Allelon Farm

I encourage everyone to schedule a visit to Allelon Farm, at least in its weblog incarnation. Allelon Farm is run by Keith and Mary Susan Bradshaw. I first encountered Keith when, after mentioning on this weblog that we were planning to lay 1300 sq. ft. of hardwood flooring, he sent me an email offering to lend me his floor nailer. A floor nailer is a specialized tool that is expensive enough to rent, much less buy, so I couldn’t turn down such a generous offer.

Since then the Bradshaws have visited us, and Keith and his son have spent a day helping us work on our new house; you can read more about it here. And we now live close enough to the Bradshaws that I’ve offered Chris and myself as untrained laborers on any project he has going where he’d be willing to teach us a few things. I’m sure we’ll be getting the better end of the deal, and so I’m grateful that he’s thinking about opportunities to deploy us.

Keith is writing good, clear, straightforward accounts of his efforts to pursue a simpler, multi-generational life. Please stop by and read what he has to say.


Chris and I just returned from the IBMA convention in Nashville. It’s the second year we’ve gone. Last year we attended for the entire seven days (four days of business convention followed by three days of fanfest), but this year we decided that three days would be more than enough. And since Nashville is only a 2 1/2 hour drive away, we were able to drive down Monday morning and back Wednesday night.

We attended three very good workshops. At one of them Tim O’Brien, past president of the IBMA, summed up the convention going experience nicely, saying that when a bluegrass musician asks him whether to attend he always answers “Of course,” but if he is asked what you’ll get out of it he hems and haws and eventually says, “I dunno.” The convention organizers offer one overriding reason why you should attend: making professional contacts. That may happen, and almost certainly does for the A-class performers who attend, but those of us on the bottom rungs are more likely to be frustrated by lack of success if that is the standard. We shared a table one night with a very famous banjo builder and his wife, and between bands we talked about raising chickens and milking goats and how many children we had and life in central Virginia and life in central Kentucky. Nothing about his business, nothing about our music. Did we miss an opportunity? I don’t know, but we certainly felt good not to have imposed.

Another good bucket of cold water came during a workshop from a publicist for a well-known record label; when asked how to get past the gatekeepers in the business, he replied that if you were good enough and working hard, the important people probably already knew about you. Then later I stood in line next to one woman, the mother in a family band, who was griping about how she could never get the folks at a nationally known festival in her area to put her on the schedule even after years of pestering. I wondered if it had ever occurred to her that she might not be the sort of band the promoters were looking for. The next day we saw her and her family perform at a showcase. Verdict: competent, pleasant, but not the sort of group you’d expect to see at a big festival; it seemed like the unseen hand had done its job properly. My honest recommendation would have been to either get comfortable at the level where she was already playing, or start figuring out what was missing from her act that might take her to the next level.

Probably the best part of the convention for us was the continuing process of turning from fans to admirers. We saw a lot of our favorite musicians there, but we saw them in a more human context. Ron Thomason of the Dry Branch Fire Squad came to the Ome Banjos booth to try out banjos, chatted with Chris as they sat there, and tried out Chris’s banjo. Tim O’Brien said funny things at a workshop on intellectual property, and also showed that he had thought long and deeply about many of the issues involved. A group of about twenty close associates of the late John Hartford spent 2 1/2 hours reminiscing about him and sharing the wisdom they’d received from him over the years. I ran into Pete Wernick (well, actually I hovered near him until he had time to talk to me) and we discussed our musical progress over the past year, as well as life in general. From about five feet away we watched both the Foghorn String Band and the Red Stick Ramblers perform, and learned many things about performing that we never would have caught from a normal audience.

We also saw the Hunger Mountain Boys from five feet away. The HMBs are working very much the same part of the spectrum as we are, but business-wise are taking a different (and I suppose more traditional) approach. We have known about them for awhile, and had planned on seeing them play even before Pete Wernick said we really ought to study them. Here’s Pete’s generous and accurate press quote for them:

This duet is ready to take lovers of bluegrass and early country music by storm. Their show is alive with
the spirit of the early performers, and you can feel their love for what they do. Entertaining teamwork;
first class musicianship and singing; good, heartfelt and sometimes funny material, with some excellent
new songs in the old style. What a combination! It makes me wish they had a 15-minute radio show I could
listen to every day

The HMBs have taken what could have been just a gimmick and made it into a niche for themselves, one that they could mine very deeply if they so choose. Their playing was tight, the performance was choreographed down to small details, and through it all they clearly communicated their love for the music (not as common as you might hope). I had sent them a copy of our own CD a month earlier, and when Kip Beacco saw us in the front row he came over and thanked us, and we chatted a bit. We’ll be watching their progress closely; they have a lot to teach us.

Tom Wolfe meets Marshall McLuhan

I’m still trying to get my books out of packing boxes and onto shelves, and so occasionally I happen upon books that I haven’t thought about in quite awhile. Just this afternoon I was shelving some collections of Tom Wolfe articles from the 1960s, and I remembered one he had written about Marshall McLuhan in 1965, just as McLuhan was becoming a hot property. In particular, there is an anecdote in the article that I’ve told many times since reading it, so I wanted to see if after all these years I remembered it properly. I was pretty close:

The phone rings in Gossage’s suite and it’s for McLuhan. It is a man from one of America’s largest packing corporations. They want to fly McLuhan to their home office to deliver a series of three talks, one a day, to their top management group. How much would he charge? McLuhan puts his hand over the receiver and explains the situation to Gossage.

“How much should I charge?”

“What do you usually get for a lecture?” says Gossage.

“Five hundred dollars.”

“Tell him a hundred thousand.”

McLuhan looks appalled.

“Oh, all right,” says Gossage. “Tell him fifty thousand.”

McLuhan hesitates, then turns back to the telephone: “Fifty thousand.”

Now the man on the phone is appalled. That is somewhat outside the fee structure we generally project, Professor McLuhan. They all call him Professor or Doctor. We don’t expect you to prepare any new material especially for us, you understand, and it will only be three talks—

“Oh—well, then,” says McLuhan, “twenty-five thousand.”

Great sigh of relief. Well! That is more witin our potential structure projection, Professor McLuhan, and we look forward to seeing you!

I usually tell that anecdote to people who don’t know how to set a proper price for a product or service they will be offering someone. To me the story has no clear moral, but it does help people to see that the customer’s ability and willingness to pay is an important factor in setting a price.

The Underground History of American Education

Cumberland Books has decided to carry John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education, and I’ve just added a long description to the Cumberland Books website.

While writing the description I got excited about the book all over again, and now I’m trying to figure out where I’ll find the time to re-read it. If you haven’t looked at it yourself, remember that the entire book is available online for free. Highly recommended.


Here’s part of a post I wrote back in June 2002, three and one-half years ago.

Most of what little reading time I have these days has been occupied with doing some background research on a topic on which Draught Horse Press will probably be publishing a book. Christians with a wide range of backgrounds have written on it; I’ve just finished cringing my way through the books that were written from a broad evangelical point of view, and I will probably have to power-wash my brain with a Doug Wilson book on the subject before moving on to the rest of the books.

The topic was courtship, and we never published the book. But did you find the description of my reaction to those books on courtship helpful or informative? How about smug, self-congratulatory, and condescending? Sounds to me like the fellow who wrote that was mostly trying to get a knowing chuckle out of his like-minded readers by going after a fashionable target.

I used to tell myself that this was lively writing, and that anyone who objected to how I was using phrases like “cringing” and “power-wash my brain” just had a prissy aversion to my tone, which may have been sharp, but at least it was sharpness with a purpose. Now I don’t fuzz up the matter by talking about “tone”, but describe such writing more accurately as ridicule. And I try not to write like that anymore.

A little more dominion

Last week a neighbor asked us if we could use some bulldozer work in our field across the road. There were a few things that seemed obvious—some grown-up brush around the barn, some small trees that had grown in the middle of the field—and so we asked his price, and found it reasonable, and told him to go ahead. Well, the job grew like Topsy; he spent three full days and part of a fourth at it, all of the time doing useful work.

Late this afternoon he finished, and so Chris and I walked the field one more time this evening. We must have regained close to three acres of land! Plus the rest is much more useable, with some steep drop-offs smoothed out and lots of trash brush pushed to the edges. It looks huge to us now (especially viewed through eyes that will be guiding a walk-behind tractor over it).

Meanwhile, Chris has been getting some experience driving the walk-behind tractor, using the brush mowing attachment to clean up some of the grown-up spots close to the house. In the beginning it was a challenge for him, being quite different than steering the self-powered lawn mower he was used to, with wheel brakes and gear shifts and clutches and other mysterious things. But after a couple of days he is getting comfortable with it—and the area around the house looks a lot better, too.

Around the homestead

Last week Chris and I finally took the time to finish laying most of the rest of the hardwood flooring upstairs. There’s still one closet to go, as well as the stairs, but most of the subflooring is now covered. Again it was mostly Chris’s job, with me as his helper—cutting boards to length and keeping him supplied as he nailed them in. I think he’ll look at that floor with satisfaction for years to come.

Friday the fellow from Earth Tools delivered our BCS walk-behind tractor and attachments. Originally I was going to buy a trailer and drive up to place to fetch it. Then I decided I wasn’t too excited about buying a trailer just yet. And when it hit me that the cost of gas for a trip up and back to Earth Tools would be fairly close to the cost of shipping it to me, I asked him to just do that. But it turned out that he needed to make a trip this weekend that took him right past our house, so he put it into his truck and delivered it personally. Chris and I weren’t here to take delivery, but Chris has already managed to experiment with it enough to run it out of the little bit of diesel that was in the tank. Today I’ll fetch some more fuel, and then Chris will get on with learning how to drive the thing.

Also while we were gone a neighbor came by with his small bulldozer and did some work for us. So far he has leveled a spot on the hillside by our house and cleaned up around the old barn. Today he will finish up in the pasture across the road, pushing over some small trees and moving a pile of stuff out of the way.

Our next-door neighbor has farmed here for the past fifty years. I was talking to him last week and found out that he planned to have lime put on his land, so we agreed to get our own pasture limed at the same time. He had come by to give us some tickets to the upcoming ham and bean dinner at the Shriner’s Lodge in Casey Creek. He mentioned having heard Chris’s banjo playing one afternoon as we played on the porch, and told us that he wanted to introduce us to a friend of his who would be at the dinner, a fellow named Frank Neat, who builds banjos that Ralph Stanley plays and then sells. Turns out that we had read about Frank in a book on Ralph Stanley, a whole chapter where he tells how his arrangement with Ralph came to be. We’re definitely looking forward to meeting him.

Today I’ll be stopping in at a place that sells wood stoves. As cool as our Pioneer Maid wood cookstove is, there’s no chance we’ll be able to make good use of it for a long time, and so we’d rather have a heating stove in a different location. If this place looks reliable, I’ll ask them how they would recommend we set things up to heat the house.