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

Posted in Administrivia | 1 Comment

Time for the 2019 Joe Val Festival!

2019-JV-LOGO-V-744x1024Far and away the major winter bluegrass event in this part of the country, and maybe in the whole country (as Alex MacLeod of Rock Hearts corrected on the show back on the 26th), it’s time again for The Joe Val Festival this weekend, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday 15-16-17Feb, at the Sheraton Framingham.

From the Boston Bluegrass Union’s Joe Val page:

Join the Boston Bluegrass Union and celebrate the legacy of the late Joe Val with three big days of indoor bluegrass at the Sheraton Framingham Hotel.

We have a great lineup of national and regional talent, expanded workshops, Kid’s Academy, music vendors, and round-the-clock jamming. Our 2006 event won the coveted “Event of the Year” award from the International Bluegrass Music Association.

the lineup of bands that will appear on the Main Stage:

  • The Gibson Brothers
  • The Seldom Scene
  • Sister Sadie
  • Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands
  • Danny Paisley & The Southern Grass
  • Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
  • Appalachian Road Show
  • Tony Trischka with Michael Daves and special guest Kenny Kosek
  • The Lonely Heartstring Band
  • Shawn Lane & Richard Bennett
  • High Fidelity
  • Jesse Brock presents Mainline Express
  • Carolina Blue
  • Southern Rail
  • The Feinberg Brothers
  • Level Best
  • Rock Hearts
  • Berklee All-Stars

Go to the Festival page for capsule descriptions of the bands and links to their websites, plus the schedules for the Main Stage, and for the Showcase Stage for regional up-and-comers (and stalwarts).

One band that I hadn’t heard of was Level Best, and there is not yet a link to their website—but, it turns out they have one, HERE.  They’re an aggregation of veterans from up and down the East coast, including an old friend, James Field, a former Charles River Valley Boy.  Has he moved back from France?  We’ll find out Friday evening, when Level Best makes their debut at 7:15 PM.

Two of the members are touring with Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike, who will be playing the Joe Val Wind-up Hoe-down, the post-festival dance, along with a group called Mamma’s Boys (four-fifths of Mamma’s Marmalade), both bluegrass outfits, so no old-timey and swing this year.  But still bound to be fun.  /CL


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Rhode Island’s Best-Kept Secret? Rock Hearts on HAH!

I had heard the name, but knew nothing of the band when Tony Watt asked if I’d like to have them on live.  They are scheduled to appear at the Joe Val Festival this year, so I said, sure, if you help.  Tony did, along with Gerry Katz, and so Rock Hearts showed up promptly at 9:30 Saturday.

What a treat!  Rock Hearts (named after a Jimmy Martin song) is a traditional bluegrass-style country band, based in Rhode Island.  The members are spread out a bit: Alex MacLeod (guitar) lives in Charlestown, RI;  Joe Deetz (banjo) lives in Mendon, MA; Billy ‘BT’ Thibodeau lives in Cumberland, RI; Danny Musher (fiddle) remained in Providence after graduating from Brown; Pete Kelly (bass) lives in Farmington, CT.  All of them are seasoned pickers (even the youngest, Danny), and they settled right in, playing one tune after another, for the better part of an hour, including a lovely original by Alex, ‘Starry Southern Night’.

rock hearts-img_2705_sm

Rock Hearts through the glass, at Hillbilly at Harvard, WHRB, 26Jan19.  Left to right: Danny Musher, Pete Kelly, Billy Thibodeau, Joey Deetz, Alex MacCloud (iPhone photo by CL).

Danny is originally from Maryland, so we played do-you-know-places; Alex also lived in Maryland when young, and as my paternal grandmother was a McCleod (no ‘a’), we are probably cousins of some degree.  Billy retains his French Canadian name, but his Maine father and uncle anglicized theirs, as Sam and Bob Tidwell (the Kennebec Valley Boys).  I remembered Joey Deetz when he was a much-younger New England Bluegrass Boy (though my hazy memory confused him with Karl Lauber).  Pete Kelly is I think a Connecticut native, but may have the most national-touring experience of the group: he’s a noted banjo player who has worked with Dale Ann Bradley and Michael Cleveland (in both Dale Ann’s band, and in Flamekeeper).  He says he’s happy playing bass with Rock Hearts.

These guys are going to be at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, Friday the 15th on the Showcase Stage at c. 7:20 PM; and Saturday the 16th on the Main Stage at 10 AM.  Check ’em out!

Here’s Rock Hearts playing the old blues standard, ‘Stagger Lee’ bluegrass style at the Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival; they played it on the show (turn up the sound!):


Rock Hearts’s website is HERE.  /CL



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The Legendary Al Hawkes Dies at 88

I met Al Hawkes at one of the Joe Val Festivals, back in the Green Room.  It was not the one where he received the 2009 Heritage Industry Award from the Boston Bluegrass Union.  It might have been 2016 when he answered a question about the now-famous Coke bottle that he used for the sound of the spike-hammer on the Lilly Brothers‘ recording of ‘John Henry’.  The Lillys with Don Stover were in his Event Records studio back in 1957.  You can hear Al at the beginning, striking the ‘spike’ (video HERE):

That’s Everett Lilly on the vocal and mandolin, B Lilly on guitar, and Don Stover on banjo, my favorite recording of ‘John Henry’.   Here’s Al in his signature red hat, talking about the Coke bottle (video HERE):

Here’s the text of the award from the BBU:

Al Hawkes
Musician, entertainer, record label owner, and collector Al Hawkes has contributed to bluegrass and country music in nearly every possible capacity.  In 1956 in Westbrook, Maine, he founded Event Records and released early recordings by such key artists as The Lilly Brothers and Don Stover,  Charlie Bailey (of the Bailey Brothers), Dick Curless, and many more. Born in 1930,  Hawkes formed his first band in high school, singing and playing an array of stringed instruments.  To this day, he continues to be an active performer, and has received over 25 awards.  In addition to releasing a number of important recordings on Event, Hawkes is one of the foremost record collectors in New England, whose archive includes over 40,000 45s, 78s, and LPs.

Even at an advanced age, when I met him briefly, Al was an indefatigably energetic man, which characterized his whole career of adventures in sound and music.  As a youngster he got his father to string an high antenna so he could listen to early country music on AM radio.  In his teens he started an independent (pirate) radio station; after a year or so the FCC threatened legal action, and his father shut it down.  In the meantime, in the late ’40s, he formed a trio, The Cumberland Ridge Runners, with a black kid named Alton Myers playing guitar, Al on mandolin, and another guitarist, Don Williams.  Al and Alton often performed as a duo, Allerton and Alton; their recordings were issued by Bear Family Records (Germany) as ‘The First Interracial Country Music Duet’ in 2010.  When I met Al, he gave me an Allerton and Alton card, saying he’d send me a copy for airplay.  Unfortunately, I never got it; I’ll have to remedy that, belatedly.  Here’s a promotional video from Bear Family (video HERE):

Al went to Broadcast School in Boston.  The invaluable records subsequent events:

During the Korean War, Al was an activated Maine Air National Guard and stationed on an air force base in Tripoli, Libya – North Africa. He worked as a disc jockey and engineer on the AFRS radio station that was located there.

He appeared live on the AFRS radio station with Don Fields’ western band and then formed his own hillbilly group called Al Hawkes and the Cumberland Mountain Folks, doing five live radio shows a week.

After returning to civilian life, Al started a retail Television and Stereo business that he ran for 35 years with his wife Barbara.

In 1956, along with Barbara and Richard Greeley, he formed Event Records and built a recording studio with offices in an abandoned blacksmith shop building in Westbrook, Maine. Many country and bluegrass artists were recorded there – some going on to national fame, such as the Lilley Brothers, Don Stover, Dick Curless, and, Lenny Breau, to name just a few.

Unhappily, Event records was going strong, with not only country and bluegrass records, but rockabilly as well, when a fire in a Boston distributor’s warehouse destroyed some 20,000 records, and the company folded.  But we should mention Lenny Breau, the son of Hal Lonepine (Harold Breau) and Betty Cody, popular New Englanders achieving national ‘country and western’ recognition.  Lonepine and Betty would sometimes drop Lenny off at Event Records in Westbrook when they had business in Portland.  In the first part of this video (up to about 14:00, introduced by a rockabilly song, “Baby, Baby,” that Al Hawkes wrote), Al tells how he first came to record the 15-year-old Lenny, the short-lived guitarist whom Chet Atkins called the “greatest guitar player to ever to walk the face of the Earth”.  The conversation moves to the recording of “Baby, Baby,” in which Lenny played lead (video HERE):

Lenny Breau became famous as a jazz guitarist, only to die in what are described as “mysterious circumstances” in his 40s.  The informal tracks of young Lenny that Al recorded were later released on a CD, displayed during the conversation above.

The video is also neat because it shows the inside of Al’s Event studio, including the wall clock that plays a role during Al’s recording of the Lilly Brothers, as Al describes in this video with Everett Alan Lilly and Jim Rooney (video HERE):

Back in 2010, Maine Public Radio produced a video (from Rockhouse Mountain Productions) called, cleverly, The Eventful Life of Al Hawkes.  It’s available via Vimeo HERE.  (Thanks to Gerry Katz for the link.)  I’ll try embedding it, but if it doesn’t work, go to the link.  It’s 47:40, and well worth your time.

RIP Al Hawkes.  The more I learn about him, the more I wish I’d gotten to know him back when I was just getting interested in country music.  /CL

Posted in Bluegrass, Country History, Country News, Record Business | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s the Eighth of January!

And that means it’s time for ‘The Battle of New Orleans’ with Johnny Horton (1959):



Johnny Horton of course took the song from Jimmy Driftwood (whose real name was James Morris).  From a site called the Greasespot Cafe, a post by one ‘dmiller’:

Jimmy Driftwood was a high school principal and history teacher who loved to sing, play instruments and write songs. Mr. Driftwood wrote many songs, all for the sole purpose of helping his students learn about this battle and other historical events.

But this song turned out to be so popular that it won the 1959 Grammy Award for Song Of The Year (awarded in 1960 for musical accomplishments in 1959). Johnny Horton also won the 1959 Grammy Award for Best Country And Western Performance for his recording of this song. “The Battle of New Orleans,” is about a battle in the War of 1812, and it became one of the biggest selling hits of 1959.

The words were written to correspond with an old fiddle tune called “The 8th of January,” which is the date of the famous “Battle of New Orleans”.

Here’s Jimmy singing the original, with all the verses left out of Johnny Horton’s version:


Jimmy Driftwood himself wrote (quoted by ‘dmiller’ on the Greasespot thread):

“After the Battle of New Orleans, which Andrew Jackson won on January the 8th eighteen and fifteen, the boys played the fiddle again that night, only they changed the name of it from the battle of a place in Ireland to the ‘Eighth of January’. Years passed and in about nineteen and forty-five an Arkansas school teacher slowed the tune down and put words to it and that song is ‘The Battle Of New Orleans’.”

It would be nice to learn the name of that Irish tune.  However, it was apparently not called ‘The Eighth of January’ right after the battle.  From a detailed account on a site called The Fiddler’s Companion:

One of the most popular and widespread of Southern fiddle tunes. The melody was originally named “Jackson’s Victory” after Andrew Jackson’s famous rout of the British at New Orleans on January, 8th, 1815. This victory, by a small, poorly equipped American army against eight thousand front-line British troops (some veterans of the Napoleonic Wars on the Continent), came after the peace treaty was signed and the War of 1812 ended, unbeknownst to the combatants. The victory made Jackson a national hero, and the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans was widely celebrated with parties and dances during the nineteenth century, especially in the South. Around the time of the Civil War, some time after Jackson’s Presidency, his popular reputation suffered and “Jackson’s Victory” was renamed to delete mention of him by name, thus commemorating the battle and not the man. Despite its wide dissemination, Tom Carter (1975) says that some regard it as a relatively modern piece refashioned from an older tune named “Jake Gilly” (sometimes “Old Jake Gilly”). Not all agree—Tom Rankin (1985) suggests the fiddle tune may be older than the battle it commemorates, and that it seems American in origin, not having an obvious British antecedent as do several older popular fiddle tunes in the United States. A related tune (though the ‘B’ part is developed differently”) is Bayard’s (1981) Pennsylvania collected “Chase the Squirrel” (the title is a floater).

I’m guessing that a ‘floater’ is a song title that’s applied to many different fiddle tunes.

So the tune, which may have come from an old Irish song about a battle—or may not have—got its name changed to “Jackson’s Victory’, and then again to ‘The Eighth of January’ after President Jackson fell out of favor (in the North?).  At any rate, it’s a fine tune.  Listen to Johnny Warren and Charlie Cushman play it, bluegrass style:




Man, I could listen those two all day!  They’re touring, of course, with the fabulous Flatt and Scruggs revival band, The Earls of Leicester.  /CL

Posted in Bluegrass, Country History, Old-Timey | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Extra! Fiddlin’ John Carson Played Tex’s ‘Christmas Time’ in 1927!

Well, sort of. After I played Tex Logan fiddling his composition, ‘Christmas Time’s a-Comin’’ with The Lane Brothers, followed by Bill Monroe’s classic first recording of the song, listener Paul Murphy emailed me with this news (reprinted with his permission):

Hello  Cousin Lynn. . .

I certainly hate to discredit the great Tex Logan in any way, but it is fairly apparent that he was inspired by this tune that Joe Bussard plays on his radio show every now and then by Fiddlin’ John Carson and His Virginia Reelers called ‘Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over’.  Tex certainly did add a very catchy chorus to go along with his new lyrics.

Joe Bussard’s Link:

YouTube Link:

Your faithful listener,

Paul Murphy

You be the judge. Here’s Bill Monroe:

Undeniably, Fiddlin’ John’s song, which I had never heard, has the same melody, and it’s even about Christmas. But, as Paul says, it’s not the same song. Tex has written all new lyrics with new meaning, and added a second part (“Don’t you hear them bells. . .”) as a chorus. In other words, Tex has taken a simple fiddle tune with rudimentary lyrics and made it into a real song.

It’s the old ‘folk process’, of course. Like all ‘roots’ music, country has re-used countless simple melodies for hundreds of songs. Just remember ‘I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes’, ‘The Great Speckled Bird’, ’The Wild Side of Life’ and its answer, ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels’; there are doubtless others that I can’t think of.

I quoted Richard Thompson’s Bluegrass Today account of the first recording of ‘Christmas Time’s A-Comin’’ HERE.  As far as I know, Tex never mentioned the Fiddlin’ John Carson recording, though listening to it, it’s inconceivable that he hadn’t heard someone play ‘Christmas Time Will Soon Be Over’. Perhaps some afficiandos of old-time fiddling will let us know how current it was back when Tex was growing up.

When I heard the link that Paul sent, though, it was a revelation. It was as if we’d discovered a letter from a long-gone ancestor, recounting an early version of a tale we thought was new.

But it’s Tex’s song that everyone sings today. /CL

TexLogan-Cooke65-15N-37 Web800

PS For more on Tex Logan, see my posts: Tex Logan (1927–2015) — Part I and Tex Logan (1927–2015) — Part II and Tex Plays “Christmas Time’s A-Coming”

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Well Met—It’s Opry Time Again!

Met Calendar picThe Metropolitan Opera broadcast season begins December 1st.  Again this year there are seven Saturdays starting earlier than 1:00 PM.  In all cases we subtract about 15 minutes from the Met starting time for WHRB’s Prelude to the Met.  Fans of ‘grand opera’ (as it used to be called) should also remember to tune in to WHRB’s Post-Met Vocal Program following each broadcast from Lincoln Center.

Notice: WHRB’s David Elliott, long-time producer of our Met broadcasts, creator and host of the Prelude to the Met and the Post-Met Vocal Program, is seriously ill and will not be on the air this season.  WHRB’s astute Classical Department will take over in his stead.  HAH listeners will remember David from his occasional appearances on the show, and from his role as erstwhile ‘Fillbilly’.  More in a separate post. /CL

December 1
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

December 8
12:30 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:15

December 15
LA TRAVIATA (Verdi) – New Production
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

December 22
LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (Puccini) Performance from October 27, 2018
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

December 29
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

January 5
OTELLO (Verdi)
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

January 12
ADRIANA LECOUVREUR (Cilea) – New Production
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

January 19
12:30 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:15

January 26
MARNIE (Muhly) – New Production/Met Premiere
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

February 2
CARMEN (Bizet)
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

February 9
IOLANTA (Tchaikovsky) / BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE (Bartók)
12:30 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:15

February 16
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

February 23 RIGOLETTO (Verdi)
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

March 2
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

March 9
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

March 16
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

March 23
SAMSON ET DALILA (Saint-Saëns) – New Production
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

March 30
12:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 11:45

April 6
TOSCA (Puccini)
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

April 13
11:30 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 11:15

April 20
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

April 27
11:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 10:45

May 4
LES PÊCHEURS DE PERLES (Bizet) Performance from Fall 2018
1:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 12:45

May 11
12:00 —> Hillbilly at Harvard ends c. 11:45


Posted in Administrivia, Hillbilly Journal, Program Notes, Radio Talk | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Tony Watt Launches JamVember


It’s at the Sheraton in Framingham, it’s taking over a good portion (but not all) of the hotel for a weekend, but it’s not a festival.  So what is it?

It’s JamVember, a “Boston’s bluegrass Jamming non-festival.”  The neologism is meant to convey jamming in November (don’t ask me what happens with one in March, or August—I guess it has to be November).  The weekend of November 16-18, 2018, to be exact, when bluegrass pickers, singers, and workshop teachers will take over an entire wing of the Sheraton.  Tony reports that the hotel wing is already sold out, but for out-of-town attendees, there are hotels available nearby.  Shades of the Joe Val Festival‚ but this isn’t connected with the JVF, and there are no concerts as such: just jams, wherever you can find them, all night long.  Fun sounds, and yes, sounds like fun!

Here’s how Tony describes it:

JamVember is a weekend-long “non-festival” focused on jamming and one
big difference from usual festivals: no stage show to distract from
the picking!

There will be over 40 teachers hosting jams and teaching workshops,
but it’s not about learning (ha!), it’s about jamming!

JamVember is not a BBU event, but it will be held at the Sheraton in
Framingham, the same hotel as Joe Val

JamVember is coming up the weekend before Thanksgiving, November 16th – 18th, and many more details can be found at

You can get weekend and single-day tickets at the JamVember website.  Tony and his dad Steve will be on HAH on November 10th to pick a few tunes and remind you all about JamVember.  /CL

Posted in Bluegrass, Country Calendar, HA'pennings | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Whiskey Gentry’s Dead Ringer—Is Lauren Staley!

Hits and Misses 8

TWG-Dead Ringer“It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d been to.  I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry – a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams, and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture.” —Hunter S. Thompson

When Lauren Staley Morrow came across this quote from Hunter S. Thompson, she envisioned being in a band called The Whiskey Gentry.  Within two years, that vision was a reality. . .
—Dave Stallard, Blue Ridge Outdoors

When The Whiskey Gentry’s Dead Ringer arrived last year, I paid attention, as I’d liked their previous album, Holly Grove (though the title song was a bit on the gruesome side). The new album knocked me out. This band has bluegrass origins, but their hearts are straight honky-tonk country, and they manage to play the Americana ‘jam-band’ game without succumbing to the noisy and trivial. How? By celebrating the startling writer and singer in their midst, the ineffable Lauren Staley. That’s her face on the cover, and she’s the ‘Dead Ringer’, though her name is nowhere on the outside.

Lauren Staley Morrow is married to guitarist Jason Morrow, and the two are the heart of The Whiskey Gentry. Lauren and Jason kick serious butt with ‘Dead Ringer’, ‘Rock & Roll Band’, and ’Martha from Marfa’, and others, verging on rock-’n’-roll, but Lauren writes country songs. In ‘Dead Ringer’ she describes herself as ‘a country-folk singer’:

Now I play one-four-five chords in the key of G
Hoping everybody will look at me
And tell me ‘Good job’ at the end of the show;
And I’m a half-drunk full-broke country-folk singer
And everybody tells me I’m a dead ringer
For a more famous girl—on the radio.

And then Lauren turns around and covers Merle Haggard’s sad ‘Kern River’ (even though she’s a girl), sings her own plaintive lament, ’Is It Snowing Where You Are?’, and follows that with a simple love-song that might have done Merle proud: ‘If You Were an Astronaut’. This album generates calls when I play songs from it: ‘Who was that?’ If Lauren can keep writing and singing, at some point the fools in commercial country radio are going to realize that ‘Alt-Country’ is ‘Real-Country’ and The Whisky Gentry (and J. P. Harris, and Chris Stapleton, et al.) are the Real Deal. Then TWG better put Lauren’s name on the cover.

Here’s the clever ‘official’ video for ‘Dead Ringer’: it’s a riot.

Color this one a HIT.

PS Some of the songs on this album contain the ’s’ word. Radio promoter Al Moss kindly gave me downloads of bowdlerized versions to play on the air. /CL

UPDATE: Al Moss writes:

Great to hear from you, and thanks. Not sure if you are aware that Lauren has a new EP. They’re (Lauren and Jason) changing the branding from The Whiskey Gentry to Lauren Morrow. Perhaps they read your mind (“Then TWG better put Lauren’s name on the cover.”) Perhaps you knew already, or perhaps the timing of your previous review is just ironic

So it’ll be ‘Morrow’ not ‘Staley’.  Either way, she’ll sound as good.  I didn’t know.  Looking forward to hearing the ‘EP’ (which, as I’ve explained many times on HAH, should be ‘RP’.) /CL

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Harvard Football vs. HAH: A Draw!

This year the Sports Department has elected to dispense with their customary Pre-game shows, so they won’t be taking as much time away from HAH.  And there are three Friday games, plus two 1:30 Saturday games, so only five games cutting HAH short!

  • 15 Sep:  Game 12:00 noon; HAH ends 11:45 AM
  • 22 Sep: Game Friday; no effect on HAH
  • 29 Sep: Game Friday; no effect on HAH
  • 6 Oct: Game 1:30 PM; broadcast begins 1:15 PM (longer HAH?)
  • 13 Oct: Game Friday; no effect on HAH
  • 20 Oct: Game 12:00 noon; HAH ends 11:45 AM
  • 27 Oct: Game 1:30 PM; broadcast begins 1:15 PM (longer HAH?)
  • 3 Nov: Game 12:00 noon; HAH ends 11:45 AM
  • 10 Nov: Game 1:00 PM; HAH ends 12:45 PM
  • 17 Nov: Game 12:00 noon; HAH ends 11:30 AM (Yale game)
    Harvard Football 18
Posted in Administrivia, Radio Talk | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Why I Cancelled Barbara Martin Stephens

I’ve been wondering whether I needed to explain this at all, but I did mention it on air, so if anyone is curious, this is what happened:

Stephens-Don't GiveBarbara Martin Stephens lived with Jimmy Martin from 1953 to 1966, and had four of his children (they were never married, and Tennessee has no common-law marriage statute). Last year she published a book about her life with Jimmy and thereafter, Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler: My Life with Jimmy Martin, the King of Bluegrass (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2017).

Back in January, Ken Irwin (Rounder Records) mentioned that Barbara Martin Stephens would be coming North in the summer and was looking for opportunities to promote her book. I responded,

I might well be interested in interviewing her on HAH, especially if the conversation could focus on Jimmy Martin’s history, and if we could juxtapose talk with plenty of Jimmy Martin songs—much as I did with David Johnson and his book on the Stanley Brothers.

Feel free to pass this on to whomever might be doing promotion for the book.

Then in April I got an inquiry from a representative of an outfit called ‘Handsome Ladies, Women in Bluegrass’, named Cindy, who put me in touch with Barbara Stephens. We arranged for her to come to WHRB on June 16th, a week before she was scheduled to appear for a Jimmy Martin tribute at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival. I was enthusiastic at that time, telling Barbara:

I’m a long-time fan of Jimmy Martin’s music, and have played him on the radio for many decades.  It will be a great opportunity to revisit some of the music, and learn about his life with you. . .

Hillbilly at Harvard is an informal show, running from 9 AM to 1 PM (Eastern time), and I can certainly spend an hour or two with you, providing we play enough music.  What might make the most sense is to proceed chronologically, relating the events in your book with the songs that he was recording at the time. Since HAH is a country show, our listeners would enjoy hearing about your experiences with others in the country and bluegrass fields, too.

She arranged for me to get a copy of her book, which I began to read. It was a revelation, though not as it developed a pleasant one. I knew of course that while Jimmy Martin was a terrific musician, he was a roustabout, if not worse. I had a hint of this way back in 1981, when I reviewed the Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival for The Boston Globe:

The Seldom Scene, from Wahington, D.C., led by the quixotic John Duffey, performed with their usual alacrity, and drew their usual ovation. Jimmy Martin, on the other hand, following a reportedly successful show on Friday evening, fell flat on Saturday, despite his coarse jokes and constant entreaties. “Is everybody happy?” he kept asking, while the wind grew chilly and people gazed anxiously at black clouds. . .

Piazzai-True AdventuresThen there was the slim 100-page book that music writer Tom Piazza wrote, originally a magazine article, with the imposing title, True Adventures with the King of Bluegrass (Vanderbilt University Press, 1999). It mostly described a backstage visit to The Grand Ole Opry with Jimmy, who at his irascible and chronically inebriated best managed to insult Ricky Skaggs and started after Bill Anderson: “I’m going to knock his ass right off him.” We never learn what Jimmy had against Bill, but Ricky apparently wouldn’t sing harmony with Jimmy on some earlier occasion, and Jimmy never let go of a grudge. In a blurb the publisher put on the back cover of Barbara’s book, Bill Anderson writes:

Jimmy Martin was a sparkling stylist. both as a singer and a guitarist, a brilliant showman whom few could follow onstage, and a tortured soul who once, when I simply said hello to him at the Grand Ole Opry, threatened to whip my ass right there on the side of the stage.  I met Jimmy early in my career and I thought I knew him fairly well.  After reading Barbara’s painfully honest portrayal, however, I realize I hardly knew him at all.

Maybe unbeknownst to Tom Piazza, standing backstage at the Opry, amidst the country and bluegrass stars Jimmy knew well, would have fanned the embers of resentment that he bore for having been denied membership in that celebrated club. From the first days the young Barbara Gibson knew him, his fondest desire was to be recognized among his Opry peers. That was to never be, and for what it is worth, we now know why: her name was Melissa Monroe, Bill Monroe’s daughter, whom Jimmy was seeing even when he started dating Barbara. She describes an encounter with Bill at the DJ Convention in 1962:

Back at the convention, I ran into Bill Monroe and we stopped to talk.  I was proud of the fact that we were moving back to Nashville, so I said to Bill, “Jimmy and I are moving back to Nashville.”  He said, “Barbara, don’t do it.”  I asked, “Why?”  Bill said—and I quote—”Jimmy will never be on the Grand Ole Opry as long as I live.”  (p. 83)

That was worth knowing, as are many of the other tidbits about the music business that enliven Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler.  But as I spent more time with the book, it began to seem more like the old True Confessions magazine, a constant litany of personal detail. I told Barbara, “Your memory of events from years past is amazing. I suppose living through such a long emotional roller-coast will impress a lot of details on you, which might have otherwise have been forgotten.” Just an example at random, from the late ’50s, when Jimmy and Barbara were living in Detroit and Jimmy was working with the Osborne Brothers:

One morning in Flint, while Thelma [Jimmy’s aunt] and I were making breakfast after the boys [Jimmy and his uncle Oscar Fields] had been out drinking the night before, Jimmy came into the kitchen and said, “We really liked that potted meat you had in the refrigerator.  Buy that same kind next time.”  Thelma and I almost fell on the floor laughing.  They had eaten dog food and liked it.  When we told them, they were nonchalant and said, “It was good.” (p. 49)

That was funny, but after a while the documentary detail became wearying, and increasingly sordid. The babies kept coming, Jimmy kept drinking and cheating, and then began to get violent. There was a constant backdrop of interactions with relatives and friends and many others, some with famous names. It was interesting to learn how Barbara began to take over booking Jimmy’s tours—and eventually others’ as well, as she was one of the very first women to become a professional booking agent. But there was precious little about the music itself. The book, I began to understand, was really about Barbara Martin Stephens, not about the music, not even about Jimmy, and for me just reading it was becoming increasingly distasteful. Finally, on June 5th, I wrote her:

Since my last response to your note, I’ve been reading more of your book, and I have to tell you I’m disappointed.  You write well and engagingly, and with great honesty, but it’s all about personal issues, not about bluegrass.  It tells me nothing about Jimmy’s music, about the way he crafted and developed it, and how he worked with so many of the other talented musicians in his bands.

Hillbilly at Harvard is a music show, not one for celebrity gossip or revelations, and I think it would be a disservice to the audience to spend any time talking about strictly personal matters.  Many people might find them compelling, but they are subjects for a different kind of program.  So I regret to say I must cancel our interview on the 16th.

I can tell that you are an engaging, friendly person, and I’d enjoy meeting you.  But I simply cannot promote a book to my listeners that I myself don’t see positively.

True or not, I never got the impression that Barbara really liked bluegrass or country music. Her book can be viewed as a graphic case study of the difficulties women have had in disentangling themselves from abusive marriages, especially half a century ago. If I were running a different radio program, as I said, I’d have welcomed Barbara into the studio, but HAH is all about the music, and I certainly could not have given those issues adequate voice.

Barbara was unhappy with my decision, but I had been increasingly concerned by the incongruity of book and impending show, so it was a relief for me. I had no illusions about Jimmy’s character, but I had no great desire to spend a couple of hours trashing it. To be fair, Barbara does make it clear that, overall, Jimmy was not irredeemably vile.  So let us close with her warm assessment, her perspective in her 82nd year, from the Preface to Don’t Give Your Heart to a Rambler:

Jimmy was a kindhearted man and a father who cared deeply for his children but was unable to let them know it.  He was a terrific entertainer and singer, a man who suffered humiliation and coped with it in ways that only further injured his pride and his standing in the music world.  He was often misunderstood.  He hid behind the “don’t care” façade he built around himself.  Now you will know the reason for his behavior as well as my part in it—both good and bad. (p. xiv)

JImmy Martin by BAM_sm

Jimmy Martin (Copyright © Byron Marshall,


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