Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Bridge Too Far

There just seemed to be something missing. Or maybe I'd just grown bored of its sound. But one way or another I wanted to make a change to my banjo. That change was a new bridge.

For a while, I was using a half-inch, no-top cheap Grover bridge, and I really liked the sound. When I changed to using heavy nylon strings, however, the lower bridge no longer worked. The only other option I had lying around was a thicker 5/8-inch bridge, which just sounded muddy to me. I tried to modify it by cutting off the middle foot to make a two-footer, which I prefer with nylon strings, but my hack job didn't really work.

A 5/8-inch, two-footed, no-top "mystery wood"
 bridge from Bart Veerman.
About two weeks ago, I decided to try something new. I'd heard of Bart Veerman's bridges through the Banjo Hangout for some time, and a friend had recently installed one of Bart's bridges on a banjo that he let me try out. Having liked the sound, I decided to go for it.

Thinking back to that cheap Grover, I ordered a 5/8-inch, two-foot, no-top "mystery wood" bridge with extra-wide spacing from Bart's website,

Bart was quick to respond. I ordered on a Friday, and my bridge was sent out the following Monday. He is based in Canada, so expect a delay in delivery if you order from the United States. Bart estimated a week to 12 days. Mine arrived in a week.

After installing the bridge, the change in sound was unmistakable. My banjo is louder, and the tone is clearer and livelier.

My banjo specs: 
  • Neck: Walnut, thick boat heel 
  • Scale: 24.25 inches
  • Rim: 12-inch diameter, 1/4-inch thick multiply maple
  • Tone ring: Dobson-style
My current setup: 
After a thorough test drive, I'll write more about Bart's bridges. Initial impressions have been quite positive.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Postcards: Raccoon County

Mark Olitsky (center) jams with other local musicians at the
Raccoon County Music Festival in Burton, Ohio.

Your intrepid blogger (center) plays tunes with old, new
and soon-to-be friends at the Raccoon County Music Festival.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Raccoon County Music Festival Is Coming Saturday to Burton, Ohio

So my favorite local festival is this Saturday. If you are local to Northeast Ohio and a fan of banjos, old-time and other roots music, I strongly encourage you to attend the Raccoon County Music Festival in Burton, Ohio.

The annual event takes place from noon to 8 p.m. on the grounds of the Century Village Museum. Like Hale Farm, Burton's Century Village is a living museum with restored buildings and demonstrations of our pre-modern world. The festival features two stages for live music ranging from old-time and bluegrass to polka and blues, as well as workshops and jam sessions.

Workshops will include beginning and advanced old-time banjo taught by Glory-Beaming Banjo favorite Mark Olitsky, beginning bluegrass banjo taught by Rick Campbell and clogging taught by Laura Lewis Kovac. There will be kite flying in the afternoon for children. And a square dance will end the day, with all dances taught on the fly — no experience needed. Spontaneous jamming will sprout up all over the festival grounds.

The festival organizers recommend attendees bring chairs, blankets, instruments, food and other necessities for spending the day enjoying the festivities. Food will be available for purchase from various vendors. Admission is $10 for ages 13 and up, $4 for ages 6 to 12, and free for ages 5 and under.

Festival Lineup:
Noon — Ray and Kate Ritchie (folk songs)
1:00 — The Polka Pirates (polka)
2:00 — Young and Blue (bluegrass and old-time)
3:00 — Kristine Jackson (blues)
4:00 — Bill Schmidt and Friends (old-time)
5:00 — The SpYder Stompers and Sister Sugar Pie (pre-war country blues)
6:00 — Square dance with caller Lynn Frederick and the house old-time players

Noon — The Family Dog (folk and original songs)
1:00 — Roots of American Music blues guitar and song writing workshop for kids
2:00 — The Whitehouse Brothers (old-time)
3:00 — The Five Islands (early calypso)
4:00 — Tina Bergmann and Bryan Thomas (hammered dulcimer and bass)
5:00 — Sacred Harp (traditional Appalachian singing)

2-3:30 — Kite Flying

2:00 — Beginning Old-Time Banjo (Mark Olitsky)
3:00 — Advanced Old-Time banjo (Mark Olitsky)
4:00 — Beginning Bluegrass Banjo (Rick Campbell)
5:00 — Clogging (Laura Lewis Kovac)

Here's a video from last year:


Friday, August 8, 2014

'Touched With Fire' Update

Remember back a year and a half ago when we talked about an upcoming documentary about the Highwoods String Band? At the time, the film was slated to be released in the spring of 2013. However, here we are in the summer of 2014 and still no movie.

This is not to disparage the filmmakers in any way. As a reminder, "Touched With Fire: The Highwoods String Band Story" is being produced by Horse Archer Productions, a two-person, self-funded company that relies on fundraising to complete its projects. This will be the third film by the company that focuses on old-time music, joining "Why Old Time?" and "The Henry Reed Legacy," which are still available for $20 each.

As one of the people who pre-ordered the Highwoods documentary, I was curious what was going on with the project. And having possibly led some of you to invest in the film, it seemed like my duty to provide an update.

According to the company's website, the company was trying to locate some more footage of the band in action during its heyday. Here's what producer/director Chris Valluzzo wrote in a statement dated June 24:
"I just wanted provide you all an update on the Highwoods String Band and Green Grass Clogger videos. The primary holdup was that we could not find very much video WITH audio of the band during the time on the scene. We spent much of 2013-14 on dead-end chases, but we were able to get some. We called off the search and have hired an editor who [began] work a couple weeks ago. Since we were nearly $20,000 short on our fundraising goal, funds have had to come out of our own pockets (we are a two-person company with full-time day jobs), and that also held up the project. Thanks for your patience and interest. We have heard from many people that they'd rather see the film done right than done fast so we have taken that to heart. We hope to have the Highwoods documentary done by fall with Green Grass soon to follow."
You can view a trailer for the documentary here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Playing Music in the Valley

In the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the historic Hale Farm & Village, an outdoor living museum of life in the 19th century.

Jonathan Hale, a farmer from Connecticut, came to what was then the Western Reserve in 1810. Three generations of Hales lived in the house he built in 1825.

Across what is now Oak Hill Road, a small village dots the bucolic landscape with barns, a church, a schoolhouse, a pottery shop and other small buildings . Today, reenactors inhabit the village to display blacksmithing, glassblowing and other trades. Great Lakes Brewing Co. operates a small organic farm, where it grows vegetables and herbs to be used in its restaurant. Hale Farm & Village is open year round, and each July it hosts Music in the Valley in collaboration with the local non-profit group Folknet.

This past weekend marked the event's 40th. In the video above, you'll see the wide variety of music represented at the two-day affair. The group I played with shows up at the 1:10 mark. The circle grew much bigger by Saturday afternoon.

This was my first year attending Music in the Valley, and I was toting along my 10-month-old son, as my wife worked that day. It was our first big father-son adventure, as I usually only run short errands while on Dad Duty. I brought just my banjo, as 1.) I'm not comfortable enough playing my fiddle in a jam yet, and 2.) it would have been way too much to carry, what with the baby, stroller, diaper bag, camp chair and other supplies.

As it was, I had to rig up a strap for my banjo case so I could sling it around my shoulder. I used a length of nylon rope I keep in the car for tying down the trunk when hauling large items. It looked ridiculous, but it worked.

The event goes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, with overnight camping available for those interested in attending both days. Musicians get in free, otherwise it's $10 for adults and $5 for ages 3 to 18. My son and I showed up around 1 p.m. and stayed until about 4:30.

Hale Farm is only a 15-minute drive from my house. I didn't know what I was missing by not attending past years. This will have to become a regular event for my family. In addition to the music festival, Hale Farm also hosted a wine tasting event during the weekend. There is plenty to do for young and old, musicians and non-musicians alike.