My Family’s Bones

Marcella Dunn's gravestone (photo: Kimberly Borchard)


Here’s a new post on a non-musical subject, this time the story of an uncle and a slave. This is the original version of a piece just published in The Wall Street Journal. It was a last-minute assignment which took me away from plans to write a profile of clawhammer legend Mark Olitsky, which will be coming along shortly, if life goes as planned.

Hope all is well with everyone. It’s like spring here in Virginia, perfect for playing guitar outside, and very few insects. They’ll be along soon, but maybe not before Olitsky.  


The recent filming of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in Richmond and Petersburg,Va. was a reminder that, despite a few holdouts, local residents have made peace with the Civil War’s outcome. Most greeted the second coming of Lincoln (the film focuses on the late president’s visit to the fallen confederate capital less than two weeks before his assassination) as cause for artistic celebration — and economic gain. It was also a splashy ending to the often somber Civil War sesquicentennial season.   

But there was more involved than Hollywood glitz and greenbacks. These history-minded events also stirred memories of an era that recedes ever further into the past, a time not only of  Lincoln, Grant, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, but of people little noted, if not anonymous, yet who  are in their own way still influential.

I have been thinking lately about one such person. Her name was Marcella Dunn. Her lifetime achievements were, at best, humble. They are certainly little known. So far as I know, this story is the only published record of her existence, though at one time she was listed in various documents – not as a person, but as property.

My family owned Marcella Dunn.

She was alive the day Lincoln came to Richmond – living on the plantation in Buckingham County, Virginia that had passed down through my mother’s side since the 1700s. A slave celebrity of sorts had also lived in the county — Betsy Hemmings, niece of Sally Hemmings (and by some accounts one of Thomas Jefferson’s children) – who is buried in an attractive  grave beside her master, John Wayles Eppes (Jefferson’s son-in-law) at the Millbrook Plantation.

Marcella’s grave, like her life, is all but invisible. It is located on a lightly sloping hillside alongside several dozen slave graves in a segregated section of the family cemetery. Hers is one of  two slave gravestones that include the deceased’s name. The others are marked by bare fieldstones; those resting below are as anonymous in death as they were in life. Marcella’s daughter, Ella, lies among them.     

I had seen Marcella’s gravestone during family funerals when I was growing up – you passed the slave graves on the way to the white section of the cemetery, some of which was surrounded by a stone fence.  There are three confederate soldiers buried there, including one who fought at Gettysburg. The slave graves are in open land where the cattle graze; I remember seeing a  cowpie on Marcella’s grave during one visit.

But I knew little about her. Relatives would sometimes tell stories about how Marcella helped raise my great-grandmother and grandmother – and my great uncle, Malcolm, a larger than life man whose temperament sometimes seemed straight out of the antebellum era. Then again, to him those days and ways were hardly distant. He had the sword of our relative who fought at Gettysburg, and in his early youth was cared for by an ancient woman — Marcella — who had been a slave.         

In 2000  I took my youngest son to Buckingham to talk with Malcolm, then 85. I wanted to record his memories of Marcella and other stories from his life, if not for a future book (fictionalized versions of Malcolm and Marcella appear in my recently published novel “In The Matter of J. Van Pelt”)  then at least to make sure they did not disappear with him into his grave. He was the last source of information about Marcella: family records had been destroyed in a fire, as had official records when the county courthouse burned in 1869. Malcolm died two years after our visit, in a world far different than the one he was born into — a world changed, to some degree I believe, by Marcella. 

He called her “A Marcella” – the A standing for Aunt. “I can still see A Marcella walking across the creek land,” Malcolm said, staring off a bit as we sat around the kitchen table. He described her as “tall and skinny” with a light complexion and a deep voice. “A Marcella had a lot to do with raising my mother,” he said, and she also guided him and his siblings in the paths of righteousness. He recalled her taking a stick to a brother, and she gave Malcolm some tongue lashings “like she was my own mother.”

She was born on the plantation in 1818 and in slave times would have been known as an “indoor slave” – someone who worked in the kitchen and tended to the family. “She was part social worker, part domestic help. If somebody got sick they’d send for Marcella.”

She was “loved by everybody. She smiled all the time.”

I asked if she ever talked about slavery. “She used to tell old stories she’d heard by word of mouth that her ancestors were on the first shipload of slaves to Virginia,” Malcolm said. Then he said something jarring:  “A Marcella said slavery did black people more good than anything else.”  

It was not surprising Malcolm might hold such a view. But could Marcella have really believed such a thing, or was she simply saying what she thought the white folk wanted to hear? There’s no way of knowing, of course,  though the possibility she might have is a grim reminder she was born into a world whose best and brightest proclaimed black inferiority as universal objective truth. Lest we forget, a few examples:

“Vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race,” said one widely published description of blacks; “idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness and intemperance, are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law, and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion, and are an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself.”  So stated the 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica

In the same spirit philosopher David Hume sneered that a Jamaican black who had gained a reputation for intelligence was “admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.” Even John Locke, champion of the “inalienable rights of man,”  wrote a provision for slavery in his draft of  the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina — and invested in the Royal Africa Company, which held the British monopoly of the African slave trade.

Transcending such pervasive and grinding bias would require nearly superhuman strength, and there were other, more brutal, reminders of subservient status. While Malcolm insisted whites treated their slaves well, history tells another story, one that also strikes close to home. My family tree includes the names Stevens, Alvis, Coleman, and Cabell  — surnames found in advertisements for runaway slaves from Buckingham and nearby areas.  

John Stevens, advertising in the Virginia Argus (Jan. 5, 1803), offered $20 for a slave named Toney, who is described as “about thirty years of age, has scars on his back [not for his good behavior] and one very noted scar on his breast as large as a man’s finger.” He had also “been branded on both jaws.”  Joseph Cabell, in the Virginia Gazette (Sept. 6, 1799) offered $40 for two slaves named Billy and Judy, a husband and wife who had fled together.  In November 1795, John Alloway Strange offered ten pounds for Tom, “about 25 or 26 years old, 5 feet 4 or 5 inches high, has a scar on his head, and a large one on one of his legs, and one on each wrist, occasioned by handcuffs: his back much scarred by whipping.”  

I did not ask, though wish I had, if Marcella ever spoke about being beaten, or being intimidated by the Klan, whose local branch included two relatives. Malcolm said he had never seen a lynching but added there was a local “lynching tree” that a “wood company” had cut down a few years prior to our interview. Strange to think, but somewhere that tree may exist in reinvented status as a bed or kitchen table.  

Malcolm filled in a few other details of Marcella’s life. She had one child he knew of and likely several grandchildren, though he didn’t know the names of any descendants. The fact that she was light-skinned suggested mixed ancestry. I asked if family slaves had borne children by their masters. “I guess they did,” he said, estimating I  had “probably plenty“ of unknown kin, some of whom might be buried near Marcella.    

 Marcella died  a very old woman — 109 years —  in 1927. Her funeral was attended by about 100 people —  “more blacks than whites” with a black and white preacher. “There were buggies and horses under the trees,” Malcolm recalled. “It was a pretty day.” Her gravestone includes her name and dates on one side and on the back an inscription stating she had been willed with 20 other slaves to her final master. Near her grave is the only other slave marker I found with an inscription: “Betty Stevens could only read the Bible.”

While you can’t know much about a person from this distance, when I think of Marcella I think of a dignified woman forced to play a difficult hand. She came to know freedom, of sorts at least, and clearly knew love. She was admired and valued in her community and made her part of the world a better place. Those are worthy accomplishments for anyone, and considering her situation, perhaps great ones.

Yet it is hard not to wonder if her omnipresent smile was a sign of true happiness, a survival technique, or a combination of those and other factors. She was a firm Baptist, Malcolm said, so perhaps her smile also represented a triumph of forgiveness. I like to think Marcella’s smile was the reflection of a nature more powerful than the forces arrayed against her. That would, in my mind, make her a superior person. One also wonders how many Marcellas there were among the 12 generations of American slaves, their contributions unsung but incalculable.   

It’s also hard not to also think about the anonymous souls buried alongside her. Who were they? Were they all born on this land? Did some escape the plantation, only to be dragged back? What were their dreams? Did they go through life believing they were inferior, if not sub-human? While Marcella and daughter Ella are said to lie side-by-side, the heart-rending words of Sojourner Truth can haunt as you walk among the fieldstones:  “Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me — and aren’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well — and ar’n’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen ‘em mos’ all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard — and ar’n’t I a woman?”

If David Hume ever spoke words that powerful and eloquent, they slipped my attention.

None are responsible for the sins of their fathers, but there is a connection between generations, for good and bad, sometimes bestowing wealth and privilege, sometimes hardship and sorrow, and many things in between. Time definitely has a way of shuffling the deck. Just as those anonymous bones belonged to people once owned by my family, they now own part of me.     

Malcolm’s world was shuffled too, and he seemed to have changed as well, if only a little, perhaps due to Marcella’s influence.  

A devout Dixiecrat, Malcolm for many years hosted an annual picnic – featuring fried chitterlings – that attracted upwards of 400 people, including many state politicians. This started out as an all-white event but eventually there were new faces at the table.

“When Doug Wilder was elected they all said I had to have him,”  Malcolm recalled near interview’s end, adding that he invited Wilder but wouldn’t allow Virginia’s first African-American governor to sit at his hallowed dining room table. Wilder seems not to held this against him.  One day, after he had left office “he stopped in,” Malcolm recalled.   “Just came by to say hello.”

I asked what he thought of Wilder.

“He was alright.”

Betty Stevens's grave marker (photo: Kimberly Borchard)

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Interim Scapegoat

Cover from the new novel


It’s been a long time between posts, though not due to slacking. I’ve been working on a novel I’d forgotten about, which is now finished and on sale at Amazon. This is my first eBook and I like the idea — you write the book you want without interference from an agent or a publisher (I’ve published three books via traditional means so have some experience here).

Doing it yourself, of course, means you not only write and edit the book (which, on the downside, can result in overseeing the hopefully rare typo; plus there’s no cash advance) but you  also do the promotion work, which primarily involves trying to get book reviewers to take a look. It turns out there are hundreds of reviewers out there — mostly bloggers — who will consider indie books, so getting in touch with them takes a fair amount of time.

There are a few more weeks of  promotion work to do, after which I will turn to the next profile for Alive Without Permission, which should be with banjo ace Mark Olitzsky. Spring will be along soon and the hills will ring with string music. Few play it better than Mark.

I’ve also been busy working on new music and have four CDs worth  waiting to be recorded. With any luck enough books will sell to get the first project underway — a five song collection featuring a terrific singer named Buttafly Vazquez. I’ll keep everyone informed.

Meantime, if you want to check out the new book (cover above — the carboy contains the blood of Uncle Shupe, a strange person who hopes to be cloned) — please go to: This is a somewhat odd tale about a Washington political fanatic who goes sane and leaves town, only to be pursued and destroyed by his enemies. It includes many hot-button topics: terrorism, cloning, sex change, religion, UFOs, grave robbing, cannibalism, slavery, racism — and True Love! It’s much funnier than you might expect, and all for $2.99 — the price of a happy hour pint.

Lastly, for something new to read here’s a review I did for The Wall Street Journal (I re-inserted a line or two the editors mischievously cut) on a book about scapegoating, one of humanity’s greatest passions. 



Truly honorable people—in the wake of some monumental botch—fall on their swords. Most of us, however, would prefer that someone else be chosen to take the hit. In “Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People,” British writer Charlie Campbell traces the habit of buck passing back to the Garden of Eden, where Eve, an apparently gullible person with far too much time on her hands, blamed a talking snake for persuading her to pick the forbidden fruit, thus unleashing our continuing pageant of sorrows.

Whatever our other shortcomings, humans have a profound talent for designating fall guys for problems and disasters that we ourselves are responsible for or that we simply do not understand. As Mr. Campbell observes in this brief and entertaining book, there might not always be a cure for what ails humanity, “but there’s always a culprit.”

Mr. Campbell traces the word “scapegoat” to William Tyndale’s 1530 English-language translation of the Bible. Tyndale used the word to describe a ritual found in Leviticus in which two goats representing Israel’s  sins were sacrificed to appease the celestial authorities. The translator himself shared a similar fate in Henry VIII’s England. He was eventually condemned as a heretic and strangled—then burned at the stake for good measure.

Scapegoating and religion have kept close company, according to Mr. Campbell, a former editor at the Literary Review. Christianity’s central figure can be viewed as a scapegoat, taking on humanity’s sin and in the process earning a trip to Golgotha. Early believers were blamed for various disasters and accused of hideous behavior, including incest, cannibalism and child murder—accusations, Mr. Campbell adds, that Christians would later level against their own adversaries. “Ultimately our imagination is relatively limited when it comes to wickedness,” Mr. Campbell writes, “and the authorities trot out the same list of accusations towards minorities they wish to demonize.”

Jews, perhaps the eternal scapegoats, catch it in the neck even from people they’re trying to help. When Crusaders set out in 1096 to retake the Holy Land, Mr. Campbell says, they stopped off in the Rhine Valley and slaughtered Jews—”many of whom had lent the money the Crusaders needed to set out on this religious quest in the first place.” Mass murder can also be seen as a very effective way to  cancel a debt.

The list of wrongdoing that Jews have been blamed for is quite expansive, Mr. Campbell reminds us, including poisoned wells and crops, missing children and the Black Death, though Pope Clement VI issued a bull relieving them of responsibility for the last horror. Instead, he chalked it up to “a misalignment of the planets,” as Mr. Campbell explains, “which is as close as the Church will ever get to saying that it, like the rest of us, just doesn’t know.”

Yet there has been little lack of certitude in history’s scapegoating efforts, some of which may strike readers as laughable despite the horrendous results. Fifteenth-century Dutch scholar Johann Wyler, a witch expert, calculated that there were 7,405,926 witches, “divided into 72 battalions, each led by a prince or a captain.” Another estimate put the number at 1.8 million. While most witches apparently escaped detection, some 50,000 were killed.

Mr. Campbell’s descriptions of executions are suitably grim, though he also takes a look on the bright side. While the Middle Ages were especially rough times for the accused, they were plush times for a certain type of entrepreneur. Witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins made a killing in the trade in the mid-1600s, earning 20 shillings per conviction (a month’s wages for a laborer). On one red-letter day he sent 19 witches to their deaths. Impoverished towns might spend a big portion of their budgets on witch extermination. This was not an exact science. The famous “swimming” test bound witches and lowered them in water. If they floated, they were guilty. If they drowned, they were innocent. (Sorry—we meant well!)

Mr. Campbell trots out other popular scapegoats—communists, financiers, the devil in his various guises and even inanimate objects, including a bell that innocently tolled away in the Russian town of Uglich until a prince was assassinated there in 1591, after which it was shipped off to Siberia, a cursed object, to languish for several centuries.

Yet Mr. Campbell’s strangest examples feature animals. He tells the story of a storm that ravaged the Hebrideani sland of St. Kildain 1840. A Great Auk, rare in those parts, was seen walking on the beach; it was captured and put on trial for instigating the fatal storm. The Auk, already a flightless bird, was found guilty and stoned to death. In a similarly vengeful spirit, a Parisian cow was executed in 1546 for having amorous relations with a man, though common sense indicates that the man was likely the aggressor. In a nod to fairness, both were hanged, then burned.

Mixing metaphors, insects have endured a similar scrutiny as scapegoats. Mosquitoes, flies and ravenous weevils have been threatened with excommunication by the church. A killing frost would usually solve the problem. But in southern France, the church put the local weevils on trial for a crop blight. The trial went on for eight months, during which time the weevils were granted a plot of land for sanctuary.

While we might like to believe that humanity has outgrown its addiction to scapegoating, Mr. Campbell reminds us otherwise. Economic downturns, he writes, “are extraordinarily complex and hard to fathom, yet that does not deter the blamemongers.” Bankers take much of the blame because “they are regarded by the public as being overpaid.” They may certainly be blamed for a revived interest in urban camping.

When bankers won’t do, creative minds come up with even more exotic malefactors. Author and lecturer David Icke, a former British soccer player and Green Party spokesman, teaches that “the world is run by a secret cabal of giant shape-shifting extraterrestrial lizards known as the Babylon Brotherhood.” This group, he says, includes both President Bushes and troubadours Kris Kristofferson and Boxcar Willie. There is apparently a good market for this viewpoint: Mr. Icke has written 18 books, and his website reportedly gets 600,000 hits per week.

Athletes sometimes play the role of the scapegoat, especially if they blow a scoring opportunity that would have clinched the game, as Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff did in his team’s recent loss in the AFC championship. Mr. Cundiff, who partially blamed a scoreboard error for making him rush the kick, might argue that losing, like winning, is a team effort. Soccer star Andrés Escobar, blamed for scoring a goal against his own team in the 1994 World Cup game, might argue the same, if he had not been murdered in connection with his gaffe.

Finally, there are politicians, who get blamed for a lot, sometimes wrongly. But they may also be the world’s pre-eminent blame shifters—demonizing rival politicians with eternal vigilance. Mr. Campbell does acknowledge exceptions to prominent leaders dodging blame. He cites Robert E. Lee’s post-Gettysburg mea culpa: “All of this has been my fault. I asked more of my men than should have been asked of them.” Then again, the architect of Pickett’s Charge had cause for humility.

Mr. Campbell cannot be accused of writing a ringing endorsement of our species. But he has made it clear that many of us operate on a revised version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others what should probably be done unto you.

—Mr. Shiflett is the author of the recently published novel “In the Matter of J. Van Pelt.”


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Tara Nevins

Tara Nevins, On the Road (Photo: John D. Kurc)

Tara Nevins is best known for fronting Donna The Buffalo, the enduring (20 plus years) rock/jam/festival band based in Trumansburg, New York. Years pass, band members come and go, but Tara (and co-founder Jeb Puryear)  keep Donna hoppin’ and constantly touring.

But in her heart of hearts, Tara Nevins is an old-time fiddler. Her most vivid musical experiences are tied to the traditional music of the North Carolina hills, where she sought out and learned the tunes that still excite her and deeply influence her work with Donna and as a solo artist.

I met Tara last spring at Merlefest. She’s slender and good-looking, with a warm bearing. While some professional musicians seem bored with their routines Tara maintains a passion for music, especially traditional forms, including cajun, zydeco, and old time. She’s something of an old time apostle, and when I told her I was interested in learning more about the music she suggested I attend the Mt. Airy Fiddler’s Convention in Mt. Airy, North Carolina (the  subject of an earlier post – scroll down, you’ll find it).

“Mt. Airy has been and still is my Mecca,” she told me.  She books no shows during the week of the festival, and sure enough this year she rolled into the festival grounds in Donna The Buffalo’s big purple tour bus, which has an interesting history all its own: among its previous owners are Toby Keith and Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Club.

The sun was on full broil that May weekend and it felt like you could roast potatoes inside the bus, so after a brief talk we stepped outside where Tara pointed out several friends and former  band mates who were singing country standards. One old pal is Joe Thrift, well known to old time practitioners for his fiddle tune “Pale Face.” Joe, a highly respected violin maker, once played keyboards for Donna. He was also the band’s bus driver, he told me, and considered himself very good at it. I hope to interview him for this project a bit further on.

The purple bus was on Tara’s mind when I caught up with her a few weeks ago to talk about her early days as a musician, her love of old time, and whatever else came to mind. Donna the Buffalo had played a gig in Annapolis, Maryland the night before and soon after departing for home the bus began shaking violently. The problem turned out to be bad rims. “We all got on our computers and found a 24-hour roadside service,” she said. Several hours and four hundred dollars later they proceeded toward Trumansburg. “I got to bed at six-thirty this morning.” I was reminded of something Jorma Kaukonen wrote a few years back (roughly paraphrased here): Being a professional musician means long hours of driving interspersed with brief periods of actually playing music.

Donna usually does around 100 shows a year, Tara says, but this year they’re doing far more. “We have debt to pay.” She said touring is getting a bit harder as time goes on. “I don’t like being out of my routine. I don’t always get to eat as well as I’d like, or exercise as much. I really like to get in an hour of walking each day, and that can be hard to do when you’re on the road.” The band is currently working on a new disc, and she’s also trying to get out more to promote her latest solo album, “Wood and Stone.” Though she sounded somewhat tired she was also upbeat. She clearly loves the path she has chosen.

I asked her how old she was when she knew she would spend her life making music. “I never consciously thought that,” she says. There was no decision one day to forego everything else in favor of the musical life. But many years were spent developing the chops, and worldview, that made this life possible. 

Tara grew up in Orangeburg, New York, not far from New York City. She got her first violin at age 5 and took up the guitar at 14, learning the songs of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor  and Carol King. She wrote her first song at 17 – “it was a silly little song called ‘We’re On Our Way To A  New World Now.’ The theme was kinda ‘the younger generation is alive and happening. We know what it’s all about.’ It did foreshadow the uplifting, worldly message that’s in a lot of Donna the Buffalo’s music.”

She played violin in the high school orchestra, and during that time  discovered that not all the old masters played classical music. “When I heard the ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ album, it turned my head. I thought ‘That’s what I want to do.’” Her classical violin studies took her to the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam,  but she did not solely concentrate on the classical curriculum.

“My roommate played in a band called the St. Regis River Valley String Band,” Tara says. “They played old time and I fell in love with it in a minute.” The band liked her as well, and eventually added her as a member. “Before I knew it, playing old time was what I was doing with my life.” While she had earned a teaching degree, “I had no interest in teaching music.”

Instead, she wanted to learn as much about old time as possible. After college, she “dove in,” and no place was more important in her development than the Mt. Airy festival. “We also went to Galax and Brandywine, but Mt. Airy was my favorite. It was small and there were lots of local players to learn from, and some of the greatest players came from that area, including Tommy Jarrell, Benton Flippen, and Fred Cockerham.”  

There was, she adds, something of  a culture clash. “This was a very southern festival, and we were outsiders. We were from the North, the West Coast, the Midwest, and we were alternative minded. We were called ‘The Revivalists’ because we were the younger generation that was reviving this music. At first, the local people looked at us sort of crossways. I think we amused them. But they knew we respected their culture and that we had come to learn their music. And come Sunday morning when it was time to leave, we left the place spotless. Eventually we were accepted, appreciated and loved.”

One sign of that acceptance was that the outsiders began winning contests.  “We started an all-girl band called The Heartbeats and one year won the best up and coming band.” The Heartbeats “were and are an extremely significant band in my life. We are a powerful old time band that plays hard driving fiddle tunes and songs that have a bit of pop sensibility.” Tara also won the fiddle contest.  “Being accepted at that level was a very powerful experience,” Tara says , though perhaps her most memorable musical experience followed an on-stage performance of the classic tune “Sally Anne.”  

“I played the tune in the fiddle contest and got off the stage. I was standing there and Riley Baugus walked up to me and said there was someone who wanted to meet me. I was a little nervous, but I went with him. So he takes me to a campsite, and there’s Dix Freeman, who played banjo with Tommy Jarrell for years. He had heard me playing ‘Sally Anne’ and said ‘You sound so much like Tommy.’ Well, I had learned the tune from a Tommy Jarrell recording. He asked me to play it again. For me, being face-to-face with Dix was mind blowing. He was very nice and invited me to his house and showed me around. There was a little cabin there where they had square dances. He also had Tommy Jarrell’s moonshine jug. “

For Tara, these were life-shaping events. “These times were  like Christmas  when you’re a kid. They still are very powerful for me, and I know for a lot of other musicians.” Donna the Buffalo, she adds, has its roots in old time. “Originally, all the people in the band were old time musicians. Jeb picked up the electric guitar and I got an  electric violin from my dad. We added drums and morphed into an electric band, but the old time influence is definitely there.”

I asked Tara about songwriting.  She is a solitary woman in that regard. While she and Jeb Puryear write all  Donna’s original material,  and have been doing so for 22 years,  “we haven’t written a song together.” She hasn’t co-written with anyone, she adds, though she does perform with other writers, including country hit maker Jim Lauderdale, who appeared on her recent solo album as a harmony singer.  

Her new solo disc, “Wood And Stone” (Sugar Hill Records), has stellar contributors, including drummer Levon Helm and producer Larry Campbell, and has kept her in pretty good company, appearing on the Americana charts with recordings from Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Gillian Welch. The disc is a deeply personal reflection on family life, including the breakup of her longtime marriage. Yet it is not, she says, “maudlin or so private that it’s embarrassing. This is not a woe is me record” or, as she has said elsewhere,  a musical version of a “chick flick.” It is also something of a departure from her first solo record, “Mule To Ride,” which came out on Sugar Hill in 1999 and showcased Tara’s fiddling. That disc, which also charted, featured several high profile guest artists, including Ralph Stanley and Mike Seeger.

Her only woe, she says, is that she hasn’t gotten out to play the tunes as much as she’d like due to commitments with Donna the Buffalo.

“I’m thinking I’d like to put together a little band and do more gigs in the spring.” Despite over 20 years of public performances, including gigs before large audiences, she is still uncomfortable unaccompanied.  “I never have just played solo, except maybe at a songwriter workshop.” When she’s with a smaller band, she adds, she enjoys talking with the audience, which she doesn’t do much of when playing with Donna. “It’s nice having that sort of communication.”

Near conversation’s end she offered advice for  younger musicians. They should listen to the classical masters  – Bach, Beethoven et al. – but also to the best of other traditions, whether Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, the Balfa Brothers, Thomas Mapfumo, The Frank Family, plus rock and pop deities including the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley. And if old time turns their head, as it turned Tara’s, she suggests Jarrell, Flippen, the Smoky Valley Boys and the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, for starters.   

And, of course, a yearly visit to Mt. Airy. She’ll be the fiddle babe in the big purple bus.

Talking with Tara reminded me of my trip to Mt. Airy and the other great old time players I’d heard there, including Mark Olitsky. Mark’s clawhammer banjo had turned my head when I first heard it a couple of years ago at Clifftop. We eventually struck up a friendship, played some tunes together, and shared campsites at a few festivals. After eating some of my highly carnivorous cooking, Mark went vegan.

So, next time out, a conversation with Mark (if I can track him down). For now, a short break for Christmas. And for those who have wondered about my son Branch (scroll down a bit and you’ll find a piece I did on his deployment to Iraq) — he’s back home. And he’s looking for an upright bass.  He’d probably like to find Tommy Jarrell’s moonshine jug as well. Lord help us every one.

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Some Holiday Humor

The holiday season can be hard on instruments, too


This blog is about roots music — I swear — but have been holed up several weeks and want to keep posting. So, I’m going to include some book reviews just to keep the pot boiling. Here’s a review essay I did for The Wall Street Journal on several new humor books, a few of which are actually funny. This is the original version, before the editors took their chain saws to it.


We could all use a good laugh these days, unless you happen to be amused by financial peril, sanctimonious street urchins, unsolicited tumors,  children who have decided to move back home, and other of life’s non-stop calamities.  

The book industry has responded with a barrage of works promising to bring a smile, or least a smirk, to our weary faces. Some of the material is new, some slightly recycled, some clunky.  None of it is free.

In the fresh jokes department, comic Demetri Martin’s “This Is A Book” has a contemporary air, as befitting a guy who’s appeared on Conan, the Daily Show and his own slot on Comedy Central. His book includes essays, drawings, short stories and plenty of reminders that we live in an age when some people – make that lots of people – believe everything they think or do should be made available for public consumption.

“Nearly ½ of all people in theUnited Statesare torsos,” Mr. Martin observes in a chapter entitled “Statistics,” along with  “Men are 35 times more likely than women to be turned on by looking at a wedgie.” In a chapter about updating flags,  his new flag of the south features a man in a suit holding a Bible and a waffle. “He looks proud and is standing inside a trailer park.”

This stuff might be a lot funnier with a chaser of nitrous oxide, yet there are plenty of smiles in David McRaney’s “You Are Not So Smart,” which argues that humans are experts at self-delusion and in drawing large lessons from abnormal behavior. He cites hysterical responses to the Columbine school shootings:  “A typical schoolkid is three times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be shot by a classmate,” he writes, “yet schools continue to guard against it as if it could happen at any second.”  Keep that in mind the next time your local school officials start chirping about how they’re teaching “critical thinking skills.”  A  chuckle may ensue.

In a sexier vein, Merrill Markoe’s “Cool, Calm and Contentious” is a wry look at life from a woman who loves dogs but is a bit warier of men, as we see in her account of surrendering her virginity to a loutish hack artist who treated indifferently and failed to make the earth move despite being given several opportunities. His name is Brad, if anyone’s interested.  

Some readers might find themselves saying “are you sure you want us to know all this?” yet could be amused by her explanation of why teenagers are “boneheads” about sexting, hooking up and other sexual endeavors: The frontal lobes, which allow us “to comprehend the idea of actions having consequences, aren’t finished being wired for functioning until your late twenties.” Hmmmm. The fact that many of us comprehended the likely consequences of our actions all too well is why we perfected the art of lying at a very early age. That’s no joke.     

There are lots of world-class laughs in Andy Borowitz’s “The 50 Funniest American Writers,” which includes the work of Mark Twain, S.J. Pereleman, Jean Shepherd, Hunter S. Thompson, Nora Ephron, Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken, Wanda Sykes, Dave Barry and the Onion.  Essays on politics are especially timely: Twain writes as a man disclosing his sins prior to running for president: he not only “treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850” but went AWOL during Gettysburg. “I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it.” Mencken, meantime, proposes that “unsuccessful candidates for the presidency be quietly hanged, as a matter of public sanitation and decorum” and on further reflection concludes ex-presidents be accorded the same treatment. At heart, maybe Mencken was a premature tea-bagger.

P.J. O’Rourke, now an elder in the temple of mirth and the only self-proclaimed Republican in this bunch, still has his teeth about him in “Holidays in Heck,” a collection of re-written magazine articles from Hong Kong, China, Kyrgyzstan and other exotic locales. Mr. O’Rourke, who has added “cancer survivor” to his resume, takes a scalpel to a modern art display at the Venice Biennale, eviscerating a piece by Italy’s Bruna Esposito, who “scattered onion skins on marble floor tiles and, remarkably, did not title it ‘Get the Broom.’” Looking on the brighter side, Mr. O’Rourke theorizes that many dictators, including Hitler, were frustrated artists, so putting their drek on display might have kept them out of bigger trouble. That might make a novel fund-raising line: We’re not hanging lousy pictures, we’re aborting world wars. Maybe worth a try.     

Calvin Trillin, another elder, sounds a bit cranky in his take on health food in “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin,” a rich compendium of 40 year’s worth of his work. “Am I the only one worried about how unhealthy the people who work in health food stores look?” he asks before smirking at “bee waste” and “stump paste” and wondering  why legislation hasn’t been passed that protects consumers from “being reminded constantly of the last days of Howard Hughes.” Give it time, sir.  

All told, a few worthy additions to the humor vault.  Other holiday gift suggestions: Juvenal, whose first-  and second-century satires of  gluttonous bluebloods  keeling over on the way to the baths, and incestuous villainy (“every embryo lump was the living spit of uncle”) could have been written last week (though getting them published might be another matter).  There’s also Paul Tabori’s  “The Natural Science of Stupidity,” which includes a life insurance policy of sorts from the 16th century: Soldiers are instructed to sew moss taken from the skull of an executed man into their clothing.  “As long as you wear the jerkin, you are safe from ball, cut and thrust.” Ah, the days before class action lawsuits.  

Some of the best humor isn’t found in books, of course. The funniest line I’ve seen in years is on a funeral urn crafted by artist/songstress Nancy Josephson: “Does this urn make my ashes look big?”

A joke to die for, almost.  

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A Side Trip To Afghanistan

Taking a breather after sweeping for mines in an Afghan village.

 It’s been a while between postings – some unexpected writing assignments came up, and there was also a week in San Francisco. I’m still planning on getting to Asheville, North Carolina ASAP to talk to musicians, recording magnates and other purveyors of roots music, but until then here’s a heads-up on a film about another subject this blog has taken up, military deployment.

 “Where Soldiers Come From,” a new film about deployment and its consequences, airs Nov. 10 at 9 p.m.on PBS. It will stream Nov. 11-Dec. 11 at Readers who enjoyed my Wall Street Journal piece, “While My Son Serves” (scroll down a bit; you’ll find it), will likely find this POV presentation worthy of your time.

It follows the deployment of a National Guard unit from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Afghanistan, then back home again. The project was four years in the making and is fast paced yet thorough. Those with family members who have deployed will see a lot of their own experiences here, while those who haven’t will get a clear-eyed view of how deployment affects families.

Director Heather Courtney, who is from the same hometown (Hancock) as several of the soldiers,  says the film “is about the people who fight our wars and the communities and families they come from.  Many Americans, whatever their politics or feelings about war, are very far removed from theIraq and Afghanistan wars because they don’t know anyone personally who has served in them as a soldier. I hope that my film will help viewers get to know these young men and their families, feel compassion for them and see a bit of themselves in the people on the screen.”

The film is entirely respectful of the soldiers and their families, though no one will mistake this for a military recruiting film – or an anti-war film, either. For my money, it’s a straight-ahead, non-dramatic look at a group of young men – ranging from late teens to early 20s – and their families and friends making the best of an often hard situation.  

The soldiers signed up during lean times; the military gave them work, a $20,000 signing bonus, a promise of an underwritten education and, for some, a purpose in life.  Plus, they were young and looking for adventure, or at least looking to get out of Michigan. They found plenty of thrills, though we are eventually reminded that adventure can wear you down, and definitely change your perspective.

Courtney takes us through the early days of training, a time when soldiers wonder if they’ll really go overseas, and, if they do, if some of them won’t make it back home. We see the fateful day the deployment orders come through, then scenes from a farewell party: plenty of booze and stiff upper lips. Then they’re off.

The soldiers are fairly carefree as they go about their job: detonating Improvised Explosive Devices along Afghan roadways. Their banter is light and wide-ranging: “I don’t want to kill anyone,” says one soldier, while a pal chirps in on another universal subject: “Have you had sex yet?” Many conversations in the film, one should add, are undertaken in language my soldier son calls an “incredible mosaic of obscenity.”

Then – Boom! – a bomb goes off and things get serious very quickly. If you’ve never seen footage of an IED detonating, there is plenty of that here. Some attacks result in wounds, though Courtney spares us the gore.

Courtney also keeps the families in focusing, reminding viewers that when one family member is deployed, the entire family is deployed. Parents will definitely associate with a father who tells of continuously fearing that “knock on the door” from a Pentagon representative bearing bad news. A girlfriend says there’s “lots of depression. Life is very different.” We see families communicating via Skype, conversations that are deeply heartfelt but sometimes awkward; a combination of joy, relief, and trying to come up with small talk. 

Back in Afghanistan, the stress begins taking its toll.

In their barracks, soldiers talk about having a hard time sleeping. One develops ulcers and adult asthma. A shift in attitude appears universal.

“I hate everybody here,” one soldier says. “I’m a racist American now because of this war.” Other soldiers have become somewhat disillusioned. The people of Afghanistan, one says, are “stricken with a burden that seems unfixable. What is the point in all this? Who am I fighting this war for?”  There is talk of suffering “too many concussions” from being “blown up too many times.”

Yet there is also a high level of compassion, even for their adversaries. One soldier sympathizes with the people who are trying to kill him, suggesting that if he were a native he might be doing the same thing. After a cache of explosives is found near a home,  concerns are raised about what will happen to the family now that the man of the house is  being arrested and taken away. One soldier asks what anyone would do if a Taliban insurgent ordered us to either shoot at convoys and  hide explosives — or see our children killed by the Taliban. As for the children, they “are unbelievable. They never stop smiling.”

Finally, it’s time to come home. “It’s just like being pregnant,” says one mother. “It’s on you mind every day until they get back.” When they do, life is decidely different. Getting back into the swing of civilian life can be very difficult – finding a job, restarting relationships – especially when some soldiers suffer from post traumatic stress disorder or a brain injury. One lapses into fits of extreme anger.  The hidden toll of war, we are reminded, can last far longer than the deployment itself.

This is a film worth watching, for military and non-military families alike. Many thanks to Cathy Fisher of POV for sending it along. On a personal note, our family appreciates the concerns and prayers sent aloft on behalf of “Sarge,” whom we expect to reappear in Virginia sometime in December or January. And here at Veteran’s Day, we are especially thankful for the service and safe return of  soldiers we know, including Ben, Josh, Ralph, Mike, Smitty and Chip. We are proud to call you our friends.

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Nancy Josephson


The Angel Band: Kathleen Weber, Nancy Josephson, Aly Paige

If you’re a musician you’d better have good chops and like to drive.

“In the end it’s all about the tour,” according to Nancy Josephson, who sings circles around Lady Gaga (in my un-humble opinion) and has plenty of shimmy as well. Nancy, who fronts the Angel Band, started touring in her teens. Now 56, with formidable pipes and stage energy to match, she sees contemporary roots musicians living the old troubadour tradition: traveling the roads, playing music, and trying to figure out how to keep the dream alive in a shifting musical landscape.

I caught up with Nancy at Ashland Coffee & Tea in Ashland, Virginia (preceded by a telephone call a few days before). We talked about her musical origins, the changes she’s seen in the biz, and her attempts to harness some of those changes to enable independent musicians to survive in a world that is ever richer in complexity, frustration, and opportunity.

A bit of background: In her early days Nancy played bass and sang with the Buffalo Girls – “five women who played bluegrass and newgrass” – then moved on to bigger and sometimes vastly different things: Singing with roots legends Peter Rowan and Dave Bromberg (whom she married in 1979), working as a jingles singer in Chicago and performing as the lone white woman in a 30-woman black gospel choir.  She now works out of Wilmington, Delaware, playing on average 2-3 shows a week with the Angels – three female singers backed by a three-piece band.

She’s seen vast changes in the music business, some for the good while others have made the always difficult life of a pro musician  more difficult. She is in the process of launching a project she hopes will become a “new paradigm” for presenting music to an ever-fractured and dwindling audience. She has far more enthusiasm than you might expect from someone whose industry, like many others, is in severe shake-down mode. She has powerful dreaming skills and a serious love for cowboy boots. It’s hard not to immediately like Nancy Josephson.

“I was born to music,” she said during our long phone conversation. “I can’t remember not listening, playing and singing. I’ve always had a really good ear for harmony.” After touring with the Buffalo Girls she hit the road with Bromberg, who “toured like a madman.”  She also worked with Peter Rowan and Laurie Lewis, then moved to Chicago in the early 1980s, where she switched direction.

“Our son was born and I didn’t want to tour as much,” she said. For several years she sang jingles, sometimes for large corporate clients. “This was studio work, and it was fabulous.Chicago was the jingle capital of the world, and I really learned a craft there. You have to be on, you have to be smart, you really have to listen. It’s all hands on deck.” A highlight was singing backup on a Ford commercial that featured Aretha Franklin. “Have you driven a Ford lately?” she purred over the phone, so sweetly I almost forgot the two Fords I’d owned that were rolling dollar ovens. The money was good, she said,  but eventually jingle-singing ran its course.

“I was getting further away from what I loved about music” so she found a way to put herself back on the straight and narrow. “I had a friend in a gospel choir. I asked her if they might consider a new face.” The choir was called The Annettes – after the leader – and was comprised of 30 black women – and soon, Nancy Josephson.

This choir was not to be confused with a Unitarian choral ensemble. “We sang stone down and dirty gospel music. It was aerobics and a spiritual connection all in one – a transformative physical, spiritual and mental relief. It taught me so much about singing. I really got my groove back.” That Chicago-land influence is very much with her today, she added. “Every night I sing with the band, that’s where I want to go. We sing with our eyes closed.”

Nancy sang with the Annettes for five years and in 2002 moved to Wilmington – “we couldn’t afford New York.” She was spending most of her creative powers on creating visual arts, including a crematory urn bearing this message: “Does This Urn Make My Ashes Look Big?” – by any reasonable measure a world-class line. “I wanted to let those who came after me know where they might have picked up perhaps a strange vibe from.” She wasn’t singing much at this time though her musical life was about to be resurrected once again.  

“David had two jams down at a local café – a Monday night acoustic jam and a Wednesday night electric blues jam. He’d come home and say ‘you really need to come down there. There’s a family with two women singers who are amazing.’ He kept this up a couple of weeks in a row and I was getting tired of hearing it.” So she went down to the jam, listened to the vocalists, and said “maybe I can add a third part.” Thus was born the Angel Band, though there have been several personnel changes since, including the departure of Bromberg as guitarist. “David was in the band for the first four or five years, but he knew we would want to tour more than he did. That was a hard time at first, knowing we were not going to be growing this together any more.”

At the Ashland Coffee & Tea gig the band was in full roar, despite a fairly small audience (this was their first time playing in the area).  They were tight (though this was bassist Tony Cappella’s  third gig) and couldn’t have put on a more spirited show if they were playing for their lives in the Roman Coliseum. The three vocalists – Nancy, Aly Paige and Kathleen Weber — could blast the bark off a redwood tree.  During the band’s two 50-minute sets I was put in mind of a few other acts featuring three female singers, including the Wailin’ Jennys and Red Molly. All have terrific harmonies but the Jennys and Red Molly, to my ears, are much more suited to a folkie audience. Their singing is pristine but without the dynamic, or dramatic,  range of the Angel Band. The Angels have no trouble wooing folk audiences but have enough brass to rev a NASCAR crowd

Nancy is the band’s Mother Superior, handling most of the banter, some of which can be biting. At one point she explained that a song she wrote about Annie Oakley, the noted woman crack-shot (who toured with Buffalo Bill and shared the stage with Sitting Bull), was something of a departure from the historical record. The real Annie, she said, had a somewhat sizable “stick up her ass.” She refers to drummer Josh Kanusky, who could get a gig as a Jesus look-alike, as “the son of God.”  After guitarist Marc Moss fell to his knees for a few hot licks, then rose again  – unassisted! – she  cackled about him getting a gig peddling Geritol.

Which brings up another of Nancy’s strong points:  She does not worship at the altar of youth. Quite the contrary. She explains in a song introduction that the passing of years can bring wisdom and foster an attitude based on the knowledge that life is fleeting. She’s all about seizing the day and wringing from it all possible joy, and perhaps a few profits as well.  

That attitude is at the heart of her contemplations of what it will take for working musicians to stay afloat in these days of shrinking audiences, high energy prices and a public accustomed to getting music for free. She was inspired during the recent Philadelphia Folk Festival to crank out a  “manifesto” for a project she calls the “Big iDeer” – an evolving “paradigm” for musical survival. As of now, she says, no one knows exactly what to do, while some are more clueless than others.   

”Record companies are running around with their hair on fire,” she said. “What’s the next business model? But that ship has pretty much sailed. The bottom line is that people still love music. People are still listening to music. But musicians have to strategize very carefully to keep their particular ball rolling.”

She believes one of the keys is to think locally. “Our old record company, Appleseed, with whom we may work again in the future, tells us we need a national publicist. But we had a national publicist and it really didn’t do anything for us. In fact, it almost killed us. When we get a gig we slam the crap out of the local media. I make a lot of the calls myself.” 

Her “new paradigm” is based, she says, on the idea that “we’re going to have to work well with others. We are strong as individual musicians and bands, but we also want to reconnect with a collective spirit because we can be stronger if we work together.” She envisions “mini-festivals” featuring four or five bands offering not only concerts but “workshops, art, education – something like a traveling circus. We will tailor these events — you take something from column A, something from column B – so instead of a ticket to a single event you get a wide-ranging experience specific to that day and night.” Nancy says she is not interested in soliciting acts to join her circus – “we’ve got our eye on a few bands we’d like to work with.” Eventually, she hopes to do two or three two-week tours a year.

Meantime, she’s adapting to other challenges, such as the Internet, which she says offers terrific marketing opportunities but also creates immense “chatter” that can be hard to cut through.  “The Internet is a tool, but it’s also a beast – a hydra-headed beast with a lot of legs that can kill you. The monster requires feeding continuously.”  Twitter drives her crazy, she adds. “I Tweet when I remember, which is hardly ever. I appreciate the value of it but most of the stuff you see is tremendously uninteresting.  Facebook works great for me. I can usually come up with something to say every day.”

But, she adds, there is no substitute for touring. “That’s what it all comes down to, and you have to do lots of it.” Which suits her fine. “I love to tour. I look at everything as the next opportunity to get out in front of people. And every night we go on, we go on like it’s the last night we’re ever going to play in our lives. We do have a sense of reckless abandon.” She also reminded her Ashland audience that music is a cooperative venture between musicians and listeners. “If people don’t come out to places like this,” she said near show’s end, “they will disappear.”

So, chances are good that Nancy Josephson’s traveling circus will be coming to your town, or a town nearby, fairly soon. And maybe Nancy, or someone, will figure out how to get the Angels hooked into the NASCAR circuit. That might be a match made in heaven, or at least Wilmington.

Where to next? Looking like Ashville, North Carolina. My friend Erin Scholze (profiled recently) has offered to show me around the town that might be the roots capital of America. I’ll likely be doing a few songwriter gigs, and maybe some other gigs as well. Erin also tells me there’s a place in town that’s a combination brewery, music venue and hostel. 

Sounds like trouble afoot.

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Voices from Merlefest Past

Del McCoury (photo by Will Sparlin, courtesy of Merlefest)

It’s raining here in  central Virginia and I’m waiting to see if the weather deities are going to smile on the Rockbridge old time festival over in Buena Vista, just off Interstate 81 near Lexington. The plan is to go over Thursday (Sept. 8), set up camp and start playing. I spend most of my playing time sitting by myself and right now I’m working on a song about my father, whose mind is being subdued by dementia. It’s called “In My Father’s House” and I am  liking it a great deal even though the subject matter is almost unspeakably sad.

Rockbridge is a fairly small festival. I went for the first time last year and had a terrific time. There’s a stream running down one side of the campground, which is where I staked my temporary claim, along with a large unoccupied brick house – a mansion of sorts — at the far end. In the late afternoons it looked as if a light had come on  in a second-story room; it was just the sun reflecting in the window panes but the prospect of having a few ghosts in the neighborhood  added an additional glow to the cocktail hour. It was a relatively quiet festival so I got lots more sleep there than at Clifftop or Mt. Airy.  There was also a gang of feral cats hanging around. My pal Kim came the last day of the festival and fixed a dinner of beef liver cooked in sherry, some of which became cat food (not Kim’s fault; the organ in question had lost some of its integrity in the freezer, though the sherry was fine through and through). I figure those cats are looking for us this year.

We’ll see. A change of scene would be nice. I’ve spent the last two weeks sawing and splitting trees felled by Hurricane Irene. We now have enough firewood to roast a mastodon, though of course no mastodon. But there is the promise of plenty of fireside picking when the cold weather comes.

Meantime, I just came across an essay I wrote after the most recent Merlefest that was never widely circulated. I interviewed several notable musicians of the roots or close to roots type, including Peter Rowan, Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, the Kruger Brothers and Rory Block. These were, for the most part, short interviews. We mainly talked about musical influences and who they thought young people should listen to today if they’re interested in learning about roots/Americana/ etc. music.

To no surprise, Bill Monroe’s name came up often, and Jerry Douglas rang the bell for Riley Puckett and Jimi Hendrix. Peter Rowan spoke of his admiration for aboriginal music from Australia and even put in a good word for Mick Jagger’s younger brother, who has been crooning in the shadows for several decades. There were harsher words when the subject turned to attempts to cut funding to NPR and PBS, while Jens Kruger suggested a novel cure for Attention Deficit Disorder.

“Of course they should listen to Bach and Beethoven,” said Peter Rowan, perhaps best known for writing the stoner anthem “Panama Red” and his collaboration with the late Jerry Garcia in Old and In the Way. Rowan, who played with Monroe from 1965 to 1967, says Monroe and blues singer Robert Johnson were crucial in creating a sound often lost in a world choking on aural cabbage.

 “There’s too much music available,” he said as he chomped a banana in the artist’s lounge. I assumed he meant that there’s too much lame music, thanks largely to technology that makes recording and internet distribution relatively cheap. Lost in the thicket of MySpace,  YouTube and Facebook (plus commercial radio) are traditions he believes deserve a better hearing, including “black church music, prison songs” and “aboriginal music” from Australia, which he characterized as “three chord” tunes that are an important element in the indigenous peoples’ civil rights movement. Rowan, who had recently returned from Australia, said that crusade “has yet to have its Martin Luther King moment,” making the music all the more crucial for maintaining momentum.

Rowan, a rye old dog (by some estimations), played a lot at Merlefest and remains a spirited performer. He casts something of a critical eye on would-be peers, dismissing a singer whose blues performance was playing on a television monitor. When asked for a contemporary artist he likes, Rowan suggested  Chris Jagger – “Mick’s brother.”

One Rowan gig included several former members of Monroe’s ever-changing lineup, including Grammy winning bluegrasser Del McCoury, who played with Monroe in 1963. McCoury, known for his piercing voice and gray pompadour, cited Monroe and “the Baptist hymnal” as wellsprings of roots music; Monroe’s picking style, he said, has yet to be topped.

“You can’t beat the innovator,” he said as we lounged around the press tent one afternoon. McCoury wore a sports jacket and slacks and had a very warm bearing about him. He spoke enthusiastically about his recently released CD with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The recordings had gone very well, he said, adding there was something of a natural fit between his band and the legendary jazz act. He was looking forward to his upcoming tour to support the CD, and happy to be at Merlefest, which he said was a far cry from early music festivals where he got his start.

For one thing, he said, contemporary sound systems are gigantic by comparison.   “When we were starting out,” he cackled, “our PA systems were so small you could carry the speakers under one arm and put the microphones in your pocket.” At Merlefest, the speakers had to be trucked in and could definitely rattle you. The day previous I had been in my camp, a good five minute walk from the stage, when Del and his boys launched into a typically high-spirited set. The roar was nearly enough to shake a fresh head on my clandestine beer (drinking is officially verboten on festival grounds).

Audiences and cash flow are also magnitudes larger. He recalled the first multi-day bluegrass festival, held in Fincastle, Virginia in 1965, as a microscopic event compared to Merlefest, whose four-day attendance this year was 80,000. All told the yearly festival has raised $8 million for Wilkes Community College since 1988.

One performer who didn’t cite Monroe as a major influence was  Rory Block, a willowy blues singer who grew up in Manhattan. She’s a solid guitar player who augments her picking by mercilessly stomping the stage with her highly  percussive feet. After a set on the smaller Cabin Stage she sang the praises of the Rev. Gary Davis, Son House, Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith.  “They’re the ones I listened to when I was growing up,” she said, and it was clear she had listened closely.

Merlefest is also where I met Tara Nevins,  who fronts Donna the Buffalo and also has a vibrant solo career.Tara plays fiddle, guitar, accordion and sometimes wears a washboard (or something that looks like a washboard). She’s also a good singer. She cited as influences several old-time musicians who are far below most radar screens, many of which she had heard through the years at the Mt. Airy old time/bluegrass festival. For Tara, the festival is an annual pilgrimage. “I never book gigs during Mt. Airy,” she said, adding that many of the players she has heard there are local, unknown and brilliant.

Nashville mainstay Sam Bush stopped by the press tent briefly. He praised Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, Les Paul and Eric Clapton as influences – interestingly enough, all are guitar players while Bush is best known for his mandolin work, with solid chops on fiddle as well. He joined a chorus of several players who denounced efforts to cut funding to arts and music education, National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. The most interesting take on the dangers associated with de-funding came from Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers, who  insisted that keeping music in the schools will pay significant medical benefits.

“In our schools,” he said of growing up in Europe, “we sang a song together every morning,” which he says focused minds and created a sense of community. When morning singing was cancelled, he continued, grades went down but rose again when the practice resumed. If American schools made group singing a part of their morning routine, he concluded,  it “would eliminate ADD” – an assertion that might not be music to the ears of the pharmaceutical industry. So watch your back, Jens.

Dobro master Jerry Douglas, a giant presence at Merlefest, cited Flatt and Scruggs as perhaps his most important influence, though he put in a strong word for Riley Puckett.  He also said he had recently discovered the joys of singing publicly. Douglas, now touring in support of Alison Krauss and Union Station’s new “Paper Airplane” CD, said he had launched his singing career the previous week during a Carnegie Hall gig. “I’m 55,” he smiled. “I figured it was time.”

I asked if he had he sung a gentle, heartfelt number.  

“No. I did a murder ballad — Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe.’” He did a repeat performance at Merlefest that went over quite well, even without setting his Dobro afire.

So it went at Merlefest, whose large crowds are a reminder that roots music has developed a solid audience base – perhaps too solid for some people. The crowd is large, the main stage can be very loud and some of the acts, such as country crooner Randy Travis, seem a bit too slick (and sometimes snoozeworthy) for prolonged listening.

But then there was Doc Watson playing and singing hymns on a small stage Sunday morning. Nearly 90, his voice sometimes wavered though it was, for the most part, warm and reassuring. He talked about ‘going home’  with a mix of weariness and assurance, apparently believing the life he has lived will pay benefits beyond the grave. After hearing him I headed back to Virginia.

Which is where I am now, waiting for the rain to stop. There’s thunder in the distance but hope in the forecast. There’s also late word of perhaps meeting up with the luscious and always celestial Angel Band between now and then.  Life has been far worse.

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