Medieval Guitar

Medieval Guitar

Unless you’re a history buff, you probably rarely think about the origins of your instrument or its evolution throughout history. But the National Guitar Museum’s “Medieval To Metal: The Art & Evolution Of The GUITAR” exhibition traveling to various art museums throughout the U.S. will change your mind.

As the first museum solely dedicated to the guitar’s art, history, evolution, and cultural impact, the National Guitar Museum (NGM) preserves, presents, and promotes the guitar through its touring exhibitions developed by esteemed and experienced guitarists, designers, and production staff.

Earlier this year, the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi, hosted the “Medieval To Metal: The Art & Evolution Of The GUITAR” exhibition. Around 40 stringed instruments of gourd and finely crafted wood construction and intricate artisanship intrigued viewers, and the instrument’s illuminating history educated them. The extensive guitar collection included the Oud (origin 3000 BC), the telecaster (by Fender Musical Instruments, 1949), the CraViola (by Giannini, 1969), and the Apollo Greenburst (by Teisco/Kimberly, 1969). There was also a six-foot-long Renaissance theorbo, the resonator guitar, and the Slovak American Dopyera Brothers metal guitar, the debro. Slovakian immigrants John and Rudy Dopyera came to America in the early 1900s and became the creative, innovative force behind the National Dobro Company. Dobro derives from the “Dopyera” name and the Slovakian word “dobre,” which means good. Supplementing the exhibits were photographs of guitar legends by concert photographer Neil Zlozower and illustrations by renowned designer Gerard Huerta.

David Bryan

David Bryan, Associate Professor of Music at William Carey College in Hattiesburg, presented the noon Art Talk presentation on the various histories of the guitar and then demonstrated the music of the relative era on his classical guitar.

Bryan was around 11 when he picked up the small guitar in his home after being somewhat discouraged by piano lessons. Between these two instruments was the trumpet, but his daily practice had his mother heartily encouraging him to “move on to another instrument …please.” Like most guitarists, he started as a self-taught musician and had no interest in being a professional guitarist. When he chose a college, his plan was a music recording and production degree. But the classical guitar changed his perspective and his goals in music.

“When I started looking at schools, I found a music and media degree, and I said this is perfect,” Bryan explained. He chose the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, and they told him he needed an instrument when he arrived. “I wasn’t really trained on any instrument, but I said I guess I’ll do guitar. Within my first semester, I completely fell in love with classical guitar. I dropped the media part thinking I don’t know what to do with this degree, but this is a new world.” Since then, the guitar has been in every aspect of David Bryan’s life.

The NGM gets that. In the late 1500s, the Spanish brought the first guitars to America. Today, guitar sales in America outnumber all the other instruments–combined, with over 3 million guitars sold yearly! Its evolution is critical to American history and culture.

“If someone goes to college for violin, they’ve probably been playing since they were five, and someone has been training them. It is rare for a guitar player to come with any training.” They usually start from scratch but develop an ear for a different musical language from the rigorous classical study. “It’s actually beneficial,” he said. “When you are a baby, we do not make you read and write before you can talk. You learn the language. If you heard it, you repeated it.”

Bryan believes the guitar is the most unique instrument because there are so many different versions, “but the strumming and picking are all so similar in technique. Our guitar in America was mostly used to accompany the melody, not play the melody.”  However, he added, “the classical guitar technique applies to every genre. Classical music may not be your thing but spend some time, focus on technique, and use that for the rest of your life. No matter where I go to play classical guitar, people come up and say I’ve never heard guitar like that.”

Thus far, over 50 art museums, history museums, cultural venues, and science centers in America have hosted traveling exhibitions, which include America at the Crossroads: The Guitar and a Changing Nation; Shape Shifting: The Guitar as a Modern Artifact; and Medieval To Metal: The Art & Evolution Of The GUITAR. The Medieval To Metal traveling collection is at The Powerhouse Museum in Durango, Colorado, through September 3, 2022.



Medieval To Metal SCHEDULE

The Midland Libraries / Midland, TX: September 16, 2022 – January 8, 2023
Juliet Art Museum / Charleston, WV: February 18 – May 28, 2023
The Loveland Museum / Loveland, CO: June 24 – September 17, 2023

For information on the other NGM traveling exhibits, visit: Visit here: https://powsci.org/

Odes / Codes: Max Allard

CD Review

CD: Odes/Codes

Artist: Max Allard

Artist Website: https://maxallard.com/

Chicago composer, banjoist, and multi-instrumentalist Max Allard released a new CD called Odes/Codes on January 21, 2022. This album consists mainly of introspective tunes composed during the 2020 Covid shutdown, which is a time that gave a reflective musician plenty of focus time to compose new music. And this album is reflective, introspective, and contemplative. Not fitting into any genre I can think of, I’ll call Odes/Codes new acoustic music.

Can the banjo be beautiful? Some think not, but in the right hands, it certainly can. There is no driving three-finger Scruggs style banjo here. There are no vocals. There are no two-and-a-half-minute breakdowns. There’s pretty much nothing here that Jimmy Martin would like. As I have said in many different reviews, this sure ain’t Bluegrass. There’s just music to transport one to the place the composer envisions. I have always liked albums designed to listen to the whole thing as an experience; this is one of those albums.

There are fourteen instrumental tunes, all banjo compositions other than two guitars and one piano tune, all Allard originals except for a couple of covers. I usually list the names of the tunes, but fourteen names of new instrumental tunes may not reveal anything at all about the music. I’ll just list my favorites.

Track 1, “Of The Morning,” is a haunting unrushed melody, making me think of peaceful times in pleasant climes.

Track 8, “Hindsight,” is a beautiful banjo tune with haunting melodies interspersed with a taste of dark tension. It is my favorite tune on the CD.

Track 9, “Oakland Drive,” features Allard’s guitar work. Allard declares the great Leo Kottke as one of his influences. You’ll hear it if you’re familiar with Kottke’s work.

Track 13, “For Kaya,” is a piano composition with space enough to insert yourself, walk around, and return. It is an unhurried stroll on a cool autumn evening. I can smell the wood smoke amid the gentle rustle of falling leaves.

It would be a mistake to think that the ten tunes I didn’t name here were not enjoyable. They all were. And then there will be the inevitable comparisons of Allard’s banjo work to that of Béla Fleck, and that is understandable. But I think that Fleck comparisons will be mostly because of all new music pushing the boundaries of the banjo. I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to the CD several times. It is not pretentious. It is what it is. And I am thankful for anyone who takes risks to bring us new music.

Allard tells us that all the instruments featured on Odes/Codes were pitched at 450hz instead of the standard 440hz. There is no explanation anywhere I could find. I’d be interested in getting the artist’s take on this. Why 450hz? Why not the more aesthetically appealing (or so we are told) 432hz? I’d sure like to hear more.

Odes/Codes soothes as it entertains. I’d like to hear more from this musician.

Mississippi Chris Sharp

Pineridge: Here We Go Again

CD Review
CD: Here We Go Again
Artist: Tyler Carroll & Pineridge


Tyler Carroll and Pineridge have released their debut CD, Here We Go Again, a joyful romp through old vintage country music when there was no Bluegrass versus country; it was all country music. On Here We Go Again, we’ve got the sounds of Roy Acuff, Johnny & Jack, The Monroe Brothers, Lester Flatt, and Jimmie Rodgers. When folks talk about roots music, this is it. It probes the depth of country music, even going so far as to have been recorded live in a studio in Bristol, Virginia.

Carroll has been around for quite some time, working in festivals and shows in Mississippi and neighboring states. I’ve had the pleasure of working several shows with Carroll. He started out paying homage to Uncle Dave Macon, but after more than one broke-neck banjo, he focused on playing rhythm guitar in the two-finger Lester Flatt style and singing, both of which he does admirably.

There are twelve songs on Here We Go Again:

  1. Here Comes A Broken Heart Again (penned by Carroll)
  2. Great Speckled Bird
  3. Coal Loading Johnny
  4. Good Woman’s Love
  5. Rosa Lee McFall
  6. Sunshine Special
  7. Just a Friend
  8. Back in the Country
  9. Hen Scratchin’ Stomp
  10. The Mystery of Number 5
  11. Gonna Have Myself a Ball
  12. Hawkins Rag

I like this style of music, enjoying these old tunes overlooked all too frequently for my taste. Roy Acuff and The Monroe Brothers were giants of Country music, and Carroll does a fine job of reminding me just how good that music was.

Hands down, my favorite song is “Rosa Lee McFall,” closely followed by “Here Comes a Broken Heart Again,” “Coal Loading Johnny,” “Sunshine Special,” “The Mystery of Number Five,” and “Hawkins Rag.” Six favorites out of twelve songs are more than a good thing.

Pineridge is Cody Gressett on mandolin, Trevor Holder on banjo, and Leigh Ann Tollison on Bass. They are helped out by Conner Vlietstra on fiddle and guitar. I enjoyed Gressett’s Monroe-style mandolin, and I was smitten by Holder’s Reno-esque banjo playing, particularly on “Rosa Lee McFall.” Of course, Tyler Carroll anchors the band with his rhythm guitar and singing.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable CD and somewhat a musicology lesson for those who haven’t been exposed to this music. I Googled “Rosa Lee McFall” to see what would turn up. Charlie Monroe finally showed up on the second page of search results, preceded by The Grateful Dead, Billy Strings, and several others. If one did not know better, they might refer to “Rosa Lee McFall” as a Grateful Dead song. While I have enjoyed music from The Grateful Dead over many years, mistaking that would be tragic.

I particularly enjoyed Carroll’s soft yodel on the Jimmie Rodgers song “The Mystery of Number Five.” I am glad Carroll included a Jimmie Rodgers tune, as when this country boy goes to town, he goes to Meridian, Mississippi, the birthplace of Rodgers.

Find Tyler Carroll on Facebook. He’d be glad to send you a copy of Here We Go Again.

Mississippi Chris Sharp

John Reischman

CD Review
CD: New Time & Old Acoustic
Artist: John Reischman
Artist Website: johnreischman.com
Label: Corvus Records CR206
Label Website: corvusbg.com

The more I listen to John Reischman’s all instrumental New Time & Old Acoustic CD, the more I like it. I liked it at first listen, but it has grown on me. Reischman assembled an all-star cast of West Coast musicians to give it that West Coast style, not rushed even with speed. I like that sound. The players are many and several: John Reischman, of course, on his mandolin and occasionally the octave mandolin; Alex Hargreaves of fiddle; Molly Tuttle on guitar; Max Schwartz on Bass; Allison DeGroot on banjo; Mike Witcher, Dobro; Sharon Gilchrist, mandolin and bass; Sullivan Tuttle, guitar; Trent Freeman, fiddle; Chris Jones, guitar; Nick Hornbuckle, banjo; Chris Eldridge, guitar; Todd Phillips, bass; Jim Nunally, guitar; Patrick Sauber, banjo and guitar; Greg Spatz, fiddle; Jason Romero, banjo; Pharis Romero, guitar; Patrick Metzger, bass; Karrnnel Sawitsky on violin; Ben Plotnik, viola; Eric Wright, cello; Quinn Bachand, guitar; and Trisha Gagnon on bass. These musicians are all over the CD, not all playing at once, but I can’t say I would mind it if I heard the tune with them all. They all did a fine job, but a few caught my ear.

Reischman’s mandolin is impeccable all the way through, giving us the percussiveness of the mandolin even on the soft and slow tunes. On New Time & Old Acoustic, he gives us twelve original tunes and two traditional ones. If one likes new music, this has got plenty.

I usually list the names of tunes on a review, but names on original instrumentals may not help the reader very much, so I will list my favorites, and there are several.

“Suzanne’s Journey” is the tune that kicks things off. Firmly entrenched in the old-time tradition, it is a peppy song, skipping along like a child on a soft spring day. I particularly enjoyed Hargreaves and DeGroot on the fiddle and banjo. 

“The Coyote Trail,” a soft ballad type instrumental. The name lends itself to visions that seem to materialize with the music. The tone of Trent Freeman’s fiddle is sweet, sweet, and the dobro of Mike Witcher is soft and wistful. Reischman’s mando solo at the end is truly a solo, a capella, one might say. You can hear the responsiveness of the mandolin and imagine the shape of its tone chamber.

“Horses of Dorrigo,” another old-time tune, old-time yet composed by Reischman, an instrumental trio. A trio can sound like a much larger ensemble when they get in the pocket. This starts in the pocket and stays there all the way through. Reischman is working out the octave mandolin on this tune, and it serves as rhythm and solo. This tune is one of those with understated power, seeming like the horse is going to sprout wings and fly like Pegasus at any moment. It ends with me wanting still more, which is the perfect ending.

“Sarafina,” a lullaby, has some beautiful dobro work by Mike Witcher. I love to hear pretty music on dobro, and this is it.

“Roscoe’s Ramble” is a peppy breakdown. Patrick Sauber plays the perfect banjo solo; tone, timber, touch, timing, taste …they are all present right here. On this tune, Greg Spatz works out the fiddle. The West Coasters have a way of playing fast without seeming rushed. I admire that.

“Salt Spring” is a mid-tempo old-time reel, a celebration of music, the ability to play it, and the joy of hearing it. I enjoyed DeGroot’s banjo, Hargreaves fiddle, and my ears perked up at the guitar. I grabbed the CD and saw that it was Molly Tuttle. That explains a lot.

“Ballyhoo/Uncle John Nyhan,” a Celtic medley; a traditional tune, “Sugar in the Gourd”; and another traditional tune, “Happy Hollow,” round out my favorites list. “Happy Hollow” is another one of the three trio instrumentals on this CD. It is smokin’ in intensity while still sounding like it’s not in a hurry. Quinn Bachand’s rhythm guitar is the glue that holds it all together. At the “everyone play” last time through, it sounds like a half-dozen musicians, not three.

If one likes instrumental CDs, this is it. I’ve picked eight favorites out of fourteen tunes. I could likely pick out some more with each listen, as our current mood affects what our ears want to hear.

Hats off to John Reischman and the excellent cast and crew assembled for New Time & Old Acoustic. It is one that is gonna take a long, long time to grow old.

Mississippi Chris Sharp

Kevin Buckley Big Spring

Mississippi Chris Sharp
CD Review
CD: Big Spring
Artist: Kevin Buckley
Artist Website: www.kevin-buckley.com

I checked out this new CD from St. Louis musician Kevin Buckley today. A link to it had been sent to me via email several days ago and I downloaded it. I regret it taking me several days to get around to giving it a listen. Kevin Buckley is new to me and this CD, Big Spring, is a sleeper. It snuck up on me. I’m always wanting to hear something new and fresh, and this falls firmly into both categories.

While each individual track on Big Spring is definable, the CD is not easily done. Strongly Celtic, but old-timeyish at times, Bluegrassish at times, and jazzy and swingy at others. I’ve always liked undefinable music from performers who can give us a taste of several genres. And as far as a genre goes, Americana with international influences is a good place to start, but that’s hardly a genre in its own right.

Buckley gives us twelve tunes/songs:

  1. Sweeney’s Wheel
  2. Ryder’s Block
  3. The Blackest Crow
  4. Hardiman the Fiddler
  5. Marcelle et Marcel
  6. Never Tire of the Road
  7. The Queen and the Cook
  8. La Rubia
  9. The Belles of St. Louis
  10. City of Savannah
  11. Miss Bailey
  12. Ships are Sailing

Several musicians helped Buckley on various songs. Buckley works the fiddle and guitar and the bouzouki, and octave mandolin on song or two; Alan Murray on bouzouki; Gerard Erkey on banjo; Eileen Gannon on harp; Jon Ferber on guitar; Dan Lowery and Alex Sinclair lend a hand on some vocals; and Eimear Arkins and Ian Walsh lend some harmony fiddles. I enjoyed all their work.

I listened to the CD prior to looking at the musician credits, initially expecting all instrumentals. I was surprised when I got some good vocals and harmony. My favorite song on this CD is Never Tire of the Road, a pleasant ballad about the trials of a traveling performer, written by one Andy Levine, featuring a solo Buckley doing the vocals accompanying himself on the bouzouki.

Their are tastes of several genres here, not enough to satisfy purists in any genre, but enough to satisfy anyone wanting pleasant musical interlude. I Big Spring thoroughly enjoyable, a perfect CD for a road trip, or a front porch sitting.


Paige Clik PC-6-ETI Capo

Mississippi Chris Sharp
Review: Paige Clik PC-6-ETI Capo
Website: https://paigecapo.com/

I was sent a Paige Clik ETI CapoTM and was asked to try and review it. I’ve had it for a couple of months. I needed to give it some use time before writing a review. Most things work well right out of the box, which does not necessarily lend itself to a durable review. Sometimes, reviews are about as durable as a soon-failed item, perhaps meaning both are worthless.

What does one say about a capo? It clamps the strings. It works well or not. It does what it’s supposed to do or not. They pretty much all do that, or not. I’ve used capos that have levers that clamp over center, other screw-type capos, capos with elastic bands, capos with scrolled spring levers, capos with friction clutch engagement, capos that look like exotic birds from deep darkest Amazonia, heavy rubber bands, and a fat pencil stub, blah, blah, blah, sometimes victimizing myself with nearly every new design, gimmick, or enhancement that engineers or engineer wannabes can come up with. None of them made me play like Tony Rice, which I found more than a bit disappointing. Some have been entirely functional, and others a woeful waste of my money. I even made my own solid brass capo once, finishing it to a shiny polish. I still have it, and it works well. Trust me, brazing brass is rather tricky since your weld filler material and the material you’re welding all melt at the same temperature. I decided the capo business was best left to others. It was a decision I’ve never regretted.

I’ll have to say that I was intrigued when asked to try out a new capo from Paige. I’ve had a Paige for a long time. In photo 2 is a Paige original capo that’s been on my Martin D-28 for close to thirty years, so I can already testify that Paige capos are durable, functional, practical, and a good value for the money. The thing that first drew me to them is that I always know where my capo is, either in use or safely stowed behind the nut, so I’ve never misplaced it. Other capos have been lost on festival grounds amid mud and leaves, or are tucked away unseen and lost to memory in old guitar cases somewhere, or borrowed and never returned by someone who had lost or forgot his capo and urgently needed one.

What’s special about the Paige Clik ETI Capo, I wondered? It didn’t take me long to find out, though to get the full benefits, I had to watch the video shown at this link: https://paigecapo.com/pick-your-paige/. The things I quickly learned on my own are that the Clik ETI capo does not tend to pull the guitar out of tune as some others do, and the aggressive threads on the screw, similar in pitch to the acme threads found on wood clamps, vises, etc., which allow one to quickly cover a lot of space rather than the 10-32 screws found on other screw-type capos. I did not notice the quick-clamp/quick-release feature until I watched the above video. This turns out to be quite handy: position the capo in the desired location, push the screw and give the capo a preliminary clamp, then tighten a single turn on the screw to give it a full clamp. Squeeze the quick release, and the capo immediately disengages, allowing you to return it to its at-rest position behind the nut.

The individual string cushions also allow you to clamp the strings without too much pressure, which is a good thing since excessive clamp pressure can pull a guitar (and particularly a banjo) out of tune. The replaceable individual string cushions are easily removable, allowing one to experiment with alternative tunings that require dropped notes.

Photo 3 shows the Paige Clik ETI capo installed on my 000 Rosewood Tennessee guitar. It’s found a home there.

Unless being better able to stay in tune is the benefit of the ETI (enhanced tone innovation) part of the capo, I don’t yet understand how the tone is enhanced. Being in tune is critical, and no one enjoys having to retune every time a capo is put in place. Retuning with the capo clamped in place can lead to frustrating on-stage experiences for the artist and, worse, for the audience. Eeeeeekkk!

These capos are right pricey, but a dollar is not worth what it used to be. The web page shows the Clik ETI capo at $90.00. The PRO version is $200.00. I’m not sure what the extra $110.00 of the PRO version buys, but in fairness, I haven’t seen one.

Full disclosure: This capo was furnished to me by the publisher. I was asked to review it but was not required to do so. If I didn’t like it, you would, in all likelihood, not be reading this. I didn’t need a new capo. Had I not been furnished this one, and had I needed one, I would have likely bought a Paige original capo, which is also an excellent design and has served me for a long time. Having said that, if I had paid my $90.00 two months ago, the price I paid would have been largely forgotten, and the capo still used and enjoyed.

Such is the nature of a quality product.

Mississippi Chris Sharp

Mandolin Man: The Bluegrass Life of Roland White

2/24/22 Mississippi Chris Sharp
Book Review

Book: Mandolin Man: The Bluegrass Life of Roland White
Author: Bob Black
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication Date: June 7, 2022

The University of Illinois Press and their Music in American Life series are on a roll for Bluegrass fans in 2022. We’re only two months into the new year, and so far, I have read and reviewed two books about Bluegrass music. The first was Mark Hembree’s On the Bus with Bill Monroe, and now, former Bluegrass Boy banjoist Bob Black’s Mandolin Man: The Bluegrass Life of Roland White.

Bob Black has spared no effort in interviews, discography, anecdotes, photos, the history of Roland White’s tenure in many bands, and a glossary of Bluegrass icons and venues mentioned in the book. Any student of Bluegrass music, particularly those new to the music they would make their own, will benefit from studying this book. It is a lesson in the glory of perseverance and persistence, both White’s as an artist and Black’s as an author.

Like many other converts to Bluegrass, at first, I found the hard, raw edge of Bill Monroe a bit shrill, which says nothing about Bill Monroe and a lot about tastes. Ripe olives, oysters on the half-shell, lutefisk (that half-rotten fermented fish that Norwegians love), and haggis (that Scottish dish the FDA says can’t even be imported into the USA) are not typically items placed on a toddler’s menu. One has to grow into those more mature flavors. That may not be the case for everyone, but it is for many of us.

Unlike the mature flavor that is Bill Monroe, the Kentucky Colonels and The New Kentucky Colonels, featuring Roland and Clarence White, were palatable to me right off the bat: my first Bluegrass love, as it were. On a two-week honeymoon in January 0f 1980, that became less and less about a new marriage and more and more about being broke and hanging out in Nashville among many Bluegrass pals. My new bride, Debbie, and I, too broke for hotels by then, spent the last couple of nights at the shared house of my friend and former Bluegrass Boy Bob Fowler and one of my first Bluegrass idols Roland White. Though I daresay it was not so for my new bride, it was a high point for me. Still, she was a good sport about it. She is still a good sport after forty-two years of marriage. It was my first time being face-to-face with one of my earliest Bluegrass heroes and influences. I was smitten. Roland was gracious, which could serve as a good second subtitle for this book.

Roland White’s contributions to Bluegrass music cannot be overstated. To try and list them here would be to pay short shrift to what Black has so superbly done in his book. In the reading, it became apparent that nothing short of a book-length project could do justice to Roland White. Bob Black has given us that justice. He has done so admirably.

The book is very readable. Sometimes it seems a bit redundant, but it is more a matter of format than anything else. Sometimes things need to be said more than once. Listen closely to The Kentucky Colonels, Country Gazette, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, and The Roland White Band. Then listen again. Repeat. Read the book’s glossary. Repeat. Read White’s discography. Repeat. Watch old Andy Griffith shows that feature The Country Boys. Repeat. Repeat. Read the book. Repeat. Redundancy has its place place [grin]. In fact, a lot of what we like about music is its stellar moments interspersing its redundancy.

Black makes a great, successful effort to point out Roland White’s sincerity in encouraging new players, helping them find their voice in a musical style many see as limiting. It’s a debate that rages in the bluegrass world. The only limits are those placed there by others or those we place for ourselves as we come face to face with our musical limitations. Aside from having pleased our ears with his music for so many years, White’s greatest legacy may be to have watered and nurtured tender shoots in an often thorny and rocky ground.

Black rightfully points out White’s unceasing interest in the sound of the music and what he can contribute to that sound. The result is often a synergy and cohesiveness seldom found on a recording of hotshots in a hot band. Something anchors the music while still allowing for experimentation within its structure. Something grounds it to the earth. That something was frequently Roland White.

The body of work Roland White has blessed us with is immense. It was my first study, and it’s still studied. Black gives things we no doubt would have missed along the way, which is true for the veteran and far more for the novice.

Bob Black is a top-shelf banjoist himself, having worked on some of my favorite recordings, particularly those he did with the great fiddler, Kenny Baker. Black has another book out, Come Hither to Go Yonder: Playing Bluegrass with Bill Monroe, also available from The University of Illinois Press. I haven’t read it yet, but I think it’ll be next on my list.

Having seen more than one pre-release book, I find that they typically contain boilerplate language warning reviewers of the dangers of using quotes from the pre-release in their hands. Well, I found a quote I have to use here, ignoring the publisher’s warning about changes in final editions. Black graced us with a great Bill Monroe quote that is not likely to change. This Monroeism came from a story White told Black about a left-over lunch found in a paper sack aboard Monroe’s bus, aka The Bluegrass Breakdown. When questioned about the unrefrigerated old food found in a greasy paper sack, Monroe replied, “You can’t hurt ham.”

I laughed out loud.

Thank you, Bob Black, for your contributions to Bluegrass music and the gift of knowledge in this book. Hard work pays dividends to more than just the one doing all the work. All I had to do was read the book to tap into that big dividend. It was so enjoyable, and it was not work at all.

I think I’ll spin up The New Kentucky Colonels Live in Sweden and cut me off a big slice of country ham.

It can’t hurt.

Mississippi Chris Sharp


Mike Compton: A Rare Find

CD Review
Mississippi Chris Sharp 2/28/22

CD: Rare & Fine: Uncommon Tunes of Bill Monroe
Artist: Mike Compton
Label: Taterbug Music
Artist Website: https://www.mikecompton.net/

Mike Compton has produced an uncommonly good CD, Rare & Fine. It has proved difficult to review because I must say the right things about this work.

I cannot overstate the importance of this collection of tunes, all masterfully rendered for us to enjoy, all previously unrecorded tunes composed by Monroe and heard on cassette tapes and CDs compiled of field recordings of Monroe’s shows and from the seats in his bus as the Bluegrass Breakdown sped down the road to another show. My first listen transported me to the many times my young twenty-something self sat on the ground in front of the stage at Monroe’s feet in mid-week performances at Bean Blossom. Monroe reached deep into his repertoire for something his audience had not heard during previous sets. Even Monroe can’t perform the same two or three sets of music when he plays two sets a day for nine days to the same folks. I can remember that twenty-something Mike Compton seated right there, staring up at the master. I remember me and a host of others seated right next to him, our mouths open, our jaws hanging slack as Monroe hammered the mid-week crowds with music they’d likely never get to hear anywhere else. Rare & Fine is almost like Bill Monroe has reached beyond the grave to enthrall us once again. It definitely shows that Monroe’s music is still fresh and relevant as so many other things fade, wilt, and return to the Earth. I close my eyes and listen, transported right back to the foot of the Bean Blossom stage. I have wanted this in Bluegrass music. I have longed for it. I now have it in my hands.

Some singles from Rare & Fine have already been released, and the entire CD is set for release in March. I haven’t heard anyone talk about the singles as I have been listening carefully to this CD preparing to write this review. Sometimes I have to make myself listen to a CD twice, but not this time. I must have listened fifty times, and I’m just getting started.

Compton assembled a great cast of musicians who absolutely nailed Monroe’s music and the spirit. Jeremy Stephens on guitar, Russ Carson on banjo, Mike Bub on bass, and Laura Orshaw, Michael Cleveland, and Shad Cobb on fiddles. They did justice to the music. They honored the music. They made these uncommon tunes of Bill Monroe come alive.

The tunes are:

  1. The Old Stagecoach
  2. Trail of Tears
  3. Reelfoot Reel
  4. California Forest Fire
  5. Galley Nipper
  6. Orange Blossom Breakdown
  7. Bill’s Blues
  8. Mississippi River Blues
  9. Let’s Get Close Together Blues
  10. Big Spring
  11. Nanook of the North
  12. Up in the Front and Out in the Back
  13. Jemison Breakdown

It’s not possible for me to pick a favorite, as the favorites change with every close listen. This is a wonderful thing because it means that I am getting something different out of each listen. I suppose that means I’m growing as it grows on me, speaking to be a bit differently each time around. This is the way of good music.

There are lots of blues here, underscoring the influence of the blues on Monroe. There are also several places where tunes presented here have solid references to other tunes Monroe composed and recorded. All artists get themes that suggest themselves in such a way that the theme keeps returning until the artist has accomplished whatever the ether demanded of them. We can hear this in musical phrases in “Jemison Breakdown” and “Nanook of the North and their nod to Brown County Breakdown,” a “Let’s Get Close Together” nod to “Tombstone Junction,” and a slight nod to “Big Mon on The Old Stage Coach.”

The triple fiddles on “Mississippi River Blues,” “California Forest Fire,” “Orange Blossom Breakdown,” “The Old Stage Coach,” “Trail of Tears,” “Up in the Front and Out in the Back,” and “Big Spring” are to die for. The fiddling of Laura Orshaw, Michael Cleveland, and Shad Cobb reminds me of some great 50’s Monroe recordings, all tendered with some great reverb. The triple fiddles also bring back vivid memories of Kenny Baker, Joe Stuart, and Enoch Sullivan playing triple fiddles with Monroe at the Lochwood Festival in Chatham, Alabama, back in the ’70s (Oh My!).

Laura Orshaw’s fiddling on “Jemison Breakdown” and “Galley Nipper” is sublimely rendered, making my soul soar. Jeremy Stephens’ guitar shines all the way through, but nowhere better than “Let’s Get Close Together Blues,” which gives us a double dose of the raw power of The Monroe Brothers. Russ Carson’s banjo attack, tone, and timbre on “Galley Nipper” and “The Old Stage Coach” are just perfect, and his banjo work on “Trail of Tears” is beyond perfect. Certainly, more notes could have been played by many, but not a note here is out of place, time, or the spirit of the music. It’s as if the assembled musicians wanted to sound like a band rather than use this recording as a showcase for hot picking. How refreshing!

I spoke to Compton about the CD. He said he had received some feedback on the tempo of some of the tunes, suggestions that perhaps some were too slow. “These tunes are as they came from the hands of Monroe. That’s where they belong.”  I find the pace of the CD just perfect. The music breathes. It leaves us some space to insert ourselves, to contemplate the mood that washes over us as we listen. “Orange Blossom Breakdown” is there if speed is what one needs; it leaves some smoke in its wake.

The lasting and permanent importance of Bill Monroe and his contributions to American music cannot be overstated. But, and it’s a big but: lots of Bluegrass fans seem to prefer the idea of Monroe at the expense of his music. This was a mystery until I thought about my first encounter with the man and his music. Compton says it best in the liner notes, which speak for me and so many others:

I don’t remember really when or where I first heard Bill Monroe, but I do remember it being quite a jolt. The primal sound of his style made me a bit uncomfortable, having grown up with more polished recordings, but I couldn’t stop listening to him.

Primal. Powerful. Durable. Raw. Just like Compton, many of us started with the polished but learned to prefer the primal for the foundation it gives.

Better than anyone else, Compton captures the rhythmic and sonic qualities of the mandolin. Sure, there are notes, and lots of people give us plenty of notes, but few give us that percussiveness that Monroe did. The best examples of this to my ear is on “Jemison Breakdown, Let’s Get Close Together Blues,” and particularly “Galley Nipper,” with its close micing that gives us those uh-uh-uh sounds of the wood and the attack of the pick, the sounds of a fine instrument in experienced hands, giving us what it was created for. These tunes all have melodies. Keeping close to the melody surely does not hurt the tune.

I have longed for this music. My heart has yearned for it. I am so glad it’s here.

If one insists on having me pick favorites, they might be “Galley Nipper,” “Jemison Breakdown,” “The Old Stage Coach,” “Trail of Tears,” and “Let’s Get Together Blues.” The truth of the matter is that my favorite happens to be the one playing right now. Any recording that can give one this experience is a real bargain.

This recording is very likely to be the next big thing in Bluegrass. We had the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Circle Album in the ’70s, which brought many of us into the fold. Then in 2000, we had the Oh Brother! soundtrack, which captured whole new generations (Compton was also a part of that project). Far more recently, we have the phenomenal success of Billy Strings, who introduced a new generation to the sounds and styles of Doc Watson. Now, with Rare & Fine, we have the very thing that could and should bring about a renaissance of Monroe’s fabulous musical creativeness, power, and style, showing us all that despite a serious handicap, Monroe isn’t quite through with us.

Rumor has it that there are enough unrecorded Monroe tunes to make another CD. I can hardly wait.

Thanks to my lifelong friend Mike Compton (whose birthday is today!) and Taterbug Music for producing this CD and the assembled musicians who all made it come alive. If it were mine, I would wish it was done just like this. I stand and salute with a swelling heart as Bill Monroe looks down and smiles.

The Rare & Fine release date is March 4.

Don’t wait!

Mississippi Chris Sharp

On the Bus with Bill Monroe

1/27/22 Mississippi Chris Sharp
Book Review

Book: On The Bus with Bill Monroe
Author: Mark Hembree
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Release Date: April 2022

This book is available in April 2022 from The University of Illinois Press (https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/?id=37mpc3xr9780252044427).

In On the Bus with Bill Monroe: My Five Year Ride with the Father of Blue Grass, Mark Hembree takes us with him on a vivid adventure, back to 1979, when he started as the bassist for Bill Monroe. He gives us the glory of the music, the chiding and then the eventual camaraderie of the other Bluegrass boys, some of the peculiarities of Monroe’s quirky nature, the hardship of trying to support oneself and a wife on the meager pay of a band member, and even the smells and sounds of the bus. It is not all pretty, but it is history. It has moments of great victory, shrouded with moments of pain.

I was fortunate to witness some of it, and some of it was even On the Bus: from Hembree’s first forays with the band to the bus’s pungent and at times toxic atmosphere. Though Hembree writes about the difficulties, it is not the difficulties that one takes away from the book, but rather the nature of playing music with a musical dynamo who expected so much to be understood without explanation, the humorous difficulties of a Wisconsinite’s struggle with Southern accents and colloquialisms, and the vagaries of working with a musical genius.

There is no greater Bluegrass icon than Bill Monroe, who was not the easiest person to know. Getting to know Monroe and earn his respect was difficult for Hembree as it has been for many others. The band did not always help, as their treatment of the rookie was at times brutal. Eventually, that passed.

There are several quotable moments in the book, but my favorite comes from the last three paragraphs of the forward. It is a rather long quote, but it sums up Hembree’s admirable objectives as he documented an essential part of Monroe’s history and treats a musical giant’s humanity with an understanding gentleness.

One more thing: other books about Monroe have dallied more in his personal life, including his love life. Some of those details illuminate his personality, and his character, no doubt, and in certain instances are unavoidable. But, I, who only briefly visited his home a time or two, knew very little of that.

I don’t think leaving those parts out makes my account deficient. Even if I had been in the know, I don’t think I’d write about it. It doesn’t matter any more than Ty Cobb’s evil nature or Babe Ruth’s famous excesses — interesting aspects, perhaps, but not the reason Cobb, Ruth, and Bill Monroe are legends.

 It’s because they had game.

And Bill Monroe certainly had game.

I don’t recall ever having a preface or foreword to a book sell me, but I was sure sold on this one. The way Hembree sets his limits are limits he carefully observes throughout the book. We all know stories about our musical heroes, particularly in the close-knit community that is Bluegrass. While we may know the stories, we don’t usually know all the details or motivations surrounding them, nor is someone’s recollection a record of facts. Sometimes recollections are from imperfect observations and have roots in our own biases. Hembree addresses this in the book by having written it in a format that separates recollections from archival anecdotes and observations based on notes he made at the time events occurred. His recollections are his own. We all own our recollections. Others may tell us that we have the facts wrong, but they cannot deny our recollections.

The things we learn about Bill Monroe’s musical history are not new. There are no earthshaking revelations or additions to an already thorough historical record. What does exist in this book are revelations about spending thousands of hours in close contact with Monroe and his band, the tough times experienced by a full-time traveling member of The Bluegrass Boys, the marvelous travels and places being a Bluegrass Boy allowed Hembree to see, the glorious moments of live music on stage while witnessing the power and creative capabilities of Monroe as a member of his band, and Monroe’s uncanny omnipresence in managing to catch Hembree every time he tried to enjoy a beer. Monroe never did like that “old slop,” unlike a young man from Wisconsin who thought beer was as natural a part of life as we do our Southern favorite, sweet tea. All Hembree’s revelations give us a better understanding of The Father of Bluegrass’s life and music.

Everyone has to pay their dues, going through whatever unpleasantness veterans heap on newcomers. At times, I witnessed the harshness of the band on the rookie. Hembree covers this in his book, but I think he downplays it a bit, or his memories have mellowed as sometimes do ours over time. He took it well, even though he may not have liked it, which is the point. Ultimately, he leaves us with good impressions and his fondness of Kenny Baker, Wayne Lewis, Butch Robins, and Blake Williams, his bandmates in The Bluegrass Boys, all of whom became his friends. He even mentions times that the bandmates gave him valuable advice and assistance. As for dealing with Monroe as a newcomer to the band, Hembree leaves us understanding that he had to work out his methods of dealing with the boss.

On the Bus with Bill Monroe: My Five Year Ride with the Father of Blue Grass is readable and enjoyable. One completely unfamiliar with Bluegrass music can also enjoy it, though the insider certainly gets an extra bump. I particularly appreciate the stories about Birch and Charlie Monroe (Bill’s brothers), including a brief, funny encounter between Bill and Charlie at Charlie’s home. Brothers will be brothers. Sometimes our recollections of events early in our lives do not drift towards pleasant, as is often the case with family squabbles.

Many of the reminiscences Hembree has about Bean Blossom are also mine. I’d give just about anything to have a Birch Monroe concession stand hot dog and sit with Hembree on Monroe’s bus, again. I can still smell it all—the bus, the hot dog, and the faint whiffs of the old slop wafting its way through the trees in that heavenly piece of Indiana’s beautiful Brown County.

I look for it to be a hit in the bluegrass world and among musicologists, as it adds to what we know about Bill Monroe from a human relationship perspective. It has nuts and bolts but also some slipped wrenches and busted knuckles. Being a Bluegrass Boy wasn’t easy, but Hembree secured his place in history, all from a mysterious, brief audition. He got the job, but I’d venture to say that at times he’d say the job had him.

I salute Hembree and this book about life on the bus. In a very articulate and pleasant manner, Hembree manages to take us along for the ride with him through an important period of Bluegrass history.

I am thankful for that.

Mississippi Chris Sharp

Rick Faris: The Next Mountain

CD Review 12/31/21

CD: The Next Mountain
Artist: Rick Faris
Label: Darkshadow Recording
Artist Website: rickfaris.com
Label Website: darkshadowrecording.com

Rick Faris and Dark Shadow Recording have brought us a capital B Bluegrass CD with the release of The Next Mountain: tastefully recorded, easy on the ears, toe-tapping, just thumping. From the first listen, I was hooked. Faris’s stellar vocals combined with an all-star group of musicians really bring it home. Besides the vocals, Faris is not unfamiliar to good guitar work. This is a very enjoyable CD.

The twelve original Faris-penned songs are:

  1. What I’ve Learned
  2. Deep River
  3. Laurel Of The Mountains
  4. I’m Asking You Today
  5. Hoot Owl Call
  6. Time To Move On
  7. Tall Fall
  8. See You On The Other Side
  9. Can’t Build A Bridge To Glory
  10. Dust On The Road
  11. Evil Hearted You
  12. Moonshine Song

Once again, Stephen Mougin and Dark Shadow Recording give us great talent, original music, and flawless recordings to enjoy. I am thankful to all the musicians who bring us original music in the tradition we love. Producing this music and packaging it in a manner that is very pleasing is an important part of the entire process. Salute to all involved with The Next Mountain.

There are just too many stellar musicians to mention here, and they all bring home the bacon. Everything is in the pocket, and even the fast songs (“Moonshine Song”) are unrushed. This is how it should sound.

My favorite songs are: “What I’ve Learned,” “Laurel Of The Mountains,” “I’m Asking You Today,” “Hoot Owl Call,” “Tall Fall,” “See You On The Other Side,” “Can’t Build a Bridge to Glory,” “Dust On The Royal,” and “Moonshine Song.” I could add some more, but one has to stop somewhere. Nothing disappoints. Everything satisfies. If I picked a most favorite, it would be “I’m Asking You Today,” which just swings all the way through.

Having this CD in your regular rotation will bring smiles to your face. The sad part will be the day you reach for the CD cover only to fail to find the CD inside, finding it instead on the floorboard of the truck, covered with mud and boot-prints. This ever happened to you? Well, it has me. I’d hate to mislay this one.

Salute to Rick Faris for bringing us new, original music that expands the frontier of Bluegrass in the most satisfying way. It broadens horizons within the context that is Bluegrass music. This is easy when contemplated, but rather difficult when executed, because having your own sound can only develop within the context of new music. Faris has figured this out. I salute him.

When you add Laura Orshaw, Ronnie and Rob McCoury, Jason Carter, Mike Bub, Sam Bush, and Ronnie Bowman, you’re gonna get some good results. I also particularly want to mention the bass playing of Zak McLamb and the mandolin playing of Harry Clark.

I appreciate what I have here with The Next Mountain. I sure want some more.

Mississippi Chris Sharp