“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, Read the rest of this entry
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
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.
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”
Wade Mainer died this week at the age of 104. A mountain banjo player who came out of the mountains of Weaverville, NC, Wade and his brother J. E. were part of my life even though I never met either one of them. They split up and had separate careers after 1936, and were a big part of the foundation of what Bill Monroe fused into “bluegrass” music. Wade became the more famous of the two, playing the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt.
Uncle Vance Furr, my Daddy’s oldest brother, died at the age of 74. He lived, all of the time I knew him, within several miles of the house where I first lived after I was born. He and his brothers, including my Dad, were all carpenters and brickmasons, men of the earth and builders. They worked with their hands. Dad built that first house we lived in himself.
Uncle Vance lived on a main road, on a corner with a long drive going to his garage and shop. If you turned and went on down the road, there were houses where moonshine could be had if they knew you. Uncle Vance loved to fish and he loved music, among other things. My brothers, Mike and Greg and I had nicknames he gave us–I was “Big Mully,” and Greg and Mike were “Middle Mully” and “Little Mully.” I think that was short for “mullet,” as in the fish. In those days, there were no mullet haircuts, and he didn’t mean we were stupid. It was affectionate. We were like three little fish.
Vance, Dad and all the six brothers played music. They lived near J. E. Mainer, who came to Concord to work in Cannon Textile Mill, so he could have a steadier living than music. Vance played in a lot of bands around Concord, and played with J. E. Mainer some, according to Dad, including on the radio. J. E. would come around and say, “Any you boys want to go to Charlotte with me and play?” That was the music business then.
My cousin, Vance Jr., shared Uncle Vance’s old guitar, a 1949 Gibson J45, with my Dad so he can play it and enjoy it as the last surviving brother. He played that guitar in a band he was in, “J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers.” We took it to Nashville to Cotton Music, where the fine craftsman there put it back into stellar shape again. He insisted we leave the scratches on the guitar, where apparently the fellow he bought it from had his initials scratched onto the body and Vance scratched them off. Those are hallowed marks, he said, you leave ‘em.
It smells good and looks good–a guitar with a lifetime etched into its scars. They are meant to be played, banged, nicked and strummed and sung with. Remembering is important. Someone is alive as long as they are remembered. The Bible says that God remembers us–and that means everything about us, good bad and ugly. But that remembering is life. As long as we are remembered, inseparable from the love of God, we are still around.
Uncle Vance was never famous, never moved from where he lived during my life. He never got elected to anything, so far as I know. But he had a story. Some of it I know–an early marriage that ended with an early and untimely death of his wife during childbirth. Years of work and some hard-drinking and music and fishing. A journey back to the Bible in his later years and, I surmise, peace with God.
And then there are stories I will never know–his thoughts during the journey of grief, coming through the Depression and World War II, sitting alone with his guitar and deedling. It doesn’t matter. Somehow when I hold this guitar, I know those stories and those notes are nearby.
This old guitar ain’t mine to keep
Just taking care of it now
It’s been around for years and years
Just waiting in its old case
It’s been up and down the country roads
It’s brought a tear and a smile
It’s seen its share of dreams and hopes
And never went out of style
The more I play it, the better it sounds
It cries when I leave it alone
Silently it waits for me
Or someone else I suppose
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.
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.