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 was permanent 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 Guitar but 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 truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South,
is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people.
Surely by now you’ve seen that bumper sticker that says, PADDLE FASTER—I HEAR BANJOS PLAYING. It’s an allusion to the worst movie for the banjo’s image since the minstrel era—“Deliverance.” Despite the wonderful “Dueling Banjos” song, which was written by the talented Arthur Smith, whom I used to watch on TV from Charlotte, NC as a boy (and who also wrote the “Guitar Boogie.”), it was an image I’d as soon forget.
The banjo is associated with rednecks, hillbillies, and racism in the American mind. We think of it as an instrument of uneducated mountaineers in the rural South. We remember white people in blackface mimicking the music of the plantations that makes us wince in pain now. And that’s too bad. The banjo is an instrument that contains a shared history in black and white. It is an African instrument that white people—especially the poor–came to love.
Unfortunately, the searing history of the plantation, slavery, with all of its terrible damage to the people brought here against their wills, left us with a bizarre and tragic legacy of contradictions that perhaps reflect in our music. The notion that an African instrument, the banjo, would embody racism is odd indeed. The truth is, the banjo, like all the indigenous music of the South, is another of those curious shadowy meeting places of black and white people. From the painful memories of the minstrels to the accusations against Elvis as “race music,” the musical inventions of southern culture—jazz, gospel, rock, soul, R&B, blues, country, folk and bluegrass—all formed bridges across a divide that was stupidly attempted by law and cultural taboo.
A couple of video explorations that will open up that world for you differently. One is “Give Me the Banjo” NARRATED
BY Steve Martin on PBS. You can watch it online here CLICK It is a wonderfully told narrative of the instrument through its complex history and cultural settings. It will introduce you to a lot of players you’ve never heard of, black and white, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and other styles.
Like so many cultural artistic expressions, you will find yourself realizing that all your surface shorthand stereotypes are nearly worthless. Finding the worlds under the music is like the difference between taking a tour of a country and living there.
Finally, I recently found Bela Fleck’s wonderful documentary, “Throw Down Your Heart.” A camera crew follows the master banjo player and his sound man as they traipse through Africa to reintroduce the instrument to its home and play along with native folk musicians across the continent. Movie reviewer Lou Novacheck wrote of it in 2009:
The main story covers their trip, beginning with Uganda in East Africa, and ending up in Mali in West Central Africa, and includes hundreds of African musicians from the countries they spent time in, Uganda, Tanzania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali, from the famous to unknown. I’m sure neither Fleck nor Paladino saw the complexities and immensity of the project ahead of time, and I’m equally certain that there will be at least one additional similar
trip in the future. The origin of the banjo and its concomitant history are subjects that music scholars have been chewing on for years.
Early in the ninety minute film there is an astounding clip of a group of men playing what is a gigantic “xylophone” made of small logs calibrated to different notes. Fleck, the great jam musician he is, finds a place to play along. The music is haunting, joyful, and you see as many smiles as any film ever has, genuine and pure.
Truth is, most music through time was not primarily entertainment as we have created it in the last century but participative. Music was a way that common people found relief from the dreariness of life and connected in their sorrows, joys and hopes my sharing the gift of music. The image for the banjo to me is not the “minstrel” or the sinister condescension of “Deliverance” at all. Those terrible truths existed and still do. But the image of the banjo is the jam, where people sit together and make music. There is an etiquette to old-time and bluegrass jams about taking turns, learning a canon of tunes, being invited in, and initiating the newcomer.
This year I finally broke down an bought a banjo (to go with my guitars, acoustic and electric, mandolin, harmonicas, keyboard, violin, dobro, bass, two ukuleles and penny whistle, among other things. I just love sounds—any and every. I have a Gold Tone BG-250, a gorgeous instrument that prices at the beginning of the high end banjos. I bought it from my good friend and banjo wizard, Herb Trotman, at Fretted Instruments of Homewood Alabama.
And playing it is not a political event to me at all. It is simply soothing, a connection to ancestors and the mystery of all life. When I sit alone and play, I am not alone. I connect to the ages and to all things. While I’m not very good yet, here is an MP3 I came up with as a first composition, called, “Dynamite Hill” with banjo and keyboard on my recording. LISTEN TO GARY PLAY “DYNAMITE HILL”
In a time when people sit, docile, in front of Blueray screens and passively watch other people live life, the jam seems pretty healthy by comparison. So I offer, in closing, a wonderful group from North Carolina, “The Carolina Chocolate Drops,” play “Cornbread and Butter Beans,” who keep alive that this music belongs to all of us. In the weary, tiresome deadness of current politics and economics, we desperately need the arts to help us find our souls again. A good jam is a great start.
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.
Pilgrim’s Progress is one of my favorite spiritual writings to come from the Baptist and Puritan stream. The longer title of the original The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come written by John Bunyan first appeared in 1678. It was written by Bunyan while locked in jail for violating the Conventicle Act, in which the state forbid anyone but officially licensed Anglican priests from holding religious services.
I have been to that jail where Bunyan was, been to his grave in London, and visited the town where he lived as an early Baptist. It is a holy place for me. Pilgrim’s Progress is about an arduous, and highly symbolic, journey of a man called Christian who sets out from the security of his homeplace, the City of Destruction, to find the Celestial city to come. He heads out carrying a huge burden on his back, his sin, and is discouraged by others at every turn, but he perseveres.
It’s incredibly hokey in one sense, an allegory that never lets you forget its allegorical-ness. Along the way, the characters have allegory names: Faithful, Talkative, Mr. By-ends, Hopeful, the Giant Despair, Temporary, Grim and Too-bold. They represent sins, human failings and strengths in people.
And yet, the perceptiveness of the human soul, the psychological insights into inner struggle that Bunyan shows in it are powerful. It is still a resource I turn to now and then. I have felt so many of the struggles he identifies.
But something never felt quite right about calling my blog, “Pilgrim’s Progress.” First, it could be construed as a bit pretentious, as though I did what preachers always do in their sermons, make themselves the main character. I mean, am I really so sure that I am Christian, headed for the heavenly city against all odds? Why wouldn’t I just as well be Mr. Ready-to-Halt, or Heedless, or even Mr. Fearing? It’s like calling yourself, “The Deserving.” Humblebragging, as I wrote in an earlier piece.
So, since I am a musician, consider that to be a central piece of “me” and think of my art as inseparable from me, I chose a qualifier and the moment I settled on it, it felt right. “Flatpicker.” That may not be a term you have heard if you’re not a guitar player. Flatpicking is a style, one of the two major ways players perform melodies on guitars, the other being “fingerstyle” or fingerpicking. Most classical players are the latter.
Flatpickers have to do what finger players do with three or four alternating fingers with a guitar pick alternating back and forth at high speed. When you first start to learn it, it is hard as all get out. And there are different ways of doing it: Alternate picking, Crosspicking, Downpicking, Economy picking, Hybrid picking, Lead guitar, Sweep-picking and Tremolo picking. There are other styles—strumming and fingerstyle, with little worlds of their own.
Flatpicking guitar is a world rooted in the proud chemistry of post-puberty male testosterone. It’s often about speed, being the fastest, not far removed from NASCAR and football.
Flatpickers have their own magazine, their own heroes and a whole web of camps, festivals and venues. But the granddaddy of them all is the one in Kansas. It’s called the Walnut Valley Festival, but it’s known to Flatpickers as “Winfield”, as in, “He won Winfield.” My teacher, Glenn Tolbert, competed and made it pretty far, and he is FAST.
Three different summers I went to a camp in Maryville, Tennessee, devoted to teaching instruments to disciples, but the centerpiece is guitar flatpicking. The Founder of the camp, Steve Kaufman, a native of Maryville, and his renown is being “the only three-time champion of Winfield.” He is a legend among guitar players.
Other instruments compete, of course. A friend at camp told me of jamming with a 16 year old girl years ago who went on to win the fiddle competition. Her name was Krauss, I think, Allison I believe it was. Pretty good fiddler, he told me.
So the acoustic world is a serious little world. Humbling, because the only way you get better is endless repetitions, learning from others who are better than you, and yet still having to find your own pecuiliar style and physical adjustment.
Some people like Tommy Emmanuel, are so good at flatpicking that I imagine pride would be a great struggle. More of us, though, have to aspire to confident playing. You learn how to play with others and not play over them, how to bring out the song, do solos without always needing to attract so much attention to yourself.
Flatpicking sometimes requires that you go backwards for a while before you progress. You learn a lot by imitation, hanging out with experts, and often, being willing to crash in front of people and laugh about it.
One of the oddest phenomena I have experienced in this journey has been learning to disengage from the conscious mind. I know that sounds impossible to non-players, and I imagine it is not exactly that. Maybe it’s only “shifting to the right brain” or submerging to a more primitive kind of memory, but the way I can describe it is practicing and playing for so long that you can do it without looking at your fingers, thinking about the chords, and letting your muscles do what they know to do without much thinking about it.
It is a kind of “self-forgetting” that makes for joy in playing. It lets you look at the other singers and players in a band and smile, read what they are doing, listen to their hints, and play off their cues. It makes the song a mysterious and joyous journey in communion.
So, flatpicking seems like a perfect modifier to me for my blog, my life, and my religious journey, too. A friend of mine sent me a great quote one day: “I am still learning—Michaelangelo.” Me, too. Forget about what everybody thinks. Focus on the craft, learn the tunes, feel the rhythm, soar out on your own in a jam, learn from your mistakes, don’t do what you can’t do, and stay within the song. Follow the rules of jamming. Respect the other players. Hang in there.
So I offer you a little instrumental I created, a little flatpicking piece. It’s just me with a guitar, playing something I came up with just doodling around one day. I call it, “Possibilitating.” Enjoy, and welcome to my retitled blog. Feels more like me.