Q: How many banjo pickers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: 100. One to screw the lightbulb in, and 99 to complain it's electric.
Everyone knows a good banjo joke. There's a reason for that. The banjo can be a pain in the neck. It's hard to keep the darn thing in tune. That fifth string - the high drone - can be grating to listen to if it's not employed correctly. The whole setup requires delicate balance.
A good banjo player is a master of restraint. No matter how lightning-fast they can deliver those Scruggs-style three-finger picking rolls, you better believe, if it doesn't sound awful, they're holding back more than they're unleashing.
The strings resonate so hard and naturally against the skin on the instrument's body, you can easily turn a banjo into a tool of dissonant ire. To make the thing musical, well, that takes darn near genius.
Earl Scruggs made his instrument sing. He developed a picking style so aurally attractive, hardly a banjoist since hasn't at least tried to emulate it. Some have done a darn good job. Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers) picks a good banjo; Bela Fleck has his way; one mustn't forget the great Tony Trischka, nor underestimate Steve Martin. In fact, Scruggs' influence on the banjo has been so remarkable, those wishing to break the mold and innovate its sound in new directions are dialing it back to clawhammer style these days (Abigail Washburn comes most readily to mind).
But, I doubt even the clawhammer folks would hesitate to call Scruggs a major influence, even though they've chosen a path away from his definitive style.
Borne of the trailblazing troupe Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, Earl Scruggs spun off that band with his buddy Lester Flatt before long. Together, Flatt & Scruggs became a benchmark of the bluegrass revolution. Their guitar-and-banjo breakdowns have influenced generations of instrumentalists.
Through it all, Scruggs seemed happy to join any band. He lent his skills to the peace effort, playing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" in Washington, DC, at a concert aimed at ending the Viet Nam War. He collaborated with everyone from Johnny Cash to Elton John and released somewhere around 30 albums in his lifetime. He earned a Grammy Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was inducted to just about every Hall of Fame and Honor in Nashville and was given the National Medal of Arts.
Not too shabby for a banjo picker. Indeed, Earl Scruggs proved the banjo can be taken seriously after all. Without a doubt, his physical presence will be missed in this world, but the music he made will never die.
Monday marked 50 years since Bob Dylan dropped his self-titled debut - an album which, for all intents and purposes, was his most unapologetic tribute to Woody Guthrie. It was the start of an incredible recording career that's influenced countless artists since.
When considering an artist like Bob Dylan - who has about 54 albums to his name as of this posting - it's easy to get overwhelmed and clouded by his incredibly dense catalog of work. Employing a phrase like "Bob Dylan's best work" is sure to spark a debate among superfans, but that's not going to stop me here. Instead, here are, in my opinion, five of Bob Dylan's best songs:
1. "Blowin' in the Wind" - Obvious, maybe. But also a touchstone for great topical songs. It's not blatantly protesting anything. It doesn't force you to choose sides like so many topical songs do. It doesn't draw a line between progressive and conservative or right and wrong. The song simply asks a series of questions and is then content to let you decide on your own answers. In the process, it reminds you inaction and disengagement are both irresponsible reactions to a world wrought with inequality.
2. "Gotta Serve Somebody" - This tune came in the middle of Dylan's quasi-gospel period. He was talking about Jesus, of course, but from a somewhat humanist perspective. The message simplified the notion that everyone, in some way, serves someone in their life. Whether you're serving dinner or serving your boss; serving your family or serving a higher power. It was a rumination on humility and reverence while making a sort of populist statement in the process. It was an exceptionally poetic moment for Dylan, amid a canon of poetry.
3. "Most of the Time" - Bob Dylan is discussed most often for his command of two things: sociopolitical issues, and the blues. But Dylan's love songs - the ones which find him smitten in the throes of desire - are some of the most honest handlings of the topic in contemporary music. In this case, he's talking about getting his heart broken, and he's doing so in a very straight-forward almost innocent tone. True to the reality of moving on, the song does its best to focus on everyday tasks - anything but the heartache - and yet the love creeps in anyway.
4. "Hurricane" - Back to Dylan's various forays into commenting on the headlines...it would be a tall task to ask any other songwriter to surmount the poetry, rhythm, pace, and sheer power of this song. Dylan's prowess as a songwriter isn't limited to one area of a song. He's always had a knack for developing his work to the greatest of its potential, recognizing that a great collection of lyrics is irrelevant if it doesn't work with everything else in the song toward the same goal. "Hurricane" is one of those moments where Dylan succeeded in getting everything in concert toward one provocative statement.
5. "Standing in the Doorway" - Speaking of singing the blues, this one may be more of a country or pop song aesthetically, but its blues knock all the others out of the water. An absolutely devastating heartbreak song.
The last few of years, I - like everyone else in the music industry - headed down to Austin in March to join the behemoth festival of cacophonous insanity known as South by Southwest (SXSW). That enormous citywide festival certainly has a certain allure for folks like me, whose tastes and interests are focused on a raw, live, almost improvised sound. Indeed music of every persuasion is blaring out of every nook and cranny. Things often don't go as planned (Abigail Washburn played a stunning set in a taco shop last year, standing on a booth with her band after the sound system stopped working). That's just one of many instances where Murphy's Law proved to make way for great performances.
This year, I decided to stay home and let SXSW go on without me. Instead, I've been enjoying a week worth of performances by unknown artists around the country...and some fairly well-known indie folks, too.
Couch by Couchwest made 2011 its inaugural year, inviting artists of any genre to submit video of themselves sitting at home - decidedly not at South-By - playing a song of their choosing. Neko Case joined in, providing a little street cred to the whole thing, and plenty of lesser known artists joined in the fun.
This year, the "festival" has been rocking the internet since last weekend, with some real doozy performances from artists you surely would never have heard any other way. For example, have you ever heard of the Peculiar Pretzelmen from Albuquerque? How about the Smug Brothers from that booming music town of Dayton, Ohio? Italy's The Heart & the Void? Darn good stuff.
And there's plenty more performances like these available at CouchbyCouchwest.com. The festival continues through the weekend. Watch or add your own videos.
Let's start with the community Rose Cousins employed to help her out with her latest album, We Have Made a Spark. The Nova Scotian songwriter has a group of friends and supporters in Boston - Rose Polenzani, Mark Erelli, Kris Delmhorst, and others - who came together to fill out her songs on this beautiful, arresting, emotive disc full of sad songs.
Much has been made of that community, and the impressively successful Kickstarter supporters (another kind of community) who gave their dollars to ensure this project and an accompanying short film came to fruition. So I'll mention that - it's definitely worth mentioning - but there's much to say about the music itself.
The songwriting, for example.
Cousins is one of my very favorite songwriters. Her allegiance to nuance is incredible. Her poetic impulse seems effortless. (Though, I know well, nothing in writing or the creation of art ever happens without great effort.)
The disc comes with an epigram from poet Wendell Berry whose second line is the most telling: "To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight." It's this concept which has inspired and influenced generations of not only artists but philosophers, theologians, and all sorts of seekers of truth - a deliberation toward exploring life's less light and comfortable moments. It's this exploration of darkness, in fact, which makes music in particular - and in general - profound.
Cousins sings right off the bat, "you can't keep the darkness out." This is the sort of truth for which we all turn to music - that admission of life's hardships which reminds us we're not the only one in the dark. In fact, as Cousins notes in the film accompanying this record, the fact you can't hide from life's enveloping darknesses is the foundation of community.
We know from her previous efforts that Cousins is highly capable of making the songs work on her own. Her voice is provocatively focused and clear, her melodies alluring, her lyricism astute. That's all you need to make a song work. But, the point of this record is not simplicity - it's gathering. As she sings in a particularly lovely duet with Mark Erelli, "I'll wait for you. Should I fall behind, wait for me."
Indeed, when you can't see around you, for all the apparent darkness, it always helps just to know someone else is there. Someone with whom you can make a spark.
Kenneth Pattingale and Joey Ryan are the Milk Carton Kids, two southern California singers who teamed up to focus on close harmony with their voices and their acoustic guitars. They dressed in retro suits and looked like they could have been in Herman's Hermits or even the early Beatles. They were also both jesters, but behind all of this is solid musicianship and songs that you want to hear over and over. Think Simon and Garfunkel meets Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
This group was the surprise of the conference last year and the stars this year. They feature banjo played like an electric guitar, octave violin, 1/2 of an upright bass, and Bonnie Paine who plays stomp box, washboard, and bongos. She is like a human percussion machine. Elephant Revival was created and assembled. The players are from all over the country. They decided to play together and each of the members decided to move to Nederland, Colorado to start a new life together. The songs are original, thoughtful, and catchy. This is a soft spoken bunch, but their music has impact and they are quickly developing a following.
This cat plays every instrument known, and is a sought after producer in Canada. He also writes some biting songs and can sing them with ease. Yet he looks like a clean cut college senior. All that was missing was the sweater. Recently Steve has been resurrecting the music of The Mississippi Sheiks, who Bob Dylan also admired. The Sheiks were one of the first of the early 20th century string bands who went for energy first, and often strayed into unchartered territory. Though Dawson himself is a much more accomplished player, he too takes musical risks and adventures and now we know why.
Nora Jane used to teach high school English but her Dad played guitar and convinced his daughter to write and sing. Multi-instrumentalist P. J. George sings with her. Both are in The Bootleggers and Bearfoot. Struthers sees a relationship in the writers of classic literature and folk heroes like Tim O'Brien and Doc Watson. Her stories are full of vivid details and what a voice.
From England, two brothers and two cousins got into their parents record collection and came out of the basement singing and writing. The Dunwells offer excellent lead and trio singing along with acoustic and electric guitars, resonator guitar and percussion. They are full of energy and came away from the conference with several bookings.
The golden voice of Tracy Grammer is singing mostly Dave Carter songs lately. This year the Dave Carter Legacy Project has been announced with a concentrated effort being made to archive and perform his songs. It was strange and beautiful to hear her sing his words written in the past - many seemed prophetic - especially those which may have been about his own passing. His poetry is often at a level few attain.
Gretchen has been writing for major country and pop singers for 20 years. That's about as long as she has been working with pianist and accordion player Barry Walsh. The two were recently married (by minister Rodney Crowell). Gretchen's writing is deep, seldom 1st person, and insists that her characters take risks. The production on her new album is pretty slick so it was nice to hear them acoustically.
Alright, he's not an old man. Chris Luedecke appears to be in his thirties and is a recent father of twins. He is one of the few singers who accompanies himself primarily on banjo. His songs are often life lessons ("Inchworm," "Send My Troubles Away") and tend to strike you before you realize you might be slipping. I hope that makes some sense to you. If not, go buy one of his albums. He is a thoughtful, wonderful guy.
Yes, that is 5-string fiddler Tania Elizabeth of the Duhks, backing up one of the toughest songwriters we have. Mary Gauthier grew up in a foster home and eventually found her birth mother who then refused to meet her. How do you live with that? On top of that, her brother is in prison. Still, she told us that her songs are not intended to be sad, because nobody learns anything in a sad song. Rather, she hopes her music offers a sense of connection for others who are also struggling. Though she didn't say it, Mary also offers us hope, because we can rise up together much easier than by ourselves.
He has long stringy hair, he is pale and thin, and stares at you with the biggest of eyes. His delivery is gruff, but full of character and wisdom. At first we couldn't tell whether Malcolm Holcombe was kidding with us or if he was just an overly serious guy, but when he invited us all over to his house for mashed potatoes we knew it wasn't the latter. Someone once told him a story about attendees of the Kerrville Folk Festival collecting raindrops for drinking water and out came "To Drink The Rain," a wonderfully thoughtful proverb that became the title of his album. He is the Tom Waits of Folk Music.
Like his high school buddy Slaid Cleaves, Rod Picott ("pie-caught") is a soft spoken, kind hearted songwriter from Maine. Also like Slaid, Rod doesn't shy away from serious subject matter as his new album demonstrates. During our live broadcast he sang two songs that he and Slaid co-wrote, "Rust Belt Fields" and "Welding Burns." Both songs champion the working person and emphasize that hard work and long hours no longer promise success or even happiness. That doesn't mean you won't find Picott enjoyable. His songs are engaging, musical, and they bring hidden thoughts out of the closet.
Jimmy LaFave has one of those voices that crys out and grabs your heart. His connection with listeners begins with the songs, but his delivery carries the message straight into your soul. Joining him at Folk Alliance were Radoslav Lorkovic on piano and accordion and Phil Hurley on electric guitar. It was a thrill to watch both listening hard to Jimmy's words and then filling in between verses with just the right notes to help the song make sense. Jimmy is working hard on several Woody Guthrie projects to help celebrate the legend's 100th birthday. He can speak eloquently and off the cuff on Guthrie's amazing and somewhat still untold story.
I heard this band's energy coming out of a small hotel room on the 19th floor late one night. There was hardly room to go in as there were 8 people in the band plus guests. At first I thought I was listening to The Band, but then I heard Bonnie Raitt, and then Marvin Gaye. It wasn't a copy band by any stretch; there was talent in every corner of the room and each song seemed better than the last. The "Collective" all live in Nashville and have never toured. In an age where metal, punk, and grunge draw consistent crowds, I'd like to see this band in front of that audience and watch jaws drop.
Mariel is a soften spoken fiddler from California and a graduate of The Berklee School of Music in Boston. She can (and did) demonstrate a wide variety of skills. I heard her play in an old timey style backing banjoist Putnam Smith, Irish music as a member of Annalivia, and Norwegian music when she pulled out the Hardanger fiddle. She played this instrument as guitarist Jordan Tice backed her up in her own showcase. She also has a sweet singing voice. This diversity of skills can only help her find more work and more fans and she is a wonderful person to boot.
Years back a friend of mine was pushing me to listen to Sam who I thought was only a skilled guitarist. When I heard the album Union with Gabriel Valla, I quickly realized that he is a triple threat as a writer and very passionate singer along with being a seasoned player. I wrote a glowing review and choose this album as the best of the year in 2006. Imagine my thrill to see him in a small hotel room showcase at midnight with only 7 other people watching. He sang 2 songs from Union, - "St Augustine," about second chances, and Verlon Thompson's "The Christians and the Outlaws," about nature and reincarnation. Sam reminds me of a top flight major league pitcher with a handful of pitches and command of each.
Phoebe Hunt was the fiddler and singer for the now defunct Belleville Outfit. She is a captivating personality and easily dominates the room. At Folk Alliance she was joined by Bellville's, Conner Forsythe, on keys and both closed the conference by joining another terrific Austin band called Brazos on the River. Once again, you could barely squeeze in the room. One of the band's guitarists played a nylon strung small guitar and other played more of a hollow body electric. Both players could sing and all were backed by upright bass and snare drum. Phoebe called out one song after another. She seems to favor old show tunes or new songs in that style. My big thrill at the conference was their encore which she dedicated to me. "...if you can walk you can dance, if you can dance you can fly..." Considering the loss of my terrible limp through total hip replacement following the conference last year, this song spoke volumes, and it seemed to mean a lot to everyone in the room.