Tag Archives: bluegrass

This Instant

27 May


I’ve just returned from Roosterwalk Music Festival 5 at Blue Mountain Festival Grounds outside Martinsville, Virginia. Attending this event was a first in many ways, as it was not only my first three-day music festival, but also my first solo camping experience. From mid-day Friday until this morning, I had access to cell service only if I walked the two miles to the highest hill near the festival site. The catalog of experiences which made their way into my tiny journal and cell phone voice recorder as well as the over 577 photographs I took in the last three days are a testament to the beauty of music and its power to bring people together in harmony and in fellowship.

Roosterwalk Festival was begun in memory of Edwin “the Rooster” Penn and Walker Shank who both unfortunately passed away in their 20’s. Friends created this memorial event, celebrating the two young men’s love of music and of the outdoors. Proceeds benefit the Penn-Shank Memorial Scholarship at Martinsville High School. One of the greatest gifts I received this weekend was the good fortune to camp beside some of Walker Shank’s immediate family who were so kind and gracious to me. The connections I made and all the experiences will take some days to sort and to write about fully, but I wanted to give a preview of some of the things I learned from my first music festival/ camping experience.  Most prominent was the highly unusual weather. All weekend the temperature dropped into the 40’s. Friday night’s low was 36 degrees.  The site had seen a torrential storm on Thursday and so the mud was nearly six inches thick…everywhere.  But the days were in the low 70’s and not a drop of rain in the sky. The full moon made for some incredible pictures and I will be posting them soon. Strangely enough, the music isn’t what moved me so much this weekend. It was the people and the connections made.IMG_8160Saturday night, walking back to my car and it’s tent appendage, I looked up to see a tiny light in the sky right by the checkpoint into the camping area. I asked one of the festival volunteers, a gentleman probably in his sixties. . .

“Oh, what’s that?!” my eyes opening wide.

“It’s a Chinese lantern”, he said. “You light this tiny candle in it and the air heats and it flies.”

“It’s so beautiful” I replied, looking upward.

“Yep, sure is…” he smiled.”There’s a lot a beautiful things to see out here at night…includin’ you.”  He chuckled a bit. “Be careful walking back…you got your light?”

I held up my tiny red Maglite.

“Okay then…be safe young lady.”

People are so amazing…they just are.  There is kindness in the Universe. You don’t really need to even look for it.

Things I learned from Roosterwalk 5:

1. No cell service can be a blessing…the sky is so blue…the moon so bright…Chinese Lanterns float at midnight.
2. Honeysuckle really does smell that good. Virginia is the most beautiful place.
3. Cows…they moo… at sunrise. And moo. And moo. And then. . . moo some more.
4. People are incredibly generous and kind… the high ones are groovy…the drunken ones, not so much sometimes.
5. There are children in adult bodies left in the world…the lost boys still exist. Ragtag clothes and dreadlocks and hula hoops and balloons from Neverland.
6. Peeing in a cup…got it.
7. Stuff doesn’t matter…people do. Listen to stories.
8. Belly dancing to bluegrass?…. who cares. Let it shake and roll!
9. Port-a-pottie and body functions…beer helps.
10. Head lamp…must acquire.
11. Coffee….Instant is still coffee and when the neighbors make it for you rather than walking a half mile for it, it’s better than Starbucks.
12. Earplugs or … how long I can survive without sleep?
13. Mud doesn’t hurt you, everybody smells bad after three days, and by then…you’re family or in love.
14. Those rubber garden clogs that you just threw in the car at the last minute? Priceless.
15. Prepare for weather ranging from snow to jungle heat all in one day…sometimes within the hour.
16. Sleeping while camping alone takes practice…relax.
17. People come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and stages of undress…be prepared to see it all bobbling around unabashedly.
18. Hot food is gold.
19. Musicians are just people …stars are in the sky.
20. Keep in mind one principle: “This instant is everything”

It is.

This Instant

An American Song

23 Apr

For nearly ten years, I could not listen to music without really knowing why. Any song, but especially voices in polyphonic harmony caused me either great emotional pain or annoyance. All I wanted was silence. In the car, in the house, in the world. I have a clear memory of returning from a Celtic festival in 2007 listening to a CD from Seven Nations and literally keening to high harmony. As I steered the car around the Beltway, the voices and notes linked into my soul much too deeply and a vast ocean of raw emotion was revealed. In that time, connection to artistic form was too intense, too close and I could not allow its energy near. Music moved me without much persuasion. However, last spring I slowly began to listen again to songs I loved once, a long time ago.

I am not your rolling wheels
I am the highway
I am not your carpet ride
I am the sky
I am not your blowing wind
I am the lightning
I am not your autumn moon
I am the night. . .
The night.

And once started, I ate it like a starving child. Music fed my flame. I couldn’t stop. Lyrics called to me. Rhythms took me into dream, into memory, the notes translating my emotion into sound beyond word. And since, I have wandered from those old beloved songs through genre after genre until now, landing into something that intrigues me intensely not just musically but culturally: Americana.

With spring’s slow onset, daily runs with bluegrass and old time carry me forward. A search then began for live experiences. After a chat about my love for bluegrass with one of my friends, he suggested a performance by the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Jefferson in Charlottesville. The opportunity seemed perfect. I’d never heard of them, but that concert unknowingly opened a door for me to satisfy this new penchant for “southern roots” music. In dancing and connection, a deep happiness blossomed which has carried me for weeks. Country Girl, Cornbread and Butterbeans, even a remake of Hit ‘Em Up Style had me alternately flat footin’ and hip poppin’. The quartet’s style is so unusual, a curious modern re-visioning of bluegrass, old time country, R&B and early 20th century jazz; all of it was an amazing new encounter. A cultural interest in traditional instruments and the links back to Scots and Irish roots also endeared the band to me. When their lead singer Rhiannon Giddens performed a puirt a beul (gaelic mouth music), I was keeping time with a boot heel and hand to the thigh, calling out at every emotional turn. In singing of an ethnic cultural past, the slave narrative of Julie shone most brightly in this musical form. I didn’t know what to call it, but I knew I had to hear more. Even in watching dancers from Good Foot Dance Company, I began to see convergence culture for the first time. For someone who has been in a dark silence musically for over a decade, this type of audio fusion was enough to completely capture my senses.

As a result, the fueling for traditional and bluegrass edged live music has delivered me to the Ciderworks and Rapunzel’s and then finally, this past weekend to DxDT in Roanoke, Virginia. The Down by Downtown festival celebrates local music by providing venues for the numerous artists of all musical genres in the Roanoke Valley. When had I last seen a local band perform or even had choices among them? In the recent past, modern consumer culture has delivered to public approval only “marketable” bands, those who had potential for profit in one form or another. But now, much like the early days of rock and roll, self promotion and production allows artists to present their efforts directly for public discernment. Through the advent of technology, all art forms are undergoing a local Renaissance, from what I have observed. While it does create more chatter, more need for sifting through the overwhelming volume of expression, it does allow more voices to be heard ….more perspectives of culture and diverse American life.

Friday night took me to Fork in the City to check out The Floorboards, a rock-blues- folk fusion band with audible ties to the Eagles and Van Morrison, with some Mellencamp and Stones thrown in for good measure. The songs were fresh and entirely danceable, Matt Browning’s vocals in clear strong harmony with fiddler- mandolin player Patrick Turner and Bob Chew’s blues guitar. The Floorboards musical blend was like an early evening ride down a mountain country road windows rolled down with a gang of friends, beer and bonfire to come.

A real treat during the evening was fifteen year old Gabe, a blues guitarist and singer invited to play a tune with the band. From the moment he began, I think all who were there would agree that we were witness to a musical virtuoso. And the fact that these ensemble moments happen in local venues extends the idea of the importance of community art expression and the connections which grow each artist within it. To me, this is the heart of a commitment to “local”.

On Saturday evening, I stopped at one of the market restaurants to hear a DxDT band, but soon found the atmosphere a bit seedy and the blues duo not too compelling. Down by Awful Arthur’s, I strolled into the waves of music. Venue after venue, the sound floated like flotsam on a sea, swirling between the brick and glass fronts of packed restaurants. Chilled night air was held back by curtains of lamplight and neon glow. I stopped to watch members of Another Roadside Attraction busking in front of the Market, soon amazed that not many stopped to enjoy, to take in the creativity and life of the street. After a song and a juggle, I swam through the crowd around the corner toward Fork in the Market, stumbling onto a raucous party featuring Welcome to Hoonah, another Americana style band with a unique eclectic blend of folk, country, zydeco, and blues. Spencer McKenna and Jessica Larsen’s vocals wound out song after country rootsi-fied song, blending guitar with old time washboard …yes, a washboard. Add violin, steel guitar, bass, drums and a swinging party and the tiny Fork dance floor flooded with the lot of us. And dance? Yes…yes we did indeed.

In thinking about this genre and the artists who comprise it that night, I texted a friend.

“I’m destined to be an Americana chick…I need ten years back.”

“But what does this mean?” she said.

And I don’t really know, honestly. These artists and the lot who love them are so creative and unique, at least the ones I’ve encountered. They seem to be making a world more attentive to the environment, committed to local art, craft and expression, and living a full and rich life by navigating two worlds, both real time and virtual space. I’ve labeled them Tech Hippies. They give me hope that the limits and excesses of ultra conservative materialist culture will be challenged and surpassed without renouncing all the positives that technology has brought to us. Maybe we’re just beginning to learn to balance another new world of thought and music which might take us all further toward home on this collective journey. It’s an American song I want to sing. . . with them.

Roots and Vine

22 Feb

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Winter is wearing me way thin these days, and I’m not the only one it seems. So many of my friends are in the “bring on the great one or let’s get on with spring” mindset. The days are cold, my hands perpetual briquettes. I brave the air every day at 5:15am on my nighttime jog with Clar. It’s dark…that still qualifies as night in my opinion. So, I get up at the end of the night and run before the day begins, thinking all the while,What am I doing out here? Sane people weren’t meant to be out in this …exercising. Yesterday, though, I noticed in the predawn blue under the sterile halogen of the street lamp, tiny purple-white croci pushed up in my neighbor’s yard, their little buds tight, braced against the winter air, holding their little breaths.

“It’s coming”, they say. “Hold on.”

And I’ve noticed that I’m tired of holding my own breath. Seriously, I need some real fun. Cut it loose, laugh my ass off, dance till I’m out of breath fun. The past few weeks have been soft and reflective, like a shifting snow but underneath, the creek is beginning to run like a mountain thaw. The ground never sleeps for long beneath its frosted blanket of white.

So Sunday morning after my run, I knew I couldn’t stay in the house all day grading papers. I had get out and go some place warm and fun. I’ll take my medicine. I’ll grade my papers like a good little underpaid, under appreciated school marm, but I will have some fun while I’m doing it. A quick on-the-fly Internet search revealed that Tara Mills and Yankee Dixie would be playing at DuCard Vineyards in Madison County up above Charlottesville. Listening to the tracks on her website suddenly reminded me what a Virginia gal I really am. Bluegrass is in my roots, both from my Roanoke upbringing and my Irish heritage. And in my love for the vine, any winery is a fine place to be. The concert was free and DuCard has a fireplace…score.

As I drove north to Madison County, I actually thought to myself with as many wineries as you are visiting Cyndi, your readership has got to be making some judgments. Let me unequivocally state that while I love wine, I can go to a winery without lolling around in inebriated reverie or purchasing a case for my cellar, really.

. . .Stop smiling at me like that, I already have a wine conscience named Paul, thank you very much. Every time I go to a wine festival, he texts me,  “And what’s our spending limit for the cellar today? Are you being good?” and I have to stick to it. Brothers are like that.

So, I rambled up the road searching for this tiny vineyard at the base of the Shenandoah National Park. It had snowed Saturday evening in a wild draping pattern over the cedar and pine speckled mountains and through rocky valleys. I ran into white, then gold,then white. Rocks and black trees appeared amid the dusting. On the last leg of the drive, I actually laughed out loud. Ruby Thewes began to echo in my head. “Waaaaaay up in the hol-ler”, describes DuCard’s location precisely. The vineyard is situated amid open fields and cow pasture, mountain ranges and winding rural state roads. As I pulled up the drive, I knew it was worth the trip, a tiny little tasting room, nestled in a modest sized vineyard. Next to it, a tiny creek, in thaw.

DuCard has one of the warmest, most open tasting rooms I’ve experienced yet. The ceilings are high and the walls are nearly all glass, revealing the view of the mountains. In other seasons, I am sure it’s even more magnificent and I plan to go back in spring with a picnic basket. They have a lovely patio area and small stage adjacent to it. Inside, though, it’s leather couches and small garden tables aside the long tasting bar, like a great room of someone’s mountain getaway. All are invited to a nice Sunday afternoon gathering, except we don’t have to bring a dish, just ourselves.

I set up shop with papers at a table near the front, the fireside being coveted and occupied. Confession time: I had a quick tasting session beforehand. Okay, no chuckles there. DuCard has a small list of about eight wines and I directed the pourer to make sips tiny. Papers need grading. My picks include their Cabernet Franc Reserve, super smoky oak, deep and well balanced blackberry notes. The Petit Verdot will store well, as its quite hearty and full-bodied. Surprisingly, their Rosé was good even though it had a bit of bottle shock, dry with a slightly strawberry edge. The prices are somewhat high for me, though. So I obtained a glass of Cab Franc and settled back into enjoying the music of Tara Mills and Yankee Dixie for the next several hours.

Second confession: bluegrass music is my long lost love. It’s like an old flame you meet again at a highschool reunion and realize you still have it bad after all those years. You know the notes, you know the dance, no matter how long ago you heard it last. So almost immediately, I was enjoying myself way too much to grade papers except during the set breaks. The trio featured Mills on guitar and vocals, John Howard on mandolin, banjo and harmonica, and Turtle Zwadlo on upright bass. That upright bass gets me every time. It’s funny, I began to remember words to songs I hadn’t heard since I was a kid. Their blend of bluegrass and folk is like a Sunday afternoon drive on a well- traveled road. You know where you’re going and it’s warm sunshine all the way

Their rendition of Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone, had me singing with Tara’s low and steady vocals. John’s joined hers in what I call the perfect “bluegrass wind up”, both voices twining around each other, stringing the notes out low then up like the long road outside. Tapping my feet to original tunes like New Year’s Resolution and What I Need…and even The Cat Song was what I had needed to shake off the winter cold. Letting out a few Irish yips at the end of songs felt fantastic, like being home.

There was a time and I think it’s true for nearly everyone when we want to escape our roots, where a young person thinks, “I live in the most uncultured uninteresting place on the planet”, especially if one happens to be from the rural south. I had always viewed my Southwest Virginian status as somehow less cultured than others, especially in college. My friends from all parts north or even places like Texas and California, I felt were “cooler” than me. Nothing exciting happens in a cow field or in the woods behind my house. So I left bluegrass behind for rock, punk, and jazz and other musical forms, just as I left my grandmother’s home cooking for cultural delicacies and foreign wine.

But as I sat there singing and tapping my heels to familiar songs, I began to realize that like a vine, I may have grown out, curling away from where I began, but that home ground still feeds me, still attaches to my core. The roots are where I truly lie and where I will eventually return at the end of my days. John Howard even mentioned playing in a punk band for many years and now he’s back to playing his roots. Seems like we all come back home from our journeys.

As I drove that evening down the mountain, I stopped to notice the landscape in its last breath of winter, the sun setting over cold mountains with the faintest glimmer of spring, a ghost of a rose hidden under the frosted fields.

Our love was like a burning ember
It warmed us as a golden glow
We had sunshine in December
And threw our roses in the snow

In old time bluegrass, those notes of home echo a slight longing, even the happy songs, and that’s a good place to start spring. That slow movement away from the still, quiet, and deep of the sunset, toward a longing for and a stretching out in the morning to the sun.

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