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Saturday, November 17, 2012

BLUEGRASS EXPLOSION

sandy mason and willard gayheart



There must have been a glow in last night's sky over Woodlawn, Virginia, above Willard Gayheart's frame shop, The Front Porch. For two hours the god of music was present. Awesome is the most overused word since Wow in the Sixties, yet it's still a valid word with its own meaning, appropriate to this moment. Maybe better would be the old-time meaning of the word awful. Today it means terrible, of negative interest. In the old-time way it meant full of awe, something so awe-inspiring it's awful. It's still used in that meaning, like, "the music last night got to me something awful." We say, "an awful lot all the time." The word now has two opposite meanings according to use. I'll just say it was awful, but that sounds too much like offal, and it weren't none of that. Awesome is the word. It was the cd release party for Scott Freeman and Edwin Lacy's new album, 2 CHAIRS NO WAITING. It's a fiddle and banjo album like no other. You can hear some or all of the tunes at the label's website http://www.mountainroadsrecordings.com and cds can be ordered through the website. All the cds from Mountain Roads Recordings at Bristol, Tennessee, are present moment mountain music good as it gets.

I arrived a little bit early, and even early the parking area looked like a used car lot. Inside, Willard had to bring up more folding chairs. The place was packed with people anticipating some awesome music. A happy spirit was in the air running through everybody, a friendly atmosphere to step into. I knew about half the people. It's a place where you can speak to somebody you've never met and they don't look at you like you're trying to sell them a grave plot on the moon. Right away I saw Willard was not busy for a few seconds. I went straight to him wanting to show the picture in the digital camera of the new painting of Scott and Edwin. Willard and I are artist friends who share insights with each other. I crack up when I think of the time Willard told me he's not really an artist. Willard is one of the greatest artists I know, right there with his musical partner, Scott Freeman. My artist friends are almost all musicians. Willard makes a beautiful pencil drawing and he plays rhythm guitar with a reputation for keeping perfect rhythm such that the other musicians don't have to think about the rhythm themselves. As a bluegrass singer, Willard has a lifetime of stage experience. He can sing the same song folk style or bluegrass and they're equally beautiful. He writes a good song too. Willard is every bit as satisfying to my ear musically as Doc Watson, and I look way up to Doc Watson. I say Doc here to give you an idea of the measure of my respect for Willard's musical artistry.

When the seven-piece bluegrass chamber orchestra indicated they were ready, everybody sat down in a hurry and all attention went to the band. It was the Siamese Cousins + 5 or Skeeter and the Skidmarks +3. Everybody who played a part on the project was in the band, minus Dori. I didn't get to talk with Scott but a minute when the show was over, and he was in that place musicians are still in for quite awhile after jamming all-out for two hours. I didn't ask about Dori. I'd heard something about she went to Nashville a week or so ago. I took her absence to affirm it, though still not knowing. She has a man in her life now who appears to be the one she's been waiting for without knowing who or if. She has two songs on the project that deserve mention, Gold Watch And Chain she sings just right, and a Gordon Lightfoot song, The Way I Feel. I've been hearing Dori develop her singing voice for the stage the last three years. My thinking is if she has her eye on making a shot for it in Nashville, now is the time. She has a charisma onstage something on the order of Sade's, subtle and smooth without being too smooth.

The band started off with an explosion. Lonesome Road Blues, the first song on the album, blew the roof off the place in the first ten seconds. And the roof never came back, the reason I suspected the sky lit up over Woodlawn. Butch Robins kicked it off, a really good punt, with his bluegrass banjo. Scott Freeman tore up his mandolin and left it in shreds. Steve Lewis came in with his guitar and did some unbelieveable pickin. Brandon Davis played lead guitar too, immediately commanding respect for the music he could get out of that wooden box. Edwin Lacy cut completely loose on his old-time banjo, left mind somewhere else and let the music guide his hands without any mental interference. Willard kept the rhythm going with Sandy Mason on the bass. Sandy sang Dixie Darlin, a song I love to hear her sing. They rocked our world from the first note to the last. They finished after two hours with a request for Orange Blossom Special. In bluegrass it is one of the tunes they call "war horses" in classical music, tunes audiences love to hear and bands get tired of playing. Rocky Top is another. And Duelling Banjos. They didn't pay that any mind. They got it going so hot that people jumped to their feet clapping. Scott played the train on the fiddle and Steve was right there with him doing all he could to destroy every string on his guitar. I love it when the two of them get together like that. It seems like there is no limit to how far they can go.

Scott is such a master mandolin picker that when I hear a mandolin in a Nashville bluegrass band, I hear it in relation to Scott's sound. I've heard several his equal, but none better. Over the last decade, Scott, Steve and Willard caught my ear when Alternate Roots was a band. I freely call Alternate Roots my favorite band for life. When they disbanded I grieved for six months the same as if a really close friend had died. Steve Lewis and Scott pick together such that you know they have the time of their lives doing things with the strings they can't do with anybody else or very few, intuitionally. It's dynamic every time they get together. Scott and Edwin too. Scott and Butch Robins too. Seven master musicians on the stage, people who play incredibly well together. I say the god of music was there last night, because every one of the musicians had a spirit about them, individually and together, everybody lit up in joy. The second song they played after clearing the roof out of the way was Hang Me, a Skeeter and the Skidmarks favorite. It cranked the music up to the next level. And they kept it there througout. Even the ballads had the joyous energy. After Hang Me was Billy In The Lowground, and it was on from there. Steve likes to call it Goat In The Swamp.

At intermission after the first hour when everyone in the audience stood up and turned around, I saw joy beaming out of everybody's face. I knew I was lit up the same. It was a joyous air in the place. Different ones I see there every week, we'd look at each other big-eyed and make a short statement about the music we were experiencing. The music at the Fiddle and Plow show is always worth driving an hour each way for. I could buy a cd with what it costs in gas, and it's better than buying a cd, because I'm hearing my favorite musicians playing twice as long as a cd. Live. In Concert. Last night was special. One Skeeter and the Skidmarks show a couple years ago reached into that place of a joyous musical experience for band and audience together. All the shows are extra good, but these two stand out in my memory for the joy energy in the music. They know how to let the music breathe and they know how to let it run wild. Everything I've said here sounds like overstatement, but it all is understatement. And for any of the ones in the band who might see this, I don't want to give them the big head. I can't reach with words the place their music took me to. On the way home, I stopped to see some friends. I tried to tell them something about it, but all I could do was emote: awesome, amazing, fabulous, unbelieveable, totally incredible, over the top. It degenerated into babble fast, because I was unable to do anything but blabber. So I shut up after hearing myself fumble for words I couldn't find, enough that I was boring myself. This morning I woke up singing Edwin Lacy's Little Black Pony, a song with a story as good-worded as Catfish John.

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