Pho comes to town

A few days ago I was driving down Volunteer Parkway and noticed that a former Pizza Hut had been spruced up and turned into the Bamboo Garden, which advertises Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine. Was it possible? Had Vietnamese noodle soup finally come to town?

I first learned to love pho in Silicon Valley. I ran with a fairly adventurous lunchtime crowd, and there were a few noodle shops on the peninusula, one a short drive from our office. We would go once, sometimes twice a week. And then often as not I would take Debbie and six-month-old Chris for a weekend lunch to a noodle shop I had discovered in the East Bay, where we lived.

When we moved to Austin, we left pho behind for a long time. But eventually a Vietnamese restaurant opened up which also served pho (at least they claimed it was pho; it was bad enough that I only ate there a few desperate times). A couple of years later another restaurant opened, and the pho they served was respectable. Finally, soup-only shops started to appear, and by 1999 we actually had to decide which of several we were most in the mood for.

When we moved to Bristol I didn’t expect to find pho, but I had faith that it would come eventually. It took awhile. On occasional trips out of town to big cities I would track down a noodle shop, and it would be so good that I would start to pine. But now the wait is over.

Today I stopped at Bamboo Garden for lunch. The soup was very good, served boiling hot, with lots of basil and bamboo shoots for garnish. They served it with lemon wedges, which happens about half the time; I like it better with lime. I put in the bamboo shoots, hand-shredded the basil into it, then squirted a healthy dose of hot sauce into the broth. The resulting soup passed one important test–it continued to cook and improve as I ate it, and I couldn’t bear to leave the last few spoonfuls of broth in the bowl.

I’ll rate the soup as a six on a scale of ten, and since I don’t engage in grade inflation that’s a pretty good score. They would have scored another point if they had gotten the soup to the table quickly; most noodle shops will have it to you in less than 90 seconds, but it’s a restaurant, not a noodle shop, and operating under different constraints. We’ll certainly be visiting them as a family.


Last night we got together with Blake Saunders to practice the tunes we’ll be playing for the dance in Lynchburg. It was a good workout. We reviewed what we’d already decided on, then Blake taught us a couple of waltz tunes, and soon enough two hours had gone by. We were tired by the end, but we were playing continuously, and there will be long pauses between each dance in Lynchburg, so it shouldn’t be any more difficult.

In two weeks we’ll be practicing again. This time we’ll set up the PA system and see what it takes to balance our instruments with Blake’s much quieter ones.

Old-time jam

We just returned from an old-time jam in Johnson City. Our Norwegian friend Hans, who we met on Sunday, arranged for it to happen at the Acoustic Coffeehouse. We arrived at 7pm, and the jam started with me on bass, Chris on guitar, Hans on banjo, and Hans’ wife on fiddle, plus another guitar, another fiddle, and another banjo. The second fiddler was Dr. Richard Blaustein, who teaches at ETSU, and he did a fine job leading the jam. About halfway through Chris and Hans swapped instruments, which gave Chris a chance to work on fiddle-banjo interaction. We played till nearly 9pm, then decided to meet again in two weeks.

As we were packing up, one of the jammers said he hoped the jam would stay old-time for awhile. Apparently there is a marked tendency for any successful jam to be eventually taken over by bluegrass folks. And as we were walking out, we passed a large group of bluegrass players coming in to begin their own jam.


This morning I took the Suburban for new tires and an oil change. I went to a local dealer close to downtown Bristol. Around 11:30am the manager came and asked me if I wanted them to fix some other minor problems they had noticed; I said yes, and he said it would take another hour. I said I’d go to lunch while I waited, and he recommended the hamburger at State Line Grill, a downtown eatery I’d driven by many times but never had a chance to eat at.

I took his recommendation. Man, what a great hamburger! It was something like a homemade version of a Chili’s hamburger, very juicy, hand-formed meat, good bun. And it came with homemade potato chips, which I could have eaten many more of.

It’s one of the few places downtown that looks like a decent restaurant, so I wasn’t happy to see that it was nearly empty at lunchtime.

Busy weekend

Saturday we were schedule to play at the Exchange Place Fall Festival in Kingsport. Exchange Place is a farm preserved more or less as it would have been in the early 1800s, and the Fall Festival is a small crafts fair. Our friend Nina Ketron had arranged for musical entertainment on Saturday and Sunday, including storytellers, bluegrass and old-time musicians, and even a bagpiper.

We arrived about an hour early for our 3pm set. We were preceded by a karaoke gospel group, and then a storyteller who also played autoharp and sang. For posterity’s sake, here’s what we sang:

Highway Headed South
My Warfare Will Soon Be Over
How Dark My Shadow’s Grown
House of Gold
Put Your Hand to the Plow*
Raleigh and Spencer*
I’ve Endured*
Keep My Skilled Good and Greasy*
Walking in the King’s Highway*
Going Down to Tampa*
Don’t Neglect the Rose
A Heart That Will Never Break Again
Those Two Blue Eyes


The original setlist was pretty heavy with new songs, but because we’ve been so busy I modified it so only about half were new. The audience was small, but they seemed to like what we did. After us came a local Celtic band, Sigean, who we’ve seen a number of time lately, and every time we like them more.

One nice surprise was that local musician Ron Short was there. I don’t know that he came to the Fall Festival specifically to see us, but he made a point of catching our set, and his wife told me that beforehand he had been encouraging folks to come see us. We had a long chat afterwards about all sorts of stuff, including an article on Old Regular Baptists that he wrote many years ago. He wants to invite us to participate in some events he’s involved with (including an Old Regular Baptist singing–yow!). I told him that when I’d seen him last I was so embarassed to have to scribble our phone number on a scrap of paper that I’d gone straight home and printed up business cards, and I handed him one.

While we were there Saturday we found out that the bluegrass and old-time jams that had been held at the spring festival were still on, but had been moved to Sunday, so we said we’d be back for them. Chris and I drove there right after Sunday worship, and joined in with the bluegrass jam that was underway. It was scheduled to last two hours, but after an hour or so the guy leading the jam said that he and his friends wanted a break, so he asked me and Chris to play our own stuff for awhile. So Chris got out the banjo and we played four songs, then looked to see if the jammers were back. Nope. We played another song, and then saw Nina, who said she would go track them down. Another song, and we saw her across the way talking to the other jammers; she held up a finger to indicate we should play one more song; the audience laughed, and we played another song. Finally the rest came back to finish out the set.

As we made way for the 2pm performance, Nina came to me and Chris and told us that some folks on the other side of the farm, which had some shops and some food vendors, had been asking if they could have some music over there. She asked if we’d be willing to go play for them for awhile. Besides being glad to help, it sounded about as close as we’d ever been to busking, so for about an hour we did what we could to gather a crowd. By the end we had maybe ten or so folks sitting and listening, and the shop owners and parking lot attendants also made a point to thank us. We didn’t solicit tips, but later I told Nina that if Exchange Place would allow it, I was sure she could get quite a few street musicians to show up.

At 3pm the old-time jam was to begin. Earlier I had met a Norwegian named Hans who was studying at ETSU and spending every spare moment chasing down old-time music events in the area. I told him what I knew about, and encouraged him to bring his banjo to the 3pm jam. Well, the “jam” wasn’t really a jam, and not particularly old-time, just a hodge-podge of songs. Chris and I played, and I watched for Hans but didn’t see him. Around 4pm I saw his wife across the way, and handed the bass to someone so I could go and remind them about the jam. Eventually they showed up, and he did get out his banjo, but the songs were almost entirely bluegrass at that point and he wasn’t too interested.

Then abruptly at 4:20pm the jam leader said he had to go (it was supposed to run until 5pm), and just about everyone else said they had to go as well. So I went over to talk to Hans, still holding the bass. He had said earlier that he had only been fooling with the banjo for a little while, so I asked him if he knew “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”, a two-chord song. He did, and so I started to play it. I didn’t know what to expect, but it turns out he is actually very good–maybe he’s only been playing banjo for a year, but he’d played guitar for thirty years before that.

Chris heard us and came over, and then the guitar player and fiddler who stayed behind joined us for a couple of tunes. Finally, Hans’s wife showed up, and broke out a beautiful fiddle, and it turned out she was also very good. We played until about 5:45pm, when Chris and I absolutely had to leave. I encouraged Hans repeatedly to get in touch with us so that we could get together again. He is also thinking about starting an old-time jam at the Acoustic Coffeehouse in Johnson City, and I told him we’d do what we can to help.

We absolutely had to leave because we had to be in Bristol by 7pm for a concert. A friend had given us complimentary tickets to a show featuring the Dillards; they are most famous for having played the Darling boys on the Andy Griffith show, but they were also an important bluegrass band in the early 60s, one we like a lot. Three of the four Dillards (Rodney Dillard, Douglas Dillard, and Dean Webb) were there, and they put on a fine show, playing lots of their best-known songs.

The old way of singing

After falling in love with Primitive Baptist/Old Regular Baptist singing at Augusta last month, I’ve spent some time gathering together what recordings are easily available, and I’ve read a few books that discuss the singing, the practices and beliefs of the folks who sing it, and the history of it all.

One striking fact is that these folks are direct descendants of the Particular Baptists in England who have been steadfast in preserving their tradition from the forces of progress. So it’s worthwhile to constrast their practices with mainstream Reformed thinking. For example, they are strongly opposed to formal traning for their ministers; they believe that whom God calls to preach, He also equips. They are also against mission work of any kind, which they view as Arminian (this is what led to them splitting from the Missionary Baptists and Free Will Baptists in the mid-1800s).

If you look at all into the history of shape-note singing, you will encounter the claim that it arose as a remedy for the dismal state into which congregational singing had lapsed. Well, it turns out that the Primitive and Old Regular Baptists have worked hard to preserve that “dismal state”, and after hearing it you may agree with me that the shape-note movement actually destroyed a significant and valuable tradition. And here’s the weird part: most Primitive and Old Regular Baptists are also enthusiastic shape-note singers. But they do their shape-note singing outside of worship, believing that “the old way of singing” is more spiritual and God-honoring, and therefore the only proper way to worship.

For awhile I’ve wanted to teach the family to sing some of these songs, but I haven’t been confident enough to lead them; the embellishments are complicated and not optional, and I have a hard time remembering them all. But we needed to get on with it, so I chose the hymn with the most straightforward melody (“Salem’s Bright King”) and this morning we worked our way through it with the phrase-by-phrase help of Ginny Hawker on CD.

Also, last night Chris and I started working on an arrangement of another hymn, “Here in the Vineyard of My Lord”, sung by Ginny Hawker and Kay Justice with a harmony part. It has some gorgeous shifting between unison and harmony, and Chris is adept enough at this sort of thing that we’re almost ready for prime time.

Here in the Vineyard of My Lord

Here in the vineyard of my Lord
I hope to live and labor
And be obedient to my God
Until my dying hour

I love to see the lilies grow
And view them all a-standing
In the right place while here below
Just as the Lord commanded

We oftimes meet both night and day
A faithful band of pilgrims
We read, we sing, we preach and pray
And find the Lord most precious

But while we sing this song of love
Our hearts are deeply wounded
Perhaps we all may meet no more
Here in a congregation

But if on earth we meet no more
We hope to meet in Heaven
Where congregations ne’er break up
But dwell in sweet communion

Where all the ransomed church of God
Shall meet no more to sever
With not a sorrow, pain, or tear
Sing one sweet chord forever

Salem’s Bright King

Salem’s bright king, Jesus by name
In ancient times to Jordan came
In ancient times to Jordan came
All righteousness fulfill

‘Twas there the ancient Baptist stood
Whose name was John, the man of God
Whose name was John, the man of God
To do his Master’s will

The holy Jesus did demand
His right to be baptized, and then
His right to be baptized, and then
The Baptist gave consent

Down in old Jordan’s rolling stream
The Baptist laid the Holy Lamb
The Baptist laid the Holy Lamb
And there did Him baptize

Jehovah saw His darling Son
And was well pleased with what He’d done
And was well pleased with what He’d done
And owned Him from the sky

Believing children, gather round
And let your joyful songs abound
And let your joyful songs abound
With cheerful hearts arise

The candidates are waiting there
Come let us join in solemn prayer
Come let us join in solemn prayer
Down by the waterside


Tuesday evening was spent practicing for the Reformation Day Ball in Lynchburg next month. Blake brought a list of the dances to be danced, and we came up with and practiced a set of tunes to accompany them. I think we sounded pretty good, except for the sound balance—the banjo and bass overpowered the hammered dulcimer and mountain dulcimer. That’s a problem we’ll fix by running all the instruments through our PA system; one of our upcoming practice sessions will be spent working out the details of that.

Yesterday afternoon I took Chris along with me for my lesson with Brandon Story. Brandon knows about ensemble playing, and since sharpening our performance skills is a priority right now, it seemed good to spend the hour having him help us get into shape. We’re performing Saturday at a local fall festival, and the Saturday after that on the radio in Kentucky, so these days we’re working on a set list that has fifteen or so songs, some old and some new. During the lesson we concentrated on five that were fairly different from one another; we’d play one through, and Brandon would offer suggestions which we’d then try to incorporate. Towards the end Chris switched to banjo, so Brandon picked up his guitar and joined us; it reminded us how much different a trio sounds from a duo, and how great guitar and banjo sound together.