People who check this page frequently are encouraged to check out the profile of Tony in this week's NYTimes magazine -- required reading, in fact. The great man has been a shadowy presence for the last 19 years, playing infrequently and singing never. He looks gaunt and grizzled, and not entirely healthy, because he isn't. The article presents a character of deep and remote-to-access qualities, as in a Hawthorne story. He sleeps till afternoon, backs out of many of his engagements, carries his responsibilities to his sidemen and audience heavily, has suffered giant losses in the last 20 years (home, son, singing voice), smokes cigarettes, and is chronically ill. Not a joyful read; but it fills in some gaps for those of us who have been interested in Tony's music and well-being but lack any particular personal connection. Sandra Beasley, the writer, ranges back and out a bit, focusing largely but not solely on Tony's current difficulties. (It's just over 3,200 words.)
Though the piece is measured, decently edited, and certainly respectful, there are some lapses. The first sentence, for instance, tells us that the IBMA moved its annual awards ceremony from Nashville to Raleigh "to escape country music's shadow." The move was based on lower hotel costs in Raleigh, the eagerness of people there to host the awards, and an easier commute for not a few of the honorees and participants; inflating that into escaping a shadow exceeds dramatic license. Tony's tenure with the New South, a reader unfamiliar with the hugely influential eponymous Rounder record would infer, consisted of a Holiday Inn residency. You'd also come away with an impression of "bluegrass guitarist"; "bluegrass," by a generous definition, is maybe one-half of his recorded legacy and life efforts, and an article of this length should have included mention of his non-banjo music, his jazz composition, his debts to Lang and Reinhardt. I don't know what green strings on a flattop guitar signifies to a non-guitarist -- too new? -- but that phrase mystified me. The explanatory attribution "a mandolinist" for Sam Bush -- for what reader is that? Non-specialist readers who don't know who he is need a word or two more. Omitting to mention that a (if not the) principal occupation of Tony's these days is repairing watches felt relevant to me in the context of such a full portrait.
Tony told the audience at the IBMA show that "It's our duty to allow bluegrass music to grow and flourish, and, at the same time, retain the most important part of it -- that is, the essence of the sound." So he is quoted in the piece. Ms. Beasley's comment on that -- "the sentiment might have rung hollow elsewhere, but this audience hung onto every word" -- stopped me to think. These words do constitute something close to a platitude. For bluegrassers, they encode more than what they spell out. The stern eye of the orthodox generates a kind of pressure within the bluegrass community that is more characteristic of religious sects than music styles, and the constant comparison of the vocabulary, tone, and attack of young newcomers to those of the 1940s and 1950s trailblazers puts a self-evident drag on innovation and modernization. Not to mention the personal touch called for by an improvisational music -- it's hard to improvise credibly and feelingly while pretending you're someone admirable and iconic and long-dead. The accommodation of the orthodox and the sporadic frustration of almost everyone else are the subtext of Tony's allow-but-retain bromide.
The mingling of "duty" and Appalachian music might strike a general reader as odd. Bluegrassers are accustomed to a certain official self-image, of hard-used, uncomplaining footsoldiers in a higher cause, and, like real soldiers, they're also accustomed to venting about the stereotype privately, now and again, and having a harsh laugh at its expense. Not because they don't feel a sincere sense of obligation to their original inspirations and influences, but because the invocation of "duty" as an official guild watchword is tantamount to glibly papering over numerous daily burdens. What punk guys do in their 20s, sleep on floors and eat crappy diner food and rely on strangers' kindnesses and drive all night and show up in a faraway city with the vague promise of $100 and in general work their asses off for minimal recognition or respect or money, bluegrassers do unto their deaths, most of them. All for one & one for all! Loyalty and duty first. Don't change a thing you're doing.
I agree that the sentiment is...sentimental, surely, hollow, maybe. So is "It always seems impossible until it's done," unless, perhaps, stated by Nelson Mandela, and "Every child is an artist" out of any mouth but Picasso's. Tony's reference to duty is meaningful only given how acoustic country musicians envisage their calling and sacrifice for it, and his invitation to think about the essence of the music's sound is profound because it issues from him.
In fact, much of what's valuable in this article comes from Tony's lips, and much of the rest comes from quoted speech from Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck, and others. It left me wanting to read a Playboy-style interview -- the object of interest speaking and being prompted to clarify, in an extensive but edited format. I was fascinated to learn about Tony's initial reaction to the David Grisman gig. "The music laid out in front of me was like nothing I'd ever seen. At first I wasn't even sure I could learn it." So, among other things -- a feat of analysis! Makes sense. "Megalithic" is a word I hadn't seen or heard before; it comes from Fleck to describe Tony's influence, and it's perfectly apt. You find a lot of master musicians take approximately as great care in expressing themselves accurately -- on the subject of their craft, anyhow -- as in getting control of their instruments. They're able to state true things so compactly, in such appropriate size and level of generality, that it may not be clear at first blush whether the statements are full or empty. "The essence of the sound" is from one angle nothing and from another everything -- maybe even more. My critcisms of the article notwithstanding, I'm grateful to have it and to have read it.
Last week's quartet jaunt around the southeast felt charmed, first because we sidestepped -- sometimes by mere hours -- some ugly weather, as opposed to the usual thing that I do, which is to head into it as if electromagnetically forced. But the other and bigger charm of the week was having people of distinction in the audience night after night. In Nashville Mike Bub came out and played some banjo with us, and John Cowan got up and sang "White Freightliner," with me taking Bush's old singing part: thrilling! After the show Bub and the fiddler Eamon McLoughlin went out for pizza with us.
In Charlotte, the mighty Jack Lawrence was in the audience. I had never met Jack before. By coincidence, I had been listening to him on the Doc and Dawg record all week and in the car I'd rented for the trip, and had been thinking about the debt my playing owes to him. This was a largely unreflected-on debt since it is filtered through the overshadowing figure of Watson, three ways: Jack's Doc derivations; my Doc derivations; and my derivations and inspiration from Doc's live shows, which during my adult years always included Jack, but which I've tended to file mentally under "Doc Watson," I now realize. Jack of course has a voice of his own, and it is looser, with splashy bends on thirds and fifths and sevenths, a strong taste of rock-and-roll and blues, and now and then a humorous (slightly Monk-ish?) chromaticism. I was delighted to find that Jack in person is exactly as you think he'd be from watching him perform: just about the easiest and most unneurotic guy to talk to in all of Christendom. It turns out he has family near Chicago, and I stuck a bug in his ear about the Hideout Mondays, so keep glued to this space, Chicago -- you never know.
In Charlottesville, someone told me Scott Miller was there, though I didn't get to see or talk to him. In Raleigh, Jenny Detweiler and Laura Jackson from my high school daze came out, looking just as they did 35 years ago and bringing with them black-and-white photos of our class doing bizarre 1970s things with bizarre 1970s haircuts. Thanks, ladies! And in D.C. there was Cathy Fink, and who knows but that she also failed to escape the 1970s style-killing virus; she brought no old photos of herself.
Missy, Shad, Ben, and I went out after our Charlottesville set for a bite. We drove slow past my old house on 6th Street (nothing has changed, except the value of the neighborhood) and then ended up near the rotunda at a deli. While we were chewing Missy and I figured out that we had both been at the same 1973 festival in Virginia as kids, watching New Grass Revival there in the field with a couple hundred other hippies. Isn't that odd? We were both strongly imprinted by the set, enough to pursue an ecumenical ideal of country music akin to Sam's and the guys' as adults. And we both ended up making music with Sam, and then, some years later, together. It seems that the platitude about the Velvet Underground and its Boomer rock-fan audience -- that they all went on to form other notable bands -- is more literally true about the NGR in the much smaller realm of acoustic country.
The most touching meeting I had last week was with Red Rector's family, who came to the show in Knoxville. Often enough, when I post an appreciation of a musician here, I get to hear from him or her or, if they're gone, the family. It's been a while since I wrote about Red's fantastic and slightly offbeat mandolin work, and I can't remember just what I said. Parker, his widow, said she didn't quite get all of it since she wasn't a player, which makes me worry it might have been a little pretentious...anyway. She brought me pictures of Red's instruments and some printed matter about how he came by them. She talked about Red's musical apprenticeship and early debt to Paul Buskirk and Bascom Lamar Lunsford's brother (I'm remembering his name as Jimmy, but surely I'm just confusing Jimmie Lunceford; where's a sober folklorist with yellow notepad when he's needed?). And she talked most particularly about her "junkpile," which I took to be the trove of papers and pictures and tapes and music doodads that sit in her living room, the accrual of a lifetime. Note to Parker, her son Bill, and his wife Nita: don't be surprised if I drive myself down to Knoxville one of these days! Soon as I get a week off and the weather gets better, I'd really like to. And I'll bring a yellow notepad if I do.
Farewell, Ray Price. A set of Ray's timeless songs, mostly the well-known ones, all pretty brief and emotionally florid. A large band (steel, guitar, fiddle, piano, bass, drums, me) that will pass the singing around a bit, though it'll be mostly me doing the lead chores. It's the mighty and irreplaceable Ken Champion on steel, and I'll let the other personnel be a surprise.
What's-a-matta? Doncha remember me? Raleigh! Southland Ballroom! This Sunday! Quartet show! Get those tickets!
A message from the Anxious Promoters Association of Southeastern America.
Looks warm enough to conduct show business. This week I'm gonna play Irish music with the master fiddler Liz Carroll. A fistful of her great compositions, including two from her new record, "On The Offbeat," and a soupcon of mine...and a couple folk songs, on which we might find some natural common ground. What a terrific, life-loving person Liz is! I can't wait.