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

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


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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

Posted in Hits and Misses, Songwriting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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
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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,


Posted in Bluegrass, Hillbilly Journal, Radio Talk | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bluegrass and Cajun at the Lowell Folk Festival

Folk-Festival-2018-Logo_webBig Country Bluegrass

Inertia, more than anything else, has kept Dr Janie and me from the annual Lowell Folk Festival. It’s free (well, after you pay for parking), festive, with a great variety of music and food (the music is free; the food isn’t). Usually they have one or two bands that we might play on Hillbilly at Harvard. This year a listener alerted me to the appearance of one of my favorite traditional bluegrass bands, Big Country Bluegrass. They were formed by Tommy and Teresa Sells in the late ‘80s, and we’ve been playing them for most of that time. I don’t recall ever seeing them live, and don’t think they’ve been up here in New England very often. The Sells live in Mouth of Wilson, which is near Galax, acknowledged today as the heart of traditional mountain music (as some of us knew in 1960). Tommy Sells learned from Jimmy Martin (and may have even worked with him); Big Country Bluegrass takes its name from a Jimmy Martin instrumental.

BCBG has had many fine musicians in the band over the years, but I was especially fond of Jimmy Trivette’s lead singing. I got a chance to ask Tommy Sells about Jimmy, who seems to have disappeared from the scene. Tommy said, “Oh, he’s around. Singing mainly in churches, I think.” Didn’t get a chance to talk further, but Jimmy Trivette’s role in BCBG in recent years has been assumed by an amazing tenor singer, Eddie Gill, who really ought to be ranked among the top vocalists in all of bluegrass-style country music. I was fortunate to hear Eddie sing “One Loaf of Bread” in the first of their two sets Sunday, and don’t think even the late, great Dave Evans could have done his own song any better. It was stunning. I hope they record it soon.

All told, it was a treat for me to hear the current edition of this band I’ve admired for decades. Here are a few shots (click to scroll through larger versions; for higher resolution images, go HERE). The band: Tommy Sells, mandolin; Teresa Sells, guitar; Eddie Gill, guitar and lead vocals; Tim Laughlin, fiddle; John Treadway, banjo; Tony King, bass:

Kyle Huval & the Dixie Club Ramblers

Big Country were playing their next set at a different stage, so there was time to get over to hear an excellent hot (and very loud) cajun band I had never heard of: Kyle Huval & the Dixie Club Ramblers. These folks are from southwest Louisiana, and feature twin fiddles, accordion, and pedal steel, which gives them a rich, vibrant sound with a Texas flavor. They kept the large crowd entertained with up-tempo cajun breakdowns and traditional waltzes, but even the waltzes kept things (and dancers) moving. The Festival notes say Kyle Huval has a 2017 album out, called Straight Allons. It’s on Valcour Records, and as it turns out, the proprietor of Valcour is Joel Savoy, known for his work in cajun, old-timey, and country music, and Joel was one of the two fiddlers on stage with Kyle. I wanted to say hello, but we left before the end of their set. Maybe next time!

I got a few photos, though (click to scroll through larger versions; for higher resolution images, go HERE). The band: Kyle Huval, accordion, steel, vocals; Chris Stafford, accordion, steel, vocals; Joel Savoy and Mitch Schexnayder, fiddles; Jo Vidrine, guitar; Cody Lafleur, drums:

Strolling Through the Festival

We caught Big Country’s second set of the day, and then took the trolley (part of the Lowell National Historical Park) to Boardinghouse Park, where we stopped to hear a little of a Celtic quartet, performing with accordion, mandolin, guitar and percussion. After the rousing French of Kyle Huval, which required no translation, slow songs in Gaelic seemed tedious, so we moved on, ending up back where we started (Market Street, I think). There a mariachi band in fancy dress outfits were entertaining an enthusiastic crowd. The trumpets blared, and ladies spun around in white festive gowns, and then, for their closing number, the band announced they were playing a ‘bluegrass’ song. They lined up, and launched into. . . ‘The Orange Blossom Special’, complete with trumpets and strings! That was enough for me, so we rescued the Green Expy from the parking garage and headed home. Here are a few more shots (click to to scroll through larger versions; for higher resolution images, go HERE):

Getting to Saturday events (the big day at most bluegrass festivals) is hard for me, so it was fun to spend a sunny Sunday with a crowd of music lovers.   Word to LFF folks: more country and bluegrass, please!  /CL

Posted in Bluegrass, Cajun Music, Hillbilly Journal | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Southern Rail in Framingham

Friday, June 29th the Framingham Concerts on the Green series began with old friends of Hillbilly at Harvard, Southern Rail, now celebrating their 40th year playing bluegrass and gospel in New England.  Aside from the Joe Val Festival, it’s rare to find bluegrass a few minutes from home (and even rarer on the Green) so Dr Janie and I put a couple of beach chairs on the grass not far from the stage.  It was a lovely summer evening.  Southern Rail were in good voice and fine fettle, though a little hard to hear in the far reaches of the Green, and treated the crowd to a good variety of songs, including some non-bluegrass fans might recognize.   Banjoist Rich Stillman indulged me with a version of the ‘Randy Lynn Rag’, which Jim announced as ‘Kicking off’ HAH (of course it ends the show), but only I noticed.  Click a photo to scroll through them (for higher-resolution images, go HERE):

Southern Rail are: Leader Jim Muller, guitar—he’s from Virginia, hence truly Southern; Sharon Horovitch, bass, married to Jim; Rich Stillman, banjo; and John Tibert, mandolin.  This Saturday they’ll be at the new Smuttynose Bluegrass Festival in Hampton, New Hampshire (105 Towle Farm Rd).  Smuttynose brews my favorite IPA, so this is a great match as far as I’m concerned; details HERE.   Check out Southern Rail’s website for oncoming events.

Here’s Southern Rail playing ‘Turn Your Radio On’ at the Rose Garden Coffeehouse in Mansfied last fall (Rich is finger-picking the guitar as Earl Scruggs did in the Foggy Mountain Boys gospel numbers):

Late getting this post up, but sometimes those round tuits are hard to find. /CL

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Talkin’ about Trains

The High 48s Bluegrass Band

48s_GNR_Cover_MediumBack on the May 26th show I rediscovered the 2014 album of train songs, called Great Northern Railroad, from a band called The High 48s, a slim cardboard volume hiding amidst the plastic jewel boxes on the cart I bring in to the studio (if you go to the posts on Jon Chase slide show, or the Cosmo Cavicchio video, you’ll see the cart). I played their song about the ‘Baltimore and Ohio’ (Railroad), a lovely number written by Becky Schlegel. I have fond recollections of going with my parents and brothers to the B&O Station in Silver Spring, Maryland in the early evening, to watch the Capitol Limited (to Chicago) and the National Limited (to Cincinnati) come through about half an hour apart. I’m not sure which came first, but it left explosive caps, called ‘torpedos’ on the track, which banged when the following train hit them, a warning I guess. Afterwards we would go across the street to the Giffords Ice Cream store for desert.

I wondered idly where the name ‘High 48s’ came from. Was it a reference to latitude (turns out the band is from Minneapolis, close at 45º)? The query disappeared from my mind in the press of the next record, and the one after that, but when I got home, there was the answer: listener Ed McMann in Sausolito, California, had looked up the band’s website, and there it was:

The band takes its name from railroad slang for the boxcars originally used to transport troops on the front lines in WWI that could carry 40 soldiers or 8 horses, and were later used in the US on fast-moving “hot shot” freight trains by train-hoppers looking for work during the Great Depression.

Wikipedia has more detail:


Men of the British Expeditionary Force being transported from Cherbourg to their assembly area in a railway goods wagon, 29 September 1939. (Photo by Lt. G Keating, British War Office, P.D., via Wikipedia)

Forty-and-eights (French: Quarante et huit, typically written 40/8 or 40&8) were French 4-wheel covered goods wagons designed to hold 40 men or eight horses. Introduced in the 1870s, they were drafted into military service by the French Army in both World Wars. They were also used by the occupying Germans during in World War II, followed by the Allies.

There’s more, the Merci Train!

In 1949, France sent 49 Forty-and-eights to the United States laden with donations from citizens of France in thanks for the U.S.’ role in the liberation of France, one for each of the then forty-eight states and one for Washington, D.C., and Hawaii to share. Called the Merci Train, it was sent in response to the Friendship Train America had created two years earlier to aid France in the dire immediate aftermath of World War II. Over 700 boxcars worth [sic—with?] the donated supplies were collected across the U.S. and shipped across the Atlantic via donated transport.

As it turns out, some 43 of the 49 Merci Train boxcars are still in existence, maintained as historical exhibits in their respective states (no, not here; the Massachusetts one was apparently destroyed). And the mystique of the Quarante et huit led after the First World War to the creation of a veteran’s honor society, called The Forty and Eight (or 40 & 8). Says Wikipedia, the boxcars

were seen by the troops as a miserable way to travel, and the new organization was thus called the 40 & 8 in an attempt to make some light of the common misery they had all shared.

The 40 & 8 still exists, mainly as a charitable organization, and is organized into local units called Voitures (boxcars).

As for ‘High 48’, the band’s website is the only source I’ve seen for that term: “railroad slang for the box cars on Hot Shot freight trains.” ‘Highball’ is the term for a clear track ahead, and latterly a fast train, and we now know the ‘48s’ are boxcars, so maybe it’s strictly railroad lingo; it doesn’t seem to turn up in lists of hobo slang that I’ve found.

I really like The High 48s’s Great Northern Railroad album. But they have others, not just about trains. I contacted them and fiddler Eric Christopher tells me they have a new album out, Daddy was a Bankrobber. I’m looking forward to hearing it.

‘Riding the Blind’

DavidDavisWRB_Ramble_COVER_RGB-768x768Last week I did a ‘Tear and Compare’ between Charlie Poole’s original ‘Milwaukee Blues’, and the same song on David Davis’s terrific new Rounder album, Didn’t He Ramble: Songs of Charlie Poole. The first verse goes like this,

One Tuesday morning and it looked like rain
Around the curve come a passenger train
On the blind sat old Bill Jones
A good old hobo and he’s trying to get home
Trying to get home, he’s trying to get home
He’s a good old hobo and he’s trying to get home

Whereupon long-time listener Jim Walsh called up to ask, “What’s the ‘blind’?” I had to admit, I didn’t know. I knew what the ‘rods’ were, as in

Old Bill Jones said before he died,
“Fix the roads so the ‘bos can ride
When they ride they will ride the rods
Put all their trust in the hands of God
In the hands of God, in the hands of God
They’ll put all their trust in the hands of God”

They were steel rods under the freight cars, to add structural support for heavy loads. Here’s a picture:


Two hobos ride the rods on the underside of boxcar. (1894, PD, via Wikipedia)

A little research tells me the ‘blind’ was hobo slang for the doorway to the baggage car right behind the locomotive tender. The door would be locked, but either the frame or the portion of the canvas vestibule (if there was one) would afford protection for the train-hopping hobo. The ‘blinds’ could also refer to the vestibules of passenger trains, though there of course you’d risk discovery by the conductor. See here and here, among other places.

[Edit: See Steve Bartlett’s comment on the ‘blind’ end of a car, below, for a more accurate explanation than mine./ CL]

In this photo you can see the vestibule, which would have been the ‘blind’, on an HO model baggage car:

Here’s Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers:

Scroll down to the Joe Val preview post for David Davis playing ‘The Milwaukee Blues’ at a festival.

What’s fun about doing HAH is that it’s never old hat: I learn something every day! /CL


Posted in Bluegrass, Country History, Hillbilly History, Hillbilly Journal, Radio Talk | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

‘Maple Sugar’, Sweetheart!

maple_leaf_hoedown_vol_1_frontLast Saturday (5May) on a whim I played an instrumental version of the fiddle tune ‘Maple Sugar’ (sans fiddle) from White Mountain Bluegrass, and mentioned that the first version I recalled was from Doc Williams, “with words.” As it turns out, in one breath I managed not only to get the facts wrong, but garbled my own memory. Fortunately I was set right by a friendly note from veteran Boston broadcaster and folk-music specialist Dave Palmater. Writes Dave,

Doc & Chickie were friends of my late father. He had driven their bus on tours of New York and New England in the thirties. Just the thought of them makes reminds me of Chickie’s version of “Little Joe the Wrangler.” Even the thought of it brings a tear to my eye.

You mentioned Doc in conjunction with “Maple Sugar.” To set the record straight, it was a fiddle tune written by the great Canadian Fiddler and Composer Ward Allen. The song, Maple Sugar Sweetheart, to the tune was written, and first recorded by, Hank LaRiviere who also performed as Hank Rivers. If you’re interested I can provide a copy.

I am interested!  I remember now that I did hear ‘Maple Sugar’ first as a fiddle tune, in 1963 in the Cree Indian village of Rupert House, on James Bay. Although they learned country music tunes by listening to clear-channel WWVA in Wheeling, bouncing off the ionosphere, and might have heard Doc Williams sing ‘Maple Sugar Sweetheart’, Ward Allen’s fiddle tune was first released as the B side of a single in 1956,* and became a radio hit; in a few short years it was practically a national anthem in Canada.

What is it about this melody that conjures up an emotional effect in listeners? It is ostensibly an up-tempo, cheerful number, but I can’t hear it without the pang of sadness, of remembering lives come and gone, like wind in old leaves. It can’t be just me, given the popular appeal. But see for yourself; here’s Ward Allen:

Tom Towle, a fiddler who posted Ward Allen’s recording on YouTube, writes:

. . . a young Ottawa valley couple got married this summer and asked me to play this song for about a hour. Just after they exchanged vows they wanted me to play as they walked down the aisle. A happy newly married couple. The groom said he could listen to that song all day and night.

As Dave Palmater notes, Hank LaRiviere, who was a good friend of Ward Allen and toured with him, wrote lyrics within a year or so after the tune became popular (so he says in a live YouTube performance  from much later, unfortunately truncated); Hank called the vocal ‘Maple Sugar Sweetheart’.

Doc Williams’s version is on YouTube:

* An excellent biographical note on Ward Allen is on a website called ‘Lonesome Lefty’s Scratchy Attic’, accompanied by downloads of three long out-of-print albums of his fiddle tunes on the Sparton label. I don’t know what the legal status of those downloads is, but finding the physical records elsewhere would be a challenge, to be sure. /CL

Posted in Bluegrass, Country History, Hillbilly Journal, Songwriting | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The 2018 Joe Val Festival

Sheraton FraminghamFor bluegrass-country fans here in New England, Presidents’ Day weekend means Joe Val Weekend. The substitution is fine with me, as the elevation of the third weekend in February to just another Monday day off meant the nation quickly forgot about celebrating the birthdays of the Father of Our Country, George Washington (February 22nd), and the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln (February 12th). What we should do is make it Bluegrass Weekend all over the country, and start honoring our two greatest Presidents again on their actual birthdays. Hey, we could start next year by ‘broadcasting’ the Joe Val Festival over the Internet on Concert Window!

Fortunately for me and Dr Janie, the Joe Val Festival is practically next door at the Sheraton (‘The Castle’, as it’s known in our family) in Framingham, which also means I don’t have to take a Saturday off from the radio show to attend. I got to hear a fair number of the Main Stage bands, and take a lot of pictures. So here are a few of them, and minimal comments as well (I didn’t take notes, so no long reviews):

Friday I caught just a bit of the Berklee Bluegrass Amalgamation, all clearly accomplished successors to the first crops of Berklee bluegrass graduates now making waves in the Boston bluegrass scene, sounding like they knew how to play together, not just a mere ‘amalgamation’. Though I do wish the the instructors at Berklee would just put a single mic in front of a group, and let them figure out how to ‘work’ it. That’s how bluegrass got its original sound, making the individuals fit their vocals and instruments into that cohesive puzzle that makes a band.

I know the current fad is to line everybody up on stage, facing the audience, barely looking at each other. To my old-fashioned eyes and ears, it’s regrettable. One of the great joys of watching a band work a single mic is the the choreography and interplay that meld the virtuoso parts into a whole.

But enough pontificating. The Berklee picking was refreshing, and I was impressed with the singing of fiddler Josie Toney.  [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


Amy Gallatin and Stillwaters are long New England fixtures, based in Connecticut. Amy’s ‘life partner’ (as they bill each other) is Roger Williams, the terrific Dobro® player who has shared the stage with Amy for many years, and before that with White Mountain Bluegrass and many other bands. Roger appeared on Hillbilly at Harvard back in the ‘70s, I think he said, with some of the younger Lillys. He really is the pre-eminent ‘resophonic guitar’ player in the region, a huge influence on generations of players, and was so honored at the Festival by the Boston Bluegrass Union, receiving their 2018 Heritage Award. Congratulations!

Amy Gallatin has a foot in the folk-music community, but I think it’s safe to say that Roger has moved her more in the country direction. Amy, Roger, and Stillwaters are equally at home with traditional country and bluegrass, still with some folk influences, and with Roger’s son J.D. Williams on mandolin and Eric Levinson on bass, put on a thoroughly enjoyable show. Always great to hear ‘Flame in My Heart’, a George Jones duet standard, at a bluegrass festival! [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For high-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


Adcock-Vintage Banjo JamIt really isn’t fair to do 55-year comparison photos. As my mother used to say, “You’re no spring chicken, either.” But Eddie Adcock has a new album out, Vintage Banjo Jam, released just last year, on Patuxent Music—new, but recorded in 1963! It was a group of banjo instrumentals, either Eddie originals or unique arrangements of others, recorded in Pete Kuykendall’s studio back when Eddie was playing with the Country Gentlemen. Eddie was already chafing at the bluegrass bit. By 1963, says his wife and subsequent musical partner Martha Adcock in the liner note,

[Eddie’s] uncontainable ethos tempted him to a wider market than bluegrass, and this project was cut in order to dangle it before Nashville producer/musician Chet Atkins’ nose. But when even that master marketer of pop and country was left scratching his head at the problems of the how-to, Eddie left that behind to entertain other dreams.

Interestingly, Eddie’s innovative 1963 style sounds almost traditional, compared with the later adventures of Bill Keith or Bela Fleck; it’s not ‘progressive’, nor ‘chromatic’, nor ‘newgrass’; it’s maybe closer to Don Reno (who before Red Smiley cut his musical teeth with Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith instead of Lester Flatt); it’s certainly ‘jazzy’, in a way that those of us who dig western swing will appreciate. The master tapes, rescued and carefully laid on shiny digital aluminum, sound fresh and original. I wanted to talk to Eddie about it, but I didn’t catch him between acts, and then he disappeared. As you can see from the photos, Eddie is on oxygen (for emphysema) and far from his younger self (the album cover was taken at a festival in 1966). But he could still banter, and sing, and play the banjo, and there were echos of his old almost rascally self, as I remember when I saw him with the Gents back in Berryville, VA in the early ‘60s.

With Eddie were Martha and the seemingly ageless Tom Gray, who treated us to some trademark melodic bass breaks, as well as Bluegrass 45 veteran mandolinist Akira Otsuka sitting in. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


David Davis said it had been ten years since he was at the Joe Val Festival. I thought it was more like five, but I remembered him fondly, and time just flies. The Warrior River Boys is a grown-up band playing traditional bluegrass-style country music, and they do it really well. David is a soft-spoken gentleman, a fine singer, and a solid, Monroe-style mandolin player. His bass player and duet partner Marty Hays has been with him for more than two decades. David is about to release an album featuring the music of Charlie Poole this spring on Rounder, and played several tunes from it in his Friday evening set. Not sure if all the audience knew who Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers were, but HAH listeners do.  [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


Saturday afternoon I got over to the Festival in time for Phil Leadbetter and the All-Stars of Bluegrass. I got to hear them rehearsing in the Green Room, and then on-stage. The All-Stars for this concert were the sweet-voiced Claire Lynch, Steve Gulley (playing bass guitar), Alan Bibey (mandolin), Jason Burleson on banjo, and Phil Leadbetter of course on Dobro. With Claire doing the majority of leads, it looked like an All-Star recreation of the Claire Lynch Band, though to my ear it lacked some of the focus of her own groups: the All Stars were pleasant, but not enthralling. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


I have been a Town Mountain fan ever since I saw them at a hotel-room showcase at the 2014 IBMA World of Bluegrass, so I was glad to see Robert Greer and company back for a second Joe Val Festival appearance. Town Mountain is a hot honky-tonk bluegrass band with plenty of edgy original songs and sharp pickin’. Boston-area resident Bobby Britt fiddles in the traditional style (he gave me a copy of his fine new album, called, mysteriously, alaya); another Berklee alumnus Jesse Langlais plays innovative, clever, punchy banjo; Zach Smith plays bass; and hard-drivin’ Monroe-style mandolinist Phil Barker also sings a mean, bluesy tenor. My only complaint is that Robert Greer’s fast-moving lyrics are hard to follow; left me thinking his mic wasn’t right for his voice. Many bands bring their own, possibly for that reason. [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


One honky-tonk bluegrass band deserves another. The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are circuit veterans (all worked with James King) who have forged a hot new act, working a single vocal mic in the old-fashioned way which, as I said earlier, highlights the band instead of the individuals, and also gets the crowd roaring. C. J. Lewandowski is a talented, lively mandolin player (with an album of his mentor Jim Orchard’s and his own tunes, called Ozark Mandolin) and a fine singer; he’s part of a rotating vocal trio with guitarist Josh ‘Jug’ Rinkel and banjoist Jerome Brown, along with manic head-bobbin’ bass player Jasper Lorentzen. They play originals in the three-chord country tradition (their Back to the Mountains CD features both bluegrass and country versions of Dallas Frazier’s “The Honky Tonk Downstairs”), and they have great fun doing it. Check out this set of the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys (from another festival):

On the Joe Val stage, the foursome were joined by our excellent local fiddler and rising star Laura Orshaw:


Despite the parade of national touring acts through the Main Stage at the Joe Val Festival, there are many attendees who prefer to spend their stay in the lobbies, alcoves, and hallways jamming with fellow pickers. You can wander around hearing all combinations of instruments, and all levels of performance, with all ages represented. No sooner do you leave one group than you catch the refrains of a familiar tune from another. I didn’t spend nearly as much time as I’d have liked taking it all in (as well as the regional-band Showcase Stage downstairs), because I wanted to hear the big names. But I did catch a little in the hallways, e.g.: [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


So I missed most of the Italian band Red Wine, but I did get a few quick shots:


I got back in time for old friend Greg Cahill and his always on-the-money (The) Special Consensus. Greg and company (Rick Faris, guitar; Nick Dumas, mandolin; Dan Eubanks, bass) can always be counted on to entertain, and even surprise. But it was the singing that got me this time; the current Special C band reminds me not a little of Doyle Lawson’s seamless Quicksilver recordings—they are that good. Greg keeps promising to come back to HAH, as he used to in the days when Chris Jones was in the band, and they played frequently at the Kinvara Pub in Allston. When was that—30 years ago? [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


It was getting late Saturday night, but I had to stay for IIIrd Tyme Out. I hadn’t seen Russell Moore for some time, when he and then banjo player Steve Dilling came down to HAH to plug an evening BBU show. Steve is no longer with IIIrd Tyme Out, but ace mandolinist Wayne Benson is (an essential part of their signature ‘John and Mary’, now an inevitable encore), joined by Justen Haynes, fiddle; Keith McKinnon, banjo; and Jerry Cole, bass. Russell, of course, one of bluegrass-country’s finest male singers for many years, was in good voice, and their show was worth the wait.  [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


Sunday morning dawned bright and snowy, after an overnight Nor’easter that coated every limb and branch with frosting. We got to the festival, with grandkids in tow, in time for The Gibson Brothers. We had seen them just the year before, at a BBU show in Lexington, so I didn’t expect much new. But Eric and Leigh always manage to surpass expectations. Sitting on the floor by the first row of seats (to take pictures) helped to draw me and the kids into the gentle on-stage rivalry that leavens the stunning musicianship of these two brothers from northern New York (where Dr Janie is from). Besides Eric on banjo and Leigh on guitar, we were treated to long-time bandmates Clayton Campbell, fiddle; Mike Barber, bass; and the more recent member, Jesse Brock, mandolin (who despite his lofty ranking among mandolinists, fits right in the Gibson Brothers Band with the clarity and musicality of his playing).  [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


Bonus pic: During the Gibson Brothers set I found myself on the floor taking photos next to Tara Linhardt, who I discovered was freelancing for Bluegrass Today. She, it turns out, is a mandolin player, and back in the Green Room, who do I see her chatting with, but Jesse Brock:


The house remained full for nominal headliners Hot Rize, reunited after retiring (sans the late Charles Sawtelle, replaced by ace guitarist Bryan Sutton): always youthful-looking Tim O’Brien (mandolin, fiddle), Nick Forster (bass), and Pete Wernick (‘Dr Banjo’), joined mid-set of course by Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers (Wendell Mercantile, Waldo Otto, and Swade). Wendell plays the only guitar with a fringe I’ve ever seen; they are actually a pretty good country band, and belie their comic intentions by occasionally playing a serious honky-tonk song (I forget now; might have been ‘The Window Up Above’). Tim gave me a copy of his lovely new album of West Virginia music, Where the River Meets the Road, written or played by WV folks, including Tim himself, originally from Wheeling, which I’ve been playing on HAH.  [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


We hung around after Hot Rize left the stage, grabbed something to eat, and headed downstairs for the aptly-named Joe Val Wind-up Hoe-Down, featuring no bluegrass at all! The delightful Foghorn Stringband (Caleb Klauder, Reeb Willms, Nadine Landry, Stephen ‘Sammy’ Lind) held forth for a good hour and a half, playing old-time string-band and country tunes (with a little Cajun thrown in), followed by the Beantown Buckaroos, led by Art Schatz on fiddle, playing western swing and honky-tonk country. We couldn’t stay for more than a few minutes of the BBs, but granddaughter Aviva had a fine time dancing to the Foghorns.  [For larger photographs, click on one, and then keep clicking to see all in the group.  For higher-resolution images, see the Flickr album, HERE.]


All told, another sterling event from the Boston Bluegrass Union, who by now accomplish this takeover of the Sheraton every February with such aplomb that we mere attendees cannot imagine how much behind-the-scenes work go into it. Congratulations once again! /CL

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