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Sunday, January 31, 2010


dance of the arboreal nudes

The snow accumulted to about 8 inches. It was pretty all day. Below freezing all day. Snow everywhere. It's beautiful out the windows. I like the looks of it. But I'm not tempted to go for a walk in it. Can't get motivated for that yet. The sunlight all day melted the surface a little bit and tonight at below 20 degrees it will freeze making a crust on it. Crystal and Justin dropped in on their ways to and from the waterfalls in the snow. She had her camera ready to get some pictures. I'm like old man Tom Pruitt, I seen it. There was a time some years ago when everything here was new to me, a snow like this pushed my call of the wild button to get out there and be in it, have it all the way around with dog walking ahead, a body guard, a guide and a friend in one.
Justin and Crystal in their cold weather gear were like the michelin man and woman in color. Crystal dominant red and Justin in cammo, hobbling along with arms stiff like children in new winter coats and mittens. Crystal is a lit up personality. She started up her own photography business a short time ago and hit the ground running. Sparta photography studio the next generation. She's of the M&M generation. Hip like an i-pad commercial with a hint of country punk. She brings Gretchen Wilson's great liberated song to mind, Redneck Woman. I'd guess Crystal has that cd. She has a liberated air about herself, a post-women's liberation child who lives her life as if the ERA had passed back when the DC stooges blocked its passage attempting to stop time. They blocked the passage. Time kept on going.
Now the young women take it for granted they have equal rights, equal everything. A lot of men may not think so, but a lot of men do, and an awful lot of women think so. In social evolutions I've paid attention to along my way, it makes me double-take to see young women uninterested in women's liberation, knowing nothing about it, living liberated lives, on equal footing in the home with husband because that's how she is and he respects it in her. She's like the ERA passed. Country girls everywhere are getting it and city girls have been there a good bit longer, some of them. I like the drive she has. It's something sorry old me never had.
I like to see this new attitude among young women. I've watched it evolve actually throughout my lifetime. I don't remember details and what was behind it, but I recall in 5th or 6th grade, I had thought it through about women not being quite up to men. When a woman talks, a man's ears tend to shut. I grew up in a time when women were mothers or whores in the attitudes of my peers. That's the old belief for how many thousands of years. It's only recently that women were allowed education. Girls ran faster than boys. The girls I knew were every bit as smart as me, smarter. I couldn't see where boys had anything on girls. We grow up in 2 different cultures, boy and girl. Boys are raised to be GI Joe and girls to be Barbie. I never even thought about a possibility that in my lifetime I'd see a generation of girls modeling themselves after Barbie. Britney Spears and Christinia Aguilera, grown up Mousekateers, look like they're in competition to see who can do Barbie the best. Gotta stay in shape. The look that sells. So I put on the Clash's Sandanista album, jamming white urban reggae.
Back to Crystal. She doesn't model herself after Barbie. As a portrait photographer she's developing her eye and learning business skills with the help of her mother and dad. She's showing pictures on facebook getting enthusiastic responses. Each time she puts some up for viewing, they're a step ahead of the ones before. She's developing an interesting eye with her camera and is more creative in setting up a photograph as time goes by. She's learning by doing, learning it well and in a hurry. I wait now to see what she'll be posting next. She gets more creative in the setups for babies and toddlers. She has the woman's eye for seeing the person in the baby.
It's an enjoyment for me to see her creating a career for herself the way she's doing, step by step, and she's getting there. She has the freedom to do that. She has a feminine eye and photographs the intimacy between couples young and in love. She catches it. She photographs a kid in touch with the kid's personality. It's fun to see her grow as fast as she's growing. It's like she's pregnant and something inside her is growing, in her mind instead of her belly, approaching a time of birth in the not too far away future. For one thing, she's finding her own eye right now. She plays with spontenaiety sometimes. She's coming into a new place visually and conceptually. I'm glad for her like I'm glad to see a young somebody from here decide to stay here after high school and train self in a trade, get good at it, make a business of it and go. I find it spectacular. Not many do that. Not many are able. It's like learning the banjo. It takes more than just wanting to.
The only way I know how to tell you to find Crystal's facebook space is the way I found it. It's called Flashback Studio. I googled Flashback Studio Glade Valley. It came up top of the list. Nothin to it. What Crystal is developing is her talent that is her individual gift from above. That's why it's growing in her so fast. It's a joy to see. I think of myself at her age and break out laughing. All the more reason for me to applaud what she's doing. It's as far away from me as making A's in chemistry.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


cosmic chagall #8
girl on a swing

I turned the computer on intending to write you. While it was gathering steam. The news was on the radio. Then it turned to Prairie Home Companion. I pushed button #3 for Blue Ridge Country WBRF. A little bit of network news. Judith the dj came on. She's playing bluegrass until. I thought, what good fortune. I like Judith. When she's the dj, it's like she's playing to my ear. She plays old-time a good bit mixed with the bluegrass. I remember her from listening to Galax with Jr at the table with our drams, later on the couch when his decline reached a certain place. Further in the decline he lost interest in music. Bluegrass turned into a racket like everything else on the radio, noise.

In my time of getting back into my life at home, living at home for the first time in a long time, I've not listened to Galax except on Friday nights when a band was playing at the Rex since Jr quit listening to music. The impulse to listen to evening bluegrass at 98.1 tonight paid off. A lot of the time it's a race or a basketball or football game. The news was a good sign there was no game. They don't do the news during games. Then Judith's voice and I hit the jackpot. Haven't heard her in quite awhile. She plays a fair amount of old-time. I feel like this is a step in the process of living at home. Started painting a couple days ago, another step. Settling in.

When I heard Judith introduce herself it took me back to Jr's in an instant. It brought back the good feeling of sitting talking with him, sipping good liquor, watching the critters live their lives the other side of the windows, hear him tell experiences making music with different musicians he respected, Art Wooten, Otis Burris, Johnny Miller, Ernest Johnson, Vick Daniel, Bob Caudill, Tiny Pruitt, and a seemingly endless list of others. At fiddlers conventions he was in the parking lot making music the whole weekend with other bluegrass pickers. He told of banjo picker Larry Pennington of Ashe County, who was then playing with Big Country Bluegrass, "when Larry Pennington showed up at a fiddler's convention carrying his banjo, the other banjo pickers put their banjos in their cases and went home. That's not literal. It's what it felt like. Much of Jr's exaggerations were not meant to be taken for literal, but for the feeling.

Yesterday driving to town on the gravel part of the road down the mountain to Whitehead, memory came to me of driving the road on the way to Jr's as I did every day for some time, the feeling of being on my way to his place, looking forward to it. Jr was not one to fuss, so there was never any commotion or arguments or getting offended. All my years in school I was taught and learned that knowledge comes largely from second-hand sources; books written from journals, other books, interviews, whatever. Knowledge is a head full of information. Of course, I lived in a world of people who appreciated knowledge and I did too. Knowledge was held highest.

I came to the mountains and found myself among people for whom information that isn't needed to get something done is the same as nothing. Talking with people here from other places, we were mutually dismayed that the native people weren't impressed by knowing a lot of information. So what if you know Charles Dickens's birth and death dates? It doesn't get anything done, just more junk in the head of no value. I wanted to understand the mountain people, mainly because I was living in their culture, by my choice not theirs. They allowed me to share the mountains with them as long as I was respectful. Had no reason to be disrespectful, so we get along very well.

Jr was telling me about a woman he's known since she was a kid, knew her daddy and uncles and the whole bunch. He said, "Buddy, she'll fight you." I was amused he characterized her like that. He reacted to my amusement with, "I mean it. You watch out. She'll kick your ass." I laughed a little more from the belly. He got worked up like a fire was lit under him, wanted me to understand if she came in the house while I was here I'd better watch it, she'll work me over." I couldn't help but laugh again. He was a little more agitated and getting flustered. I thought I'd better explain. I said, "If I don't provoke her she's not going to kick my ass. I won't provoke her and I won't get my ass kicked. She's not going to jump up and kick my ass because she took a notion, like a cat." He got my meaning, but he didn't like it. He knew what he was talking about and I was throwing it off with a laugh. I know that feeling, like a puddle of gas inside spontaneously combusted. I convinced him I understood she probably could kick my ass if she set out to. I'm ok with that. But she's not going to do it if I don't provoke her, and I don't go around provoking people, so we'll get along fine. That was enough of that and we went on to what's next.

In the mountains, all I held high was nothing to anybody around me. Stranded. Knowing Tom Pruitt and his brother Millard for as many years as I did, and for as many hours as I spent listening to them tell me their lives over a period of years, I learned a very great deal. Not just things they told me, but they turned out to be people from the time before electricity and they thought very differently from the world that has had electricity several generations. The first half of their lives was without it. They would have been good lives to make notes after each conversation at home and write about them at length, but I couldn't do it. Our conversations were too spontaneous. Like taping a conversation would be a farce, because it would not be a naturally flowing conversation. And the tape would not be the conversation itself. I could never put a cassette recorder at the pulpit to record the preaching. It would have been ok. Many did. It was too intimate for me to objectify. I wanted to learn from everyone I knew about the culture here, about them, their lives.

I didn't quite understand how knowledge and wisdom were different. I assumed knowledge was a part of wisdom. Wisdom was something possibly based in knowledge. Then I learned it wasn't. They don't have anything to do with each other. Wisdom is from first hand experience only. For some time I suspected Jr of wisdom fairly strongly. I watched and listened for a matter of years, realizing that Jr actually is wise. I'm imagining his at least 5 sledge hammer experiences under the hand of God, none of it anything Jr initiated, like the time the old farmhouse was struck by lightning and burned down, like his brother wrecking the lives of the entire family, losing the palm of his left hand, his wife's cancer. His last wife turned out to be about the same as ice sculpture with a calculating mind wanting everything for nothing. She didn't even like him. He had property equals money. This was the blow that convinced him he was a fool. I'm of the mind it was the blow that made him wise. Jr was the same as Job on his pile of ashes, the same humility.

It snowed on and off all day and all night. I'd guess about 8" without measuring it. I've already opened a lane for the car to get out if I need to go in a hurry. The road crews were out in dumptrucks spreading salt as soon as the snow started and again a little later, this morning and a couple more times with scoops today. It's a sensible method they've adopted. They don't let it accumulate now. They can keep the roads clear throughout the snowfall. All we need to do is be able to get out the driveway. Some people have long driveways.

Friday, January 29, 2010


slate mountain ramblers

The snow is on its way. Forecast says at least a foot. 12 to 15 inches was one forecast I heard. I actually dread it. Not bad. The salt truck went by one direction, then back the other. They're doing a great job of keeping the roads clear from before the accumulation starts. Before dark we got a little ground cover, then it quit awhile and started again. A foot of snow. That means several inches by 9am. Maybe half that much. My water will be frozen by then. If Sue or somebody gets to the station to open up and turn it on, I'll go. That means somebody did, therefore I can. I like the front wheel drive. About the same as 4wheel. What it doesn't have that a truck with 4wheel has is something I don't need or want. All the years I drove 4wheel drive trucks I never once went 4wheelin. For me, it's a tool to get me from one place to another. Front wheel works. I like the way this car sits down on the road with a well placed center of gravity and not too mushy springs for the curves.

By morning we'll know what the forecast meant. We're so tired of it. We've not had snow like this in 15 or so years. We're spoiled. Now a winter like they used to be is exceptional. The road crews are on top of it. Everybody I talk with is over it. Haven't we had enough? But I don't know anybody who sees it as anything but a good thing. We need the ground water, it kills flea eggs, so the dogs and cats and everything else covered with hair won't have fleas so bad this coming summer. One thing I'd say Noah had more than 2 of on the Ark is fleas.

Friday night at the Rex Theater in Galax on 98.1 FM. I thought to turn it on just as it started. Slate Mountain Ramblers tonight. There's no way I can turn that off. I'd been listening to some Brahms quartets before by the Alban Berg String Quartet. I don't feel like there's a great deal of difference between them. Both bands have master fiddlers layin it to it. The banjo gives a dimension the other misses with all of it bowed instruments. Marsha's banjo plays perfectly with her dad's fiddle. She grew up playing banjo with daddy's fiddle and mama's bass. They're from Ararat, Virginia, across the state line north of MtAiry.
I brought up a picture of Slate Mountain Ramblers from the fiddler's convention a few years ago. Bowman can play a fiddle. Marsha can play the banjo too. Marsha plays the banjo a different way on each tune. Her playing is perfection with the notes of his fiddle. It's like people singing together who have sung together for a lot of years. Marsha's banjo is every bit as interesting to listen to alongside the fiddle as the fiddle. Thornton and Emily Spencer have that kind of intunement with each other. Richard Bowman has been playing for years and he gets better all the time. The bands recent cds are first rate old time string band music.
They're layin it to Kansas City Railroad Blues. I feel kind of partial to that tune as I grew up with the KC railroad switching yard the center of the section of KC I came up in, Argentine. My grandfather was an engineer, went to KC when he was young to work on the railroad. He died 7 years before I was born. I never knew him, never was told much about him. Not for any reason but in my family nobody who knew him would think a little kid would be interested, plus, where would you start? KC Railroad Blues is a kind of haunting tune for me, like a ghost of my grandpa in the air above the railroad yard in KC. Those tracks I saw in a kind of mystery, the landscape my grandpa lived in, the grandpa I never knew. I didn't idealize him by any means. It's just that the railroad tracks symbolized him for me in childhood. Grandpa's unknown world. The other side of a tall fence I could hear whistles and the sounds of train engines float over.
Grades K-6 the school I went to, Benjamin Franklin, a big stone fortress of a building erected in the time when education was held in high regard. It had a beautiful interior of hardwood floors, everything well taken care of by a janitor who knew all the kids. Beside the school ran Metropolitan Ave, the Main St. Running the other side of the street railroad tracks, several tracks wide. Running beside that was the Kaw River. The other side of the river is a section called Turner, and not far from the river is the cemetery where where Katy Sage, the little girl of Elk Creek, Virginia, evidently kidnapped by Indians is buried. She was taken in as the chief's daughter of the Wyandotte tribe in Ohio. It was 5 miles by road from the cemetery to the house I grew up in. 4 miles from the school, having to go down quite a ways to the bridge then come back about the same distance the other side. That would put the cemetery almost straight across the river from the school. Maybe by crow one mile.
That about knocked me over when I read the biography of Katy Sage that's in the library and saw she was buried in Turner. Last time I was out that way, I found her grave. I'd guestimated it 5 miles by road from the house to the cemetery. I measured it with the odometer and it was exactly 5 miles. Katy Sage's grave was the other side of the river the whole time I was a kid. Yeah, the chief took her for is daughter. She had blond hair. White jungle goddess. Her first husband was the next chief. He died, then she married the next chief. He died and she was married by the next chief. This is over a span probably 60 years. She was evidently the prize of the tribe. Good Luck Woman.
I believe there was something about a brother searching for years and finally finding her. He offered to take her back to see mama, who was way up in years by then, and daddy dead, but Katy wouldn't go. Why would she? She was up in years herself. The Indians were in peril. Their tribe was pushed west out of Ohio and Katy had to take up at Turner where she lived out her old age. It was Wyandotte County we lived in. I thought nothing of it then. Now it has a nice ring to it.
This is what I find haunting about KC Railroad Blues. It takes me to the unknown in my own origin. I'm ok with it like it is. I don't have any wishes otherwise. It's just that grandpa's life and the railroad and my school and the house he and my grandmother lived in and raised their kids, they roll together into one, sparking memories, the railroard yard itself a ghost, a mystery with a kind of living spirit about it. And I know my grandpa grew up dancing to this very music the Slate Mountain Ramblers are playing. I've been told 2 of my grandmother's older brothers were fiddlers, and they went to Kansas from east Kentucky, Pulaski County. They played mountain music. I expect he could flatfoot too and probably cut a shine as a teenager. Enough to get grandma's attention and hold it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


tapo's eyes

Finally I got a picture of Tapo with her eyes doing like they sometimes do, appealing for something, like petting. When she was a tiny kitten she appealed with those eyes calling from the depth of her belly for food, then the bottle. I got one picture with a polaroid of her then that caught her eyes fairly well. Since then I've never been able to get another. When I hold up the camera, everything changes. They aren't quite sure about it. It's a foreign object and it's being aimed at them. Humans are notorious in the animal kingdom for pointing something at you that goes bang, you're dead. I saw her on the red pillow and liked her configuration. As I was getting ready, she looked at me like this and I went click, caught it just as she was moving out of it, first motion. The motion gives her eyes the life I see in them that photographs have a difficult getting.

When she was going outside a lot, Tapo learned to get my attention when she wanted in by scratching the glass window beside the door and looking at me with eyes that believe they can get my attention if they just stare hard enough. They do. Sometimes she won't scratch the glass, she'll stand at the window and bore a hole in me with the intensity in her eyes until they catch my attention. I look up and see Tapo's eyes telling me she's back, needs the door opened, would open it herself if she could, please help. Most often, the scratch on the glass gets my attention, her eyes do the talking.

She was born ravenous, wanting feeding all the time. To calm her down from climbing my pants leg every time I put her down, appealing with her eyes, feed me, feed me, I fed her with the bottle until she passed out. I felt a little guilty like sticking a baby's head in the gas oven to put it to sleep. But it was that or she's climbing me all the time with those eyes like headlights on high beam leading the way. Finally able to feed herself, she ate herself round as a soccer ball. She walks like a soccer ball with cat legs, kind of stiff legged and wobbly, black tail straight up, head bobbing, cat ears up like a Batman logo.

At a certain size she didn't get any bigger, stayed there. I feel like she's comfortable there because she's the smallest of the cats, bottom of the pecking order, and wanted to bring her weight up to Caterpillar's for better defense. Both TarBaby and Caterpillar can attack Tapo, but Tapo can't attack either of them. If she does, they teach her a lesson she won't forget. So she doesn't. In their time equivalent to our teens when they were establishing pecking order, TarBaby and Caterpillar jumped Tapo every day, kept her furious all the time. They did it to make her mad and it worked. Every time. The cats never hurt each other. But one of them would jump on her, start a screaming catfight and they roll around on the floor like a bowling ball with a mind of its own.

She hated it and I couldn't blame her. I thought I'd try talking to her, it was the only way I could explain something that might help. Didn't know if it would take, but it's ok to check it out. When she was on my lap I explained to her, talking like I would to a 3 year old child, which seemed to me about their human equivalent conceptually at the time. I told her that when they pounce on her, "roll over on your back and rip their guts out with your back claws. They'll quit in a hurry." I thought I was just talking to hear my head roar. Next time Caterpillar jumped on her, Tapo rolled onto her back and started kicking at Caterpillar's belly with her back feet, and Caterpillar found something else she'd rather do, like get the hell off this cat that went berserk.

It sent TarBaby on his way a number of times too. Before very long, they were pouncing on Tapo less. Even now, when they hardly ever do it, something will come over Caterpillar. She takes a bead on Tapo's eyes and tells her whatever it is she says, girl talk, I'm gonna splatter your guts all over that wall. Tapo's ears fold back, she moves her head closer to the floor, looks up at Caterpillar showing rattlesnake fangs, green laser beams shooting out of her eyes straight into Caterpillar's that say, you touch me, I'll make hamburger of your face and feed it to the dog. Of course, she doesn't. When Caterpillar reaches out a paw in slow motion to touch her, Tapo crouches down further to the floor and hisses like a poison-spitting reptile with big fangs, nightmare snake. Caterpillar laughs.

Tapo will be inside the cage of a wooden chair's legs and make a dash for another room after Caterpillar touches her. That's what Caterpillar wants her to do. And Caterpillar follows, her nose about 2 inches behind the tip of Tapo's tail pointed straight back. There's no tight space she can squeeze through that Caterpillar can't get through as well. Tapo goes to the smallest cubbyhole she knows in the farthest corner, Caterpillar right there in her face. They growl, hiss, growl, Caterpillar attacks Tapo and it's on, caterwauling that would make a soundtrack for a scene in an animated film of demons fighting in hell. No wonder cats had a bad name in medieval times when superstition was the same as fact.

I make it a practice to stay out of their tussles. I don't know what they're doing. They do. They're cats. I don't know how they think. I don't impose human rational mind on them, because they have no way to grasp it. It's the same as nothing. I let them lead the way. Sometimes, when I feel like Tapo has had enough and I see Caterpillar start backing Tapo into the corner under the chair legs, I watch. When Caterpillar starts showing intent to take this further than mental intimidation, I've called to her gently appealing on Tapo behalf, Caterpillar, let Tapo rest.

Every time, without hesitation, Caterpillar puts her slow forward motion into equally slow reverse motion, stepping backwards, one slow step at a time, eyes on Tapo in case she takes the sign of retreat for an opportunity to attack. Caterpillar backs up, backs up until she's satisfied Tapo can't get to her before she can turn around, she'll turn and walk slowly away, head high, I'm Caterpillar the Great and don't you forget it, pussy. Bullying is what it is. I expect it goes all the way back to lady bugs. Big birds pick on smaller birds. Big dogs dominate smaller dogs. Big kids pick on little kids. Big corporations put smaller businesses out of business. It's evidently something in consciousness that goes with living in this world in a body of any sort. Big'n rules.

Caterpillar and TarBaby have learned over time it does not please me that they like to pounce on Tapo and make her mad. They like to please me, so they only do it when the impulse is so strong they gotta do it anyway. Go to confession later. I let those times go by, because I don't want to mess with their circuits in a control way. This is their catness, totally their catness. It's what cats do. They don't hurt each other. I have seen TarBaby and Tapo run straight to Caterpillar out in the woods, a bee line and not even a split second pause for thought, when Caterpillar came face to face with a bobcat kitten and let out a squawl, sitting up on her back feet like a groundhog, arms high with 10 talons slashing the air. Caterpillar Buzzsaw. The bobcat was gone in a flash.

TarBaby and Tapo gathered round Caterpillar in support. The three of them stood and looked in the direction the cat ran. I doubt the cat meant harm to Caterpillar. Probably curious and wanted to say hi, scaring the fire out of her. The cats do care about each other. Seeing them go to Caterpillar's defense, not knowing anything about what she was facing, no hesitation, at her side in the snap of a finger, told me they're closer than I believed they were.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


tree dreaming

Monday morning I ordered 9 prestretched canvases from a place in Miami called RexArt after googling art supplies. I didn't feel like going to different websites and comparing prices spending half a day looking to see if I can save 50c if I find the right place. Too boring. RexArt looked good, they had what I wanted, better than what I wanted. They arrived today by FedEx 2 days later. I was thinking I'd get to painting something when they arrived. Early afternoon here they were, 3 boxes of 3 different sizes, sizes I've found I like. Not too big. Not too little. The size of a good painting experience. I'd imagined Friday or next week some time.

It's been a few years since I've painted. Didn't feel like it when staying with Jr. I preferred to read in my quiet time. It stinks up the house. At home I don't mind. I expect the cats won't care for it at first, but after awhile it will be the scent of home, and probably how I'll smell everywhere I go. I took one of the 16x20s out of the box and put the boxes away. I thought I needed to empty out the junk room for a place to paint, but I like it here in the living room. I find I paint better when I live with what I'm painting. When I'm not working on it, I'm looking at it. It sits perched on the portable easel by the entertainment center. I sit and study it. That's what I want to do.

Have been wanting to paint a portrait of a fiddler. Found a pencil that makes good strong lines, sharpened it with pocket knife and set about sketching the figure in, from waist up. These particular canvases have the canvas stretched tight over the frames and stapled on the back. Meaning I can continue the painting over the edges. Meaning no need for a frame. Frames have become too expensive to buy. I've always made my own, but I'd rather have no frame. No effort, no expense. No problem. I like the least frame anyway, just a narrow line of black is ideal for what I like. No frame is even better. I sketched him in with elbow going over the edge and the fingers of the hand holding the bow go over the edge and the end of the fiddle with the pegs goes over the edge. Just for fun.

Every time I take a break from painting, when I start up again it is entirely different from what went before. The last period was mountain musicians painted on used wood. Now I want to do mountain musicians on canvas. I've got not many years ahead and I have to do something besides sit and stare out the window all day. I can make portrait likenesses, so I might as well. I want to honor the musicians of mountain music, focus in our county. I paint pictures of several of them and they will be remembered at least by the people that live with the paintings and everyone they know. I'm believing that's what I want to do with the rest of my life, paint mountain musicians. I also want to price them so they don't have to leave this county. I want people in this county to buy them. I want them to stay at home. I wouldn't have anything against some being out and about, which is inevitable, but as a rule of thumb, I'd like them here where they belong.

I like the canvas where I can live with it and see it all the time. Long ago I learned that the hours spent sitting looking at something I'm working on are every bit as essential as the hours of applying paint. I see more deeply into what I'm doing when I look at it a lot. Adjust this. Reshape that. Wipe this out and do it again, keep at it until every detail is finished. I feel like a painting is finished when nothing I do can improve it and anything I do would diminish it.

Right away when I got the canvas and pencil ready, I sketched out the figure with the pencil. Wrong size. Wiped it off with turpentine on a rag and started over. It's sketched in pretty good now. Still much to do. I like living with it instead of having it in another room or another building, anyplace else. By the time it's done I want you to be able to hear the fiddle when you look at it. Right now it doesn't feel like music. Doesn't have any rhythm in it. This is why I want to live with it, to consider questions like this as I study it. What can I do to make it feel like music? This question will occupy my mind all the way through.

I'm leaving the old rustic look of painting on the wood, which I loved doing. At the beginning I had an abundance of wood. Then it starts getting hard to find. I still have some wood to paint on, but I want to do the canvases. I'm not going to go for the rustic look. The musician himself/herself will take care of that. I want to play with some rich colors. I want to apply to painting what I've learned of mountain music. Feeling is #1. And doing it for the love of doing it. Like a mountain musician has no urge for Nashville, I'll be painting with no urge for selling anything outside this county.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


won't you spare me over another year

Ralph Stanley's memoir Man of Constant Sorrow read out from under me earlier today. Finished the last page with those tears of joy again, it such a beautiful account of, really, just a man that was borned and lived out his life in these mountains. It just happens to be a gift that he sings like he does and plays a banjo like he does. He received his talents as gifts from God and developed them. Over and over throughout the account of his life he will call one thing and another that comes to him a gift. His wife was a gift. His children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren are gifts. That the soundtrack of the movie O Brother was a gift that brought a wave of attention to him such that he felt he reaped in old age, from 75 on, for all the sowing he'd been doing all his way along, keeping it going.

Reading Ralph Stanley tell his life felt an awful lot to me like sitting at the table listening to Jr tell his life in two hour conversations almost every evening for 5 years, until it was all told. I've now listened to Ralph Stanley tell me his life from beginning to present in the same language Jr spoke, the same sayings, "meaner'n a striped snake," 2 syllables for striped, the experience of playing your music on stage in front of people who paid to hear you make music. I've likened the way Jr told me his life to leaves falling from a tree in the fall, one at a time from any random place in the continuum that is the tree.

Dr Ralph's story is told one leaf at a time, though arranged in chronological order by the man who transcribed to print the recordings of Ralph talking, Eddie Dean. It is written in Ralph's own rhythms of talking, his own words, his own feelings, his own truth, which is his life. Dean deserves notice for attention to Ralph's speech patterns. He got it all but the accent, but it's there for them that know it. I love it about Ralph Stanley that when he's in California he pronounces can't, cain't. He hasn't homogenized his language or accent over his years in show business for the sake of glamor. He's a country boy with a close family, a son and a grandson carrying on the Stanley name and the Stanley sound into the next generations. His home is the Clinch Mountains of old Virginny.

He's a rare individual in American music. He managed to be a recording artist playing music all over these mountains and make a fair enough living to keep him going with a degree of encouragement long after the rest of the bluegrass world fell into panic after the lightning bolt of rock & roll. He said Carter always believed it was going to get better around every dark bend. Ralph Stanley has lived at home in the Clinch Mountains of Dickenson County, southwestern Virginia, all his life. The place for his grave is there too. He managed to live out in the mountain and by the time he's 75 be singing Amazing Grace a capella on prime time tv to the whole country on the music awards show, after getting the big award, "a living legend," the old Primitive Baptist way.

When he lost Carter, he found his way in the old way, keeping the old-time mountain music alive. When rock & roll knocked bluegrass off its rails, Ralph was moving higher up the mountain, going back to the music he grew up singing in the Primitive Baptist Church and at home with mama and Carter when they were kids. His connection with Carter his brother, everyone close kin to him, was deep and inseparable. Ralph Stanley's homeplace is his home all his life.

Here is a passage of Ralph talking about his Clinch Mountains.

This is where I was borned and raised and it's where I'll be buried. It's been good to me, and I don't want to leave behind the land I'm from. There's something about these Clinch Mountains. The mountains don't lie to you; they stand for the things that don't change, that stay true to themselves. They've been around a hundred million years and they'll be around for a good while more, I reckon. They keep you humble. They put you in your place. I'm going to see if I can make one hundred years myself. I figure that's what I'll do and then I'll go back into the ground that raised me.

He said he would make one more album and it more than likely gospel. With TBone Burnett producing it, I'm hoping he will, it will be another best album and/or song of the year and shine such a light on Dr Ralph Stanley that all he'll see is a glare. Listening to Ralph Stanley and seeing him on stage is, in fact, seeing an old white-haired Primitive Baptist man standing there singing in church the old way. It is the very same. His inner strength, his spiritual conviction, is with him everywhere at all times. Every page of the book confirmed for me what Roni Stoneman said of him, "Ralph Stanley IS these mountains."

Monday, January 25, 2010



In my search for what is behind my emotional responses to old-time mountain music, I thought I was getting pretty close yesterday. I'm looking now at approaching it by facets. This morning I had an email from Chris Davis that opened another facet for me, that joy down deep within that is constant. I'm seeing that sometimes old-time music will tap into that joy in the soul and that's when it gets me going. Like a well sung gospel song, like the Marshall Family singing I Just Want To Thank You Lord. That song always touches what I'll call my joy center.

Joy is never in our (my) search for why mountain music brings tears to your eyes. For me, my JOY comes from Jesus deep in my soul. Like something just born in me. There for me to leave alone, or embrace. I embrace this Jesus Joy totally. For me, it makes tears come to my eyes when I hear the old time music, see the orphans of Haiti, appreciate my blessings, etc.

Happiness comes and goes. Joy is living in me deep down. Nearly spewing out everywhere, each time I just open my eyes and see this gorgeous place we live, its animals, birds, people, family, friends.

That rang a gong for me. Chris said it with such light in her words, I wanted to reproduce it here, with her permission. She defines that place better than I could. I believe about all of you reading this will recognize that place in yourselves. Old-time music taps my joy place within. I think what it is that opens the joy center is the human dimension. Old-time banjo pickin is such that no two pickers can sound alike. Every picker has his/her own sound that is particular to the individual. It's music from a time when the individual was important. The musician didn't have to have a face without features or a personality without features. None of the mountain musicians had their noses remade by plastic surgery.

The mountain tradition has a beautiful humility in it. Rule number one, you don't talk down about other musicians. A few years ago a young boy of 13 who was getting pretty good on his banjo said something about another kid couldn't play, to Agnes Joines. Finger waving in front of his face, she let him know in no uncertain terms that she will never again hear him say something about another musician like that or she's gonna let him have it. He knew she meant business too. That's how the mountain musicians learn their etiquette. Humility is enforced the same way in youth. Humility is about the most important part of the integrity of a mountain musician.

The music is a living tradition passed from generation to generation. It's a living thing. It's about square dancing and flatfootin. It's about dancing, about motion. It's about making music as good as you can possibly make it. It's about the spirit of music, the flow. I can't help but go ahead and say it's about the fullness of being human. It's about extraordinary beauty being made by just another Joe, a coalminer, a sawmiller, hard working people. I'm listening to Lee Sexton, who's from E Kentucky, old-time banjo and singing. I know if I were to shake his hand, his hand would be hard as stone. A man who has worked hard, fought hard, made his way a hard working man getting paid very little in return.

Number one in a mountain musician's list of priorities is feeling. If the playing doesn't have feeling, it's not music. It isn't working. The fiddler has to feel what he's playing, take the note where he wants it to go by feeling it there. It's the same with all the instruments. Feeling is number one. Possibly this has a great deal to do with why it strikes me so emotionally, the feeling that's in it. When the musician plays from the heart, the music is received in the listener's heart. Musicians know that. Carter Stanley's love for the mournful old songs was from his continuing attention to making music with strong feeling. I believe feeling must be the way to the joy center within. Thinking about it sure won't do it.

Something else about mountain music. It is happy music. It's a lively social music of several people dancing together in square dances. It's about people getting together to laugh and let off some steam at the end of the work week. It was people at home. People entertaining each other. People knowing each other. Actual community. Everybody knew everybody. From where we are now, we're looking at 1984 in the past. We're way past it when it comes to mind control of the masses. The Supreme Court just a few days ago nullified the individual. Up to that moment we were the electorate. Now, we don't even have that, the world's most advanced Democracy. Evidently, advanced right out the other end.

Old-time music came from the time when people believed in Democracy and that old American individualism I was raised in school and church to believe in. Even then it was over. These kinds of sorrowful feelings in our time of seeing the American citizens take it lying down, becoming laughably manipulable subjects and believe the propaganda that it's good for the middle class. A good time to hear Aerosmith scream Love In An Elevator. In the time of old-time music people thought something of one another. You don't see much of that these days. The state of mind we live in during this time is full of anxiety about a long checklist of subjects, tv telling us we don't have enough, we need more. No matter who you know, they're not as cool as people you don't know. No matter who you are, you're regarded at the educational level of the fourth grade. To say something about it is out of order. Fit in. Don't think for yourself. Spend money.

Dark, heavy feelings. So I crank up the volume of the Rolling Stones doing Street Fighting Man. Bob Dylan and the Stones expressed for all the rest of us what we were feeling, an underlying current of anger around our impulses to be full human beings frustrated over and over until the struggle becomes just an ongoing struggle. It's been going on since VietNam. Government does what it's going to do and We The People can take a jump. You don't like it? Get used to it. You will.

Out here in the mountain I don't have to think like that anymore. I've give up the struggle. It's endless and it's counterproductive. It's jumping in and playing the game, starting out the loser. When I hear a fiddler hit the chicken notes in Cluck Old Hen and Chicken Reel, it touches my joy center. Music from the time when people walked everywhere they went. Walking turns out to be a kind of prozac and driving just the opposite. Now we go through several varieties of anxiety getting wherever we're going. We've turned down our emotional natures replacing them with what we call rational mind. Let's just say mind. Not all mind is rational. Feelings are a good guide, but when we collectively push feeling down in favor of mind, an untrained mind is no guide to follow. Feelings that aren't understood are no guides either.

Myself, in this last half of my life, have very little place for the dull thinking about what the dark cabal in control of That Great City is doing to delete Democracy in America, step by step, fixing it all the way so there's no going back, so we the people have no voice. What's done is done. I'd rather stay on my mountain and let all that mind go someplace else, not in my head. It's when I tap in to real humanity in the music of these mountains, the best of what we are, it opens joy within and I feel light. That's what I think Chris is getting at. Let all that stuff, "the world," a dark burden in the mind, go its own way and I go mine. Thank you Chris.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


roan mountain hilltoppers

My mind continues to search for what it is about mountain music that makes me so tender hearted shedding tears of joy hearing it. Not all, by any means, but just about any of it sometimes. There is an integrity about old time mountain music I hold way up high. It's an artistic integrity. A musician in these mountains is an artist in my way of defining artist. Playing by ear equals playing by heart. AP, Sara and Maybelle Carter were artists, each in their own way. AP took old songs he found in his searchings, and arranged them for the Carter Family way of singing. Sara sang them like nobody else could and Maybelle was a guitar master.

Appreciating the musicians as artists might be some of it, but not the bigger part. It gets down into my feelings about the old time ways, the people of those ways, the lives of the people of the old time ways. I've found the old timers of these mountains, people who grew up in the old time way before electricity, think about something besides money from time to time. The shallowness money brings with it, including pop culture that is only about money, never reached the mountain people until electricity brought pop culture and the reverence for money to break down the old ways like tearing down an old building to put up a new one.

Mountain culture is another of the many cultures around the world that television is changing faster than infestations of missionaries putting people of traditional cultures into factory made clothes of the colonists, tshirts, bluejeans and flipflops. Instead of hunting, fishing and gardening,
we're advised to get a low paying job at hard labor to enter the economy and buy necessities first, then everything else, like figurines of mermaids to hang on the wall in the bathroom. Instead of making music at home, the same thing over and over, we're advised to buy music made by professional musicians, not just the homegrown. Now that we've had a century of pop music, the rawest, most homegrown sounds best to my ear.

In the time of Backwoods Beat Music (03-07) somebody told me Eric Clapton played a Wayne Henderson guitar on his MTV Unplugged album. I wanted to see the dvd of the concert to check it out. If so, I wanted to get some in the store. First, you don't believe everything you hear. He did not have a Henderson guitar in his hands at any moment in the show, nor was one nearby to be picked from. While I was listening to the guitar player who blew me away with Cream, Derek & the Dominoes, Blind Faith, and some other bands, electric, I was sorely disappointed at what I heard acoustic. I wished I'd never heard his acoustic version of Layla. I sat watching the video thinking, in a fifty mile radius from my house, there are at the very least a dozen guitar pickers way better than Clapton. It's probably more like 20 or 30. From West Virginia to Georgia, these mountains are loaded with guitar pickers so much better than Clapton they put him to shame.

There has never been another music I've listened to that filled my eyes to overflowing with plain good feeling in the heart. Nothing in rock has ever made me weep for its beauty. No classical music has ever caused me to shed tears, but for Max Bruch's Scottish Symphony with Heifitz on the fiddle. That's got to me a time or two, but it's the mountain I hear in it that takes hold of me more than anything else about it. I believe that weepy feeling I get has to do with the mountains themselves, the soul of the mountains the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family sang from. The music that came out of these mountains has a certain feeling I can't put my finger on, and maybe nobody can, that connects with my heart.

I don't think it's because I knew the culture first. The first times I heard the music, I knew next to nothing about the culture. In my early years in these hills I avoided mountain music to some degree. First times I heard it I was thinking I could listen to no music but this the rest of my life and die happy. I didn't want to give up all the other kinds of music I love for one, so I kept it in the background, hesitant about it. When I put on a cd of any mountain music I can't do anything but listen. It stops whatever I'm doing. It takes over. The more raw and from way back up in a holler the playing is, the better I like it. Like Fulton and Sidna Myers, Pop Birchfield and his brother Creed, Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, Curly Ray Cline and Ralph Stanley. Just reading these names makes my eyes well up.

Whatever it is that takes hold of my heart about mountain music has to do with the mountains themselves, mountain culture, the way of life, the so very human way of life that manifests the full spectrum from the worst to the best, from the man whose brother calls him a silver-tongued rattlesnake, to one you could trust with anything, to the death. I believe this fullness of humanity as it has been lived in these mountains a few centuries is what tugs at my heart. It's gone. I've never truly experienced it, but I've known people who have told me many a tale of experiences in the old ways, like dragging logs out of the woods with horses, following a horses with a plow, riding a wagon to church, singing along the way. Possibly it has to do with the intensely emotional quality of mountain music made by people who lived by the heart, valued feeling above mind. Mind was a tool, what you use to figure things out, but feeling was of the heart, the very essence of a human being, the part that connects with the soul.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


the stanley brothers

Up this morning with a cup of Kenyan coffee from the percolator, a nice coffee. I think of Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, where she, a Danish woman, owned a coffee plantation. She was also a writer and wrote a beautiful account of her time there. TarBaby woke me up early and wouldn't let me get back to sleep, so I got up and read some more in the Ralph Stanley memoir. There's not a weak page in it, to my way of seeing.
Approaching the end and I don't like that. Thinking about starting over on first page again.

It is looking like Ralph talked into a recording device and this writer the publisher sent to him, Eddie Dean, put Ralph's words on paper. I came across some pages where Ralph is by himself on his bus at night unable to sleep, talking about the road, buying the big bus, having his own private quarters. He's sitting beside the window black with night telling stories from the past. It was during that part that I could see Ralph talking about his life to tell us, his fans about a life worth telling.

Ralph said of Carter that he talked about what he was going to do when he was well, up to the day before the day he died. He said Carter liked his life and thought it didn't get better than life on earth in his place and time. It brought Jr to mind; he was the same way. Up to the very end he would think about and talk about what he was going to do when he was better. Jr liked his life, didn't see anything to look forward to in the hereafter when it is fine here. It doesn't get better somewhere else. Both men loved to work. Jr loved sawmilling and tractor mechanicing. Carter loved performing and writing the songs, the band, riding the roads, like that's as good as it gets.

I wanted to play some more Stanley Brothers this morning. Last week I played early Stanley Brothers when they sang in a harmonizing way like the Blue Sky Boys. Later, the Primitive Baptist within came forward and they sounded more like the old way of singing. I wanted to continue that progression, play some more from the later years and then some from when Ralph went on his own. I wanted to span the period of time when Carter & Ralph transitioned to Ralph and see what he did with it. Ralph was apprehensive about taking on the up front singing role. He felt that was Carter's and his was tenor. On his own, Ralph brought singers in to sing lead and he sang tenor to them.

Larry Sparks was the first Carter replacement. Jimmy Martin was on that first album of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. He sang half a dozen or so songs on it. Larry Sparks sang about that many and Ralph sang lead on several. What a band they had. Curly Ray Cline played fiddle and Melvin Goins rhythm guitar, both of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Goins from Surry County. Earl Taylor played mandolin with Jim McCall playing bass, both of them SW Virginia boys. McCall is one of the great guitar pickers of the time. He and Taylor were the foundation of their band the Stoney Mountain Boys. Art Wooten made music with them in and around 1953. They were a high-powered bluegrass band. This was 1967.

Played 11 songs by Stanley Brothers from the album, An Evening Long Ago, and from their later King recordings. Then 6 by Ralph Stanley in his first time out on his own. Ralph and Carter Stanley are the most beloved artists I play on the radio show. I believe I could play nothing but Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley and everyone would love it. Since I believe everyone listening is a Ralph Stanley fan, I wanted to get a feel for what he was doing musically in the time of Carter's passing when Ralph had to make perhaps the most difficult decision of his life.
I wanted to end the show today with a 5 minute singing of Amazing Grace by the Primitive Baptists at the Woodruff church house in Cherry Lane. Somebody recorded them and it's on a cd. I don't know how to tell you to get one. Maybe you can ask someone you know who is a Primitive Baptist. Well, it's beautiful. I took up the whole time of the show with the Stanley Brothers. But, Sue let me play it first song of the next hour, gospel hour. Oh, it was beautiful. They sang it so well.

Friday, January 22, 2010


iced trees

Woke this morning to ice all over everything. It was quite beautiful everywhere. Not a good day for driving evidently. The mail didn't get this far today. Wind, rain, sleet and snow now tells days we don't get mail. Back when that had meaning in the post office, the mailman rode a horse. It was Thomas Kincaid world this morning. Except in the night I heard a big thump, expected power out, but it didn't happen. This morning I found a big limb from a white pine broke and took down the power line that runs from the pole to the house. Ripped a connector off the outside wall of the house, but didn't break the wire by pulling it loose from the house.
I called Blue Ridge Electric, reported it, adding there's no urgency about it. I have power. I can go on the bottom of the list after all the people without power. Mine is just something I don't dare try to fix myself. It could be the last one fixed and still be all right. The ice fell off everything between 2 and 3 this afternoon, a rain of ice under the trees. Made me want to go out with a cooler and snow shovel and fill it up. Why? I didn't do it. Around 4, a couple of white trucks from Blue Ridge Electric drove up, 3 workers, guys who looked like they're in volunteer fire department and rescue squad. When they came to see what needed fixing I felt safe. Intelligent guys who have learned very well something I don't care to know anything about, dealing with lots of electricity, the kind that can fry you like a dorito and knock you out of a cherry picker at once.
These are people I can't help but admire. They're the ones out all night doing what it takes to restore power to every house with a problem, something different in every case. These are today's wind-rain-sleet-and-snow people. Those are the conditions where they work all night. They're well schooled and well trained in their knowledge of what they're doing. They have to be. It's a know what you're doing or die kind of job.
They worked together as a good team. They were outside connecting the wire back to the house and I was inside reading Ralph Stanley tell about his fiddler Curly Ray Cline. I was reading about people I admire as true human beings, while outside 3 men I felt were true human beings put the broken parts back together. These 3 and the others that do this sort of work are actively serving the people of their county. They do it in such a way nobody notices that's what it is, but it is. They do work that is highly specialized. They know how to deal with electrical energy that would get me knocked to the moon. And they do it because I can't. They're fairly well paid and deserve to be. Like other working man jobs, it doesn't pay what it's worth.
By the end of the day everything is melted. The temperature is 36 and looking like it might not be too cold tonight. Maybe. I feel more and more like one of the old people living alone on a fixed income in an old house they can't afford to fix up, needing fuel assistance and this assistance and that. I've become an eccentric old turd. I've followed my own light and that keeps me on a solitary path. That's why I'm here, the solitary path. After the thaw, a fog drifted in, thin at first, that thickened as sky darkened. A good day to stay at home and talk with friends on the telephone.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


iced tree

Ice fell down from the sky all day. At 10 this morning a thin film of ice was on the rocks just outside the door. Today was a no-choice going to town day. I walked out and looked at the road. Water was running down the hill in it. The ground is still above freezing, so it will be awhile before the ice starts to form on the roads except on the north side of mountains in certain curves.

Debi told me a joke the other night on the way to the Ralph Stanley show. When a man from a city finds himself on ice sliding toward a snow bank, he says, Oh shit. When a redneck finds himself on ice sliding toward a snow bank he hands his beer to his buddy, takes hold of the steering wheel with both hands and says, Watch this!

Talked with Debi a little earlier today and she had her own watch-this moment this morning when the ice was a thin film on rocks, but no problem on the road. She'd gone to a country store not far from the house for supplies. On the way home, the curve she knew iced when no place else did got her. Paid it no mind. She went off the road a ways and almost down a bank, but not quite. Needed help getting back on the road, but came out of it no worse off than cold. She's a good driver too, knows how to drive with ice and snow. She grew up here.

That only happened to me once, and I went into it anticipating it. I knew exactly how long the slick spot would last on this particular curve, because I'd been over it a lot over the years. I came into it one night and it was iced. I expected it to be and was ready. I just wanted to see how I could handle it through the curve, believing I could keep it in the road until the pavement came back. I did. I was going sideways by the time I hit pavement, and if it had been 10 or 15 feet longer I'd have been going backwards when the pavement appeared. It was a fun ride. It's a little unsettling to be sliding out of control, but I knew the road, knew the curve, and it worked out exactly like I'd imagined. I went through it calmly working the steering wheel cautiously and staying off the brake.
I don't recommend it for entertainment.

I've tended to do my watch-this moments alone. When I don't have certainty I can make it, I don't want somebody sitting beside me watching me screw up really bad, or even get hurt; though I'm not one to take really dangerous risks. Also, I concentrate better alone. Don't see any point in taking off climbing a rock cliff to see if I can make it. I look at and say, No, I can't make it. I'm not going to try. I know myself well enough. In high school, we had to climb a big thick rope to the top and touch the gym rafter and climb back down. I hated it. I always made it, but just barely, and letting go at the top when I'm weak from exhaustion to be seen touching the rafter so I won't be told to go back up and do it, took about all the guts I had. A fall was certain death. I find chance interesting, but not enough to put everything on one turn of the roulette wheel.

One time I was in a Ford Bronco with center of gravity way forward and way high. It was so bad the rear end would try to move around to the front on washboard in the gravel roads. I figured on ice it would be like a spinning top. A short hill of 8 or so feet and then a curve of a driveway down toward the house. There was enough shrubbery between the house and the driveway so I figured the house was safe. It was Ted Stern's car and he was riding. At the top of the hill I stopped and told him we couldn't make it. He said we have 4 wheel. I said this is an inch of ice. 4 wheel is the same as 4 skates. He told me to go ahead and do it. I knew we wouldn't make it and I let my foot off the brake.

We lost traction instantly. First thing, the back end started swinging around. I sat back knowing there was nothing I could do but watch. He got excited. I told him to relax. The car left the driveway and made a slow circle on the icy lawn and slid up with his door beside a rhododendron so gently there wasn't a scratch. The next day, he made the same run in his new Cadillac with front wheel drive and made it pretty as you please. I noted the Cadillac has a perfect center of gravity and the Bronco's is way off. Debi's car is a Bronco. I was surprised, actually, that the Cadillac made it.

I've heard of power out on the gravel section of Cleary Road. That means it's a lot of other places too. Ice on the lines, tree limbs breaking. It's not a particularly fierce ice storm. Couldn't even be called a storm. It's no more than a heavy mist, but plenty of it and when it sticks to ice it turns to ice. I'm glad I don't have to be anywhere early in the morning but right here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


a-blowin in the wind

Quite a lot I question what it is about mountain music that took such a hold on me and makes my eyes tear up from joy that's flowing over in my heart. When I hear Ralph Stanley sing Rank Stranger or Amazing Grace I also hear Elder Millard Pruitt singing in the Regular Baptist Church. I discovered it in the time I knew Brother Millard, that feeling in old-time mountain music is the emphasis in the singing. The feeling can be expressed just fine through any kind of voice when the one with that voice is feeling it.

An old Regular Baptist preacher of the Little River Association, Garvey Killon, his joints locked tight from arthritis, in his 80s stood up to the pulpit, his energy too weak for what it would take to cut loose into preaching, and he could barely stand. He was the only preacher there that morning, and it was all on him. He stood at the pulpit and sang Amazing Grace a capella and slow as it could be sung, every verse. It was an old man's croaking kind of voice he was ashamed of, but the feeling came through, and all the more for his weariness. It had an ancient and universal quality about it.

I thought of old Plains Indians singing around a drum. Different words, but coming from the same place, the inner core, the heart, the soul. I believe it came through better than if his voice had been clear and more articulate. That moment continues to well tears up in my eyes. It was also the last time I saw him at a pulpit, the last time I saw him. Brother Garvey was one of the great singing preachers that only the people in the church could ever hear. Millard Pruitt too. Every time I sat listening to one of them sing, my mind spoke to itself saying, this is real as it gets.

I felt privileged they let me sit among them, feel what they felt, be one of them. I'd think of the little churches in North Carolina mountains, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Regular Baptists and the Primitive Baptists, singing like this. I think of the old preachers who could sing like Ralph Stanley, over the last few hundred years in time, no one outside the church ever heard. I love that. I don't mean only the preachers could sing. People in the congregation can hold your attention singing a song too. Eura Lee Phipps sang tenor with Brother Millard's lead such that I thought this is good as it gets, every song.

This old-time religion singing is the foundation of what we call American music; Americana, rock, country, blues, jazz, urban folk, contemporary gospel. Ralph Stanley has become a conduit from what I like to think of as the soul of American music, old-time church singing mixed with square-dance fiddlin and banjo pickin. Bluegrass it and you've got the Stanley Brothers. I don't mean to sound like a purist, because this is not about that and I'm not about purism. I'm just exploring what I've seen along the way, not making pronouncements. Connecting dots again like finding constellations in the night sky, making up my own.

The hymnal we used had quite a number of Carter Family songs in them. We sang Come Angel Band that the Stanley Brothers did so well. Singing the old-time way came from the feeling center within, the heart. Body movement of any sort, tapping of feet, bobbing of heads, clapping or any physical expression, ruled out. No need for it. The feeling and the meaning in the words are what the song is about. Body movement is for dancing to the devil's instrument, the fiddle, forbidden in the church. The fiddle is about dancing. Dancing is sin, among the worst. No place for it in church. I like the spark in the tension of opposites, sin and grace, that encircles the whole human being, body and soul.

It looks like where music comes from, not just the music of our own cultural experience, music anywhere in any time, is praise on the one hand and shakin your bootie on the other. Isn't that how we live our lives? The tension of opposites in motion is duality, the condition of reality the soul is experiencing in the universe. Looking at the line of pop music from minstrel shows to rap, everything changed and nothing changed. Ralph Stanley's music is true to the entire human experience. That's where I believe my tears come from, feeling in touch with the hearts of the people I live among and love, through his singing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010



I got a glimpse of a major theme that has been flowing through my mind, through the subconscious, what runs through my mind when I'm out taking a walk, or any time, a good bit of the time when I take note of it. Dwelling on the seemingly arbitrary anti-act of spirit leaving the body, not wondering when and how it will be, because that would be absurd, looking at how it's possible at any moment in the ongoing now for spirit to change perspective. It doesn't necessarily arrive with a warning and when it's there, that's it, cat shit.

What will whatever it is I'm thinking about this side of the moment have to do with anything the other side? That, I cannot answer. I can't even conceive of transition except for what I've read of people who have gone over and come back. I'm not afraid of what I'll find, like I'm not afraid of the next minute of my life. It is what it is. So far, it's writing to you, watching the time in lower right screen to see when the minute changes. That's when I'll know if I made it through that minute. It's still up for grabs. There. It happened. I survived that minute.

This is the sort of thinking that plays around in my subconscious. This is what's behind my actions and everything. I've always been aware that any second might be the last from an abundance of fundamentalist church where everything is impermanent. Any way you look at it, it is. I've found I have become devoid of ambition. Never had it anyway, but don't feel guilty about having so little get up and go. Friend Jim Winfield and I are both looking at approximately the same amount of future time: uncertain. Not much. His take is to get as much done as he can get done toward all he wanted to do in this lifetime. My take is, if it aint done by now, it aint gettin done.

In the wake of Jr, I think of the junk I'll leave behind. A real ambition would be to get all that thinned out, organized so whoall has to go through it is faced with something they can handle. I can't even handle it. I continue to be able to sit and look out the window thinking there's nothing better I could be doing. Watch a movie, read a book, feed cats, make a trip to town for catfood, stop and talk with everyone I run into that I know. I'm reading this as a natural response to watching a noble man fade away and expire, feeling it all along the way, knowing his life and the rarity of his character, valuing him for that as others might a vault of gold.

It's important to me as myself to see I have that. My friend Pat, who lives in upstate NY close to the Massachusetts line, inspired it years ago. When her girls were in their early teens she went to NYC to take care of a friend of hers who was dying of AIDS. She kept him in his own apartment to the last moment. She was puked on, and everything else on, and mothered her baby until he was out. I was especially struck by what a statement that was to her daughters of their mother's character. The girls were not the kind to be jealous of her attention. They understood what she was doing. She did it for her dad some years later.

When I started seeing the lay of the situation with helping Jr out, she was with me in spirit. He had no one to take care of him. The lumberyard would take whatever he had left of his life to pay his bill there as long as they could keep his heart pumping. My credo throughout was Jr Maxwell does not deserve to die of despair. Without Pat's example, I don't know what decision I'd have made at that crossroad where if I'm going to be with him, it's going to be all the way, and I will do all that's in whatever power I have to make his passing as comfortable as possible in his own home. In my way of seeing, Jr Maxwell deserved that. In years past he told me a few times when they come to take him to the nursing home he's going to pop one in his head. I said it won't be like that. It will be when you're unable to do anything about it. You won't get a phone call telling you they're on the way.

I believed I knew that was not an option for him. I was free with him having his pistol close at hand where he always kept it. Only when he was unable to handle it did I keep it empty. I knew Jr well enough to know he definitely did not intend to, but allowing for the unknown, neither he nor I was ever certain. I saw no need to protect Jr from himself. He didn't dislike himself. He thought himself a fool who botched up his entire life, but he didn't dislike himself. He was fine in himself.

I go through a day with that kind of impermanence in the front of my mind. What do I want to do most? Watch Yoji Yamada's Twilight Samurai, today's netflix movie. When that's done, read some more in Ralph Stanley's memoir. Carter's funeral, the casket in the center of the floor in a high school gym, 3,000 people there. Bill Monroe stood beside the casket and sang a capella Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Ralph's story is too good not to be told. One thing I see the book doing is funneling attention to how good the Stanley Brothers were when Carter was singing and they were riding the mountain roads, 5 in the car, the bass strapped to the top.

Monday, January 18, 2010


the peak, whitehead

Up to 55 degrees today. Gradually the ice is going away from even the shaded places. Before I knew Jr I paid nearly no attention to temperature. I knew what range it was in. Big coat. Light coat. Light jacket. Heavy shirt. Tshirt. That was all I cared about. Forecasts I paid little attention to, not because I doubt them, I just don't care. The rhododendron tell me on sight out the window when I wake in the morning what the temperature is, whether there's been snow, rain or ice in the night.

At Jr's, I read the thermometer by the door when I'd go in or out, to tell him what the temperature was. He could tell close by looking, but liked to know the number. We'd watch tv weather sometimes, turn it on for the weather, then turn it off. In that span of time we'd get a dozen or more commercials. He spent his life working outdoors in whatever the temperature was. Indoors, he kept himself in touch with outdoors by knowing the temperature.

There came a time he was talking about getting a big thermometer to put on the porch that he could see from inside. Somewhere I'd heard about digital thermometers. I found one at Alleghany Electronics. It looked like a little television. Ran on 2 3A batteries. The transmitter that goes outside took 2 3A batteries too. At the house, I assembled all the parts to Jr's amazement. He couldn't quite make out what I was putting together even though I'd told him it was a thermometer. He needed to see it completed to get some idea of it, it being something he'd never heard of before. The little tv screen tells the temperature outside in tall letters and the indoor temperature in small letters.

He was amazed by it. At first he let me have it for spending money on him and wanted to know what it cost. I told him something like it was a late Christmas present. He thought it was nice, but couldn't see that it would be worth having. Like other things people brought and plopped down in front of him like it was something he wanted, when he didn't want it at all, he received it and wouldn't have it moved for anything. Like a little figurine of a dog with a $1 sticker from Family Dollar on the bottom.

It wasn't long before he was sitting watching the numbers change like it was a television with no commercials. His own personal weather channel. He watched it all day long. He'd sometimes tell me what the temperature reached in the day and what time that was. It gave him company in the house alone all day long every day. In a way, it became his friend. It held his attention like another presence in the house and made him feel not quite so alone. It enchanted his mind that didn't take in any entertainment. No television, no radio, no reading. He needed another being, not a substitute. I stopped by in the evening on the way home from the store for a couple hours. He had a couple of women he talked with on the phone every day, and with Ross a couple times a day on the phone. He sat and looked out the window like it was entertaining. I learned to see the window the same way.

Jr's entertainment was his mind working. He was always solving a problem of one sort or another. Always looking for solutions to puzzles. That's what made him a master mechanic. It's how he figured out the banjo. His mind was going all the time, and a fast mind it was. He waited on the couch like sitting on the bank of a pond fishing, waiting for a car to turn up the driveway or the phone to ring. Another of the thousands of reasons I could not allow Jr to tolerate despair in the lumberyard was he needed the presence of other people, not in a bed with people he doesn't know all around, but people who see him at home. Among other people was the world he lived in. He liked other people. He liked to feel connected with the other side of the window.

The evening of the day of the funeral, I told Ross I'd like to take the little tv thermometer for my memory of Jr. Hell yeah, don't ask. Now, I find I sit and look at it. It's beside me here on top of the computer box keeping me in touch with outside and with Jr. Every time I look at it, he's there. It brings back sitting there with it on the coffee table, watching the numbers change, guessing how high it will get in the day. It's 33.8F out there. And 74.1 here. When I was out in Kansas a couple weeks, I'd call him and ask him the temperature and tell him what it was out there. The numbers change all day and all night. This little tv set for numbers was the only thing I wanted out of his house, and the violet that Jean gave him. 33.3 now.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


ralph stanley & the clinch mountain boys
fairview ruritan 16jan10

Met Debi at the Mexican Restaurant Mis Arados in Sparta and we had some good spicy food before the show. Debi has been taking care of Myrtle with Alzheimer's during the week, Sunday evening to Friday evening. It's quite a job and it is changing Debi. We've talked when she was so frustrated she had to make herself not cry. There was no time for it. I had it easier in a month with Jr every day than she has with Myrtle in one week. Everything Debi does with Myrtle has a loving touch. It's like a mother's love for her baby. Myrtle is in the foreground of Debi's attention at all times. Has to be. Keeping her out of the lumberyard for the old and helpless.

Walking into the Ruritan seating area I noticed sprinkled around among everybody else some people with difficult afflictions. Country people being taken care of by ones who love them, who want them at home and are willing to do what they have to do. I also noticed Debi was drawn to them like they were magnets. I don't believe she noticed. They drew her attention subconsciously. It was the compassion in her connecting with each one of them.

I followed to see where this would lead. She picked a place for us to sit behind a family of women from great grandma, grandma, mama, the kids, one of them with a toddler, the only boy. Great grandma was a bent over and tiny, using a 4-footed cane. She was alert, just had this affliction she'd lived with all her life that was kind of deforming. One of the girls sat staring at us over the back of her chair for a long time after we sat down. Whatever it was they had seemed to be genetic, because they all had whatever it was. Not debilitating, just awkward making. Mama was the one that got things done, drove the vehicle, probably a van, and coordinated activities. Pleasant seeming people happy among themselves at the Ralph Stanley show.

Not far from us sat a man in a wheelchair with a strap across his chest to keep him upright, arms flailing in a twisted kind of way. Every once in awhile he let out a yelp. The people with him were attentive that no harm came to him, comfortable in a Ralph Stanley audience as at home. I saw others with someone unable to take care of self, bringing them out for the Ralph Stanley show. The range of hair colors in the audience went from gray to white. A few grandkids around in the audience. Even a few middle class city people were there that stood out like Americans in Paris.

Everybody else was country people. And I'd venture about every one of them goes to church and is devout. I found myself drawn to the people of various afflictions after Debi drew my attention to them. I looked for them around in the audience, realizing this is what I love about country people. Go to a country dance place anywhere in these mountains and you see people with afflictions brought by the ones taking care of them. Getting them out of the suffocating house to have a good time with something they love--old-time mountain music--where it's safe and they're regarded with respect by everyone around them. The people around them automatically watch out for them.

I carried my copy of Ralph's memoir to get him to sign it. He was at the table when I walked in, no one talking to him or buying something, and I stepped right up, handed it to him and asked him to sign it. He looked at me a moment, I think trying to see if he recognized me, somebody who already had the book. He didn't recognize me and signed it. I wanted to say something, but I'm not good at that and I'd be saying something just to be saying something. I said, 'Thank you.' I'm not an autograph geek by any means, but this I had to do. I got Bo Diddley's autograph several years ago at a show. I like that. Bo Diddley and Ralph Stanley.

When Ralph and I made eye contact, I saw him approaching feeble, noticed his grandson sitting beside him with the air of a body guard, with him at all times in case of anything. I saw Ralph has no danger of getting shelved in the lumberyard when he's too feeble to take care of himself. His family loves him in a great big way. In a country people way. His face had deep lines and furrows with bright living eyes seeing through the mask of old age. If I'd had my wits about me, I'd have asked him to let me photograph him sitting there, wanting something of his face. But it's just not in me to do that. I know it would not be a problem, and I know he'd consent. But I have a hard time being so impersonal with someone I respect. I wouldn't walk up to somebody in the restaurant I don't know and ask them to let me take their picture. Caint do it. During the show is a different thing.

Debi was about to jump out of her skin waiting for 7:30 to roll around. We got there early anticipating a big crowd. The place was full by the time the band started. We were about half way back. My friend Chris Davis was there with her husband, Ronald, daughter, Cheri and friend, Linnea. Chris was a knockout. Black coat to the floor. No buttons. Plain, Quaker plain. In the middle where a pendant would hang, a snowflake made of silver with white gems. And she with short white hair. She knows how to make a visual statement. None of them had ever seen Ralph Stanley. Chris said she felt goose bumps when he sang.

The show, of course, was spectacular. A stage full of good musicians in their time as Clinch Mountain Boys, fellers that have picked a good many years together; guitar and banjo, each 17 years. The fiddler, Dewey Brown, won Galax several years ago. Ralph's grandson, Nathan, playing guitar instead of mandolin. Ralph 2 was not there. These boys can make some music together and they made it in abundance last night. 2 shows, the second more casual than the first. Ralph spoke some, noting this is the 30th year in a row he's played Fairview Ruritan. He said he'd rather play here for mountain people than anyplace else in all his travels. The part I loved was these are Ralph Stanley's own people whose lives he celebrates. This was so close to home, it was about the same place. These are the people God's parachute put me down among 33 years ago. Sitting among several hundred people of these mountains before Ralph Stanley, I said a lot of prayers of thanks that came from all the way in my core.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


stanley brothers & clinch mountain boys
fiddlin art wooten on left

This morning I stuffed all my Stanley Brothers cds in the library bag used for carrying radio station stuff, like the pair of glasses that are not my prescription, but so close it doesn't matter, for reading minuscule print on cd packages, and the cd with the theme song on it. I keep one of them at the station too for when I forget to bring the one I carry. The text of the commercial is in the bag too. I wanted to play Stanley Brothers because I am reading about them now, I love them and wanted to hear especially their early music, like first recordings not very many months after they started, with Leslie Kieth playing the fiddle and Art Wooten.

I was listening closely to their voices, what they were doing, singing in the style of a brother duet they especially liked, the Blue Sky Boys from around Lenoir. Smooth harmonizing. I saw them playing every night of the week in places all over these mountains, Bristol the hub they went out from in all directions, playing on stages in small town movie theaters, courtrooms, school auditoriums. From the start, the very start, they were getting audiences of 2-300 every night. They played what Ralph calls mountain music played a new way, and people all over these mountains took to it. It was hillbilly music, so much so it was not accessible to ears from outside these mountains. Like fiddler Marcus Martin in that way. It's just not enjoyable to any but a mountain ear. Occasionally, somebody from the flatland would appreciate it, but not enough to keep Carter and Ralph in contracts with record labels.

The only time a song of theirs made the Billboard charts was when How Far To Little Rock touched 17. They needed one more song to fill out the album they were in the studio recording in Cincinnati, 1960. It came to them to take their stage jokes and put them to this song they'd learned from an old banjo picker they knew when they were kids. Spontaneously made it up in the studio and recorded it. Here's Ralph talking about it, "Then, we thought it was really funny, because we'd just cut the joke song as a joke, which it was, and then the joke got us our only hit. Makes you wonder about the music business." Every time they tried to stretch beyond the mountains for audiences it never worked out. Bristol was their base. Their music was just right for the hillbilly ear and just wrong for the flatlander ear. There's not hardly enough hillbillies to generate a great deal of income for musicianers.

Over the hour of the program I heard the evolution of their voices from smooth harmonizing in The Girl Behind The Bar to the Primitive Baptist style Ralph continues to sooth our ears with, Carter singing East Virginia Blues. I say evolution, because the changes from one way to the other spanned 10 years of almost every night making music someplace out in the mountains. A little change here, a little change there. Let's tighten this up. Let's loosen that up. A little more emphasis, a little less emphasis. A lot of people say with conviction Carter Stanley is the best bluegrass singer there ever was. That's like saying Maybelle Carter is the best guitar picker there ever was. Maybe so, maybe not. I won't dispute it either way, though in my way a-hearin, Carter is the best there ever was. Ralph is too.

Barbara, one of my listeners, called during the show after I'd mentioned fiddler Art Wooten was from here. She hadn't known that. It tickled her when I said he lived in Twin Oaks when he died. He's in the Elk Creek Primitive Baptist cemetery on Hwy93 close to Farmer's Fish Camp Road. He played on Rambler's Blues and Molly And Tenbrook in 1948 on the Rich-R-Tone label. Art was every bit the hillbilly they were. He had the Primitive Baptist music in him too. I hear that old-time singing in bluegrass like I hear black Baptist church singing in Aretha Franklin. It seems like as Ralph Stanley has grown older his singing has reached further back into his original music such that he sometimes sounds like an old preacher, like Millard Pruitt. Millard, too, had a singing voice that was a gift and sang up out of the soul of these mountains. He was not the only one. These mountains have good singers all over them.

At the end of Carter singing East Virginia Blues it hit as a shock to my system to have to stop playing the music. Next the North Carolina News from NCNN. It felt like a knife stabbing a pillow. It does that to me every week. I play music to uplift the listeners, give them the good feeling of good music they only get to hear once a week, their own music, music from home. Then, Bam! A hammer on a brick. The News. The latest up-to-date murder and mayhem brought to you by real loud noise Ford Pickups, varoom, varoom. Crank up the chainsaw! Let's make some noise! Let's Partay! Yeah!

I replaced the cds in their cases while the symphony of hammers hitting steel crashed around in my cranium scrambling the eggs. It set Sue to complaining about what's wrong with the world. I put on my jacket saying, "It's the world." I thought of words from John Lennon in the song Revolution, "if you want to change the world, change your mind instead." My editor within recommended not saying it, a little too preachy, and she has to find it for herself, like I had to find it for myself. I walked out the door singing in my head, If you want to change the world, change your mind instead.