Last night our entire family went down to the Picking Porch, where the BCMA (Birthplace of Country Music Alliance) sponsors weekly free performances by local musicians. It’s an oddball venue, located in an unused part of the Bristol Mall, with makeshift amenities–a hodge-podge of folding chairs, box fans for when the air conditioning doesn’t work (like last night). But the sound is good, and the show is broadcast live over a local AM station. The program is hosted Tim White, a well-known local musician and bluegrass DJ, and his unpretentious MC work and live commercials create an old-fashioned atmosphere.
It’s the first time we’ve been there, and we were there to see Tim Tolliver and his friends. Tim is someone we met at Pete Wernick’s jam camp, and is one of Pete’s favorite success stories. At the first jam camp Tim attended, Pete was so impressed with Tim’s singing and playing that he asked if Tim had ever played in a band; Tim replied that he hadn’t. Pete told him that he was certainly good enough to become a professional if he wanted, and encouraged him to try. Since then Tim has played in a successful local band, the Virginia Cross Ties, and now has his own group, Tim Tolliver and Friends.
The good news is that Tim and his group sounded great–the playing was tight, Tim’s voice was as resonant as ever, and the songs from the upcoming CD were top-notch. The disappointing news is that due to haphazard organization they played a very short set; the first group went on too long, there was an impromptu invitation to a local couple to play some songs, and a local legend showed up and took another fifteen minutes. Weirdest of all, some young banjo player arranged to have Tim’s group use their last song to back him up on “Bluegrass Breakdown”.
I only got to speak briefly with Tim, walking with him over to Chick-Fil-A before they closed so he could get his free chicken sandwich (the only pay for the evening). I didn’t ask him about any of the weird stuff, and he was too gracious to mention it. He did say that his band would be playing just a few miles up the road in two weeks, at a local community college festival; they’ll be opening for Mountain Heart, a band that is very popular here, so the crowd should be good.
Harmony tenor guitar
I like playing bass, but at least in bluegrass and old-time music it is a rhythmic rather than melodic instrument. But I want to play a melodic instrument too, so the last couple of years has seen a parade of instruments I haven’t been able to play (due to gnarled hands), or have been able to play but don’t fit into bluegrass and old-time.
Recently we acquired a tenor guitar, a four-string instrument which is tuned similarly to a mandolin or a fiddle. They aren’t very common; we knew about them because the Delmore Brothers used one. It has a nice ringing tone to it, not as high pitched as a mandolin, reminiscent of the chiming high notes on an autoharp.
A key technique for playing a chorded instrument is playing closed chords, i.e. chords where every string is stopped by one or another finger. The result is a hand shape which can be moved up and down the neck to play different chords. It seems to be true that three hand shapes are enough to get whatever chord you are looking for on a four-stringed instrument–it’s true for mandolin, banjo, and tenor guitar, anyway–and I was pretty excited to find out that I can reliably form the three shapes on the tenor guitar, unlike the mandolin and banjo.
The New Dominion String Band played its first date as such on Sunday in Mendota, helping to celebrate the addition of a bunch of new Carter Family-related material to the town library’s collection. The auditorium was large and not air-conditioned, but was pretty pleasant for such a warm day. For some reason the audience gathered at the very back of the room; it looked a little odd to us up at the front, and we were worried that folks might not hear us too well, but we were told later it wasn’t a problem.
The performance went pretty well, I think. We did fifteen Carter Family songs, eight secular followed by seven gospel songs. I hadn’t planned any remarks for between the songs but did my best to say something; about 2/3 of the way through I ran out of ideas, and just introduced the songs by name. We recorded it on minidisc, and assuming the sound is good enough we’ll have another disc of mostly new songs to add to our set of repertoire discs.
Afterwards I had a long chat with a fellow named Jeff Forrester, who I hadn’t met before. Turns out he is a professional-level bluegrass musician who decided not to make a career of it, so we had lots to talk about. At one point I mentioned the article I’d written for Bluegrass Unlimited; he said he’d let his subscription lapse awhile back but he’d like to see it. I said I had extra copies, and as I was trying to figure out the best way to get him one he told me that he was attending St. Peter with us! In fact he and his family had started coming three weeks ago, so it isn’t too embarassing that I hadn’t met him yet. We agreed to get our families together as soon as possible so we could visit and maybe play some music.
Friday night we played for free at the first annual Bluff City RiverFest. It was a haphazard deal; we played in a small riverside pavilion with a few picnic tables, and folks listened to us as they sat to eat their funnel cakes and drink their lemonades. We were there early enough to see the two earlier acts, a fellow who sang gospel songs using a karaoke machine, and then a woman who sang gospel songs and show tunes a capella. It wasn’t much, but it was a good band practice, and it might lead to a paid date in later years if the festival is successful. This was also Chris’ last performance on the banjo for awhile.
Saturday was quite successful and major fun. We played in Gatlinburg, a tourist town on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Gatlinburg is less a town than an open-air mall, with hundreds of shops, restaurants, and diversions. To keep things under control the town now “hires” its street musicians–I don’t know how much they actually pay, since we’re still allowed to accept tips.
We set up around 5:30pm in front of the convention center, but after three or four songs a major rainstorm moved in, so we relocated to the top of the steps where there was cover and played for an hour or so for the folks who had ducked up the stairs with us, as well as the folks across the street waiting under awnings. By 7pm the rain was gone and we moved downstairs again.
For the next three hours we played without a break, not because we had to but because the crowd never really shrunk to the point where we were willing to let them go. We always had between thirty and sixty people listening, and folks tended to stay for three or four songs at least. Frequent turnover in the audience has one particular advantage: you can play the crowd pleasers over and over again, each time to a new group of folks. Sometimes that got a little old–we must have played “Rocky Top” fifteen or twenty times–but sometimes it could be pretty cool–we played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” almost as much, with each player taking double-length breaks, and each time it sounded better and was more adventurous.
The evening was especially fun for me and Chris because it was the first time we had performed with Tim, who is just a joy to play with. He’s the best musician of us all by far, not just in his technique but in his musicianship–always providing a solid rhythmic anchor, out front when he needs to be, doing whatever is needed to make the music sound better. We’re going to learn a lot from playing with him.
Yesterday we played a 30-minute set in Johnson City for the Newcomers Club, a ladies’ group whose guiding vision I never did quite get. But they were especially nice folks, and very glad to have us perform. I have to think that part of the appeal of the Boone Brothers is that people see in them what they aren’t seeing among their children and grandchildren—clean cut, well behaved 18 year olds who are doing something productive. Most of yesterday’s praise can be summed up as, “They’re such nice boys.”
This was our fourth performance together, and the playing is tight enough now that energy picks up as we go along. I was definitely right to expect that my bass playing would improve after a stretch of not having to both sing and play. And Chris’s bluegrass banjo playing is getting cleaner and more confident.
Afterwards the brothers schmoozed and signed autographs while Chris and I packed our stuff. (Tip: free dates can pay as long as you have product to sell; the band sold out of the T-shirts and CDs they brought along.) When we came back to tell Mrs. Boone we were leaving, one of the club leaders stopped me and said, “Before you leave, I want you and Chris to stop by every table and thank the ladies for having you here. You have to be a politician, you know!” It was good advice, certainly the kind I’m giving Chris all the time, so we promptly got on with it, and had enjoyable chats with quite a few of the members.
Yesterday evening we had a band practice here at the house. It was the first time we had met Tim the banjo player, who had just gotten back from a vacation. Tim’s playing is fast and solid, enough so to make you thankful that he is not overbearing or a hotdog. We spent about three hours working through the current Boone Brothers repertoire, along with an occasional standard for fun. By now Chris and I are familiar enough with the songs that we had no trouble keeping up, and the sound was pretty tight. It felt pretty good at the end, and I remembered that this was exactly why we had gone looking for folks who could play at a performance level.
Tim won’t be able to make it to tonight’s performance, so Chris will be playing banjo again, but after that Chris is scheduled to play rhythm guitar for all but one or two dates. I’m encouraging him to use Tim as a standard, and to devote his summer to working his way up to that level.
Last year I would deliberately pile new songs to learn onto our plate as we prepared for a performance, so we could get used to practicing under pressure, in particular learning how to spend our time most effectively. There were many times when it felt a bit nervous about a week before the show because our playing still hadn’t gelled—but then in the final day or so there was a wonderful feeling of everything snapping into place.
Inadvertently, we’re under the gun again. On Sunday we’re part of the entertainment for Carter Family Day at the Mendota Community Center. When we agreed to do it awhile back, there was plenty of time in our schedule, so we decided to do all Carter Family songs—not a big deal, but many of the songs we were only somewhat familiar with, and I needed to memorize the words for eight of them. And then the Boone Brothers came along, and free time has been hard to come by.
We’ve managed, though. A few times we’ve been able to spend an hour or more running through the set, and during the week I was driving around with lyric sheets close by. Last night we played for the family, and it still felt pretty rough, enough to make me nervous. But tonight as we practiced it all fell into place, and it felt like we were really playing music.
Good thing, too, since we’re about out of free time between now and Sunday. Tomorrow we play for a ladies’ luncheon (?) in Johnson City, a half hour away, and then tomorrow evening there will be a band practice at our house, the first one with both us and the regular banjo player. Friday evening we will be playing at 8pm in Bluff City, about twenty minutes away, at their RiverFest celebration. And Saturday we will be playing as street musicians between 6pm and 9pm in Gatlinburg, a tourist town about 90 minutes away (the town has taken to hiring and scheduling street musicians, so it is actually a paying gig).