In celebration of its 10th year, DelFest has assembled an All-Star roster for its annual Memorial Day Weekend extravaganza in Cumberland, Maryland. This year’s lineup is topped by the Trey Anastasio Band, Govt Mule, the Travelin’s McCoury’s featuring Dierks Bentley, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, and Bela Fleck & Chris Thile, is easily one of the best festival schedules around. Throw in namesake Del McCoury’s four sets over the weekend (which includes the traditional festival opening “soundcheck” set, and a guest laden spot which will feature Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys, Jon Fishman from Phish, the Preservation Hall Horns from New Orleans, and Ronnie Bowman) and the guarantee that Del will sit in with what seems like every band throughout the weekend and you would be hard pressed to find a better four days of music over Memorial Day Weekend this year. Continue reading DelFest Preview 2016, preparing to celebrate 10 years→
The last few years have been mighty good for string bands. There has an been an outbreak of younger, progressive bands mining the rich vein of bluegrass and a renaissance of traditional legends releasing some of the best albums of their long, rich careers. This has all combined to create a great time to be into bluegrass, string-band, and old-timey music. Continue reading Mountain Ride: Time to Roll→
A pair of intimate shows exhibit the range and power of bluegrass duo, Blake & Groves. Honest Tune was there for both of them.
Words/ Photos: Jake Cudek
Blake & Groves
The Kitchen Sink Studio
Santa Fe, NM
Blake & Groves is a traditional bluegrass duo comprised of Greg Blake and KC Groves. West Virginia native, Greg Blake is an inspiration, as his vocal resonance and stringed performance echo with “that drawl” that pulls in anyone who is looking for the authentic musicality of the old school. Partner, KC Groves, founding member of the all-girl, old-timey, bluegrass band Uncle Earl, is certainly nothing to scoff at either. Switching between mandolin and guitar, while balancing out the high end to the low tone of Blake, this bluegrass girl represents the power and authority that reflects her genuine passion for the genre.
Billed as “The Blue Grass and Green Chilies” tour, these two powerhouses hit the Southwest for the better part of November, bringing with them their brand of story-telling traditional bluegrass, all the while looking for that elusive, magical ingredient Appalachia players of yore probably never tasted: Green Chilies.
One of the earlier stops in the Land of Enchantment was the newly revamped Kitchen Sink Studios. Long-time producer and musician, Jono Manson, who has worked with the likes of Blues Traveler, Warren Haynes, Pete Seeger and a plethora of who’s who in the entertainment industries of both music and film, operates this space and offers a unique opportunity for artists. By creating a space for musicians to both perform in front of an in-studio audience while simultaneously producing a recording session for future use, his vision reflects his love for music as an experience, not just an end product. As show time drew near, Manson left his perch at the controls and entered the performance space, explaining his vision and a few parameters for the evening’s presentation, specifically reminding attendees of the documentary aspect as he pointed to the various microphones strategically placed about the room. After his brief reminder of the rules for the night, he introduced the opener for the night, Zikey and The Condor.
These two young, talented lads, surprisingly, needed no time to warm up, as they jumped right in, unintimidated, displaying their chops on banjo and fiddle, respectively, laying out some impressive originals that had even the distinguished, and discerning audience members bobbing their heads. Of note was the fact that they incorporated tunes, both original and covered, which reflected their appreciation and respect for the generations of players who preceded their role in the new school. At the close of their set, they thanked the crowd and again thanked their patriarch, Manson, who, by their own admission, had produced their first album for free.
After a short intermission, Manson again returned to the stage and ushered in the main event of the night, Blake & Groves. At this point, instead of immediately starting up, both members took a little time to give their own personal history about the man at the board, expressing warm accounts of recording and sharing creative inspiration over years of interaction. The resounding applause that followed showed that those in attendance had gleaned an insightful passage into the nature of this man and his endeavor to foster music, not money.
Opening their set with Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling,” instant recognition and smiles could be seen throughout the room. Exchanging lines and taking their time showed that these two were here to play and by the focus of those seated, they were there to listen. Continuing with the traditional canon, The Carter Family’s “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” presented its tale of the loss of love and tragedy and these two did it justice every step of the way.
Before starting the next tune, Groves asked for a little audience participation in two forms. First, she revealed that the moniker of their current tour was the “Blue Grass Green Chilies Tour” and at all stops on the journey they had requested that their audiences yell out the best place for green chilies in their locale. New Mexicans aren’t shy about their chilie verde appreciation, so as one might expect, there were multiple shout outs, both congruous and opposing. Luckily no brawls broke out. The second request came in the form of a sing-along invitation. Although the title was not revealed, Groves assured the audience that they would know what to say when the time was right. “New Mexico,” a tune penned by Groves, is an easy-going number in structure, which gives way to the power of the vocal abilities of Blake as the softness of Groves provides balance, creating a moment that left these locals smiling, as they joined in on the chorus.
“Hey Porter,” a Blake original, with its high stepping pace, moved many in the crowd to dance as much as they could in their seats, and again showed Blake’s ability to conjure the old-time cornerstone emotion of great bluegrass, both in vocals and playing, as Groves matched note for note.
“Northern Lights” is a song Groves wrote about her first experience seeing this amazing phenomenon in her home state of Michigan as an adolescent. As she explains, this tune was originally composed as a reminder of how it made her feel to see such a sight, but since then, has taken on a broader meaning. A culmination of those experiences that move people viscerally. This lilting number delivered both in strum and story.
Moving through fifteen songs, the talents of these two artists was apparent from the start and did not let up. They are a perfect balance to each other, and their ability to modulate between fast tracks and slow ballads reflects their love of the genre, knowing the tunes, not just playing them. The tales that are woven between songs reveal a history that is genuine and make this partnership authentic, a demonstration that continues on off stage. As with any music, when a number is played with intimate appreciation, the songs almost sing themselves and seeing this duo bring the traditional to life reminds that this is a living language and whether new school or old school, grade “A” is the same.
Closing out the night, Blake & Groves welcomed Zikey and The Condor back to the stage for a shared instrumental breakdown that produced smiles amid the quartet. There were no missed strides or confusion, each stepping up in perfect time to present their contribution, rousing each other as the joyful tune swirled. In completion, the seat-anchored audience stood and gave the four players their just desserts.
Blake & Groves
Following The Kitchen Sink Studio gig, the group made their way south to the metropolitan city of Albuquerque for a private house concert. This sort of gig is often bypassed by many due to the perception that the magic is lost without a stage or production that a proper venue holds. It can be easily argued that the inception of the musical experience evolved from such surroundings as these and is what has been the elemental foundation for roots music like bluegrass. The familial space warmly invites the listener and the player in, while blurring the lines between the two, as would be the result of this very performance.
Arriving, the homeowner welcomed the two into his abode with refreshments and salutations. Examining the room, its three rows of chairs, empty couch, and standing room towards the back, Groves inquired as to how many he expected to attend, with the proprietor acknowledging that he had no idea and it may turn out to be, in fact, no one. Undaunted by this news, Groves retained her smile and, joined by Blake, retired to their chairs to tune and go over the evening’s set list. Mid-preparation, a tall, thin man, case in hand, entered and acknowledged the two seated. From their expression it was evident that they knew this newcomer. Ezra Bussmann was his name, and, opening his larger than normal hard case, mando and fiddle were his game, the two housed side by side in red velvet. When asked how these folks new each other, Groves replied that Bussmann was one of her favorite people to make music with and that his father was “one helluva mando builder.” It was easy to see that music was in this man’s blood and added an element that would make this night differ significantly from the studio performance.
As it turned out, this was not just a simple living room show, but rather a celebration of the 40th birthday of Matt, the man whose family had opened their house to friend and stranger alike for the special occasion. As time pressed on, slowly but surely, a consistent stream of people arrived, carrying adult elixirs, food, and in some cases children, and soon the gig space filled and then spilled over into the auxiliary area of the backyard, where additional amplification, fire pit, and quintessential hay bales had been set up. Conversations could be easily overheard and it became obvious that many were strangers too each other, but were connected unknowingly by the man whose birthday was being celebrated.
Starting before sunset, the trio, Blake, Groves, and Bussmann, took to the head of the room and, in classic humility and mannered address, thanked Matt and his family for opening up their home and wished him “feliz cumpleanos” before getting started, just as the night before, with the invocation of Bill Monroe’s “Can’t You Hear Me Calling”. Also like the previous evening, recognition was instantaneous and quickly filled the few remaining seats and drove others to the standing room area. This version differed significantly, as the group, now three, provided extra room for the fiddler to stand out. The contingency of smokers and talkers graciously remained outside, enjoying the unseen performance from the backyard.
Using the set list produced from the Santa Fe performance as a framework, many of the tunes were repeated, but only in selection. The instrumental sections were extended and no one seemed hurried to get to the next piece. The contributions by Bussmann were tasteful and appropriate and demonstrated his discerning ear. The open conversation between the three even led to his taking turns at being a member of audience, enjoying the craft of his long-standing friends. It was refreshing to see that Blake & Groves didn’t rely on a canned experience when presenting their show. This was evident by their ability to shift to a looser format and execution. Although there was some overlap, many of the shared stories differed from the night prior. In keeping with the theme of their tour, they did however take the time to inquire as to the best green chilie location in the Duke City, again followed by a discorded response. The laid back atmosphere produced more conversation than one-sided accounts between the intimate setting of performer and listener, as the line of distinction disintegrated further.
Before closing out the set, Groves informed the audience that they would be returning for another and that for all the guests who had brought their own instruments, the opportunity for a friendly jam would close out the night. This declaration brought many of those who had been glued to their seats for the entirety of the set huge smiles.
With that, Blake took control of the vocal helm, and called out to the neighboring county with “Freeborn Man.” Lung-busting, extended voluminous vocals are the centerpiece of this tune and sets Blake in the light of more myth than man. By the response of the spectators, everyone was fully encapsulated in this moment of power and awe, which was accentuated by the close quarters.
Dissolving into the crowd, both Blake and Groves took time to catch up with many in attendance. One man claimed that he had been seeing the two of them perform for nearly twenty years and by his detailed recollection, the obviousness of his truth stunned the two in humility and appreciation. There were also others who had found their way and in one way or another were connected to these players independently, producing genuine surprise and exhilaration, like running into old friends on a random street in a forlorn town.
Satiated with refreshment, both physically and emotionally, the trio returned to the helm, delivering the continued conveyance of song and spirit, pulling again from their crafted canon and the old school textbook, including “Salt Creek,” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” At this point, this was a room of people enjoying company and any disassociation had been dissolved. This was not a one sided perception, as the band began to take requests, further cultivating the sense of musical family. Although not requested, the band led the room through the most well-known cover of the night, John Denver’s “Country Roads.” This brought everyone together, singing the chorus in rollicking unison. Covering Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” satiated many a Dead Head in the room. This final act transitioned effortlessly into the family jam, as cases were opened and all sorts of implements were tuned and prepared. At this point, the role of headliner shifted from Blake & Groves, sliding them into the participatory role, with the assembled crowd taking the lead, and reminding all of the great social power this music born from family picking event still carries to this day.
The inaugural Great Folkgrass Happenstance will take place October 17 in Glen Rock, Pennsylvania. The festival will be held at Ruins Hall and will celebrate some of the region’s best folk and bluegrass musicians. Ruins Hall is shell of the historic Enterprise Manufacturing building, which after years of neglect, has found renewed life as a unique space for music, arts, and popular events.
Glen Rock is a historic mill town in southern York County, Pennsylvania and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The early industries of Glen Rock centered on woolen mills, iron foundries, machine shops, and distilleries. Glen Rock is located 30 minutes south of York, in an area that was a hotbed of musicians who traveled down to Baltimore in the early formative days of bluegrass. Topped by the Quimby Mountain Band and Caleb Stine, the line-up of the Great Folkgrass Happenstance will reflect that long, proud, tradition of the area. The rest of the line-up is filled out with some of the surrounding areas premier bands including Swamp Donkey Newgrass, Mountain Ride, Shine Delphi, Muddy Creek Railroad, and more.
In addition to the music the day will feature arts and crafts and a wide selection of food. Author Tim Newby will also be there signing his new book Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and its Legacy.
With an influx of Appalachian migrants who came looking for work in the 1940s and 1950s, Baltimore found itself populated by some extraordinary mountain musicians and was for a brief time the center of the bluegrass world. Life in Baltimore for these musicians was not easy. There were missed opportunities, personal demons and always the up-hill battle with prejudice against their hillbilly origins. Based upon interviews with legendary players from the golden age of Baltimore bluegrass, Bluegrass in Baltimore provides the first in-depth coverage of this transplanted-roots music and its broader influence, detailing the struggles Appalachian musicians faced in a big city that viewed the music they made as the “poorest example of poor man’s music.
Bluegrass in Baltimore examines the highly-influential scene in Baltimore that produced such key figures as Del McCoury, Earl Taylor, Walt Hensley, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, and Mike Munford and explores the impact the music they made had on a wide-range of musical luminaries including Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Sandy Rothman, Pete Wernick, Sam Bush, and many others.
(Excerpted from Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and its Legacy by Tim Newby, published by McFarland Books, June 2015.)
On a cold night in early February 1963, in a small nondescript neighborhood in Southeastern Baltimore, on the corner of Pratt and Chapel Streets, in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Hospital there was a small bar that you would have been hard pressed to find then, and does not exist now. Called the Chapel Café, it had a much too low ceiling with bad lights that seemed to do nothing but provide a ghostly haze that gave life to the heavy cigarette smoke lingering in the dank air. This served to make the ill-mannered, boorish disposition of the locals hunched over the bar even more menacing as they seemed to revel in yelling “play or get out” at the band perched on the small stage every time there was a lull in the music. The fourteen-year-old bassist on stage that night remembers it as “nothing but cigarette smoke and spilled beer, one of them rough places, the kind of place where the bouncer would have to throw out at least one guy a night.” Into this atmosphere, across the sticky beer-splattered floor, beyond the bar area that was just to the right of the door and over towards the stage tucked into the corner on the opposite wall walked a man.
This bar was much like countless other bars that were littered across Baltimore; Jazz City just a couple blocks away on Pratt street in Fells Point, the 79 Club in Federal Hill, the legendary Cozy Inn, and the chicken wire-covered stage at Oleta’s and Marty’s Bar KY. They were all tough beer-and-a-shot joints that were small, worn down, reeking of stale beer, and teetering on the edge of violence each night.
But the man who walked into the Chapel Café that night was not like the countless other patrons who inhabited them. He was a tall man who cut an imposing figure and known to be of few words. He was often referred to as an “ornery old cuss” by those that did not know him, though in reality he was a much more complex man than that simple, limiting description. He also had started a band that lent its name to a still developing sound that had its roots in the mountains of Appalachia, found its way to the city streets, and was now being played in this poorly-lit bar, much like it was at similar other bars around Baltimore. This sound was still shaking off its earlier label of hillbilly, so-named for the migrants who brought this music with them when they came down from the mountains or moved from the south to the cities to find work and a better life, and was beginning to be recognized by another, less derogatory name: Bluegrass.
The man who walked into that small corner bar was Bill Monroe, who with his band Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys had first given shape and life to this new exciting style of music. Bluegrass was born from the old time string band music that Monroe learned in his youth back in his rural home in Rosine, Kentucky, and from the fiddle of his favorite uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, who Monroe went to live with after his parents died when he was a teenager. Uncle Pen would become a role model for Monroe in all aspects of life, but it was through music that he would have his greatest impact on the young budding musician. Years later, after Monroe’s musical genius was widely recognized, he would give credit to his Uncle Pen referring to him as “the fellow I learned how to play from.” Monroe would later immortalize his Uncle in one of his most famous songs, “Uncle Pen,” in which he sang about the late night hoedowns and dances he played at as a teenager with his Uncle.
Monroe mixed his Uncle Pen’s fiddle sound with the country, gospel, and blues that was in the air at the time, and ratcheted it up to a breakneck speed with his distinctive trademark mandolin to create what famed folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax called “Folk music with overdrive” in a 1959 article for Esquire Magazine. Levon Helm from Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers The Band saw Monroe as a six-year-old and says this new style of music “really tattooed my brain.” He recalled how Monroe had taken, “that old hillbilly music, sped it up and basically invented what is now known as bluegrass music: the bass in its place, the mandolin above it, the guitar tying the two together, and the violin on top, playing the long notes to make it all sing. The banjo backed the whole thing up, answering everybody.” Country music-outlaw Waylon Jennings would echo Helms’ sentiment about the impact of Monroe and this new style of music he was playing. “In my house, in Littlefield, Texas, it was the bible on the table, the flag on the wall, and Bill Monroe’s picture beside it. That’s the way I was raised.” And for a brief time nowhere was this new style of hillbilly music, this folk music with overdrive, played better, faster, or in such a way that it would leave as permanent a footprint on the history and development of bluegrass than in Baltimore.
The teenaged bassist, Jerry McCoury, who was on stage that cold February night at the Chapel Café in 1963, recalled with a laugh when Monroe walked into the tiny Baltimore bar, “I actually didn’t recognize him at first. He was wearing his glasses and he had a hat on. Then I realized who it was and I was in total awe.” With admiration and high praise in his voice he continues, “It was like meeting God.”
Monroe’s stop in Baltimore was no accident. He had stopped by to see a former member of his band, Jack Cooke, who was playing that evening. Monroe needed a couple of players to fill out his band for an upcoming gig at New York University in New York City for the Friends of Old Time Music on February 8, just a few days later. He was hoping Cooke would join him on guitar, and he wanted to check out the older brother of McCoury who was a banjo player Cooke had recommended.
McCoury’s 22-year-old banjo playing older brother, remembers that same evening when the man rightly called the “Father of Bluegrass” walked in during their set:
We were playing the Chapel Café in Fells Point one night in 1963, when Bill Monroe walked in front of us. I could have fallen over right then and there. The purpose of him stopping by was to take Jack [Cooke] with him up there to play a show in New York City. He didn’t have a guitar player or lead singer at the time. Whoever it was had quit and he thought Jack would do it. He also didn’t have a banjo player either so they took me up there to play.
The banjo player, Jerry’s older brother Delano, joined Monroe’s band, which at the time included Kenny Baker on fiddle and Monroe’s longtime partner Bessie Lee Mauldin on bass. After the show in New York City Delano joined the band full-time, and at the request of Monroe he switched from banjo to guitar and took over lead vocals as well. It proved to be a career-defining break for the young banjo player turned guitarist/singer. Though his time with Monroe was short, it was an influential time as the bluegrass legend helped introduce the world to the voice of Del McCoury, a voice which might be the most perfect in bluegrass, a voice that is the living embodiment of the “high and lonesome” sound, a voice about which country music superstar Vince Gill declares, “I would rather hear Del McCoury sing ‘Are You Teasin’ Me?’ than just about anything.”
Since his brief time with Monroe, McCoury has gone onto establish himself as one of the truly legendary figures in the genre. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Hall of Fame in 2011, has released over thirty albums, won fifteen IBMA awards – including being named entertainer of the year nine times (with four straight wins from 1997-2000) – and won two Grammy Awards in 2006 and 2014 for his albums, The Company We Keep and Streets of Baltimore. He is a man whose roots stretch back to the earliest days, but who stands firmly in the now. A man who is not afraid to collaborate with any number of bands who might be assumed to be outside the normal wheelhouse and comfort zone of an aging bluegrass legend, mixing it up with younger bands like Phish, Yonder Mountain String Band, The String Cheese Incident, Old Crow Medicine Show, Leftover Salmon, and Steve Earle. Bands that are pushing the sound his one-time mentor Bill Monroe first created so many years ago into new and bold directions.
For Monroe to stumble upon such an absurdly talented player in Baltimore was no lucky break. During the fifties and sixties Baltimore was teeming with talent and a rare convergence of people. In addition to Del McCoury, a host of other influential pickers and musicians all would emerge from Baltimore during this time, including Mike Seeger, Bill Clifton, Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys (the first bluegrass band to grace the stage at Carnegie Hall), the pioneering duets of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, and the groundbreaking banjo wizardry of Walt Hensley. They would all help to introduce the hard-driving style that was best found in its most pure form in those rough, corner bars on the streets of Baltimore, and bring this energetic style to the music world at large.
Baltimore was one of the few places in the United States where musicians from the mountains and the South could meet and play with folks likely outside of their normal social strata. College-educated city folk and hillbilly migrants from Appalachia mingled easily in Baltimore over the common-ground of music, and in particular string-band and early bluegrass music. Seeger provides the best explanation of Baltimore’s unique personality as a city:
We were quite conscious in Baltimore of being a place where the city and the country met. You’d have tough bluegrass bars, where the city people were the outsiders. You’d have bohemian parties, where the country people were the outsiders. It was a place where different classes and different cultures were meeting. It was a time of curiosity and discovery and friction and exhilaration.
Much of the focus on bluegrass as it relates to its growth in cities tends to revolve around Nashville, with its well-deserved Music City title, and the bluegrass scene that eventually developed in Washington D.C. around such genre-defining bands as the Country Gentleman and The Seldom Scene. While there were many other urban settings at the time with a large population of Appalachian migrants and that also had important urban hillbilly scenes, it can be argued that none of them had the lasting impact that Baltimore did. During those early years that saw the identity of bluegrass truly formed, it was the vibrant, special scene a short drive north of D.C. on I-295 in Baltimore that Seeger recalled which truly laid the foundation. With his trademark chuckle Del McCoury agrees:
There was Nashville, and then there was Baltimore. There were other places, Detroit was pretty big, and Cincinnati, there was a big bluegrass scene in those two cities, and Washington [D.C.] as well, but Baltimore was the hot town for this kind of music back in the fifties and sixties.
In the years following World War II, as the factories and industries boomed there was an exodus from the mountains and the South into the cities and Baltimore found itself the recipient of an extraordinarily talented crop of musicians who settled into an area ripe with possibilities and opportunities. In a house on Eager Street that held weekly gatherings of like-minded urban folk-music people and hillbillies, in neighborhoods across Baltimore called “Little Appalachia,” in “hillbilly ghettos” where migrants clustered in the cramped row houses that hosted nightly pickin’ parties, and in the working-class bars that could just as easily erupt in a brawl as they could in live music, the sound of hillbilly or bluegrass music was not only being played, but redefined and pushed in new directions.
These sounds soon started reaching the ears of young, impressionable musicians across the country who were just beginning to find their way musically. Sam Bush, one of the originators of the modern bluegrass sound that began developing in the 1970s, was a teenager in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and one of those young impressionable musicians in the late 1960s when he first came across the “hard-driving Baltimore-style.” His band, New Grass Revival, was a revelatory shot in the arm to bluegrass music when they burst on to the scene in 1971. They were a bunch of young hot-shot pickers breaking the normal restrained bluegrass mold at the time with their long hair, jeans, and t-shirts; who, with their psychedelic-influenced take on bluegrass fused everything from jazz, funk, blues and rock together. They shook off the shackles that had tethered the genre for too long and changed the face of modern bluegrass. It was an album Bush came across by Baltimore banjo-picker Walt Hensley that proved to be the first time Bush would discover the spark that would ignite his passion to move bluegrass into new realms and hear a term that would go on to define those early years of Bush’s long, storied career. Bush heard Hensley’s groundbreaking 1969 album Pickin’ on New Grass, and it blew away the young artist, instigating the formation of the band, New Grass Revival, and was part of the birth of a new style, “Newgrass.” With his mind fully-blown he explained, “He [Hensley] was stretching the boundaries there.”
Many of those early Baltimore musicians who inspired that young impressionable talent, like Sam Bush, and helped provide such a unique voice to this still developing musical style, would seem to have been within arm’s reach of making it big, of reaching that musical summit, only to fall short due to a litany of reasons. With a scene built around a large influx of poor migrants with limited education, it is not surprising to hear McCoury say that the bands in Baltimore “were less professional” than those in other cities, and to find so many players who were so talented on the music side fail so easily on the business side. This lack of business acumen or professionalism proved to be the biggest hindrance for many musicians from Baltimore.
For every Del McCoury or Hazel Dickens that clawed their way out of Baltimore and achieved that lofty legendary status there are countless stories of those who could not quite obtain what their seemingly unlimited talent placed within their grasp. Whether due to lack of education, poor business sense, too much drink, a lack of faith in one’s abilities, or quite simply bad luck, many of these Baltimore pickers found that instead of etching their name in big letters on the roll call of greats they were more often than not resigned to the overlooked role of early innovator or forgotten influence. The scope of these musicians’ influence was wide and far-reaching, but unfortunately as bluegrass musician Artie Werner (who years later played with many of the early pioneers from Baltimore in Cincinnati) says, “People don’t realize how much bluegrass was influenced by Baltimore-area musicians.” It seems with the passage of time, this has come close to being forgotten, as Baltimore is often overshadowed by their big brother to the south, Washington D.C., and the impact of these pioneering musicians is relegated to a passing memory or a simple mention in a lyric. But Baltimore’s story is the story of early bluegrass. Without it and the musicians who lived and played there, what we know and hear today would not be the same.
The sun starts to set as The Wood Brothers take the stage at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. Surrounded by trees and a lawn filled with folk and bluegrass fans, the band begins their set. Multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, flanked by the brothers Chris and Oliver Wood under the red glow of stage lights, warms his hands on a chilly April evening.
Oliver Wood kicks off the show by picking out a slow folk ballad on his acoustic guitar. His brother outlines the guitar chords on an upright bass, and Rix plays a beat on his self-proclaimed shuitar – a crummy guitar he transformed into a percussion instrument with tuna cans and other noisemakers.
The band sings their stories in soulful three-part harmonies while many audience members sing along.
After opening the set with a few slower, more traditional folk tunes, Oliver trades his acoustic for a hallow-body electric guitar, and Rix takes his place behind his drum set.
Chris uses a bow to play a virtuosic classical-style solo on bass as the festival sits in awe. When his solo comes to a close, his brother comes in with an upbeat, blues-soaked funky guitar riff and Rix launches into a groovy beat on the drums. The crowd can’t help but move to the beat.
Jordan August and Phil Chorney stand off-stage surveying the scene with walkie-talkies in hand and a solemn look on their faces. The co-owners and co-creators of the festival listen to The Wood Brothers’ harmonies and impressive musicianship, but there are more pressing concerns. Will the bus that is taking The Wood Brothers to their hotel make it through the rioting downtown? Is the event running on time? Is everyone enjoying themselves? Are people going to stick around for the last few bands after it gets dark? Will they get back their security deposit on the park? Is the festival living up to its reputation? With so many things that can go wrong, Chorney and August hardly have the time to stop and enjoy their own event.
“Baltimore is a working-class, blue-collar town, with great people, great food, great beer and great music,” Chorney says. “So let’s celebrate that.”
While protests and social unrest were bubbling into riots near Camden Yards on April 25, Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park was an oasis of peace and music as thousands attended the 3rd Annual Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival.
The festival featured performances from national and local folk and bluegrass acts including The Travelin’ McCourys, The Wood Brothers, The Seldom Scene, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Cris Jacobs, The Bumper Jacksons, Grand Ole’ Ditch, Letitia VanSant, Chester River Runoff, Charm City Junction, The Herd of Main Street and The Manly Deeds. The event also had local craft vendors, selling everything from hula-hoops to cider, beer, banjos, bowties and falafels.
The Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival is the latest chapter in a long history of bluegrass music in Baltimore – a history that has been all but forgotten, according to August and Chorney. They share a passion for the craft of bluegrass and folk music and a love for Baltimore. This inspired them to create the festival with the intention of sharing this music, bringing money into the city and raising awareness of bluegrass music in Baltimore, a city that was once a hotbed of folk and bluegrass.
“In the 1950s, it was either Nashville or Baltimore for bluegrass, which is a wild concept because Baltimore doesn’t seem like that place,” August said. “People forgot that bluegrass was even here.”
“That’s the purpose of the festival,” August explained, “to bring back that awareness of bluegrass music that used to exist here.”
Bluegrass and folk music have been a part of Baltimore’s history for a long time. Last year the Baltimore Museum of Industry had an exhibit about the banjo – an instrument with roots in West Africa that has been a part of Maryland tradition since the 1740’s. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that this music flooded the streets of Baltimore.
The Great Depression in the 1930’s resulted in the mass northern migration of poor families from the South and Appalachian region. As an industrial center, Baltimore became one of many cities on the receiving end of this migration.
“The proximity of the Appalachia region and the opportunities that existed [in Baltimore] at the time were a huge motivating factor for people looking for a change,” said Tim Newby, author of the forthcoming book Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and its Legacy.
These migrants brought with them their families, their traditions and their cultural tastes, which included folk and bluegrass music. These new-comers were not always welcome, Newby explained. Bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens recalls seeing signs that read “No Dogs or Hillbillies” as she went about town. Often the migrants would cluster together in small neighborhoods around the city, Newby said. The areas of Hampden, Woodbury and Druid Hill Park came to be known as “hillbilly ghettos,” Chorney said. In time, Bluegrass eventually became a staple of the Baltimore music scene.
“You had these migrants who had grown up with this music and you had many younger locals who were into this same kind of music,” Newby said. “They really bonded together and created a special atmosphere that was inclusive of both migrants and those already from the city or surrounding area.”
On the evenings before work these migrants would meet up in bars and basements, bring their instruments and have informal “pickin’ parties,” keeping their traditions alive in a city that proved to be nothing like home. Baltimore was the home to many bluegrass legends, such as Hazel Dickens, Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys, Walt Hensley, and Russ Hooper, and Mike Seeger. Del McCoury (father of this year’s festival headliners, The Travelin’ McCourys), was a regular part of that early scene as well, as commuted down to play in the rough and tumble bars of Baltimore from his home in York County, Pennsylvania.
By the 1950’s, Baltimore was the 6th largest city in the United States, Newby said. Folk and bluegrass were the most popular forms of music in the city. There were many bars and clubs that featured local bluegrass musicians, such as the 79 Club, the Cozy Inn and the Blue Jay, giving musicians an opportunity to share their songs and hone their craft.
Soon Baltimore became a center for bluegrass music, with influence in the national music scene. In 1966, “The Streets of Baltimore” by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard, was one of the biggest hits on country radio.
The city is a different place than it was when it was known for bluegrass, but August and Chorney are proving with their festival that bluegrass is still here.
“The Charm City Folk & Bluegrass Festival is doing a great job of keeping the spirit and tradition alive of this musical legacy of the city” Newby said. “They are helping to bring awareness to Baltimore’s storied history to a generation of music fans who might be unaware of it.”
A Celebration of Music
The Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival unites people of all ages and walks of life in the beautiful Druid Hill Park in a celebration of music. Despite overcast skies, the festival is buzzing with excitement. Two stages are situated at the bottom of the gently sloping hill, an ideal spot for the stage because it is a natural amphitheater. August says that they added the second stage this year to cut down on the time between sets, allowing for the crew to set up for the next act before the previous act finishes.
People stand densely packed in front of the stage, and the hill is covered in lawn chairs and blankets where many festival-goers have settled in. To the right of the stage is the tent of one of the festival’s partners, Union Craft Brewing. As in previous years, the brewery has made a bluegrass themed beer specially for the event, a Bavarian Hefeweizen dubbed The High Lonesome Hefe. Next to the beer tent there is some fierce corn-hole competition.
Up the hill, near the conservatory, is what August calls “vendor village,” where people can choose from a range of food options and also buy items such as banjos, hula hoops, jewelry, bowties and band merchandise. Off to the left side of the stage there are a few chairs set up so that attendees can bring their own instruments and have their own pickin’ parties.
The diversity of the crowd and the vendors is matched by the diversity of the bands playing. Although they all fall under the umbrella of folk and bluegrass, some of the groups could not be more different. On one hand there is the traditional old-school bluegrass group the Seldom Scene, and the exciting and fast paced music of Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen and The Travelin’ McCourys, and on the other hand you have the more folk and blues style of the Wood Brothers, and also the unique blend of jazz, bluegrass and early western swing from the Bumper Jacksons. They show the wide range of forms that folk and bluegrass music have taken over the years. The one thing the bands have in common is that they all get the crowd moving.
“A lot of traditional music, in different kinds of cultures, is dance music,” says Jess Eliot Myhre, singer, clarinetist and washboard player for the DC/Baltimore-based group the Bumper Jacksons. “I think that fundamentally people really connect with music that makes them want to dance.”
The music at the festival certainly has that effect on people. There is something simple and lovely about this old-fashioned music played on acoustic instruments, Myhre says. There is nothing standing between the listener and the musician, she explains, which is what makes folk and bluegrass so unique and genuine.
Despite all the positive vibes and good times at the festival, the mood of the event was somewhat odd. Protests and incipient riots are happening only a few miles away as a reaction to the death of Freddie Gray, who was arrested only ten blocks away from the park.
“I think it was a great festival, but it was very strange playing that festival to that audience while the protests were happening so close,” Myhre says.
While Myhre feels the festival seems out of place in the city in turmoil, music can be a source of empathy and understanding.
“Folk and bluegrass tend to be music that tells stories of hardship and struggle,” Chorney explains. “Baltimore has its history of hardship and struggle, and people can relate to it.”
Pickin’ Parties, Paperwork and Permits
The Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival all started on Chorney’s porch in Hampden, a neighborhood in Baltimore. August, who is currently a musician in the Jordan August Band as well as Trace Friends Mucho and a freelance photographer, met Chorney, a marketer for Citeligher, through the Baltimore music scene. They would see each other at the 8×10, a bar at which August bar tended, and they became friends when August did a photo-shoot for Yellow Dubmarine, a reggae Beatles cover band that Chorney managed.
Soon after becoming friends the pair began to have regular “pickin’ parties” at Chorney’s. They would sit out on the porch with a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey and play into the night. Before long, these get-togethers sparked the idea for some sort of bluegrass party.
“Let’s throw a bluegrass party,” Chorney said, “let’s get all our friends together who play music… Let’s just do something cool.”
This idea eventually blossomed into the first Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival. They raised money and hosted the event in Woodbury at the Union Craft Brewery. The festival was a success, selling out 1,600 tickets nearly a month in advance. While August and Chorney were grateful for the opportunity Union Craft gave them, they realized they had no room to grow and began working with the city to find a new location.
The next year the pair teamed up with District 7 Councilmen Nick Mosby, who selected Druid Hill Park as the new home for the festival. In order to use the park, the festival had to undergo a long process of filing paperwork and permits, making frequent trips to City Hall, and appeasing various governmental organizations such as Parks and Recreation and the Housing Department.
As a for-profit company, the festival had to do a lot to use city property, such as making substantial donations to the city and non-profits, including the Believe in Music Program – a K-12 inner city music education program. The festival was made possible through a collaborative effort between festival and the city, embracing something that brings something artistically and culturally different to the table, Chorney explained.
“I think that’s really unique and special, and I hope to continue that partnership as long as I can,” Chorney said.
In the end, August and Chorney explained, it always comes down to money.
“We don’t make money. We’ve never made money off these events, me and Phil pay out of pocket every year to make sure this happens,” August says.
The city gets money from the permits, donations, payment to use the park and a security deposit. Being able to pay the bands is another huge expense. Then you have to factor in costs for everything from marketing, festival workers, the stage, speakers, lights and tents, all the way to porta-pots.
“Everyone always gets paid no matter what,” August said, “even when you know the bank account about to hit zero, you still make sure they get paid.”
Chorney and August are not the only ones that work to make this event a reality. It requires a lot of effort from many of their friends, who help with everything from social media to band hospitality, working with the vendors, to general volunteering on the day of the event.
With a Little Help From My Friends
On the day of the festival, Chorney, August and their team are a well-oiled machine. While festival-goers are relaxing, enjoying the music and beer, the volunteers work through the day into the night making sure things go smoothly. Between helping with parking, manning the entrance, taking pictures, setting up the equipment on stage and countless other tasks, there is no shortage of jobs that need to be done.
Chorney and August are the busiest of all. When they aren’t zipping around in a Gator truck moving equipment they are organizing the volunteers, greeting festival attendees and acting as the puppet masters, pulling the strings behind the scenes making the festival a reality. Moments where they get to sit, relax, and listen to the music are few and far-between.
August, whose life’s passion is live music photography, explains that one day he hopes he and Chorney won’t have to work the festival so August will be able to photograph his own event. Until that day, Chorney and August are working on keeping the festival growing with the help and support of their friends.
“My favorite part [of the festival] is seeingmy friends smile even though they’ve spend a 14 hour day setting up, breaking down, helping people out,” Chorney says. “And they expect very little in return except a thanks and a chance to be a part of something.”
Honest Tune Features Editor Tim Newby’s new book will chronicle the history of the influential bluegrass scene in Baltimore.
Due to an influx of Appalachian migrants who came looking for work in the 1940s and 50s, Baltimore found itself the recipient of an extraordinarily talented crop of musicians and for a brief time was the center of the bluegrass world.
Based upon interviews with many of the legendary players from this golden-age of bluegrass in Baltimore, who had moved to the city in hopes of a better future and found it in music, Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound & Its Legacy, is the first book to take an in-depth look into how the music that was played in Baltimore came to wield influence across a broad musical landscape.
The book will be published by McFarland Books and released May 2015.
Bluegrass in Baltimore looks in detail at the highly-influential scene in Baltimore that produced such key figures as Del McCoury, Earl Taylor, Walt Hensley, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, and Mike Munford and explores the impact the music they made had on a wide-range of musical luminaries including Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Pete Wernick, Sam Bush, Chris Hillman, and many others.
The journey of these Baltimore musicians was not an easy one. They struggled in the face of a music industry that viewed the music they made as the “poorest example of poor man’s music.” There were missed opportunities, personal demons, and the always up-hill battle these pioneers had to fight because of the prejudice against their hillbilly backgrounds. Due to this many of these original Baltimore musicians found they were often resigned to the overlooked role of early innovator or forgotten influence, but the music they made and the influence they had has lasted forever.
Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and Its Legacy is available for pre-order now: McFarland Books
Jesse Cobb first burst on to the scene in 2006 as a founding member of the Infamous Stringdusters. Since leaving the band in 2011, Cobb’s extraordinary mandolin skills have been on display in number of settings, most recently as a duo with his brother Shad (who is one of the most in-demand fiddlers in Nashville) and as a part of the all-star line-up of the Noam Pikelny and Friends Band, which includes Pikelny on banjo, Barry Bales on bass, Luke Bulla on fiddle, and Bryan Sutton on guitar. Cobb also found time to release his first solo album, Solitude, in late 2013. Recently he has been performing as part of the online live music series, Concert Window.
Cobb checked in with Honest Tune to talk about some of his favorite musicians, Concert Window, and to share some musical tips and advice for mandolin pickers of all skills.
Honest Tune: When did you first start playing the mandolin?
Jesse Cobb: I switched from guitar to mandolin at about 11 or 12 years old. I played guitar for a year or so before my oldest brother took it from me! The only thing left to play around the house was the mandolin so I picked it up. We had this book called Bluegrass Mandolin by Jack Tottle and I dug in. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up so my dad wouldn’t buy strings until I learned the basic chord shapes, so I’d sit and change chords on the frets while they all played for a week or two before even getting strings. Weird way to start but I guess it worked out all right.
HT: When you first started getting into the mandolin who were your early influences?
JC: The first mandolin I heard was an old live recording from Bean Blossom in 1973. The first song is Monroe doing “Mule Skinner Blues.” I liked the mandolin on that record a lot, Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, and I think a young Marty Stuart. I’d say that influenced me quite a bit, but I gravitated toward a more progressive sound early on. I heard Jethro Burns and was blown away. Jethro led me to this guy that was kind of local named Peter Ostrushko which in turn led me to Sam Bush. Once I heard Sam, I knew that all those things influenced him so I started copying everything about him. So in a short answer, Monroe, Jethro, Sam.
HT: Since first starting out playing a mandolin with no strings you seem to have really refined your style over the years. What advice would you give to someone who is picking up the mandolin for the first time?
JC: As I tell everyone I teach, any time spent listening to, or playing music is better than not. Listen to things you like and they will find their way into your own style. Don’t try to play too fast right out of the gate. I have taught a lot over the years and one consistent thing I see is people trying to go too fast too soon. Slow it down; perfect it, then up your tempo. We’d all like to play Bach Sonatas like Chris Thile, but the only way to get there is to be absolutely consumed with doing that. If you’re not, that’s ok. Be consumed by being good at an obtainable goal and move on from there. Most importantly, get that instrument in your hands every spare minute you have. Practice makes better!
HT: You have played with a number of bands over the years and at some amazing festivals, what stands out for you among all of them?
JC: One of my favorite memories is playing with the Stringdusters at FloydFest in Virginia when Sam Bush and Scott Vestal joined us for Shenandoah Breakdown, a real musical highlight. Also playing the main stage at Telluride for the first time. I was literally moved to tears after listening for so many years to the live tapes of Strength in Numbers and New Grass Revival from that stage. There are so many great ones including playing in an old dungeon in Germany, and a crazy sit in with Yonder at High Sierra.
HT: Are there any songs that stand out for you as being something special whenever you play it?
JC: I’ve been playing this song called “King of California” by Dave Alvin for quite a while now. It’s one of my favorite things we did on the Pikelny, Sutton, Bales, Bulla, Cobb runs. I really like the old time feel and drive we got out of it. One of those bouncy, feel good tunes with an uplifting lyric.
HT: You’re part of the “Bluegrass Roundup: Concert Window Festival.” This features some of the best pickers around such as Jim Lauderdale, Casey Driessen, and Bryan Sutton. What the experience like to be able to bring your playing into someone’s home so to speak?
JC: I really like the idea of playing some tunes at home and having people join me for a casual tune session. It gives me a chance to play some things I don’t usually get a chance to play for anyone. Concert Window has really done a cool thing with this “online festival” concept. In an age where it’s increasingly difficult to sell records, I see this as an opportunity to share music people otherwise wouldn’t hear. What a lineup!
HT: You seem to stay pretty busy with all your various endeavors, what does the rest of the year hold for you?
JC: I’ve recently been working with Billy Hume on some music for an upcoming album of mostly original music with an anticipated August release. We plan on recording in Nashville sometime in April with an extensive tour in the fall. While we’re still in the process of picking material, arranging, and digging in, it’s very safe to say that I am excited to be working with Hume on this. We have worked together on some things with the Stringdusters before and I really like the way he approaches the recording process. There will be more to come on this very soon, but expect some amazing guests and partners on this record. I’m also booking some solo/duo shows for the summer with some of my favorite musicians so stay tuned for announcements in the next month or so.