R.I.P. Fellows, and Thanks For Everything

This has been a rough year for anyone who shares my musical tastes. In March, we lost Earle Scruggs. Levon Helm left us in April. And then in May, Doc Watson. We lost others, too (Doug Dillard among them), but it would be pretty hard to think of three musicians who’ve had more of an impact on me than Earl, Levon, and Doc, and suddenly, within a three-month span, they were all gone. I didn’t know any of them personally, and I know that many tributes have been made to each of them by people who did. Still, in a musical sense I’ve spent my life with all of them, and in that way they seem like friends. Family, even. And so it is that I feel the need to mark their passing with a few words of remembrance.

Levon Helm, Newport Folk Festival, 2010

There are a lot of singers that I love — Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Ella Fitzgerald, Neko Case, the list goes on — but I don’t think anyone’s voice has ever resonated into my bones in quite the same way that Levon Helm’s does. Just the right blend of sadness, sweat, and gravel, perfect and imperfect in every aspect. I’ve never heard anyone like him before, and I don’t expect to again. Unfortunately, the only time I ever saw him live was at the Newport Folk Festival in 2010, when his voice had already left him. Even so, his musicianship, stage presence, and warmth was still abundantly evident, and he was still able to raise the hair on the back of my neck. Levon Helm clearly loved his work, and so did we.

Earle Scruggs, Newport Folk Festival, 2011

It would be hard to think of a musical genre that I don’t enjoy on some level, but it probably comes as no surprise for me to say that bluegrass is at the very top of my list. All my life, as my musical interests developed, changed, expanded and refined, bluegrass was the one constant sound that threaded its way throughout. And for me, the man who defined that sound was Earle Scruggs. I’m not a purist — I don’t think there’s any one set of rules that determines what is and isn’t bluegrass music; what is or isn’t a bluegrass band. To be sure, one of my three favorite bluegrass albums of all time doesn’t have a banjo on a single cut. Still, the hard-driving roll of a 5-string banjo is my immediate association with the word bluegrass, and Earle was the architect for it. It’s unlikely that you could name any artist who did more to shape the sound of his musical genre than Earle Scruggs did for bluegrass. As Steve Martin wrote in his March 28, 2012 tribute to Earle in The New Yorker magazine, “Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like he did. After him, everyone played the banjo like he did, or at least tried.”

Earle and Doc

If Earle Scruggs was responsible for defining the sound of my favorite music, it was Doc Watson who actually brought me to it in the first place. There was always music playing in our house when I was growing up, and most often we were listening to my father’s country and bluegrass records, so there was never a time when I didn’t know what bluegrass was. But like most of my friends, I was more interested in the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and other pop and rock music.

But one Saturday morning, I would guess this was in 1973 or ’74, my cousin Lee came by our house and brought a record for Dad to hear. They were sitting in the basement in front of our old console stereo. I went downstairs for some reason, probably to fetch something from the freezer for my mother, and the music struck me in a way that it never had before. The album was Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the landmark 1972 recording by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band featuring a host of legendary bluegrass and country artists, and the song was Doc Watson’s version of “Way Downtown.” I’m quite sure this was not the first time I had ever heard Doc’s music, and as I say, it was most certainly not the first time I had ever heard bluegrass. But it is the first time that I realized what the music had to offer; what it really meant. Four or five years later I was playing bluegrass myself, and I’ve never stopped.

Doc Watson, Statesville, NC, circa 1980

Lot’s of fans have a “Doc story,” and I’m one of them. I’ve told it often, and wrote about it briefly on Facebook when we learned of Doc’s passing, but it seems only appropriate to remember it here:

Sometime around 1980, Doc came to play at a bar in my hometown of Statesville, NC. At that time he was still playing with his son Merle, and their bassist, T. Michael Coleman. My bandmates and I were not yet old enough to drink, but we were able to go to the show with our parents. You can’t imagine how excited we were.

I had a new Alvarez guitar that I paid $350 for, including a hardshell case. Just a few months before Doc’s show, I had taken the guitar with me to a Willie Nelson concert in Charlotte, where I had gotten Willie to autograph the top. I started thinking that I should try to get Doc to sign it, too, so I took it with me to the show.

My Alvarez

We arrived early and took a table, and my father went up and spoke to one of the bartenders for a couple minutes. The bartender stepped into the back for a few seconds and then came back and motioned for my dad and I to follow him. He led us to a doorway in a narrow hall behind the bar, pecked on the door, and Merle opened it. He invited us in, shook our hands, and then he and the bartender left

Doc was seated in a wooden chair by a small table, and greeted us as if we were long lost friends or family. We introduced ourselves and exchanged a few pleasantries. He asked about Statesville, our family, asked me about school, and showed genuine interest in hearing about our band. At some point Merle came back in and joined the conversation as well. I’m sure we weren’t in there long, but it seemed like we had quite a visit. Finally I told them that I had brought my guitar for Doc to autograph.

Doc explained that “Merle does all our signin’. He signs all our contracts and autographs and everything.” So I took out the guitar and handed it over to Merle, along with a 16-penny nail I had wrapped with masking tape to about the size of a pencil, and he scratched in their names.

Autographs, as signed by Merle

As Merle finished, Doc asked me if he could try the guitar out for a minute, and of course I handed it over. He ran his hands all around it, asked me a little about it, and then picked out a few bars of Windy and Warm, one of my favorites — although of course he had no way to know that. Then he played through a bit of Doc’s Guitar. Handing it back to me, he said, “That there is a fine fingerpickin’ guitar!”

I thanked them both and we all said our goodbyes, and of course in my memory the show that followed is one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. In hindsight, obviously, I know that old Alvarez is not much of an instrument, but for a good long while I felt like it was about the greatest guitar on earth.

Doc’s music and career speaks for itself. Far better writers than me have far more incisive things to say about it than anything I might come up with. But I think this story –and hundreds more from other fans like myself– tells all there is to say about the man himself. He was a treasure, and made us all richer.

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More Time With The Teens

During my brief run with 3 Teens Kill 4 at the Howl Festival, I overheard some backstage murmurs about the possibility of another show. Shortly before Christmas, I got the call. Actually, it was an email, but you know what I’m saying.

The Brooklyn Museum is currently running a show that includes a piece by David Wojnarowicz, who, as I mentioned in my previous post, was a founding member of the Teens. Through some series of events outside my purview, the museum contacted the band and invited them to play at their First Saturday event on January 7. And so, first week of the New Year, back to Funkadelic we went.

Quite a few changes were in store as Jesse Hultberg, one of the band’s lead singers, who now makes his home in France, would not be available this time around. There was a lot of work to be done. Some songs were scrapped from the set, others added, instruments and vocal parts were swapped, and new arrangements were ironed out. Guest performers were added to the lineup, including Joe Keady on tuba and Lovestruck‘s Anne Rassmussen on guitar and vocals.

(l-r) Me, Lisa, & Raquel (The In Peace and War Choir), Doug, Julie, and Brian

The biggest change for The In Peace and War Choir was on the song Fisherman. During the Howl shows, lead vocals had been performed by friend of the band Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons. For the Museum show, all the vocals were enitrely turned over to us. Over the course of the week we tried several different ideas and eventually settled on an arrangement that had the lead shared more-or-less equally among the three of us as the harmonies shifted back and forth from unison to two-part and three-part lines. It came together nicely in the end.

******

When we arrived at the Museum on the night of the show Melissa Ferrick, the first performer of the evening, was in full swing. This gave us an opportunity to get some idea of the acoustics of the room; the shows take place in a glass pavilion at the museum entrance, and we were none to sure of what kind of sound quality to expect. Surprisingly not bad from the audience perspective.

Brian, Tommy (reading), Joe (on tuba, behind Doug), Doug, Bill

From the stage, though, it was a different story altogether. Our set started at 9, and from the very first note it was clear that we were going to hear nothing more than a thunderous roar on the stage. Despite a good soundcheck during which we could hear fairly well, once the room filled up and we launched into the show the sound just bounced around and became a mush for us. Wives and friends in attendance assure us that the sound out in the room was good, though, and of course that’s the main concern.

Brian, Doug (background), Julie, Anne

For the moment, I think this is the end of the line for the Teens and the In Peace and War Choir. Hopefully something new will crop up in the future and we can do it all again. It’s been a fun ride.

Peace And War, Then Snow

I’ve known my friend Doug for close to 20 years, I’d guess. We met through our wives, who are very close friends, and Doug and I have a number of common interests. We both have broad musical tastes, and there’s enough overlap that we talk music a lot. We even started a recording project together at one time, although it never really went anywhere.

Back in the early ’80s, before I met him, Doug was a member of a band called 3 Teens Kill 4. They gained considerable recognition and became somewhat influential in the New York indie scene of the day, partly because one of their founding members was the artist and writer David Wojnarowicz and partly because they were just a really good band. They made some recordings, did some touring, and generally made a name for themselves.

3TK4's "No Motive" Album, 1982

Yet somehow during all the years Doug and I have known each other, I managed not to hear any of the Teens’ music.

Last year they got together for their first-ever reunion show, along with a number of other bands, as part of a tribute night for The Mudd Club and other venues of that early ’80s “post-punk” era. My wife and I were very excited about it, but in the end the Teens’ time slot was pushed further and further back until they wound up going on at 2am or so. On a work night. There was a time in my life –I can almost remember it– when that wouldn’t have seemed like a problem to me. Alas, that time is long gone, and I didn’t make the show.

77 White Street, former site of The Mudd Club

The success of that reunion, though, sparked the opportunity for the Teens to do a series of three performances during this year’s Howl Festival in the East Village at the end of October. Of course my wife and I saw this as our opportunity to take some of the sting out of having missed the Mudd Club show. Little did I know.

Just a few days after Doug told me about the gig, he sent me a text message saying they were searching for backup singers and asking if I’d help them out. And so it was that I began to rekindle my rock-n-roll career at the tender young age of 48!

For the next week, I spent my commute into the city listening on my iPod to the songs we were to learn. Then the following week I listened each morning on my way in and, after work, spent each evening rehearsing with the band and two other backing vocalists at Funkadelic, a rehearsal studio mercifully located just a block away from my office. It was a whirlwind week of meeting the band, learning our parts, and putting it all together. It was kind of exhausting, but tremendously fun. They were calling the show In Peace and War, 3 Teens Kill 4, and eventually my fellow backing vocalists and I were christened The In Peace and War Choir.

Our first performance was on a Thursday evening. Setup took a bit longer than planned, and as a result our first full run-through of the show was the performance itself. Everything went well and it was a good show, which was quite an accomplishment given what a production it was: In addition to the music itself, the show also incorporated films, several dancers, a slide projector, sound samples, an overhead projector, a PowerPoint presentation, and audience participation. There were a lot of things that could go wrong, but none of them did.

Friday night’s show was even better. The sound man and stage director made a couple minor tweaks, and of course we all had a complete performance under our belts. Everything ran a little smoother, and we were better able to find our groove.

Then on Saturday morning it snowed. Remember, this was in October. The leaves were still on the trees. And therein lay the problem.

When it first started to fall, I didn’t think much about it. This is northern New Jersey, after all. Snow is just a given, and generally poses no more than a minor inconvenience. And this time it wasn’t even deep.

Late in the morning I ordered takeout for lunch, the idea being that I’d have a good meal with my wife and then later in the city I could just grab a quick bite for dinner before the show. Turns out that the weight of even that smallish amount of snow on the leaves of all those trees adds up to some very serious damage. We drove for over an hour to pick up our food from a restaurant that is less than a mile from our house. Streets were blocked by fallen trees, live electrical wires were down all over town, stoplights weren’t working and traffic could barely move. As we ate our now-cold lunch after finally getting home, we stared out our dining room window as a tree fell across our car in the driveway. Shortly after that we heard on the radio that all NJ Transit trains had suspended operation until further notice. I was dead in the water.

Fortunately for our audience, all the other people in the show live in the city and had no trouble at all getting to the theater. I’m told that evening’s final performance was successful as well, and I’m sure it’s true. I’m just so terribly sorry to have missed it. I can’t be completely sure, but I believe this was the first time I’ve ever missed a gig in over 30 years of performing. And it had been so much fun….

Something Different

At the end of my last entry I mentioned briefly that, musically, 2011 had gotten off to a good start. Here’s a little more detail on that:

One morning early in March, just as I had arrived at work and was waiting for my computer to start up, my cellphone rang. The caller, oddly enough, was a woman named Tori, who my wife and I had met only a few times through mutual friends.

Turns out that Tori is a writer, and that she had been invited to participate in an event called Funny Ladies 2, the second annual fundraiser for a local theater company. The reason she was calling me was that she had written songs for the event, rather than an essay or skit, and she needed an accompanist. She’d first contacted my friend Brian, who in turn suggested that I might be better suited to play the style(s) of music her songs were going to require.

Now, people who know me are well aware that I am not a fan of comedy. I’m blessed with many funny friends and family members, and there’s a lot of laughter in my life. But scripted jokes just don’t do it for me. I don’t watch sitcoms. I don’t go see comedy films. Don’t watch standup. Fast forward right through Letterman’s monologs. So naturally, I said “Sure, I’ll do it.”

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Over the course of that month we got together once or twice a week to learn three of her songs and to put together a bit of an act. Of course, it wasn’t at all clear to me whether any of it was actually going to make people laugh, and I think that may have been a bit frustrating for Tori. She kept asking me “This is funny, right?” or “Do you think this is funny?,” to which I could only respond, “Uhh…you’re going to have to ask someone else if it’s funny or not.”

She needn’t have worried. When the evening finally arrived, the room was packed with an enthusiastic crowd. We were scheduled last, a musical nightcap following an evening of readings, stories, jokes, and skits. Even for me, as out-of-my-element as it may have been, it was an enjoyable night, and when our turn came to take the stage the audience was primed.

We played three songs, interspersed with a little stage banter, and basically brought the house down. People loved us, and we started getting job offers before we even left the building. Which was marginally unnerving, since the three songs we had just performed were, in fact, the only three songs in our repertoire.

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Doing our thing at Funny Ladies 2. (I don't know what the heck I'm looking at.)

Just a day or two later, one if the show’s organizers asked us to consider putting together a full show, to be performed at some time and place to be specified later, and we’ve been working –however slowly– toward that goal ever since. We’re rehearsing every other week and methodically building our song catalog. Along the way, we have performed at another benefit show and done a couple of open mic nights at a local restaurant. So far it’s been great fun, and has given me a way to stay involved in my music despite all the complications with my work situation, which I’ve chronicled previously

Of course it’s also been an opportunity for me to use my “new” guitar in a real-world situation and see how she performs. Again, I can’t say enough good things about it. It feels great and plays easily. I’m getting great tone and volume, plugged and unplugged, and it gives me exactly what I need in any environment: subtlety in rooms where the audience is relatively quiet and attentive (the benefit shows), and plenty of cutting power in noisier rooms (open mic night). Everything I wanted and hoped for.

A 2010 Update

Well, I’ve neglected this blog for an awfully long time. And I realize now that, previous to announcing the downloads of my old band’s records, my last real entry was pretty bleak. So here I am, back to bring things up to date and, perhaps, paint a little brighter picture of things.

When I made that last report, my work situation had deteriorated so much that I couldn’t continue my lessons and had basically given up practicing. Things were bad. Unfortunately, about a month later it got a whole lot worse: My entire department was laid off, save for myself and one other member of my staff. Needless to say this was not a step in the right direction, and the fact is that to this day I have still not been able to find a way to make time for regular, structured, productive practice, let alone resume my lessons.

But on a brighter note, 2010 actually turned out to be a great year to hear other people’s music. When things got so bad, my wife and I quickly realized that for sanity’s sake we needed to make a very concerted effort to get out and enjoy ourselves, and as a result we saw lots of great live music. Tonic for the soul.

In January we saw Swell Season at Radio City. On Valentine’s Day we went to Brooklyn to see Stephane Wrembel at Barbes, the first of three times we would see him in 2010. In March, we went with friends to see Beppe Gambetta in Morristown, where John Carlini, my teacher, was among a number of musicians who made a special appearance. We saw Wilco at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair; Joseph Arthur, solo and unplugged at the Rubin Museum; The Avett Brothers at Radio City; and Leo Kottke at NJPAC in Newark.

In April, we traveled to NC for Merlefest, where we saw lots of old favorites like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Wayne Henderson, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tony Rice, and (again) the Avett Brothers. We also saw Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers, as well as Elvis Costello. And as is always the case at Merlefest, we discovered some new folks like Bearfoot and Harry Manx (who also opened for Leo Kottke later in the year, at the aforementioned NJPAC show).

Early in the year, when things were in the process of turning from bad to worse, we had decided not to return to the Newport Folk Festival despite having enjoyed it so much in 2009. Then we had such a good time at Merlefest that we realized skipping Newport would be a big mistake. As soon as we got back to Jersey we reserved a room and ordered our tickets. Good move: Some of the highlights at Newport 2010 were John Prine, Calexico, Yim Yames, Sam Bush (again), Low Anthem, Levon Helm Band, Swell Season (again, just weeks before the announcement that they were splitting up), Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and yet again, The Avett Brothers.

In addition to seeing all this live music, I was also fortunate enough to get together once or twice with a couple of different local musicians. One of the first people I met when I moved to Maplewood was my friend Jim, who happens to be quite a good jazz improv picker. We’d been threatening for years to get together to swap a few tunes, and in May we managed to do it. In addition, my friend Mike and I were able to go down to the monthly jam session in Little Silver another time or two during the year.

So all in all, even though I wasn’t able to fully get back into the swing of things, 2010 was nevertheless a good year for music. And as it happens, 2011 is starting to take off pretty well, too. But that’s another story. Or two…

A Peek Into The Past

I started playing guitar sometime in 1978, when I was in the eighth grade. Almost immediately I was getting together with friends to form bands. Of course my first thought was to become a rock star, but pretty soon it became clear that we could get a lot more gigging opportunities (and have a lot less gear to lug around) if we played bluegrass. By the time I was a high school sophomore I’d been through various incarnations of two or three bands, and everything finally shook out into a band called The Southland Ramblers. The personnel included me, my father, another father and his two sons, and a couple of friends. By late 1980 we were gigging regularly, had a bit of a following, and were starting to make a (very) little money. We decided we should make a record.

We picked out an assortment of some of our popular tunes, practiced them for a few months, and headed down to Arthur Smith’s recording studio in Charlotte, where the whole thing was recorded and mixed in one eight-hour day. “Here Come the Southland Ramblers” came out in 1981. We got 1000 copies of the LP and 500 8-track tapes, and it was just about the coolest thing any of us could imagine. Even better, people bought ’em!

Might as well make another one, then, right? In 1982 we recorded “We’re At It Again” at Bias Recording Studio in Springfield, Virginia. If anything, we were even more excited about this second record because it included a few of our original songs. Again, everywhere we played, people bought ’em up. Sweet.

We never found out what the connection was, but at some point after the second record came out, we got a call from Granite City Studios in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, asking if we’d like to record there. They offered us a really good deal (free recording and mixing, if we agreed to buy the records directly from them), and so came about our third record, “The Autograph Album.” Almost everyone who’d bought our first two records had asked us to autograph them, much to our surprise, so with this record instead of a front cover we included a 8×10 black-and-white glossy inside the shrink wrap. Hence the album name.

Well, as the younger among us headed off to school and/or out into the working world, the Ramblers inevitably dissolved — though the records, for a time, continued to sell. It’s a nice footnote, as well, to mention that later on my dad bought my mom a dobro, she learned to play, and they formed a band and continued to use the Southland Ramblers moniker for several more years.

All of this is preamble to the point of this post: Just before Christmas, an old friend of mine from high school, a very fine drummer named Bob Dunlap, transferred all three of our old records to CD for my mom. Thanks to Bob’s efforts, I’ve consequently been able to convert the songs to mp3 and post them on my website.

It’s been odd for me to hear them after all this time (I have copies of them, of course, but I haven’t owned a turntable in decades), and I can’t possibly offer even a remotely objective opinion about them, but for better or worse they are now available for anyone hear.

You can download them (for free) from my other website by clicking here. I’d love to get any feedback you might have about them. And, if you haven’t done so before, please feel free to click around and explore the rest of the website while you’re there. Let me know what you think….

The Latest is Not The Greatest

Since beginning this blog I’ve tried pretty hard to keep it focused cleanly on the subject at hand, which is to say my guitars, my guitar lessons, and my opinions and experiences related to both. I’m not completely convinced the world requires a public record of any of these things, but I am positive that what the world DOESN’T need is a public record of the more personal aspects of my life. I have made a conscious effort to only mention friends, family, my workplace, etc., insofar as they have some connection to or impact on the aforementioned guitar-related experiences.

And so it is that I write now about outside forces that have affected my musical pursuits over the last couple of months; not to complain (God knows I’m doing enough of that off-line these days), but rather to keep this record complete.

Since my last entry in October, a number of changes have taken place at work, chiefly the unexpected departure of my boss and the relocation of our NYC offices. Along with the continued crappy state of the general economy, the consequences of these two occurrences have been staggering. In addition to all the usual trials and frustrations of moving, our office relocation was also an office resizing — from a crowded-but-adequately-sized space to something roughly half the size. Over a month later now, we still haven’t figured out quite where to put everything. Worse, the absence of my boss has left an oversized hole in upper management which has resulted in an oversized dose of micromanagement coming from the top. My level of exhaustion and frustration is staggering and at least vaguely depressing.

All this may seem completely off the mark as related to the topics of this blog, but the connection is that all this has thrown me and my home life into such upheaval that I have almost completely stopped all my musical activity. First, my daily schedule became so irregular and unpredictable that I was forced to suspend my lessons. Since then the stress and overwork have increased exponentially, to the point where I’ve also suspended my practice time. I haven’t lost my interest and enthusiasm, but I’ve found that the only way for me to recharge my batteries is through passive activity: I can listen to music, watch TV, read…. I just can’t expend the energy to pay attention, make the decisions, and concentrate on the myriad of details necessary for mindful, constructive practice. Of course this, too, adds to my general frustration.

It’s very hard for me to see where this is all leading. My gut tells me the situation at work is unlikely to improve. It remains to be seen if I can find a way to personally deal with the situation more effectively, or if I’ll have to make changes of a more drastic nature. Certainly I can’t continue indefinitely down this same path.