Travels with MaryE

Most things I love best are about good light and good timing. That's where the adventures start. Don't be in no hurry here. Here you'll find a little bit about bluegrass music, fox hunting, life on the road, time on the mountain, and a whole lot about other things, too.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

What I Been Listening To...and Tim O'Brien

The last few weeks I have done a LOT of driving. At the Galax Virginia Old Time Fiddlers' Convention earlier this month I hung out with a bunch of folks who pick and sing jazz and western swing music and rediscovered an old love for standard jazz music. So I got myself to a few stores and picked up some fine CDs of folks like Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, and singers of their ilk. Eva Cassidy has long been a favorite of mine but I never bought one of her CDs until recently - it stays in the CD player much of the time these days (I really like "Songbird"). Got some Sinatra but I prefer Nat King Cole somehow. It's okay. It's my truck after all and your mileage may vary.

As much time as I spend at bluegrass festivals you'd think I'd listen to bluegrass most of the time while driving American byways but no! You'll find cajun and zydeco, Celtic and jazz, some blues, maybe a little classical, definitely some classic country....and maybe a little bit of bluegrass now and then. When I'm really tired I find clanging banjos do help to ward off sleep. And how!

One of the great losses (I hope not a permanent one) on the bluegrass trail is that of the Cox Family from Louisiana. If there are angels on earth surely Suzanne and Evelyn Cox are two of them. I have nearly worn out the CD titled, "The Cox Family" listening to it up one road and down another. If you haven't checked them out, do. They have been big-time influences on folks like Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, and that's from the horse's mouth, buddy.

Seems like I've been saying this a lot recently but it is nevertheless true. Tim O'Brien is my overall favorite. Maybe it's partly because I've listened to him so much for 25 years now. Maybe it's because he seems to just like good music, songs he relates to, songs he's written about his own life experiences. Maybe it's because he doesn't seem to adhere to or even recognize those hard and fast musical lines "that's bluegrass" "that's country." No, on a Tim O'Brien album you might find quite a variety of music. And (YMMV) it is all real, real good. Now why is that I ask?

I recently had the chance to sit with Tim and his wonderful wife Kit out on the porch of a log cabin where they were staying while playing at a nearby music festival. I asked Tim about his songwriting and like with so many things one topic lead to another. But what came through in all the talk and anecdotes was this reality: Tim is true to himself. He writes about what he feels. He sings what he likes. He is his own musican. Now for my taste that is as good as it gets. I've never heard him have a bad night singing, haven't heard very many sour notes, have never done any less than really, really enjoy his music. At this festival (a real treat I think) he was playing solo. Like so many of you, I've heard Tim onstage with some of the greatest singers, songwriters and musicians of our time in various configurations but I have to say that nothing has ever suited me nearly as well as hearing just Tim and his fiddle, just Tim and his mandolin, just Tim and his guitar, and always that expressive, easy-on-the-ears voice of his. He looks like the boy next door. Matter of fact he looks very much like he did 25 long years ago. Maybe he's found the fountain of youth. Maybe it's there in your own heart. I don't know. I'm just glad I live in the days of Tim O'Brien and his wonderful music.

Labels: ,

Pickin' in the Pasture (Part 2)

Jesse McReynolds and his fine band did two good shows on Saturday. His grandson Luke McKnight has come a long way both vocally and instrumentally and Jesse just glows with pride whenever Luke takes a break. The way Jesse was talking onstage it sounds like maybe he's passing the torch over to Luke before too long. Heck, I heard Jesse say that he's not too far off 80. But when he snaps into El Comanchero (sp?) you'd think he was a little short of 40. The man still has the vitality I've seen him display these many years. After his afternoon show a lot of folks clustered around him for photos, autographs, and to buy CDs. Then he had to run over and do a mandolin workshop. I actually had a chance to listen to the evening show and I really enjoyed their musical offerings; Johnny B Goode, Paradise and some of the songs Jesse usually does during his shows. He played to a very appreciative crowd. I have to think the Alexanders were pretty happy while looking out over the crowd...I think there were five good-sized tents erected for shelter from the sun (and, as it happened, RAIN) - they were all full each day and evening. During the cooler hours the large, open area in front of the stage was also full of folks in lawn chairs. A few vendors supplied plenty of good food, pizza, homemade ice cream, popcorn and the like...even breakfast!

The times I looked over at the record tables it seemed like all the bands did a pretty brisk business after their shows; I hope so!

One of my favorite moments during the Abrams' shows came when James stepped up to sing a song that I think was called "Can I Get An Amen?" WOW. What a VOICE. I've always appreciated his voice singing the tenor parts, but it's the first time I remember hearing him sing lead. It's a high voice to be sure and that 14-year-old has great pitch! This is not to slight brother John whom I already know has a wonderful voice. And I'm not sure if cousin Eli sings or not, but I had fun photographing him as his nice curly hair blew this way and that in the wind. I'd be happier if he played acoustic bass but I think I'm fighting a losing battle there. Every time I see the Abrams Brothers though I am even more impressed than the last time. They sing and play so well -- and so many instruments! They are intelligent and polite and well I have to think they must have mobs of girls running after them wherever they go -- though John tells me he stays so busy with music and school that he doesn't have a whole lot of time for that. James admitted with a twinkle that he finds time for girls!

Now I want to talk about Jesse Alexander, Susan and Andy's 9-year-old son. He is taking the mandolin and fiddle by storm. I was bragging on him last year but he must have spent the winter woodshedding because he's that much better this year. Pretty amazing to hear a 9-year-old do a 45-minute set onstage in front of a large crowd of people....Jesse did just that on Saturday and you should have heard that crowd cheer. Off stage Jesse is polite and personable. Call me privileged - I got a tour of the house where Jesse, a cowboy and Indian, Civil War and WWII buff, has various "displays" of battles and wars and so forth set up around the house. He also proudly showed me some items passed down from ancestors to him. And talking with Susan I learned that SHE is actually Welsh. This came about when I stopped in the kitchen for a cookie that looked familiar. I was told it was a Welsh cookie...I took a bite and grinned. It was DELICIOUS - and it was what we call a "Welsh cake" over in Wales. And I must say that Susan's was right up there in the top ranks for flavor and moistness. Then I found out she has Jones, Morgan and Davies in her background and the rest is history. Come to think of it she even looks Welsh!

Andy tells me that the Amish are set to return for the 11th Pickin' in the Pasture. I don't think he's announced who will be performing there next year but I'm pretty sure it will include several of the most traditional bands on the BG circuit. We talked some about maybe having an old time band as well. I hope that happens. The best festivals mix the two.

While some of the days were REALLY hot and some of the rainstorms were really WET, all in all the weather for Pickin' in the Pasture was fine. There were plenty of jams around the grounds. On Saturday morning there was a Vintage Tractor Parade and I followed the 5 red tractors (Farmalls) around the grounds. Quite a lot of folks lined the route to watch them pass by and wave. As I left Sunday morning there was a gospel hour over at the workshop tent. There were several dozen folks over there singing one gospel song after another and I found myself wishing that I didn't have to leave because I sure would have loved to be a part of that.

Now the road to Pickin' in the Pasture - whichever way you go - guarantees you some good fresh air and nice pastoral scenes. My way took me through the mountains to Ithaca and then across to Lodi. Along the way were many farm stands selling fresh sweet corn and juicy tomatoes. Perennial beds spilled over with coneflowers and black-eyed susies, farmers were busy baling hay and hauling the bales to the barn. I passed a couple of bearded Amish men in little wagons. Getting close to Lodi I spied many Amish farms (notable for the absence of electric lines and motorized vehicles) with pastures of fine horses close to the barn. I find it joyful to drive the roads that wind through the countryside and get a peek into the lives of country folk.

This year's Pickin' in the Pasture festival was really fun; the staff and the Alexanders are so hospitable and helpful. The stage is nice and the crowd enthusiastic. Most folks got to the stage area early and seemed to stay for all of the performances. The bands all knocked themselves out to do their best. And it was just really, really good. Pickin' in the Pasture is still I suppose a small-to-medium-sized festival. One of the really good things I like about PIP is that they don't have TOO many hours of music onstage. I think the show started around 11 or 12 most days; and the last band finished right around 10:00. Plenty of time for picking and socializing. Most folks I know are quite happy to not have too many bands performing allowing them time to hear all the bands, pick some, and get a reasonable amount of sleep. Another thing I really liked about PIP is that each band still does two shows enabling you to maybe catch just one of them. The trend these days toward one long show I think makes people have to make too many difficult choices and ultimately hurts the bands' CD sales....maybe you just HAVE to go to a banjo workshop and it's at the same time as the only show being done by your favorite band. You have to choose. While in some cases maybe having just one shows helps bands in the summertime get to their next gig in a more timely fashion, that really depends...what time will your one show be? If you get the dinnertime slot or first in the morning you are NOT going to be heard and you won't sell many CDs. So bands and promoters, rethink this!

Anyway, next year when you're planning your schedule, if you like traditional bluegrass music and enjoy jamming and want to try a nice, friendly festival that isn't as big as Bean Blossom or Grey Fox, do think about coming out to Lodi NY. You'll be glad you did.

Labels: ,

Pickin' in the Pasture (part 1)

Pickin' in the Pasture (PIP) celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and it was a real dandy! The music is always good and this year was no exception. All the bands did a great job and I think everyone there felt like they definitely got their money's worth. PIP is a family-run festival with a truly family atmosphere. Most of the folks who greet you at the gate are related to the Alexanders and they're as friendly as any folks I've ever met. As others have mentioned, PIP is held on a working sheep farm and the camping is "rough" camping out in fields that are pastures for grazing sheep the rest of the year.

Part of the fun this year was when Andy Alexander donned his professorial cap one morning, hopped on his tractor with the Bluegrass Express wagon securely attached to the back and spilling over with folks of all ages who were keen to hear more about....SHEEP! Now I stay on a sheep farm in Wales but I learned a few things about shepherding, at least Finger Lake-style, that I hadn't previously known....the audience were attentive and keen to hear the intricacies of raising sheep in the Seneca Lake area of New York. It was a good talk. Some of us walked down to the pasture and enjoyed gazing at a nice flock of about 700 lambs and ewes, Cheviot-Clun Forest crossbred mountain sheep; they're smaller and hardier than some of the other breeds and they pasture out year-round, even lambing in the open. Impressive!

It was good to see and meet many friends from BGRASS-L during the wonderful four days at PIP. We were treated to four sets by the great Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass. Them Lundy boys sure do get with it on those old time tunes like Mountain Sally Ann (you all be watching for their new project being released around January 2008 on Rounder Records) and durn if I didn't get to hear Donny Eldreth pick my favorite, Dusty Miller, not once but twice (those boys pride themselves on not repeating any songs even when they do 4 shows at a festival, but they had many requests to repeat certain songs so they honored those!) Michael Paisley has to be one of the quietest folks in bluegrass but he has a very congenial way about him and seems to smile onstage just about as much as Alan Shelton!!! He holds it all together with a big grin and a solid bass line. And Danny...well enough has been said about him but I'll say that I sure do love the song (I think it's called) "Please Don't Throw Mama's Flowers Away" which is a KILLER song written by our own Chris Stuart and it is (I think most likely) the cut to play off the upcoming Paisley project. That is a classic if ever I heard one. As much as I travel America's backroads I've long thought how there are such stories there in those roadside memorials and Chris Stuart has put it all in words and music. Talk about a story song. Listen and believe!

There can't be a finer young band today than the Steep Canyon Rangers. If you haven't heard them you need to sit up and listen. Their CDs are wonderful but I gotta say that (as is usually the case with the bands I like best) you really need to see their show in person. They remind me a bit of when the Johnson Mountain Boys first charged on the scene so many years ago. They do a whole lot of original material, especially that of the banjo player Graham who despite being handicapped by playing the 5 string manages to write brilliant songs and he makes the best faces while he plays (hope he never stops that Mike Hartgrove has quit the road there aren't that many great face-makers in BG today). Woody is a very personable (and BIG) young man and I had a great time chatting with him after the show about hunting hounds and bird dogs. The boys were headed out to Gettysburg and then on to Northern Ireland where they're playing in Omagh next weekend. Wears me out just thinking about that (they'd just returned from playing in Europe when I saw them at PIP). They drive around in this cute little motor home and strike me as being some of the friendliest, best-organized young folk on the scene today. I think they will go far, far, far in the music business. I hope.

The Abrams Brothers, their daddy, grandpa, cousin Eli, Brandon and another man on mandolin did two wonderful sets at PIP and were extremely well-received by the audience. There was a big crowd at PIP, mostly folks who were there for the entire weekend (Andy said all the rain in the forecast scared off much of his day crowd, but overall he seemed pleased with the turnout)....surely the pastures were full of motor homes and tents and as I said last night lots and lots of folks were out there jamming well up into the night.

It's always a pleasure to see - and hear - the Lewis Family and they did not disappoint this year at PIP. They arrived just in time for their first show since they got tied up in Ithaca on one way streets and a confusing detour, and they ran up to the stage without even getting to comb their hair! Remember those big hairdos they used to have way back when? And all the matching outfits are a real Lewis Women tradition, one they continue to carry on. Though their numbers are dwindling the three sisters and Little Roy and Lewis and the bass player (I think he was an Easter?) put on two great shows. If you haven't heard them do "Honey in the Rock" you have been missing out. Little Roy isn't a young man but he still has unbridled energy to spare whenever he hits the stage. He had us cracking up with his stories and jokes and of course Polly, Janice and Miggie play the "straight men" with all those, rolling their eyes or whatever. Polly has been battling some very serious health problems recently and her husband Leon is also very ill at the moment, so please do keep them in your prayers. But Polly put on a happy face, professional showwoman that she is, and sang her heart out. I'm looking forward to catching their shows again at Thomas Point Beach this weekend.

David Davis and the Warrior River Boys did two fantastic sets on Thursday and I think they, similarly, arrived right on the edge of showtime without any time to primp and fuss from a crowded and arduosly long ride from Cullman Alabama that started the previous night (that's a long trip, folks!) I love this band and they are one of the bands on the circuit today who are carrying the Traditional Torch. David has had some fine bands down through the years; these boys have been with him for many years now and have a great and cohesive sound. Each member brings a lot to the group and they are able to hold an audience on the edge of their seats. And as I've said before you simply won't meet a finer gentleman than David Davis.

Labels: ,