Mon, 08/21/2006 - 10:52 am

As an ancient and integral part of the culture of Appalachia, I have a feeling songs perpetually echo across the mountains of West Virginia; but from August 2-6 a symphony rang through them from Camp George Washington Carver where over 3,500 voices and thousands more strings lilted over Clifftop during the 17th annual Appalachian String Festival. There West Virginia masters, along with traditional and non-traditional musicians and dancers of all levels from around the world competed with, learned from and entertained one another.

It was as though everyone had gathered to celebrate life as a song and a dance. Even butterflies, bluebirds and canaries joined in, fluttering everywhere. During the event, some of the nation's finest string band musicians and old-time dancers won prizes in four old-time "traditional" contests; fiddle, banjo, string band and flat-foot dance; plus one "non-traditional" string band contest. This category is growing. This year, for the first time, ribbons for best original song and best original tune were awarded and next year it will be re-vamped with a new name, "Neo-Traditional".

"We think this name more accurately reflects the reason the contest was invented in the first place – that is, to celebrate the relevance of old-time music traditions and their connections with new musical voices and styles.", the official site of the Festival states. Welcome to the new Folk Revival.

The food was fabulous, and music and miscellany vendors displayed diverse, unique and eye catching wares. Activities for children and adults alike were abundant, from basket weaving to tie-dye making, yoga and dancing. Somehow, the atmosphere and accommodations were truly, seamlessly maintained and organized in such a way that everyone from infants to the elderly, families to college students had an equal place and was equally comfortable, physically and viably. 

I couldn't get to the Festival until Friday. This meant, I was certain, no parking, no camping without quite a long haul up the road to the stage, the 'normal' (i.e. not port-a-potties, too much of a city girl to get but so into that) bathrooms, the food, above all the coffee (it takes about a pot to wake me up) – all that roots of jazz. Alas for poor me! I thought.

Unbeknownst to me, (and a good thing, or I would have been really crying, "Alas and alack!" , this is exactly what I've been working on with my own music), old-time fiddler, songwriter and tunesmith Mark Simos hosted "New Tunes and Songs in the Old-Time Tradition" that afternoon in the Main Lodge from 11am-12:30 pm.  It wasn't a workshop, wasn't a contest, but uniquely an open sign-up to share original compositions based on old-time tunes with the Clifftop Community.

Now, I didn't know I'd missed that yet so I was at least not utterly distraught. Still, there wasn't a campsite to be found, near or far as I could see. I noted there was a bus that went regularly up and down the mountain and that would have been fine, but I was late! I had to get photos! The Non-Traditional Music competition was in full swing! What was a wayfaring stranger to do?

I thought well, maybe I can squeeze into a space near the stage and explain to the campers that I'm moving the car soon /what I'm up to. I did that, and that worked fine for a time. I saw some of the competition, and then tore myself away with conscience nagging that someone really might need to get out for whatever reason and I should find a better place.

There was a sort of triangle by a tent where a woman was standing by her car so I again, explained myself and asked if I could park there till the competition was over. She was leaving! Instant Karma just got me – I laughingly told her and little did I know how right I was. It was then that I ran the car straight over a block of concrete that I couldn't figure out how to back it off of.

The two of us sat there trying to figure out how to get it off, finally trying to use my Yoga mat as a ramp when Keith Garvin walked by and said, "What on earth are you trying to do?" "Get my car off of this" I said "And you're trying to do that with that?" he asked, pointing to the mat. "Yes" I said. "Is that made for automobiles?" He laughingly replied.

I had to admit that it both wasn't and that I had no other ideas, he helped me get it off, reminded me to sleep with my head up hill, (I was right on the edge of the cliff) and told me a little about himself. I discovered that he was from a town in Eastern Kentucky that I had visited frequently when I lived in Western KY, coincidence followed coincidence and I ended up spending most of the weekend as a lucky fly on the wall of the tent of the Garvins, (Keith and Michael), and Billy Wright of Kentucky Memories along with their friend Jeff Walburn.

We agreed to meet the next morning, (their tents were the ones I'd just parked my car to begin with), and I set off to watch the rest of the contest on the stage I was now within earshot and plain view of from my tent.

I went on to watch the Non-Traditional competition and was delighted by the rich diversity of the music when presented region by region. My ear and eye particularly caught by a band from North Carolina called the "Dixieland Travelers" who played Ragtime based tunes with Fox Nichols on Washtub, Chris Kefer on banjo and guitar and Seve Kruger on fiddle, Jeremiah Campbell on washboard.

Last years winners, the Red Stick Ramblers, played that night, bringing bayou bounce and flashing fiddlesticks into the mix. Then came the finals, where the polished harmonies of Cold Cat Creek, jumped out at me from the rest, (apparently to the judges too, they won first place).

Though they placed fourth, a huge monarch butterfly picked, the Ukrainian String Band to dance to, flying around the head of the lead singer as she sang a hauntingly beautiful combination of Ukrainian and West Virginia sounds.

Afterwards, I set out to find Aaron and Josh from Special Ed and the Short Bus, who I knew were somewhere around...

A rollicking ruckus from a building to my right caught my ear. I stepped in and found myself in the middle of a square dance. People of all ages and cultures, some who were masters of the art and some, who were learning, moved in kaleidoscopic patterns as a band played and a caller taught and gave steps. Just as I was getting ready to leave, I saw Josh.

After a dance with him, followed by a waltz with a gentleman from Lexington, VA, (I felt very Scarlet O'Hara), we set off to find Aaron and soaked in the sounds that poured from tents of musicians from Louisiana, Canada, Virginia, North Carolina – everywhere you can think of really, each with their own unique energy and voice.

"People tend to camp by region here" Aaron said. "That's funny," I replied, "My music comes more from my time in Kentucky than anywhere else and I didn't know that but just ran my car straight into Eastern Kentucky and Nashville."  I turned in early as someone sang "Jack of Diamonds" nearby and from the window of my tent on the edge of one of Clifftops' steep hills I gazed at a sea of twinkling diamonds in the sky…

It seemed I woke up in a place where all time was keeping time and none was actually kept. The hours flew by like the bluebirds. Around 9 are (I think) I went to talk and play with my new found concrete helpers. I kept trying to wake up, never feeling like I completely did, though I drank coffee upon coffee upon coffee. Eventually, I asked what time it was, and was told, after some effort (hardly 100 out of those 3,500 people there had a watch), it was 3. "When did it get to be 3?" We all asked.

Time for me to go watch the Traditional Music Contest, where the Georgia Jug Huggers and other fantastic bands played, again, each reflecting unique regional differences underneath a unified theme, (kind of like America itself). That night, finalists Whoopin' Holler String Band won first place but I thought the encore performances of Downward Dogs, Nanny Goat Vibrato and Orpheus Supertones of Avondale, Pa were equally engaging.

Then I went back to playing, this time listening to an incredible dulcimer player from Virginia and joining a group in a tent with Mr. Walburn and Kentucky Memories that also included everyone from yours truly to a retired Circuit Court Judge from Virginia. Again, I fell asleep looking at a window of stars and listening to those who played into the morning light.

My new friends remarked that it would be nice if life were like that all the time and I agreed. In retrospect, I think perhaps it is, we just don't always notice because we're too busy watching the time rather than keeping it.

I kept a journal while at the festival and wrote, after the 2nd day, "Here you see firsthand that life is a dance. We are a song. Within individual groups, like cultures, societies, we bear marks and draw our individuality from, our steps so to speak. Some choose to go as far as they can publicly, some privately, but within yourself, you can't help but do it. Some people stay in one place. Some people travel and take it wherever they go, sometimes adapting and immersing themselves to and in different traditions too. But wherever they go, there they are.

"It's not so different now than it was before, when the songs and traditions we now know as old-time were formed. A sense of timelessness is therefore heard in the music, traditional and non-traditional. A sense of timelessness pervaded our environment and the transitions could be seen right there, in the generations present. Music is a living, breathing thing, growing as it flies, sings, skips and echoes across the mountains."


Jeff Walburn, a singer/songwriter living in Greenup, Kentucky, who records on Jeff records on Hopalong Recordings Label, BMI and Channelcat Productions. Inc. didn't win at Clifftop but has some other fish to fry. He'll be playing Sept. 20, at BB Kings' Nashville for Outlaw Americana Nite along with Michael O'Neill, Jen Cass and Douglas and Talisha Williams.

A member of the Americana Music Association, he's had songs recorded by Carla Van Hoose, Nancy Apple, (formerly ZZ`Tops' Road Manager) and Rob McNurlin. His new CD features with Grammy winning mandolin player Don Rigsby. And these are just a handful from Walburns' bucket of distinctions.

I asked him what inspired his songwriting and he said something like, "Well, I try to tell real stories; stories of relatives, murders, current events; even stories I make up are real in a way…when you write, when you use your imagination, you can be anything. You can be a sailor, a bayou hoodoo man…" And his new CD, Coast to Coaster, (named in part, he says, because of people's inclination to turn CDs' into coasters) reflects what he describes well.

Like most old-time or new old-time musicians I've met, he starts with, "It's in my blood." when asked how he started playing. His grandmother wrote songs in the early days of recording, sending them off to labels and others recorded them. "She said", Jeff told me, "and I'm inclined to believe her, that she wrote, "I Could Have Danced All Night". There's a big trunk in the family full of her records, I'd love to go through it one day."

Some of his stories come from his family background. His great-uncle was a prize-fighter who worked in the quarries. Other family members were sharecroppers. "At night", he said, "They'd go down to the locks to fish. They'd pass around water, whiskey and a guitar." A family fiddle hung on the wall of his childhood home no one was allowed to touch because it bore the muddy handprint of one of these relatives who fell as he died leaving his mark there. "I used to try to reach it", Jeff laughed.

Like many teenage boys, he picked up a guitar but not only started singing and playing but writing. "While his friends played rock I played Americana. They gave me a little heat about it but I kept right on anyway." He was 'Country When Country Wasn't Cool'. Stop at the song title when thinking of Barbara Mandrell as relates to his music. Think more 1% each Dylan, Cash, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger with the remaining 95% Jeff Walburn.

A remarkable lyricist, he is also a talented guitar and harmonica player. His music reflects a variety of sounds, from Cajun to the hills he lives in. In addition to musical influences like the above mentioned artists, some ragtime and jazz seems to creep in every now and then as well in his groove and chord progressions. When I asked him how that was so he said, "Well, it's a river thing. A lot comes up and down the Ohio."

Seems to me, above all, it's a Jeff Walburn thing. And that is something. Keep an eye on him, I have a feeling he's going to keep on going places and cross more than a few rivers as he goes.


Michael Garvin from a musical family and plays a variety of stringed instruments, (I imagine most of them, and his distinctions include placing in the National Merle Travis Thumb picking Guitar Contest in 2000, at age 17). He has chosen the fiddle as his primary imagination extension of the moment. For Michael, this means he's learned over 200 old time songs, each minutely different in style, by ear in less than 4 years.

michaeHe's just launched a group called Kentucky Memories with his father, jaw-harp and bass guitar player Keith Garvin and mandolin virtuoso Billy Wright, (who also plays a variety of string instruments). They'll be playing with Jeff Walburn at B.B. Kings' on the 20th.

However, the main focus of the group is Michaels' goal of accurately representing Old-Time fiddle styles from Eastern Kentucky, honoring greats like Buddy Thomas, George Hawkins, Bob Prater, Jimmy Wheeler, J.P. Fraley, Ed Haley, and Kenny Baker.

When I asked him why old-time he said, "Well, I could be playing just about anything, rock, metal, bluegrass, but it seems very important to me to keep these old songs alive. The people who kept them before my generation weren't recorded until they were so old, it was a loss. I'll be recorded from the start." And he is too. Via a 2004 grant from the Kentucky Arts Council he is apprenticed to master fiddler Roger Cooper. He is featured on Coopers' Rounder CD and the two have played at various events sponsored by the Council.

billKeiths' father, Bert Garvin, met and ultimately played with Bill Monroe through his brother, who kept his hunting dogs. The two often hunted and played music together and, when he was around Michaels' age he went to Nashville, along with John and another brother, Erin and played with him there. "Monroe told Bert that if he wanted to stay, he'd be the best banjo player there", Keith said, and "That he'd see to it that he was. But He had a railroad job and a family and decided to stay in Eastern Kentucky."  Bert also played with Blind Ed Haley and recorded with the Fraleys on Rounder Records "Kentucky Old-Time Banjo" a few years ago.

With that background, it's no surprise that Keith and Michael are the remarkable musicians you'll find them to be when you listen to Kentucky Memories. Add Jeff Walburn and something even more remarkable seems to happen.

Tue, 11/21/2006 - 12:27 am

This is the beginning. You are about to read Part I of a 3 part series about a quest for true Americana, true outlaws, true America. In case you haven't noticed, the somewhat over genricized music industry is breeding a dozen cowpokes per corral. And America is it recognizable to you?

So yours truly, a determined, attractive (yes a little vain but I'm cute, be nice), slightly crazy lone journalist, crazes herself further and displays questionable judgment repeatedly as she travels from Rt. 66 to the Country Music Hwy. I will tell you tales of battling hurricanes, family feuds, rock stars, would be rock stars, their managers and even the occasional producer, sound-guy or bartender. I even heard some music while I was at it.

So, stay tuned for Part II, Asbury Park and Part II, a tiny Appalachian town I've lovingly dubbed, "Flatpick Kentucky", (names' not too far off). But here is #1. It somehow, through a long string of coincidence and karma, ended with this interview.

From Public Outlaw #1, Michael O'Neill, I learn about his new CD, his extensive work with Bob Weir and other legends, and, (watch out, this is even more interesting), something about what an outlaw is made of.  Be your hero's cowboys, philosophers, musicians or medicine men, you'll see something of each in him. 

Allow me to introduce you, in case you don't know him yet. If you don't, my guess is you're either too young to hear him in the early days and/or when he became a real outlaw, (much in the press, no need to go into it here), and then took some time to resurrect, as all good heroes do.  Not only is he back, with 2 new CDs and well-deserved cult status but he's as real as the deal gets if you're looking for truth in genre.

In his music, Rt. 66 and the Country Music Hwy. converge in a sound that reflects both deep-dug roots and rock that rolls. Italetellersd you a little of Cash and other tall, (or perhaps not so tall), taletellers.  And he gives it to you with an attitude. I'd say he's best described as one man with elements of each of the Highwaymen.

He'll tell you more about himself than I can…

Liz: I have to warn you, I've had no sleep and I tend to go on tangents.

O'Neill: Well that can be a good thing with writing…

I see we're coming from the same place, laugh in agreement but warn him again.  He asks me about what else I'm writing.

"A quest for Outlaws and you're the Fisher King" I say jokingly, but not entirely.

I mention NJ, where I saw a Seeger Sessions/E-Street Band member and Appalachia, where I'd been researching/learning from his most recent opening band, Jeff Walburn with Kentucky Memories.

"It's a sort of like, here are the Seeger Sessions, here's why Seeger and old-time music were important to Springsteen and why it's all important, both Jersey Sound and Appalachia, as part of American music."

O'Neill: I feel I fit in with all of that. Both types of music really influenced me. I was exposed to and love Springsteen and Seeger. Of course I love the Seeger Sessions. I had an older brother bringing Dylan, Seeger, Baez, the whole folk rock era of music home. It was my Bible, the grammar school books that influenced my songwriting. 

Liz: That came from Appalachian music to a large extent, but the music itself?

O'Neill: Appalachian music is pure, grassroots music. I'm a true Americana songwriter, so I bring it into my melting pot of styles. When perform or tour in Appalachia John Perry, the fiddler who also plays with Goose Creek plays with me. It's an easy blend because musicians in that area play the same music so much of the music mine is based on came from. Jeff (Walburn), anyone like him, can walk in cold and take any direction they want to go and it sounds great.

Liz: How, looking back and looking at yourself now, do you feel about yourself as an artist?

O'Neill: I'm comfortable with who I am as an artist. When people look at me, my work, I think that is going to be most important thing because people really connect when you're honest about who you are. No matter how bad you fuck everything else up, consciously make that choice that you're going to be true.

It takes a real leap off a cliff to do it. But look at Weir, Springsteen, they made that choice. And when they made that choice nothing else really mattered. They were totally respected for it. It's ok to be a struggling artist, to be tortured but the tortured artist is the artist that doesn't lay claim that he is an artist. Those are the people who always knew they were,  just didn't know how to go about it. The doubters.

I've doubted. I've doubted everything in the world surrounding me; all the negative, all the stand up sort of things too. I realized, through exercise of doing and putting out my real self… I had an epiphany really. You see, we are really just mirrors for each other. So ... so when someone you're with is sad, or happy, its' not just them but you.  It changes when you're off by yourself.

Liz: That's what a shaman I interviewed said. Then the self is mirror of self. So how did you become yourself, the outlaw Mike O'Neill? Did something suddenly happen, right place at right time, a lot of work, all of the above?

O'Neill: Well, being in the Pacific Northwest and starting out musically there I had to really want it, first off. But I did, I wanted and needed to express myself musically. Song gave voice to whatever was moving me. Guess I ended up shouting loud enough so I got attention.

I did a college tour in '79. At the end of it I was picked up by large concert booking company who happened to have U2, they were just starting. By the end of '80, I'd been seen by the right people. When I ended the tour in LA I first signed on major record deal. I was 24. I was working with Kenny from Little Feat, John Shanks, producer of Sheryl Crow and Stevie Nicks; I thought it was the picture of rest of life. I did the train ride movie with the Dead across Canada…

Liz: So, what landed you there, with the Dead?

O'Neill: Well, Kenny was introduced to Bob Weir. Andy Leonard, president of Grateful Dead Records. Kenny and I had a gig every Tuesday night at a place called the Viper Room. All sorts of people would show up to, Rickie Lee Jones, whoever was in town that night would come out. They'd play with us and solo, lots of good friends of Bobs'.

Anyway, Andy, also managing Bob at the time, approached us and we put a band together. I remember the first time I saw and met the Grateful Dead, in Oakland.

Liz: What was that like?

O'Neill: Well…don't remember much…

We laughed as I said, "Small by comparison but that's part of my problem with the first time I went to the Stone Pony."

O'Neill: So, I ended up in Cherokee Recording Studios doing the America record with Bobby & the Midnights. Bobby was Eddie Cochran's' nephew. We had Skunk Baxter from the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan. Yes, I thought that was going to be the rest of my life. Little did I know, there was more to it, more to come…

Right then, at a point when I was watching the band record while sitting in the control room, I notice this guy walking around talking to everybody. He comes in and talks to me and I tell him that I'd been asked by Dave Edmonds, (who was producing a new record for the Everly Brothers at the time) to submit a song. I'd written it but I wanted to run it by him if I could, it just wasn't done. He said sure, come on over. So I ended up hanging out with him for a few days.

I didn't realize it until I got to his house, but I soon discovered I was writing with Seve Cropper, the guy who'd written "Knock on Wood", "Midnight Hour", stuff for the Blues Brothers, and more. Needless to say, the song turned out awesome. We've stayed close friends for 35 years, continued to write together. 

Liz: So you too walk in a bizarre coincidence-vector.

O'Neill: Yes, yes I do.

Liz: What became of you & Weir?

O'Neill: Bobby & the Midnights ended when the Dead picked back up and went real hard again for another 10 years until the death of Garcia in '95. Through that period I continued to tour with Weir. I'd open his show with Kenny and also Sam Clayton from Little Feat, with John Shanks on Guitar and Bony James on keyboard and sax. We'd all mix together and play with Weirs' band too.  A song he and I wrote together in the Hotel Shangri-la in Santa Monica was released on my '99 album.

Liz: And…

O'Neill: I continued band with a few changes. Grabney went back with Little Feat, Robin Lamble from Spencer Davis' band, (writer of "Gimme Some Lovin'"), the drummer from Poco came…

Liz: Man, (I've at this point promised him I'll try to control myself from 'cool' my perpetual interjection when ½ sleepless), how do you manage such an impressive, seemingly perpetual line-up?

O'Neill: Well, I used to say,  "Flies are drawn to good shit have and this is some good shit." 

Liz: (Again laughing and debating the advisability of printing that) …O.K. you've written fantastic songs, both alone and with others. Do you like doing one better than the other? I mean, do you always choose who you collaborate with or are you sometimes teamed up with someone? I'd think that could be chaotic.

O'Neill: I'm both both put with and asked or choose to collaborate on projects. The deal is, if I write with somebody and it's really not the way I would go with the song, I let them go their way. I support their way of creating even if it's something I would never have created. It's cool simply because it's a song created. Because it came from wherever it came from. I honor that muse more than walk away from or just leave it. It's more exciting that way. 

Liz: So, when does the outlaw step in?

O'Neill laughingly asked hadn't I heard? I said no, and he put it this way, (I suggest ignore, as I did, what you may have heard previously and go with this),

O'Neill: Well, as the band changed and morphed I got married, had 3 daughters, towards the end of 80s into 90s my marriage was falling apart, I had personal stuff to go through. Decided in '91 I needed to retreat from the music business to gain perspective and work on my family. I did well on perspective part…

I moved out of LA to my home in the Pacific Northwest in '91/'92 but couldn't move away from music. I started an independent record label in '93 because, no matter what was going on, I still had to play. Songs were still coming out of me during that period. Called it 'Sleeping Trout Music".

Liz: Why "Sleeping Trout"?

O'Neill: Well, we know that trout do not sleep but I'm a sleeping trout because I'm on the flip side. I didn't entirely make it up. There's a theory called long tale in the industry. The way the business is run, it's a very niche marketing boutique biz. I can touch so many more people that way because in that type of market, people look for you.

In main-strain media, which is short end of tale, you have a peak, a highest point. In a small window you have to sell hundreds of thousands in the smallest window. Longtale is the biggest window, it goes on for life.

Liz: So, some can ride the long tale. 

And again with the laughing as I said, "I did not say that", and "I warned you, no sleep and the mouth has a mind of it's own." And yes, again, "I did not say that."

We somehow got back on track…

O'Neill: In the mid-90s, Evan Rubecker, who owned cake records approached me to record a record called "From the Beginning".  Originally I went to him and said, "I don't know if I can do another record under my name because I don't know who I am today." So I gave myself the name Fromme Younger (From-me-Younger).

Liz: Ah, and another outlaw named Younger.

O'Neill: (laughing again, sonorously as usual) Yes. Finished record, Fromme the Beginning. But then my attorney caught wind of it and said, "This is you" and advised me to release it as me. Man, I had written up whole story about Fromme Younger, had press releases ready go – oh well. Springsteen and Garth Brooks did it, but guess I'll have to wait. The liner notes on beginning of the album thank younger though.

Liz: When you look back at your songs from when you were 24, until now, how do they strike you?

O'Neill: That's an interesting question. I look at songs that still stand up today I wrote 20 years ago, I'll still pull some of them out and play them in a live show. I have more years and knowledge now, more emotion goes into song, but the song itself, the idea stands up really well from way back. I've had the same subject matter from beginning, a common thread since 24.

Liz: What kept you going through that time when things were so bleak? Many people wouldn't have emerged from that sort of 'long dark night of the soul' or whatever.

O'Neill: Really, love of the muse and connecting to her throughout life. Music is who I am no matter what all goes on this world. I'm here for a purpose and I know what I'm here to do.

Liz: How do you keep from being distracted when things get overwhelming, like they seem to have at one point? 

O'Neill: I'm totally distracted all the time. I take notes on it. Then when I sit down to write or record or make new body of work, I go to the notes to re-create the feeling.

Liz: So what now?

O'Neill: Well, the new record I released is produced by Joe Cerrelli, who produced U2 and Fionna Apple among others. It came out in July and made it to top 40 on Radio Americana, America Roots Music Chart reports it at 18, it's even  #60 on New Music Weekly. Crosses different genres…

Liz: Outlaws do cross…

O'Neill: Yea, there's the Outlaw.  I got a radio call from a guy in Florida who said, "You've broken all the rules. Until now no one has been played on all these different charts."

Liz: What are you going to do next?

O'Neill: Well, I leave tomorrow for San Antonio and Austin, it's a whole 'nother world, a country separate to itself when you go to Texas. I'm committed…

Liz: Not yet…

O'Neill: To do another record…I think I'll do it in Austin.

Liz: What do you see yourself doing in the next 5 years?

O'Neill: It's funny you say that because 5 years ago I said I'd have 5 records in 5 years on own label, looks like 5 in 7 now but I'm putting out enough body of work. I've already seen the momentum. I'm already in flow, know I'm doing right thing. So I'm

 going to be able to touch a lot of people. 

It's Evolutional. Revoloutional.

As is Mr. O'Neill. Check out his cd's, old and especially new. My quest for true Outlaw Americana ended here, with a Younger no less. How did I get here? We must travel back in time for that, to two hurricanes, two fiddlers, oh the 'dreadful wind and rain'. To Be Continued…

Fri, 08/17/2007 - 1:04 am

Mike Seeger has helped bring the music of the rural South to popular attention. He did this as a folk musician in the 60s, bringing traditional musicians not yet well known to the forefront of popular attention and continues to do so through performances and archive work today.  It is in part through his influence on his own generation that we have the folk-based songs of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead.

Though he has played an interesting role in the lives of the now famous in some instances, Mr. Seeger said in an interview I had the pleasure of undertaking about a year ago that he feels that all musicians, those who play for their own enjoyment and with their friends, those of younger generations as well as his own, have equally helped shape the what he refers to as the "True Vine" of American music.

The musical branches of the Vine tumble and wind from Virginia, across Appalachia onward through the territories of American music. Each culture in our country has helped to water it, so that its branches have become blues, bluegrass, country, rock, rap and all American genres.  In it, we see generational, cultural unity.   By participating in it, as listeners or as musicians, we can maintain the unity in our own generation, laying groundwork for generations to come, as Mr. Seeger did and continues to do.

Traditional music has steadily come back in style, in part spurred by the death of Jerry Garcia, who towards the end of his life was returning to the traditional music he learned early in life and performed with the group "Old and In the Way". Festivals like the recently held Appalachian String Festival, (see photo gallery), Galax and others are incorporating neo-traditional, new music and outlaw categories and are drawing larger and more diverse audiences than ever before. One particularly good example is Fraley Fest, (see Photo Gallery). Once a family reunion, this gathering has grown to the point that a documentary is being made about it this fall by a Kentucky PBS station.

Bob Dylan, another underlying force of generational unity, said in his Chronicles of meeting Seeger: "He was extraordinary, gave me an eerie feeling. Mike was unprecedented. He was a duke, a knight errant. As for being a folk musician, he was the supreme archetype. He could push a stake through Dracula's black heart…It's not as if he just played everything well, he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them. It dawned on me that I might have to change my inner thought patterns…the thought occurred to me that maybe I'd have to write my own songs, ones that Mike didn't know. That was a startling thought."

Though he does have a strikingly sonorous voice, Mr. Seeger didn't strike me as eerie over the phone. In fact, he was the opposite, down to earth, funny. It is a little eerie, however, that almost as if in response to the above he said in our interview: "All music doesn't have to be something. These days, people seem to think you either make up your own music or you're not anything. That's not the important thing. You can do that, as Mr. Dylan has shown, make up things on your own and show your perception of past, but also what the possibilities are. I think there's real value in that. I think, at the same time, it's very important to keep old songs alive."

Why is keeping the old songs alive so important? Well, there are many answers to that, too many to explore in one feature. One reason is in the music of the True Vine we have a first-hand account of people who lost the battle of potential versus opportunity: railroad workers, coal miners, members of the underground railroad, those blown about in the Dust Bowl, migrant workers, and countless other minorities and those who fought for their rights throughout American history. It is these people who often have the most to say; but for their songs their voices would be silent.

Of it Mr. Seeger said: "It's very like classical music in a way, but it's the classical music of the people. That's why they called it folk music. There was classical music and there was folk music.  All music has, since then, built on a combination of both. "I think of the True Vine as the long vine of human culture, music in this case.  It was here before 1607 amongst Native Americans.  Africans and Europeans brought their strains..."

The music of the folks has inspired countless recording artists. Many of the songs recorded by both Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead were either traditional or tradition-based songs.  Before them, Pete Seeger along with band-mates Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, along with countless others did the same, each in their own unique way. Many today follow in their footsteps.

This music encompasses the entire range of human experience and emotion. The songs that speak of hardship seem to be the ones most often re-recorded by popular musicians during turbulent times. Perhaps this is because they are so straightforward about past struggles they unveil present injustices equally well. They speak the timeless truth of the experience of multitudes.

However, looking back, life has always been this way. Moving forward from 1607 through the history of all American people, decade by decade, one finds new struggles as injustice dons different masks: economic depression, the ravages of the dust bowl, the struggles for equal rights, war after war after war after war after war. In the face of each sorrow, traditional or tradition-based songs rise up and speak loudly against it.

The music of the True Vine is the heart of the struggle. New songs have grown from it, others have been adapted, the words changing as each artist reflects his or her own time in its mirror. The men and women who have written, recorded and popularized these songs have often been jailed, killed or otherwise had their lives destroyed for their efforts. It is in this light that I see Mike's efforts to "keep these old songs alive" and the importance he places upon doing that.

For example, during the heated struggles for workers' rights in the early 1900s, a singer, songwriter and activist named Joe Hill was jailed, tried and given a death sentence. His songs were part of the reason why. His music, traditional and tradition-based, became a sort of hymnal for those who fought against the extreme conditions of the Industrial Revolution. This led, ultimately, to the reforms that were the foundation of today's labor laws. Some of us may know him through the beautiful song Joan Baez wrote about him in the 60s. Most of us have, probably unknowingly, heard his story in the song "Long Black Veil," recorded by Johnny Cash, The Chieftains and others.

Another example of the force of these songs is found in the life and music of Pete Seeger. He wrote and co-wrote immortal classics like "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "We Shall Overcome". We all know that these and other folk songs were sung as riots raged in the '60s, but did you know it happened in the '40s, too? At that time at a music festival in upstate New York, Pete Seeger and many others were attacked in full sight of police. Worse still, the police appear to have assisted the attackers.  Why? This was because their music strongly supported integration and workers' rights, among other things.   Poor people, African-Americans and unions, oh my!

Pete would not be defeated, he 'overcame', (just like his song) and kept on being an "unsettler" in the landscape of American music. In the '50s, he was blacklisted by McCarthy, which drove him and much of the newly emerging pop-folk genre underground. When called before the Committee, he refused to speak against others but also refused to take the 5th Amendment, which many artists cited in attempts to avoid testifying about others when faced with the same situation. (They failed. McCarthy imprisoned many and/or had their careers destroyed.)

An unabashed Pete said he was happy to talk about his music, which was, he thought, why he'd been called before them in the first place. As a frustrated and blustering Committee repeatedly talked themselves in circles trying to get something out of him, he asked if they'd heard the music. He then offered to sing instead of speak, humorously remarking that he wasn't sure how well he'd do without his banjo, but he'd try. The Committee declined and threatened him with 10 years prison time.

The music of the True Vine has also "disrupted" people's lives in happier ways. An example of this is found in the life and music of Elizabeth Cotten, who worked for the Seeger family. Peggy Seeger, sister of Mike and Pete as well as a beloved folk singer and prolific songwriter, was active in the folk revival in England. Among other songs, she brought Freight Train there, which she had learned from Elizabeth.

Elizabeth won a Grammy in the '80s for her "Live" album. She was a talented songwriter and had a guitar picking style that influenced the way the instrument is played in popular music today. Though she was obviously a quite remarkable musician, the music-laden Seegers didn't know it for some time. Mike said:

"She worked for our family for about five years before anyone knew she played an instrument. One day my sister found her playing the family guitar. Later, Peggy sang Freight Train, which at the time I don't think any of us even knew she'd written, when living in England. It was picked up by English folk singers who made Pop recordings of it. Then Americans made Pop recordings from there. There have been recordings of tradition-based songs ever since. All have been huge hits."

So, Freight Train was a sort of musical "shot heard 'round the world". Elizabeth Cotten, contrary to what one might imagine, did not become rich and famous although her song skyrocketed instantly to #5 on British Pop Charts and was recorded by countless other artists.  I asked what happened and Mike said that after his brother helped her sue a publishing company she got 1/3. "After that", he said, "sometimes they paid her and sometimes they didn't." "Was she angry with this?" I asked. "Well, outside of the being angry about the money other people had made with their top 10 covers of her song?"

"I don't know that she necessarily wanted that," Mike said. "She was a remarkably graceful person. She didn't have ill will and she went on being Elizabeth Cotten. She grew to love to perform for people and that's what she did until she passed."

Often the heroes of the songs become archetypes, like John Henry or Stagger Lee Shelton, the first musician on record as selling his soul to the Devil. Some of the musicians who popularized the music have also become almost archetypal.  The lyrics of these songs provide a first-hand history of every day people. It is, in many instances, the only record of them we have.  In them, we have a sort soundtrack of American life over centuries.

Is this because of the singers or the songs? While the answer is both, (they are as entwined as the branches of the vine), I think the scales tip slightly more heavily on the side of the songs.  They are re-interpreted, generation after generation, as they have always been.

The Vine of American music grew slowly at first. Traditions were passed down from person to person. Music and musicians were relatively isolated, unique to each region. This slowly shifted as people arrived here from a wider range of countries, settled more of the country.

Because Virginia was the site of the first colony, traditions began there strongly influenced the way American music evolved as people migrated to and through Appalachia to the West. Traditions were also carried North, where we find them still alive in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, a deserted area where many who chose not to fight in the Revolutionary War sought and found refuge. The Gold Rush, the railroads, the Underground Railroad, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Industrial Revolution, among other events, also helped shape the sound.

The work of new and established artists have also contributed to bringing the immense relevance of this music back to popular attention. Bruce Springsteen's Pete Seeger tribute album. Cyndi Lauper and Bono recently incorporated traditional music into their work more and more. Neil Young wrote a new set of songs for his recent protest album. Artists in younger generations are doing the same. We are having another folk revival.

Why right now? It may seem to us that these people and songs speak to us because we feel we live in a uniquely uncertain time. Maybe right now we thirst for truth yet find it too often veiled, so hear the eternal truth of the "True Vine" more clearly.

But let us return to Mr. Seeger. Most of you probably know who he is, or have heard of him, but perhaps wonder why he isn't super-famous, like Bob Dylan or Jerry Garcia? Or his brother Pete?

Well, he reminds me a little of the Wizard of Oz, though, unlike the Wizard, he doesn't pretend to be something he is not. He is, in fact, one of the most genuine people I've ever spoken with. However, a little like the reclusive figure in the story, he is ensconced in the emerald green of the Shenandoah Valley, the foothills of Appalachia, where the music he loves has most flourished.   From there and other locations, he has been, for some time, a sort of "'man behind the curtain"; a somewhat unseen, yet fundamental force in American music.

As the Wizard didn't set out to change Oz, Mike didn't set out to change music, or to be a celebrity. During my conversation with him, I perceived that he has just always done what comes naturally to him. His parents, brother Pete and sister Peggy were musicians and archivists as well. He was born with music in his blood and surrounded from an early age by amazing artists like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie; so he plays.

What did Mike Seeger, hope to find at the end of his yellow- brick road?  Fame? Fortune? No. Like the Tin Man, he did it for love.  "I didn't start out wanting to make a living doing it," he said with graceful candor. "It just happened that it was possible to do it. We try to, in being musicians on our own, show that it's accessible from day to day. To show that we have a lot to say, that old songs have a lot to say."

His unique style and approach were somewhat revolutionary during the 60s, an important and influential era of American music. That's not the type of thing many musicians achieve. But he didn't try to do so. He just did all that by being himself.   He brought the old time and folk traditions he grew up with to the stage and others followed his example.

Was his life juggled like dice because of his music? I don't think so, but he fits the term he gives the first people to arrive in America, an "unsettler", someone who stirs the melting pot to over-boiling, in a sense.  Perhaps he shook things up the most with The New Lost City Ramblers. Though they played traditional Southern music, they weren't necessarily doing something new simply by doing that; urban musicians had been playing folk songs for quite some time.

The revolutionary thing about The New Lost City Ramblers was they played the music the way it was played in the rural South, whereas others before them gave it an urban sheen, smoothed it over. The Ramblers also toured with or otherwise promoted rural virtuosos like Maybelle Carter, the Stanley Brothers and the Monroe Brothers. The musicians of the urban folk-revival began to imitate them.   The ever-humble Mike said of the Ramblers:"We didn't become influential, if we were, until the '60s. A lot of musicians listened to our playing at that time who were folk urban, most notably Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia. We influenced them and others, not as well known, who started listening to and playing more and more traditional music. Bob Dylan continues. Jerry Garcia was going back that way."

He doesn't keep his talent on an inaccessible pedestal as many who have reached his level of accomplishment do. He shares it by playing it every day with musicians from his own and younger generations, showing us that it can be part of our daily lives as it is of his. Because of this, he has helped shape American music.

Though described by 'Rolling Stone Magazine' as "An American artist standing forth ... himself branch and root of the entwined true vine…" he said of himself in our talk: "These days you tend to think of personalities as being the most important thing. When I started with music I thought of that secondarily. Because I'm playing the music, the music I'm choosing says something about me, in sounds and with the types of songs I choose. But I've always felt I'm part of a long process, which is why I call it music from the true vine. Mine is just a part of it."

So, 'Rolling Stone' seems to focus on Mike Seeger the celebrity and Mike Seeger on himself as a part of a long standing tradition of the 'True Vine'. He strikes me as not only is he part of the vine, but its gardener. He is not only a performer but has helped ensure the preservation of the music he performs by recording and archiving traditional American music for both the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian; music that otherwise may have been lost or forgotten.

Because of the impact he has had, in part through showing us that all musicians, of all levels and all generations, have something equally valuable to say, he has helped us to follow the winding path of the True Vine for a very long time. At the end of it, we are fortunate to still find a man, not a wizard. A man who is similar yet different from the rest of us because he most reflects the best parts of us: sincerity, humility, revolutionary boldness, and a rare, all-encompassing patriotism that embraces all Americans as equal.  He tells it, or rather, plays it, like it is.

It is also the best of us that is reflected in his music. It is that to which we find him keeping time at the end of the vine. If we but find him and listen, we hear that the most valuable things we have are the unchanging truths we have had all along.

It is certainly a great honor for a musician to receive a Grammy Award, but it seems to me that it is Mike Seeger who has given the musicians and audiences of America the most valuable award of all. The ability to hear our own voices clearly resounding, echoing over centuries and some certainty that generations to follow will continue to do so. He gives us the heart, mind and courageous spirit of America that he so aptly calls the music of the True Vine.

So, if I ever become a rock star or whatever kind of music star, I don't think I want a Grammy Award. I want a Mike Seeger Award.

Sat, 08/18/2007 - 9:08 pm

My Grandmother, Edith Bissette, grew up in a musical family in rural Virginia and North Carolina in the 30s and 40s as the changes Mike Seeger describes were taking place. She expands on what Mike describes above as she tells us not only what the advent of radio was like in the rural South, but what life and music were like as well.

She and her brothers played the traditional music of the rural South. Her brothers played on the radio when radio was new. By the 60s, musicians like them, every day people playing in their homes and with friends would, in part through the efforts of Mike Seeger, began to influence the way all genres of American music sound today.  We hear echoes of the music they played, the traditional music of the Southeast in today's most popular songs.

The advent and growth of recording, radio and the Internet, new frontiers, have always shaped, and continue to shape music as well. Mr. Seeger has recorded traditional American music for decades. His parents were among the first people to do so. He described the impact of technology on American music to me in our talk:  

"The whole way that we deal with music now is very different than prior to 1925, when we started recoding in earnest. The first recording was in 1922. It took off in 1925, shortly after electricity made it possible to record a guitar. Before you couldn't, it was too quiet, too subtle.

"The whole idea of being able to hear somebody you never heard face to face was an amazing change. It sped up the development of American music. So did increasing urbanization, which was happening at the same time, the result of industrialization, which had also sped things up. It was a changing process.

"At first, radio was very much regional or local. The advent of the playing of recordings gradually changed that. This was during the 30's and into the 40's or so. At that time it began to expand, became less locally oriented.  And it grew from there.

"Now the Internet is gradually broadening the whole thing, making it much more open to difference. Radio and recording changed the process of music into one that was commercial. In a way, the Internet is doing that a little by giving people who aren't necessarily pro's access to tools formerly only available to professionals. This makes the possibility of becoming a professional more or at least a professional as seen by Mr. Google, more available."

When I spoke with my Grandmother, to get the perspective of a performer growing up in a different time under different circumstances than Mr. Seeger, but who also witnessed and participated in the evoloution of traditional music, she said this:

"When they first came on scene it was in 30s during the Depression, 1929 or 31 or something", my Grandmother said, "my neighbors were the only people in the area who could afford one and everyone from miles around would go to their house every Saturday night to listen to it. Saturday night was only time you could get anything but news on it, and you usually got more static than anything else.

"Back then, radio was on only a short time in the morning and then in the evening. Maybe news came on at 12. There was only one station, it was local, then regional, eventually national. As technology progressed, people became more aware of what could be done with it. At first radio was just entertainment, then advertising found a place on it, now it's used for everything.

"A lot more people played music back then. My mother ordered an organ from Sears when she was first married and I loved to play when I was big enough for my feet to touch the pedals. By that time, my brothers had almost wrecked it.

"They used to run up and down the hall with it. I don't think it was very well constructed anyway, but they wrecked it. When I got older, I wanted a piano so badly I even promised my Daddy I'd never get married if he'd get me one. But it was the Depression, and we couldn't afford it.  I learned to love music playing the organ.

"You wouldn't know it from that but my brothers were musically inclined too. A lot of people on my mothers' side were. We mostly learned from our uncle, who played guitar. He would drink and then come by the house. My mother didn't appreciate him coming by when he was drinking, but he would and he would bring his guitar and sit on the steps and play.

"I picked it up by ear. We all did. It takes more than learning from a book for anyone to be an accomplished musician of any magnitude I think it has to be somewhere in your genes. My mothers' younger sister played guitar when she was young.

"You have to just have it somewhere in your bones to want to pick up an instrument, especially without music. Religious songs were written down but we didn't play those. Song sheets were popular at the time but we didn't have them. We made them up. To do that, you have the something it takes or don't.

"People played all kinds of things back then, whatever they could make or afford; guitars, accordions, banjos, and zithers. The first instrument brother my brother had he made from gourd. It had 3 strings. He graduated to a cigar box, built a staff on the box. He went from there to being able to buy a cheap one guitar. Eventually he got a Gibson.

"My brothers started playing guitar with 2 other boys in a band called The Rambling Hustlers. They would play at parties. A friend got them on a Saturday broadcast from Rocky Mount. I practiced with them but didn't play on the program.

"I never even thought of a woman going with 4 men to play on a radio program somewhere at that time. My Mother wouldn't have let me. Things weren't nearly as open they are now. It would have given me a bad reputation to go. People were old fashioned in their thinking then. There was nothing modern in my day.

"Old Man Depression didn't start growing a full beard until 37 in the country where I was, we had an easier time than people in the city did I think. We could grow our own food. We did a lot to help each other, worked together as a community.

"We started coming out of it in the early 40s with World War II. People started thinking more about entertainment. By that time radio was national, and more people were able to buy them. Around that time, there was a barn dance in Richmond on Saturday nights called the Old Dominion Barn Dance.

"A woman named Sunshine Sue had a show there that was broadcast on the radio. She had the Carter sisters perform I think, I don't remember who but remember seeing them. Mother Maybelle was there every Saturday.  I didn't go every Saturday but I went often.

"It seems Mother Maybelle and her daughters were living in Ashland at the time because of her husband.  I remember a friend of mine pointing out their farm there. They may have went to Nashville and the Opry from there, and then June met Johnny Cash. I'm not sure of it though.   

She didn't realize when she went to the Barn Dance to see Mother Maybelle play that she was watching someone who's guitar style, along with her families' music would influence the way not only Country music, but other American genres would be played from that time on, but she was.  The Carters were, in a sense, our first Pop stars, touring and recording songs that remain popular today; "Keep on the Sunny Side", for example.

Not only the hundreds of songs recorded by the Carter family but many of the traditional songs my Grandmother remembers playing have remained popular. They're mostly known now as rock or pop songs, popularized by countless musicians, including Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, and Johnny Cash.

I didn't go into that with my Grandmother. I think she's happier not knowing. She'd balk at the very name of The Grateful Dead, I'm certain. But I was curious to know if she'd heard any of the songs I knew before they were recorded.

She could only remember one. She said there was a man who worked with her family on their farm. On his day off, he would walk to the nearest city.

She said he sang the same song each time he went off down the road. When I asked her what it was, she started to sing what you may recognize as a Grateful Dead song:

"Goin' down the road, feelin' bad.

Goin' down the road, feelin' bad.

Goin' down the road, feelin' bad, bad, bad.

Don't want to be treated this-a-way."

The hair on my arms stood up. I felt like he'd walked to the crossroads of past and future, and sang loud enough to be heard in the present. In a sense he had, via the True Vine. And so the voice of one man walking a hard and lonely road echoes through decades of popular music.

Via my Grandmother, we climbed a branch of the Vine through a window of the past and found ourselves carried upon its back into the present. Through my talk with Mr. Seeger, we found the Vine itself, past, present, and future.  Now we will climb a branch of the present and perhaps peer into the future. Here we have another musician who emerged from deep-rooted Southern music traditions, Bo Bice.   There is something of a prophet behind this "Idol".  How is that? Well…

While Mr. Bice is a brightly burning star right now, charismatic, witty, talented, he'll be the first to tell you stars fall and wit does not wisdom prove. But there's more to him than that. He does not take himself too seriously, but he takes music seriously.   More than just a good singer and performer, he has been a songwriter for years and plays not only guitar but also a bevy of other instruments including saxophone, piano and harmonica. Additionally, when he talks about himself and the world, he is insightful, at times profound.

Bice was influenced by the same music Mike Seeger helped popularize and preserves, the music my Grandmother played.  From Alabama, he absorbed the Gospel and Blues traditions there. His mother performed at the Opry and she and her sisters had a gospel group for some time.  I found, through our conversation, that he is not only influenced by but reflects the spirit of the True Vine:  

"We are such an instant gratification-oriented society, wanting everything now, everything bigger better, everything better, we grab the thing of the moment." Bo said, "Then we get mad because six months later we have to buy new one because the other has become obsolete. But music, Rock & Roll, transcends that, crosses boundaries we as human beings can't cross. It crosses segregation, hatred and sorrow. It can bring peace.

"Behind the instant gratification of the moment, of the new, bigger and better, there is something pure. One of the things that is so pure, about Rock, Blues & Gospel as well, is love; love of poverty, of innocence. Sometimes the music sings about the turmoil of life, sometimes the misery. But it, and life, is about finding love in everything you do. Something about the South, and the music that came from the South exudes that.

"I lived for a time in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, called the birthplace of the Blues because Chicago style Blues started there with W.C. Handy. On the back of one of my first CDs I had a picture of his monument in tribute to him. I also grew up around deep-rooted Gospel traditions. I've always been a writer and feel all of this helped form my songwriting, my music.

"I still pay homage to bands that came before because I'm proud to be part of Americas' rich musical heritage. I'm proud to be from the South, I think it's cool, in part because it is such a crucial part of that."   

As Mike Seeger did, Bo described that he hadn't set out to make a living doing music, he just did what he loved and it was just possible for him to make a living at it:  

"I'm not a reluctant celebrity, I'm not reluctant to live in this lifestyle, but I'm reluctant to use the word to define myself. I'm a musician. I've always loved music & everything about it. I've played for a long time and it's never seemed like work. It never does today.

"It can get hectic; sometimes I do three interviews a day, for example. I try to fit in a lot. I get tired but I never get tired of it because I love what I do so much. It's fun getting the chance to do this without feeling I've sold my proverbial Rock & Roll soul.

"Music, what I love, why I play it, is that it's about what life's about, being helpful to your surroundings, to your fellow man.   That's what I want to bring everywhere. I'm not trying to change the world, but if you don't try to make a difference you're doing nothing and if you're doing nothing you're so far behind you don't even see yourself how miserable you are. So try to do something.

"Here's what I think is the worst thing, the one line you hear from every person that doesn't try, "no one else is doing it". Like the guy who didn't even register to vote then tells you his political stand on everything, how he'd clean up the world if he were only president but he doesn't even mow the lawn."

Bo is not that guy. I've no doubt he votes and he has been in the press lately for making a political statement in one of his songs. He's not trying to change the world, but it only takes one inspired person to change the world. Musicians are in a unique position to do this.

Is he one of those people? I don't know. But he doesn't take "no one else is doing it" as an excuse not to try anything he sets his mind to do. He has music in his bones, seems to have what it takes by my Grandmothers' wisely put criteria. This sets him apart.  

By participating in the Save the Music Foundation, he helps make sure as many people as possible that have musical aptitude have a chance to realize it, along with contributing to other charitable causes:

"I see this as my opportunity to shine", he said. "While people do care what I say, do, think, I'm going to do my best to bring awareness. I can't just go down and build a house for Habitat for Humanity, or for people who's homes were destroyed in Katrina", (but he offered his home to victims of the hurricaine).

"I keep things on my radar and try to keep them on other peoples minds. It's not just New Orleans, it's Missouri, Alabama, it's Florida. It's a lot more than any of us fathom because there are always more problems. The shelf life of problem is about a week and if it's not on CNN we lose track."

Before our conversation ended, he told me a story, his own and quite powerful story of how his own world ended, and how he saved it:  

"One of coolest parts of the way all this stuff happened for me is that it happened like this. I was playing the bar scene, scratching out a living, I had ups and downs, several bands; some guys stuck it out over years. I ran into the law, had bar fights. I dabbled in drugs. I was arrested twice.

"The first time it happened I was 21 or so and I thought, that's it. My life is over. But I got up, dusted off and kept on.  I watched friends get lost. I didn't. I was lucky. I got in trouble early and was able to straighten out and focus.

"It happened sometime around the time I was 26. I was in a weird kind of spot.  I had a run-in with the law again. Again, I thought my life was over, not because of that so much as what happened next.

"I came home from work one day soon after and thought my house had been burglarized.  Almost everything was gone. All that was left was a futon, my music equipment and the television. Then I realized, wait, everything of my girlfriends is gone, all my stuff is here.   She'd just left and taken everything with her.  

"I remember it was the time when things started changing. I met my wife soon after that. I was managing a guitar store.  I didn't feel good about the things I'd been doing so I just started living life differently, started treating people like I'd want to be treated.

"And soon after, this commercial comes on for "American Idol".  I know that, and the good things that preceded it and have come after, don't mean everything going to be great.  It's actually harder when you try to live like that, by treating people right and doing what's right. People try to bring you down by truckloads.

"But I learned that you have to roll with the punches.  When you do that, sometimes you're going to get hit. You've just got to suck it up and take it. Pick yourself up.  Dust yourself off and go on."

And where, I asked, does he think he'll go from here?

"I'm realistic." Bo said. "There are two ways the type of scenario I'm in usually plays out.  The life expectancy of most bands is about three years, one hit wonders have been out there since the beginning of Pop.  I might be one. I'll have enjoyed the ride and I'll keep on playing music wherever people want to hear my music, bars or clubs or wherever.

"Or, I might find a way to continue, to go on, conquer the world.  It doesn't really matter to me because I'm doing what I love.  Whatever turns and bends in the road are there are there because of the decisions I make and the guidance I try to follow. Where the road ends, I don't know but if it's good it's good and as for the bad, it's still good."

And so, in each of these stories, we find a man going down the road, feeling bad or feeling good, it's all the same because they're singing all the while. Their songs will continue to echo in the united voice of generations that is the music of the True Vine.

Sat, 09/08/2007 - 10:55 am

Some features take hours to write, others weeks, sometimes a month. The timing from interview or event to writing and then to publishing is dependent on so many variables that to describe them would be a feature unto itself. Usually, I have a pretty good turn around. Until, that was, I talked with Mike Seeger, went to a string festival and ended up almost going native in the hills of Eastern Kentucky.

Before and after talking with Mr. Seeger, I discovered I had at least 50 pages of notes, (and jokingly told him about them after he'd mentioned that I'd covered a lot of territory in the piece). I'd given myself one hell of a course in American ethnomusicology; at least from the time of those he dubbed the 'unsettlers' forward.  I started to re-arrange folk lyrics myself and to spend more and more time in the culture has that preserved them.

I became fascinated with the roots of our music, this idea of a vine Seeger proposed. In particular, I was drawn to the outlaws figures described in them. Researching the ballads, and finding many, if not most of them to be based on real people, I wondered if there were any people like that now.

How changed would people those that had preserved a tradition of music over hundreds of years really be themselves? Were there, I wondered, Real lone wolves of justice or passion, or both? I decided to go check it out for myself, hoping to not only find them but find them with instruments they played masterfully in hand. Did it turn out to be the case? Yes it did. Mike Seeger, described by Dylan in his "Chronicles" and cited in my feature here, is one of them. And there are others.

It has taken a year to process what I encountered in Appalachia. I was intriguingly invited to stay for a week or so a month at the home of Old-Time Banjo picker Bert Garvin, his wife and son, Betty and Keith, and their grandson, Michael, an impressive fiddle player who is already on Rounder, as his Grandfather.  Keith and his Mother play bass, with Betty also venturing into piano and Keith into jaw harp or guitar from time to time.  I visited and talked with them by phone over the past year.

Immersion in such a unique culture, particularly in the home of masters' of its' music, was a rare and wonderful opportunity. Bert even showed me a thing or two on the banjo and I got to eat Bettys' corn-bread, (it is without equal in the world, and I've lived in VA, NC and KY – the capitols of the delight). Bert played not only with Bill Monroe but Carter Stanley as well. In fact, I believe his son said the last person he showed a thing or two on the banjo ended up playing with the Charlie Daniels Band.

My friendships with them began via a string of strange coincidences at last years' Appalachian String Festival. After stopping for awhile in Asbury Park, I then returned to Appalachia to see another Festival, deeper in the mountains and at one time a family reunion of the Garvin's. This year, its' being filmed for presentation as a documentary on Kentucky Public Television. Michael and Roger Cooper, a master fiddler he was apprenticed to via the Kentucky Arts Council, are both slated to perform and be a part of it.

Both of these Festivals, and this years' String Festival, reflect a shift that is taking place in traditional music. It has, and continues to become more popular, due in part to Garcia's return to it towards the end of his life, the death of Johnny Cash and popularity of his "American" collection, and other factors.

A new generation is flocking in increasingly larger numbers to hear what has long been an art form struggling to maintain its' vitality as its' star players grow older. Embracing the change, the Appalachian String Festival added a new category for the new musicians, Neo-Traditional, last year. This year, another category was added to encompass the wide range music based on traditional songs now hits.

I guess I flocked too, but, like I said, took it way further than that. It sunk in to such a level that it was all I could do to keep people in my next stop, Asbury Park, NJ, from referring to me all weekend as 'the hillbilly'. Indeed, I didn't just flock but drove straight out of one hurricane towards another, (literally and psychologically, with death and melodrama following in my wake, again, literally). 

With reckless abandon, I sped from Rt. 66 to the Country Music Hwy. I crossed perilous mountains through dense fog and fire on the mountain at night. I went via Haystack Hill and Negro Mountain, (no joke), over the Cumberland Gap into nowhereville.  In short, I journeyed west in the most rugged fashion that can be achieved today. And I thought the NJ Turnpike was bad!  Getting there wasn't so much done over a road in any state as sort of just a line along the PA border. The places were so inaccessible, so isolated, that it was easy to see how culture would be a thing that changed gradually there.  

So, it was in this manner and under these conditions that I left Labor Day on the Jersey Shore in Springsteen's home town for a 2nd visit to Appalachia. No matter how fascinating the place had been, the Bluegrass State had me in its clutches once again. And with good cause, the musicians in Asbury Park I talked about it with when I saw E-Street Band Member and Seeger Sessions fiddle player, Soozie Tyrell, play, agreed.

And rightly so, the group I was visiting with, brainchild of Michael Garvin and lyrically dubbed by him, "Kentucky Memories", is amazing. Not an imitation of traditional music, the real deal. Add singer/songwriter/guitarist Jeff Walburn, (outlaw extraordinaire, known to even intimidate a Senator or two when fighting for justice, his general occupation when not playing music). 

So there I was, at the root of roots music. Not only writing about but visiting and playing with the same people who knew those who 'unsettled' the folk scene with their music in the 60s, right down to someone who'd played with one of the Stanley Brothers. I didn't quite know how to process it, let alone write it down.

I not only spent time immersed in the universe of Hatfield and McCoyville, (a town I lovingly dubbed 'Flatpick Kentucky', but also spent some time getting to know a leader of the new generation, Aaron Lewis and his band Special Ed and the Short Bus.) This mad fiddler was responsible for luring me to the String Fest last year. This year he not only attended the String Festival but then won first place in Bluegrass fiddling at Galax, the country's' oldest fiddle contest.  

Adept at many styles, his best moments are when he swings into a dark or lively, depending on his mood, carnival of sound, interspersing a gypsy like feel to otherwise comfortably familiar tunes.  The fact that he's from Maine and a classical rather than old-time background, illustrates just how different these festivals are becoming from popular perception of them. Whereas before new ideas were rather shunned, (like Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival), they are now embraced. And so the course of music history may well change again.

But just why is music such an entrenched part of the culture in Appalachia that there are so many of these festivals, (truly a full roster would consume several pages)? How is it that this type of music is so influential in popular music today when the Dead, Cash, Dylan and the countless others influenced by them are examined? I think the answer is that the timeless truth of it continues not only in that it has flourished and been preserved, passed down from teacher to student, over hundreds of years but, I discovered, the themes in the songs are still to be seen.

It really is still what's' most aptly called, I suppose, the land of ghosts and guns. Why? Well, for one, the culture includes a deep-rooted belief I ghosts, particularly a type dubbed 'rapping spirits'. And they still carry guns, have guns all over their homes, and hold mock-hangings of outlaws and such at their home-town festivals.

Spending time there was in a way like discovering a living Wild West ghost town – somewhat stuck in time but not in a closed-minded or limited way. Indeed, on the contrary, the people are far more intelligent, intuitive and talented than most I've known anywhere in the country.

The presence of many Cherokees in Appalachia seems to lend an air of mysticism to their culture. Lucid dreaming, ghosts, (particularly a kind they call 'rapping spirits') and other things are normal to the Garvin's, for example, though they are staunch members of the Free Will Baptist Church.  They don't rap, as I jokingly tried to suggest, in the way we hear on a radio. No, these follow a believer home and tap out answers to questions, asked or unasked, on the walls of the house. Ghostly fiddlers or hearing otherworldly strains of music are also common hush-hush themes.

They are not generally open to prolonged visits from those outside of their culture. They weren't necessarily entirely open to me. For example, to my great dismay I briefly raised the ire of the matriarch who has a loaded gun under her bed and can still shoot the tops off of matches, a trick that makes them flare up. I found myself in the middle of a family feud.

I had been a little worried all along. Upon entering the house I found them everywhere, from corner to sofa-top in the 'picking room'. My joking remarks of 'are the guns for revenuers' were eventually met with serious replies that not so many people made moonshine anymore you'd want to drink. (A few very old people still do though, and its' available in a variety of flavors). The guns truly are utilitarian and unloaded, (for the most part), can't say the same for the moonshine.

So, when in Rome… I drank whiskey, shot at targets with a rifle, (and did a fair job of it), learned just what a crawdad was, got a few banjo lessons in between staring fixedly at the remarkable finger picking of every guitarist around, climbed a haystack or two. Hard to say which part of it was more fun.  

My adventures were not limited to happy, country pursuits like the above. Oh no. Impossible up there I think, just listen to the songs. Indeed, I found myself fleeing an angry scene in a driving rainstorm. I wound up, (escorted by an appropriate outlaw), in an Irontown, Ohio Moose lodge.

Pleas to my editor to forgive the late story, but I was surrounded by angry people, some of them at me, and that most of them had guns, were answered but no help was to be found. I missed refuge at Jorma Kaukonen, of Jefferson Airplane fames' guitar ranch near by in Ohio. I was invited to visit for a weekend and write a feature, (which I certainly still hope to do), but not soon enough to help me escape at the time. And these people mean it when they get mad. I again refer you to the songs.

I could but won't tell you what it was all about, or the stories of feuds past I heard at the time, its' not the specifics but the overall tone of the land that's the point. That being that, in Appalachia, people are still living a life that includes many of the things you hear tell of in the songs that have been preserved there and popularized over centuries, time and time again.

Same family even owns the railroad and coal mines that did in John Henrys' day I believe. Still the only good jobs you can get around there for the most part so, yes, there are still real outlaws. And of course they fight, carry guns, and hang out with Cherokees. That's what outlaws do.  And most of them play music,

Why is that? Well, Jeff once told me that its' the river. Music came from up and down the country as people migrated west then traded from ports like New Orleans. The rivers of Appalachia certainly did play a huge part in the spread of the many styles of music that merged into the one sound we now identify as roots or old-time.

And old-time has expanded and grown over the years, as have the towns and the people and musicians who live there. But up in the hills of Appalachia, playing music together is still a family routine, not much different from the way it was when my Grandmother described it. Musical families play in circles routinely. Children show interest in one instrument or another and are taught by a family member or someone in the community if the family doesn't have other musicians in it. They are, at first, allowed only to sit outside of the circle and try to keep up, (quietly). Once the child becomes good at rhythm, they are allowed to sit in the circle and play but again, quietly until they master it. Eventually, you wind up with a pretty good musician.

In the Garvin household every few weeks' old-timers come in to play with Bert and his family. Or Jeff comes over to practice. Other community arts leaders hold similar gatherings at their homes, extending the crowd to more people and multiple families. They play at every opportunity. Mr. Cooper described loving the electric violin because he could practice on the sofa while his wife watched TV. without making noise.

Music is just something they do up there, and they do it as often as they drink mountain dew, (a lot). Its' like water to them, something you grow up with.  So, what to thousands of people who travel from all over the country to visit festivals like Galax and the Appalachian String festival, is a rare event worth planning your yearly 2 weeks vacation around, (or in the case of some of the newer generations flocking to these, is something like a summer spent on tour), is an everyday thing in Appalachia itself.

And I got to shoot, pick guitar and banjo, feud, drink whiskey; in short, I became, for a short while anyway, a hillbilly myself. I enjoyed the hell out of it; particularly meeting the outlaws.

Interviews with outlaws and old – new timers to come…

To Be Continued…

Tue, 09/11/2007 - 3:19 pm

Bruce Springsteen not only has a new album out with the E Street Band, (their first since 2003) but the group is back together again, launching a tour in October.  The album, "Magic" brings 11 new Springsteen songs to the Archives of Eternal Americanna. Their last contribution was "The Rising" in 2002.

The first single released will be "Radio Nowhere", where, as with most Springsteen songs, you feel strange echoes of familiarity stirring in the back of your brain, though you've never heard or read the lyrics before:

"I was spinnin' 'round a dead dial
Just another lost number in a file
Dancin' down a dark hole
Just searchin' for a world with some soul

"This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
Is there anybody alive out there?

"I want a thousand guitars
I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices speaking in tongues

"This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
This is radio nowhere, is there anybody alive out there?
Is there anybody alive out there?"


c. Bruce Springsteen

Speaking of the Archives of Eternal Americana, this follows his tribute to actavist and singer/songwriter par excellance, Pete Seeger.  Bringing Seegers' music and the American Roots traditions he helped preserve to the forefront.  17 gospel, blues and folk musicians contributed to the project, which also included E Street Band member Soozie Tyrell.  The traditional songs featured included legends like "John Henry" and "Jesse James".

Springsteen returns in this album not only to some of his earliest music, but Americas' earliest music, which both have strong ties to Southern New Jersey. Not far from Springsteens' home base, Asbury Park, are the Pine Barrens. There, the roots traditions Seeger' popularized and preserved still thrive. It was to this rural, heavily forested area of about 1.1 million acres that objectors and deserters fled the Revoloutionary War. They remained there, and their music, like the area itself, hasn't changed a whole lot, (except now people drive down from the Hamptons to see the music there). 

Though it has changed and evolved over centuries, with each musician adding their own touch to the way the songs are played or voice to the story the songs tell, the music remains essentially the same as it was when played in the 1700s. In these songs, the rich cultural heritage of Southern New Jersey has been voiced for centuries, as they have in Springsteens music.  

Like Seeger, Springsteen has, throughout his career, not only written artfully lyric folk songs but has kept political and social issues at the forefront of much of his work. This is reflected in his album. For example, he links Seegers' "Bring 'Em Home" to "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" after adding a few verses of his own.  He, as Seeger did, breathes new life into music that has spoken in the voice of multitudes for centuries.

Springsteen has always alternated folk-oriented albums with more mainstream work.  For example, the E Street Band temporarily disbanded and Springsteen released two solo albums at once in 1992, "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town", exploring in them the soul and gospel traditions of Asbury Park. The E-Street Band then re-united to record his first Greatest Hits album which was followed by the folk-based solo album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad". The tour for Joad was performed in small venues, featuring acoustic versions of E-Street  as well.

This was followed by "The Rising" with E Street in 2002 and then in 2005 he again put out a solo album, "Devils & Dust". "The Rising" in part expressed emotions about the September 11 attacks, "Devils & Dust" expresses the Iraq War from a soldiers' (and Springsteens') perspective. In spite of rejection of corporate sponsorship, in part because of Springsteens' longstanding anti-corporate politics, (he turned down millions offerred by Chrysler to use "Born in the USA" in a commercial), the album was No. 1 in 10  countries. Indeed, let us all take care not to owe our souls to the 'Enron' store…

Sprinsteen has always sung about the everyday problems and situations of ordinary people, centered around his native South Jersey, both with the E Street Band and as a solo artist.  His influences have, from the beginning, included Seeger, his band-mate Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, (who he shared a manager with and has been often compared to).

Like them, he has a knack for finding and bringing forth the noblility and honesty found in the struggles of the 'common' people, people who otherwise have not really had their histories recorded, whose voices are not often heard.  For his work, he has won several Grammys', an Academy Award, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  

Sprinsteen speaks from direct experience. Born in Long Branch New Jersey, and grew up in a working class family in Freehold, (he in fact used to practice in the basement of the house next door to my Uncles' there. When I asked if he enjoyed it my Uncle said that, regrettably, that was not at a high point of Springsteens' career but rather the beginning, when he was in High School).

The Jersey Shore Sound, a genre of rock that he popularized and, arguably defined, reverberrates through his albums. What's the Jersey Shore Sound? Well, its' a combination of early 60s rock, R & B mixed with an urban/industrial spoon. It focuses on the lives of everyday people, the power of the underdog. I wonder what will happen to it as developers continue to turn Asbury Park, once a very "Desolation Row" sort of place, into a resort town. For the most part, locals seem to feel its' a positive change, and the infamous Stone Pony still swings its' tail mightily, ever stirring the winds of American music, but without everyday people, where will the everyday lyrics come from?

Characters the ilk of which are slinking slowly from sight in Asbury Park in appear in many of Sprngsteens' songs. Listen closely to, "Blinded by the Light", (recorded by Manfred Mann.) In it, Springsteen describes all sorts of people he met there, as well as the trouble he had getting people in the bars there to listen to him. He doesn't have a problem now, there is almost a Springsteen cult up there. Some people seem to know his every movement, no kidding.

But its' a cool thing, not a creepy thing. People are very aware of him because he keeps in touch with them. He still practices in Asbury, makes impromptu appearances at the Stone Pony, still orders steaks from his friend Stan Tovic whos' restaurant, the Adriatic, served the stars for decades, before and after they were in the spotlight. In fact, he's such a down to earth guy that he and his band have the great and nearly unattainable distinction of being the only musicians who come to the Stone Pony that Pocket, the doorman there for decades, always greets by name.  He, (Springsteen, I don't know what Pockets' opinion is), has also been a strong advocate for the revitalization of Asbury Park, and plays an annual series of winter holiday concerts there.

His debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., was released in January 1973.

Of the album, he said in a 2005 interview with Nick Hornby in the "Guardian":

"A lot of the music was about a loss of innocence, there's innocence contained in you but there's also innocence in the process of being lost [laughs]. And that was the country at the time I wrote that music. I wrote that music immediately preceding the end of the Vietnam war, when that feeling swept the country. ... So when I wrote that music and incorporated a lot of the things I loved from those particular years, I was also aware that I had to set in place something that acknowledged what had happened to me and everybody else where I lived.

His music ebbed, flowed, changed, developed, and rock rolled with him. He wove in and out of his early folk sound, but the theme of the songs, working class life, remained the same. Very political, he has also been very misunderstood.  His best known album, Born in the U.S.A. (1984), is an example. The title track, a bitter sonnet bewailing the treatment of Vietnam veterans, led everyone to cry, 'Hooray! Patriotism!' Shows how much most people listen to words I suppose, (but then who can be blamed, he did truly rock on that one). But he rocked in protest, not glory.

So, he brings the deepest tendrils of his South Jersey roots to the forefront over and over again. He speaks loudly and unabashedly in beautifully written songs that communicate the voice of people who are often not heard, not recorded, long keeping the tradition of Seeger, Guthrie and others. He has, perhaps, been successful mostly because he has been so honest in a way that we all could be if we chose, not ever really trying to be anything other than what he is. The difference between him and many of us is that he truly knows who he is and thinks its' worth totally rocking out over.  And he's right.

Fri, 09/14/2007 - 1:30 am

As burlesque bumps, grinds and laughs its way back in vogue, the art of its' golden eras, from Nouveau to the 50s, shimmies in alongside it. Montmarte had Lautrec, (or, perhaps more appropriately, his now lesser known but then more famous mistress, model and contemporary, (though not necessarily in that order), Suzanne Valdon.). The Neo-Burlesque world has Molly Crabapple, artist, subject and muse. Not surprisingly, she's  made several 'Top New Yorkers' lists. Her art has graced posters for burlesque shows as well as publications ranging from the "New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal" to "Screw" and "Playgirl".

Periods in history that have embraced burlesque have been times of political upheaval. These are accompanied and/or caused by socio-economic inequalities. Examples of this are the heyday of the Moulin Rouge, the staid façade of the Victorian Era, the Edwardian Gibson Girl, and the Follies that foiled the grim realities of the 30s, and the world today. Not surprisingly, Neo-Burlesque is a popular part of New York nightlife. Events take place almost daily, sometimes drawing crowds of thousands.  Shows include the expected strip tease but also acrobats, magicians, comedians and circus performers, as it did in its' early days when a launching pad for Vaudeville, with focus on individuality rather than raunchiness.

The description defies the impression many of us have of burlesque but Crabapple, describes the difference: "When my mother was nineteen she worked in the Catskills and saw burlesque shows that toured there. She said it was horrible, aging strippers shaking around, bored out of their minds.

"Now it's cool. It's like the saying, don't expect to like your children expect to like your grandchildren. People in general don't think their parents are cool. For our generation, there's no association with burlesque at all except one with a glamorous, decadent time in the past. It appeals very much to women as well as men. For men, sex is not that complex, but burlesque combines a very female feeling of sexiness.

"I started reading books about Paris in the mid to late 1800s. I got really inspired by them. It got my mind churning. Why not have that? I looked for something like it but found nothing. So I just did it. You can create the New York you want each day. In my dream of New York, artists aren't isolated in studios or ivory towers. I want an art world that's fun and talent-loving and decadent, a 21st century Montmarte."

And so she began drawing the vivid characters of the Neo-Burlesque scene, soon joined them and then started an anti-art school, Dr. Sketchy's, now with branches in 13 cities and 5 countries. "They're very diverse." She said. "The one in Scotland was on BBC recently. All different sorts of things happen at them. One uses tableaux scenes. London is high-tea themed; each is influenced by the people running it and the theme around it. It's really taking off. They're in Finland, Rome and Berlin now too." 

"We comb New York to find the most beautiful burlesque dancers, the most bizarre circus freaks, and the most rippling hunks of man. Then, on the second Saturday of every month, we let you draw them for three hours…did we mention you can buy coffee? Expertly mixed booze?"  Thus says Molly Crabapple. (Cabaret Life Drawing)

Why? Well, as an artists model she had romantic expectations but found the reality dull, de-humanizing and not particularly well-paying. So, along with friend A.V. Phibes, she created, "a place where models could make a fair wage and express their amazing personalities, while sketchers could partake of that pseudo-bohemian atmosphere so many of us went to art school for."

Crabapple, recently off a tour promoting her new, "Dr. Sketchy's Rainy Day Activity Book," produces a seemingly endless flow of funky ideas. For example, a show at MF Gallery featured interpretations of what the name really stands for, and an erotic show in Philadelphia, included several pieces that objectify men. A recent Dr. Sketchys' show at the Edinburgh Fringe produced not only art but sold out houses and 5 star reviews. Upcoming…another Dr. Sketchys' anti-art show. There are even rumors of a webcomic in progress. 

A little like Lautrec, she is immersed in a Fin de Seicle scene and renders it. "Lautrec didn't do the classes." she laughingly reminds me when I asked her if she saw parallels between his work and her own.  And Lautrec never did a 6"7 tableaux of demons re-enacting the 7 deadly sins like Molly did. "It was very Bosch", she said, "but I like doing smaller work as a general rule, it's more spontaneous."

Her renderings of the scene are sensual yet often sarcastic and a little sinister. Though quite different in execution, her work is a bit Goya-like, subjects caught unawares in a private moment, from the beautiful to the grotesque.  The moments she captures often have cynical, wistful or slightly foreboding tones.  "I want my work to show the aching backs, the fake smiles, the low wages, the greasepaint and the sweat of performance as well as the tassels and sequins. We live," she said, "especially in NY, in a fame and celebrity obsessed culture, and people create these elaborate personas, I think that's interesting. I don't condemn at all – we live in a time of elaborate promotion. I find it fascinating. I try to expose what's underneath it." 

These and other subjects, beautiful women growing old, useless rich and drudging poor, making a living appealing to really unappealing men are reminiscent of the work of artists from the mid 1800s-early 1900s. However, like burlesque itself, her work also contains a heavy dash of humor. "Where other people might denounce," she says of her sexy sideshow of subjects, "I poke fun."

Its artifice itself that fascinates her most, she is, in a way, its knight in spangled armor, describing it as the very basis of Western art. The transformation of a blank piece of paper "through trickery" becoming something entirely different. The arts, performing and fine art in particular are, for Crabapple, a sort of black magic.  

"I love how, onstage, you create an entirely different self in the same way you create a canvas." She said in a recent interview. "I love the power of being what you're not. I love how a good photograph doesn't so much as capture a moment as invent one a moment far more poignant and symbolic than the one when the picture was taken."

And what is she turning her magic wand, (or pen, rather), to now? "Appalachian folk murder ballads," she says, "I'm turning the killers and victims into religious icons – with the occasional sarcastic touch; and, of course, a series of portraits of New York's burlesque and sideshow artists." As she's particularly struck by the difference between the ways the artists look in and out of costume, this series is bound to be presented with a unique twist; she describes herself as motivated to draw both.

"I love how, onstage, you create an entirely different self in the same way you create a canvas." She said in a recent interview. "I love the power of being what you're not. I love how a good photograph doesn't so much as capture a moment as invent one a moment far more poignant and symbolic than the one when the picture was taken."

"I don't think of my subjects as extreme because, for me, it's the way life is. In the East Village performance scene everyone is doing things like that, the idea of doing it myself seemed normal to me." of course I can do this or that – very loner no one to squash and say no basically made my life school to live out whatever strange weird.  For example, her sideshow acts. "A friend taught me" she said, "I haven't done it in a while." This from a girl who can eat fire, drive nails up her nose, walk on glass and chew light bulbs. "But I don't so much do the light bulbs" she said "it's hard on the enamel of your teeth."

What led up to all of this? A real life Alice, she has made exotic locales in the world and underworld her Wonderland and taken excellent notes, visual and in the form of essays, along the way. As a child, Molly Crabapple read a lot and didn't really see the difference, she says, between books and real life. Fantastic tales of Arabian nights seemed alive enough to her to merit trips across both Europe and the Middle East.

While filing five notebooks with travel sketches she visited four continents, snuck into mosques, been detained in jails, drew for bread and lived in attics. "When I was 18 all I wanted to do was run off to the Middle East.  I studied Arabic and Turkish, spent my off hours in Barnes and Noble reading Lonely Planet Pakistan, and could talk your ear off about Orhan Pamuk." She ran off with $300 and traveled the globe, inspired by Anais Nin.  I guess I've mellowed a bit." She even lived in bookstore (Shakespeare and Co.) in Paris (sleeping on the floor in exchange for working the cash register), home to wayfaring artists for over 50 years. She describes it as "a gorgeously bohemian place with  with thumb sized roaches, squat toilets and no working showers."

It wasn't the Burton-esque perfumed garden she expected. "In Turkey, there was this place on the border I wanted to see a castle with arches, a weird fantasia with domed stropped turrets still crumbling. I went there and I couldn't believe it the gov't had hideously restored it buy putting on plastic roof architecture - horrifying sort of like a McDonald's roof –

So, done with world travel and moving forward from pen and ink to color, what can we expect from Crabapple next? She's' thinking 19th century American poster art. "You know, poster art before they got the hang of it. It's creepy and stiff and overly detailed with lots of windy text. All the children look like midgets." She expresses a love of their "ridiculous literalism and hallucinatory detail." And she's got some new ideas for her shows too, matchbooks, cigar boxes, ticket stubs reminiscent of the ephemera of bygone eras. "It reminds me of a time when art was part of everyday life."

And no doubt it will be reflective of an extraordinary everyday life. For Crabapple has long blurred the distinction between artist and subject, between creator and muse.

Sun, 09/16/2007 - 10:00 pm

I left Appalachia's Country Music Hwy., (via Flatpick KY), for Rt. 66. It was Labor Day Weekend and I was going to Asbury Park, NJ, a town made famous by Bruce Springsteen and others. I was going to see Soozie Tyrell, of the E-Street band, along with 9 other bands play over the weekend. There were even knowledgeable whispers, before an inconvenient hurricane hit at a most critical moment that Springsteen might make one of his periodic appearances there that Saturday. 

The next 3 days took over 365 to process well enough to feel I could write about them to any extent with much coherency. I was as speechless as I'd been after searching for outlaws. I'd gone to a string festival and in short order was dividing a month or more solid between Appalachia and the Jersey Shore.

I was sorely tempted to go native in each locale by both myself and others. It gave me a bit of an identity crisis. Apparently it was a visible identity crisis. Some of the staff at the Stone Pony alternated between calling me 'the hippie' or the 'hillbilly' pretty much the entire time I was there.

In retrospect, it occurs to me that all of this might seem to many, if not most people as a weird thing to do. What, for example, does New Jersey have to do with Eastern Kentucky? Well, the Seeger Sessions, for one. And at the time, Ms. Tyrell had just finished the tour. Somehow it all made perfect sense.  I thought it would be a fairly normal weekend.

I was completely wrong. Soon after I arrived, the pace quickened and within hours it became fairly certain that just about anything might happen really. I had somehow stepped behind the stage door of the legendary Stone Pony.

Extreme things very often happen in Asbury Park, the musical garden Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Sebastian Bach and others essentially sprang from. The Stone Pony is its' crown jewel of cool.  Nonetheless, things seemed perfectly routine at first. Routine for Asbury Park is different from most places but so hugely. 

Upon arrival, early on a deceivingly sunny Friday afternoon, (or was it raining and simply deceiving…), I encountered an extremely nice bartender and sound guy, (more about them soon. Just trust that there, the very staff are stars). They told me, as they moved things around and I waited for the incredibly… well… for now lets leave it at informative, (and guitar playing), manager Kyle, some really fascinating things about music history and Asbury Park..

Its' boardwalk had shaken the roots of American music not only, as the perpetual doorman 'Pocket' described, since "before Bon Jovi was old enough to drink", but since Ragtime. When music was just breaking free from classical restraints, Arthur Pryor, a pioneer in the genre, left then number one band man Sousa and played there instead of with him. He took the best of the band too, much to Sousas' dismay.

Many years later, Pryor was asked to perform to help boost morale during WWII. He melodramatically died on the by then infamous boardwalk while arguing with the band. Talk about wanted dead or alive, (no offense to Mr.'s Bon Jovi or Pryor). Maybe all that weird energy is part of what makes the Madame Marie Springsteen sang about in 4th of July, Asbury Park, (aka Sandy) so psychic.  (She's back, by the way)

And, speaking of dead or alive, I don't quite see how I managed to get out of there, or back there, alive. I left a hurricane that Saturday morning that blew so strong I had to fight my way against 60mph wind, (ocean front, mind you), for at least 5 min. just to get in the car. (Getting to the car presented an almost equally massive series of obstacles.)

Once in, I had no doubt whatsoever that driving was a very bad idea. But so was trying to go back in the hotel. You see, I hadn't so much noticed the hurricane the night before. I mean, I realized that it was really windy and raining really hard, sort of. But it was hard to pay attention to the weather with 5 bands playing. And they didn't stop playing. By the time I was at an after-party at the Berkley Hotel, (where Johnny Cash lived for some time), I didn't so much notice the troubled ocean. 

Until suddenly it was 9 or so but just didn't quite look like day time. Finally exhausted enough to notice, I saw the room I was in had a mightily angry looking ocean-view. I wondered if I should stay in Asbury or go back to relatives in Toms' River, where what had seemed to be a routine visit was greeted with news of a death in the family there while I was on my way up.

I didn't really want to go back, what with the death and the hurricane and all. But I knew if I stayed I'd never sleep. I had no other cool clothes and I had to go back to the Pony that night. I composed 'Stuck in Asbury Park' to the tune of "Folsom Prison", then took a shower and left against the sound advice of several people. (But not before going up to Johnny Cash's former floor to see.)

I very much wished I was back inside 3 feet into the parking lot. Problem was, the wind was blowing towards the ocean. And the wind was not messing around. I was, probably legitimately, a little worried that if I turned around I'd be swept out to sea.

I somehow got in the car, through the town and its' quick rising waters, to Tom's River,  But I didn't get back without getting completely lost and discovering only when I really needed it, (falling pine boughs, swerving car, middle of nowhere, that type of thing), that my Aunt had no idea what Googling an address meant. I didn't really want to go into the weather when she said I'd just have to stop and ask directions. I somehow figured it out.

And I came back too; both to Asbury Park, Appalachia and home and back around more than a few times since. I even encountered arguably more hazardous conditions on more than one occasion. I questioned my sanity throughout most of it, particularly that weekend, particularly then.  I was in over my head from the start, leaving unexpected death for equally unexpected hurricane; almost drowned in the Jersey Sound.

What I didn't know until a year later was that I'd seen El Diablo there. I was fairly certain up until a few days ago I'd already met the Devil in Appalachia. A banjo and crossroads were even involved.   

Now I'm not so sure. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating. But it is the nickname of the quite remarkable Brian Mitchell. It seemed eerily appropriate that the Devil would sit in on a gig that nodded to Appalachian music. It seemed strangely fateful even.

What ended up happening was that, I discovered for all its' merits and all my contemplation, my story has nothing on his. Of course it doesn't. People don't go around calling someone El Diablo for just any old reason.  

Understand, however, that when I saw Mr. Mitchell that's the last thing that would have occurred to me. For one, he was the happiest looking person I think I've ever seen. And he had the vibe a very few have of, well; being in the now is one way to put it. You know, some people just project an incredibly focused presence. 

When I spoke with him, I found that not is he only interesting as hell, but a remarkable story teller. And the stories I have a feeling he could tell, would fill volumes. He's even dabbled in music journalism, interviewing Allen Toussaint for "Keyboard" magazine. He did this via the kaleidoscopic route of having once been his understudy in a Broadway musical. This is the sort of thing Mr. Mitchell has happen as a matter of course, I soon discovered.

So, that's right folks; after taking a year to convince myself I could write about my strange adventures in Asbury Park and Appalachia and/or somehow separate them from a series extreme and unexpected traumas,  I must stop my tale of death, near death, rock and roll and roots and let a better writer tell a better story. My Stone Pony and Asbury Park in general tales are a part of your Rock & Roll fantasy and you'll hear them in short order. But it will just have to take a back-seat to, 

El Diablo…

He's jammed with Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Peter Frampton, B.B. King, Les Paul, Dolly Parton and a dizzying array of other extremely accomplished people. If you look at his website closely, you discover he's also worked with Christopher Walken, Bill Clinton, and on "One Life to Live". Who does that? I just didn't know where to start with this person. I was intrigued but at something of a loss. 

So I listened to more of his music, starting with his new CD, Diggin up the Roots. I decided that, for the moment, the best thing might be to try to understand what the roots he was digging up were. I couldn't get him to tell me really but that sort of information is probably given on a need to know basis so as not to utterly overwhelm. I did discover why Cajun, (and very authentic sounding Cajun), yet jazzy yet something else entirely tunes flowed from a native New Yorkers' fingertips on Roots. No matter what he plays, and his spectrum is broad, Brian Mitchell sounds like Brian Mitchell, plain and simple:

"I really dug deep and it's all good." He said of his latest original work, "I try not to pin down a genre. It feels right not to come to terms with different things. I decided I might as well let it all come out; make it sound personal, have a voice.

"When you play all different kinds of music, you're in a lot of different situations and just come to let it happen naturally. Everything catches up with itself eventually. The type of things you've played before come tumbling out in all directions.

"I really strive for sessions where the artists sound like themselves. And when I play, I strive to make it sound like the same guy doing the same music. If I play Blues, Blues comes out of me; same with jazz, funk, Latin…main difference is, when I'm a side pesrson, I try to enhance. In my own band all bets are off."

Mr. Mitchell, currently playing almost every Saturday night with Levon Helm and the Midnight Rambles at Woodstock Express, said a session with Bob Dylan was one of his most memorable experiences: 

"We did a version of an old Dean Martin song for the soundtrack of a Sopranos episode." He said. "There I was, not only playing with one of my idols, but my Moms' Italian and I grew up listening to that kind of thing. So I mean, you know, it was not just Bob Dylan but Bob Dylan, Dean Martin; the whole thing. I felt like I'd come full circle and there I was, playing the accordion."

When I started asking about the instruments I saw in some of his photos, he mentioned that his favorite was his Hammond organ. He pre-emptively answered my "Why?" with:

"I bought it in Memphis, got an incredible deal on it." He told me. "As I was putting it in my van, the owner of the store came out. And the guy says, "Just so you know, historically, I got it from Isaac." Pretty soon I get that he's telling me it had been Isaac Hayes' organ. If he'd told me that before he sold it to me, I wouldn't have been as inclined to believe him. But he'd already sold it to me. He had nothing to gain by this story. I figured it must be true."

So, if that was his favorite instrument, what, I then asked, had been his favorite gig?

"My friend, Hugh Pool and I played the streets in Europe." He said, "Even after all these clubs and concert halls, the streets in Europe were the best of all. It was more about adventure than a career path.

"For example, our first day in Amsterdam; we didn't know it at the time but it was the Queens' birthday. So the whole nights' crazy. It was like Amsterdam times 10. At one point, somebody at a party on a boat going down a canal yells out that their piano player passed out and can anyone play the piano? I say "Sure, I do", and walk a plank onto the boat. I end up playing with some band all night. It was great.

"It had its' down side. The next day I woke up and someone had stolen all my money. But if I had it to do again knowing that would happen I would. It had its' less romantic side, but there was an immediacy to it. I learned so much."

Speaking of immediacy, I could no longer hold back my curiosity about, for instance, Bill Clinton, who joined him onstage with Cher and Nathan Lane on Hillary's' birthday one year. "He was a fun guy to hang out with, very charming", Mr. Mitchell said. "He just came over and talked to us like a musician talks to musicians and asked if we minded if he sat in with us."

And so he did. He discussed the particulars of reeds even. Looking again at the names that had leapt off of his impressive resume because they were rather unusual, what on earth, I asked, had he recorded with Christopher Walken?

"Well", he said, "I get this call asking if I can do a session Christopher Walken and I say sure. Afterwards, I think about it and I'm like, is that Christopher Walken the actor? Next day there he is. A limo pulls up, he gets out and walks right into my studio like it's the most normal thing in the world.

He sees my accordions and says he loves accordions. The director says, "It's supposed to be a piano." Mr. Walken says, "Accordions' where its' at and that's what we're going to do for the movie."

"We end up not finishing that day and the director asks if we can wrap it up the next. I can't and he says, "O.k., we'll get someone else." Again, Mr. Walken decides in the end. He says, "Hey, I want this guy." So he comes back on a different day.

"He even asked if he could sit in and tap dance with me. I said damn right you can. He tries to fit tap in every movie. Sometimes it has nothing do with anything but he's tap dancing in there."

I did, indeed recall an inexplicable dance scene in the last Walken movie I'd watched. Before the conversation went too far into being all about that, (it wasn't an easy subject to drop), I managed to stop myself just short of describing the essential plot of Millennium to ask about the Soap Opera. With Mr. Mitchell's' background, his appearances on Letterman and Austin City Limits, for example, weren't so surprising, but One Life to Live?

"I had a cameo in one episode as a piano player in a bar and," he laughed, "after I got home I had 30 messages, all saying the same thing: "Hey, I was watching the game and switched over for a sec and saw you on "One Life to Live". All these soap opera fans came out of the closet."

He does so many different things; I asked him what he enjoyed most.

"A small intimate club where you can really connect with people", he said. "The audience affects the music.  Sometimes even if people just dance it changes the way things go. I've always tended to look out to see who's there.

"It's like the first spark of enthusiasm I had when I was a kid comes back." He continued, adding that he started playing when his Mother, ironically, thought piano lessons would help keep him away from nightclubs. "The whole difference between playing live and in the studio, having people genuinely get off on what you do, it's an incredible feeling. I love offering something. And I love listening to music. I remember what it feels like being in the audience."

His originality, joy and genuineness come across intensely, live or recorded. He really puts on a great show, with others and with his own bands, The Brian Mitchell Band and the Loisada Social Club and the apparent brain-child of at his alter-ego,  House of El Diablo. (He also performs with Mojo Mancini, a group that includes some of New Yorks' top session players and producers.)

He's like a sort of sound magician. It seems whatever he attempts works remarkably well. The Brian Mitchell Bands' Roots is an exploding, heavily bayou voo-doo'd cornucopia of sound that somehow still sounds like nothing so much as the root of Brian Mitchell. Contrastingly, House of Diablo, finishing up a new record now, is more… experimental, even more impossible to put into words and perhaps, because it is so elusive, is even more the core of him.

Mr. Mitchell describes House of Diablo as a place where he finds things within layers of sound. It sounds to me like extremely good music from another dimension or something. The random is constantly thrown out at you. You can find everything from sword swallowers to an utterly unfamiliar but completely beautiful "Subterranean Homesick Blues" at one of their shows.  Sometimes he sings through a megaphone. "People say it sounds kind of like a carnival barker." He said. "It feels that way. And I've always loved carnivals."

And he loves what he does: 

"The second it starts to feel like a business I try to shake things up, get away, pay attention." He said. "I mean, I've learned about the business at this point. Like the people in "The Wizard of Oz", I started to see the man behind the curtain.  But I always have a good time."

How can it not be a good time when you're El Diablo?

Mon, 08/25/2008 - 9:55 am

Once upon a time, in a holler far, far away, a music revolution was born when the cries of Hasil "The Haze" Adkins, the last of ten Adkins children, first echoed across Appalachia. No one knows the exact date of the event. Though it was recorded in a family Bible, the Bible was lost.

At an early age, Hasil beat out insane rhythms on a milk can for hours. He soon discovered that, if he hung around long enough, the adults around him would get drunk enough to let him play their guitars. Hasil also played Bluegrass music with D. Ray White, a musician and mountain dancer who is the subject of the Hank Williams III song, "The Legend of D. Ray White" and father of Jesco White the infamous Boone County Dancing Outlaw.

D.Ray's remarkable dancing was recorded in a documentary "Talking Feet" by Mike Seeger and Ruth Pershing. His son, Jesco White, was recorded in two documentaries, one for PBS, "The Dancing Outlaw" and later "Jesco Goes to Hollywood". Jesco has since performed with Hank III on several occasions and is currently working on a new reality programming project for Johnny Knoxville's production company and MTV. Hasil Adkins was like an uncle to Jesco and his sister Mamie who literally grew up at his feet.

Adkins sent out hundreds of DIY tapes and records from his remote Boone County holler causing musical and cultural ripples that washed up on everybody's back porch from The Cramps to Hank III. Hasil Adkins was one of

a kind force of nature heard round the world that continues to echo with the timeless quality of true art.

Through his music, Rockabilly was rounded out, (he's named, along with Elvis, as a "book-end" of the genre), the first, (and subsequent) rounds of Punk were heavily influenced and Psychobilly was born..  The odds of this happening would have been, for the average person, insurmountable.

But Hasil Adkins was anything but an average person, as a new documentary about him by film-maker, musician and painter R.Smith reflects. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Smith about Hasil, their music and the film, "MY BLUE STAR: the life & hunchin' times of Hasil Haze Adkins". The preview just screened at the 2008 DEEP BLUES Music & Film Festival in St.Paul, Minnesota, where it won 1st place in the Previews & Trailers category. The MY BLUE STAR preview was also just shown August 21 at the prestigious and totally rockin' DON'T KNOCK THE ROCK MUSIC & FILM FESTIVAL in Hollywood, CA.

On Hasil's music, which combines a multitude of elements, Smith said, "Punk, Blues and Country all talk about real things, things that sometimes are ugly, painful bad subjects, good stuff too, but real stuff. It's that place out there on the edge that mainstream suburbia isn't comfortable with. It brings you to a kind of crossroads. When sections of music and culture bump into each other, that's where interesting things happen."

Hasil's songs ranged from sad, soulful country ballads to shrieking frenzies with eccentric titles like, "No More Hot Dogs", "Peanut Butter Rock & Roll", "Chicken Walk" and "Chicken Flop", in fact, Adkins recorded an entire album of songs about chicken "Poultry In Motion"and cited Col. Harlan Sanders as one of his primary influences in general along with Hank Williams, Little Richard and Jimmie Rodgers.

His performances were equally eccentric. For example, he became well known for a wild, sexually suggestive dance called "The Hunch" and for employing catchphrases like "I want your head on my wall", "Do the Chicken Walk", "Hunch that thing!" and "Boo Boo the Cat".

"Hasil truly lived his persona yet he would have been the first to say that nobody could sustain that over the top psychobilly mindset all the time." Smith said. "One interesting thing about him was that he contained a lot of duality. It wasn't so much contradiction as duality. There were a lot of ironic things about him that didn't make sense at first, but as you got to know him they came together. He didn't have much formal education but was a complete news junkie that read and studied politics all the time. He loved discussing politics and current events as well as hunchin' and the glories of fried chicken."

"Most people, if they know of him at all, are either familiar with the really wild music of his album "Out To Hunch" or they associate him with The Cramps, so that's a weird perception right there.  But people who really appreciate him as a musician like the wild side but also know about his hardcore Country music, which is what he started out in the 50's as, a crazy hillbilly mountain jack. He even went through a period doing  electric Chicago Blues.He was like a spong, he soaked up everything, even Gospel and Bluegrass too."

"In the '50s, he toured with Patsy Cline and the Collins Kids, played on Townhall Party and got hooked up with the guy who handled Ritchie Valens and was really close to getting a major record deal when his father died. When that happened, Haze went back to West Virginia. The story goes that the guy came back with a contract a half hour after Hasil's bus had left town.

As a child Hasil had heard one person singing on the radio and thought they were playing several instruments all by themselves so as a result he mastered a wide range of instruments and could play many of them simultaneously and began performing and recording as a One Man Band, partly out of his own necessity as much as his own unique vision.

"When he got back home he started doing his one man band thing.", Smith said, "He was living in obscurity in a remote holler. He didn't have a band but he didn't let that stop him. He didn't let anything stop him. For the next decade he kept doing records and demos on his own and sending them to people, everybody from Sam Phillips to Ed Sullivan to Richard Nixon. He mailed off hundreds of demos. The walls of his shack and trailer were literally papered with thousands of both fan letters and rejection letters. But it was all good to Haze."

"Another thing about Hasil was, he wasn't afraid to just stop on a dime and do something different. He would make up songs on the spot. I've seen him do it, music just flowed out of him."

One song of his I taped one night in Chapel Hill called, "She Left Early in the Morning" starts as a slow spooky Delta Blues then shifts gears into a jumpin' Boogie then shifts gears again into overdrive into a flat-out Punk Rock screamer all in the same song! He came offstage after he'd played it and I said,

"Hasil, that was amazing. What was that?"

"He said, "I made it up tonight. Did you record it?"

"I said yes and he said, "Good because I don't think I'll remember it tomorrow."

"He was fearless. When he went on stage he didn't give a damn if you liked him or not, he was there to party and ROCK the joint. He wanted you to have a good time but it wasn't all about ego or trying to be cool. He was just having a good time and raising hell.

"He taught me that, most of the time, you don't have to be best musician or greatest singer. Most people drinking in a bar are drinking to get their mins off other stuff and just wanna have a good time and if you do too, most of the time they'll help you! Coming off with a rock star attitude or some deep message, the whole, "Be quiet! Listen!" thing, people have always had a short span for that and these days, people's attention spans are shorter than ever.

As for Smith's own music, it, somewhat eerily, all seems to  have started 20 years ago.

"In '88, I was sitting at a friends house listening to the blues and we started talking about going down to Louisiana and getting a "mojo". Two hours later, we were in a car headed South. They say the Lord looks out for drunks and fools and we were both of those things.

"It just so happened that the day we rolled into New Orleans was the first day of the 1988 Jazz and Heritage Festival and the first person we ran into was a real hoodoo woman  named Priestess Ava K. Jones, who said she was the Great-great-great Grand-daughter of Marie Laveau. I don't know if that true but she was the only person listed under Voodoo in the New Orleans phone book, for real."

"We met her at her Voodoo shop in the French Quarter, like, where else would you look fir a mojo, right? ... and she asked what she could do for me and I said, "Priestess, I'd like to get a Mojo. 

"She said, "What kind of mojo you want? To help with women? gambling? love?"

"No,  I said, "I want to be a musician. I'd like Mojo to help my inner voice come out through my music."

"She said, "Oh, that's a wonderful, unselfish thing to ask for, I'm going to make you special Mojo."

"So she put some things in a bag, said prayers over it and told me to keep it in my pocket or a special place and to never open it. All I can say is, I don't know if it worked or not but it seems to have.

"Then she said, "I done all I can do chile'. You need to go to the crossroads now."

"I said, "You're making fun, you're pullin' my leg.

"She said, "No, honey. I ain't gonna tell you what to do when you get there but take your guitar."

"So, we went up Highway 61 to Clarksdale, Mississippi to Jim O'Neil's shop Stackhouse Records and the had just opened up the Delta Blues Museum there too, and we went to see Jim and said, "We were in New Orleans and a voodoo priestess told us to come to the crossroads."

"Jim said, "Well, you can do that, but I recommend you go oiver to Wade Walton's Jukejoint Barbershop and get yourself a guitar lesson and a haircut instead."

"So that's exactly what we did, we walked in and everything got real quiet. We said, "Hi Wade, Jim O'Neill just sent us over here to get a guitar lesson."

"He sent us in the back and told us to get a beer and wait till he was done cutting another customer's hair. then he came back and said, "Y'all want to learn to play the blues -where's your guitar?"

"I went and got my box and he starts playing, then reaches in a drawer, takes out a pair of wirecutters and cuts off my top string puts it in open G tuning and says, "Take this home, play with it as much as you play with yourself and when it starts feeling ½ as good you'll be a guitar player."

"So that was my introduction to the Blues and to guitar playing and I've been wankin off ever since! Hahaha"

Possibly in part from that, but largely due to Hasil, Smith is now a performer too after many years of playing at home or "woodshedding it" as he calls it and has started taking to the stage with his own one man band incarnation  CuzN Wildweed.

"I wouldn't be playing music if not for Hasil Adkins. I can't play like Hasil but he taught me about abandon and giving yourself over to the muse and the beat and not caring if anybody else likes it as long as YOU like it. That's what it's all about, just having fun and rockin' out!

"If you were friends with Hasil, he was gonna get you playin' music. It didn't matter if you played it or not or wanted to play it. He was gonna get you to play."

"People play music for different reasons. Some people play because they have natural ability, some to get attention or girls, some have some weird pain or message they want to convey or express. Others just play because it feels good. In my case, I never considered myself as having an innate talent, I just like to rock because it feels good!"

Wildweed, who kicked off the recent 2008 DEEP BLUES Music & Film Festival both as a musician and filmmaker has opened for Joe Buck from Hank III's Damn Band, The Pack A.D., Dexter Romweber, Vapor Rhinos, Memphis Johnny Lowebow and a whole slew of new gen Punk Blues and Heavy Metal headbangers. Cuz says a YouTube video from JESCOFEST that ignited Wildweed fever in the cult underground but that he often gets mixed reactions depending on the venue and crowd, and went on to describe being sometimes well received and sometimes literally unplugged. But, that seems to be part of his point.

"Picasso often said The ugly may become beautiful, but the pretty never." That's kinda where I'm coming from. Some of what I do is ugly, but sometimes when it works there's beauty there too."

For example, the night he incorporated a two string electric broomstick into his act, 

"I'd played it there before and done some pretty weird shit and never had a problem. But one night I pulled it out and dared the audience for me to plug it in. I did a song I made up on spot and halfway through the owner came running up screaming that I had to either turn it down or he was pulling the plug. After the set he said, "Cuz. you're welcome back here, but I don't want to ever see that thing in my bar again!"

"But I make no apologies or excuses, I say if you book the devil then be prepared to raise some hell, dammit! I love feedback, I love strange aural textures, I create sonic gutpiles that are interpreted not just with your ears but hopefully with a little bit of your soul too. Sometimes that's painful. On a good night, when it's working the way it's supposed to, it's like really hard sex where it feels really good but kinda hurts a little too. On an off night when it's not, it's like bad carpet burns. That's the risk of reaching for Art, you gotta be willing to dare to suck. And that's my greatest strength, I have no fear of failure. None!"

The same can be said of Hasil's music, he did things his own way, hunched to his own beat and had no fear of rejection whatsoever. In his lifetime, he composed something like 7,000 songs and released 21 albums and 16 singles. At the time of his death he was about to record with Hank III for the iconic double CD "STRAIGHT TO HELL" that Jesco White performs on. Hank III had visited Boone County to record with Jesco and was due to go back for sessions with Hasil when he passed.

paintings by Jeffrey Holland


Sun, 08/14/2011 - 9:34 pm

Visual artist, writer, musician and actor Wes Freed is a Southern Gothic multi-disciplinary wonder of sorts. His work overlaps to such an extent he almost sings his paintings and paints his songs. Freed himself, his wife and long-time collaborator Jyl, his truck and his home studio all seem to overlap with it as well. All are best described as looking like live people, places and things from Crow Holler, the setting for most of his work.

Crow Holler is a world built from memory and memory of memory. In all of the forms Freed's art takes, its' corners and crevices are exposed, piece by piece.  As this occurs, an anticipatory peace emerges. A one-eyed owl hovers on the edge of an eerie landscape. Withered trees scratch a lonesome Moon.  You have the sense, as you look and listen, that something surprising is just around the corner. Smiling sirens beckon, hint that you should come closer; their moon-round eyes all aglow. Faceless men linger on lonesome roads, creep out of dark caverns, waiting, expecting.

You feel they look back at you. Their expressions have an effect similar to that of Goya’s portraits; their glances suggest secrets, possibly profound ones. Here, a pipe-smoking skeleton grins, leans in to tell an ancient tale. There, women with their souls in their eyes wait for you with half-hidden smiles. The images and words that emerge from Freed's inner world are haunting. Once you have seen and heard Dixie Butcher, Cecil Lone Eye, the Conjure Man or any of the other Crow Holler folk, you find you can leave them for as long you like but neither they nor the place quite leaves you.

It's familiar, comfortable but also foreboding. Some of the people and places are just shadows. Some are skeletal. Others burst with life. “We've found it! Come in! Come see! Here! It's right over here!”, the people and creatures who live there all seem to say.  You feel the “It” they speak of is something you’ll recognize the second you see it. “It” is something you wanted so badly you hid it far, far way long ago. “It” vanished in the material world but hasn’t gone away here. No, in Crow Holler you find it again, tucked in a corner of the world of dreams where it’s almost always autumn. There air is thick with the odor of hay and spilled gasoline.

Crow Holler is, in part, a re-creation of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where Freed spent his childhood. He described it as a place, "full of old dirt roads, straggling trees on hillsides; corroded by time and progress.” He left the Valley for Richmond's Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received a degree in painting and printmaking.

Like Chagall, he never returned to the place that his work often reflects wistfully but his memories permeate his work. Best known for his album and poster art for the Drive-by Truckers, Wes Freed is not only a visual artist and actor, (cult classics, 'Thrillbillies' and 'Degenerates Ink', both written for Wes and directed by Jim Stramel), but he's a singer/songwriter as well with a new band, The Magnificent Bastards.  He talked with me about his film, art and music in a series of conversations a while back.

GW: I asked him first about his films, 'Thrillbillies' and 'Degenerates Ink', were the parts really written for him?

WF: In the first film, ('Thrillbillies') we're heroes, killing to 'take back the South' and in the second we're anti-heroes. Most of the people we kill are guilty of nothing but being obnoxious -- we're tattoo artists but it becomes easier killing people and taking money than it is making money for tattoos.

WF: Jim wrote Thrillbillies with the three of us in mind, yes. I'd never acted before nor wanted to had never had that much interest in pursuing it, though playing music is kind of like acting; you have to personable and hold attention.

WF: Anyway, in 'Thrillbillies', the lead role was originally planned for a man, but our actor opted out a few weeks before shooting so we asked Erin, who played fiddle for Jyl, (Wes' equally talented wife), and my band The Shiners. We decided not to change anything, even though she was female, just have her play it very mean and butch.

GW: What, I asked him, about his music?

WF: It's more of a continuation of the music I was doing before with Dirtball and The Shiners, though this time I'm writing more. In fact, I've written almost all of the songs we're recording now. It all fits into Crow Holler, (the location of his paintings). It's not old timey, it's not really not modern... they're just written in a way that they could exist in any time really.

WF: The songs, like the paintings, deal with moonshine, ghosts, lonesome roads... there's a tavern song written from the vantage point of a dangerous man before he got all big and dangerous, when he was a bum out roaming around not having any place to call home, living on the road... one I wrote about moonshine while watching 'The Sopranos', about how the moonshine industry is a family sort of thing and nobody talks out of turn or you just disappear somewhere in the swamp...  it is kind of like 'The Sopranos',  when a brother turns rat, no questions asked, just an empty spot in the pew Sunday morning. It's the dark side of things but it's an explanation of why it is what it is.

GW: What sort of music do you listen to?

WF: I listen to a lot of Dead, which depends on my mood. Workingman's Dead and American Beauty are in heavy rotation -- I love High Time, Loser, Cracker does a great cover of that... I've been hearin'  Sugaree in my head a lot lately. I really like the Country feel of some of their tunes. And I love their song structure, I'm drawn to more structured songs as a general rule.

WF: When I'm in the truck I listen to the outlaw country station... otherwise it depends on the time of year or what I'm doing. I like Hank Sr., Stranglers, Gun Club, Holy Modal Rounders, Robert Johnson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Willie Nelson... I was a member of the Willie Nelson fan club in 1977 or 1979 or so", he laughed. "I don't remember when I stopped paying my dues but that card was in the wallet I carried around in elementary school. I  had Confederate money and my Willie Nelson fan club card in there. he continued,

WF: We had so much Confederate money - a box of it - -that had been left over because it became useless in about 1863. What we had would probably have been enough to buy a loaf of bread in 1865. The Confederate money in my Grandfather's wallet was like buying stuff in pesos or lyre.

GW: Along a similar vein, I asked, what movies do you like to watch?

WF: I love 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid', the Sergio Leonne movie, 'Dusk till Dawn, all of Quinten Tarintino's stuff, most of Robert Rodrigeuz stuff... I really love old '50s black and white flying saucer and giant insect movies and early '60s them and The Thing from Outer Space, the original, although the John Carpenter re-make with Kurt Russell was pretty good. Movies have probably influenced my song-writing as much as listening to other music has. I write in a very visual style; I tend to think in images and write out the images --

GW: You're best known for you album art... what album art struck you when you were younger?

WF: I always liked the Dead's album covers. When I was a kid I loved the Kiss album covers, I liked Destroyer and Love Gun the best not Rock and Roll All Night, though I like that one better now. My taste has changed as I've gotten older (laughter).

GW: What, I asked him, did you want to be when you grew up?

WF: I think this is it.  I wanted to be doing what I'm doing. In my fantasies as a kid there was a lot more money involved (laughter).  I think I probably figured when majored in art that it wouldn't matter what I did with it because I was going to be a rock star anyway. I figured I could fall back on being a starving artist if didn't make it as starving musician.

WF: I was initially going to major in commercial art and, when I was younger, I used to imagine ending up like Darren Stevens. I thought I'd walk around with a portfolio and people would ask me to draw things and they'd pay me for it, like he did.  I figured I could do that.

WF: I would have never told Elizabeth Montgomery she couldn't use her magic powers. I think that was really short sighted of Darren. Reigning it in some kind of makes sense, that much magic could've taken a lot of the challenge out of life. But man, to have wasted all that potential!

WF: Anyway, initially I was going to go through the commercial art program but halfway through the art program you have to learn painting. You learn it in a way that, if you stayed in commercial art you'd never use again. It's a really good thing, it shows you where you want to go. Well, I saw that what I wanted to do was go into painting. To be quite honest, I never really thought about where it was going to lead; I just went from situation to situation and hoped for the best.

Wes Freed’s paintings, like his film roles, (Jim Strammels’ “Thrillbillies” and the soon to be released, “Degenerates”), can be savage, extreme, imperative. His songs are no less intense, though by contrast, quietly fierce.  He communicates, through all of these mediums, a one-man universe full of stark dualities that are uniquely Southern. It is not the South you are accustomed to seeing, not one you expect to see. He exposes the dark, gritty underside of all that, both good and bad equally.  The omnipresent possibility of both permeates his strange, sparse landscapes.

“To me”, Freed said when I asked him what the ominous tone that crept into his work was reflective of in a recent interview, “ominous isn’t really bad, it means something interesting is going to happen.”

His memories are layered with those of his Grandfather who in turn, was layering stories his Great-Great Uncles told him as a child. I asked him to tell me more about them.

WF: My Grandfather’s Uncles filled his head with stories and he filled mine with them and some more of his own. When you’re a little kid you believe everything adult’s say. They’ve blended together in my mind, formed a backdrop (laughter).

WF: My brother and I spent a lot of time with my Grandfather.  We lived on the same farm and he was just a walk down a dirt road away. He had a ‘51 Ford pick-up, open on both ends, that we'd sit in. He parked it in his corn crib to keep it out of the rain. We'd play with our jack knives while he told us stories.

WF: That truck is almost a shrine now, still full of the things that were in it the day he died, like an old corn shucker with “The Boss” engraved on the bottom, Lucky and Camel packs, receipts going back to before I was born. I used to go sit in it every day and pretend I was driving (laughter).  One day, the truck disappeared. I asked my parents what happened to it and they suggested I call the Sheriff, he laughed again,  turned out they’d gotten it running for me for my birthday. They forgot to flush the radiator though; it never drove right after that.

There are not only Southern but also outlaw undertones to Freed's work. These may center most strongly on tales of a Confederate General named Mosby. His Grandfather's Uncle's, who had been Calvarymen with him in the War, painted tales of him that match the devil-may care spirit of much of Freed's work.

WF: Mosby did a lot behind the lines (laughter) he and his men also robbed trains. Some of the men were hung in a public square with a note on them that read, “This will be fate of Mosby and all his men. They weren’t outlaws; they were all sanctioned but were spies and guerillas.”

WF: It’s such an intangible thing, communicating the whole idea of the War, Mosby, the Valley.  It’s just a feeling for me, something personal that would be hard for someone else to understand because it’s so much a part of what’s going on in my brain. It’s like when I was eight and had this buzzing in my head after I’d taken some Robitussin for a cold. It’s just a feeling. There’s smells, sounds, sights; the smell of the truck and the corn drying in the cribs, the barn.

The nostalgic wistfulness of his work is not unlike that seen in the paintings of Bruegel but with darker undertones. It's as though we're looking at the phantoms of lost dreams. In a sense we are. The places and times he draws from are irretrievably gone.

WF: Bruegel was painting a vanishing culture. His landscapes weren’t completely romanticized but you get the feeling that he loved the farms that he drew.  My paintings are in some ways are similar, like a memory.

Also like Bruegel, Freed sometimes brings out chimeras from a gallery of oddities that's often a little sinister, frightening. They lend a supernatural quality to his work, which has a touch of the Danse Macabre to it as well. Skeletons often dance in Crow Holler and other ancient rituals unfold.  Unlike traditional Danse Macabre paintings, the common themes of remorse, hysteria, hopelessness, the grave, are absent.  There is a common sense of mystery, however, of both profound contentment and wild abandon.

GW: I asked Freed if the idealized dream of lost happiness spread across an often ominous, spooky landscape didn't seem like a contradiction to him.

WF: Both the dark and light of it are reassuring to me. Beautiful is a subjective term. I see it as a paradise. When I was a kid, the idea of the Sunday school version of Heaven scared the Hell out of me. No dead trees? No old cars? No rust or broke down old barns? That didn't sound like Paradise to me.

GW: What would you find in Paradise?

WF: A beat up old garage with a cool car and a bunch of motorcycles; a place where it wouldn’t rain a lot but it would be cloudy a lot and the temperature would be just right.  It would be full of the smell of baking chicken, gas and motor oil, things like that. Paradise isn’t really planned out. Crow Holler is almost like a dream state, like that half awake place you go to when you’re a kid.

WF: In the winter, my Grandmother cooked on a wood stove and my Grandfather had a rocking chair that sat next to it. There was a set of steps that went up the back way to what used to be my Dad’s bedroom. We’d sit on the steps and look out the window while she cooked. In that sort of setting, you can romanticize just about anything. That setting, to me, is part of Paradise; full of the smell of a wood stove and whatever's cooking; with Grandma downstairs plucking a chicken.

WF: I think with my art I’m mostly trying to convince myself that the place really does exist somewhere. Maybe I’ll find it, in a metaphysical sort of way...

In Freed’s work, fantastic imagery is used to create a dream world that mirrors our own. The monsters, chimeras and bizarre fantasies that come to life in Crow Holler are visual metaphors, a private language of symbols. As with Bosch's, the paintings lead the viewer to question the conflicting qualities encountered there. Sometimes this leads us to question the ones we encounter within.

Thu, 08/18/2011 - 4:32 am

This weekend the International NewGrass Festival will be held in Oakland, Kentucky. The area is the birthplace of NewGrass music and the festival features some of the genre's top musicians including Sam Bush and Curtis Burch (NewGrass Revival)  along with rising stars like The Farewell Drifters, Dread Clampitt (with special guests from Duckbutter), Rockin Acoustic Circus and others. Festival gates open at 8am Friday and passes include camping. Single day tickets are also available. KET will be filming the festival this year for their Jubilee series, which will feature the event on 100 PBS stations nationwide. Come check it out!


August 19, 2011

8AM - Gates Open

10am to 11am - Yoga Sessions with Lucy Weberling (Bring your own Mat)

NOON - Hazel Johnson Band

2pm - Act Of Congress

4pm- The Vespers

6pm - The Farewell Drifters

8pm - The Greencards

August 20, 2011

8AM - Gates Open
10am to 11am - Yoga Sessions with Lucy Weberling (Bring your own Mat)

NOON - Ryan Cavanaugh & No Mans Land

2pm - Dread Clampitt

4pm - Curtis Burch Band

6pm - Sierra Hull & Highway 111

8pm - Sam Bush Band
10pm - SAM JAM

August 21, 2011

8AM - Gates Open
10am to 11am - Yoga Sessions with Lucy Weberling (Bring your own Mat)

NOON - Nedski and Mojo with Jana
2pm - Sydni Perry and Cafe Blue
4pm - Rocking Acoustic Circus 6pm - Dread Clampitt (with guests/members of Duckbutter)
Tue, 08/23/2011 - 12:13 am

Canadian Bob Masse, who has recently been designing posters and t-shirts for LebowskiFest, Playboy's recent Bunny series and Phil Lesh & Bob Weir's Furthur, is himself very Lebowski. In fact, he calls himself 'The Dude' of the art world. Having designed posters for and been a friend of major artists since the early 60s, before many of them were major artists, he's earned whatever title he chooses. The names read like a history of rock: The Doors, The Grateful DeadBob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Cream, Canned Heat, through today with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Alanis MorissetteBob Dylan with Paul Simon and many, many more.

Recently featured in Chicago's Rotofugi Gallery's Playboy exhibit and an Art Defining Music exhibit at Nashville's Estel Gallery, (which also included Wes Freed, John Langford, Willie Nelson's son, Jacob Micah and others). He fell into his life's work in the 50s. An art student, he was asked to find a venue and create a free concert poster as a class project.

BM: I started getting carried away.  I was in my 20s, going back-stage; so I kept going to the Beat coffee houses and doing free work. They loved me. (laughter)

BM: Then Beat melded into Folk and I was meeting people like Ian and Sylvia, Jefferson Airplane. Then Bob Dylan made folk electric and it went that way. I just went along with the music.

Masse said that, in addition to making posters he did all sorts of other things for bands. He worked the door, helped load equipment, worked concessions. He also, (because he was the one who had a van), went to pick people up when they arrived, sometimes to meeting them at the border.

BM: It was a circus trying to get through a lot of the time.  The Dead, for example, were dressed all wild, smelled like patchouli. We had to assure the guards that they'd be leaving again in a few days.

BM: I did a poster for Bob Dylan and spelled his name Dylon. It wasn't a huge deal because not that many people even knew who was. At the time, no one knew who the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin,  Jimi Hendrix or any of those people were.

Throughout the early to mid 60s, an art movement was building in San Francisco. Masse described going there every two months ago, staying with the Grateful Dead in their Haight Ashbury home:

BM: At first the scene there was idyllic. It was quite amazing." He said. "Everyone was friendly. Everyone talked to one another on the street. There were beautiful posters everywhere. I had a hell of a time.

BM: Unfortunately, it was also short-lived. It lasted from 1964 till about 66. Then a progressive decline set in. Every time I went back more kids had left home and turned up there. The town was full of basically homeless adolescents from the Midwest.

BM: They started panhandling and it wasn't so much fun walking down the street. You can't live on nothing, it all falls apart. You get in these situations where you want well, food.

BM: Drugs started affecting everything more. I mean, you're doing all these drugs and where do you get the money for the drugs? People started getting aggressive.

Masse ultimately relocated to California but for Laurel Canyon over Haight Ashbury.

BM: I went down to do a cover for Warner Brothers. It was the first time I got to watch an album being recorded and was really exciting. When I got there, they told me there was someone else from Canada they wanted me to meet. Here comes skinny blonde, all teeth with two guys. At the time it was no big deal; nonetheless, it was Joni Mitchell, David Cassidy and Graham Nash.

Warner Brothers loved his work, offered him more and he moved nto the garage behind Erol Flynn's house, where Flynn's daughter still lived; (he later lived above the legendary Whiskey a Go-Go). Frank Zappa and Stevie Nicks were among his neighbors and a house previously owned by Harry Houdini was just down the street.

BM: It was a fabulous place." He said. "At night you could hear everyone playing music as you walked up to the canyon, all very low key.

BM: There was a renaissance going on that mirrored itself in the Hippie movement. Art mixed with psychedelic drugs, the colors were bright instead of organic. It's similar to the parallel group of young, rebellious guys, the Impressionists. They would quietly go into their little studio, paint away at something, then go drink absinthe.

Masse's main influence in San Francisco was fellow rock artist, Stanley Mouse, (designer of the famous Grateful Dead skeleton with roses, among many other iconic works). Mouse's work frequently also reflects Art Nouveau.

GW: Why Art Nouveau?

BM: Art that looked to the past fit in well with the music, the folkiness of everything." Masse said. "I did steamboat gambling type pieces, woodcut lettering. The revival started, in Nevada's Red Dog Saloon; a place laden with Old West history.

BM: The art of the turn of the century is my greatest love. In part, I saw posters as a way to turn people on to Mucha, to Art Nouveau. I mixed the style with psychedelic lettering, creating a new mixture.

BM: One way of creating art is to modify, to make a thing something else. Elvis, for example; he was a stylist, taking little bits from here and there and combining them to make Rock and Roll.  I'm also a populist.  I'd rather have thousands of people enjoy my art than a few. For me, posters were a perfect vehicle.

BM: Artists then were really gave artists the chance to do their thing. That's why, for example, you have a Led Zeppelin cover with an avocado on it. I could do whatever I wanted and put the band name on it. My world was built on music but most of the time I was just playing around.

BM: Nowadays, art can be put everywhere so there's an enormous amount going on around it but it's not enough just to have talent, you have to figure out what to do with it.