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.
“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”
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
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.
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.