Jam camp. Only three more days before we drive to Morehead, Kentucky for Pete Wernick’s bluegrass jam camp. Word is that there are about fifteen campers signed up at this point, a nicely small but not too small number. Chris and I are really looking forward to it.
Friday night jam. Last week Steve, a friend from the MerleFest jam camp got in touch and asked if Chris and I would like to get together to play. Steve lives in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, about ninety minutes from Bristol, but he comes to the area sometimes to join in ongoing jams. We decided we would get together at a Friday night jam about ten minutes from our house, over in Blountville. The jam is sponsored by the Traditional Appalachian Music Heritage Association (TAMHA), Ralph Blizard’s organization, and he is often there to host the event.
Chris and I arrived around 7:45, and found that the room was jam-packed with players, a couple standing on the front porch. We listened for a bit, Chris stuck his head in to make sure Steve hadn’t already arrived, and then he and I walked to a small park about 50 feet away to wait for Steve. The weather was perfect, cool and clear, so we got out our guitars and started to play. About ten minutes later Ralph Blizard drove up and parked, and came over to chat with us, asking why we weren’t in with the rest of the players. When we told him, he said it was pot luck as to how many folks would show up on a Friday evening—sometimes a bunch, sometimes just a few. He encouraged us to check back later, then went off to check it out himself. In Mr. Blizard’s honor our next song was “What Does the Deep Sea Say?”, but only after he was out of earshot.
Steve showed up at 8:15 and we played for about an hour. He taught us a couple of new songs, and we also played through some of the songs Chris and I had been working on. His mandolin playing really filled out the sound, particularly when Chris was taking a guitar break. Around 9 it was getting dark, so we played one last song to close things out. As we did, a couple of fellows wandered over to listen, and we chatted with them a bit as we packed up. Turns out one of them is the organizer of the country music open mike performances in downtown Bristol on Mondays (there is also a bluegrass version on Tuesdays), where folks bring their lawn chairs and listen to whoever has the courage to get up and play. He told us that they average about 500 people every Monday in the summer, and at their season-ending barbecue last year there were 950 people in attendance! We’d known about the bluegrass event, but not the country event, or that both events were so popular; we’ll definitely be checking them out.
Nothing definite yet, but we will be getting together to jam with Steve and another friend of his in the very near future.
On the brain. There’s been too much about music on this weblog lately, and so I decided to stop posting about music and related topics for awhile. Which left me with nothing I wanted to post about. My apologies to those of you who would rather be reading about something else; I imagine this single-mindedness wil burn itself out eventually, and make room for other matters of concern. Meanwhile, back to music ….
The Who, Live at Leeds, Decca Records, 1970.
I never got very excited about heavy metal, but there were some occasional spectacular exceptions. For one thing, I was a big fan of Led Zepplin from the very first time I heard their debut album; over the years I would be somewhat embarrassed enough about that, but not enough to keep me from being first in line to buy that great 4-CD boxed set when it came out.
The Who was never really a heavy metal band, but some perceptive critic pointed out that Live at Leeds is right there with the first Led Zepplin album, before heavy metal settled in as a genre. I bought it because I was a fan of Tommy, and I was very surprised at how different it sounded from that previous album—but I loved it, and played it constantly during my undergraduate years.
The first version of Live at Leeds was very short, about twenty-two minutes on side two and twelve (!) minutes on side one. So I was excited to find that, when they re-released it on CD, that it had been taken from a very lengthy concert at Leeds University in England, and that for the new version they had crammed most of the rest of the concert onto the disc.
Except … except that The Who had apparently played Tommy in its entirety as well, and even with an 80-minute disc there was only room for a couple of songs from that segment. Disappointed!
Well, poking around on Rhapsody, I found that they have recently released a deluxe 2-CD version of the album, with the entire second disc devoted to Tommy. This is the first time I’ve heard the full thing done live, and not only is it an amazing thing to hear, but it confirms a bit of genius about the original recording. At the same time that contemporaries were recording ever-more-heavily produced albums, with multiple overdubs and even orchestral arrangements, Tommy was, well, kind of thin—most of the texture came from the interplay of Pete Townsend’s electric and acoustic guitar tracks. Other than that, it was just bass and drums, a little piano, and an occasional french horn line from John Entwhistle. Well, not only did that thinness make the album delightfully different, it also made it possible for a guitar-bass-drum trio to play it credibly on stage.
Things changed in later years, when Townsend would often punch out whatever hapless soundman miscued the taped backup for one of his elaborate compositions. But 1970 was a simpler time, the Who were playing small colleges rather than arenas, and there wasn’t much yet in the way of pretense.
Supper. Last night we were invited for supper in Mendota at the Kisers, folks who have been friends since we came to Bristol, and who have joined Saint Peter recently. It was a beautiful evening, so we ate on the porch of their log cabin home, enjoying their spectacular view of the Holston River. Later we sat around and talked while Chris restrung Don Kiser’s twelve-string guitar. Don hadn’t played it in years, but it isn’t something you forget how to do, so we spent the last part of the evening playing some favorite songs. I’d forgotten the songbook, so we were stuck with the songs whose lyrics I could sing from memory, but fortunately there are more of those all the time.
Repertoire. Not having grown up with bluegrass music, Chris and I are scrambling to learn a good number of classic songs as quickly as possible. We have a very good book, the Bluegrass Songbook by Pete Wernick (one of its goodnesses is that Wernick obtained permission to print the songs from their owners), and the internet is also a terrific source of information. But that helps mostly with the lyrics; you can’t really learn the music without hearing it played.
So we’ve also been doing what we can to build our music collection so that we’ll have reference versions of the songs we want to learn. Luckily this is the age of the CD boxed set, and so it is very easy to get representative collections of songs for major artists like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, or Flatt and Scruggs. That’ll cover a lot of the core songs, but there are still frustratingly many other ones that they didn’t do.
Yesterday I read an article about the new Apple music service, where the writer mentioned that he thought that in many ways the Rhapsody service from listen.com was much better. I checked it out, and found that I could subscribe for three months for $12.95, an amount I was willing to risk to find out if it might be helpful. It has turned out to be very helpful. Rhapsody provides streaming access (meaning you can listen at your computer but not download) to 20,000 albums. A big number, but useless if the albums you are interested in aren’t among those 20,000. Fortunately, there is a huge amount of bluegrass, folk, blues, and country material available. Just about every song I’ve checked for has existed in some version; not every artist is available, but surprisingly many are.
Your subscription only entitles you to unlimited listening at your computer; most of the songs can also be burned to a CD, at an additional charge of $1 apiece. This may be a problem for folks who are looking to make recordings to play elsewhere, but for me it’s mostly OK, since primarily I’m wanting to hear a song in order to learn the melody. It would also be possible for me to make an acceptable but not great recording of a song directly from the computer sound card, but I’m not sure yet whether that’s a violation of the subscription agreement.
The software for searching out songs and playing them is pretty good. I have a broadband connection, so the sound quality is very good. And in fact there’s a major temptation lurking in there. I’ve gone back and forth over the years between working with music in the background, and working in silence. These days it’s been silence for quite awhile, but with 20,000 new albums at my disposal, it’s awfully tempting to just start one playing while I work. For example, there are twenty Doc Watson albums pleading with me to listen to them, and I’ve given in to a few.
Weekend. We were in Arkansas this weekend, partly to work the state homeschool convention at which R.C. was the keynote speaker, but mostly to celebrate God’s gracious gift of yet another covenant child to some good friends. The weather was impressively wet and windy—we spent a good part of Friday huddled in the hallway of the convention facility, wondering whether the four tornados converging on the town would come anywhere close to us. But the hospitality was top-notch, and the occasion was guaranteed to lift spirits.
Three times over the weekend we had opportunities to gather and play music: once in our hosts’ living room, once at a cookout after a talk and Q&A by R.C., and once at the feast celebrating the baptism of our hosts’ daughter. R.C. brought his mandolin along, found the groove right away, and added wonderfully to the sound of the group, he being the first HSC mandolin player. Our friend Bill Izard dusted off his guitar and joined in, as did his daughter on fiddle. The tunes we played were simple and not particularly fast or flashy, but it was an excellent thing to be making music together, and it was a good addition to the occasions where we played.
There was good eating during the weekend, of course. The baptismal feast featured chicken parmesan, lasagna, pasta, salad, and cheesecake provided by our hosts’ favorite Italian restaurant. One night we all went out to Who Dat’s, a fine Cajun restaurant in the middle of nowhere, where we feasted on crawfish and shrimp and other wonderful dishes. And on the way home we happened to be in Knoxville at suppertime, so we stopped at Litton’s Market for world-class hamburgers, french fries, and onion rings.