Lovesick Hillbillies make their debut at Goofy's Eatery & Spirits 2 October 2016
3 October 2016
"If I could put time in a bottle . . ." I'm driving away from Goofy's Eatery & Spirits in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania and thinking of the old Jim Croce song. I was never a big fan, but he did record some treasures along the way in his short career. And there's the anachronistic humor in the song "Operator." In this age of mobile devices go back and listen to it and laugh. It's a foggy passage west on route 116 to Hanover and then on to Route 27 south (watch out for all the speed cameras in Damascus, Maryland - as my good friend Jason Sigler would say, "That's how they get Ya!") It's a long crawl back to the DC suburbs. It's always that way on a Sunday night and earlier in the day we had rain. The fourth day of rain and colder weather. Time to start wearing socks again. I judge the change of the seasons by looking in my sock-drawer. The weather is one of the reasons I'm writing this, because Whitey Runkle decided to add another week to the bluegrass calendar.
God bless publicans like Whitey Runkle. He owns and runs an old-fashioned, Pennsylvania road house called "Goofy's Eatery & Spirits" on the outskirts of a little burg called Spring Grove. It's a short distance from the Mason-Dixon Line and popular with the local biker crowd and anyone into bluegrass as badly as I am. Talk about Time in a Bottle - nobody wants to run places like this anymore. And places like Whitey's are becoming harder and harder to find due to shifting demographics as we become a gluttonous, mall-driven society of non-music listeners. I could rail on and on, buts here's the rub. If you want to discover what's happening in the traditional bluegrass scene in the York/Baltimore/Harrisburg/Lancaster areas then Goofy's Eatery & Spirits is your choice. Some years ago Whitey built an enclosed pavilion so he could feature some of the best traditional bluegrass and classic rock and roll and classic country. His music season would start in mid-April and go till the end of September - a beautiful time to explore the backroads around the Hanover/York region. Plenty of pastoral vistas broken with green hills and valleys. This summer and actually quite recently, Whitey decided to add one more week to the regular season, just to see if he could draw a crowd. Enter the "Lovesick Hillbillies."
I had seen and experienced them individually at other venues. I was not unfamiliar with the individual names. They are, Jeff Kidd (mandolin), Nicolette Worth Wagman (bass and vocals), Matthew Geiger (guitar and lead vocals), Eric Knowles (banjo and lead vocals), and Tim Kidd (fiddle). Let's talk about the band-name because people like me are put off by it. Yeah, bring on the tambourines, ukuleles, kazoos, bare-feet and bib over-alls, play one round of "Rocky Top" and pretend we're bluegrass. After the first set (and I heard the voice of Jimmy Martin telling me to hand out certificates of authenticity,) I had a good sit-down with Jeff Kidd and asked him quite pointedly to explain the band-name to me. His answer was interesting, involved a lot of history, and actually had some connections to the music industry that I can admire. OK, Jeff. Good answer. And as the sets increased into late afternoon and evening, and as the musical offerings packed the dance-floor, I thought to myself, "Who cares what they call themselves?"
I want to put this on the record again and hope it sticks this time. I am not a music critic. (I have no musical background or training. I tried once to learn to read music and it was so connected to my lack of mathematical knowledge that I gave up and quit.). Two: I am not a promoter. I don't promote anything. ('promoter' is usually a derogatory epithet applied to someone who's out to screw musicians or artists - and don't get me wrong; there are plenty of good promoters out there along with the truly bad.). Three: I am not a photographer. (photographers carry business cards, say they're photographers, and then charge you an arm-and-a-leg for lousy wedding photos. Don't get me wrong I know some excellent and totally scrupulous photographers.) I never charged anybody a dime for any photo I've ever taken. What you see is what you get. I am, in the end, nothing more than a bluegrass Gad-fly.
In any of the Arts, any artistic endeavor, after a while, you get a sense that maybe nothing is going to happen, or maybe you're about to experience one of those moments that can't be manufactured. You may be merely amused, deeply disappointed, or possibly profoundly changed by the experience. I call it the "Magic Elixir" factor and it fits in perfectly with Jim Croce's song. Traditional Bluegrass is like a Magic Elixir trapped in a bottle. Few can open it and truly make it work its magic. The few who can open it, end up winning national recognition for their achievement such as Danny Paisley did this week at the IBMA Awards. He deserved it because his magic elixir is the team of musicians he's built to back him up. It's no surprise that each member is equally as good as Danny Paisley, the leader. In any of Danny's performances he opens the bottle and then draws on the rest of the bottle to begin working its magic. I love to hear people castigate this form of music - and it does have its own place in the bedrock of American music. They immediately dismiss something they don't understand. Good bluegrass requires precision and timing, absolute acoustical tuning, and an attitude of complete minimalism toward the medium. It's a concoction with a set of rules, minimal instruments, and requires leadership of the highest order. The Elixir Bottle is a small one, with little content, but in the hands of the right artist contains universal possibilities to move an audience toward great emotional heights - or the opposite - yawning boredom. When you experience a good band, you recognize all these possibilities immediately. The stage is full of the less successful. I have experienced some who haven't changed their program in ten years and they aren't playing the same songs any better now than when I first heard them. Then the sky rockets come along to change the game - do the same old songs in a new way, and add nuance into the mix of minimalism.
I also like to hear people talk about the death of Traditional Bluegrass. I specifically designed my on-line bluegrass calendar to show paying audiences that a lot of bands are out there getting a lot of gigs, and new bands are evolving every few months to shake up the mix. Consider that Mason-Dixon Line, George Garris & Friends, George Garris & The Bluegrass Factory, and Blue Octane all formed up and started working in the past 18 months. It's the old bucket analogy: some go down, some come up, and new ones like Lovesick Hillbillies show up on the scene. Interestingly, they've been around for a year testing the waters, so to speak; honing their craft and ensuring they have a good product to sell to audiences. This is a smart move and I suspect it's the quiet leadership of the group that's doing it. October 2nd was a huge test for the group. They took a chance and so did Whitey Runkle. The gamble paid off in spades with a huge audience, weather that cooperated perfectly, and a set list (read that again - a set-list) that provided an exciting evening of variety to the normal list of Old Favorites and Old Chestnuts. The only negative was a bad sound system that never seemed to get adjusted throughout - and a few glitches on entries and exits that could be easily repaired through rehearsal. I'm glad I didn't miss the opportunity to experience this debut. This is a configuration of possibilities for the future with some very talented players and excellent vocal work. I could name a few, but it doesn't seem fair to single anyone out. Good bluegrass is all about unity of purpose. Let the leader of the group open up the bottle of Magic Elixir - and then stand back and listen to what happens.