their hit CD a few years back, “Raising Sand”

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.”

Doug Dillard, Banjo player, also graduated with a degree in accounting.

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.

 

 

 

“Death Gospel,” Art and Life

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

Adam Arcuragi

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.

Don Wendorf and I last night at the Moonlight photo by Keith Harrelson

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.

CLICK HERE to listen to “Farewell, Baby Girl”

Remembering Martin Luther King

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 evilI 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.

Buy the song here

 

Lorraine

Gary Furr

An unfinished cup of coffee

By an unmade bed

Near the concrete balcony

Where a man of God is dead

Looking through an old window

See the painful past

Forever frozen at the last

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine
 

The sound of women weeping

The trickle of my tears

Join the moan of gospel singing

Wailing hope amid the fears

Looking through new windows

for possibilities

In spite of everything we still believ

 

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

Driving through the city

With memories of that place

In that part of town that’s really gone down

I lock the door just in case

Looking through my car window

At a man who looks back at me

After all we’ve been through, we still can’t see.

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine


Wade Mainer, Uncle Vance and This Old Guitar

Wade Mainer

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.

Uncle Vance, right. J. E. Mainer playing the banjo in "The Mountaineers"

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 ou
t 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

This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar    (Listen to the song)

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.