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Saturday, May 22, 2010

MOUNTAIN MUSIC ON THE RADIO

Maybelle, AP and Sara, The Carter Family


This morning I played the cd made from Little River Boys and Green Mountain Boys downloads from Kilby Spencer. Started off with Art Wooten and Jr Maxwell playing Lee Highway Blues. Great fiddle tune every fiddler wants to play the best he can. It has a little trilling note in it some fiddlers do well and some don't even attempt. It's most often the older fiddlers that get it right. Art liked the notes way up high and every kind of difficult thing like that. Jr said there wasn't a note in a fiddle Art Wooten couldn't find. He said that of Earl Scruggs with the banjo. He once said of an Ashe County picker he respected, 'Th'aint more than 5 notes in a banjo that he cain't find.' I felt like Jr would assess himself at about the same place, within himself. If he were to say it out loud, it would be more like 10. His way of saying Larry Pennington was a great picker was to say when he walked into a fiddler's convention, the banjo pickers put their banjos in their cases and went home. Of course, that's not what they did, but it was the picture the exaggeration made that told in one image, like a cartoon, the feeling that went around the place. It's a comical way to say first place bluegrass banjo is took.


Accidentally played Jr's lead banjo doing John Hardy twice. That was ok. It was so good, I don't think anybody minded. Also got to play Jr's Home Sweet Home, his fiddler's convention winning song. The moment he crossed the threshold into his house after I'd liberated him from the nursing home, he said, "Home sweet home." And how he meant it. Home was where his life was. He was as bad a home-body as I am. He never cared about going anyplace. I don't either. I force myself to go places because I want to see my friends. When Jr was taking care of his tractor shop, he could see his friends and stay at home too. Whenever his car was down at the shop, the pickups and trucks would be stopping to visit with Jr. When somebody wanted free advice on how to fix their tractor, he'd say he'd have to see it before he could tell. I had a good time playing Jr for perhaps several people listening who knew him and appreciated his pickin again. Playing Art Wooten's fiddle and Jr Maxwell's banjo started my day off right. Every week it is an enjoyment to play this mountain music to my listeners, mountain people.


Today I stayed an extra hour and played music for the gospel hour. I went to the station's library of bluegrass and picked bands from our region to play. Bluegrass albums most often have at least 2 or 3 gospel songs. I picked out two that each had a gospel album, Black Diamond, a band out of around Princeton, West Virginia. And The Country Boys, a Mt Airy band. Played Doc Watson singing What A Friend We Have In Jesus. He freshened it up by singing it with a harmonica giving it the flavor of a Civil War ballad. It was probably heard many a time around a Civil War campfire, either side, sung probably not far from how Doc sang it. Found Jeff Michael singing one and Herb Key singing one with Elkville String Band. Without intending to, I found the gospel songs by bluegrass bands were plain, without production to attract attention. In all the ones I played, the gospel songs were sung in the simple Baptist way without decorations. Put in a couple of beauties by the Carter Family, Honey In The Rock and When Silver Threads Are Gold Again. What a beautiful song that is. It's not a "gospel" song, but it's a love song to such a degree that I consider it a gospel song, because it is written: God is love. Whoever wrote that song was an advanced poet. It's like a poem by the Indian poet, Tagore.


Hearing Sara's voice again was refreshing. Her voice is plain and sometimes almost monotone. Her voice does no emoting. It's as plain as a song sung in a Primitive Baptist meeting. Somehow, from somewhere she carries across the feeling in the song such that when I remember it, I recall the feeling, the depth of emotion. Sara's voice is calm and plain as if reading the news. Give a country singer the same song to do and it would be full of vocal emoting, attempting to get the feeling on the surface. Sara gets the feeling in the heart and lets the surface be the words, which carry the song's meaning. She was such a mountain singer; emotion is in the heart, not the voice. Plain delivery of just the words. Sara was essentially just telling the words. And at the same time, it's singing like hasn't been equalled since and never will be. The way she was singing was particular to her culture, which is no more. She sang Honey In The Rock like I've not heard anyone sing it but her. She makes no musical production, she just tells the words, which hold their own. It's like she's saying with a straight face, the truth needs no defense.


JD Higgins was the one I played first half and second half. He sings a good gospel song. Using My Bible For A Roadmap, a good old Reno & Smiley hit from early bluegrass time, and Life Is Like A Mountain Railroad. Had to finish with My Only Child, the tear-jerker of tear-jerkers. This one is legit. It's not like a sweater found on a grave. It was the sudden, accidental loss of his 26 year old daughter, his baby. In the song, he's talking to God, the kind of thing we've all done before, I thought we were friends, why did you let this happen? She was my only child. And then it comes to him that God got his heart broken too losing his only child. I can't hear it without tears, like James King's song, Echo Mountain, a song I have a hard time listening to any more. Because I know what's ahead, I agonize over the sorrow at the end from the beginning. It was only a drama the first time I heard it. From there on, it's an ongoing sorrow. A deep sorrow. When a man don't use good judgment, it's the innocent that pay. The cries on Echo Mountain still haunt me to this day. JD Higgins sings his song, My Only Child, at every show. I don't know how he does it. He probably doesn't know either.


Gospel Hour had a regional twist today. I like to play musicians and bands, emphasis on the human dimension. I like to play a selection of a few songs by some, and sometimes an hour of one artist. I always feature whoever it is, naming everyone in the band. Sue has been talking to me about doing my show for 2 hours. I like that, but I didn't want to run out Gospel Hour. I thought I'd keep it gospel and play as much as I can from around here and other places too. Mountain music is half gospel, so I may as well honor it as such and have a 2 hour show that plays the full range of mountain music. I like that. This can be fun. A new dimension. An hour of fiddle and banjo music, then an hour of mountain gospel. That sounds just about right. Not restrict it to the region, but let the region be the emphasis, the rule of thumb. Ralph Stanley and The Stanley Brothers. There is a lot of gospel that is extraordinarily beautiful from around here. I'll enjoy diving into the gospel music world. I think of the Marshall Family singing Glory Land, up there to die no more. Ralph Stanley does that song live at the Smithsonian, one of the finest bluegrass albums there is.

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