Author: Poling, Chuck

That Old Analog Cabin on the Hill

For many years our stereo system sat in a large, boxy cabinet in the corner of our living room. It included a tuner/amplifier, a CD player, a cassette dubbing deck, and, of course, a turntable. The cabinet included four drawers full of tapes and a large compartment that held about 200 LPs.

A couple of months ago, Jeanie and I looked at it and realized that we barely used it. The turntable was acting up and the stylus was pretty worn. Though we have hundreds of records, including many rare and hard-to-find bluegrass and country music albums, we just werent listening to them. Many of the cassette tapes we own have degraded and cant be played.

Increasingly, weve been relying on iTunes to store and play music. Weve got one older laptop in the kitchen just to listen to internet radio. Weve loaded hundreds of CDs onto our computer and occasionally purchase songs from the iTunes store.Recently, I found one of my favorite recordings of all time there. Norman Blake and Red Rector recorded an album of guitar and mandolin duets in 1976 called, unimaginatively enough, Norman Blake and Red Rector (County Records). Whatever they scrimped on in naming the record, they more than made up for by delivering a dozen wonderful songs and tunes that include some of the best guitar and mandolin licks Ive ever heard.

I ran across this album back in college around 1978 and was particularly entranced by their instrumental version of The Girl I Left Behind Me. Its two minutes and forty-four seconds of unrestrained flatpicking rapture. Both men play with a fluidity and enthusiasm that is inspiring. No bent strings, no wacky phrasing, just a joyous romp from start to finish.

I had a cassette tape of the album for years. It eventually started warbling and the crisp, snappy picking began to sound like a lost Pink Floyd track that should have stayed lost. I searched record stores for it for years I dont know if it was ever issued on CD and eventually gave up. It turned up on Amazon, but by the time it did I wasnt buying much vinyl.

Then just last week I looked on the iTunes Store, thinking that it would be a real stretch to find the old chestnut converted to mp3. Lo and behold, there it was. I didnt blink I bought that puppy on the spot and as the soon as I heard the opening potatoes on The Girl I Left Behind Me it reminded me of why I fell in love with bluegrass in the first place.

For better or worse, were living in a digital age, and finding this rare recording lands definitely in the better column. Over three decades, Id spent endless hours searching the cut-out bins at Tower Records or scouring through vintage shops like The Record Finder and Jacks Record Cellar in San Francisco, or Village Music in Mill Valley for precious gems like the Norman Blake/Red Rector album. Now its just a click away.

For all I grumble about technology, I appreciate how valuable it is to have instant access to a world of music. Its a boon to the bluegrass music community providing longtime fans with the opportunity to build up their collection and beginning musicians with lots of source material to study.

I look back with nostalgia at the time I spent digging through record stores, but Ill bet if you asked me 25 years ago whether Id prefer to purchase rare recordings by just clicking a button at my desk, Id have said, sign me up.
Posted:  12/24/2012

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