Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- Bela Fleck- Drive

Bela Fleck is a darned good banjo player and seems to be a darned nice guy too (I have not spent much of any time with him to actually know that, but the little bit that I have spent with him I sure did get that impression.) When I think of albums that Bela has put out, the first one that springs to mind is Drive.  Because of that, I think I will recommend that you, dear readers, give it a listen!


In 1988 while Bela Fleck was still in New Grass Revival and just before the Flecktones, he recorded “Drive”.  I think that album quickly became a favorite for many people (me included) but I don’t know if that is because of the material or the band lineup and I guess it really doesn’t matter because both are top notch!

The band is made up of Bela Fleck- banjo, Sam Bush– mandolin, Stuart Duncan- fiddle, Tony Rice- guitar, Mark Schatz- bass, Mark O’Connor– fiddle and Jerry Douglas– dobro and I don’t think anyone will deny that that sounds like an all-star lineup.  The band plays very well together and the music is complex and well written.

My favorites on the album are Sanctuary, Whitewater and Natchez Trace.  I do have a bumper sticker on my banjo case that says SEE ROCK CITY and I admit that although I actually bought it AT Rock City, I bought it beause of the song on this CD.

It really is a good CD.  Give it a listen!

Location Call No. Status
Recordings-CDs – Level 4 M1630.18.F543 D75 1998 AVAILABLE
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Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- Butch Robins Part 2

(Used with permission from Bud Bennett, photographer)

I started the first part of the Butch Robins posting with a story about how and when I met Butch.  Since this is the second part of the posting I will now continue the story.

Three of four years ago I was telling someone the amusing story about the day that Butch Robins called me on the phone.  Usually when I end that story I say something like “So if you have anyone famous you would like to meet you should just look in the phone book because they might be in there.”  Looking down at my desk I noticed a phone book so just for fun, I picked it up and thumbed through the “R” section and guess who was there?

I could not believe what I saw- Butch Robins.  I immediately called the number and an answering machine picked up.  I was not completely sure this was THE Butch Robins but I left a message and expected to not hear from whoever it was I had just called.  Truth is I think I must have forgotten about it entirely.  I felt almost confused when my phone rang and the voice on the other end  started talking- “Hello this is Butch Robins and I am calling to talk to Bud Bennett about the banjo….”

Not only did he call me back on my cell phone, but he also called my home phone number and left a message there so he would be sure and reach me.  I was overjoyed, but more about that later.  Back to our story now……

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Highlights of McConnell Library’s Appalachian Music Collection- John Hartford

(Used with permission from C.L. Garvin, photographer.)

When I was younger, I had a very good friend, Billy.  Billy was a lot older than me and he loved bluegrass music.  He would play and loan his bluegrass records to me, he would take me to concerts and festivals and he taught me how to play a great many songs on guitar and banjo.  I can say with no hesitation that it is he who is responsible for me listening to and learning about bluegrass and Appalachian music.  The thing is though, he liked what he liked and he didn’t like what he didn’t like.  Sometimes when we would be at a festival if a band came on that he didn’t like, Billy would leave the stage area and go find someone in the parking lot to play music with.  I was mostly OK with that because I liked both listening and playing but occasionally I would stay at the stage and watch the music and meet up with him later.  Billy liked traditional music and didn’t have much tolerance for new or untraditional bands or music and so when one of those types of bands would come on-stage, off Billy would go.  One such time we were at a festival at Ed Allen’s Campground in Chicahominy, Virginia.  John Hartford was scheduled to play and I had always wanted to see him.  As the band before John finished and were walking off the stage,   Billy started fidgeting around a bit and I could tell he wanted to go to the parking lot.  After a little while, a stage guy came walking out carrying a big sheet of plywood.  He laid it down in front of the one mic stand that was left on the stage and walked off.  Then out came John Hartford.  He was tall and had longish unruly hair- I liked him instantly.  He stood on the plywood and started tapping his feet while the sound crew adjusted things.  I looked over at Billy and he was getting more uncomfortable by the minute.  Soon we could hear John Hartford instructing the sound guys about the volume he wanted the plywood to be mic’d at.  That was too much for Billy so he got up and left and I settled in for what I hoped would be an exciting and odd set of music from a guy who was going to play the stage apparently.

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Highlights of McConnel Library’s Appalachian Music Collection- John Balch

Earworm.  The definition of that word from dictionary.com is “a tune or part of a song that repeats in one’s mind”.  I did not need to look that word up actually but I did anyway just to see if there was any reference to clawhammer musician John Balch in there because every time I listen to his music I get earworms in a big way.

The thing I like most about John Balch’s music is his very strong sense of melody.   I love instrumental music and listen to it a lot and I admit that after a while with some CDs, the melodies of many of the songs run together for me.  That is definitely not the case with John’s music.  At times, days after I have listened to it, I find myself humming the song Capshaw (from the CD Carry on John) and wondering just what about it makes it so prevalent in my memory.

(If you click on John’s photo there, you will be able to see and hear him play Capshaw so that you too can experience this wonderful earworm!)

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Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- JD Crowe

   (Used with permission from Mark Harvell, photographer.)

If you ask a roomful of bluegrass banjo players who their favorite 5 banjo players are, I’ll bet two names will be on most every list- Earl Scruggs and JD Crowe.  I have talked a bit about Earl Scruggs already so let me focus today on JD Crowe.

 James Dee Crowe was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1937.  It is said that as a young boy he saw a Flatt and Scruggs concert and was immediately hooked on the banjo and would then go to see the group any time he could.  Like many people, he watched Earl play and then went home to try and figure out how he too could play like that.  Apparently he did figure it out because he was soon playing in various bands for dances and radio shows.

 I have mentioned Flatt and Scruggs in this story briefly, so now I will mention another name that should be familiar- Bill Monroe.  In this type of music it seems most all important musical happenings can be traced to Bill Monroe in one way or another and the JD Crowe story can be too.  In 1949, Bill Monroe hired a “spirited” young singer named Jimmy Martin to be the lead singer in the Bluegrass Boys.  Jimmy stayed in the band for a few years and then left to form his own group, The Sunny Mountain Boys.  Jimmy would go on to be a very influential musician and helped shape the music by using his band as a providing a sort of proving ground for other musicians.  While driving through Lexington Kentucky, some time in 1956, Jimmy heard JD Crow playing banjo on the radio and was so impressed he drove right to the radio station and hired JD to be his permanent banjo player!

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Rest in peace Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs passed away yesterday, March 28, 2012 around 10:00am at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville.  It is a sad day indeed.  Earl was, by all reports, a kind and gentle person and I know that I am not aware of an unkind thing he ever said about anybody at any time.  The bluegrass world and the banjo world especially owe him and his musical accomplishments a huge debt and we will all miss him.

Here is a reposting of one of the first posts I made on this blog.  I will do a new one next week and feature some old Flatt and Scruggs recordings to celebrate Earl’s life.

Foggy Mountain Banjo by Flatt and Scruggs

Much has been said and written about this album and much more will be said and written about it too I assume. Recorded in 1961, this 25 minute long album has inspired and is still a staple of most (if not all!) bluegrass banjo players even today, nearly 50 years later. Earl Scruggs and his style of playing banjo had excited the music world and many were and still are studying his playing and learning his songs. Foggy Mountain Banjo was so influential to the listening public that many of the songs on the album can still be heard at bluegrass concerts and jams across the world- sometimes note for note. Songs such as Cripple Creek, Home Sweet Home, Lonesome Road Blues and Sally Goodwin have been played and recorded for years by professional and amateurs alike and chances are if you don’t know these songs by name, you would probably recognize them by sound! Also in the band at the time and also great inspirations to many acoustic musicians were Lester Flatt on guitar, Josh Graves on dobro, Paul Warren on fiddle, “Cousin” Jake Tullock on bass and drummer Buddy Harmon (the appearance of a drummer on a bluegrass album shocked many traditionalists!)

When you first listen to this album, you can’t help but notice that there are a lot of notes being played and you might imagine it would be somewhat difficult to learn a song off a record and wonder how so many musicians have been able to do it so consistently. So here is a bit of a history lesson for you younger listeners- when this album was recorded and released, it was an LP (which stood for Long Playing, a reference to the length of time the record would play!) and was played on a record player. Now in those days there were a few different kinds of records, there were 16 rpm, 45 rpm, 33 rpm (these were the LPs), and 78 rpm records. Because of this, record players had a little switch you could adjust to change the speed of the turntable (the turntable revolved at 33 revolutions per minute or 45 revolutions per minute etc, depending on the setting you chose). Somewhere along the line, someone figured out that if you played a 33 rpm record at 16, you could hear all of the notes, and though they were an octave lower to the ear, they were much easier to understand and figure out how to play! Another benefit to this is that if you slow down the record to roughly half speed, your instrument will still be in tune with the music you are hearing so you can actually play along with the record to help you figure out what is being played. I was lucky enough to have a record player that would play at 16 rpm and I know I personally spent many an hour trying to figure out what Earl was doing there, and I’ve listened to this album so many times that the songs are part of my mental soundtrack and probably always will be.

It is undeniable that the music on this album has excited people all these years, but there is something else too. The sound of this album has excited and inspired bluegrass musicians in ways that those six musicians had never dreamed possible. When banjo players talk about the sound of this album, they talk about and try to emulate the tone of Earl’s banjo- “that pre-war sound” of Earl’s 1930s made Gibson banjo. Banjo players have been known to spend insane amounts of time researching the details on Earl’s banjo, and even more insane amounts of money on everything from pre-war Gibson banjos, banjo picks made in same time frame as Earl’s, banjo parts made from the same metallurgical formulas as parts of Earl’s banjo, parts made from wood of that era. You would think I’m kidding if I were to go into details about the huge industry built around getting “that pre-war sound” of Earl’s banjo, so I will leave that for another time. Suffice it to say Foggy Mountain Banjo has done a great deal for Bluegrass music and banjo playing and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.

So whether or not you are a musician, give this album a listen, it’s as valid now as it was 50 years ago when it was recorded.

Foggy mountain banjo [sound recording] / Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
Flatt, Lester, Performer.
AVAILABLE –  Recordings-CDs – Level 4  –  M1630.18.F53 F64  –
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Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- Butch Robins PART 1

This will be part 1 of a multi-part post on local legend Butch Robins.

In 1981, while a student at VPI, I had a show at WUVT, the college radio station there.  The show was from 6:00-9:00 AM Monday mornings and was called “Bugle Call Bluegrass”.  Back in those days people who had radio shows would lug around huge stacks of records from their house to the radio show and play songs on record players- there were records at the radio station already of course but at least for college radio the DJ (DJ= disc jockey, or one who would play records which were sometimes called discs in the radio studio that would be heard on the radio in listener’s house or car) the station would often not have the particular record that he or she wanted.  That was the case for me anyway and I would be seen early Monday mornings lugging huge stacks of LPs (that’s short for Long Playing and refers to those giant black plastic devices that music used to be sold on) from my house to the radio station and back.  In those days the DJ could pretty much play whatever he wanted and could talk about whatever he wanted and what I liked to talk about was what musicians were coming to Blacksburg to play and I would then play songs off of their records.

I noticed one day that one of my favorite musicians, Butch Robins was coming to Blacksburg and since I already played a lot of his music on my radio show I started talking him up and playing even more of his music.  On the Monday before he was to be in Blacksburg I played a lot of his music and talked about him a lot.  Why not I figured, it was my radio show and it was 6:00-9:00 AM on a Monday, who would know.  After that show I went back home lugging my giant stack of LPs and when I walked in my roommate was standing there with the telephone in his hand waiting for me.  Things went a lot like this at that point:

Keith: Its for you. (gesturing at me with the receiver- which was the part of the telephone that you held pressed to your face so you could both hear and be heard by the other person in the conversation and was connected to something attached to the wall by a long curly cord).

Bud: (somewhat annoyed because I had just lugged a giant stack of heavy LPs across campus and negotiated stairs and doors while doing it) Who is it?

Keith:  its Butch Robins

Bud: Sure it is.

Keith:  (gestures with the receiver more urgently)

Bud:  (slightly annoyed after putting down the LPs)  Hello

Phone:  Hello Bud, this is Butch Robins and I wanted to thank you for talking about my show on the radio this morning.

Bud:…… How did you know?

Butch:  I just heard it on the radio?


Butch:  Yes.  I live in Radford you know.

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Bascom Lamar Lunsford- the man who wrote Good Old Mountain Dew

Last semester I found myself talking to an Appalachian Studies class about Appalachian Music and used the song Good Old Mountain Dew as an example of a traditional song.  After the class, as I walked back to my office I was humming the song and thinking about the lyrics and wondering , since many of the lyrics dealt with what seemed to be an actual story, if it was indeed a traditional song.  Luckily, living in the age of computers and instant information as we are, I was able to very quickly answer my question and prove myself wrong both at the same time.  Expecting no real information, I opened Google and typed “Who wrote “Good Old Mountain Dew”?

Right there on the computer screen in the first “find” on the page I learned that Mountain Dew was written by Bascom Lamar Lunsford.  Being a collector of sorts of interesting names, I could not resist learning more about the person with such a fascinating name.  As it turns out there was a lot to learn.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford, born in Mars Hill, North Carolinain 1882, was what amounts to the first Appalachian ethnomusicologist- but not at first.  Before pursuing that lofty goal he was a lawyer, which is where he got the source material for Mountain Dew.  As it happened, out one of the cases he was trying was a moonshiner who was reputed to make some of the finest moonshine around.  After some fancy footwork in the courthouse Bascom got the man “off” after getting him to bring the judge a sample of his wares!

On my first day in court I wish to report

Now witness my story so true.

When the state closed its case a young man raised his face

And began all these facts to review.

Yes they call it that old mountain dew,

Said those who refuse it are few.

While I know I’ve done wrong, the temptation is strong

When they call for that old mountain dew.

While you may be familiar with the song Mountain Dew, that verse probably isn’t familiar to you.  The reason is, that Bascom might not have been the most savvy businessman but he was a practical one.  The song as written by Bascom was published in 1928 and was well received and respected.  As the story goes, in 1937 Bascom attended the National Folk Festival and was visiting Scott Wiseman (of the group Lulu Belle and Scotty) and the subject of the song came up.  Wiseman liked the music but thought the song would have more appeal publicly if the words were somewhat changed.  Bascom, being a practical sort and knowing he did not have the train fare in his pocket to make it back home offered to sell Scott Wiseman the rights to the song for the price of a train ticket ($25). It would eventually become an extremely valuable song when it was used to both name and advertise the soft drink of the same name.  Wiseman, being a decent fellow always credited Bascom as a co-author and made sure that half of the royalty checks for it made their way to him though so the story isn’t as tragic as it might have been!

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Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- Farewell My Home

Some years ago electronic and rock musician Brian Eno recorded a series of albums he referred to as ambient music.  In the liner notes he mentioned that he tried to make music as enjoyable as it was ignorable.  I liked the concept and listened to the albums a lot and found that he was right-  if I had the music playing as background “noise” it was ignorable and pleasant; if I had the music playing as something to listen to, it was interesting and held my attention.  I had never thought of this in terms of banjo music and wouldn’t have thought the concept was transferable but that is the first thing I thought of when I heard Tony Ellis’ 1993 recording Farewell My Home.

“Banjo playing” and “relaxing music” aren’t words you ordinarily find in the same sentence- that is of course unless they’re separated by the words “does not make for” or some such.  Not everyone would agree with that though after listening to this Tony Ellis’ album Farewell My Home.  This is a very nice album, it contains a lot of reflective, oftentimes simple and easy to listen to songs all played in Tony’s laid back thoughtful style and accompanied with only a guitar (played by his son Bill).  To call these songs “ambient” is not technically correct but for me they definitely fit in with Eno’s idea about being as ignorable as they are interesting and so in my mind at least, I think of them as such.  That’s not to say there aren’t also several up-tempo pieces that are maybe more in line with what you think of when you hear banjo music, it’s just that for me, the reflective ambient-like pieces really set this album apart from other banjo albums.

That there are only two musicians on this album points to the strength of the melodies and skill of the musicians and perhaps adds to the almost ambient nature of these pieces.   As mentioned above, the guitar accompaniment is done by William Lee Ellis, who is a respected  musician in his own rite.  The guitar work is very tasteful and both supports and interacts with the banjo but never leads or overshadows it.

Tony Ellis is not a household name I guess, so I will give you a brief summary of who he is and why we want to listen to him.  At 20 years of age, Tony became one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and played many times at the Grand Old Opry and also participated in several recordings in the two and a half years he was with Monroe (1/1960-6/1962).  He has played Carnegie Hall with Mac Wiseman (1962), Wolftrap (1994), 1996 Summer Olympics ceremony in Atlanta Georgia, toured Japan and Latin America as a musical ambassador (and also toured such countries as Australia, New Zealand, England, Scotland and Wales), won two awards from the Ohio Arts Council, been on the faculty of the Tennessee Banjo Institute (1990, 1992) and the Maryland Banjo Academy  (1998), did music for the soundtrack of Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary and also in a BBC documentary Echoes of America, recorded four critically acclaimed albums,  as well as having played in many festivals and colleges throughout the country and has been nominated for the National Heritage Fellowship Award.

As I said, not everything on here is “ambient”, those are just what I like best.  I tried to describe each of these pieces but the descriptions ended up sounding too similar so I’ll just say the following songs are my favorites on this album and I listen to them frequently.  They are calm and relaxing and beautiful and their simple melodies invoke an idea of peace and a comfortable feeling.  I would say that they “feel like home” but that would be too corny so I won’t say it (but they do).  At this time of year- the upcoming Thanksgiving break that is- I think they are a good listen.  My favorites: Farewell My Home, Cherry Blossom Waltz, Wind Chimes and Nursery Rhymes and Straw Dolls.

This being the technological age that it is, McConnell Library is able to offer you a link to listen to this album from wherever you happen to be reading this (provided you are a member of the Radford University family!).

Farewell My Home by Tony Ellis

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"Give Me the Banjo" on PBS Nov 4

There has been a documentary in the works for quite a while now and it is apparently finished and will air Nov 4 at 9:00-pm on PBS.

The Banjo Project has a very nice website talking about this documentary and gives some preview video and audio clips, including some from our very own beloved Floyd County as well as clips from New York City jazz clubs and old time music jams.  There is a lot on this website so go check it out and then make sure you are watching Nov 4 because this is going to be an interesting show.

The film is narrated by Steve Martin (who is a very good banjo player) and includes history, interviews and music.  Don’t miss it!


P.S.  Just in case you did miss it, you can watch it online now:

Give Me the Banjo

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