Author: Martin, George

Please Be Watchful of Rattlesnakes
Today's column from George
Thursday, July 9, 2009

Somebody at the Nevada County Fairgrounds is a skilled motivator. I noticed two handwritten signs in the run-up to the festival (I was there early for music camp).

One was in some flower beds over near the Pioneer Stage. By the time I got there, there were some freshly planted flowers in the beds, but the sign remained from before. It said: “Please stay out of the flower beds. They look empty but are full of manure.”

The other was in another set of flower beds just past where the long row of porta-potties later was set up to the left of the stage area. Anyone thinking about wandering among the flowers, perhaps to pick a few posies, had to first pass a sign reading: “Please Be Watchful of Rattlesnakes.” Oh, well. Maybe I’ll just go on my way.

And speaking of rattlesnakes, does everyone know the old non-urban legend that keeping a rattlesnake rattle in your fiddle or mandolin makes the instrument sound better? I had heard this, and seen some musicians over the years who kept such a trophy inside their instruments. I’d even heard somewhere that Bill Monroe had a rattle in his mandolin (I have no idea if that is true). Anyway, I have my doubts about the efficacy of the idea, but I also have always thought that having a rattle in my mandolin would be a fun thing.

So wandering through the luthiers’ building during the festival I came upon the booth of Fred the Fiddle Guy, and he was selling rattlesnake rattles for just that purpose. I thought, “how cool is that?” and promptly forked over 10 bucks for one of the rattles. I don’t think my mandolin sounds different, at least not yet. Maybe it takes a while.

Later that night I met Fred again at the Welcome Columnists’ Party/Jam at Camp Cornish. I asked him if he had killed the snakes his very own self, and he replied, “No, I get them on eBay.” I checked later. They are much cheaper by the dozen.

Once again music camp was so very enjoyable. There is a magic atmosphere there: shared purpose, enthusiasm, nice people enjoying each other and the music. And the food: a shout-out to Steve and the Blue Sun Cafe staff for a great job.

I was teaching assistant for banjo player Richard Bailey of the Steeldrivers. He proved to be a friendly, personable fellow, still getting around with a cane after a recent hip replacement caused by a mysterious necrosis that set in when the blood supply to his own hip joint became restricted.

Bailey is from Tennessee, but not Nashville or the rural eastern part of the state: he is from Memphis, and actually started in music with a trumpet as a kid. He said his family was a little dismayed when he discovered the banjo and dropped the trumpet, which might have been useful in the city’s blues district.

But he persevered, and ended up doing studio work, music for radio and TV commercials before he left for Nashville. There’s a recent book out called “Outliers,” which postulates that to get really good at something (they use Bill Gates’ computer skills for an example) one needs to do it for 10,000 hours. Bailey must have put his 10,000 in over a pretty short time.

A few times a student asked about a certain lick, and Bailey would play it and say, “That’s how Earl did it.” Then he’d play it a little differently and say, “That’s how J.D. Crowe did it.” And again, and “That’s how Sonny Osborne did it.” He is an astonishing student of the banjo.

Music camp is divided into morning classes, and then afternoon and evening activities that are workshops, guided jam sessions, a contra dance, lectures, etc. A highlight for me was a vocal harmony workshop taught by Janet Beazley and Chris Stuart of Chris Stuart and Backcountry.

Beazley is the banjo player in the band. But she has a doctorate in early music performance, plays flutes, recorders and viola da gamba and teaches at several universities in Southern California. She has a rock-solid right hand and drives the band beautifully. I was her assistant about five years ago when she was teaching banjo at camp. At that time she had beautiful blonde hair almost down to her butt. I always wanted to ask her what hair conditioner she used, because she never seemed to have a hair out of place, even teaching outdoors.

She’s cut her hair, at least a bit, since, but it still mostly drapes perfectly. Dunno how she does it. But I digress.

Beazley and Stuart took a very simple song, “Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky,” and with teaching assistant Carlo Calabi, they demonstrated each harmony part, then got the class (probably 40 or so people) to sing the parts choir-style, with tenors on one side, lead in the middle and baritones on the other.

Then they mixed everybody up and we all sang it again, but with other parts coming into our ears at close range. Then they got us to switch parts and little trios formed everywhere, swapping parts. It was a great hands-on (or should I say vocal chords on) demonstration of how it is done, and I enjoyed it a lot even though I regularly sing harmony in my band and jams, and am fairly good at it.

The highlight of the festival for me was Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick performing a tribute to Vern and Ray on the Vern’s stage Saturday evening. I spent a lot of time in the 1960s, first at the old Cabale Creamery and later at the original Freight and Salvage Coffee House in Berkeley listening to Vern and Ray. It was so great to hear those songs again. The area was packed, and I wasn’t the only one who remarked that that set should have been on the main stage.

Another particularly enjoyable moment for me was seeing Bill Clifton live. Clifton was such a pioneer; he recorded “Blue Ridge Cabin Home,” for instance before Flatt and Scruggs did (I think) and of course the “The Little Whitewashed Chimney” is one of the original classics. In the 1970s Clifton recorded a vinyl album with Bill Keith and some others which contained probably my favorite gospel song, “From Jerusalem to Jericho.”

The song basically tells the tale of the Good Samaritan. I sing it whenever I get the chance, struggling to make it a jam standard, without much success. I asked Clifton if he remembered the song. He said he still knew it and promised to sing it next day on the Pioneers Stage, which he did. A great song, worth tracking down.

Which isn’t that hard. A Google search reveals it was recorded by Uncle Dave Macon in 1925, was first published as The Good Samaritan, written by the Presbyterian Rev. W.M. Robison of Tennessee in 1891. There is a YouTube audio/slide show of Hank Williams Sr. singing the song, also. Williams’ version is much slower than Uncle Dave and Clifton do it, the melody is a little bit different and a verse is missing, but it’s a good starting point.

I also was particularly taken with the Tuttle Family and A.J. Lee, both on their main stage set and their Pioneer Stage set. Jack Tuttle as we all know is a very good teacher, and his two sons, Sullivan and Michael, daughter Molly and young A.J. seem to have both talent and dedication in abundance.

Hey, jammers, here’s a tip: Look up Brombies bass player Bill Bryson’s new song, “Across Oklahoma.” It’s about how the workers who paved Route 66 in the 1930s would bring instruments down to the new road at night and dance in the moonlight. Great song. Destined, I hope, to be played around the camps for years. The Brombies have it on a mini-CD they were giving away with purchase of their other disc. I bought it even though I already have the big CD. Worth it, I say.

Friday afternoon Barbara and I drove Claire Lynch and her bassist Mark Schatz to the Sacramento Airport, while Jim Hurst and mandolinist Jason Thomas followed in a rental car. Schatz’ giant bass case, which the band calls “the white whale” filled most of our van. We enjoyed hanging out with Lynch and Schatz and decided to get the entire band to autograph our van with a Sharpie pen.

I wish I had thought of that some yea
Posted:  7/9/2009

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