Bluegrass In The City

Somewhere along the winding gravel road of Bob Dylan’s MusicCares Person Of The Year acceptance speech, he mentioned something that I think is profound.

The term “Hillbilly Music” was coined by Al Hopkins in the 1920’s and continued in use until the late 1950’s.  Dylan credits the Delmore Brothers, the Stanley Brothers, Roscoe Holcomb, and the Skilletlickers in his speech as examples but they aren’t the only ones.  The music itself, grown in the hills of Appalachia is a melting pot of music bringing together the music from everyone who settled America.  Although originally spanning gospel to Celtic and everything in between, the music became more synonymous with old time and bluegrass musics.  Films like “O Brother” have brought attention back to the music.

Grown in the hills and country, the music came to the city where it attracted new attention and sophistication.  Bands like the Country Gentlemen from Northern Virginia, The New Lost City Ramblers in New York City played traditional American music to a whole new audience.

Here is a cut from another New York City group, the Greenbriar Boys.  John Herald, Ralph Rinzler, and Bob Yellin started playing in the Greenwich Village area.  They opened for and provided backup for Joan Baez.  Given the folk circuit of the day, they certainly played along side Bob Dylan as he first showed up in New York.  This cut, “Russian Around” is one of my favorites.  A simple instrumental featuring banjo and guitar, I think it’s significant because it has one of the earliest guitar breaks I can think of that effortlessly mixes cross picking and single string styles.  Although you hear similar breaks today, this is really a ground breaking instrumental.


Gig review: Joanne Shaw Taylor – “The Dirty Truth” – Annapolis, MD – 2015-02-11


English guitar phenom Joanne Shaw Taylor takes Annapolis by storm in support of her new album “The Dirty Truth”

It wasn’t all that long ago that the blues was a prominent part of the music scene, with the stars of the blues scene being household names in the general public. Young rock musicians, who learned to play by spinning the albums from the blues masters and trying to copy what they heard, revered blues guitarists and treated the albums as sacred artifacts.

As long as people experience love and loss, and the eternal struggle between the sacred and the profane, the blues will never die. In 2015, however, the blues scene has fragmented into any number of niches, each with a small but dedicated set of followers, and the stars of the genres seem to be known mostly only within the larger blues community. Blues 2015 seems to be defined by rigid rules and styles, at times seeming almost a formalistic exercise in style where both the artists and the audience know exactly what’s expected of them.

But a genre as hoary as the blues can still surprise. One of the surprises to me over the last decade is how vital the European blues scene has become. There are summertime folk/blues festivals throughout Europe, and the fan base seems to be as fervent there, especially with young people, as anything in the US. On a business trip a few years back to Moscow, Russia, I serendipitously caught a local blues festival and was really surprised by how much the young people were into it as if it were a new thing being freshly invented.

An even bigger surprise to me is how many of the young European blues guitarists are female. Two of the most well-known of this new breed are Serbian whiz Ana Popovic and England’s Joanne Shaw Taylor, the latter of whom played a terrific set on Wed 2015/02/11 at the Ramshead in Annapolis, MD in support of her excellent new album “The Dirty Truth”.

I’ve followed Ms. Taylor’s career since her 2009 debut with “White Sugar” but last week’s show was the first I saw in person. She really is as good as advertised, and I would strongly recommend seeing her if you’re interested in what 2015 blues and boogie-rock sounds like.

Taylor eschews the typical pitfall of young blues phenoms of always trying to play as fast and loud as she can. Instead, she employs a style that is supple, melodic, and lyrical, while retaining all of the power.   Although there were occasional times where she just threw down a monster solo on her Les Paul, far more often she let the melody and music take her at their own pace, with her soloing and riffing style in service of the music, rather than vice versa.

Backed by an able rhythm section from Detroit, she ran through selections from her entire career from “White Sugar”, “Diamonds In The Dirt” and “Always Almost Never” although she did focus on songs from the new album “The Dirty Truth”.

In addition to her sparkling guitar playing, Taylor is an engaging vocalist, with a whiskey-soaked voice belying her years and an expressive phrasing that has obviously been honed by years on the road.

Highlights to me were “Diamonds In The Dirt” as well as “Mud Honey” and “Tried, Tested and True” from “The Dirty Truth”.

If Taylor is an example of the hands into which the blues have been entrusted in 2015, then the statement that the blues will never die may just turn out to be true. If those hands happen to be young, white, female and English all the better.

If you ever get the chance to see Taylor in concert, by all means do so. She’s the real deal.


Photo courtesy of Natasha Cornblatt

…and That is How Awesome Was Born

Back in 1948, Samuel Goldwyn got a big idea to do a remake of the Gary Cooper flick “Balls of Fire”. He wanted to showcase the top talent of the day, and also wanted to get Danny Kaye out of a funk after Danny left his wife. The result was nothing short of complete MGM/RKO style awesomeness.

What happens when you put the following people all in the same room –

Danny Kaye, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Mel Powell, Alton Hendrickson, Louis Bellson, Harry Babasin, Russo & the Samba Kings, and the Golden Gate Quartet…..

…..and throw in a little Virginia Mayo for some eye candy as well?

I am not quite at liberty to say in as few words, but I’ll say this for sure – A Song Is Damn Well Born.


Lyrics that make you go “hmm?”


First off, in the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, I must admit that I was raised on Tom Waits songs.  Yes, the singer/songwriter who has given us such great lines as:

  • Paws his inside P-coat pocket for a welcome twenty-five cents,
    And the last bent butt from a package of Kents,
    As he dreams of a waitress with Maxwell House eyes
    And marmalade thighs with scrambled yellow hair.
  • the classified section offered no direction
    it’s a cold caffeine in a nicotine cloud
    now the touch of your fingers
    lingers burning in my memory
    I’ve been 86ed from your scheme
    I’m in a melodramatic nocturnal scene
    I’m a refugee from a disconcerted affair
    as the lead pipe morning falls
    and the waitress calls
  • Well he came home from the war
    with a party in his head
    and modified Brougham DeVille
    and a pair of legs that opened up
    like butterfly wings
    and a mad dog that wouldn’t
    sit still
    he went and took up with a Salvation Army
    Band girl
    who played dirty water
    on a swordfishtrombone
    he went to sleep at the bottom of
    Tenkiller lake
    and he said “gee, but it’s
    great to be home.”
  • He has no friends
    But he gets a lot of mail
    I’ll bet he spent a little
    Time in jail…
    I heard he was up on the
    Roof last night
    Signaling with a flashlight
    And what’s that tune he’s
    Always whistling…
    What’s he building in there?
    What’s he building in there?

So it takes a lot to make me go “hmm?” when I’m listening to music these days (okay, so I will also admit to it taking me at least two playings of each Waits album before I totally get all his lyrics 😉 )

What is music these days? Catchy “beats” created on electronic boxes awash with switches and dials where the lyrics leap at you? Real instruments played with heart where the lyrics are just along for the ride? MOR combinations of riffs and lyrics that are so formalistic you can swear they must have come out of a MIT-created hit song generator?

Yes, the current musical scene does appear rather bleak from my lyrical seat in the stands. Is there hope for us after all?  For your consideration, I present the following:

  • “I’m a happy idiot waving at cars”
  • “When I say nothing I say everything”
  • “We all sing along but the notes are all wrong”
  • “Why do you only call me when you’re high?”
  • “Even Da Vinci couldn’t paint you
    And Stephen Hawking can’t explain you
    Rosetta Stone could not translate you
    I’m at a loss for words, I’m at a loss for words
    I couldn’t put it in a novel
    I wrote a page, but it was awful”
  • “I’m on a train, going nowhere
    I ran away, to make you care
    This ain’t my house, this ain’t your home
    Not when I’m feeling, this alone”

(TOTR, Jack White, Matt&Kim, Arctic Monkeys, Weezer, Royal Blood)

What do you think? Me? I’m going back to listen to my Waits albums and maybe dip into some old school hip-hop (Naz and Rakim, anyone?)

Keep challenging your musical perspectives!