This signed Bill Harrell record was a one dollar yard sale find and it offers a fine opportunity to hear Mike Auldridge (featured in a lengthy post last week) in a more traditional bluegrass setting. For those who don’t know the music of the late Bill Harrell, he’s similar to Mac Wiseman both in terms of his relaxed singing style and his fondness for traditional mountain ballads. Though both singers have mellow voices, they played their share of hard driving bluegrass, particularly during the early part of their careers--Bill with Don Reno and the Tennessee Cut-ups and Mac with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys. Both artists are also excellent rhythm guitar players.
You’ll notice on the cover that Bill is playing an Ovation guitar, which is a rather unusual choice for this style of music, though a few other bluegrass performers used Ovations in the late 1970s, most notably Tony Rice. Note that Bill is seated, yet is still using a guitar strap. This is because the round back of the guitar would cause it to slide down on his lap if he wasn’t using a strap to hold the guitar in place.
Along with Buzz Busby and the Country Gentlemen, Bill Harrell was one of the pioneers of the Washington, DC bluegrass scene. All of his albums are enjoyable and worth tracking down.
Every year around this time I remember how much I miss seeing the Seldom Scene at the Birchmere, back when Mike Auldridge and the late John Duffey were in the band and back when the Birchmere was in a smaller building a few doors down from its current location. Maybe it’s because Duffey passed away in the month of December or maybe it’s because the Seldom Scene’s anniversary falls in November each year (the band celebrated its 40th last month) or maybe it’s all those New Year’s Eve shows the band used to play at the Birchmere. Whatever the case, it seemed appropriate that I post this Mike Auldridge record that he signed for me at the Birchmere in the late 80s when the band was between sets of one of their regular Thursday night appearances. For anyone who doesn't know: Mike was the Dobro player in the Seldom Scene from the band's inception in 1971 until 1995 when he left to form a new band called Chesapeake.
After the first set, Mike joined a few friends at a nearby table and I remember feeling a little nervous when I approached him—after all, I was a 17 year old kid out on a school night, likely interrupting the conversation of old friends. Mike was very friendly and happy to oblige, scribbling his giant sloppy signature down the right side of my LP. In the late 80s and early 90s, I probably saw about twenty Thursday night Seldom Scene shows and Mike was the only person I ever approached, though I did have a chance encounter with John Duffey in front of the Arlington County Public Library.
At that time in my life and throughout my college years, the Birchmere was my favorite place to go and I was sad to see it move to the larger building. Though I have heard some great music in the current venue, I miss the intimacy and charm of the old place. There was the man with the long white beard who guarded the door, took your ten-dollar cover, and used his foreboding stare to discourage talking during the performances. There was the used record store downstairs, the pull-knob cigarette machine, the beautiful chandelier to the right of the stage, the worn out swinging doors of the men’s restroom that inevitably slammed into you as you entered. The place was so quiet and respectful during the Seldom Scene's performances that you could hear water spraying dishes in the kitchen during the quieter moments of a song.
On one particularly memorable evening Doc Watson was an unbilled mystery surprise guest (Can you imagine them doing that now?) and Mike shared the stage with him for several songs including “Treasures Untold,” which they had recently recorded together. I remember this well, as it’s the only time I’ve heard Doc play live with Dobro accompaniment. On other nights, Tony Rice would pop up on stage during the Scene’s set and sing “Old Train” or play a jawdroppingly fast “John Hardy.” These occasions were the only times I‘ve heard Tony sing in live performance, as dysphonia silenced his voice shortly thereafter.
Not surprisingly, the Seldom Scene member who made the biggest impression on me was mandolin player and high tenor vocalist John Duffey. I remember the hair sticking up on the back of my neck the first time I heard him sing “Bringing Mary Home.” I remember doubling over in laughter as he donned star-shaped sunglasses during a spirited rendition of “Lay Down Sally.” But mostly, I remember silently and attentively watching him on stage; in particular, I loved to watch him take mandolin breaks. Often, he would stare at his fingers in astonishment as if he couldn’t believe how fast they were moving. Then, as soon as he finished, he would fling his mandolin around his back and look out at the crowd as if to say “how’d he do all that?”
Mike always impressed me too, because, more than anyone in the band, he just exuded music. Duffey could sound a little unrehearsed and slightly out of tune, but he had so much soul and charisma that it didn't matter. In contrast, Mike seemed more refined and smooth. His playing was as immaculate as his personal appearance—as if he had been practicing six hours a day for the entire week leading up to the gig, which I'm sure was the case. He also seemed to really enjoy himself on stage and his ever-present smile was infectious and uplifting. During each Thursday night appearance, Mike was featured on instrumentals such as "Pickaway," "Panhandle Country," and his wonderful arrangement of Benny Goodman's "Stompin' at the Savoy." I remember requesting that the band play another instrumental "Appalachian Rain," mainly so I could hear Auldridge's Dobro break and on one such occasion, this number, played at my request, got the biggest applause of any song played that evening.
It’s for all these reasons that this signed Mike Auldridge record has sentimental value, even if it isn’t his most representative album or even one of the many solo Auldridge records that feature other original members of the Seldom Scene.
During that same summer trip to Southwestern Virginia (see the Ralph Stanley entry), John and I journeyed into Eastern Kentucky to see the birthplace of Loretta Lynn. Loretta’s brother Herman gives $5 tours of Loretta’s childhood home, though he was not available on the date we arrived and we had to settle for a few pictures taken from the road. A week later, we saw Ms. Lynn perform at the Warren County Fairgrounds in Front Royal, Virginia. I had brought my Fist City LP cover with me, though she didn’t sign any autographs after the show--I don’t think she was feeling that well.
Still wanting to get an LP signed and not knowing whether I would get it back or not, I decided to mail Loretta the cover to an album I could stand losing--I didn’t want to risk mailing my pristine Fist City cover, my favorite album of hers. The cover came back signed, though, as you can see from the picture, the marker was very dry. Ultimately, I’m still not satisfied with this autograph and may try again.
Remember that Les Paul: He Changed the Music television special that aired in the late 1980s – the one where Eddie Van Halen awkwardly kisses Les Paul on the cheek? I remember hearing that the one person Les Paul requested to perform at that tribute concert was Danny Gatton, but, at the last minute, Gatton was bumped by the network for rock star Eddie Van Halen. Les Paul had never even heard of Eddie Van Halen.
Anyone who has ever listened to Danny Gatton knows he’s one of the greatest electric guitar players who ever lived—if not the greatest. I only got to see Gatton perform once and that was in 1989 on a triple bill with Johnny Winter and Buddy Guy/Junior Wells at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC. At that time, I was a teenager enthralled with Johnny Winter, so I can’t honestly say I remember Gatton’s performance that well, but I did notice that it was jazzier and more sophisticated than the electric blues I was listening to at that time. Over the years, I have come to appreciate what a master of the instrument Gatton was and the album that opened the door for me was Redneck Jazz from 1978.
The Unfinished Business album pictured above was inscribed to a high school friend of mine back in 1988 when it was Gatton’s most recent album. It’s probably most notable for Gatton’s mesmerizing arrangement of Santo and Johnny’s "Sleepwalk."
In the summer of 2008, I saw Guy Davis perform as an accompanist for Pete Seeger and Pete’s grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger at the historic Avalon Theatre in Easton, Maryland. After the show, I handed Guy this copy of his debut release Dreams About Life and he was pretty surprised to see it. Before he signed the album, he showed it to his teenage son Martial who had never even seen it before.
Guy made this modest, likable recording for Folkways in 1978 and I’m not sure that he recorded anything else until the 1990s. There aren’t very many albums with double-neck guitars on the cover, but if you want to see more, check out this link.
I still kick myself for not getting Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright to sign an LP when I saw them at Sunset Park back in the early 1990s. Though they basically phoned in the performance—Kitty even looked at her watch a few times during the set—it was very cool to see them at such a legendary venue. According to this fascinating article written by Eddie Dean, Sunset Park closed in 1995, so I got there just in time. During the show, Kitty mentioned that her first time playing the park was back in the 1940s and I know she made regular—if not yearly—performances there for her entire career.
The cover you see pictured was a $5.00 eBay purchase. While it’s not the greatest picture in the world, I like that Kitty signed the front cover with a sharpie. She typically used to sign back covers and use a ballpoint pen.
At 92 years of age, The Queen of Country Music is still alive, though her husband of 74 years Johnny Wright passed away earlier this year at the age of ninety-seven. Was this the longest celebrity marriage in history?
Laura Cantrell released an excellent tribute album called Kitty Wells Dresses earlier this year. I love that she recorded "Amigo’s Guitar," which will always be my favorite Kitty Wells song.
J.D. Crowe and Tony Rice signed this great bluegrass record for me backstage at the Birchmere in 2008. This cover is the second one made for this album and it is the one that most people are familiar with. The first cover has a hilarious photograph of the band with J.D. slyly sticking up his middle finger. When I pulled this record out for J.D and Tony to sign, they both recalled the original cover and had a good laugh over it.
I had the rare opportunity to catch a modest but enjoyable East Coast performance by California-based singer-songwriter Mary McCaslin in Herndon, Virginia. The Folk Club of Reston-Herndon sponsored this event as part of a series of small concerts they hold each year in the side room of a neighborhood Mexican restaurant called Tortilla Factory, located in a run-down, half-vacant, 60s-era strip mall in downtown Herndon. The long narrow room was filled to capacity with about 60 people, mostly members of the folk club.
The show began with three short but refreshingly offbeat open mike performances that included an a capella French tune sung by a six year old girl. Mary hit the "stage" around 7:30 and her first set was over shortly after 8 PM. After a 15 minute intermission, she returned for a second set of roughly the same length. While the show was noticeably short, I felt that I easily got my money's worth--after all, the $10 ticket cost less than the price of a drink in most New York clubs. I also appreciated the down home atmosphere and overall intimacy of the venue.
Mary's setlist was thematically and structurally similar to a typical Mary McCaslin album. It featured a few of her own songs mixed with those of other singer-songwriters such as her late husband and co-performer Jim Ringer. She also sang a couple of Western-themed 1940s standards such as "Don't Fence Me In" and "Ghost Riders In The Sky." Mary opened the show with a tribute to "yuppie-free" Oildale, California, the town just north of Bakersfield that was the birthplace of Merle Haggard. This was one of several songs about California, which evidently continues to be her favorite subject.
I was struck by the clarity and precision of Mary's rhythm guitar accompaniment that projected from her barely-amplified Larrivee acoustic guitar. I also found that her engaging, matter-of-fact singing style sounds much the same as it does on her classic records. As expected, Mary played in several different open major and minor tunings, switching between them in a matter of seconds. Her second set featured a cover of the Beatles' "Blackbird," which she sang to her own clawhammer banjo accompaniment, demonstrating her considerable skill at rearranging/re-imagining classic pop songs. If you think "Blackbird" is a strange choice for a banjo tune, you should hear her version of "Pinball Wizard" from her Old Friends LP.
After the performance was over, Mary sat at a small table signing CDs. As she signed my records, I told her that I had been to Oildale and had caught one of Red Simpson's Monday night performances at Trout's Nightclub. She reacted with enthusiasm to the name Red Simpson, reciting the opening line to Red's biggest hit "Hello, I'm a Truck." (Appropriately enough, that line is "Hello, I'm a truck.") We talked a bit about Trout's and Buck Owens' Crystal Palace and discovered, not surprisingly, that we both prefer Trout's, which is really the last remaining true honktonk in the Bakersfield area. There wasn't much room to stand and talk, so I thanked her for signing my records and went on my way.
Leo Kottke signed these records for me a couple nights ago at the City Winery in New York City. My encounter with Leo went as smoothly as possible, owing largely to the fact that I emailed the club a few hours before the show, mentioning that I would be attending and that I was hoping to get a record signed. (I kept "record" singular so the staff wouldn't think I had 15 of them--it's best to keep things simple.) The manager responded to my email by saying that I should ask for him when I got to the club and that he would see what he could do. When I arrived, I found the manager and handed him my records. He went off to find Leo, but came back with my records a short while later saying that Leo was planning on coming out after the show and that I could just have him sign them then.
After an amazing performance, I lingered around the club waiting for Leo to come out. I settled my tab so that I would have easier mobility and hung around the bar area for a bit. After about twenty minutes, Leo came out with his coat on and his guitar in hand and proceeded to walk across the club to the front door. No one really seemed to notice him except for one guy who said hello as he was heading out. It was then that I took the opportunity to ask him if he would sign my record (again, keeping "record" singular), to which he responded "Oh yeah, there was a record to sign." At that point, I was really glad I had contacted the club beforehand, as Leo was not surprised or annoyed by my question. Then, when I made a joke that made him smile, I knew everything would go well. Our conversation went something like this:
- Hi Leo, I realize you’re heading out, but would you mind signing my record? - Oh yeah, there was a record to sign (Leo sets his guitar down) - I have a pen right here, though you probably won't want to sign anything once you see which record I brought - (Leo smiles) Must be Circle 'Round the Sun (It’s well known that Leo hates this record, though it’s somewhat of a fan favorite.)
I then set my two records on a table that was close by and handed him my sharpie. As he was signing them, we then had this exchange:
- I have a silly request. I prefer that you do not date your autograph. - You don’t want a date? How come? - I just think a "twenty-eleven" would look out of place on a nineteen-seventy record. - Really? I’m the exact opposite.
We talked a bit more. I told him that I had seen him a few times and that this evening’s performance was the best show of his I’d seen, which was a true statement. I then asked him where he was headed and he said "Albany." I wished him a safe journey and that was the end of our encounter.