Sunday, July 25, 2010

Ain't No Grave for Johnny Rebel

Was driving home from doing historic site-seeing in Lincoln and Concord, MA, towns of the first shooting of the Revolutionary War.

Saw the Old North Bridge, where townsfolk stood tall against the Redcoats, even killing a couple still buried nearby, Union Jacks on their graves. Within a musket shot is the Old Manse; "manse" means home of a clergy person, and this was the home of Rev. William Emerson, the grand-dad of writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. Rev. Emerson was a fiery rebel who died not long after the April, 1775 action at the bridge. Ralph, at the Old Manse, helped create the rebellious American transcendentalist movement; funny thing, writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived there for a few years and hung out with transcendentalists, goofed on 'em. Even rebels have their critics, sometimes their best buds. Down the road is where rebel silversmith and horseman Paul Revere got nabbed by the King's soldiers in the wee, wee hours as he was passing the word that they were coming--although I wonder how historians pinpointed precisely where such an encounter took place. Even with
our modern technology, we still don't know the facts, Jack. Think of the woman in the agriculture department who recently lost her job due to people messing with the truth, and then was offered it back, receiving a presidential apology. Oops.

So, driving back from all this I popped into the car's CD player Johnny Cash's Ain't No Grave, a recording released a few months back that features his final vocals before his 2003 exit. Johnny was a farm boy, a country performer, a troublemaker and troubled guy, and, in recent times, prince of the punks. After being immersed in history as I was, the CD particularly struck me as a conscious fade into history by someone who was counting down to his final moments. With titles like "Ain't No Grave (Gonna Hold This Body Down)," and "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound," producer Rick Rubin and associate producer John Carter Cash (Johnny and June Carter's only child) were certainly making this a farewell tour (Johnny didn't know there would be such an album). But the closer is what nailed me: "Aloha 'Oe," a Hawaiian tune, an odd choice for a guy born in Arkansas, and a seemingly quirky way to end the recording. "One fond embrace/A hoi ae au/Until we meet again." A tired sounding Johnny Cash doing what sounds like a song for a luau. Sad, maybe a little silly. I wonder what The Man in Black was thinking as he sang it. That crazy Rick Rubin! The guy who was more or less one of the Beastie Boys--is he messing with me?

After the last notes, the car fell silent. Hmm. Seemed about right.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Hot Chording for Beginners

So let's say you know how to play the G, C and D chords. Can you dress 'em up without getting too complicated?

“It just would be kinda fun to learn two or three different versions...the major chord, and the 7th chord and then you mix it all up," said the soft-spoken Whit Smith, guitarist/vocalist for the internationally touring western swing/swing jazz trio called Hot Club of Cowtown. He spoke as he warmed up "backstage," strumming his 1946 Gibson guitar, before the group's appearance Friday (July 23, 2010) at the Narrows. "Maybe learn a diminished chord or an augmented chord to slide between them. And so you’re still playing pretty simple music basically but you’re making it kind of ornate. Makes it fun to play and it sounds cool.” The fleet-fingered Connecticut native, now based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has created an instructional DVD, "Chordination," to offer such tips to would-be pickers and grinners.

Mr. Smith has earned a living with his "axe" for a couple decades, choosing to focus on swing styles associated with American fiddler Bob Wills and French "Gypsy jazz" guitar icon Django Reinhardt. “I cannot stop watching that clip on YouTube of him. I love Django Reinhardt clearly." I'm not sure which YouTube video of Reinhardt he's referring to, but perhaps it's this one apparently from 1939. “His interpretation of American hot jazz and then culminating in when he discovered Louis add that to the Gypsy and the European mix...I think that’s what gives him the edge," Mr. Smith said.

But with all that fancy chording, never forget the blues. "Everything about blues--you want to include that in your playing..." He likes to spice things up with scales from classical or jazz, "but there's always blues tucked away in there."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Self-Critical: Crooked Still's Vocalist Working To Improve

"I’ve gotten totally slammed for my horrible diction in the past in reviews," said New England Conservatory-trained vocalist Aoife O'Donovan, 27, of the alternative bluegrass ensemble Crooked Still.

We were chatting "backstage" at the Narrows about 45 minutes before show time Thursday night (July 22, 2010), and I had complimented her on being a disciplined vocalist. "I think that I tend to mumble when I sing," she said. Some of her former teachers attend Crooked Still shows and provide her criticism afterwards. "And I encourage it from friends who I respect as well." She said she's working hard to improve. This from one of the finest young singers on today's roots music scene. "It all comes down to Aoife O'Donovan's vocals," wrote the Washington Post in May, 2010. "Sure, the music...owes much to the players' mastery, but it's O'Donovan's vocals that set it apart."

Ms. O'Donovan's upbringing, in West Newton, Massachusetts, was filled with music. Both her parents are musicians, and her father, Brian O'Donovan, from West Cork, Ireland, has a long-running Celtic radio program on public broadcasting powerhouse WGBH in Boston. You would, of course, think she grew up immersed in the culture of the Emerald Isle. Maybe, but when she and her parents would sing together at home it would be songs from Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson, and she was "into" Joan Baez. "I wasn't really singing that much Celtic music." She spoke fondly of her time as a student of the Newton (Massachusetts) North High School music department.

We can only hope her "poor" diction--not evident to these ears during Crooked Still's concert Thursday night---continues to be overlooked by the public, since she claims she has no other skills that will enable her to earn a living. That's the danger of going to music school, she said. "I'm not really equipped to do anything else at this point."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Girls Just Wanna Have The Blues

Memphis Blues--Cyndi Lauper--Well, you may ask, does she pull it off? Can quirky, perky Cyndi Lauper sing the blues? Yes she can! Passionately and authentically. Clearly, she did her homework. What may strike some listeners more, though, is the work of her backing group and guest stars Allen Toussaint on the piano, B.B. King and Jonny Lang, guitar and vocals, nearly forgotten singer Ann Peebles, and Narrows alum Charlie Musselwhite (in photo, Narrows, 2009), harmonica. And the song choices: Muddy Waters' "Rollin' and Tumblin'" (with Narrows alum Amy Lavere on bass), Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," and other lesser known but inspired choices. "I was very careful to pick songs that were blues but had a soulful, joyful journey, too. They were very human and really depict the times we live in today," she told Recorded in Memphis in March of this year--a quick turnaround for a project by a major artist--Memphis Blues proves this fifty-something girl can still have fun. And so can we.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Heritage Dance

Why play zydeco? "It think it's because I grew up listening to this type of music," Louisiana's Rosie Ledet, the "zydeco sweetheart," says, relaxing on a couch before she and her group Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys hit the boards at the Narrows Friday night.

"My parents were always singing it and playing it around the house," she says. "I'm Creole French, you know, so it's heritage music."

Not a way to get rich, but "I'm just glad I'm not a shrimper from home now," she adds, referencing the BP oil disaster.

No doubt the audience Friday night also felt glad she's not a shrimper, as they stepped smartly to Rosie's heritage.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ignore Your Better Instincts

I Am Ozzy (book)--Ozzy Osbourne--Seems like every time over the past few weeks I mentioned I was reading Ozzy's book, people rolled their eyes. Why? they ask. He's a clown, druggie, etc., etc. And who listens to him anymore, anyway?

Let's start with the last point: His latest recording, Scream, made it up to #4 on Billboard's Top 200 chart. So somebody, including me, bought the CD (which is pretty good, by the way). And the book I Am Ozzy made it to the upper echelons of the NY Times bestseller list. Aside from all that, yes Ozzy is a clown and was a druggie. He's also lived an interesting, funny, tragic, ridiculous life, if you believe even half of I Am Ozzy. And did I mention funny? This is an outrageously funny book.

He writes how his dad said he'd be "big" one day--or he'd go to prison. Dad was right, he points out, because he was in jail before turning 18! From there Ozzy and co-writer Chris Ayres take the reader on an F-bomb-replete road rage defined by abject poverty in post-war England; dyslexia; loving but dysfunctional parents; trips to jail, sometimes in bizarre garb; terrifying, violent death; waking up in unusual places; rock & roll, and an abiding love of The Beatles; booze and drugs and even more booze and drugs; loads of dough and even more loads of dough; and, we hope, permanent sobriety. Note: The part about Ozzy's employment at a slaughterhouse is worth the price of the book.

So ignore the advice of friends, co-workers, and family, as well as your better instincts. Read I Am Ozzy. It's vile, scatological, offensive and a scream.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What's Old Is New

Black Rock--Joe Bonamassa--If you wonder why they don't make records like they used to, take heart: Joe Bonamassa hears you. This thirty-something upstate New Yorker has taken British blues guitar rock and trademarked it. Do you dig Jeff Beck, Rory Gallagher, Steve Marriott, Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, and Kim Simmonds (coming to the Narrows soon leading Savoy Brown)? Add Joe Bonamassa to the pantheon. He comes a-roarin' at you from track one, with thick riffs, recalling the past but no way retro, and guitar idol vocals. And the tunes? He mixes more than sturdy originals (check this out) with the Jeff Beck/Rod Stewart/Ron Wood penned "Spanish Boots," and Leonard Cohen's "Bird on the Wire," famously and agonizingly recorded decades back by Brit Joe Cocker. (Everybody's covering Leonard Cohen these days, aren't they? Not a bad thing!) If Clapton is god, then this is his American son. Hasn't played our beloved Narrows, but one never knows. In the meantime, get some tea and crumpets and listen to Black Rock.

Monday, July 12, 2010

On Her Own

Tears, Lies and Alibis--Shelby Lynne--"I like this record a lot. I spent a year making it and made a lot of decisions and changes during that period," Ms. Lynne writes on her Facebook page.

"It was fun at times, not fun sometimes. But in the end, this is the record I wanted you to hear and the one I thought you would love."

She's celebrating her independence these days because she's created her own label, called Everso Records.  "I finally have the creative control I’ve needed to get my vision out there..."

Her vision on Tears, Lies and Alibis is one of heartbreak and, oddly enough, Airstream trailers:

"When the sun hits her right/She'll blind you with her light a beacon of royalty, ooooh/Yeah, she's like a Van Gogh or an old Picasso oh what a sight to see."

This recording, produced by Ms. Lynne herself, won't knock you over at first, like her last project, a tribute to Dusty Springfield, produced by legend Phil Ramone and sporting classics "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me," "Breakfast in Bed," and "How Can I Be Sure."  Her vocals, of course, are right on from the first phrase, but the songs, mostly short--she doesn't waste our time--may take several listens before you connect.  That's a sign this is going to have a long shelf life--speaking of which, soul organist and songwriter Spooner Oldham backs her on Tears, Lies, and Alibis.  You probably first heard him on the 1960s' hit "When a Man Loves a Woman," performed by Percy Sledge.

Shelby Lynne returns to the Narrows August 5.  See her perform on the Late Late Show by clicking here.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Are There Ghosts at the Narrows?

Comedian Jim Lauletta--or as he called himself "co-medium"--thinks there is paranormal activity at the Narrows (especially after his mike made some inexplicable noise); he also thinks Don Knotts, of Andy of Mayberry TV fame, died before playing what could have been his greatest role: Batman.  

Mr. Lauletta headlined comedy night at the Narrows Saturday, as we featured standup, one of the most brutal of the performing arts.  

Steve Bjork (below) opened with a set celebrating

 married men at the supermarket, trying to understand what their wives mean when the shopping list says "c. cheese"--so they get Velveeta, a "man's cheese."

The Narrows plans to continue offering comedy shows in the months ahead.  So spread the word to comedy fans!

Thursday, July 08, 2010

"Live from Las Vegas via Austin"

Trio Del Rio made their Narrows' debut Thursday night with the introduction "live from Las Vegas via Austin!"

Whimsical, sort of a Dan Hicks-like approach. Old timey, rootsy.  The woman in the photo with the sunglasses, Maryanne Price, was an early member of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks and performed on the Kinks' Preservation Act II album!  That's a huge deal for your humble blogger.

The show was streamed live on and should be available on that site's archives in a few days, so you can hear more of the group.

Chatted with guitarist Tanner Swain about our heat wave, figuring it was no big deal for a guy used to the torrid summers in the former Republic of Texas.  Seems, though, even he felt the discomfort we Northerners have been experiencing because of the record heat over the past several days.

Friday, July 02, 2010


Lifted Off the Ground--Chely Wright--Narrows fans may only be vaguely aware of Ms.Wright's work as a mainstream country artist, with some major hits, including Single White Female, back about 10 years ago.  In 2001, she worked with Narrows alum Dr. Ralph Stanley, appearing on his Clinch Mountain Sweethearts album, so members of our bluegrass community may be familiar with her through that.  More likely, you know her because in May of this year her autobiography was published, revealing she is leading a life that some think is outside the mainstream country norm.  If you want to read about that, here's a link.  Let's talk music, instead. Rodney Crowell, whom we hope to have play the Narrows soon, produced the disc, played some guitar on it, and co-wrote one of the tunes with Ms. Wright, who wrote the rest herself.  And they're well worth hearing, starting with the first track, a catchy number called I'm Broken: 

Why can't you just believe in me?/ Not everyone is the enemy/I'm trying hard I swear I am/I'm doin' the best I can/But I'm Broken.

She's a fabulous singer, the production is tasteful--sometimes even Beatlesque--and Ms. Wright knows how to write a song, which isn't surprising since she's been composing for herself and others for a long time.  The CD has apparently not been a success on mainstream country radio, but is picking up support from Americana stations.  So she might be getting backlash from the Nashville establishment.  Nonetheless, Lifted Off the Ground is a winner.  Their loss.

Thursday, July 01, 2010


Ralph Stanley II, son of bluegrass and country pioneer Dr. Ralph Stanley, stepped out of dad's shadow while embracing his legacy as son and nephew of the fabled Stanley Brothers.

He and his group made their debut at the Narrows on Thursday night, although the 30-something Ralph had been on our stage backing his dad as one of the Clinch Mountain Boys in the wintertime. 

The show included Stanley Brothers tunes, a Fred Eaglesmith song saluting Carter Stanley, and an original or two or three.

Excellent musicianship, harmonizing and arrangements.  Note for note, one of the best shows of the year.  Look for it in the archives at