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

The 2016 Harvard Football Pregame Show Airtimes

afpnmfyxeigiunegxzxrdukt7Here’s the Harvard football schedule for 2016.  I list the Pregame show airtimes because that’s when WHRB’s invaluable coverage begins, and, in just five cases this year, when Hillbilly at Harvard will end.  We lose only half an hour on four Saturdays, and 1.5 hours on November 19th, for The Game (Harvard vs. Yale), but we’ll make up for that by playing Terry Allen’s “Truckload of Art.”  Don’t ask me why.  /CL

(Dates with * = HAH Ends Early)

Friday, 16Sep, 6:30 pm: vs. Rhode Island

Saturday, 24Sep, 1:30 pm: at Brown

Friday, 30Sep, 6:30 pm: vs. Georgetown

* Saturday, 8Oct, 12:30 pm: vs. Cornell

* Saturday, 15Oct, 12:30 pm: at Holy Cross

* Saturday, 22Oct, 12:30 pm: at Princeton

Saturday, 29Oct, 1:00 pm: at Dartmouth

* Saturday, 5Nov, 12:30 pm: vs. Columbia

Friday, 11Nov, 7:30 pm: at Penn

* Saturday, 11/19, 11:30 am: vs. Yale (pre-game show is 1 hour)

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Bill Monroe Named Our New Trailer!

After a brief, but intense, search for a molded fiberglass travel trailer (which if you’re interested in the gory details or in camping trailers, I describe at length in my personal blog, Walking Creek World; click HERE) we bought a 2013 Casita Spirit Deluxe 17′ trailer from a friendly couple in New Hampshire.  They had purchased it new from the Casita factory in Rice, Texas (not far from Corsicana, which of course always reminds me of Billy Jo Shaver’s wonderful song, “The Corsicana Daily Sun”), and driven it back East with their Nissan Frontier pickup.

Like most molded fiberglass (MFG) trailers the Casita is modest in size and weight, but is fully equipped with 4- and 2-person dinettes, both of which turn into beds (we’ll leave the big one down as a mostly permanent bed), a galley with 4-cubic-foot ‘fridge (that runs on 110V AC, 12V DC, or propane), small bar sink, and a two-burner propane stove, as well as a ‘wet bath’ in front (the toilet and shower share the same enclosure).  It is our first factory-built RV, after years of occasional tent camping.  You can find plenty about Casitas at the company’s website, HERE.

Casita at sellers'

New Owners

We hitched up the trailer to our Ford Expedition, helped by the sellers Janet and John, as I fumbled with the unfamiliar routine, and prepared to depart.  Here we are (smartphone photo taken by Janet, who was sad to see their Casita depart). Though my Expy is more than capable of handling such a light trailer (‘dry weight’ c. 2,700 pounds, maximum 3,500), I had never pulled anything more sophisticated than a U-Haul 14′ box trailer.  So I edged uncertainly out of their driveway, and headed south down Route 125, a busy commercial road with stoplights.  I found myself looking into the side mirrors every few seconds, just to make sure the trailer was still there—though I could feel it well enough.

To ease my mind, I put on the Smithsonian-Folkways CD, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys: Live recordings 1956-1969, in the Expy’s CD player.  And there on Track 4 came one of my favorite Bill songs, “Close By.”

“That’s it!” I said, “That’s the Casita’s name!”  I was constantly looking back to make sure it was, indeed, Close By.

Fortunately, nothing went awry with my hitching, and Close By stayed close by all the way home (hey, another song: “Look What Followed Me Home”!).  Here’s a young Bill, introduced by another country legend, Ernest Tubb:

A commenter on the YouTube video, ‘E1719552’, notes, “That line up is about as good as it gets. Monroe on mandolin and vocals, Red Taylor, Gordon Terry and Bobby Hicks as the trio of fiddle players, legendary Nashville session man Ernie Newton on bass, Jackie Phelps on guitar and Charlie Cline filling in on banjo.”

And here’s our new-to-us Casita, now Close By in the side yard:

IMG_2006_sm

If it looks a little different, I’ve added a rain cover to the Fan-Tastic Fan.  /CL

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After 50 Years, the Second Stanley Brother Leaves Us

Stanley Brothers

Ralph and Carter Stanley (promotional photo, probably from King Records)

I have been reading one memorial after another, eulogies, tributes, encomia, to and for Ralph Stanley.  Most of them focus on his voice (click on the links for the full articles):

 

“You don’t replace a Ralph Stanley,” said Eric Gibson of bluegrass duo The Gibson Brothers.  “His voice sounds like it has been here since time began.”

. . . [Jim] Lauderdale and Buddy Miller produced Dr. Stanley’s final album, “Ralph Stanley and Friends: Man of Constant Sorrow.” The album, which was released in 2015, featured Dr. Stanley collaborating with artists ranging from bluegrass icon Del McCoury to country star Dierks Bentley to Americana duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.

“It was pretty overwhelming,” said Miller of the recording process. “There was no one that wasn’t in awe of his voice. He’s a soul singer. He got more out of one syllable than most of us get in a lifetime.” (Juli Thanki in The Nashville Tenneseean)

Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead once called him “the most perfect singer alive.”

It was a plaintive, nimble and haunting voice that blended elements of Primitive Baptist church choirs and the Grand Ole Opry, music on which Mr. Stanley was weaned in far southwestern Virginia. (Terence McArdle in The Washington Post)

“Ralph Stanley was elemental.  His voice was fresh water, wind, sky, and stone,” said Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. (The Boston Herald, AP, no byline)

Ralph Stanley’s harrowing a cappella rendition of the dirge “O Death” on the soundtrack of the 2000 Coen Brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” brought him a Grammy Award for “Best Male Country Vocal Performance,” and a whole new level of appreciation and stardom in popular culture. Those new to his singing at the time often stressed how the elderly, frail yet intense rasp of the Virginia tenor’s voice added immensely to the gravity and impact of the performance.

But precisely the same qualities had been heard in his utterly distinctive, soulful tenor vocals since the 1940s, and they could be heard on that song at least as far back as his first recording of it, in 1964, with his brother Carter in the Stanley Brothers band. . . (Barry Mazor, The Wall Street Journal)

 

. . . when it comes to Ralph Stanley’s voice, there has only ever been the one, and there will be no replacements. Stanley’s voice has been called “a force of nature,” “otherworldly,” “elemental,” “eerie”. . . His voice sounded so vital and powerful, and yet at the same time so frail and so very, very old. Stanley recalled more than once that, as a child, he was known in his Primitive Baptist Church community as “the boy with the hundred-year-old voice.”

. . .His voice began to weaken as he aged, but somehow this only seemed to treble its power. “I mourn out my songs more than I did as a young man,” he explained in “Man of Constant Sorrow.” “My voice ain’t what it used to be. My tenor has thinned out some. It’s got more cracks in it and it can get mighty rough around the edges and I can’t hit all the high notes anymore. But . . . I know how to use it better. I can put more feeling in now. . . . I can worry those lines like I never could before.”

Like no one ever could before, he might have said. And, now, like no one ever will. (David Cantwell, The New Yorker)

All of it is true, and worth saying.  There is not much I can add.  One of the wonderful things about humanity is our individuality.  Like all performers who rise to the tops of their fields, when you heard Ralph sing, you knew who it was, instantly.  Yet he was no prima donna, no spotlight seeker.  Brother Carter sang the leads; Ralph sang the tenor harmony.  Carter was up front, telling the jokes, and running the show.  And Carter’s voice, though quieter and mellower than Ralph’s, was just as compelling, often deeply moving, but never causing a stir.  It was the startling addition of Ralph’s harmony on the choruses that drove the Stanley sound to another level; they didn’t blend so much as join forces, becoming a mighty wind that brought the listeners to attention, and raised the hairs on their necks.  Even on their frequent trios Ralph’s power drove it to another level.

Years ago, then Boston Globe writer Steve Morse asked Sinc and me what defined Hillbilly at Harvard.  “George Jones,” we said, “and The Stanley Brothers.”  They had the same effect; they took a song, even a run-of-the-mill country song, and blew the windows of your soul open.  You never heard the song again without the lingering after-effect of their voices.  You could rearrange the curtains, but it was never the same room again.  Listen to “Carolina Mountain Home”:

After Carter died in 1966, Ralph thought of quitting, but he carried on, as bandmaster and leader of The Clinch Mountain Boys, eventually an elder statesman of ‘mountain music’, as he called it (not ‘bluegrass’).  He had a succession of lead singers, terrific in their own ways—Larry Sparks, Roy Lee Centers, Charlie Sizemore, James King, and his son Ralph II.  Roy Lee sounded, to my ear, the most like Carter, but none of them quite had the longing that came through Carter’s singing, waiting for the melancholy call from Ralph, younger than Carter, but always old beyond his years, carrying the listener to another world.  Nowhere was this more immanent than in the gospel songs. especially “The Rank Stranger”:

Ralph achieved a measure of celebrity outside of bluegrass circles with his a capella performance of “Oh Death” on the soundtrack of the dreadful Coen Brothers movie, “Oh Brother, Where Are Thou.”  The movie unbelievably had Ralph’s stunning vocal behind a nightmarish, fiery scene of Ku Klux Klan devils, but fortunately the rich traditional music of the popular CD overshadowed this sacrilege, and Dr. Ralph Stanley (from his honorary doctorate) and the strong voice that echoed from Clinch Mountain reached a whole new audience.  But for me, Ralph Stanley’s legacy will remain those rich recordings he and his brother Carter made in the ’50s and ’60s, back when the soulful mountain music of southwestern Virginia was just struggling to emerge into the musical consciousness of the rest of the nation.  /CL

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HA’ppenings: Del Resurrects Woody!

Del and WoodyWoody Guthrie reportedly left some 3,000 manuscript songs behind, most if not all lyrics without a hint of melody.  Back in the ’30s and ’40s there were no smart phones, tape recorders, and precious few wire recorders.  Radio stations had record lathes that could record broadcasts, but if Woody ever put his notebook lyrics to music, the melodies have been lost.  However, one of Woody’s children, Nora Guthrie, a few years ago began encouraging musicians to set the lyrics to music.  Nora Guthrie is the founder of the Woody Guthrie Archive, and has assiduously spent much of her life keeping Woody’s memory alive with festivals, concerts, special projects, books and recordings, nicely documented in her Wikipedia entry.

Over the last two decades, Nora Guthrie has commissioned folk, folk-rock, and even klezmer musicians to compose music for Woody’s manuscript songs.  But, aside from maybe Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, or Bob Dylan, who are devotées, it is hard to imagine a more fitting match than Del McCoury.  Surprisingly, it took a while before Ms. Guthrie settled a batch of lyrics on Del:

[I]t wasn’t until the Newport Folk Festival’s 50th anniversary in 2009 that she zeroed in on the bluegrass patriarch’s unique fitness for what became Del And Woody.  “After hearing Del’s show,”  she recalls, “ I remember thinking that if my dad had had a band, it would very possibly have sounded very much like Del’s.  An invitation [that] went to Del to perform at a Woody Guthrie Centennial concert in Tulsa a couple of years later gave her the opportunity to hear him singing a few of her father’  s songs—“I think Del’s ‘So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh’   is the best version I’ve ever heard,” she notes—and the deal was sealed.

For McCoury, Guthrie’s name was mostly unfamiliar, though his songs weren’t. “It took a while before I heard his name,”  he remembers.  “But then I started learning that so many of the songs I was hearing, from ‘Philadelphia Lawyer’ to ‘This Land Is Your Land,’ were his.  So when Nora said she wanted to send me some lyrics, I already knew what a great writer he was.  She sent me a few, then sent me some more, a few dozen in all.”  (From the McCoury Music press release)

To my mind, it should have been obvious.  While Woody Guthrie was adopted by the ‘folk’ and politically left elites in New York City as their ‘Oklahoma cowboy’, and while his songs came out of the Depression, they were by no means all political.  He was a writer in the rural Anglo-American mountain/hillbilly/western/blues traditions of music-by-ear, like so many country and bluegrass musicians today, and wrote about all aspects of life as he observed it.  Del McCoury is a writer himself, and has a great ear for a song; look how he made “I’ve Endured” (Ola Belle Reed) and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (Richard Thompson) his own, just to mention two.

The songs on this CD are not so consequential as those, and Del’s touch is light, but astonishingly gives life to Woody’s lyrics, most maybe 70 years old.  Says Del,

“When I read them, it seemed pretty easy to me to hear the music that would fit.  Nora said, ‘you can change some things if you want to,’ and I said no.  He’s a great writer, and I do not want to change anything in his songs.  I would just like to put a melody to these words so that maybe folks will accept the songs, and that’s what we did.”(From the McCoury Music press release)

And he and the band did, with great aplomb.  The songs flow as naturally as if Woody himself had sung them; indeed, once you hear one, it is hard to imagine a different melody.  The arrangements form naturally from the practiced pickin’ of arguably the best ensemble in bluegrass music.  But the great cachet of this album is that it’s plain entertaining.  It is Woody at his most playful, whether celebrating the local shade-tree mechanic, “Cheap Mike,”

If y’r valves are stickin’;
If y’r crankshaft’s flat;
If y’r losin’ alla y’r bolts an’ taps;
Just guide ‘er and ride ‘er
Downta Cheap Mike’s Lot;
‘Cause Mike knows what ta do!

or making fun of “Wimmen’s Hats,”

—a period piece, to be sure, that might be lost on today’s youngsters.  Then there is the woeful tale of the miner and his gold-digging girl:

There’s a girl living high in the city
And she’s living in luxury untold
How I fell for her line ’twas a pity
Now she’s living on my Californy Gold.

Here’s a video of Del and the band recording “Californy Gold”:

But maybe my favorite is his send-up of “The New York Trains,”  from the perspective of a newcomer from Texas:

The trains run through the buildings
and also underground
And you spend another nickel
every time you turn around

Some good period shots in this YouTube video:

Not all is comedic.  “Left in This World All Alone” might have been written for Bill Monroe or the Stanleys, as it certainly examplifies the theme of loneliness that pervades so much of the mountain music that became bluegrass.  Del McCoury cuts loose with his best high, lonesome bluegrass tenor, all the more remarkable that he can do it at his age:

There is an admonition to keep holding family reunions, even if some are no longer with us:

There never would be any family reunions
If some of  you cry over one you see gone
You’ve got to keep meeting with all of your family
If one or two pass and some others can’t come.

(reminding me of course of the country classic, “Sweeter Than the Flowers”).

And Del also selected a tender paean to a baby boy, who we have to assume is Woody’s:

If again I could be, little fellow
As young and as handsome as you
I would live life all over exactly the same,
So I’d meet, little fellow, with you.

There’s more.  Between satire and sentiment we get glimpses of Woody’s life and experience (“Dirty Overhalls,” [sic] “Because You Took Me In Out of the Rain,” etc.) that simultaneously take us back to times past and the common present.  Del has the knack of making us believe that Woody is speaking through him and the band.  There isn’t much, besides “Wimmen’s Hats” and the price of a subway ride, that we can’t find immediately familiar.  This album of simple, delightful songs is a lovely tribute to the poet, songwriter, and troubadour for one compelling reason: it’s just great fun!  /CL

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Yes, I Know—James King is Dead

UPDATE 3Jun16: We’ve got a couple of recordings of the James King Band live at WHRB, with Ol’ Sinc hosting, from 1995.  I didn’t have a chance to ‘tease’ them last week, so I’ll plan to air one live show from 25Feb95, c. 30 minutes, next Saturday, June 11th.  Let’s make it at the 11:00 hour, so most of you will be awake.  Then we’ll run the second one from 18Nov95, c. 17 minutes, on June 18th.  These featured James the year he recorded his second Rounder album, made his first trip to Boston, and had just gotten his own band together.  Be sure to tune in!  /CL

JamesKing

James King, from his Facebook page (photographer not identifed)

Seems like one obituary after another, but this one is more personal: James King was in the Hillbilly at Harvard studio many times, four or five anyway.  And he was only 57 years old.  Here’s James back in 2010, with the song we always waited for him to sing, Hazel Dickens‘s “Just a Few Old Memories.”  We won’t forget:

More later.  /CL

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Another Songwriter Gone: Guy Clark (1941–2016)

GuyClark-mfpoy150

Cover of Guy Clark’s last album, with the title song about his late wife, Susanna.

Guy Clark was a crusty fellow with a laconic Texas reticence, which belied a whimsy that comes out in some of his songs, like “Too Much,”

Too much workin’ll make your back ache
Too much trouble’ll bring you a heartbreak
Too much gravy’ll make you fat
Too much rain’ll ruin your hat
Too much coffee’ll race your heart tick
Too much road’ll make you homesick
Too much money’ll make you lazy
Too much whiskey’ll drive you crazy

and a keen eye for the essentials of life, as in his praise for “The Carpenter,”

Oh he was tough as a crowbar quick as a chisel
Fair as a plane and true as a level
He was straight as a chalkline and right as a rule
He was square with the world he took good care of his tools

Guy was speaking from experience; he was a luthier, a craftsman in wood as well as words, a poet.  Adam Sweeting in The Guardian:

Guy Clark, who has died aged 74, once commented that his twin occupations of songwriting and guitar-building were “just a way to while away the time until you die”. The many artists and listeners who have been touched and inspired by his work would beg to differ. Clark was never a chart-busting phenomenon, but he was the embodiment of the painstaking craft of the songwriter, where meaning emerged from fine details, carefully observed and polished. . .

Guy’s songs were more personal than Merle Haggard‘s, the references drawing more on his own experiences and images, but he had the same knack of translating them into the universal, as in “Let Him Roll”:

Well he could cut through the years to the very night
When it ended, in a whore house fight
And she turned his last proposal down
In favor of being a girl about town

Now it’s been seventeen years right in line
And he ain’t been straight none of the time
Too many days of fightin’ the weather
And too many nights of not being together

So he died…

Well when they went through his personal effects
In among the stubs from the welfare checks
Was a crumblin’ picture of a girl in a door
An address in Dallas, and nothin’ more . . .

As with Merle, for Guy verisimilitude was the highest criterion:

A laconic though riveting musical storyteller, Mr. Clark was adept at getting at the heart of an experience or an event.
“I really work hard at being true,” he told American Songwriter magazine. “And that’s where the uniqueness of the songs come out. I couldn’t have made them up.” (Bill Friskics-Warren in The New York Times)

Guy’s much younger cousin, Mary Lee Grant, found learning from Guy Clark as valuable as the literary pretensions of the eastern Ivy League:

When I studied literature at Yale, my professors transmitted the notion that the green hills of England and the streets of New York were the subjects worthy of great writing. But I knew differently, because I had Guy. I knew that the parking lot behind a Texas bar was art: “Sittin’ on the fender of someone else’s truck, drinkin’ Old Crow whiskey, and hot 7UP.” He had worked on the shrimp boats of Rockport as a teenager, and he showed me that they were poetry, as they sailed for the Mexican Bay of Campeche with the deckhands singing “Adios Jolie Blonde.”

I met Jack, the wildcatter in “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” when visiting my Aunt Rossie, (Guy’s grandmother), in the bleak little West Texas town of Monahans. She always fascinated me as a child because she had a wooden leg, which the doctor had amputated on the kitchen table when she was 12. She was a bootlegger and ran the Clark Hotel, where old men came to live and often stayed until they died. Jack was her boyfriend. I had seen the “old men with beer guts and dominoes, lying about their lives while they played.” Because of Guy, the traditional New Haven bar of Mory’s, where Yalies drank from silver cups and the Whiffenpoofs sang, held no more glamour for me than the Green Frog Café, where Jack sipped beer and played Moon and 42. . . (from the Corpus Christi Caller Times)

Guy visited Hillbilly at Harvard twice, once in our old studios under Sanders Theater, where Ol’ Sinc intuitively knew to lubricate the session with a couple of Dixie cups and a bottle from Tennessee.  That was in Sumptuous Studio A; I was in A Control, and put young Number One Son Andy on the counter so he could see.  Guy played “Blowin’ Like a Bandit” for him, Andy’s favorite from Better Days (1983), an album I played a lot at the time.  Later albums had less effect on me; the songs often seemed quirky and less relevant for a country show, though still little masterpieces of insight, irony, and wit.  The later songs I remember most were the country songs that others covered, especially Bobby Bare‘s version of “New Cut Road,” and Ricky Skaggs‘s hot-pickin’ “Sis Draper.”  Guy visited HAH again, with compatriate Verlon Thompson, but alas, there was no Sinc to grease the skids; it was just a duty call for him.

When I think of Guy Clark’s songs, most of all I recall “The Randall Knife,” the tribute to his father:

Who will write as moving a tribute to Guy?  James Beaty, in the McAlester News-Capital (Oklahoma), comes close, perhaps:

When I think of Guy Clark, I think of the young lion from the 1970s, who, with “Old No. 1,” amazed me upon first listening. It’s high on my list of greatest debut albums ever.

With Clark racked by illness in recent years, I felt shocked to see him aged, frail and seemingly in fragile health on some of his later television appearances. Sometimes, he seemed to walk with effort, occasionally using a cane. He appeared determined to keep performing as long as possible.

Still, he had the voice of a true American poet. During his later years, I couldn’t help but remember the lyrics of arguably his most well- known song.

“To me, he’s one of the heroes of this country, so why’s he all dressed up like those old men?”

Then, it hit me.

He was a desperado waiting for a train.

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Merle, Hank, and The Art of the Song

“I look for songs in the world around me”—Merle Haggard

I’ve been taking Merle Haggard for granted, for too long.  And suddenly, he’s gone.

MerleHaggard.1

Merle Haggard (PerformingSongwriter.com, photographer not identified)

Merle has been a part of my life since the ’60s, so much a fixture that for me his contribution is hard to assess.  In order to explain his appeal, the temptation is to descend into intellectual frothery, like a review of the new Hank Williams movie in The New Yorker by one one Amanda Petrusich, who describes Hank’s catalogue as bridging the gap between “what the body wants (whiskey, sex, vengeance) and what the mind has vowed to forsake (whiskey, sex, vengeance)”—whatever that means. She goes on to characterize Hank’s status among country fans as “a high-water mark for sad-sack troubadours.”

Maybe Amanda Petrusich’s not old enough to remember the Sad Sack comic strip, but for those who are, that’s a slander.

There’s a better review of the film (which I guess I’ll have to see) by Michael Smith in The Tulsa World:

“I Saw the Light,” a film biography about country music legend Hank Williams, is the cinematic equivalent of a Wikipedia entry.

This dreadful movie hits the man’s historical mileposts, showing his alcoholism and his death at 29, but it gives no insight into the creation of his music.

It’s as though songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Hey Good Lookin’ ” just happened.

That’s how tone-deaf the film is in understanding how a singer-songwriter crafts his music. The only thing this movie has cookin’ is boredom. . .

No, I haven’t forgotten Merle.  Michael Smith gets to the heart of the problem: Merle Haggard was really fine singer, a vocalist with, as John Lincoln Wright once said to me, “such a pretty voice.”  But he was an even greater songwriter, and ultimately that will be his legacy.  There was talk, while Merle was alive, of a film about his life—and what with losing his father, youthful truancy and crime leading to prison, there is plenty of history—but we have to hope that if it’s ever done, it won’t be another “cinematic equivalent of a Wikipedia entry.”

The question is, as Michael Smith implies, and Amanda Petrusich ignores: How do you bring the songs to life?  Can you explain “how a singer-songwriter crafts his music”?  I don’t know the answer.  Maybe you just look harder at the songs.

Merle Haggard’s father played fiddle, and it was said, sang (and looked) like Jimmy Rodgers.  James Francis Haggard died of a stroke when Merle was only 9.  Was that where the seeds were sown?  Or was it just the powerful musical talent just bursting through, part of his wild, youthful rebellion.  It was if he was born writing songs: when he was not running away, getting into trouble,

Through it all, the songs still flowed.

Over decades of trouble, fame, and more trouble, Merle Haggard never stopped making up songs. The country-music star seemed afflicted with a song-writing compulsion, much as Woody Guthrie was.

He penned his first ballads as a child. By later life, he claimed to have written 10,000 of them. . .

He had always composed, he said. He described his childhood self staring out of classroom windows, thinking of songs. Haggard recalled an uncle telling his mother, “if you want that boy to amount to anything, you better take that guitar out of his hands” (Jill Leovy, Los Angeles Times)

Thank God she never did.  And the world became the grist for Merle Haggard’s songwriting mill.  Much, much later, in 2004, Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn reported:

Merle Haggard, the country music star who really did turn 21 in prison, just like it says in one of his songs, figures it cost the IRS nearly $100,000 the day an agent came to his ranch near here to try to figure out what goes into writing a hit.

Haggard’s tax return was apparently kicked out by the computer for too many business deductions and the agent wanted the songwriter to show him how the 200-acre spread in the mountains helped him do his work.

During a walk around the grounds, Haggard explained how a creek inspired one song, a flower bed led to another and a bulldog jump-started a third.

“Finally, this fellow looks at me and says, ‘Why, Mr. Haggard, everything you do is a write-off,’ and he started pointing out other things I should have declared,” the songwriter says, laughing so hard his whole body shakes.

“What he saw was that writing for me is an impulse. I don’t sit down with a pencil and paper and try to come up with songs. I look for songs in the world around me.”

I suppose in a sense every songwriter looks “for songs in the world around me,” but Merle Haggard had the gift of not only seeing what in his life needed a song, but of telling the listener why.  That’s really the function of any kind of writing, or art (and Merle considered country songwriting an “art form”), but Merle had the knack of telling it in simple, direct, and hauntingly melodic language.  LA Times writer Jilly Loevy again:

Simplicity was his creed, Haggard told Hilburn in a 2003 interview. “You’ve got to remember songs are meant to be sung,” he said. “You are not writing poetry.”

Meaning it is not just meant to be read, as poetry in the modern age has become, but sung.  It’s not ‘poetry’ in the literary sense, but “Life’s Like Poetry”:

Life’s too short to think about right or wrong
And the only thing I wonder about is where you’ve been so long
Baby finding you gave my whole life reason and rhyme

[Chorus]
But life’s like poetry and in my poem bay
Until now there’s always been a missing line

Merle wrote that song for Lefty Frizzell, not long before Lefty died.  Ever since he was a teenager, Merle idolized Lefty, and masterfully made Lefty’s vocal style his own (Merle’s first club performance was after Lefty heard him sing in the green room, and insisted he perform on stage); listen to both Merle’s and Lefty’s recordings of “Life’s Like Poetry”:

(from the 1975 ABC album, The Classic Style of Lefty Frizzell)

(from the 1975 Capitol album, Keep Movin’ On; Merle’s long-time Capitol producer Ken Nelson succumbed, partly, to the lure of the ‘countrypolitan’ sound on that recording, which makes Lefty’s better.)

Merle was not only a deceptively plain wordsmith, but he was also a storyteller.  Indeed, all of his songs, one way or another, tell a story, implied or directly.  Again, that’s true of most songwriting, but Merle’s little (or sometimes large) stories draw not only on his own experience, but do so in a way that draw the listener in as well.  They never fall prey, as so many self-styled ‘singer-songwriters’ do, to heart-on-your-sleeve autobiography.  Merle’s own experiences and observations are the starting point; in an almost startling transformation, they become universal.  As Merle said of Hank Williams,

“There are lots of people who have written hits, but most songs don’t stick with us because you know and I know and the songwriter knows he’s just telling us about something that never really happened. But then you listen to Hank Williams’ ‘I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You),’ and everybody knows this ol’ boy had his heart stepped on more than a few times. That’s what I’ve always wanted people to feel when they hear my songs.” (quoted by Robert Hilburn)

In a magazine/website called Performing Songwriter, interviewer Bill Demain in 2007 asked Merle, “Any advice for songwriters?”

Songwriting is an individual task. Mine comes from inside somewhere. Unexpectedly. I may go a year and never write anything, then write five songs in one day. I’ve been scared that it was over with a lot of times. I thought, “Well, this is it. I guess I’m not gonna write anymore.” And then I’ll come back and write something. It’s drawing from experience. Lefty Frizzell once said, “You don’t have to have lived the things you sing about, but you got to believe them.” And I think that’s true. But it’s better if you’ve experienced it.

Robert Hillburn came to see Merle in 2004, apparently armed with a folder of song lyrics.  He showed them to Merle, who after discarding one,

picks up another piece of paper. It’s “House of Memories,” a slow, haunting ballad also written in the mid-’60s but not one of his biggest hits.

“Now, here’s a song I still like,” he says. “It feels a little more me. To me, every word fits in the song. Nothing is in there just for show. That’s one of the most important lessons a writer can learn. You can’t fall in love with a $50 word or what you think is a clever rhyme and try to squeeze it into a song if it doesn’t work.”

(from the 1967 Capitol album, I’m a Lonesome Fugitive)

Aside from many of Merle Haggard’s classics, like “Mama Tried,” “Swinging Doors,” “Someday We’ll Look Back,” and so many others, the song that always affected me the most was “The Farmer’s Daughter” (from the 1971 Capitol album, Hag).  It’s a simple song about a father coming to terms with his daughter marrying a “city boy from town,” whose “hair is a little longer than we’re used to.”  The singer has to not only reconcile himself to losing a daughter, but he has to realize he trusts her judgement.  The song speaks to everyone who has married girls whose fathers looked askance, or worse, and to every father who has married off a daughter.  But it’s also a song of reconciliation and hope, on many levels, composed while the ‘counter-culture’ of the ’60s and the Vietnam War were still stirring up bitter passions. Merle himself was identified with the traditionalists (“Okie from Muskogee,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me”), but his real interests as a writer were in the personal, not the political.  Here the personal transcends the political, and becomes universal:

The Farmer’s Daughter

Tonight there’ll be candlelight and roses
In this little country chapel that’s almost falling down
There’ll be tears in this old farmer’s eyes this evening
When I give my one possession to that city boy from town

His hair is a little longer than we’re use to
But, I guess I should find something good to say
About this man whose won the farmer’s daughter
And will soon become my son-in-law today

Mama left eight years ago December
And it was hard to be a Dad and Mama too
But, somehow we made home of this old farmhouse
And love was all my baby ever knew

He could be the richest man in seven counties
And not be good enough to take her hand
But, he says he really loves the farmer’s daughter
And I know the farmer’s daughter loves her man

(Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

This wonderful performance is from a live concert; not sure of the date:

Merle Haggard died on his 79th birthday, April 6, 2016. /CL

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HA’ppenings: Claire Lynch Returns April 2nd

 

ClairLynchBand

The Claire Lynch Band (Publicity photo from website, uncredited)

The delightful Claire Lynch Band is returning to the area this Saturday, at the Boston Bluegrass Union’s regular venue in Lexington, the former National Heritage Museum, now the ‘Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library’.  From the BBU website:

Claire Lynch has long been recognized as a creative force in acoustic music and at the forefront of women who have expanded the bluegrass genre. With her 2013 award, Claire  has now earned The International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Female Vocalist of the Year” title three times, as well as two GRAMMY nominations.

Dear Sister, her [2013] album was also nominated for IBMA’s 2013 Album of the Year.  Recently she was awarded the prestigous 2012 Walker Fellowship and $50k grant for her music and songwriting accomplishments. She has been a huge crowd favorite at Joe Val and BBU concerts for years. Joining her is two-time IBMA Bass Player of the Year Mark Schatz, virtuoso guitar and mandolin picker Jarrod Walker, and mandolin, fiddle, and guitar powerhouse and 2009 Winfield national guitar champ Bryan McDowell.

Tony Watt and Southeast Expressway will be opening the show.

Claire is reported to be taking time off from the road, so this may well be the last chance to see her for some time. Go to the BBU website to purchase tickets.  Details:

Saturday, April 2, 2016

National Heritage Museum
(Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library)
33 Marrett Road, Lexington, MA
7:30pm (box office opens at 6:30pm)
$25 for Members
$27 for Non-Members

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HA’ppenings: Surprise Old-Time Fiddling on the Show

Last Friday evening (11Mar16) I opened a brightly-colored mailer that had come in to WHRB the previous Saturday, to find a CD and a note from fiddler Matt Brown.  He said that he and guitarist Greg Reish were going to be in town for a concert at Club Passim on Sunday, and were available to visit Hillbilly at Harvard.  So with a brief flurry of emails, we were able to arrange a time, and Saturday (the 12th) the two showed up at 11, bright-eyed and ready to play.

Matt and Greg arespeed-of-the--plow both scholars and teachers of old-time country music.  Matt is at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, teaching fiddle, banjo, and guitar; Greg is Director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University and “a recognized authority on oldtime and bluegrass guitar styles.”  They have a new album of fiddle-and-guitar duets out, called Speed of the Plow (title of one of the tunes).  They are both engaging, talkative, knowledgeable, and terrific musicians.  I had fun chatting with them on-air, and listening to them play a good handful of fiddle tunes from the album.

Here are Matt and Greg with “Indian Ate the Woodchuck”:

That’s not on the album, and that’s not at WHRB (they had to squeeze in beside me at the board you see on the blog header), but it’s a good example of Matt’s clear, confident playing, and Greg’s solid guitar accompaniment. If you want to learn a whole lot of mostly unfamiliar fiddle tunes, or just try a little flat-foot dancing in the living room, pick up a copy of Matt and Greg’s album.  Neat stuff!  You can find it at CDbaby.com, and elsewhere.  Matt’s website is HERE, and Greg’s is HERE.

I hope some of you caught the live segment and got out to their workshops at the Passim School, and to the concert last Sunday night. /CL

 

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Another Great Joe Val Festival!—Part II

[Continued from Part I, HERE]

Saturday evening, following Steve Gulley and New Pinnacle, the ladies of Sister Sadie unleashed some powerful and poignant vocals in the main hall.  This is a an all star band that features two very different singers, the strong but luminous Dale Ann Bradley, and the room-filling Tina Adair (whose solo on “How Great Thou Art” approached grand opera levels).  Here they are (click on a photo to see a slideshow):

I got only a couple of shots of Joe Val Festival favorite and old friend of HAH, Greg Cahill and The Special Consensus, Chicago’s gift to bluegrass.  Back in the ’80s (I think it was) Greg and the gang used to show up to play in Allston at a place called the Kinvara Pub.  They would play live Saturday morning in our Sumptuous Studio A (it was then), and then in the evening at the Kinvara.  Greg also has a first-class band, but unfortunately I heard little of them, and nothing of The Gibson Brothers (also HAH studio veterans and long-time favorites of mine); Saturday nights I tend to poop out.  Click to see larger:

Sunday afternoon, we were treated to a JVF rarity, an old-timey group called the Foghorn Stringband.  They were terrific, reminding me of long-gone favorites the Highwoods Stringband and The Freight Hoppers, but reaching out further with old gospel and blues.  These are the roots of old-time country music, in addition to the the snappy dances tunes and breakdowns, and to my mind fit right in with traditional bluegrass style.  Check out some of the videos on their website, HERE.

Just came across an account of their visit (these folks are from the Northwest and even farther north, as in Alaska!) to Framingham, from their website:

We had a fantastic weekend at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival just outside of Boston in Framingham, MASS. From the moment we walked in the door, the festival had a welcoming and friendly air, and folks there really embraced the Foghorn Stringband, despite the fact that we are an old time string band! Ha! We like to dispel the bluegrass vs old time chasm as frequently as possible as these musics are so intertwined, and we love them all. It’s all country music as far as I’m concerned! We felt well-loved and met many new friends and fans. The festival is held in the Sheraton Hotel, and with the winter weather, there was really no reason at all to go outside. We had everything we needed indoors: tunes, food, and our beds. We performed a main stage set, as well as the Sunday night dance to close the festival. We hope to go back there soon! It is a wonderful tribute to the music of Joe Val.

“It’s all country music as far as I’m concerned!”  Me too!  The Foghorns bill it as “Ass Kickin’ Redneck Stringband Music.”

Here are some shots of the band (click any photo to see them larger):

David Parmley and his new band Cardinal Tradition were a surprise.  He’s a little like Danny Paisley, in that some of us still think of him as the kid in his father’s band, The Bluegrass Cardinals, but this is a group of seasoned professionals, and David’s hair is all white.

By coincidence, my friend Steve Bartlett had just the month before sent me a YouTube video of David Parmley singing Lefty Frizzell‘s “I Never Go Around Mirrors,” (written by Whitey Shafer and Lefty), saying “Sacrilege, but he’s as good as George on this.” Or, I should add, as good as Keith, or Merle, or maybe even Lefty!  So I was thrilled to see David step up with his red-coated compatriots and sing it.  Here’s the video that Steve found, not from the festival, but I can’t resist:

I took no notes, so can’t recall the other songs they did, and I’m sure ‘up and coming’ is the wrong descriptor to use for these fellows, but they’re terrific.  David told me after the set that they’ve got an album in the works (on Pinecastle, I think he said), and will be at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival in Vermont (23-26 June).  Here are a few photos (click to see larger)

The John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band moved us a whole skip and a jump past old-timey, traditional bluegrass and country, to modern West Coast sounds.  Larry Flint went to John Jorgenson’s guitar workshop, and I think was disappointed that John played mostly mandolin on stage—but he ain’t no slouch on the mando, for sure.  Ace Boston (Berkeley faculty) fiddler Darol Anger joined the band, which also featured veteran songwriter and longtime JJ associate Herb Pederson  on banjo (click to see larger):

Sunday afternoon closed with the band I’d been awaiting for a year—The Del McCoury Band, which last year had been snowed out by the Saturday-night blizzard that closed Logan Airport (but failed to put a dent in the Festival, otherwise).  I wasn’t disappointed.  This, in my view, may well be the top bluegrass-style country band in the nation, and they held the nearly-full room captivated for nearly two hours.  It is simply amazing that Del, “no spring chicken” (as my mother used to say of me), can still hit those exciting high notes, and the crackerjack band (Del’s sons Ronnie and Rob, fiddler Jason Carter, and bassist Alan Bartram) is the best that high-energy bluegrass has to offer.

What impressed me most was the inventive way Jason Carter weaved his fiddle into the songs.  How much rehearsal, I wondered, had to go into those arrangements, which he had clearly worked out with Del and the others. There were a lot of great fiddlers in the two days I was at the Festival, but none were more a part of every song than Jason—who also sang in the trios with Del and Rob, plunging into the vocal mic with the fiddle, rather than retreating back to his own.  Color me amazed!

(Click for larger pics)

There was much more, of course, at the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival than I have highlighted here: other Main Stage acts, regional Showcase Stage bands, workshops, master classes, a Trade Show room, constant jamming in the hallways and lobbies—even a masseuse!

Congratulations to Stan Zdonik, Gerry Katz, Sheila Selby, Reuben Shetler, and the cadre of volunteers who made all this happen.  And thanks to the Sheraton in Framingham for hosting this signature event for the last few years. It certainly is nice to be only a few minutes drive from one of the premier events of its type in the United States. /CL

[Note: For somewhat higher-resolution versions of the (admittedly inadequate) photographs, go to Flickr HERE.]

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