5th Annual Rhythm and Roots Reunion

For me and Chris, playing at last weekend’s Rhythm and Roots Reunion in Bristol was the biggest musical event so far. Early this year the both of us had been having a series of weekly lessons with Brandon Story, who was helping us to polish our performance skills and to set some helpful goals for the 2005 season. One of the goals was to get booked in some venues where we could play 45-50 minute sets for a crowd of a few hundred people who had at least paid to hear some music, if not specifically to hear us.

Brandon is a friend of the festival director for Rhythm and Roots, so he contacted her and arranged for us to play during the festival. One of the distinctives of R&RR is a heavy emphasis on local music; along with some very popular national and regional acts, the schedule always lists dozens of groups who are quite local and much less well-known. We would be playing for free admission, some complimentary tickets, and whatever hospitality was being provided to artists in general. That was more than enough for us; we were content that we would be playing a real festival before paying crowds, and would be able to put that on our resume.

Soon we found out that we would be playing three 45-minute sets, which gave us one of our major 2005 goals, namely to spend a few months developing three solid twelve-song sets, giving the songs full arrangements and practicing them to death. Everything else during the summer flowed from that—we focused intently on those thirty-six songs, played various combinations of them in public, and towards the end chose one of the three sets when a performance came along. And when we decided to record the CD, we had thirty-six well-practiced songs to choose from.

It was a long time from when our names first appeared on the R&RR website to when we drove into Bristol and tracked down our performer badges, and so by the time of the festival we were as ready as possible, and not particularly nervous. Our performances were Saturday and Sunday, so we were free Friday evening to watch mind-expanding performances by the Red Stick Ramblers and Junior Brown.

Saturday we had a little time to wander, but soon enough we had to cart our equipment over to the Manna Bagel Shop for our first set. The festival has three big outdoor stages, two mid-sized indoor stages, and five or six small indoor stages; this was one of the small ones. We watched the Minton Family play the last half of their set, then set up for our own. The shop wasn’t very crowded; maybe twenty-five people saw us play. But we did well, and even made a couple of fans that followed us down the street to our next performance at the Paramount Theater.

The Paramount is just a great place, a grand old movie theater that was renovated and now hosts plays and concerts. Recently they bought their own very good sound system, and so the folks we worked with were on staff with the Paramount and accustomed to doing the sound for performances there. When we had received our contracts there was a request for a stage plot, which is just a diagram of where each performer usually stands and what sorts of microphones or direct inputs he needs. We had sent ours, and later the crew made a point of thanking us for being one of the few to do so. Meanwhile, we felt like real professionals when we walked out on stage and found the microphones already set up just as we needed them.

That set was probably our best of the three. It had the strongest songs and the strongest sequencing. The sound on the stage was better than we’d ever had; we had asked for no monitors, so what we heard was the unmediated sound of each other, strengthened by the delayed and echo-y sound out in the auditorium. It all worked, and I think we were as expressive as we’ve ever been. Maybe sixty or seventy people were in the auditorium, and a few stayed afterwards to talk to us.

Our last set was Sunday afternoon, and we were back in the Paramount with an all-gospel songlist. Maybe ten or fifteen people saw us, but that didn’t disappoint us at all—it was the culmination of a months-long effort, and what mattered to us was how well we performed on stage. Again, I think we did pretty well. Afterwards someone told us that they had seen Tim O’Brien standing in the back for a few minutes; I suppose I’m just as glad we didn’t know that at the time. He hasn’t called yet.

We had received our CDs a week or so before the festival, so there were some available for purchase at the merchandise trailer (we sold three), and we gave a couple out to people who were in the music business.

We have two more festival performances to do this year, both a little different from what we’ve done so far. All of them together gave us a pretty full range of experiences with playing to the size and type of crowd we had wanted to play for this year.

Field trip

Since we bought our new property, I’ve been puzzling about what equipment we would need to take care of it. We own thirty acres, about twenty of it “in timber”, as the real estate listings say around here. Nine acres across the road have been tilled and planted in crops over the years; for the past six or seven years that land has been mostly left to itself, but it could easily be good pasture again with some attention. Between the house and the road is an acre or so of grassy area, used as lawn right now but suitable for gardening.

When we moved in the pasture across the road was grown up with weeds about four feet high. We paid a neighbor to use his tractor and rotary mower to cut them down. He charged a fair price, but it seemed like the sort of job we should soon be doing ourselves. But how? It would certainly be beyond us using hand tools. Our neighbor used a good-sized tractor with a good-sized mowing attachment to do the job in about six hours—and then moved on with his tractor to do work on other fields. It would be foolish for us to buy such large, expensive equipment to do the occasional work our small acreage would require.

Hobby farming is becoming more popular, and as a result it is easier than before to get more compact, less expensive versions of the big equipment for use on a small-scale farm. But even these machines seem much more expensive than we could justify, starting in the $20,000 range just for a compact tractor. And even though they are compact, they still aren’t maneuverable enough for a lot of the tight spaces we will end up working, such as garden beds. Then there’s the matter of our other twenty acres; most of it is hillside, with a gentle enough slope to make tilling feasible but still too steep to be worked safely with a riding tractor.

I had resigned myself to leaving the problem unsolved for quite awhile, paying to have machine work done when it was needed and dreaming of the far-off day when we might be capable of using horse-drawn equipment, which seemed like just the right scale for us. Then I read on Herrick Kimball’s weblog that he had recently purchased a walk-behind tractor, a machine I’d never heard of but was apparently quite popular in Europe among the many small-scale farmers there. The machine is something like a mechanized horse—a source of power which can power attachments such as mowers, sickle-bar cutters, tillers, plows, even hay balers and chipper/shredders. It sounded like the right sort of machine for us. I asked Herrick for a more detailed opinion, and was persuaded even further.

As with many solutions out of the mainstream, information about walk-behind tractors is not easy to come by, and distributors are widely scattered. Still, I was able to learn enough by searching the internet to decide that a visit to a dealer was called for. Kentucky is blessed with more than the usual number of dealers, and we found one about an hour’s drive from home, so I made a note that when things settled down Chris and I should take a field trip there to see these machines first-hand.

But in the meantime I kept looking around the internet, and came across this very informative site put together by a dealer who was obviously devoted to both the machines he sold and the concept of walk-behind tractors. I learned so much about the machines, and was so engaged by the personality of the dealer, that I began to wonder if maybe I should go ahead and buy the machine over the internet. Then I looked at the shipping information, and found that Earth Tools is located only two hours from our house. So I called them yesterday morning, and yesterday afternoon Chris and I drove up to do some hands-on learning.

Earth Tools is not your standard dealership. Joel, the owner, carries only two lines of tractors, maybe six or seven models total, and he says that he sells more of one model (the BCS 852) than of all the rest combined. The “showroom” is a small farm with two small barns chock full of tractors and accessories. When we arrived, he was helping a couple load their new BCS 852 into their pickup truck. Since we had asked Joel over the phone about the differences between the diesel and gas engines on the 852, and since the 852 in the truck was the last diesel he had in stock, he invited us to jump up into the truck bed with him, then fired up the engine and gave us a chance to hear it and feel it in action.

Joel went off to do some paperwork, and we started talking to the couple who were buying the tractor. Turns out they own a small farm not ten miles from our house, where they raise milk goats. The fellow, Mike, had built up a profitable computer company in Rochester, NY and been fortunate enough to sell it before the dotcom bubble popped; since then they had followed a route similar to the one we are embarking on, using savings to fund their efforts to switch over to small-scale farming. They spoke highly of Joel and their interactions with him.

Mike’s primary reason for getting the tractor was so that he could cut and bale his own hay. He told me that they had been growing hay for a couple of years, and been working very hard to produce a high-quality hay. But since they couldn’t cut and bale it themselves, they had an arrangement with a neighbor who would do the job in exchange for half the hay. Worse, because they are such a small operation they inevitably ended up as a low priority for the neighbor; this year they had grown some excellent hay, but it didn’t get cut until far too late and ended up much lower quality as a result.

Mike’s story underlines the fact that I know nothing about the economics of hay. Ir costs half the hay just to get it cut. And it is worth about $13,000 to Mike to have the process under his own control—which means that standard haying equipment must be way, way more expensive than that. I also remember reading in Gene Logsdon’s Contrary Farmer that hay is often the place where small-scale farmers go wrong—they will end up losing money if they grow other crops while buying hay to feed their animals.

After Mike and his wife left, we spent about ninety minutes with Joel being introduced to the BCS. We already knew more or less what we needed, thanks in large part to the information on the Earth Tools website. But as we talked and explored and tried out the machine, we did some fine-tuning. One nice result was that Joel talked us out of getting the expensive sickle-bar attachment for now; he explained that the rotary mower we wanted would handle all the brush and weeds we needed cut, and so we could put off buying it until we were actually growing hay, the thing we would need it for. He also went into detail about the advantages of a walk-behind tractor for small scale farming. One is maneuverability, of course. Another is stability; unlike riding tractors, it is safe to use a walk-behind tractor on slopes as steep as 45 degrees—very interesting to us who own so many acres of hillside.

At the end we agreed to buy a BCS 852 with a tiller, a rotary mower, and a utility trailer. We settled on the diesel version of the tractor, which is apparently the model of choice in Europe due to fuel economy and longevity of the engine, but is unavailable in the United States. So Joel makes the modification himself—he takes a BCS 852, removes the gas engine (which he later resells), and installs the same diesel engine that BCS uses on its European models. Because he is out of diesel engines for the moment, we will have to wait until next week to pick up our tractor and accessories. But that’s fine, since we have plenty to do in the meantime, including getting a trailer that can cart it home.

As we were leaving Joel asked me what I did for a living, and I told him a bit about the bookstore, and the fact that our emphasis had been shifting towards materials for older homeschoolers. Turns out that Joel was homeschooled as well. That pleased Chris, who had already been telling me how much he liked the way that Joel did business and how he might like to do something similar himself.

Dock Boggs Festival

One of the big items on our schedule this year was the Dock Boggs Festival. Not because the festival itself is such a big deal; it has been in the past, but is currently in transition and the new group in charge is working hard to get it back to its former glory. It was big because Dock Boggs was a critical figure in Appalachian music, someone we admire a lot, and so we were really excited to play a festival in his honor.

The festival is currently held just outside Norton, Va., at the Country Cabin, one of the historic venues that is part of the Crooked Road musical trail, sort of a miniature Carter Family Fold. For the festival they set up a large open-sided tent outside.

The sound wasn’t great, and the crowd was sparse, but at this point those things don’t bother us too much. We had planned our set months ago, and been working on it continuously, so the performance itself was as much for us as for the crowd, showing us and them what we could do when we put in that much effort. And we played as well as we ever have, I think.

I said that we had been working on the set for months, but actually we substituted three new songs in the last couple of weeks. Being that the festival is in honor of both Dock Boggs and Kate Peters Sturgill, a local balladeer, we wanted to play songs by each of them. Our friend and mentor Ron Short had asked us to join him during his set for three of Dock’s songs, so we had that covered. And we already knew one song by Kate Peters Sturgill, which we had in our own set.

But near the end we decided that wasn’t enough, so we added two more songs by Dock and one by Kate to our set. One of the Dock songs was “Danville Girl”, done more or less the way the Foghorn String Band does it. And Chris had been working on Dock’s version of “Oh Death”, with its very creepy banjo accompaniment, so we decided to add that. The only other song by Kate that we knew was “Climbing Up the Golden Stairs” done by Ginny Hawker and Tracy Schwarz, which uses a fingerpicking guitar accompaniment done in Earl Scruggs’ unique style. Chris can’t yet fingerpick, but he sure is good at figuring out new ways to do things, so he worked out a way to flatpick the guitar that sounds a lot like the Ginny and Tracy version, and we used that.

Our set was early, and the set with Ron Short was late in the afternoon, but we didn’t get to see much of the festival in between. Ron was in the mood to jam, so we found a spot on the porch away from the music and spent a couple of hours practicing our songs for his set, learning a couple of new ones, and stretching out on some standards. Later we had dinner with Ron and his wife, swapping stories and thoughts and generally having a good relaxed time. One of the hardest things for us about deciding to move away from Bristol was that it put us a couple of hours further away from Big Stone Gap and Ron; it’s a longer drive, but we’ve done what we can to persuade him that we’ll be glad to make it if it means spending more time working with him.

Things I Used to Do

Our new CD came back from the duplicator a couple of weeks ago, and we’re pretty pleased with it. After we spent a day in early August recording and mixing it, I waffled for days over whether to leave good enough alone, or to try to improve a few things about it. Finally I scheduled another hour of studio time, which we spent working with Keith to get a better balance between the vocals, plus a few other minor tweaks. That one hour made a big difference in the final product.

We’ve given some away to friends and family, and the response has been good—not astonished, but surprised that we were able to put together something so polished on a shoestring budget. A few have gone to people in the business such as radio DJs and festival bookers; they seem to appreciate it much more than a business card. And we’ve even sold a few to fans, which is especially gratifying.

31st Annual Casey County Apple Festival

We’re not going to the festival today after all, because Chris and I made an exploratory jaunt last night and decided it wasn’t the place for us.

We went early because we wanted to see how they worked the music stages, thinking that we might try to get booked there in the future. For a small town (less than 10,000 people) the event is certainly impressive; people were parking a mile or more from the center of town and walking in, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that attendance was upwards of 50,000. However, I’m not sure why they were all there, except as a way to pass a boring Friday night. The streets were lined with food vendors and people selling flea-market-type merchandise, nothing else. The only other attractions were the three music stages, each attracting a couple of hundred people, and a section where they had an assortment of carnival rides. The place was packed, but everyone we saw was either standing around talking to their friends, or standing in line to get something to eat, or looking through stuff for sale.

Chris’s comment was pretty perceptive: although it was the Casey County Apple Festival, there wasn’t much of Casey County to it; next week it might be the Muhlenberg County Pickle Festival, and all the same vendors will be selling the same stuff a hundred miles west of here. I suppose at one time it might have been a truly local event, but I also know that communities often invent things like the World’s Largest Apple Pie in hope that it will catch fire and turn into an important stop on the carnival circuit, like the one we saw last night.

Odds and ends

Many times on this weblog I’ve spoken highly of Dr. Banjo, also known as Pete Wernick; Chris and I dedicated our new CD to him, as our first and most influential music teacher. Pete is also a very good writer, and you might enjoy reading his account of how he happened to end up playing banjo on the David Letterman program last Wednesday night along with Earl Scruggs and Steve Martin.

(If you have the bandwidth and would like to watch the performance itself, you can see it here.)

When we bought the new house, we inherited a dog along with it, Balto. He seems to be mostly if not completely black Labrador retriever, but the truth is that I know nothing about dogs. During our final week of the move nobody was here at the house to feed him, so we boarded him at a local veterinarian. He did alright there, getting a battery of shots along with a bath and a flea powder treatment. Matthew is especially taken with having a dog for the first time, and has wandered away (without permission) with Balto on several long exploratory journeys.

I never especially cared for having a pet, but I suppose it is a good thing for a country family to have a dog. He barks at any car but ours if it drives up the driveway, which makes for an excellent extended doorbell. He spends a lot of time at night barking at—well, unwelcome critters, I suppose. It’s annoying, but we’re far enough away from the next neighbor that it shouldn’t bother them, so I just assume Balto is doing a country dog’s job.

The most important thing about Balto is that he is so gentle that he doesn’t even bother the chickens that we also inherited with the house. The chickens are completely on their own—we don’t feed them, they don’t lay eggs in any permanent location, and they roost in the trees at night. In fact, it’s funny and fascinating to watch them make their way high into their favorite tree at dusk—or to watch them do anything else. They fend for themselves, and are the fattest and healthiest chickens I’ve seen. We will harvest them at some point, and replace them with chickens that we will train to use a chicken coop (chicken tractor, probably).

Even though the chickens lay their eggs where they want, we find them occasionally. This morning we found a pile of thirteen, and four of them tested good, so they went into the scrambled eggs we had in our breakfast burritos at lunch today. Debbie said the yolks were as orange as she’s ever seen.

The best laid plans

Deep into my second weblog entry of the morning, my Dell computer froze, so solidly that I had no choice but to unplug it. When I plugged it back in, only the power supply fan came on (and that without pressing the power-on button), nothing else. After two hours of working will Dell tech support, they decided that the best route was to replace more or less everything—motherboard, memory, processor, power supply.

Apparently my support level entitles me to an on-site visit from a technician. I tried to decline since I’m fairly comfortable doing surgery on a computer, but finally we decided that installing the processor myself might be troublesome, so sometime next week I’ll be getting a visit.

Even though the whole process is proving to be tedious, the machine is going to get fixed at Dell’s expense, which is a good and timely reminder of why I’ve been buying Dell equipment for years. For the most part it works without trouble, and when there is trouble they are fairly prompt to take responsibility and fix the problem. Twice with laptops I simply removed the disk drive and memory, then handed the machine to an Airborne Express courier who put it in a box for me; three days later I had the repaired machine back. This on-site service is a new one for me, but I’m sure it’ll work out.

Incidentally, both of the people who provided me tech support were Indians, probably doing so from India. It wasn’t so bad; the level of ignorance was roughly what I’d encountered in the old days before outsourcing, with the biggest problem being that their canned diagnostic flowcharts don’t handle uncommon situations well. The language barrier only became a problem when I was trying to get the address on my account changed. I don’t begrudge Dell their decision to outsource their support any more than I get upset when some minimum wage kid messes up my fast food order; if I want better service, I can look around for a firm that has decided to compete by providing better quality support—and pay three times the price that Dell or McDonalds charges me.

Meanwhile, I have to operate at reduced capacity for the next week. Right now I’m using a laptop computer I had just mothballed; since most of the important work I needed to do in the next few days lives on remote computers and only requires that I have internet access, I won’t be any worse off than I have been for the past six weeks. But it may hinder my plans to get this weblog back up to speed, since everything seems to take longer on an unfamiliar computer.