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Showing posts from 2012

Fiddle Shopping: Lessons From Past Purchases

My first banjo was bought online in 2008. About a year later, I wanted something different. My mistake was buying an instrument sight unseen, or rather sound unheard.

There have been times during my search for a fiddle that I've come close to buying some cheapo from some so-called "reputable" website, but my experience buying that Recording King taught me better. Not that the banjo was bad. It just didn't have the sound I was searching for, mainly because I didn't really know what that sound was.

Now, having played old-time music for a few years and hearing other fiddlers, I'm already leagues ahead of that first instrument purchase because I have an idea of what I want my first fiddle to sound like. While I have no clue how to play anything on the fiddle, I've been lucky to have someone on hand to play the instruments I've been considering in a way I hope to one day be able to play.

My first stop was Studio Strings in Wadsworth, Ohio, where the propri…

Better Banjo Through Fiddling

For the past year or so, the idea of learning to play the fiddle has become a growing fascination. Approaching five years of playing the banjo in March 2013, the "devil's box" seems like the next logical step in my old-time musical education. This winter, I've finally decided. As a Christmas gift from my wife, I'm now on the hunt for a solid, entry-level instrument.

Considering how many fiddlers I know, playing with others is not my main goal in learning a second instrument, but rather to improve my ability to accompany a fiddler on banjo and further understand the music itself.

Picking Up the Melody
Learning the basic melody of a tune can be difficult at times with a banjo. I've considered learning to become a world-class whistler or investing in a couple harmonicas to better pick up melodies, but a fiddle seems most fitting. After all, old-time music is primarily "fiddle tunes."

Improving My Ear
While I've gotten much better at getting away from…

Banjo Trends: Dobson Revival

Just like anything else, the craftsmanship of building a banjo goes through trends. The one that my banjo represents is what we'll call the Dobson Revival.

It would be difficult for me to pinpoint when this trend began because it predates my introduction to playing the instrument, but there are certain characteristics that seem to have become ubiquitous among today's banjo builders.

The Dobson family were major innovators in banjo construction during the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the mid-2000s, a renaissance emerged showcasing certain Dobson design hallmarks — some of which may actually have been those of the J.H. Buckbee Co., which manufactured most of the Dobson instruments, as well as other brands.

Dobson Tone Ring
Henry C. Dobson's 1881 "Silver Bell Patent" marked one of the first successful uses of a tone ring. In the mid-2000s, probably with the help of Adam Hurt, a few banjo builders reintroduced Dobson's tone system to modern players. Engineering …

Happenings: Kent Folk Fest

The time is nigh, local folk fans. The 46th annual Kent State Folk Festival is this week in Kent, Ohio. Concerts start tonight, while the WKSU Folk Alley 'Round Town is tomorrow night and the free community workshops are Saturday.

Banjo and old-time fans should pay particular attention to a few events Friday and Saturday.

First, during the 'Round Town on Friday, there is an open old-time jam from 5 to 8 p.m. (or later) at the Euro Gyro, sponsored by the Kent Shindig, a group that gathers monthly every first Sunday.

Also of note Friday are performances by old-time banjo player Shelby Bondzio from 3:30 to 5:50 p.m. at Kent Free Library, local old-time musicians Joe LaRose and Lynn Fredrick from 6 to 9 p.m. at Woodsy's Music, and the Mayfields start at 8 p.m. at Standing Rock Cultural Arts. Check the schedule for many others, from a wide range of genres.

Saturday's schedule includes clogging workshops by Charlie Burton with music by Marilyn and Tom Lashuay at noon and 1 p…

Way Up North in Peninsula

The G.A.R. Hall in Peninsula, Ohio, has been hosting a series of lectures related to the Civil War in recognition of the 150th anniversary of what southerners still call "the war of northern aggression."

With "Dixie" being the song of the Confederates during the war and the song's ties to Ohio, it was fitting that last night's lecture should focus on Howard and Judy Sacks' 2003 book Way Up North in Dixie: A Black Family's Claim to the Confederate Anthem, published by the University of Illinois Press.

The Sackses are both affiliated with Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, and residents of Mount Vernon, Ohio, the town where Daniel Decatur Emmett was born and is buried.

Emmett was a famous blackface minstrel of the mid-1800s and is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame for such compositions as "Turkey in the Straw," "The Boatman's Dance," "Old Dan Tucker" and of course "Dixie." The latter song, however, ma…

KSU Folk Fest Sneak Peak

The Kent State Folk Festival will be Sept. 20-22 in Kent, Ohio. The free workshops are always my highlight of the festival, as they offer an opportunity meet and learn from some great musicians. Afterward, you can usually find a good jam to play some tunes.

While the official event website remains awful a work in progress, Northeast Ohio-based guitarist, singer and songwriter Kerry Kean has posted on his own site the workshop schedule for this year's festival.

In years past, the workshops were held at the KSU Student Center, which was a perfect place for people to meet, attend whatever workshop they were interested in, and then get together afterward to play tunes in the spacious building. This year, however, it looks like the workshops are being held in various locations in downtown Kent.

Glory-Beaming Banjo fans will be happy to note that Mark Olitsky will be co-hosting the banjo workshop, as he has done in the past. The session will be at the Downtown Gallery, according the the …

Festival Envy

Here it comes again. Clifftop. The Appalachian String Band Festival, Aug. 1-5, at Camp Washington-Carver in Fayette County, W.Va. Ever since becoming enraptured by old-time music I've wanted to make the pilgrimage to this festival, but once again it'll have to wait until another year.

Living in Northeast Ohio, I'm lucky in that there are local jams and a few annual events where I can go play and hear the music, but there's nothing on the scale of Clifftop. It has become almost mythological in mind. The white whale of fiddles, banjos, guitars, basses and a variety of other instruments and the fellow fogies who make them sing.

While I've never been to the festival, videos posted on YouTube from various years are legion. If I'm trying ot learn a new tune and want to watch a video, there's almost always an example from Clifftop.

When I was trying to learn "Half Past Four," I watched this video over and over and over again. Athens, Ohio-based banjo pla…

Nordic Flavor Injected into Minnesota Fiddle Tunes

If you like your old-time music served with lutefisk and sauerkraut, then do we have the album for you.

Late last month, Mike Sawyer (aka "Clawhammer Mike"), the author of the blogs Clawhammer Tune of the Day and Minnesota Fiddle, released a CD that culminated from two years of brainstorming, research, tune collecting and recording, The Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project.

The album features 27 tunes played by modernday musicians, but influenced by an earlier generation of Minnesota's great fiddlers. The tunes collected here feature a heavy dose of Nordic and Swedish sounds, but that's Minnesota for you.

The Minnesota Fiddle Tunes Project includes tunes from a number of the state's local musicians and bands, including Sawyer's group the Temporary Stringband and our friend Craig Evans' Eelpout Stringers, as well as some who have moved away from the state, such as Adam Hurt and Billy Matthews.

Most of the musicians here play in a traditional old-time setup with…

Doc Watson (1923-2012)

We lost another one. Doc Watson, 89, died Tuesday in Winston-Salem, N.C., following abdominal surgery. Watson was born in Deep Gap, N.C., March 3, 1923, the sixth of nine children, who lived in a three-bedroom house.

Although Watson was famous for his guitar playing, he also was an accomplished banjo player, learning to play the five-string as a boy. When he was 11, his father gave him a homemade banjo with the skin of a cat used for the head, according to NPR.

GBB has been following the news of Watson's hospitalization after he fell at his home last week.

Watson was always one of those musicians whose albums I never owned, but that I keep meaning to buy. His influence on the 1960s folk revival and later generations of musicians is evident in the work of today's bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, whom Watson is credited with discovering, and the Avett Brothers.

Over the weekend, my wife wanted to listen to the Avett Brothers "Live, Vol. 2," on which they play "W…

June Festivals

Get ready! We're about to enter the height of festival season, starting this weekend with the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention, in Mount Airy, N.C., and the John Hartford Memorial Festival, in Bean Blossom, Ind.

Later in the month is the Indiana Fiddlers' Gathering, June 22-24, in Battle Ground, Ind. On that same weekend is the Early American Banjo Conference at the Antietam National Battlefield in Keedysville, Md.

The summer is a busy time for old-time music events, so GBB won't be able to keep up with everything. Please let us know if we're missing an important event, and report back if you attend any of these festivals, conventions or conferences.

Check out the current issue of Old Time Herald for this year's full festival guide.

Is there an event this summer you're looking forward to?

Prime Porch Picking Time

Spring is in full swing, and the weather is perfect for playing the banjo outside.

My wife and I bought our first house in December 2011, and from the beginning was I looking forward to using the porch for picking.

Earlier this year, some friends joined me for a small house jam, and we got a couple opportunities to play outside instead of the stuffy attic. Recent scheduling conflicts, however, put future plans on hiatus, but that hasn't meant that I'm not out there playing.

We live in a diverse neighborhood, and it's been enjoyable seeing the reactions from the neighbors walking by, mainly youngsters who variably give me the disparaging stink-eye or approving head-nod. One guy, whom I call the "Friendly Neighborhood Roving Rapper," stopped before me on Sunday and engaged in a duel of sorts, with him rapping at me while I played "Candy Girl" back at him. My first rap battle!

Similar to joining my first jam, I've had to learn to play through the distr…

2012 Blue Sky Folk Festival

Coming this Saturday, May 19, in Kirtland, Ohio, is the second annual Blue Sky Folk Festival. The event features performers, workshops, jam sessions and family activities from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. View the full schedule here.

Banjo and old-time music fans should definitely check out performances by Hu$hmoney and Hickory, as well as a clogging workshop by Laura Lewis Kovac.

For updates about the festival, check out the Blue Sky Folk Festival Facebook page. Enjoy and report back if you go.

The Great Banjo Obsession

Greetings Banjo Newsletter readers! Check out some excerpts from my interview with Riley Baugus that didn't make it into the article in the April issue of BNL.

* * *  If you're reading this site, chances are you're already obsessed with the banjo. In commiseration with our affliction, our good friend Craig "Frailin" Evans wrote a piece for the Huffington Post, appropriately titled "Obsessed: The Banjo."

Evans is busy wrapping up the second volume of his banjo builder documentary, which we wrote about back in June 2011. Since then, he has finished the first volume, Banjo Builders East of the Mississippi, which is now available from the project website, Conversations with North American Banjo Builders, as well as through the Banjo Hangout. You can also watch each 20-minute episode online on a pay-per-view basis. Soon, both volumes will be available through Smithsonian Folkways. The second volume will feature Banjo Builders West of the Mississippi.

But bac…

Riley Baugus: The Excerpts

The April 2012 issue of the Banjo Newsletter includes my article about Riley Baugus in the quarterly section Old-Time Way. Baugus is a considerate and insightful musician and gave me so many thoughtful answers that I couldn't possibly include it all in the space provided. Here are some excerpts from the interview that didn't make the cut:

On his uncle, who was one of his banjo teachers: "I had an uncle from Sparta, that played in an old-time stringband when he was a young man. He moved up to Fredericksburg, Va., in the early 1960s with his family. He followed some friends there to cut timber. Their plan was to stay for six months. Just long enough to cut one tract of timber and then come back home to the mountains. He and his family still live there. He's 85 now. He played guitar mostly, but got a banjo back in the late ‘60s and learned to play it pretty well, two-finger style. I loved the sound of the banjo. It was incredible. He taught me a bit."

On his early day…

Earl Scruggs (1924-2012)

Earl Scruggs, 88, the innovator of bluegrass banjo picking, has died.

Back when I first picked up the banjo, in 2008, Scruggs was the only banjo player's name I really knew and when I heard the term "Scruggs style" I thought that this must be the way.

I borrowed his banjo instruction book from the library and started picking out painfully slow notes. Thumb, index, middle: the forward roll. Middle, index, thumb: the backwards roll. And so on.

After six months of trying, I was frustrated that nothing I played sounded anything close to how Scruggs did it, but nobody else sounded like him either. He at once invented a style of playing and broke the mold doing so.

Listening to Flatt & Scruggs made me realize that I'd be better off learning clawhammer style banjo.

But beyond being a singular talent on the banjo, he was also a great ambassador of the instrument, spreading its popularity far and wide. Legions of men and women owe their interest in the banjo to the late…

Finding the Connection

Learning to play the banjo began as solitary venture. Me plus banjo plus book plus websites: that's how I started.

This instrument and the music I wanted to play wasn't passed down to me from an elder. While my grandparents lived in Brevard, N.C., they didn't play music, and it wasn't until after I undertook the banjo that I learned of the region's thriving old-time community. Instead, the banjo was my key to connecting with others.

After two years of playing (but just one year of playing old-time), I finally summoned the courage to attend my first jam in May 2010, the Kent Shindig, in my hometown of Kent, Ohio. There, I found a thriving -- and growing -- group of people interested in the music to which I had become addicted. 
There's discussion now at the Banjo Hangout about missed generations in the old-time community, decrying the decreasing frequency of musicians learning knee-to-knee from their elders. 
Having to rely on technology to learn the music at fi…

Joe Thompson (1918-2012)

Joe Thompson, 93, the last known black string band musician, died Monday night.

He was born in 1918 in Orange County, in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, and moved near Mebane in 1948, where he spent the rest of his life.

Thompson learned to play the fiddle from his father, Walter Thompson, and played square dances with his brother Nate and cousin Odell Thompson for many years.

He received the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007 and the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1991. You can view his performance at the Kennedy Center website from the NEA ceremony in 2007.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops credit Thompson as an inspiration and mentor for their music, and released a live album with the fiddler from a 2008 performance at Merlefest.

The Dust Busters visited with Thompson in 2010 and recorded the meeting for an episode of the Down Home Radio Show (which is where we swiped the photo above).

To learn more about Thompson, you can view his ob…

Old-Time and Bluegrass Sale

County Sales, one of my favorite places to order old-time music, is having a sale on its surplus stock. While supplies last, these extra CDs are $5 each. If you buy seven or more albums, you'll get one of five "collector" items free. How can you lose?

After a quick look at the surplus list, I saw a few items that may catch the interest of Glory-Beaming Banjo readers, such as Bad Dog (with Mark Olitsky on banjo), Bob Carlin, the Chicken Chokers, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and that's just what popped out.

There are a bunch of compilations on the list, which at $5 might be worth a gamble to find a gem or two.

The collector items you can get, if you buy seven or more CDs, include albums by Flatt & Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and Bill Monroe. Happy shopping ...

Musical Listening Timeline

After finishing my three-part series "Tracing the Banjo Addiction," I decided to compile my musical listening timeline to show all my shifts in taste over my lifetime. These date ranges are as accurate as I can remember and include my favorite artists at the time.

1979 / I Am Born: Disco tops the charts, New Wave emerges, and Bob Seger pleads for that "Old Time Rock and Roll."

1979-1987 / The Early Years: Memories of popular hits like the Police's "I'll Be Watching You" and Hall & Oates' "Private Eyes," going to my first Kent State Folk Festival, and my parents' influence of the Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, and the "folksingers" of the 1960s.

1986 / First Album: Bon Jovi, "Slippery When Wet," a Christmas gift from my uncle.

1986-1992 / Hair Bands: Poison, Gun N' Roses, and Aerosmith.

1992-1993 / Blowing in the Wind: A brief period of Bob Dylan worship.

1993-1999 / White Boy Blues: My dad always loved B.B. Kin…

Tracing the Banjo Addiction: All Banjo All the Time

As I continue my navel gazing, here's another installment of how I got addicted to the banjo ...

Some time around 2006, I eschewed all music without a banjo. My collegiate and post-graduate years seemed to have pointed toward this path, from developing more eclectic tastes to delving into the alt-country scene, but then I reached my tipping point toward full banjo addiction.

From 2006 on, I would be immersed in an in-depth exploration of banjo music and styles that would eventually lead to me buying my first banjo in 2008. 

You could pretty much bet on hearing six albums that were on steady repeat on my CD player during this time. There was Old Crow Medicine Show's debut "O.C.M.S." (released in 2004), Avett Bros.' "Mignonette" (2004), Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind" (2006), Chatham County Line's "Speed of the Whippoorwill" (2006), Great Lake Swimmers' "Ongiara" (2007), and Gillian Welch…

Tracing the Banjo Addiction: The Alt-Country Years

My musical tastes started to flounder in my latter college years. I had always dived into each musical curiosity with great enthusiasm prior to then, but nothing caught my ear during the mid-2000s as I was going through a number of personal changes.

I quit my college job of driving buses after five years for an internship at a local weekly newspaper that I hoped would become my first "career," but my final semester stood in the way of that plan and I was unemployed for a short period. I moved three times in less than a year. By the time I graduated in 2005, I was living with a roommate I hardly knew and working two part-time jobs, one of which was at a new and used record store.

While working at the store, we always had music playing. The choices in what we played were as diverse as the people who worked there, from indie rock and old-school rock and roll to rap and country, all playing together on the store's five-disc CD player.

This was the time period when Modest Mou…

Tracing the Banjo Addiction: Waits, Cash and 'O Brother'

Music has taken me on a long and winding journey through many dissonant sounds and varying genres. My pursuit of learning how to play the five-string banjo began in 2008, but my obsession with the instrument started much earlier.

The first time I can remember liking any music that resembled old-time was in 2000 with the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers' movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" The album, which was re-released last year with additional tracks, featured a mix of old country, traditional folk, and gospel songs. The soundtrack was so popular that it won five Grammy Awards that year.

My ears had recently opened to country-flavored music after becoming a fan of Johnny Cash, particularly his more stripped-down albums on the American label. Prior to that point, I had mostly listened to independent punk bands, like Nation of Ulysses, Universal Order of Armageddon, and Jawbreaker. My high school social life revolved around going to local bands, as my hometown (Kent, Ohi…