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Showing posts from 2013

2013: Year in Review

Having just looked back on the progress I've made playing the fiddle this year, it seems appropriate to revisit some of the other blog-worthy events of 2013. This has been a momentous year. By far, the biggest highlight of the year was becoming a father, but there were some pretty cool things happening in my old-time music realm as well. Here are a couple notables.

We kicked off the year with an interview with Chris Valluzzo of Horse Archer Productions about the upcoming documentary on the Highwoods String Band. At the time, the documentary was scheduled to be released in the spring or summer, but a wild goose chase for more footage of the Highwoods playing live has delayed the project. Valluzzo provided an update in October on Facebook, saying the film should be ready around Christmastime.

In March, Greg Galbreath of Buckeye Banjos spoke to the Glory-Beaming Banjo about creating custom banjos. Since then, Galbreath has closed his custom orders list to begin focusing on …

2013: Fiddle Year One

A few years ago, I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which propagates the idea of "the 10,000-hour rule," whereby it takes 10,000 hours of practicing a certain task to become a master of that task. This idea planted a seed that led me to create a spreadsheet to track my banjo playing. I already tracked my running on another spreadsheet, so it seemed natural to carry over the practice to quantify my musical pursuits.

Since 2008, I've logged 1,010 hours (and counting) of banjo playing, so in another 45 years I'll have mastered the instrument. I'll be 79 years old. It seems hopeless to think that way, but having the spreadsheet helps me keep track of my progress, regardless of whether I ever actually reach that gilded 10,000-hour mark.

A year ago, I bought a fiddle as a Christmas gift to me from my wife, and you'd better believe I created a spreadsheet to track my playing. I made some great progress in the beginning of the year, but then the weather got nice…

Old-Time Music Gateways: Iron Mountain String Band

When I was finding my way into old-time music, there were a few seminal moments I can remember thinking, "This is the stuff." Like my remembrance of my fist time hearing this music live at the hands of David Bass and the Forge Mountain Diggers, "Old-Time Music Gateways" will be a recurring feature focused on highlighting my early forays into this musical style. 
* * *  It was for the tracks by Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb and Lee Sexton that I bought the Smithsonian Folkways compilation "Classic Old-Time Music." Those names had been recommended as good sources of different banjo playing than the likes of Earl Scruggs. But those three old-time pickers would have to wait because it was the very first track that grabbed me.

The sudden burst of driving fiddle almost startled me on the recording of "Sugar Hill," by the Iron Mountain String Band. The lilting banjo tickled my ears, and the nasally singing made me smile in approval. This was good stuff.


The Revolving Repertoire

There are the tunes you know and the tunes you don't know, but then there are also the tunes you used to know and ones you are forgetting. Those people who claim to know hundreds of tunes crack me up. Maybe because there are only so many my brain can seem to hold onto at any given time.

The last couple weeks, I've gotten a little more regular banjo playing time, and it's mostly been spent trying to remember the tunes I thought I knew. It seems every time I sit down to play the banjo, another tune sprouts to my memory, but its melody seems just out of reach, like a word that's on the tip of your tongue, but won't come out.

"Oh yeah, 'Half Past Four,' I used to play that. Now, how did it go?"

Maybe a few measures will fall under my fingers, maybe the whole tune will materialize. Listening to those stuck tunes usually helps, but not always. For the life of me, I can't remember how I used to play the B part of "Breaking Up Christmas."

I …

Plays Pretty for Baby

It's not like he claps along, but there's something magical about playing the fiddle (or banjo) in front of my son and not having him scream out in holy terror.

My morning routine has changed slightly, after my wife asked if I could watch the baby a little longer in the mornings when I feed him so she could catch some uninterrupted shuteye. She didn't think my playing music in the attic would disturb her sleep, and we have a bassinet up there for our son to sleep in while I saw away.

To my surprise, he quickly dozes and let's me have my half hour of practice time. Hopefully, there won't be any irreparable harm to his ears or psyche when all is said and done.

This week I picked up Brad Leftwich's Old-Time Fiddle Round Peak Style from the library to see if it was worth owning. There's a lot of information to parse. You can download the CD tracks for free, and having read most of the non-tune parts of the book already, I'm not sure it's a must-have. Bu…

Basement Bower

Family life is starting to settle into a routine. Last week, my wife and I swapped feeding shifts, allowing me some extra time in the morning before work. It's not much, but the half hour I get to play fiddle in the basement has been rejuvenating.

The attic is my preferred practice space. The finished room has a corner dedicated to my music, including a stereo, LPs and CDs, bookshelves, a music stand, extra chairs in case of musical visitors, and a table for appropriate beverages. The basement, however, puts an extra floor between my making noise and my sleeping family.

In the last four days, I've managed to practice three times. Those sessions have mostly been focused on knocking off the rust accumulated over the past month since our son was born. My main goal for now is to just focus on bowing and maintaining the few tunes I've learned so far. If I can get a few steps closer to mastering the bow, I'll call this year's progress a success.

While I'm still learn…

New Parent, New Challenges

My baby son arrived almost two weeks ago. Playing old-time music has taken a backseat to the excitement and challenges of being a new parent.

When before a free half hour meant time to practice a new tune, now it's a time to sneak in a nap before the next feeding. Soon, I'm hoping to figure out how to schedule time to play my instruments.

The biggest complication will be trying to improve on the fiddle with so little time to practice. Going into this endeavor, I knew it would be a difficult balancing act. With only nine months under my belt so far, my skills will decay faster than roadkill in the desert if I don't keep my playing fresh.

Already tunes are starting to slip away. Yesterday, while listening to the Skillet Lickers on the way home from work, I couldn't remember how to play parts of "Molly Put the Kettle On." I don't know how I'm going to get better if I'm forgetting what I've learned.

But I can't be the only person who's tri…

RIP Charlie Faurot 1935-2013

Once it became clear that it was clawhammer banjo I wanted to learn, the one resource that everyone recommended was the three-volume "Clawhammer Banjo" recordings by Charlie Faurot. For people who play this style of banjo, he was our Alan Lomax, a man who set out to record the living masters of our beloved five-stringed instrument. Faurot died Sunday at the age of 77.

Born in Chicago and educated at Yale, Faurot began recording old-time musicians in the 1950s. By the 1960s, he started publishing the recordings as a side business to his careers as a banker, math teacher, swimming and water polo coach, and computer systems consultant. A few years after retiring, Faurot founded Old Blue Records in 2003 and began publishing old-time recordings he made from the 1960s to the present, including albums he had recorded for County Records.

Looking through all the albums on the Old Blue Records website, it surprised me how many of Faurot's recordings I owned without realizing it.


Staying Local

We're nearing the end of festival season. Mount Airy, Clifftop and Galax have all come and gone. Yet another year that I've stayed home. One of these days I'll get to one of those bigger events. Meanwhile, I made a brief appearance this weekend at my favorite local festival: Raccoon County.

The Raccoon County Music Festival occurs every August at the Geauga County Century Village Museum in Burton, Ohio. There were a variety of musical acts on two stages, from polka to old-time, as well as some workshops and a square dance at the end of the day.

Throughout the grounds, people toured the historical buildings and played games, while others gathered to play music. With only a couple hours to spare, I tested out my new banjo setup among live victims (other than my wife and dog). It's hard to believe it's been more than two months since I've played my banjo with others.

My local banjo hero, Mark Olitsky, gave a workshop later in the day, but sadly I couldn't stay…

R.I.P. Grandma McD

My grandma died Sunday night. She was 91. Two weeks ago she had a stroke. We went down to see her in Columbus the next day. She showed signs of recovery and was moved to a rehabilitation facility last week, but we learned Saturday that she had pneumonia. That was that.

I'm thankful that I got to see her one last time and tell her how much I loved her, but it is not a memory I care to hold onto, seeing her weakened and struggling to talk, tubes attached to her paper-thin skin. Instead, I choose to think of her in that mountainside house in Brevard, N.C., where she and my grandfather moved to in 1984.

My grandparents were migratory. They met and married and had four children in Nebraska, moved to Illinois, moved to Kentucky, moved to Florida and then to North Carolina. We used to pack up the car, always on some bitterly cold morning during winter break, and drive the 10 hours south to visit and celebrate Christmas, leaving the frigid North Coast for the Blue Ridge Mountains. Usually…

Stuffing the Pot

OK, so maybe I was wrong. In the last post, we discussed stuffing the pot, and I claimed this practice "isn't getting the job done" vis-a-vis the desired tonal qualities of my banjo.

After switching to Chris Sands' heavy nylon strings, I removed all the stuffing from the pot. The result was pure echo. I figured it would get drowned out when playing with others, but then I played with others and it still sounded all echoy.

This problem may be solved by switching to a thicker skin head, but in the meantime it's back to stuffing. Maybe it wasn't stuffing that was the problem, but rather the placement of the stuffing I didn't like. But first, let's talk about what we use to stuff our banjos.

Lots of people like a sock or old rag, while others use a piece of foam of varying sizes and densities. Some people use duct tape, and I know at least one player who uses wadded up tissue paper. A guy I play with on occasion swears by Kroger plastic shopping bags. I&#…

Banjo Tinkering

There comes a time when you just want something different. Since we all can't own enough banjos to suit our varying tastes from day to day, a fact that our neighbors and loved ones no doubt celebrate, we must instead tinker with our instruments now and again to make new sounds.

My banjo needs a tonal makeover. Right now it is set up with Ome heavy strings, a thin goatskin head and a 5/8-inch bridge of medium weight, all on a 12-inch rim with a Dobson-style tone ring. There is also a swatch of duct tape under the bridge and a wad of plastic grocery bags wrapped with tissue paper stuffed between the head and dowel stick to mute harsh overtones.

Like many old-time banjo players, I'm always in search of the perfect "plunky" sound. However, I've come to the conclusion that stuffing the pot isn't getting the job done. While this practice cuts down on high-pitched brightness, it also kills the warm timbre associated with skin heads. Also, why have a tone ring if you&…

Difficult Balancing Act

Trying to learn the fiddle in the months before my wife delivers our first child has proven to be a tough task, especially when the weather gets nice and running starts to occupy more of my time.

Don't even ask me about playing the banjo.

The summer should be the time when I while away the evenings playing tunes on my porch, but that's easier said than done. Over the last few weeks, playing music has taken a backseat to running the local trails, barbecuing, mowing the lawn and, more recently, putting together furniture for the baby's room.

Only in the last few days have I mustered the courage to see what feeble skills remain since the last time I played the fiddle or banjo.

There are only so many hours in the day. And with so many interests, some are bound to get short shrift from time to time.

My poor banjo has been neglected the most. My plan was to use jam sessions as my primary outlet for playing the ole five-string, but it's been a couple months since I've bee…

Sittin' Next to Walt Koken in the Catbird's Seat: New Book

Aspiring banjo players are often told to go learn from the masters. One such master has made that task a little easier with the release of a new book of tunes.

Walt Koken's upcoming release is a transcription of the tunes on last year's "Sittin' in the Catbird's Seat," his first solo album in 15 years. Koken, of course, is well known in old-time music circles as a former member of the Highwoods Stringband, a current Orpheus Supertone, and co-conspirator of the "Milliner-Koken Collection of American Fiddle Tunes."

"Sittin' in the Catbird's Seat" features original and old-time tunes and songs played in clawhammer and three-finger banjo styles. Sources include Dock Boggs, Hobart Smith, Mississippi John Hurt, Frank Hutchison, French Carpenter, and Scott Joplin. The companion book is 48 pages long and printed in an oversized, easy-to-read format with spiral binding so that you can lay the book flat.

The book is suitable for all levels o…

The Biologist's Eye: A Look at the Artistry of Buckeye Banjos

Biology doesn’t sound like a standard resume item for a banjo builder, but don’t tell that to Greg Galbreath of Buckeye Banjos. Ever since starting his company in 2005, he has built a sturdy reputation and now boasts a waiting list of three and a half years for one of his custom-built banjos.

With a background in conservation biology, Galbreath holds a master’s degree in ecology from Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y. Buckeye Banjos is based in Eggleston, Va., at the base of the company’s namesake, Buckeye Mountain, about 16 miles outside of Blacksburg, where Galbreath studied biology at Virginia Tech.

Although Blacksburg lies an hour north of Galax, home of the famous fiddler’s convention, Galbreath got hooked on banjo and old-time music while living in Ithaca. After he finished his studies, he moved back to Southwest Virginia in 1996 to be closer to the source of the music. Upon returning to the region, he went searching for someone to teach him clawhammer banjo and found a new ca…

New Event: Shore Folk Festival

Those of you in Northeast Ohio and the surrounding region might want to check out a new event this Saturday, Feb. 23. Starting at noon, the Shore Cultural Centre will host the inaugural Shore Folk Festival, which will include performances and workshops on music, poetry, dancing and art.

Banjo enthusiasts will be happy to learn that there will be two workshops on their favorite five-stringed instrument, one on clawhammer, taught by none other than Mark Olitsky, and the other on bluegrass, taught by multi-instrumentalist Paul Kovac.

Olitsky has asked locals to get behind this fledgling event.

"If you can make it, it would be great to get as much support from the old-time community as possible," he wrote in an e-mail. "There should be a lot of possibility to jam and drink beer."

Olitsky's workshop starts at 2 p.m. The direction of the class will depend heavily on the attendees, so be prepared to ask some questions. However, he does have an intriguing topic that w…

Recording the Highwoods: An Interview With Chris Valluzzo

Like a brush fire spreading across a mountainside, the Highwoods String Band stoked a burning enthusiasm for old-time music and sparked legions of new converts to the sound of fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass. The band, which featured fiddlers Walt Koken and Bob Potts, banjoist Mac Benford, guitarist Doug Dorschug and bassist Jennifer Cleland, first played together in 1972 at the Old-Time Fiddler's Convention in Union Grove, N.C.

The Highwoods recorded three LPs with Rounder Records ("Fire on the Mountain," "Dance All Night" and "No. 3 Special") before breaking up by the end of the decade. Although their tenure may have been short, there influence continues today.

Horse Archer Productions, which has produced two previous films related to old-time music, is developing a documentary on the Highwoods, titled "Touched With Fire: the Highwoods String Band Story," which is slated for release this spring. These films are self-funded projects that prod…

Postcards: Freight Hoppers

Freight Hoppers in Cleveland

The Freight Hoppers are on the move. Unlike those wimpy birds that fly south for the winter, this hard-driving old-time string band is headed to the northern Midwest for a brace of shows this January. The short tour will see the band traveling through Wisconsin (tonight), Minnesota (tomorrow) and finally to my dear old Ohio (Monday and Tuesday).

Freights fiddler David Bass is originally from the Cleveland area, but word has it he won't be playing with the band for Monday's show at the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern. In his place will be Edward Hunter, who joins banjo enchanter and band co-founder Frank Lee (who will hopefully be playing the banjothat Jeff Delfield built for him), with Isaac Deal on guitar and vocals and Bradley Adams on bass.

The Freight Hoppers were the hottest old-time string band of the 1990s, performing all over the world and even climbing the Billboard charts, but the group took a five-year hiatus in the early 2000s when Bass underwent heart transplant sur…

Early Banjo: New Adventures

Just so you don't think I've gone down the rabbit hole chasing old-time fiddle, I've been devising ways to keep myself playing the banjo. It's true that the fiddle has taken up most of my music playing time so far this year, but I'm going to try something new — or rather old — to broaden my banjo horizons.

While old-time string band music remains my passion, I've always been drawn to the low-tuned minstrel style of the 19th century. I can hear its influence on old-time musicians such as Dan Gellert.

The early stroke-style of banjo during this period is said to be the precursor to the clawhammer style that I play. It only seems natural for me to take another step backward in time to explore this technique and see if I can add some tricks to my banjo bag.

Tim Twiss, the preeminent master and proponent of stroke-style banjo, recently published a book on the subject, appropriately titled, "Early Banjo."

The book is aimed at beginners and presents instructi…

Enter the Fiddle

Contrary to my original goal, the fiddle has had a detrimental effect on my banjo playing. That is to say, only 10 percent of the time I've spent playing music this year so far has been on the banjo. The other 90 percent has been all fiddle.

The screeching and scraping began just before Christmas when I purchased the old German trade fiddle you see in the photo above. With the help of Wayne Erbsen's Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus, I've learned the D scale and the tunes "Ida Red" and "Say Darlin' Say."

After an in-home trial from Shar Music, I chose a Presto Encore carbon fiber bow. Now, if only they could transplant the right arm of Melvin Wine in place of the one I've got, which can't seem to get the bow to saw across the strings in a consistent manner. It seems to move left and right almost as much as it moves up and down.

My poor banjo has sat neglected. I pick it up a few times while I'm practicing the fiddle to see if I…