With the help of a stellar cast of musicians, Mary Beth Cross has crafted a warm and friendly listening experience that indeed feels like home. The disc opens with a cover of Paul Simon’s “Kathy’s Song”, an interesting choice and a rarely covered tune perhaps due to it’s singular melody and definitive version by Simon and Garfunkel. The instrumentation and the vocals take a casual and perhaps more reflective approach to the song and infuses it with a wistful quality. “Threshing Time” tells family stories and has the feel of a conversation between neighbors over a backyard fence. “Shady Grove” gives the assembled musicians and chance to stretch out a bit – Chris Pandolfi on banjo, Tyler Grant on guitar, and playing fiddle and mandolin, Jeremy Garrett, held together by Adrian Engfer on bass. There are more covers than originals on the recording so that makes me take note of the arrangements in particular. “Long, Long Time”, previously known as a slow, sad song gets a new treatment here with a chugging groove on the verses that morphs into a straight up bluegrass groove on the chorus. The mood shifts to a smokey jazz feel on “Summertime”, again featuring some tasteful playing. The tune is part of a minor key medley that pulls together Cross’s own tune “Pas De Deux” with Van Morrison’s “Moondance”. The album wraps up with “Cottonwood Creek” celebrating home and family. A pleasant musical journey indeed.
There’s a lot to like about this album by James Reams and the Barnstormers, starting with the bluegrass boogie stomp of the opening track “Born to Roll” an ode to the trucker’s life on the road. There’s an excellent balance between top notch playing and an easy going feeling, in other words, one listen and you can hear these are some great pickers. There’s brilliant solos but it never sounds like showing off or just playing fast for the sake of speed. There’s a feeling behind the songs that comes through in a friendly way which I suspect is not by chance.
Reams shares some of his vision for his music in the album notes, chronicling challenges in health issues and homelessness among other things. He weaves these themes through the album both in original tunes and well chosen song stories of the people and places that make up the fabric of life.
One of the originals “I am a Stranger Here” could have come from the Woody Guthrie songbook, the lyrics flow easy, painting a picture, telling a story and even preaching a little without ever getting preachy or overbearing. That’s a tricky road to walk and many writers either pound you over the head with a sermon or get too complex but a good writer knows how to tell the story simply, maybe give the listener a nudge or two, but ultimately let the listen make their own meaning of the song.
The Woody Guthrie reference is apt in at least one other way. I think you can classify this album (if you like to classify music) as urban bluegrass. Many think of bluegrass and folk music as being a rural art form with songs about cabins on hillsides in the mountain hollers, but Woody Guthrie wrote one of the greatest songs of the wide expanse of the American countryside from an apartment in New York City. Most of the songs on this album are set in cities or take on modern concerns and issues. I appreciated this, and think it gives the album some more credibility.
Not that we have to live in one-room cabins to sing about those old folks at home, but when I listen to yet another new album filled with songs about those old Georgia hills I do wonder if you can write bluegrass songs about this day and age, songs that walk concrete streets in cities, songs that might come from the front page instead of a history book. This album proves that you can do that, and make it work just fine.
I alluded to the fine playing earlier and should mention that once again, not only the fast picking you expect but also some great and unexpected arrangements including the vocals and upright bass gospel funky groove of “Lord Lead the Way”.
Invite James Reams and the Barnstormers over to your place by playing their latest CD, like a visit with an old friend you’ll hear some wonderful stories that somehow manage to be new and different while still being familiar and friendly.
I’ve gotten a couple of music books in the mail recently and summertime is a great time to learn a new instrument or build your skills on whatever you’re currently playing, sitting out on the porch enjoying the long days and late sunsets. I’ll start by taking a look at Wayne Erbsen’s book on clawhammer banjo. Like most players of “an age” I grew up learning tunes from various instruction books going all the way back to Pete Seeger’s classic “How to Play the 5 String Banjo”. This was of course before the days of the internet or even video cassette players, which lead me to ask the following question as I cracked open this book. “Are music instruction books obsolete in this day and age?” and if not, what place do they occupy in the world of music instruction or how best can they be used? I believe the answer to my first question is “No” and I’ll endeavor to share my answers to the follow up questions by looking at this instruction book. The book is laid out in a thoughtful way, the print is large enough to read easily, and that’s not just a factor for some of us more senior members of the community, the layout is easy to follow or scan – one of the benefits of a book like this is that you can easily peruse the pages to find something that interests you, skip back and forth between songs or stories and easily find what you’re looking for. Another word about the layout – I appreciate the fact that the songs, with that large easy-to-read tab and lyrics appear on one page. With the spiral binding you can flip open the book to the song you’re working on and even play outside on a windy day without the pages flapping and flying around.
One of the great joys of Wayne Erbsen’s books is the wealth of stories and background information on the songs. His books read like an old friend in casual conversation. The book opens with background information on the banjo and it’s place in old time music. The basic vocabulary, from songs versus tunes to pull-offs, hammer-ons and such are all covered succinctly. There’s plenty of tips on getting the proper sound and making the playing experience more enjoyable. A CD is included with mp3 recordings of all the techniques as well as the songs. You could easily load the 78 tracks onto your iPod for practice, or choose a few to work on at a time which is what I did. The songs are played slowly and then a little faster. The melodies are tabbed out in a very straightforward manner, you get the melody loud and clear. Erbsen describes it as teaching the “Naked skeleton of the songs”. I appreciate this kind of arrangement because any player, myself included, is going to add their own touches to the song and for a beginner being able to clearly hear the melody is essential. While this books is oriented towards a total beginner on the banjo, a more seasoned player might pick it up for the songs. Once you’ve mastered the basic techniques you’re invited by the author to play the songs in any order you like. For a total beginner this book gives you in a few pages a solid foundation on clawhammer banjo techniques and song structures that you can expand upon. Toward the end of the book there’s information on jamming and playing with others. Again, Erbsen does a great job of condensing the vital information into a few enjoyable pages. I’ve been playing for decades and teaching for a long time as well and I enjoyed reading his comments on “Jamology” as well as the stories about all the songs. I’ve been a fan of Wayne Erbsen’s books for some time now, his Rural Roots of Bluegrass book is one I recommend to anyone getting into the genre as a player or just a fan. Clawhammer Banjo, Tunes, Tips and Jamming is a excellent addition to any music library, if you’re a beginner this is a friendly place to start and if you’ve been playing for a while, here’s a set of songs to enjoy plus some wonderful stories and background information you might have missed
The new Blue Canyon Boys album opens with a powerful take on “Roll Muddy River”, a tune from the Osborne Brothers collection of finer bluegrass music and that’s quite appropriate. While they are clearly their own band, I think it’s fair to say that the Blue Canyon Boys channel a lot of Osborne when they hit the stage. Like the Osborne Brothers, Blue Canyon Boys play with a fierce intensity that fuses melodies from diverse sources into a consistent bluegrass sound. The new album combines originals with classics from bluegrass, country and rock and the band makes all the material sound like it belongs on the same album.
Underneath all of the songs is a passionate driving soul sound that comes through loud and clear. Two originals, “One Lonely Thought of You” and “Wake Up, the Party’s Over” harken back to the honky tonk era of country music, back to the days before bluegrass and country music split into two distinct musical genres. Tunes like these provide some diversity for the listener without making the album sound like a scrapbook of mismatched sounds. The country groove gives the vocals a chance to swing a little and provides a perfect set up for the full-out-downhill-no-brakes attack of a song like “Riding on that Northbound Train”. The band can clearly play fast but if every song was simply a variation on standard bluegrass boom-chick rhythms it wouldn’t hold your interest for long, fortunately that’s not the case here.
The album contains two instrumentals “The Road to Westcliffe” from banjo player Chris Elliot and Gary Dark’s “Shinjuku Station” both of which provide a chance for the various players to show off some fancy licks in service to the melody and that’s an important point. Instrumentals through the history of bluegrass have been some of the most famous tunes, the ones everyone knows and the reason they stay with you is that there’s a strong, usually fairly simple, melody at the forefront. I was pleased to hear a mid-tempo instrumental in “Road to Westcliffe”, a nice reminder that not every banjo tune has to be a barn burner. I began by making the comparison with the Osborne Brothers and their diverse yet consistent sound (remember their most popular songs came from writers outside the bluegrass genre) and that comparison is most evident on rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Time”. For a surprising cover tune to work several things have to be in place. First and foremost, the song has to work in the bluegrass style, this may involve some re-arranging but of course you have to be careful not to tamper too much or the song loses its unique flavor. When you choose a song from one of the best selling albums of all time and that album on the surface appears to be as far away from bluegrass as possible you run the risk of having it seem like a joke, a little wink and a nod. That can work for a moment or two, but ten seconds into the song you’re ready for the next course. With this tune from Dark Side of the Moon the band capitalizes on the melody which sounds like it was meant for the high lonesome sound. I especially enjoyed the section of the song where the tempo changes and the guitar solo features some heavy reverb and other effects, this is a key part of the original recording and including it in this cover version really makes this version work. When you’re doing a song like this, it shows attention to detail to pick the important elements of the song to highlight.
That attention to detail is evident throughout the album, the mix of material flows wonderfully from track to track, each one sounding as if they’re right where they should be. When you can go from a sparse Bill Monroe gospel tune all the way to Pink Floyd progressive rock without missing a beat you’re doing something right. With this new album, simply titled The Blue Canyon Boys (perhaps it will be known as “The Blue Album”) the band is doing more than a few things right.
The frost on the backyard and the fallen leaves are a pretty good indication that summer (and festival season) is really over. Some of you might have already had this epiphany, but some of us are a little slower or more reluctant to give up. During the past festival I collected quite a pile of CDs from bands who came through Colorado for festivals and shows and I wanted to offer a few words on the music I’ve been listening to. “Songs of Heart and Home” by Greg Blake is a stunning achievement. By pulling in music from a variety of sources, both traditional and contemporary Blake has crafted an album that has all the power of traditional bluegrass, sounding completely familiar without becoming cliché. The supporting cast is, of course, a big part of the record. Mark Schatz’s bass slapping that drives “Hey Porter” has the groove and power of the freight train they’re singing about on the tune. Greg Blake sounds completely comfortable singing these songs and one assumes he’s sung them for a long time. While that kind of familiarity might make things sound stale, the excitement and energy of the artists combined here brings out the spark of discovery and newness even on a oft-recorded standard like “I Still Miss Someone”. On a project like this one, produced by Sally Van Meter, you expect everything to sound just right, every instrument and vocal just where it belongs and that’s just what you hear, smooth like summer wind with the kick of moonshine, sounding perfectly planned and still spontaneous. The Steep Canyon Rangers have a new album out called “Radio” and from the first tune it’s clear that this is new bluegrass. The title track kicks off the disc with references to Casey Kasem on the radio as well as rock bands like The Kinks, not a one room cabin, mountain holler or grave on a hillside in sight. I tend to side with the opinion that there are two kinds of music; good and bad. Of course it’s all opinion as to what constitutes those categories. I refer to use genre names or classifications to explain the overall sound for someone who hasn’t heard the album rather than to confer some status on the record. This is an album that will have many reviewers in bluegrass publications asking “Is it bluegrass” or adding qualifiers such as “Not really bluegrass”. The opening track is as catchy a song as you’re likely to hear with a rockin’ back beat drum and bass groove that fits the pop radio memories described in the lyrics. A lot of the tracks feature a funky blues groove taking advantage of their instrumental line up. The drums, mandolin, fiddle and banjo all adding that bluegrass chop gives the music a furious rhythm potential. Sometimes it’s a bouncy groove on a song like “Simple is Me” and sometimes it’s more of a freight train on a song like “Blow Me Away” which also jumps into gypsy jazz swing. To my ears this is modern bluegrass music in the same way that Sgt. Peppers was modern rock and roll. Listen to 1967 Beatles and you can hear the influences of Chuck Berry and Little Richard and those influenced have been informed and expanded by the wider world of music that the composers were exposed to. It is my opinion that any musical genre that survives will diversify. Listening to “Radio” I hear musicians playing bluegrass instruments informed and inspired by Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and other first generation pioneers and this inspiration is energized by equal parts input from Motown, Rhythm and Blues, and Rock. This is music for open-minded listeners for sure. If, on the other hand, you prefer only one style of music played on mandolins, banjos, guitars etc. I’d suggest checking out the instrumental “Looking Glass” which is perhaps the closest thing to a traditional bluegrass groove (although there are some tempo shifts) featuring one of the most supple and sensuous melodies you’ll hear anywhere. I think it’s fair to say we’re in the midst of a bluegrass renaissance and it will not all sound or look the same, but the quantity of quality available should be cause for celebration.
Anyone who has been around the bluegrass scene for any length of time knows that bluegrass fans can be some of the most strongly opinionated music fans on earth. In truth every genre of music has dedicated fans who know what they like and what they don’t and proudly (and often loudly) proclaim their musical opinions. In the last blog I explored the notion of Colorado Bluegrass and what makes it unique, assuming that there is something unique about the bluegrass echoing off the Rocky Mountains. The consensus was that the wide open nature of the music scene out here is unique and the diversity of interpretations of the genre could be called the “Colorado Sound”. You are as likely however here, as you are in North Carolina to hear fans debate whether or not something is indeed “Bluegrass”. So, what is bluegrass and how far can we stretch the definition?
As with the last blog installment many of the ideas and or quotes come from a sunny morning sitting on the porch conversation with Annie Savage, President of the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society and Pete Wernick, aka Dr. Banjo. Bluegrass, by its nature as an American music form, is a hybrid of many influences and traditions. Without a doubt an important element is the Scots-Irish fiddle tunes, but when does a fiddle tune stop being a Celtic tune and become a Bluegrass song, if ever? Blues provided a vital building block for the music Bill Monroe was crafting in the late 1940s, but when does a song shift from being a bluegrass tune with blues influences to being a blues song? I’m sure many of you would say “I know it when I hear it” and indeed there’s a lot of truth in that statement. Bluegrass music has a unique sound, but that sound is varied and diverse at the same time. I think it’s fair to say that Bluegrass is an acoustic music form, played primarily on guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and bass with dobro sometimes added to the mix. Songs come primarily from both a canon of traditional American folk tunes and newer songs written very much in that style from either the pioneers of the genre or contemporary writers. Harmony singing is an essential part of the sound with songs often in the higher end of the vocalist’s range. Notice I use words like “Primarily” and “Often”. That’s because while I believe you can accurately label a band as bluegrass or not, the rules are never hard and fast and are more of a sliding scale, or several sliding scales to be exact. Can a bluegrass group have a drummer? Well, if Flatt and Scruggs can be called a bluegrass group then the answer would have to be yes, same for The Osborne Brothers and Jimmy Martin. Can accordion or piano be a featured instrument? Bill Monroe would have to answer yes, having used both in his band. I think you can only apply the Bluegrass label to the totality of a band’s work. Going back to Flatt and Scruggs, clearly they were a bluegrass band although they used drums, electric instruments, recorded songs from contemporary rock artists, and even played with psychedelic light shows (at least once – in San Francisco in the late 1960s) but their overall sound and approach to the music was clearly in the traditional bluegrass mold. Imagine a scorecard where you check off the items for any band – acoustic instruments, featuring the core Bluegrass instruments? Harmony vocals? Most songs have a traditional folk song structure? Instrumental breaks? If a band can check off most of those points then they’re a Bluegrass band in my view. How many categories do you need? Ahh, there’s the rub, I don’t think it can be defined exactly and it will be harder or perhaps more pointless to try to nail it down as time goes on.
One indication of the breadth of what is considered Bluegrass anymore is the see what recordings are listed under that title. You don’t see many record stores anymore, but an online search of music retailers has an amazing collection of artists under the genre heading, many of whom would have even the most broad minded fans scratching their heads. I think this is a logical progression for any musical genre. Consider Jazz. In the early part of the 20th century there was a style of music coming out of New Orleans that was called jazz and the boundaries of the musical form were pretty clear. Fast forward thirty or forty years and now you have that traditional style of jazz but you also have the beginnings of be-bop, free-form, big band, swing and many other sounds all under the big jazz tent. Today you could find music as diverse as Louis Armstrong, Return to Forever, and Cassandra Wilson in the Jazz section. Perhaps as any vital music form ages it is destined to diversify. It should not be strange then to find The Punch Brothers alongside Bill Monroe, or Carolina Chocolate Drops next to The Seldom Scene. One thing that the current diverse spectrum of Bluegrass has that few other equally diverse genres have is the fact that any one of the current bands who push the progressive boundaries can play music that sounds as traditional as anything laid down in the 1940s and they often do. Maybe that’s something else, equally elusive to add to the scorecard – an appreciation for the history and traditions of the music. There are Colorado bands that push the envelope of musical structure like Yonder Mountain or The Railslitters but there’s no missing the appreciation and respect for the traditions in their sounds. Perhaps another element to muddy the waters on the “What is Bluegrass” debate is the line up at festivals. Another Telluride Bluegrass Festival has just gone by and I was delighted to hear one of my favorite contemporary bands JohnnySwim. Their album “Diamonds” is one of the finest acoustic based Americana-Pop releases I’ve heard in years and I wouldn’t call them at bluegrass band in any way, shape or form. Is that a problem? I don't think so. Festivals can have whoever they want and can define the genre however it best suites them. I for one like some variety in a festival line up and this year’s Telluride Festival was a great blend of artists who complemented each other wonderfully. Does your appearance at a bluegrass festival make you a bluegrass band? I would think the obvious answer is “No”. Will the genre continue to diversify and expand? I think the answer here is “Yes”. Just as there once was a style of music called Rock and Roll and we now have rock, pop, pop-rock, heavy metal, prog-rock etc. and all of these terms convey information about the sound, the various sub-genres of bluegrass, traditional, jamgrass, newgrass, etc. will probably be used more and more to give a more specific definition of the sound. I think that’s fine, there’s room at the table for everyone I think.
If there’s an organization called The Colorado Bluegrass Music Society (and there is!) it is fair to ask just what does that title mean? Is this all about bluegrass music that happens to be played in Colorado? Or, is it possible that “Colorado Bluegrass” is something unique? Attendance at festivals in our big square state would indicate that people come from all over to be part of this scene which lends credence to the idea that there’s something special going on in the higher elevation. We posed this question on the CBMS Facebook page and got many responses. Most centered on an idea that we’re free from structures that might confine music in other places, although some did mention the recent legalization of marijuana as having an effect on the music or musicians.
To take a more scholarly approach I also sat down and talked with Pete Wernick aka Dr. Banjo, who has as good a perspective on what might constitute “Colorado Bluegrass” as anyone. We began by agreeing that it would be impossible to play several tracks from albums and identify the bands from Colorado by their sound. Pete highlighted the fact that many musicians have come here from other places, or were part of a band for a time and have since moved on. Pete observed “There’s the Bluegrass Patriots, and they have a Missouri, mid-west feel to some extent because that’s where Ken Seaman is from. There’s the Brad Folk thread, which has something of a Stanley Brothers sound, but he’s an amazing original songwriter with a unique voice, is that a Colorado style?” Even a seminal Colorado band like Hot Rize isn’t strictly a Colorado band “Tim came here from somewhere else and doesn’t live here now, I’m from New York” Pete said. We came around to the idea of parameters or structures on the music, “Colorado has fewer parameters than D.C. or even California because this is a melting pot and most people are from somewhere else and they’re free, and we used that word in the title of our new album – When I’m free, that’s where I’ll be.”
Being a Colorado transplant myself I can attest to the fact that in other areas, particularly in the southeastern part of the country you have to have a certain number of gospel tunes in your set, no question. Here, not so much the case. Pete continued, “If you want to play “new grass” you can do that, you want to play traditional? Sure, you can do that too. That absence of regionalism is an asset and then there’s the jam scene which is amazing.” I can attest to the power of the jam scene myself. When I moved here ten years ago from the New York City area I was used to quite a lot of good music happening in performances and in jam sessions but was astonished by the variety of high quality jam sessions happening every night of the week on the Front Range. Pete pointed out another element of the Colorado scene, “The audiences in the east are much older for bluegrass. There was some talk several years ago that the genre was dying because bands who travelled in the east were seeing the same people at the festivals year after year, all getting older and no new folks coming into the scene. They didn’t know what was going on out in the west where whole families were coming to festivals and you had kids like Chris Thile jamming when he was five years old.”
Our conversation came around to Noam Pikelny’s recent IBMA keynote speech, which also highlighted the freedom and vitality of the Colorado scene. Of course words like “Freedom” can carry a lot of connotations. It could mean wide-open possibilities for creativity and it could mean chaos. Of course one could endlessly debate what is chaos – to some it would be a bluegrass festival with sounds that went from jam grass to serious jazz influenced acoustic music back to traditional mountain sounds. It may well be that as any musical genre ages it becomes more diverse. Look at the history of jazz or rock and roll for example, what originally constituted a specific style has now expanded to cover a myriad of sounds. It may be that Colorado, with it’s musical population coming from so many different places, is the perfect micro-cosmos of the bluegrass universe where bands like Hot Rize, Yonder Mountain, Jeff Scroggins and Colorado, Rapid Grass, Finnders and Youngberg, Steel Pennies and many more musical explorers chart new courses. Sounds like an exciting place.
It has been said that freedom comes with responsibility, and if freedom is one of the keystones of Colorado Bluegrass, I’d be curious to know what any readers feel our responsibility might be to the music.