A.J. Gaither is not technically an Appalachian, he lives in Arkansas actually. He does though, live by the Appalachian belief in using what you have, repurposing things to make up for what you don’t have and making the best of your situation any way you can. He is a musician, an instrument builder, a songwriter, and an entertainer.
A.J. makes his own instruments too, so when I mentioned that in the title, I meant it. His guitars are what are known as cigar box guitars and often times they are made of…..well… cigar boxes. Other things too, but the box that cigars come in features very heavily in his instruments.
A year or so ago, A.J. was playing here on the Radford University campus and he kindly stopped in to visit us in the Archives and Special Collections area of the library to talk to us about his music, his life, his instruments and his philosophy of various things. He even sang us a few songs while he was here.
To learn more about this fascinating man and his music, check out this honest, somewhat irreverent interview:
William Bradford Keith (12/20/1939-10/23/2015) joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1963. Bill Monroe called him Brad Keith because he didn’t want another person named Bill in the band. What he did want though is for people to hear the new kind of banjo playing that Bill Keith had come up with- something that was later dubbed Keith style, or Melodic Style. What that means in simple terms is that a person playing in melodic style plays all the notes of a song whereas a person playing Scruggs style generally does not. Bill Keith opened up entirely new ideas and possibilities for banjo players everywhere when he came up with this style. He was a master at playing fiddle tunes and could play them literally like no other banjo player.
Butch Robins talks about Bill Keith and melodic playing in this video starting at about the 7:15-12:50 mark. He even shows us literally the differences between Scruggs and Melodic style as he plays Cripple Creek in Scruggs and Melodic style. Since Butch does a much better job explaining that, I will let him do it for me- https://vimeo.com/111785340
Bill Keith was an accomplished banjoist before he came up with the melodic style, in fact I would be willing to bet most people who play Scruggs style banjo do so in many ways because of the efforts or Bill Keith transcribing many Scruggs solos. These transcriptions were used in the Earl Scruggs instructional book that was practically required reading for beginning players.
After leaving the Blue Grass Boys, Bill Keith joined Jim Kweskin Jug Band and played mostly plectrum banjo (a very chord based method of playing as opposed to melody note type playing) and after that he joined forces with David Grisman
and Irving Jordan’s Jordu were recorded and played by Keith and his bandmates. The banjo was once again exciting people in new ways and inspiring a generation of players in different ways than Earl Scruggs had.
Bill is not only known for his banjo playing, but also for a handy little bit of banjo equipment magic known as the Keith Tuners. These are specially made banjo tuners (the things you tune a string with, not the things you make sure your banjo is in tune) that allow you to change the note your string is tuned to in a quick and accurate way. Keith Tuners are used by players all around the world.
Bill Keith did not ever just sit back and rest on his laurels, he was a true musician and good guy and could be found giving music theory workshops and attending jam festivals up until nearly the end of his life. Fred Robbins, thankfully captured many of these workshops and generously shares them with the world– He was a musical genius, a giver of knowledge and an inspiration until the end. On October 1, 2015 he was inducted into the IBMA Hall of fame.
On October 23, 2015 he lost his battle with cancer. He will be truly missed.
Thank you Bill Keith. Rest in peace brother.
So, in celebration of his life and musical gifts to us, let’s have a listen to one of his recordings. I like this one because it has it all, jazz (Caravan and Jordu), Celtic (Rickett’s Hornpipe), Keith tuners (Auld Lang Syne) and bluegrass (Farewell Blues and others)-
Today I am highlighting a very non-traditional selection. The music today is mostly jazz with enough Celtic thrown in and a nod to Doc Watson so I feel it appropriate enough- besides, I love jazz music played on a banjo so you probably do too. If you have been reading this blog from the beginning, you know I look for common ground in my selections. Where someone like Abigail Washburn bridge Appalachian and Asian music, Alison Brown bridges Appalachian and Jazz with frequent detours into the Celtic arena. Today’s selection is a DVD-
Alison Brown Quartet Live at Blair (with Joe Craven).
I know I have featured Alison Brown here before, her album Replay specifically. Ms. Brown’s band is her on banjo and guitar, her husband Garry West on electric bass, John Burr on piano, Larry Atamanuik on drums and special guest Joe Craven on mandolin, fiddle and percussion (as the mood strikes him). There is even an appearance by her two young children in the show. (She seems to often bring her two children out on stage to perform a number for the audience. I guess I honestly have mixed feelings about that but it is nice to know that the next generation of musicians is coming along and getting used to the stage and the idea of performing.)
I first became aware of Alison Brown several years ago at the Merle Watson Memorial Festival (held each year in Wilkesboro, NC) when I saw Alison Kraus playing. I had heard of Krauss beforehand and so knew a little about her music, but what I had not heard about was her banjo player at the time- Alison Brown. From the very start, Brown’s playing intrigued and interested me because of how clean and quick it was. My first thoughts were that she must be a jazz player because she seemed very knowledgeable about music theory based on how well she apparently knew her way around the fingerboard in a way that many traditional banjo players might not. Her phrasing was sometimes lyrical and her delivery was confident and succinct. She had something musical to say and when she was done saying it, she backed off the microphone. There was no noodling around…searching with her. I don’t remember Alison Kraus much that night, my attention was focused on Alison Brown the whole time.
I tend to get a little distracted musically at times and sadly I forgot about Alison Brown for a while, but one day a few years later I ran across one of her solo albums and that first time I saw her play all came back to me. I bought the album and have never let her playing slip too far from my mind ever since.
As much as I love listening to CDs, when I can find a DVD of a band I like I always get it. Seeing close-ups and artful edits between cameras is always pleasing to me. Being able to see musicians expressions and silent communication amongst themselves has always been a fascination. That is why I was attracted to Live at the Blair. Musically and visually, this is a wonderful DVD. We see a wide range of music being played from jazz to traditional to celtic. My only disappointment is that most of the stage banter has been edited out. I have seen her band play live a few times and find her stage presence and banter very entertaining. This was especially disappointing because one of the songs in this concert is My Favorite Marsha and the story she tells about writing that is as funny as it is wonderful. The way I remember the story, one day Alison got a not from a fan saying that the person enjoyed listening to Brown’s music while at work. That might be pretty standard but the fan’s name was Marsha Ivins….astronaut! As if that weren’t cool enough, Alison got another note some time later from NASA explaining that when they send astronauts into space, they apparently contact them each morning with a wake-up song. Marsha Ivins was one of the astronauts in space at the time and they wanted to use one of Brown’s songs as the wake up song. She apparently got right to work and wrote My Favorite Marsha for them and she plays if in this concert.
Sadly, the story of Marsha Ivins is not on this DVD, but along about 32 minutes or so into it she does stop the music and tell the story of The Wonderful Sea Voyage of St. Brendan. It is in this talk that Joe Craven shows his amusing side and provides sound effects while Brown talks about rowing and albatross cooking and donut eating. The first time I saw Joe Craven he was playing percussion for David Grisman and his stage antics were always amusing just as his musicianship was always impressive. It was very nice to hear this and it gives a little indication of her stage presence and shows a bit of her dry humor.
My favorite parts of the show are the songs Crazy Ivan and I’m Naked and I’m Going to Glasgow. The latter song is actually a set of The Grey Goose, Ray Harvey’s, The Malinky, and Going to Glasgow. Brown has Celtic roots and her record label is deeply invested in Celtic music. She shows us here that she is a definite player of it too! Crazy Ivan is very impressive musically. There is a lot going on in it and everyone shines. It is not Appalachian music per se but it is impressive.
My recommendation is that you watch and enjoy this video. People like Alison Brown are widening the public awareness and appreciation for banjo. We need more of that.
This month’s highlight selection is very different from all of the others. This week I am featuring volume 1 of a 9 DVD series in three parts. This series is composed of interviews of banjo builders. AND HISTORIANS!! (I have a little obsession with banjo history. I can admit that in public. There is probably a therapy for it but I am not interested in therapy, I just want to learn more about banjo history.) There are actually four parts to this series but the library only owns the first three at this point. (I will buy the fourth this year- I just haven’t gotten to it yet!)
I realize that some people might not think a conversation with a banjo builder would be very interesting. I can understand that thought but I am here to tell you, this stuff is fascinating. Anybody who has ever built or thought of building anything at all will enjoy some of the shop tours in this series. We see a lot of really interesting things and hear some of the thought processes that went into inventing the process these guys use (as well as some of them inventing tools and jigs to use).
I can remember the first time I ever heard The Kruger Brothers’ music. I had heard the name Kruger Brothers and was aware that Jens was an amazing player but that was as far as I knew. “Wind in the Wheat” was the song I heard first. I remember listening to that song over and over again. I knew right away that this music was something special. I also knew I needed to listen to everything they had recorded. And so I did.
Each time I read an interview of Jens, I was struck by his eloquence and how thought provoking some of his ideas were. I knew I wanted to interview him as well and so I put the wheels in motion for that to happen and on August 18, 2014 I found myself with my friends John Hildreth, Tom Snediker and Chris Miller all armed with cameras and microphones sitting in a lovely studio in North Wilkesboro across the room from Jens Kruger. The result is this two-part interview. There is a lot of fascinating information here and Jens was most generous with insight and detail and willing to talk about anything. The highlight of the conversation for me were his tellings of his time with Bill Monroe (this story is one of the most fascinating things I have yet heard about Monroe), and his philosophy about what music is and what it does.
In Part 1 Jens talks about his parents, growing up in Switzerland, his musical beginnings on the tenor banjo, he and Uwe setting out as street musicians. He tells about the people he and Uwe met and were inspired by on the streets and how they lived. He shares both happy and sad moments from his family life. Throughout the interview, he holds his banjo and when the mood strikes him he gives musical examples to animate his stories.
Part 2 of the interview starts when Jens and his wife come to America and end up meeting and being befriended by Bill Monroe. The couple stay on Monroe’s farm and Jens gets to play at the Grand Ole Opry, do farm work with Monroe and is pretty much treated like a member of Bill’s family. When they returned to Switzerland after that, Jens set out to learn all he could about the banjo and it’s role in music and eventually decided to move to America for good. He discussed his friendship with Doc Watson and deciding to settle in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina which is where this interview took place.
I have been struggling to find a way to summarize Jens and our conversation. To say that he is a fascinating, sensitive, generous, talented and insightful person would be a vast understatement. To say that his philosophy of what music “is” has occupied a large percentage of my thoughts for the past several months would also be an understatement. I feel as if I don’t even have the right words to say these things in an accurate way, so I will borrow a line from the video and say Jens has “it” and leave it at that. With that said, I present Parts 1 and 2 of our conversation for your viewing pleasure.
And thank you again to Radford University, McConnell Library Archives and Special Collections, John Hildreth, Tom Snediker, Center for Innovative Teaching and Technology (CITL), Chris Miller, Steve Helm, Julie Macie, and especially Jens Kruger.
Musicians play music. Once a note is played it can not be reclaimed. If a listener or would-be listener misses that note, too bad. Nothing to be done about it.
Photographers take pictures and make films. When a photograph is taken, that is a frozen moment in time. A moment that can not be reclaimed, but once captured on film, it can be seen again and again.
I have always been fascinated by both of these art forms and the hugely different ways they seem to be about fleeting moments in time. I love to see photographs, doesn’t really matter what they are, I love them all. Photographs and film of musicians being musicians though I feel are very important, not only because they capture that un-reclaimable note or moment, but because they preserve that note or moment for those who were not there. They give us all a chance to participate and appreciate and enjoy that moment in time, even though most of us were not there. I think they help to hold us together as a community also because we can all form common bonds through these shared moments.
In the bluegrass world, we are very lucky to have several people helping to preserve these fleeting moments. The one I would like to mention today is Fred Robbins.
Fred has photographed, filmed and recorded a lot of very important events in the bluegrass world. Judging from his photographs, I think he had a lot of personal dealings with a lot of the people whose music we all love. For example, he attended the Fincastle Bluegrass Festival in 1966, Union Grove 1966-68, saw Flatt and Scruggs at the Miami Pop Festival in 1968, knew Doug Dillard, and experienced music and festivals that we have all heard of for years from the 1960s to the present day. He was there. And he had his cameras.
Fred’s website is truly an amazing resource. It is a treasure trove of video, audio and photography that preserves so much bluegrass history that it should not be missed by anyone. There are amazing slide shows of bands, festivals, and people. There is a huge collection of live recordings and video stretching from 1969 to the present. There is a fantastic collection of video from the Grey Fox festival-even one of Bill Keith watching Ryan Cavanaugh practice and includes a priceless Bill Keith workshop that should be watched by every banjo player.
There is more too, articles that Fred wrote for Bluegrass Unlimited, and a lot of non-bluegrass things too. It is a rich site and when you look at it, I am sure you will agree.
I applaud Fred for preserving so much of our musical history and sharing it with us. These moments that happened in time are not lost thanks to Fred Robbins.
On my frequent trips to Meadows of Dan a few years ago, I would often see Sammy Shelor around. It is a very small town after all, and Sammy and his family have lived there for a very long time. I always admired his humble nature and how he never hesitated to stop and chat with folks who wanted to say hello to him. He seemed to be a shy person though and I got the feeling that he was not the kind of person to waste a lot of words.
With that in mind, I approached him in January 2014 and asked if I could interview him as part of a collection of living history type films I wanted to make that would help to educate and entertain people about Appalachia and the rich music and culture we have here. Much to my surprise, after I explained my idea and why I wanted to do it, instead of stalling me or saying he would get back to me, he immediately pulled out his calendar and told me when he was available and we set it all up right then and there.
So in February 2014, John Hildreth, Tom Snediker and I interviewed and filmed Sammy Shelor in a lovely house in Floyd Virginia. The interview was relaxed and candid and Sammy talked about his various banjos, his family’s musical history, his thoughts on the future of the banjo, winning the Steve Martin Award, the Lonesome River Band, and many other things. His unique perspective on the music, the music industry and growing up in the mountains of Virginia is a real joy to listen to.
Part 1– In the first half of the interview, among other things, Sammy talks about his family’s rich musical history, how he started playing banjo, his Huber banjo, Sammy Shelor fingerpicks and the Lonesome River Band and he treats us to a little bit of live playing.
Part 2– In the second half of the interview, he speaks more about Lonesome River Band, his thoughts about the future of the banjo, the Steve Martin Award and many other things including another taste of live banjo playing.
Butch Robins presents- Blue Grass Music, its Origin and Development as a Unique and Creative Art Form.
In this 5 part video series, Butch Robins explains the fascinating history of Blue Grass music. He uses both recorded and live music to set and illustrate the timeline, relates real life anecdotes of the musicians involved and tells personal stories of his life and relationship with Bill Monroe. Having had a working and friendly relationship with Monroe and many of the other musicians in this story, his insight and knowledge come together to form a unique perspective of this part of history.
In Part 1 of the series, Butch tells about the state and style of music and music venues, the early life of Bill Monroe, the Monroe Brothers and the musical life of Bill Monroe up to the magical year of 1945.
In Part 2, Butch covers 1945-1959 and tells stories he heard from Monroe about the Blue Grass supergroup that changed the musical landscape forever and the years that followed.
Part 3 covers the years 1959- 1977 and some of the ups and downs Monroe went through in this period. Butch talks about Bill Keith and how his style of playing changed banjo playing again forever (and gives us a live demonstration of that!). We hear about Butch’s experiences touring and traveling with Monroe in the 1960s and more about who Butch was playing with in these years.
Part 4 covers 1977- 21st Century and in it, among other things, Butch explains timing in and does it in a way that is quite unique and memorable! He also speaks frankly about leaving Bill Monroe’s band, his personal mental health issues, fronting his own band, his apology to Bill Monroe, the rekindling of their relationship and his experiences bringing Monroe into the recording studio to work on the Butch Robins “Grounded, Centered, Focused” recording.
Extras!– Butch talks about how the music spread to other countries and discusses playing in musical jam sessions.
I have known Butch Robins for several years now and never tire of hearing him talk about music, life, or whatever he wants to talk about. At times I would visit him and as soon as he got on a roll with something I would just sit back and listen and soak it all in. Butch doesn’t pull any punches when he talks- he tells a story “warts and all” but it’s honest and real. He’s not out to glorify himself or run anyone else down, he tells it like he sees it and that is something I have always loved about him. When he tells a story he has an amazing ability to remember names and dates and is able to keep them all organized in his telling, all the while keeping the narrative entertaining, personable and honest. I thought it would be interesting to film him talking about things and approached him in October 2012 to see how he felt about it. Much to my delight, after a few false starts, he told me he would like to give a talk on the history of Blue Grass music and agreed to let me film it.
Over the next several weeks, I talked in great detail to him about what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it, at the same time I talked to my colleagues at Radford University and investigated what exactly I could do in terms of camera equipment, people and editing. I did a lot of personal research on his topics so that I could be an effective part of the process too. When all of that fell into place and all of the details had been seen to at the University, I went back to Butch and finalized everything and made a plan to film his talk early in the new year.
What I did not ever exactly decide on though is what we would call this. Is it a film? That sounded too much like it was acting and it was not that at all. Is it an interview? I didn’t actually ask any questions so that didn’t sound right. Is it a lecture? That seemed about right but not quite. I decided it was a film of a series of talks about the History of Blue Grass music. It’s not a catchy name but I think it’s an accurate description. But let me get back to what I came here to tell you about-
Early in 2013 two of my colleagues from Radford University John Hildreth (from the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning), Mike May (from McConnell Library) and I (McConnell Library Archives and Special Collections)traveled to a lovely old log cabin nearby and set up our cameras and lights, struck a set and over the next several Wednesdays, sat down to the most fascinating and entertaining series of talks I can remember. Butch sat on a bench between his beloved banjos and gave us an amazingly detailed history of Bill Monroe, his music, and true stories of life on the road with Monroe. After a good bit of prodding, I convinced him to also give us the Butch Robins story- his life, music and to play banjo for us on the film. He gave us a lot those days and we captured it all on film.
Over the last year or so, Mike and I , and later John and I have been editing this film and gathering photos and music to help illustrate the story. It has been a very big project and although we are not finished with it, we are nearing completion. In celebration of that, John and I would like to show this short preview of the series of talks. We will make an announcement when it is all complete but in the meantime, please enjoy this glimpse.
Butch Robins History of Blue Grass Trailer http://vimeo.com/75499136About this video:
“A teaser for the upcoming multi-part series of banjo master Butch Robin’s narrated history of Blue Grass music.”
Does anyone not recognize the name Bela Fleck? A show of hands? No one? OK good. Bela Fleck has touched so many types of music and musicians in his 55 years of life that he is probably known throughout them all. He has played bluegrass, newgrass (New Grass Revival), classical, jazz (Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Chic Corea, Marcus Roberts Trio), rock (Dave Matthews Band and Phish), I have seen him play with an Paddy Keenan (ilean piper), a tabla player, throat singer, I have even heard him playing with a rapper. More than anyone else, Bela has shown the world that the banjo is a real instrument. Banjo players already knew this of course but the general public maybe did not know it so much. There have been others before him blazing a path for the banjo in non-Appalachian musical styles. Obviously, Earl Scruggs lit the world on fire with his playing (thanks to Bill Monroe’s constant touring schedule in the 1940s); Don Reno showed that single string playing was possible on banjo much like it is on guitar and that opened banjo to a variety of jazzy outlets; Bill Keith figured out and showed us all that melodic playing allowed literal playing of fiddle tunes and that led to him and many others exploring jazz and ragtime on the banjo; Courtney Johnson and Bobby Thompson excited the public with their chromatic playing that helped push the banjo into southern rock; Butch Robins seamlessly incorporated all of these things into his own style and made a successful career from playing with one foot in the traditional camp and one in the new/daring/envelope pushing camp; Tony Trischka did this as well but also took on the responsibility of teaching the world exactly how to play all of these banjo styles and songs through the writing of a myriad of instructional books and videos (and an innovative online school for banjo players). Bela Anton Leos Fleck was born in New York in 1958 to a music loving family. He was named after Bela Bartok, Anton Webern, and Leos Janacek, all European composers. He attended New York City’s High School of Music and Art and studied french horn while there. At some point he also heard the music of Flatt and Scruggs on the television show Beverly Hillbillies. (Flatt and Scruggs played the shows theme song, The Ballad of Jed Clampett.) While it may seem counter to his background, it was the sound of the banjo on that show that seemed to excite him mu]ch more than the french horn he was learning at the time. Lucky for us all, he was born into a family that loved and supported music and so he eventually found himself in possession of a banjo and sitting in front of Tony Trischka. Personally, I hear a lot of Trishcka influences in Bela’s playing and musical journeys, especially on his days in the Flecktones. Bela studied banjo and became a very good player and soon moved to Boston to join the bluegrass group Tasty Licks, which was made up of Mark Schatz, Pat Enright and Jack Tottle. The band recorded two albums, Tasty Licks and Anchored to the Shore. Around this time he recorded his first solo album as well- Crossing the Tracks. In 1981 he moved on from Tasty Licks and along with Schatz, Glen Lawson and Jimmy Gaudreau, helped form Spectrum. A series of albums were recorded with various bands and as solo projects quickly came about and around this time he was asked to join the super group New Grass Revival. I think his years with New Grass Revival really made him a household name. In my experience at least, when he joined that group people started talking about him. A lot. The first time I saw him play live was in a tiny little establishment in Roanoke, Virginia named Howard’s Soup Kitchen. The place was a combination bar/restaurant and was so small that while sitting in my chair near the stage, I could hear and understand the words that new members Bela Fleck and Pat Flynn were exchanging while playing the songs. The two were brand new to the band and it was a pleasure to watch them listening to the songs and responding to them. I don’t exactly know that they were learning the songs on the fly but they were definitely exploring ideas about what to play and it was exciting! After several years in NGR, Bela left the group and started a new group called Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. This is another reason that his name is known in most households. That band was new and exciting and really pushed the envelope for a lot of people. The band combined banjo with piano, drums, harmonica and jazzy ideas and melodies. They recorded a lot of albums and played to millions of fans. Volumes could be written about the Flecktones so I will leave that to you to explore. I saw them many times. As the Flecktones were coming to a close, Bela seems to have become interested in classical music once again and recorded and composed several pieces- including a banjo concerto. His interest in the roots of the banjo took him on a trip to Africa (which was filmed and released in a film called Throw Down Your Heart). Bela has given us much to listen to and learn from. Today I am recommending: Now the banjo player in me has to ask this question- Why is the album called Drive? Obviously, the cover art shows Bela in the drivers seat of a car. Is that a subliminal reference to Bela being in the drivers seat in terms of being band leader? Is the title in reference to a song on the album, perhaps Open Road? (Although it might be a stretch, there is also See Rock City, which you would need to drive to as Rock City is on top of a very high mountain which not a lot of people live on. And by the way, you should definitely see Rock City, it is quite something to behold!) Or is Drive in reference to that nearly inexplicable thing that musicians talk about. Drive, as in a feeling of forward movement in one’s playing. I don’t actually know the answer but I do think about it every time I see the album, which is often because I listen to it a lot. The musicians on Drive are an amazing collection of top-notch acoustic musicians. Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Mark O’Connor on fiddle, Tony Rice on guitar and Mark Schatz on bass all accompany Bela Fleck and the result is exactly as you would expect. First rate musicianship, and an inspirational listening experience all around. Give the album a listen, it has a lot to offer. My personal favorites are Whtewater, See Rock City and The Legend.