Archive for bluegrass

Ralph Stanley: 1927-2016

Posted in Bent Notes Column, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 18, 2016 by Todd

ralph_stanley

High and lonesome doesn’t even begin to cover it. When bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley left this world on June 23 after an extended battle with cancer, the man took with him a spirit and a sound that, though it may echo in a thousand lesser hands and voices, has no hope of being replaced.

Like the recently departed Merle Haggard, Prince, and David Bowie, Stanley’s small physical being contained a talent and drive that seemed beyond the merely human. Like some mythological Greek deity, entire universes of music routinely sprang from his head and fell to earth, impossibly strange gifts for us mere mortals.

Born in 1927 in Stratton, Virginia, Stanley and his guitar slinging brother, Carter, began blending the folk traditions of their home region and Carter Family-style harmonies into their duo the Stanley Brothers and their backing band the Clinch Mountain Boys, in the mid-’40s. Their 1951 recording of the traditional song “Man of Constant Sorrow” was both faster and harder-edged than the music of acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe. Stanley’s wickedly-accelerated banjo style and high, rough-hewn voice helped take the musical genre of the mountains to new audiences.

To my ears, too much of today’s bluegrass music focuses on the dazzling technical expertise of its instrumentalists at the expense of songcraft. For all his fleet fingered skill on the banjo, “Dr” Ralph Stanley (as he was known to fans) never showboated, never tried to overwhelm audiences with 20 minute, blazing solos. His was a music of loose limbed rhythm, deep blue melody and voices intertwined like strands of mountain laurel.

All of those talents were still very much in evidence almost six decades later when I had the good fortune to catch Stanley in concert in 2008 at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.  Backed by a fine band that included his son, Ralph Stanley Jr. on rhythm guitar, and his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin, the 81-year-old tore through a lean set of originals and folk and gospel standards with the elan of a man half his age.

Dressed in an immaculately tailored western-style suit and white cowboy hat, Stanley also proved he still retained an impressively rude sense of humor. While encouraging the audience to show their appreciation for the band, he quipped, “Giving the band applause is like making love to an old maid — you can’t go overboard.”

Although the march of time had slowed his movements and robbed him of the ability to play his beloved banjo for extended periods, all eyes were on the Grand Ole Opry and Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor member as he stood at center stage and led the band on bluegrass touchstones such as “I Saw the Light,”Man of Constant Sorrow,” and a particularly moving version of “Angel Band.”

The audience that night was larger than one would have expected for an octogenarian performing songs older than most of their grandparents. But by that time Stanley wasn’t just another bluegrass performer — he was the guy who sang “O Death,” which earned him a Grammy in 2002 when it was included on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

As he had in the movie, he sang the song a cappella that night in Roanoke Rapids. With starkly unsentimental lyrics such as “I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk, I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk, … Oh Death, won’t you spare me over for another day?” the song both pointed up Stanley’s courage at facing up to life’s inevitable finale and made one ponder just how much longer the good doctor would be with us to share his remarkable talents.

The diminutive legend seemed to catch a second wind during the last few songs of the show. Here’s what I wrote in my review of the concert the following day:

“Saving the best for last, the veteran performer kicked his voice into high gear, cutting through every instrument and harmony singer with his piercing mountain rasp on “Little Maggie” and closing the night with a sped up, punk rock-raw version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Pretty Polly” that left the audience’s younger members nodding in appreciation.”

I expect anyone who takes the time to discover Ralph Stanley will have the same reaction. Hopefully, today’s listeners can put aside any lingering prejudices about his song’s hillbilly, backwoods origins and simply hear them for what they are — soul music in excelsis.

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Music legends of the Tar Heel state

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2009 by Becky
doc

When considering the epicenters of music-related influence across the U.S., the state of North Carolina may not immediately spring to mind or leap forth from the pages of history books, but the Tar Heel state can hold its own, note for note, with any of its more storied southern neighbors in the span of its artistic breadth and the richness of its musical heritage.

Georgia spawned giants like James Brown and Otis Redding; Mississippi can rightfully stake its claim as the land where the blues was nursed to health on the muddy milk of its famed river; and Tennessee, well, everyone knows about Nashville … but these states, rightfully honored as they are, did not give the world the likes of jazz giants John Coletrane and Thelonius Monk, blind folk-music wizard Doc Watson, P-Funk innovator George Clinton or country die-hards Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis.

And they didn’t give the world bluegrass.

Yeah, I know, it’s accepted knowledge that bluegrass originated in the fertile hills of Kentucky. I won’t argue the point, but history shows that in the mid 1930s, two brothers, Bill and Charlie Monroe, moved from their native Kentucky to a more musically-inspiring region, namely the western hills of North Carolina.

Apparently the bluegrass revolution was already well under way when the brothers arrived — not surprising when one considers the state’s long tradition of ballad singing initiated by Scotch-Irish immigrants as well as the popularity of the banjo, a West African-derived instrument that can be heard on many early blues, as well as bluegrass, records.

After touring across the state extensively, the brothers found their way to a makeshift studio in Charlotte and recorded 10 sides for the RCA Victor label. Their first recordings laid the blueprint for the style they would continue to perfect for the entirety of their careers, namely with the groundbreaking Bluegrass Boys, the band that put the music on the proverbial map and provided a measuring stick for every like- minded group that followed.

The state also developed a distinctly regional form of blues; Piedmont-based, and performed with an instantly recognizable laid-back swing and mellow twang that stamps it as uniquely Carolinian.

A few of its better-known practitioners were Etta Baker, The Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, and of course, Roanoke Rapids’ own Bishop Dready Manning, founder of St. Mark Holiness Church, a guitar-slinging, harmonica-blowing gospel singer and former moonshine salesman whose music can be heard ringing through the rafters of churches across Halifax and Northampton counties.

Born in Gaston to a family of sharecroppers, Manning gave up the typical hard-living blues lifestyle in 1962 after a mysterious hemorrhage left him close to death. Manning survived and made the decision to devote his life to more sacred concerns. Since founding St. Mark Holiness in 1969, Manning and his wife Marie have played for packed crowds across the two counties and recorded numerous locally released albums.

During a recent interview, Manning spoke about the roots of the music he’s been playing since the age of 4. “I learned a lot off a gentleman named Russel Moody, and from listening to Blind Boy Fuller, Lightning Hopkins and different people.”

Though Manning left the seedier aspects of blues living behind him years ago, his music still retains the raw vitality and hard-edged drive garnered from those rough-and-tumble years, giving even unrepentant sinners a reason to get up early on Sunday mornings and dust off the suit and tie.

“I still have the same style of music; it hasn’t changed too much,” he stated with an obvious sense of pride. “I feel like it helps people- they just love to hear me play.”

The reverend is only one example of the talent currently thriving across the state. The full history of North Carolina’s music, which is being written and rewritten with each new generation, is far too rich to go into at length in one article — I haven’t even mentioned the state’s vital rock or folk music history.

Needless to say, however, should any would-be music snob ever question the worth of this state’s musical legacy, simply mention a certain recording session by two Kentucky boys back in the 1930s.

Or better yet, just take ‘em to church.

Chambergrass blooms on the river

Posted in Newspaper Stories with tags , , , , , , on July 23, 2009 by Todd
Chambergrass

Chambergrass

As the last notes of “Ode to Joy” fade into the sun-lit room, the two musicians face each other, huge smiles span their faces, their instruments still ringing with the hum and throb of music that, by some mysterious alchemy, has merged the grace and elegance of classical with the propulsive drive of bluegrass. The song is the perfect introduction to the duo and a perfect metaphor for the two very individual talents who helped bring it to life.

Kim Koskela and Dave Schwartz, better known as Chambergrass, first met in 2004 while fishing for shad along the banks of the Roanoke River. Though the two quickly forged a bond based around their mutual love of music, they quickly realized their radically different backgrounds would prove a challenge to future collaborations. While Schwartz, a bass player, came from a family steeped in the traditions of classical music, Koskela was an avid bluegrass aficionado who had spent three decades honing her skills on the banjo. While neither Koskela nor Schwartz had ventured far from their roots, they both longed to stretch out, to reach across the musical void and discover the secrets of the other’s world.

On the banks of the Roanoke River, the two musicians made a pact: She would provide the bluegrass knowledge and he would teach her the intricacies of classical music.

“We just decided that we wanted to play together and we’re going to make this work somehow,” said Koskela yesterday, as she tuned up her banjo. “I gave him Bill Monroe records to listen to. He kept calling me up and telling me we needed a fiddle player. I just kept telling him ‘Dave, you know how to use a bow, you are the fiddle player.’”

“It was very puzzling at first,” she stated, with a look of exaggerated perplexity. “We asked ourselves, ‘Are we insane for doing this? Will it work?’”

According to Koskela, through a long process of trial and error, the two eventually merged their influences into a cohesive mix, drawing on the best of both worlds. “We picked songs that we both liked and then we just figured out how to play them together.”

As their confidence grew, they began playing for audiences across the Valley, putting in appearances at the Roanoke Canal Trail Museum, the Halifax Day’s celebration and other festivals across the region.

Yesterday evening, the duo celebrated the fruits of their patience and practice with an impromptu gathering at the Hilton Garden Inn in Roanoke Rapids to celebrate the release of their first CD together, ‘At The Theater,’ a collection of fan favorites recorded during two days last fall at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.

As light refreshments were served, the group performed a selection of their newly-recorded songs. Dressed in a button down dress shirt, black tie and black slacks, Schwartz alternately caressed and plucked his stand-up bass, while Koskela, who favors cowboy boots and flowing skirts, picked out notes and rolls on her banjo with silver, steel-tipped finger picks.

“It’s so great,” stated a clearly excited Schwartz, as he took a break to sign CDs for fans between the group’s performances. “It’s kind of like graduating, when you know you’ve made it.”

“Everybody has been so nice,” he added. “We have to thank Phyliss Lee (former City Manager) for letting us in the theater to rehearse. The sound is just perfect in there.”

The CD, which consists of 16 songs, covers a unique stylistic range spanning the traditional bluegrass of ‘Cripple Creek’ and ‘Jerusalem Ridge,’ a Bill Monroe song, to the classical tones of ‘Gavotte,’ a beautifully realized piece that draws its origins from a French folk dance. The somber tones of gospel influenced numbers such as ‘Jesus Joy of Man’s Desire’ give way to the raucous good times of ‘Great Big Woman,’ and ‘Mississippi Squirrel Revival,’ a Ray Stevens talking-comedy number that drew rounds of laughs from the crowd gathered for yesterday’s release party.

The sound on the disc is big and warm, enveloping the listener in the clearly defined yet intricately woven world of acoustic bass and banjo. “It sounds just like when we play in a room,” said Koskela. “We didn’t want a lot of effects and reverb. We wanted it to sound like we were playing in your living room in front of you. We had to be real about it.”

For his part, Schwartz said the chance to play with his bluegrass mentor, who he calls “one of the best banjo players in the state,” has been the joyful culmination of four years of hard work. “I’m just really excited to get this CD out and record with Kim,” he stated. “We put a lot of time and effort into this.”

Koskela and Schwartz said a live Chambergrass album is currently in the works, which will be comprised of recordings from their popular First Friday Acoustic Jam appearances at Halifax Community College. The duo said they also have plans for a gospel album in the near future.

Said Schwartz: “It’s very exciting. I never thought we would do anything like this. The community has just been so supportive; coming out to see us and letting us record at the theater. We have so many friends in the community; every time we play it’s like a family reunion.”

With a series of concerts, bluegrass and folk festival appearances on the horizon, the two very different, very determined musical partners seem destined to carry their music into the future, together.

“We just started something crazy and people seem to enjoy it,” said Koskela. “We didn’t expect this at all. We just love playing.”

Dr. Stanley has the ‘cure’

Posted in Concert, Review with tags , , , , , , on July 13, 2009 by Todd

Ralph Stanley

For an entertainer best known for a song detailing the harsh physical deterioration of approaching death, a cheerful Dr. Ralph Stanley seemed very much alive and kicking as he took the stage at The Roanoke Rapids Theatre Friday night.

Dressed in an immaculately tailored western-style suit and white cowboy hat, the 81-year-old bluegrass legend led his six-piece band through a set of hot-picking and high, lonesome harmonies as they performed songs from the Virginia native’s six decades at the forefront of traditional bluegrass artistry.

Before kicking off the show with a tuneful romp through the bluegrass chestnut “Sitting on Top of the World,” Stanley encouraged the crowd to show their appreciation for the band by telling one of the many jokes he peppered the audience with between musical numbers. “Giving the band applause is like making love to an old maid — you can’t go overboard,” he quipped in his slow mountain drawl, as the small but vocal crowd roared its approval.

Since forming the Clinch Mountain Boys with his brother Carter in 1946, Stanley has gained a reputation as a master showman who performs with some of the finest musicians ever to grace a stage.

Friday night proved that legacy was well deserved as the band, which included Stanley’s son, Ralph Stanley Jr. on rhythm guitar, and his grandson, Nathan, on mandolin, tore through classics such as “Little Maggie,” “Orange Blossom Special” and “A Robin Built a Nest for Daddies Grave” with a mix of practiced showmanship and seemingly effortless skill.

As entertaining as the band may have been, however, there was never any doubt as to the star of the evening’s show. From the moment he ambled into the spotlight, the smallest figure on the stage commanded attention by his mere presence and the weight of musical history resting on his frail shoulders.

Although the march of time has slowed his movements and robbed him of the ability to play his beloved banjo for extended periods, all eyes were on the Grand Ole Opry and Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor member as he stood at center stage and led the band on bluegrass touchstones such as “I Saw the Light,” “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and a particularly moving version of “Angel Band.”

One of the evening highlights, as at any Ralph Stanley show, was his a cappella reading of the chilling dirge “O Death,” which earned him a Grammy in 2002 when it was included on the soundtrack of the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

With starkly unsentimental lyrics such as “I’ll fix your feet till you can’t walk, I’ll lock your jaw till you can’t talk, … Oh Death, won’t you spare me over for another day?” the song both pointed up Stanley’s courage at facing up to life’s inevitable finale and made one ponder just how much longer the good doctor, entering his eighth decade, would be with us to share his remarkable talents.

Yet not unlike the best blues performances, which somehow seem to bring a smile to your face while detailing life’s more depressing aspects, the crowd’s festive mood only seemed strengthened by the song’s honesty. Stanley clearly feed off their enthusiasm, calling out for requests as a wide grin played across his still boyish face.

After making a joke about his failing memory, he grabbed a sheet of handwritten lyrics and led the band through his self-penned number “I’ll Answer the Call” before turning them loose on several instrumental numbers showcasing each musicians considerable talents. After disappearing from the stage for several minutes, Stanley returned with a chair and proceeded to sit behind his band, listening and nodding in approval.

He wasn’t down for long, however, as he rose, took off his jacket, strapped on his banjo and showed why he has long been considered an innovator on the instrument, having pioneered a technique still referred to as “Stanley style.”

Saving the best for last, the veteran performer kicked his voice into high gear, cutting through every instrument and harmony singer with his piercing mountain rasp on “Little Maggie” and “Angle Band” and closing the night with a sped up, punk-raw version of the Appalachian murder ballad “Pretty Polly” that left several of the audiences younger members nodding in appreciation.

As the lyrics to “I’ll Answer the Call” state:

“I cannot sing like an angel,

I cannot preach like Paul,

But Lord when you get ready,

I’ll try to answer the call.”

Judging from the applause of the audience and the smiles on the faces making their way into the warm spring night outside the theater, Dr. Ralph Stanley continues to answer the call of bluegrass fans the world over each and every time he steps out onto a stage.

Having promised to make his way back to Eastern North Carolina on future tours, one can only hope he continues to answer that call for years to come.