and the Devil himself...

and the Devil himself...

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Life and Music of Townes Van Zandt

Fame didn't seem to be something Townes Van Zandt was after in life but since his tragic and unexpected death in 1997 at the age of 52, he's gradually moved more and more into the Americana limelight. Not only is one of his many previously un-known songs the title track to Mike's new album, but Steve Earle, who was mentored by Van Zandt and who remained a life-long friend, has a new tribute album compiled in his honor on the way. There's also an all-star tribute album, "Poet, a Tribute to Townes Van Zandt", out featuring Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, John Prine and others, Lonestar Music. Since his death, two books, a documentary film and more have been composed in his memory.

A cult figure in Roots/Country music and Outlaw Country since the 70s, Van Zandt was a huge influence on many, many artists from a wide range of genres, (from Bob Dylan to Robert Plant). He had an impact on so many, in fact, that he's almost better described as a force of music nature, some sort of raw muse, than just a singer/songwriter. He's been aptly called both "one of the greatest country and folk artists of his generation" (AllMusic) and "one of the most underrated songwriters of the century" (AOLMusic).

In his recent interviw with "Rolling Stone", Steve Earle says of him:

"It's how I learned to play; it's how I learned to perform...I finger pick like he did. He was sitting right in front of me when I was really learning to play...I've only seen a handful of people that were as good as he was."

In spite of all of this and some material success via singles like, "Poncho and Lefty", (taken to #1 on the Billboard Country charts by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard), Townes never had a successful album or single of his own. Some of that seems to have been due to bad production, some perehaps to management choices, lifestyle choices, but it seems that he cared more about song-writing than being in the lime-light when you got right down to it.

For example, Van Zandt turned down repeated invitations to write with Bob Dylan. The two admired one anothers music but it is said that Dylan's celebrity didn't appeal to Van Zandt. They ultimately met by accident outside a costume shop in Austin in 1986, (well, I wouldn't say accident, I'd say there aren't any accidents that big - instant karma seems more like it). Dylan later arranged another meeting with him and for it, The Drag in Austin was shut down for Dylan and Van Zandt drove his motorhome to the quartered-off area. (I wonder if they didn't actually sit down and write something that day and just didn't tell...)

Incidentally, when Steve Earle once said of Townes that he was, "the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that." Van Zandt wryly responded: "I've met Bob Dylan's bodyguards and if Steve Earle thinks he can stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table, he's sadly mistaken."

So, though hugely influential now and certianly brilliant, (or maybe in part because he was brilliant and that can be harder to sell), he spent most of his life touring around playing small bars, sleeping in cheap motel rooms, backwoods cabins and on friends' couches. He also was notoriously addicted to drugs and alcohol and, per Wikkipedia, known for his tendancy to tell tall tales, (maybe they weren't -- maybe he, as our host here once told me he did, just took good notes).

Contrastingly, he was born in Fort Worth, Texas to an oil-wealthy family, the third-great-grandson of one of the founders of the city. (Van Zandt County in east Texas was named after his family in 1848.) His father was a corporate lawyer and His family moved a lot, a habit Townes seems to have embraced and retained throughout his life. (Though he developed an attachment to Colorado, where he said he sometimes spent entire summers alone on horseback in the mountains.)

When his parents discovered their son had a genius IQ, they began grooming him to be a a lawyer or senator, (and I'll bet he'd have been a great one if that's what he'd wanted to do - well, maybe with some changes to the drug/alcohol/Townes ratio - but imagine the speeches he'd have written. And Dylan & Steve Earle as VP & Secretary of State please...)

While at the University of Colorado at Boulder, his parents became concerned that he was depressed and drinking heavily. They brought him back to Houston and admitted him to a psychiatric hospital where, unfortunately, he diagnosed with manic depression. At the time, a treatment for this was, even more unfortunately, insulin shock therapy, which erased much of his long-term memory. Afterwards, he was accepted into law school but utlimately quit for good around 1967 to pursue music. And good thing for the world he did. His music is quite accurately described in his AOL Music bio as something that:

"...doesn't jump up and down, wear fancy clothes, or beat around the bush. Whether he was singing a quiet, introspective country-folk song or a driving, hungry blues, Van Zandt's lyrics and melodies were filled with the kind of haunting truth and beauty that you knew instinctively...He could bring you down to a place so sad that you felt like you were scraping bottom, but just as quickly he could lift your spirits and make you smile at the sparkle of a summer morning or a loved one's eyes -- or raise a chuckle with a quick and funny talking blues. The magic of his songs is that they never leave you alone."

Soon, Van Zandt met and was inspired by Lightning Hopkins, Guy Clark, Doc Watson and others who played in the Houston music scene at the time. He played mostly cover songs until encouraged by his father at the end of his life, (1966), to quit it and write his own songs. In 1968, songwriter Mickey Newbury talked him into going to Nashville, where he introduced him to "Cowboy" Jack Clement, who became his producer.

Due in part to Van Zandt's focus on songwriting rather than recording, Clement took some often unfortunate creative license with his albums. This probably had a little to do with the fact that they didn't sell well. But that just wasn't Van Zandt's priority. I have a feeling that, had it been, he'd have been as famous as he liked. On second thought, maybe he was as famous as he liked.

For much of the 1970s, he lived a reclusive life outside of Nashville in a tin-roofed, bare-boards shack with no heat, plumbing or telephone, occasionally appearing in town to play shows. Steve Earle would later say that Van Zandt's primary concerns during this time period were planting morning glories, listening to Paul Harvey's radio show, and watching the sitcom Happy Days. (Wikkipedia)

In 1975, Van Zandt was featured prominently in the documentary film "Heartworn Highways" with Guy Clark, Steve Earle, and David Allen Coe. Van Zandt is shown drinking straight whiskey during the middle of the day, shooting and playing with guns, and performing the songs "Waitin' Around to Die" and "Pancho & Lefty" at his trailer home in Austin with his soon-to-be second wife Cindy and dog Geraldine.

So what exactly is it that moves the son of a Texas oil baron to become a wayward drifter? Rebellion? Maybe. It would seem on the outside that it was all about depression and addiction, with resultant mis-managed opportunities and missed chances. But, then again, he sure seemed to know what he was doing and he sure was good at it. Would his songs have been as good if he'd not remained a sort of living representation of them, (which stardom would certainly have made impossible)? Maybe his career, was more well thought out than it appears; he just did it his way.

In the mid-1970s, Van Zandt split from his longtime manager, Kevin Eggers and moved to John Lomax III, (grandson of the famed folk music historian John Lomax). Lomax started a fan club for him which, though only advertised through small ads in the back of music magazines, began to receive hundreds of impassioned letters from around the world from people who felt touched by Van Zandt.

In the Summer of 1978, he fired Lomax and re-hired Eggers. He soon after signed to Egger's new label, Tomato Records and recorded "Flyin' Shoes' the following year. He would not release another album until 1987's At My Window but continued to tour.

Two years later, Sugar Hill released Live & Obscure and two more live albums (Rain on a Conga Drum and Rear View Mirror) appeared on European labels in the early '90s. In 1990, he toured with the Cowboy Junkies, and wrote a song for them, "Cowboy Junkies Lament," (with a verse for each member). They also wrote a song for him, "Townes Blues".

Sugar Hill released Roadsongs in 1994, featuring covers by Lightnin' Hopkins, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and others, all recorded off the soundboard during recent concerts. At the end of that same year, they released No Deeper Blue, his first studio album since 1987, recorded in Ireland with Irish musicians.

Van Zandt was married 3 times. First to Fran Petters on August 26, 1965; with whom he had a son, John Townes "J.T." Van Zandt II. They divorced in 1970. He moved in with Cindy Morgan in late 1974, and the two married in Nashville in September 1978. They became estranged for much of the early 1980s, and were divorced in 1983. His third and final marriage was in 1983 to Jeanene Munsell, who he met in 1980 at a memorial for John Lennon. They had 2 children, William Vincent and Katie Bell. They divorced in 1994 but remained close until Townes' death.

On December 19 or 20, Van Zandt fell down the stairs outside his home, badly injuring his hip, and refused medical treatment. Determined to finish an album that he had scheduled to record with Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar, he showed up to the studio in a wheelchair with Eggers. Shelley canceled.

Van Zandt finally agreed to hospitalization, but not before returning to Nashville. By the time he had consented to receive medical care, eight days passed since the injury. On December 31, X-rays revealed that Van Zandt had an impacted left femoral neck fracture in his hip, and several corrective surgeries were performed.

Jeanene informed the surgeon that one of Townes' previous rehab doctors had told her detoxing could kill him. She checked Townes out of the hospital against medical advice. Understanding that he would most likely drink immediately after leaving the hospital, the physicians refused to prescribe him any painkillers.

"By the time Van Zandt was checked out of the hospital early the next morning, he had begun to show signs of DTs. Jeanene rushed him to her car, where she gave him a flask of vodka to ward off the withdrawal delirium. She would later report that after getting back to his home in Smyrna, Tennessee and giving him alcohol, he was "lucid, in a real good mood, calling his friends on the phone." (Wikkipedia)

Unfortunately, Townes Van Zandt died on January 1, 1997 at the age of 52, 44 years to the day after Hank Williams, who he stated was one of his main songrwriting influences. His official cause of death was "natural" cardiac arrhythmia.

Five years before his death, when asked by an interviewer from "No Depression Magazine" if he thought the growing interest in country music the popularity of Garth Brooks had spawned would benefit him, Townes made this remarkable and insightful statement:

"No, I don't think, as a matter of fact, that I'm going to benefit from anything on this earth. It's more like that, I mean, if you have love on the earth, that seems to be number one. There's food, water, air and love, right? And love is just basically heartbreak. Human's can't live in the present as animals do; they just live in the present. But human's are always thinking about the future or the past. So, it's a veil of tears, man. And I don't know anything that's going to benefit me except more love. I just need an overwhelming amount of love. And a nap. Mostly a nap."

And so it seems the world lost one of it's few true free spirits in a truly tragic way. But, then again, can it be said that someone like Townes Van Zandt is ever really gone? I don't think so. In fact, his music continues to breathe with new life and force. It seems that it's intent is so direct it transcends normal human boundaries. Even death.

So, it's sort of like, we didn't hear that much about his music for so long because, well, like Townes, it kinda spent a lot of time napping, existing just beneath the surface of what most people are aware of. But it's there, as in dreams, that we are all really influenced the most.

More from Townes Van Zandt Central

Interview with Steve Earle about Townes and his upcoming album of Van Zandt tunes in Roling Stone

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Psychobilly Outlaws: Hasil Adkins and Ron Smith

Once upon a time, in a holler far, far away, a music revolution was born when the cries of Hasil "The Haze" Adkins, the last of ten Adkins children, first echoed across Appalachia. No one knows the exact date of the event. Though it was recorded in a family Bible, the Bible was lost.

At an early age, Hasil beat out insane rhythms on a milk can for hours. He soon discovered that, if he hung around long enough, the adults around him would get drunk enough to let him play their guitars. Hasil also played Bluegrass music with D. Ray White, a musician and mountain dancer who is the subject of the Hank Williams III song, "The Legend of D. Ray White" and father of Jesco White the infamous Boone County Dancing Outlaw.

D.Ray's remarkable dancing was recorded in a documentary "Talking Feet" by Mike Seeger and Ruth Pershing. His son, Jesco White, was recorded in two documentaries, one for PBS, "The Dancing Outlaw" and later "Jesco Goes to Hollywood". Jesco has since performed with Hank III on several occasions and is currently working on a new reality programming project for Johnny Knoxville's production company and MTV. Hasil Adkins was like an uncle to Jesco and his sister Mamie who literally grew up at his feet.

Adkins sent out hundreds of DIY tapes and records from his remote Boone County holler causing musical and cultural ripples that washed up on everybody's back porch from The Cramps to Hank III. Hasil Adkins was one of

a kind force of nature heard round the world that continues to echo with the timeless quality of true art.

Through his music, Rockabilly was rounded out, (he's named, along with Elvis, as a "book-end" of the genre), the first, (and subsequent) rounds of Punk were heavily influenced and Psychobilly was born.. The odds of this happening would have been, for the average person, insurmountable.

But Hasil Adkins was anything but an average person, as a new documentary about him by film-maker, musician and painter R.Smith reflects. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Smith about Hasil, their music and the film, "MY BLUE STAR: the life & hunchin' times of Hasil Haze Adkins". The preview just screened at the 2008 DEEP BLUES Music & Film Festival in St.Paul, Minnesota, where it won 1st place in the Previews & Trailers category. The MY BLUE STAR preview was also just shown August 21 at the prestigious and totally rockin' DON'T KNOCK THE ROCK MUSIC & FILM FESTIVAL in Hollywood, CA.

On Hasil's music, which combines a multitude of elements, Smith said, "Punk, Blues and Country all talk about real things, things that sometimes are ugly, painful bad subjects, good stuff too, but real stuff. It's that place out there on the edge that mainstream suburbia isn't comfortable with. It brings you to a kind of crossroads. When sections of music and culture bump into each other, that's where interesting things happen."

Hasil's songs ranged from sad, soulful country ballads to shrieking frenzies with eccentric titles like, "No More Hot Dogs", "Peanut Butter Rock & Roll", "Chicken Walk" and "Chicken Flop", in fact, Adkins recorded an entire album of songs about chicken "Poultry In Motion"and cited Col. Harlan Sanders as one of his primary influences in general along with Hank Williams, Little Richard and Jimmie Rodgers.

His performances were equally eccentric. For example, he became well known for a wild, sexually suggestive dance called "The Hunch" and for employing catchphrases like "I want your head on my wall", "Do the Chicken Walk", "Hunch that thing!" and "Boo Boo the Cat".

"Hasil truly lived his persona yet he would have been the first to say that nobody could sustain that over the top psychobilly mindset all the time." Smith said. "One interesting thing about him was that he contained a lot of duality. It wasn't so much contradiction as duality. There were a lot of ironic things about him that didn't make sense at first, but as you got to know him they came together. He didn't have much formal education but was a complete news junkie that read and studied politics all the time. He loved discussing politics and current events as well as hunchin' and the glories of fried chicken."

"Most people, if they know of him at all, are either familiar with the really wild music of his album "Out To Hunch" or they associate him with The Cramps, so that's a weird perception right there. But people who really appreciate him as a musician like the wild side but also know about his hardcore Country music, which is what he started out in the 50's as, a crazy hillbilly mountain jack. He even went through a period doing electric Chicago Blues.He was like a spong, he soaked up everything, even Gospel and Bluegrass too."

"In the '50s, he toured with Patsy Cline and the Collins Kids, played on Townhall Party and got hooked up with the guy who handled Ritchie Valens and was really close to getting a major record deal when his father died. When that happened, Haze went back to West Virginia. The story goes that the guy came back with a contract a half hour after Hasil's bus had left town.

As a child Hasil had heard one person singing on the radio and thought they were playing several instruments all by themselves so as a result he mastered a wide range of instruments and could play many of them simultaneously and began performing and recording as a One Man Band, partly out of his own necessity as much as his own unique vision.

"When he got back home he started doing his one man band thing.", Smith said, "He was living in obscurity in a remote holler. He didn't have a band but he didn't let that stop him. He didn't let anything stop him. For the next decade he kept doing records and demos on his own and sending them to people, everybody from Sam Phillips to Ed Sullivan to Richard Nixon. He mailed off hundreds of demos. The walls of his shack and trailer were literally papered with thousands of both fan letters and rejection letters. But it was all good to Haze."

"Another thing about Hasil was, he wasn't afraid to just stop on a dime and do something different. He would make up songs on the spot. I've seen him do it, music just flowed out of him."

One song of his I taped one night in Chapel Hill called, "She Left Early in the Morning" starts as a slow spooky Delta Blues then shifts gears into a jumpin' Boogie then shifts gears again into overdrive into a flat-out Punk Rock screamer all in the same song! He came offstage after he'd played it and I said,

"Hasil, that was amazing. What was that?"

"He said, "I made it up tonight. Did you record it?"

"I said yes and he said, "Good because I don't think I'll remember it tomorrow."

"He was fearless. When he went on stage he didn't give a damn if you liked him or not, he was there to party and ROCK the joint. He wanted you to have a good time but it wasn't all about ego or trying to be cool. He was just having a good time and raising hell.

"He taught me that, most of the time, you don't have to be best musician or greatest singer. Most people drinking in a bar are drinking to get their mins off other stuff and just wanna have a good time and if you do too, most of the time they'll help you! Coming off with a rock star attitude or some deep message, the whole, "Be quiet! Listen!" thing, people have always had a short span for that and these days, people's attention spans are shorter than ever.

As for Smith's own music, it, somewhat eerily, all seems to have started 20 years ago.

"In '88, I was sitting at a friends house listening to the blues and we started talking about going down to Louisiana and getting a "mojo". Two hours later, we were in a car headed South. They say the Lord looks out for drunks and fools and we were both of those things.

"It just so happened that the day we rolled into New Orleans was the first day of the 1988 Jazz and Heritage Festival and the first person we ran into was a real hoodoo woman named Priestess Ava K. Jones, who said she was the Great-great-great Grand-daughter of Marie Laveau. I don't know if that true but she was the only person listed under Voodoo in the New Orleans phone book, for real."

"We met her at her Voodoo shop in the French Quarter, like, where else would you look fir a mojo, right? ... and she asked what she could do for me and I said, "Priestess, I'd like to get a Mojo.

"She said, "What kind of mojo you want? To help with women? gambling? love?"

"No, I said, "I want to be a musician. I'd like Mojo to help my inner voice come out through my music."

"She said, "Oh, that's a wonderful, unselfish thing to ask for, I'm going to make you special Mojo."

"So she put some things in a bag, said prayers over it and told me to keep it in my pocket or a special place and to never open it. All I can say is, I don't know if it worked or not but it seems to have.

"Then she said, "I done all I can do chile'. You need to go to the crossroads now."

"I said, "You're making fun, you're pullin' my leg.

"She said, "No, honey. I ain't gonna tell you what to do when you get there but take your guitar."

"So, we went up Highway 61 to Clarksdale, Mississippi to Jim O'Neil's shop Stackhouse Records and the had just opened up the Delta Blues Museum there too, and we went to see Jim and said, "We were in New Orleans and a voodoo priestess told us to come to the crossroads."

"Jim said, "Well, you can do that, but I recommend you go oiver to Wade Walton's Juke-joint Barbershop and get yourself a guitar lesson and a haircut instead."

"So that's exactly what we did, we walked in and everything got real quiet. We said, "Hi Wade, Jim O'Neill just sent us over here to get a guitar lesson."

"He sent us in the back and told us to get a beer and wait till he was done cutting another customer's hair. then he came back and said, "Y'all want to learn to play the blues -where's your guitar?"

"I went and got my box and he starts playing, then reaches in a drawer, takes out a pair of wirecutters and cuts off my top string puts it in open G tuning and says, "Take this home, play with it as much as you play with yourself and when it starts feeling ½ as good you'll be a guitar player."

"So that was my introduction to the Blues and to guitar playing and I've been wankin off ever since! Hahaha"

Possibly in part from that, but largely due to Hasil, Smith is now a performer too after many years of playing at home or "woodshedding it" as he calls it and has started taking to the stage with his own one man band incarnation CuzN Wildweed.

"I wouldn't be playing music if not for Hasil Adkins. I can't play like Hasil but he taught me about abandon and giving yourself over to the muse and the beat and not caring if anybody else likes it as long as YOU like it. That's what it's all about, just having fun and rockin' out!

"If you were friends with Hasil, he was gonna get you playin' music. It didn't matter if you played it or not or wanted to play it. He was gonna get you to play."

"People play music for different reasons. Some people play because they have natural ability, some to get attention or girls, some have some weird pain or message they want to convey or express. Others just play because it feels good. In my case, I never considered myself as having an innate talent, I just like to rock because it feels good!"

Wildweed, who kicked off the recent 2008 DEEP BLUES Music & Film Festival both as a musician and filmmaker has opened for Joe Buck from Hank III's Damn Band, The Pack A.D., Dexter Romweber, Vapor Rhinos, Memphis Johnny Lowebow and a whole slew of new gen Punk Blues and Heavy Metal headbangers. Cuz says a YouTube video from JESCOFEST that ignited Wildweed fever in the cult underground but that he often gets mixed reactions depending on the venue and crowd, and went on to describe being sometimes well received and sometimes literally unplugged. But, that seems to be part of his point.

"Picasso often said The ugly may become beautiful, but the pretty never." That's kinda where I'm coming from. Some of what I do is ugly, but sometimes when it works there's beauty there too."

For example, the night he incorporated a two string electric broomstick into his act,

"I'd played it there before and done some pretty weird shit and never had a problem. But one night I pulled it out and dared the audience for me to plug it in. I did a song I made up on spot and halfway through the owner came running up screaming that I had to either turn it down or he was pulling the plug. After the set he said, "Cuz. you're welcome back here, but I don't want to ever see that thing in my bar again!"

"But I make no apologies or excuses, I say if you book the devil then be prepared to raise some hell, dammit! I love feedback, I love strange aural textures, I create sonic gutpiles that are interpreted not just with your ears but hopefully with a little bit of your soul too. Sometimes that's painful. On a good night, when it's working the way it's supposed to, it's like really hard sex where it feels really good but kinda hurts a little too. On an off night when it's not, it's like bad carpet burns. That's the risk of reaching for Art, you gotta be willing to dare to suck. And that's my greatest strength, I have no fear of failure. None!"

The same can be said of Hasil's music, he did things his own way, hunched to his own beat and had no fear of rejection whatsoever. In his lifetime, he composed something like 7,000 songs and released 21 albums and 16 singles. At the time of his death he was about to record with Hank III for the iconic double CD "STRAIGHT TO HELL" that Jesco White performs on. Hank III had visited Boone County to record with Jesco and was due to go back for sessions with Hasil when he passed.

The Appalachian String Festival & Outlaw America Artist, Jeff Walburn

Photo by Lonesome Liz

As an ancient and integral part of the culture of Appalachia, I have a feeling songs perpetually echo across the mountains of West Virginia; but from August 2-6 a symphony rang through them from Camp George Washington Carver where over 3,500 voices and thousands more strings lilted over Clifftop during the 17th annual Appalachian String Festival. There West Virginia masters, along with traditional and non-traditional musicians and dancers of all levels from around the world competed with, learned from and entertained one another.

It was as though everyone had gathered to celebrate life as a song and a dance. Even butterflies, bluebirds and canaries joined in, fluttering everywhere. During the event, some of the nation's finest string band musicians and old-time dancers won prizes in four old-time "traditional" contests; fiddle, banjo, string band and flat-foot dance; plus one "non-traditional" string band contest. This category is growing. This year, for the first time, ribbons for best original song and best original tune were awarded and next year it will be re-vamped with a new name, "Neo-Traditional".

"We think this name more accurately reflects the reason the contest was invented in the first place – that is, to celebrate the relevance of old-time music traditions and their connections with new musical voices and styles.", the official site of the Festival states. Welcome to the new Folk Revival.

The food was fabulous, and music and miscellany vendors displayed diverse, unique and eye catching wares. Activities for children and adults alike were abundant, from basket weaving to tie-dye making, yoga and dancing. Somehow, the atmosphere and accommodations were truly, seamlessly maintained and organized in such a way that everyone from infants to the elderly, families to college students had an equal place and was equally comfortable, physically and viably.

I couldn't get to the Festival until Friday. This meant, I was certain, no parking, no camping without quite a long haul up the road to the stage, the 'normal' (i.e. not port-a-potties, too much of a city girl to get but so into that) bathrooms, the food, above all the coffee (it takes about a pot to wake me up) – all that roots of jazz. Alas for poor me! I thought.

Unbeknownst to me, (and a good thing, or I would have been really crying, "Alas and alack!" , this is exactly what I've been working on with my own music), old-time fiddler, songwriter and tunesmith Mark Simos hosted "New Tunes and Songs in the Old-Time Tradition" that afternoon in the Main Lodge from 11am-12:30 pm. It wasn't a workshop, wasn't a contest, but uniquely an open sign-up to share original compositions based on old-time tunes with the Clifftop Community.

Now, I didn't know I'd missed that yet so I was at least not utterly distraught. Still, there wasn't a campsite to be found, near or far as I could see. I noted there was a bus that went regularly up and down the mountain and that would have been fine, but I was late! I had to get photos! The Non-Traditional Music competition was in full swing! What was a wayfaring stranger to do?

I thought well, maybe I can squeeze into a space near the stage and explain to the campers that I'm moving the car soon /what I'm up to. I did that, and that worked fine for a time. I saw some of the competition, and then tore myself away with conscience nagging that someone really might need to get out for whatever reason and I should find a better place.

There was a sort of triangle by a tent where a woman was standing by her car so I again, explained myself and asked if I could park there till the competition was over. She was leaving! Instant Karma just got me – I laughingly told her and little did I know how right I was. It was then that I ran the car straight over a block of concrete that I couldn't figure out how to back it off of.

The two of us sat there trying to figure out how to get it off, finally trying to use my Yoga mat as a ramp when Keith Garvin walked by and said, "What on earth are you trying to do?" "Get my car off of this" I said "And you're trying to do that with that?" he asked, pointing to the mat. "Yes" I said. "Is that made for automobiles?" He laughingly replied.

I had to admit that it both wasn't and that I had no other ideas, he helped me get it off, reminded me to sleep with my head up hill, (I was right on the edge of the cliff) and told me a little about himself. I discovered that he was from a town in Eastern Kentucky that I had visited frequently when I lived in Western KY, coincidence followed coincidence and I ended up spending most of the weekend as a lucky fly on the wall of the tent of the Garvins, (Keith and Michael), and Billy Wright of Kentucky Memories along with their friend Jeff Walburn.

We agreed to meet the next morning, (their tents were the ones I'd just parked my car to begin with), and I set off to watch the rest of the contest on the stage I was now within earshot and plain view of from my tent.

I went on to watch the Non-Traditional competition and was delighted by the rich diversity of the music when presented region by region. My ear and eye particularly caught by a band from North Carolina called the "Dixieland Travelers" who played Ragtime based tunes with Fox Nichols on Washtub, Chris Kefer on banjo and guitar and Seve Kruger on fiddle, Jeremiah Campbell on washboard.

Last years winners, the Red Stick Ramblers, played that night, bringing bayou bounce and flashing fiddlesticks into the mix. Then came the finals, where the polished harmonies of Cold Cat Creek, jumped out at me from the rest, (apparently to the judges too, they won first place).

Though they placed fourth, a huge monarch butterfly picked, the Ukrainian String Band to dance to, flying around the head of the lead singer as she sang a hauntingly beautiful combination of Ukrainian and West Virginia sounds.

Afterwards, I set out to find Aaron and Josh from Special Ed and the Short Bus, who I knew were somewhere around...

A rollicking ruckus from a building to my right caught my ear. I stepped in and found myself in the middle of a square dance. People of all ages and cultures, some who were masters of the art and some, who were learning, moved in kaleidoscopic patterns as a band played and a caller taught and gave steps. Just as I was getting ready to leave, I saw Josh.

After a dance with him, followed by a waltz with a gentleman from Lexington, VA, (I felt very Scarlet O'Hara), we set off to find Aaron and soaked in the sounds that poured from tents of musicians from Louisiana, Canada, Virginia, North Carolina – everywhere you can think of really, each with their own unique energy and voice.

"People tend to camp by region here" Aaron said. "That's funny," I replied, "My music comes more from my time in Kentucky than anywhere else and I didn't know that but just ran my car straight into Eastern Kentucky and Nashville." I turned in early as someone sang "Jack of Diamonds" nearby and from the window of my tent on the edge of one of Clifftops' steep hills I gazed at a sea of twinkling diamonds in the sky…

It seemed I woke up in a place where all time was keeping time and none was actually kept. The hours flew by like the bluebirds. Around 9 are (I think) I went to talk and play with my new found concrete helpers. I kept trying to wake up, never feeling like I completely did, though I drank coffee upon coffee upon coffee. Eventually, I asked what time it was, and was told, after some effort (hardly 100 out of those 3,500 people there had a watch), it was 3. "When did it get to be 3?" We all asked.

Time for me to go watch the Traditional Music Contest, where the Georgia Jug Huggers and other fantastic bands played, again, each reflecting unique regional differences underneath a unified theme, (kind of like America itself). That night, finalists Whoopin' Holler String Band won first place but I thought the encore performances of Downward Dogs, Nanny Goat Vibrato and Orpheus Supertones of Avondale, Pa were equally engaging.

Then I went back to playing, this time listening to an incredible dulcimer player from Virginia and joining a group in a tent with Mr. Walburn and Kentucky Memories that also included everyone from yours truly to a retired Circuit Court Judge from Virginia. Again, I fell asleep looking at a window of stars and listening to those who played into the morning light.

My new friends remarked that it would be nice if life were like that all the time and I agreed. In retrospect, I think perhaps it is, we just don't always notice because we're too busy watching the time rather than keeping it.

I kept a journal while at the festival and wrote, after the 2nd day, "Here you see firsthand that life is a dance. We are a song. Within individual groups, like cultures, societies, we bear marks and draw our individuality from, our steps so to speak. Some choose to go as far as they can publicly, some privately, but within yourself, you can't help but do it. Some people stay in one place. Some people travel and take it wherever they go, sometimes adapting and immersing themselves to and in different traditions too. But wherever they go, there they are.

"It's not so different now than it was before, when the songs and traditions we now know as old-time were formed. A sense of timelessness is therefore heard in the music, traditional and non-traditional. A sense of timelessness pervaded our environment and the transitions could be seen right there, in the generations present. Music is a living, breathing thing, growing as it flies, sings, skips and echoes across the mountains."


Jeff Walburn, a singer/songwriter living in Greenup, Kentucky, who records on Jeff records on Hopalong Recordings Label, BMI and Channelcat Productions. Inc. didn't win at Clifftop but has some other fish to fry. He'll be playing Sept. 20, at BB Kings' Nashville for Outlaw Americana Nite along with Michael O'Neill, Jen Cass and Douglas and Talisha Williams.

A member of the Americana Music Association, he's had songs recorded by Carla Van Hoose, Nancy Apple, (formerly ZZ`Tops' Road Manager) and Rob McNurlin. His new CD features with Grammy winning mandolin player Don Rigsby. And these are just a handful from Walburns' bucket of distinctions.

I asked him what inspired his songwriting and he said something like, "Well, I try to tell real stories; stories of relatives, murders, current events; even stories I make up are real in a way…when you write, when you use your imagination, you can be anything. You can be a sailor, a bayou hoodoo man…" And his new CD, Coast to Coaster, (named in part, he says, because of people's inclination to turn CDs' into coasters) reflects what he describes well.

Like most old-time or new old-time musicians I've met, he starts with, "It's in my blood." when asked how he started playing. His grandmother wrote songs in the early days of recording, sending them off to labels and others recorded them. "She said", Jeff told me, "and I'm inclined to believe her, that she wrote, "I Could Have Danced All Night". There's a big trunk in the family full of her records, I'd love to go through it one day."

Some of his stories come from his family background. His great-uncle was a prize-fighter who worked in the quarries. Other family members were sharecroppers. "At night", he said, "They'd go down to the locks to fish. They'd pass around water, whiskey and a guitar." A family fiddle hung on the wall of his childhood home no one was allowed to touch because it bore the muddy handprint of one of these relatives who fell as he died leaving his mark there. "I used to try to reach it", Jeff laughed.

Like many teenage boys, he picked up a guitar but not only started singing and playing but writing. "While his friends played rock I played Americana. They gave me a little heat about it but I kept right on anyway." He was 'Country When Country Wasn't Cool'. Stop at the song title when thinking of Barbara Mandrell as relates to his music. Think more 1% each Dylan, Cash, Neil Young, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger with the remaining 95% Jeff Walburn.

A remarkable lyricist, he is also a talented guitar and harmonica player. His music reflects a variety of sounds, from Cajun to the hills he lives in. In addition to musical influences like the above mentioned artists, some ragtime and jazz seems to creep in every now and then as well in his groove and chord progressions. When I asked him how that was so he said, "Well, it's a river thing. A lot comes up and down the Ohio."

Seems to me, above all, it's a Jeff Walburn thing. And that is something. Keep an eye on him, I have a feeling he's going to keep on going places and cross more than a few rivers as he goes.


Michael Garvin from a musical family and plays a variety of stringed instruments, (I imagine most of them, and his distinctions include placing in the National Merle Travis Thumb picking Guitar Contest in 2000, at age 17). He has chosen the fiddle as his primary imagination extension of the moment. For Michael, this means he's learned over 200 old time songs, each minutely different in style, by ear in less than 4 years.

He's just launched a group called Kentucky Memories with his father, jaw-harp and bass guitar player Keith Garvin and mandolin virtuoso Billy Wright, (who also plays a variety of string instruments). They'll be playing with Jeff Walburn at B.B. Kings' on the 20th.

However, the main focus of the group is Michaels' goal of accurately representing Old-Time fiddle styles from Eastern Kentucky, honoring greats like Buddy Thomas, George Hawkins, Bob Prater, Jimmy Wheeler, J.P. Fraley, Ed Haley, and Kenny Baker.

When I asked him why old-time he said, "Well, I could be playing just about anything, rock, metal, bluegrass, but it seems very important to me to keep these old songs alive. The people who kept them before my generation weren't recorded until they were so old, it was a loss. I'll be recorded from the start." And he is too. Via a 2004 grant from the Kentucky Arts Council he is apprenticed to master fiddler Roger Cooper. He is featured on Coopers' Rounder CD and the two have played at various events sponsored by the Council.

Keiths' father, Bert Garvin, met and ultimately played with Bill Monroe through his brother, who kept his hunting dogs. The two often hunted and played music together and, when he was around Michaels' age he went to Nashville, along with John and another brother, Erin and played with him there. "Monroe told Bert that if he wanted to stay, he'd be the best banjo player there", Keith said, and "That he'd see to it that he was. But He had a railroad job and a family and decided to stay in Eastern Kentucky." Bert also played with Blind Ed Haley and recorded with the Fraleys on Rounder Records "Kentucky Old-Time Banjo" a few years ago.

With that background, it's no surprise that Keith and Michael are the remarkable musicians you'll find them to be when you listen to Kentucky Memories. Add Jeff Walburn and something even more remarkable seems to happen.