Author: Martin, George

Dueling with decibels

We often joke about bluegrass lyrics. It occurred to me long ago that a large proportion of the residents of Southern Appalachia must be blue- (or brown, never black or hazel) eyed girls waiting faithfully for the singer who is “going back someday.” And there’s the old one about what happens when you play a bluegrass record backward: your dog comes back to life, you get your pickup truck back and Momma gets out of prison.

But seriously, folks, lyrics are what sell the song. There are a precious few groups that get by with hot picking, but in general good bluegrass is good singing and good singing needs good lyrics.

I tell you that to tell you this: Barbara and I went to the Sonoma County Bluegrass and Folk Festival last week. We always enjoy that show (and thanks so much to Mark Hogan, Colleen Arroyo and the folks from the Sonoma County Folk Society who work so hard on it each year).

We got there during the dinner break as my own band had an early afternoon gig in Southern Marin, so the first band we saw was High Country. It was a good start: hard-driving traditional bluegrass, mostly classic, much-loved songs and (the point of this essay) easily understandable lyrics.

I am no acoustic expert but it seems to me that with its high ceiling and hard surfaces, even with a good-sized crowd the Sebastopol Community Center is a difficult place to fill with music. But Paul Knight was on the board and High Country was happily in our ears.

Rita Hosking followed, and things weren’t quite as acoustically clear. Rita has a beautiful voice and writes lovely songs, but she doesn’t always enunciate perfectly and some of the lyrics go missing. As a singer-songwriter she is doing original material that may not be familiar to everyone, so every syllable is important.

Rita was joined on a couple of songs by her teen-age daughter, Cora Feder, an excellent clawhammer banjo player. We talk a lot in bluegrass about brother harmony, but when you hear this mother-daughter blend it puts the idea of angel choirs in your head. “Celestial” is the only word for the music they make.

Front Country showed up next. I think their lead singer, Melody Walker, could stand on the stage at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, unamplified, and be heard just fine back in the cheap seats. But her band was loud and, again, some of the lyrics (and many of the band’s tunes are originals) got lost in the mix.

But things really started circling the drain when the final act, Missy Raines and the New Hip, took the stage. I want to emphasize I am not some old fart grousing about her music being “no part of nothing.” I have heard Missy play with Eddie Adcock, the Claire Lynch Band and as a duo with Jim Hurst. She is a killer bass player (seven times IBMA bassist of the year) and has an engaging smoky alto voice.

I was looking forward to hearing her new material, and unfortunately I am still looking forward to it. She had a drummer who was surrounded by several microphones that served only to muddy up the PA system and drown out her voice. She had an electric guitar player with a loud amp and a bunch of stomp pedals on the floor for distortion, reverb, etc. Whatever vocal was left in the mix after the drummer did his work was obliterated by the guitar man.

(For guitar geeks, that electric axe was a point of interest. It was a Silvertone (Sears Roebuck house brand) semi-hollowbody, double cutaway with a Bigsby tremelo from, I’m guessing, the 1970s. Cool, but not in this context.)

Not only were the lyrics unintelligible, the band was much louder than the other groups. Barbara and I left our seats in the front and retreated to the middle of the auditorium. After one more song we went to the very rear. And after another song or two, we simply left.

Missy Raines may have a repertoire that could bring me to tears, but I’ll never know. She might have sung a tune that would become my very favorite song, that would have propelled me to buy her CD, but that’s not going to happen.

Louder is not necessarily better.

Department of shameless promotion: Bluegrass bass player (and father of Fiddling Annie) Michal Staninec came by that gig my band was playing last weekend and shot a video. You can find it on YouTube by searching for: Prairie Rose Plays Big City. I’ve written about being a bluegrass band that doesn’t play bluegrass (because the people we play for mostly don’t know Bill Monroe from Marilyn Monroe). This is a sample of what we do play.

Posted:  3/13/2014

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