Comments? Suggestions? Requests? Use the Paper and Pen Open Page!

Have requests?  Comments?  Suggestions?  Now you can post them here on the new Paper and Pen page.  To comment on the Pen and Paper page, go to that page (click on the Pen and Paper menu heading, below the picture of the studio at top), scroll down to the end of the Comments, and add yours.  Newest comments are always at the bottom.

You can, of course, also post relevant comments under any individual post./CL

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The Empty Chair

"The Empty Chair"Back in August I came across a Guinness ad.  I don’t remember where I encountered it; maybe from the MacResource Forum, where people often post Internet flotsam and jetsam. Anyway, just today a friend who finally figured out how to access her Gmail account got the email I sent round at the time to friends and family, and reminded me of it.

The video was beautifully done, but it went way beyond a clever advert.  This was a statement of human connection, and beyond this, of our obligation to those who serve in our stead, in dangerous and distant parts of the world: “We sleep peaceably in our beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf” [quotation attributed to George Orwell by Washington Times writer Richard Grenier in 1993, but apparently a paraphrase—see here.]

Here’s the video:

Accompanying the video is this note:

The Empty Chair Guinness Commercial salutes those who serve and while they might be out of sight they are not out of mind. If you are ever looking for an easy way to pay respect to someone that serves in the military or community just buy them a beer or pay for their meal in a restaurant. They will be very grateful for your kind gesture and recognition of their service.

I think the melody in the background is the old hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Might be a similar one, but that’s what it sounds like to me. Here is a version Iris Dement recorded for the remake of the movie “True Grit,” which remake was a desecration of the original John Wayne classic, but ignore that. Just listen to Iris (that’s not her image on the video, by the way):

Iris-LifelineIris also recorded the song on a wonderful all-gospel album called Lifeline, here. /CL

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Thanks to the Boston Bluegrass Union . . .

. . . For another terrific Joe Val Festival!  And to think they managed to pull it off amidst a foot of snowfall Saturday night and Sunday morning, deterring attendees and sending some home Saturday for fear of being stranded.  But the bands were there (see previous post, here), mostly.  And the festival was in a hotel, where lucky fans were already ensconced, taking up lobbies and hallways with convivial jamming, and as it turned out, the roads by early Sunday were clear.  Whether overall attendance was down I don’t know, but it was not noticeable.

It never ceases to amaze me how many Festival attendees spend their time jamming—which is why they come, of course, but there’s an awful lot of Main Stage music that they miss.  Then, I missed all of the Showcase Stage acts, and a lot of other activity, so I guess that’s why it’s a Festival and not just a concert.

I did get downstairs Friday afternoon to see Rhonda Vincent, at the top of the bluegrass elite these days, gently lead a jam session with about 20 players.  As one person turned to me and said, “You won’t see this at a rock concert.”


Copyright © L. E. Joiner

Unfortunately, I had to leave before her 11 PM set on the Main Stage.  But we got a chance to chat, and she remembered appearing on Hillbilly at Harvard, which pleased me, as it was too many years ago.  Kathy Kallick remembered, too, though it must have been 14 years. Her California band, she said, complained about getting up to do a morning radio appearance, but were told by the gentleman who was shepherding them around, “This is an important show.”

Everyone has his own favorite moments at an event like this.  For me there was Danny Paisley and his hot traditional band playing one great song after another.  Danny had a cold, but carried on splendidly, with great good humor, like the trouper he is.  Then there was a perfectly luminous set by Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands.  I confess that, while I’ve played Laurie’s music for many years, I have perhaps taken it for granted.  Maybe it’s that the records don’t quite do her justice.  There’s something about a live performance, even from the middle of the auditorium, that can bring an artist into focus.  It just seemed to be a special moment.  I saw Jim Rooney after Laurie’s set, and he clearly felt it, too: “That alone was worth the price of admission,” he said; there might have been a tear in his eye.

Laurie came back with Kathy Kallick on Sunday for a wonderful set of songs from their Vern and Ray project: Laurie and Kathy Sing the Songs of Vern and Ray.  It was a great treat to hear these ladies resurrecting these (mostly) familiar songs they learned decades ago from Vern Williams and Ralaurie_kathyy Park, with their own stamp but completely true to the spirit of those two great Arkansans who brought real mountain music to California.  The album is terrific, a rich feast—go buy and savor it.

The one headline band that didn’t make it to the Festival, “snowed out” I assume because Logan Airport was closed, was The Del McCoury Band.  I was looking forward to seeing Del, but Dudley Connell and The Seldom Scene stepped into the breach to close out Sunday afternoon with an impromptu but marvelously entertaining succession of guests still at the Festival, like members of Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, The Southern Grass, and others—Laurie and Tom Rozum even did a “palette-cleansing” mini-set of old-time songs.

It never fails to amaze me how the all-volunteer staff of the Boston Bluegrass Union manage to pull off such a large and complex event, that to the audience seems to go off without a hitch.  Of course there were probably hitches we didn’t know about.  When you see Stan or Gerry or Sheila heading off determindly with a cell phone at an ear, you figure something must be up.  But whatever it is, we innocents and bluegrass fans never learn.  /CL

PS Friday, 20Feb15: I planned to feature Laurie and Kathy’s Vern & Ray album tomorrow, along with others I acquired at the Festival, but alas I’ve been bitten by a nasty bug which leaves me coughing painfully, and hoarse.  So we’ll have to run some Generic Hours.  I’ll try to update the Calendar here on the blog tomorrow.

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Blizzard? “As long as all the bands are here, we’re fine!”

Here we go again (from the National Weather Service):


Just in time for The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.  But Boston Bluegrass Union official Sheila Selby tells me, “As long as all the bands are here, we’re fine!”  And so far it’s a “Watch,” not a “Warning,” so maybe it’ll fizzle out.  It’s about time for the meteorologists to get it wrong.  My snowblower paths are already hip-deep, and the icicles have been growing. . .

Photo Copyright © L. E. Joiner 2015

The Festival will be underway Friday the 13th.  News: Rhonda Vincent will be leading an informal jam session downstairs in the Showcase Stage from 5 to 6 PM Friday (her Main Stage set isn’t until 10:55 PM), so those of us who have to get to bed, take note.

The other big news is that Jim Gaudet, along with one or two of his Railroad Boys, will be coming to pick and sing on Hillbilly at Harvard this Saturday (the 14th).  That’s assuming they can park amidst the snowpiles, of course.  So, even if you’re at the Festival, tune in!

Another Jim!  Just heard from old buddy Jim Rooney, who will be taking a break from the Festival and coming in to visit as well!  We’ll doubtless talk a little about Jim’s latest project, the new, and surprisingly almost-country album, from Tom Paxton.

Looks like a big weekend.  I hope it’s just a blizzle, and we won’t have any trouble getting over to the Festival Saturday evening and Sunday. /CL

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Cookie-Cutter Country?

An aspiring NNPRlogoashville songwriter named Gregg Todd noticed obvious similarities in music, structure, and lyrics among six ‘bro-country’ radio tunes, took them to Pro Tools audio software on his computer, and ‘mashed up’ all six, to create a sort of ‘ur-‘ pop-country song:

NPR reporter Melissa Block interviewed Gregg Todd in a brief (4.5 minute) piece; go here, and click on Listen Now.

Remember when the “Lovesick Blues” typified the dominant themes in country music? These days it’s “Howlin’ at the Moon.”  From the NPR page:

“It was only when I started really listening to the lyrics that six out of the six songs talked about moonlight or the sun going down or the sunset,” Todd tells NPR’s Melissa Block. “All six had to do with picking up a girl who wasn’t yet their girlfriend or the love of their life or something like that. It was just a summer thing. And almost all of them had a girl that was either in the truck or was going to be in the truck at some point during the song if all went accordingly.”

If you go to that page, read down for the Comments, which are entertaining and occasionally insightful, but some confusion whether other genres of music are just as imitative and trashy as a lot of pop-country.  I posted a comment myself:

Ninety percent of all the music created in every genre is either derivative or junk, or both. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to listen to, or that there isn’t a modicum of creativity involved at the moment. But given time the good stuff tends to survive, and the dreck sinks to the bottom, unless resurrected by specialists and nostalgia mongers. Pick a specialty blues or dixieland or Tin Pan Alley show and you’ll hear a lot of forgotten tunes, most of which were lost to history because they were unmemorable.

Radio tends to settle on predictable formulae, especially these days when it is mainly background in cars and shops, and a certain sameness keeps the dial in one place, which in turn attracts advertisers. As it happens, country music is going through a period that is anathema to many of its older fans and devotees, but as others have pointed out, there a lot of variety on the fringes of independent music-making, under rubrics like bluegrass, alt-country, and Americana. Periodically ‘neo-traditional’ styles reinvigorate Nashville—I think we are about due for another ‘outlaw’ movement.

I should add that there are a thousand three-chord country songs from the ’50s with essentially the same melody and similar lyrics on which you could also pull a similar Pro Tools trick.  But that’s OK.  Most of the stuff on today’s pop-country radio is pretty crappy, and deserves making fun of.

Somewhat off-topic, Commenter ‘Gar Car’ complained about all the drinking on country radio:

As a lover of some of all music I’ve been complaining about ‘new country’ for years. Almost every currently played song will have lyrics that emphasize the importance of drinking alcohol. They want to drink it, sip it slow, shoot it fast and chase a disco ball around. They want to have their feet in the sand a cold beer in hand and yes, this is what makes life good today. It’s five o’clock somewhere! … So let’s do some day drinking!!! It’s got to stop . . .

Commenter ‘Crim Fan’ responded with a link to Merle Haggard‘s “Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”:

Booze has always been a substantial part of country music. Here’s Merle:

Now the songs are all about hanging out with the bros with corporate product placement.

Is Bud Lite really paying Nashville labels for produce placement?  In any case, choosing that song was a stroke of genius, as I pointed out:

The lyrics may be a tad banal, but the track features some of the hottest pickin’ and singin’ this side of swing, jazz, and honky-tonk. It’s timeless, and if pop-country radio won’t play it, it’s their loss.

Big hat-tip to west-coast listener Michael McCann for emailing and pointing me to that NPR piece. /CL

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Little Jimmy Dickens (1920–2015)

Little Jimmy Dickens 1971 (Moeller Talent, Nashville [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I have to admit that, for a long time, I thought of Little Jimmy Dickens only as one of the many minor characters who inhabited the Grand Old Opry roster, a singer of novelty songs reduced to reprising his few hits now and then and living on past celebrity. The comic side was an image that he cultivated. “I’m Little, But I’m Loud” he trumpeted, back in 1950.  And despite his size (4′ 11″) that was “not an idle boast as he could project his voice to the back of any auditorium” (Terence McArdle in The Washington Post).  But he was more than loud; as I have only begun to discover recently, he was a terrific singer, a stylist who could fill a ballad with depth and meaning as only few can.  Listen to his live version of Felice Bryant’s “We Could,” which Jimmy recorded in 1955 (first recording of this song—The Louvin Brothers recorded it in 1958):

James Cecil Dickens came from coal-mining country in West Virginia and left high school to begin performing on local radio as “Jimmy the Kid.”  He adopted the “Little” moniker after recruited to Columbia Records by Roy Acuff, and for some time it was always surrounded by quotes, as on the 1957 compilation album “Raisin’ the Dickens.”

Raisin the Dickens

To his friends in the business, he was known affectionately as “Tater,” applied by Hank Williams, after Jimmy’s first big hit, in 1947, “Take An Old Cold Tater (And Wait),”a song that seemed to suggest a hardscrabble youth for Jimmy, but a search tells us was written by one E. M. Bartlett, Sr., in the 1920s (see here):

Little Jimmy Dickens left the Opry for a few years to tour with the Phillip Morris Country Music Show.  He had a crackerjack band that could swing or even play rockabilly.  “The group’s alumni included pedal steel guitarists Curly Chalker and Buddy Emmons and lead guitarists Grady Martin and Kenneth ‘Thumbs’ Carllile,” writes Terence McArdle.  Little Jimmy Dickens’s repertoire included a lot of gospel music, in addition to ballads, and sentimental recitations.  Indeed, after watching a Youtube video of his popular “Raggedy Ann,” I came away with the impression that, had he been so inclined, he would have made a terrific actor.  Could anyone else have performed this without breaking up?

It was not merely longevity that endeared Little Jimmy Dickens to generations of country music fans.  Asked to define his career by a TV interviewer in West Virginia, Jimmy used just one word: “Honesty” (see here for Part 1, and here for Part 2).  Terence McArdle writes,

On the eve of his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Mr. Dickens reflected on his enduring popularity.

“I’ve always tried to treat audiences right and the people right and to get on their level and visit with them,” he told the Associated Press. “I never actually looked at my people who came to see me as fans but as friends helping me out, and I tried to treat them that way.”

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HA’pennings: Cliff Murphy’s “Yankee Twang” Has Arrived

I recently received a copy of Clifford R. Murphy‘s work on New England country-and-western music (both kinds—Cliff insists, correctly, that the ‘western’ component was a big part of New England country music, at least until local performances on radio disappeared and the stream of records out of Nashville took over).  I’ve started reading Yankee Twang: Country and Western Music in New England, and plan to comment further once I’ve finished.  Cliff of course has a standing invitation to visit and talk about his work in New England on Hillbilly at Harvard.

The book is published in hardcover by the University of Illinois Press.  If you’ve more than a passing interest in the history of country (and western) music in New England, this will likely be the definitive work for some time to come.

One oddity: When Cliff first showed up at WHRB, I had been playing a few cuts from a disc called Hank Williams Jr. High from a New Hampshire alt-country band with the unlikely name of Hog Mawl.  Turns out Cliff was a member.  He knows about twang first-hand.

More anon. /CL

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HA’pennings: The Gibson Brothers Coming January 10th

From Gerry Katz at the Boston Bluegrass Union:

An Evening with the Gibson Brothers, Saturday, January 10th at the National Heritage Museum, Lexington, MA

We love these guys, and hope you’ll join us on January 10th as the Gibson Brothers showcase their latest recording, Brotherhood, to be released in February on Rounder Records.  For this new recording, Eric and Leigh chose songs from early country and bluegrass brother acts, including familiar tunes from Phil and Don Everly, Charlie and Ira Louvin, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Carter and Ralph Stanley, as well as less familiar songs from the Monroe Brothers, Blue Sky Boys, the Church Brothers, and the York Brothers.

In 2013, the Gibson Brothers won entertainer of the year for a second straight year at the International Bluegrass Music Awards as well as three other group and individual trophies.   Eric Gibson was named Songwriter of the Year and the New York-based quintet also won Vocal Group of the Year and Song of the Year for “They Called it Music,” written by Gibson and Joe Newberry.  Both Eric and Leigh are phenomenal song writers and performers and clear crowd favorites. Joining them are Jesse Brock on mandolin, Clayton Campbell on fiddle and Mike Barber on bass.

Further details on Brotherhood here

Details on the BBU Show here  

I have to add that when Eric and Leigh were in WHRB’s Sumptuous Studio B some years ago, I suggested that they do an album of brother duets.  Not that I can take credit for the idea, which is after all a natural.  Back on their 2006 Sugar Hill album, Long Way Back Home, they did a version of the sad “East Bound Train” (a ‘ghost’, or bonus track), which goes back at least as far as Ernest V. (‘Pop’) Stoneman:

Here are the Gibsons doing it at the Belleville Church in Newburyport:

That’s the song which inspired my request. /CL

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“O Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” (Now Available!)

Last December (2013) I published a post on the history of the wonderful Christmas spiritual, first recorded (to my knowledge) by The Stanley Brothers back in the early ’60s.  You can find that post here.  Judging from views, it’s the post that has attracted more attention than any other to date.

We determined there that “O Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” was written by R. Fisher Boyce, though Adger M. Pace is sometimes credited; he was apparently the arranger/harmonizer of the song for the James D. Vaughan Publishing Company, which bought the song from Mr. Boyce.  See the original post for more about the song and the Boyce family.

At the time I could not find a YouTube file of The Stanley Brothers’ recording, but a search now finds one.  No video, but at least you can listen:

Even better, you can now get The Stanleys’ original recording of “Beautiful Star” on CD, thanks to a reissue by the folks at Gusto Records:

Stanleys-gretest hitsYou can order direct from Gusto (click here) or from other outlets, like Amazon.  Of course, others have recorded the song, like Emmylou Harris, on her Light of the Stable Album:

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John Lincoln Wright’s “Takin’ Old Route One” Now on CD!

John Lincoln Wright was to my mind the best country singer to come out of New England, except for Dick Curless, and undoubtedly the best songwriter.  He was also a terrific band leader and stage presence (though to my knowledge hJLW on CDbabye never played an instrument on stage).  Takin’ Old Route One on David Gessner’s Esca Records was his first country album, one that revealed his unique voice to any who paid attention back in 1976.  Unfortunately, like all of his albums (except for That Old Mill, on my Northeastern Records label) it had little or no national exposure or distribution.  Lincoln was, and remained, a regional secret.  Nashville was still in the throes of the ‘countrypolitan’ sound of the ’60s; the ‘outlaw’ movement, sparked by Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Jo Shaver and others was just beginning to make headway on radio.  By rights, Lincoln should have been in the forefront.  Nobody else could do a better job of updating old Bob Wills tunes with an electric-guitar edge, and nobody else (except maybe Billy Jo) was writing more memorable songs.

It has been a long wait, but thanks to Victoria Benedict (Lincoln’s widow) and Larry Flint, Takin’ Old Route One is finally available on compact disc.  You’ve been hearing the songs on Hillbilly at Harvard for lo’ these many decades, and even if you are the rare soul with a copy of the LP, you will want the CD.  If you’ve got JLW fans on your Christmas list, or someone you think will appreciate country songs that never wear thin, this is the time to get a few copies.

Takin’ Old Route One is available at cdbaby (see screen shot above).  I see it’s also listed at cdUniverse, and collectors’ choice music, but cdbaby looks to have the best price.  They also have That Old Mill, Lincoln’s acoustic tribute to Maine and the workin’ man.

Erratum: The Route One CD has a large copyright notice of ‘1991’ on the back; it’s a mistake. /CL

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HA’pennings: The Cantab Wants You! (If You Play Bluegrass)

cantab001001A couple of weeks ago, a newsletter from Geoff Bartley featured a want ad for bluegrass bands to play at his well-known Cambridge club, The Cantab, which features bluegrass on Tuesday evenings.  I asked Geoff if I could reproduce it, since (a) there may be folks in bands who read this blog, and (b) it’s interesting to hear a little inside baseball from the club world, which most of us never encounter.  Besides, Geoff always writes in an engaging style:

WANTED: 4- and 5-piece BLUEGRASS BANDS to open or headline at the Cantab in Cambridge MA.  Bands can be traditional or any hybrid with obvious traditional roots and skill sets.  Tuesday nights only.

Cantab Bluegrass Tuesdays
If you have a bluegrass band w/ the above credentials or can put one together and would like a Tuesday night gig at the Cantab, please rattle my cage.

The 8:30 to 9:30 opening set: $10 per person up to $50 from the Cantab plus tips and one drink each, any drink, your choice.  Water+cups will be on stage.  The hat will sit on the front edge of the stage, but I don’t actively pass it.  People must walk up there.  I need four- and five-piece bands to open every 1st, 3rd and 4th Tuesday of the month, January through June.  I tend to give out six openers at a time, but single openers are available. Tony Watt’s invitational jams start at 8:00 and are notably successful.  You are welcome to start at 8:00 if you like.  Opening sets are preferred by many players and are especially good if you have to be up early.  They can work in many ways, too.  On September 23rd recently… to cite a striking example… our friends Jenni Lyn Gardner and Kyle Tuttle and their band played the first set.  Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton-Levy, former owners of Rounder Records, came to hear them.  But whoever you are, the crowd will reward personality, genuineness, and fire by putting money in the hat.

The 10 to 11 headline set (one 50-minute set plus encore)  I go around w/ the hat to everyone in the bar.  The average hat these days is $250.  But, again, the audience rewards personality, genuineness, and fire.

The Cantab of course is at 768 Massachusetts Avenue, Central Square in Cambridge, 617-354-2685,  which Geoff describes as “A small, unpretentious, multi-racial, multi-generational, cash-only, beer&shots neighborhood bar with live music seven nights and Christmas lights up and on year ’round. Food but not drinks may be brought in.”  It’s good to learn that the bands may actually make a little money, too.

Adds Geoff: “I’m not as desperate as I sound.”  But if you’ve got the requisite “personality, genuineness, and fire,” give him a call.  /CL

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