Songs. Curious about what Chris and I sound like when we perform? This afternoon we put some songs onto a minidisc; nothing fancy, just a single microphone set up in the Draught Horse Press warehouse. I transferred them to the computer (apologies for the crackling; I think I had the levels misadjusted) and converted them to MP3 files, listed below. If you’re using Internet Explorer, they should just play when you click on them; otherwise, you can download the ones you want.
Warning: these are one-take performances. Some are songs we’ve worked on quite a bit, some relatively new. One of the reasons we do this is that the minidisc recorder is painfully accurate—few flaws get past it—and so we can study the results for areas that need work. Mainly what I hear in these performances (aside from a thousand flaws in my singing) is that we need to work on establishing and maintaining a steady tempo. But I also hear tasty rhythm guitar, imaginative guitar breaks, and sweet tenor harmonies.
Sittin’ on Top of the World
Red River Blues
Salty Dog Blues
Midnight on the Stormy Deep
Old Home Place
What Does the Deep Sea Say?
Walls of Time
Blue Ridge Mountain Blues
Blue Ridge Cabin Home
Blue Virginia Blues
Girl at the Crossroads Bar
Since My Sweet Love Ain’t Around
Vehicles. Our Honday Odyssey minivan seats six, and we’re about to need a seventh. Until yesterday the plan was to buy a 2004 Toyota Sienna, the only minivan that seats eight. But last night while stopped next to an abandoned gas station, I saw a very clean 1995 Suburban with a “For Sale” sign in the window. I don’t know why I stopped to write down the phone number—never did anything like it before—but Debbie called and got an earful from the proud owner, including the very nice price.
This afternoon we looked it over; extremely clean, no obvious damage, drives just fine. So we gave the owner a deposit and arranged to meet him at the bank Monday morning to close the sale. Not only will the Suburban do well for us, I feel properly frugal today for paying $15,000 less than I’d expected to get those seventh and eighth seats.
First lesson. This morning I had my first bass lesson from Brandon Story, who plays upright bass for the Reeltime Travelers. Brandon’s house is nicely located. A ridge runs through Bristol, and the house is up the ridge just enough to provide a nice view of town. The weather was gorgeous, so we sat in the parlor with the doors to the balcony open.
My goal as a bass player is to provide solid and interesting accompaniment for Chris. If I’m able to do that, I’ll be able to handle most any other situation I’m likely to be in. And I’d like to make significant progress towards that goal before banjo camp in January. Four months of lessons should teach me what I need to know, and a weekly lesson is exactly the kind of pressure I need to work steadily towards the goal.
Omit needless words. One of my teachers—but not the one you might think—told me that I use far too many words when I write, and challenged me to cut my word count by twenty percent. It didn’t sting too badly to hear it—I know I’m wordy, and I know how to fix it after the fact. But mostly I do that when I’m fine-tuning a piece of writing.
These days too many people are stuck reading my first draft, whether emails or hasty weblog entries. And so I need to work on cutting useless words earlier—before typing them would be best, but at least before putting a period to the sentence.
The Power of Playing Together. Until this spring, Chris was focusing on learning clawhammer banjo, mostly because we like it better than Scruggs-style three finger picking. But when we attended jam camp, we found that clawhammer banjo doesn’t fit in easily to a bluegrass jam; playing backup is difficult, and in general the sound isn’t what people expect. So we decided that Chris needed to become at least a journeyman bluegrass banjo picker.
As usual with us, the first step was to get a couple of instructional videos. Chris was as diligent about working through them as our schedule this summer allowed—but our schedule didn’t allow for much. In fact, the concentration on working up songs to performance level on the guitar caused the banjo to drop into the deep background for awhile.
That changed when Chris began taking lessons from Roy Andrade; those have reawakened not only his interest in old-time banjo but banjo in general. Until recently I had to prod him to spend some time working on his banjo rolls, but lately he’s been setting aside time for that himself. Plus he’s now past the stage where all he could do is rote pattern practice, finally able to apply the techniques to songs he knows, and that makes practice more intrinsically interesting.
This afternoon we took another step forward. Chris has a cold and isn’t able to sing, and I’d been wanting to run through our jam session repertoire, something we hadn’t done lately. I caught him while he was practicing bluegrass banjo, and asked him if he thought he was ready to try some songs together with it. He wasn’t sure, but he’s always game to try something, so we started with our two-chord favorites, then began working our way through the Bluegrass Songbook. A couple of hours later our fingers had had enough, but we had managed to work through a large variety of songs, with some very confident banjo picking towards the end.
Chris told me that if he had known how helpful such a session would be, he would have insisted on one much earlier. We plan to focus on this sort of practicing for the next couple of weeks.
Festival. This weekend is the Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival, held in downtown Bristol. The Friday and Sunday schedules weren’t of much interest to us, but today’s roster of performers is pretty good. I had planned to take Chris and Maggie along, but both of them woke up with colds this morning, so that’s out.
As I told Chris and Maggie that they needed to stay home, I thought about doing the same thing myself; I’m pretty lazy about this sort of thing, and there’s plenty of work I could be doing instead. Since it was a musical question, I put that idea to the Dr. Banjo test, and this is what I heard in my head: “Are you telling me that you had a chance to drive ten minutes and pay ten dollars to hear The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, Wayne Henderson, Ralph Blizard, Ed Snodderly, Wildfire, Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard time, and the Del McCoury Band—and you passed it up?”
Fair question, no good answer, so I’m still going.
Festival. Chris, Maggie, Matthew, and I had an excellent trip to Wilkseboro this weekend. We were driving through Boone around noon, so I decided to make the weekend a little more special for them by feeding them dinner at the Dan’l Boone Inn, which serves excellent home-cooked food family style; they’re still talking about that meal.
Then it was us and about five hundred other people on a Wilkesboro hillside for two days of Kruger Brothers. You can find a few photos here.