Monday, October 3, 2016

The Magic Elixir - The Lovesick Hillbillies

 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.  

Friday, September 2, 2016

A Stranger in a Strange Land


September 2nd, 2016

Dear Friend,

      I've been away for so long for such obvious reasons. I'm in exile; a stranger in a strange land as it says in Exodus. I didn't find out until last week why I had felt so detached and useless to the world around me. I had suspected the cause, but being the intellectual I am, I have a tendency to intellectualize the obvious fact in front of me. It took the first step to do something about it:  face the facts and start counseling to get help before I really got angry and punched the next person who said something stupid and inane about the death of a spouse I loved for 51 years. I received a letter from Capital Caring (the organization that took care of Connie's palliative care in her last 11 hours of life). I see the irony in everything. The letter contained one of those simplistic questionnaires - are you exhibiting any of these symptoms of Grieving? I qualified on the first 9 symptoms - text book, and I had to face the facts. I needed to call somebody for help, but definitely not the kind of help everyone wanted to offer me, had tried to push on me at times when I didn't want to hear it. I'm a hard head. Show me. I'm one of those "unless you've walked in my moccasins, I just don't even have time for your blather"  kind of men. The quieter ones, the ones who have shown me the most humility have come forward or gotten me off to the side and offered that they too, have lost spouses in the last few years. No words of advice, no offer of help,  no grandstanding, just an acknowledgement of  "I'm going through the same process - and sometimes it's a living hell."

      I have discovered an important fact of the grieving process - and God knows I never thought it would come to this. But I offer it up to all the great Catholic couples who knew Connie and I in our years and years of work with World-Wide Marriage Encounter, our commitment to the Eucharist and our Parish and Diocesan Catholic communities. My grief over losing my spouse has only made me stronger in realizing what an incredible gift my spouse was to me. The deeper the love, the deeper the commitment to our faith-choices and the deeper the grief. Although it hurts, I would not have wanted it any other way. No matter how much we strayed once in a while out of marital love for each other, our sacramental love for each other, the Eucharist, was there to bring us back to the center of our Catholic beliefs. My counselor put it bluntly: "You're in for a long ride in a new territory. A new land." I've explained to you before, My Friend, I'm just a dumb convert. I wasn't even born into this; but decided at age 41 that what was missing out of all aspects of my being was a Center - both spiritually and theologically. Connie and I would laugh about it and then carry on with our lives because, at that time and as now, our marriage was surrounded and protected by so many beautiful married couples who believed in what we believed in. The world looks upon it as cute and quaint. I remain so proud of Connie always wanting to take our marriage to the next spiritual level. Our marriage and our love for each other was never cute or quaint. It was a reality. It was for real. Made even more real by the fact that we actually loved each other and knew that it was for eternity - till death do us part.

    Leave me in exile for a while. I need to get my bearings. I'm a lost sailor washed up on a foreign shore. I'm shipwrecked. My salvation compass is the small circle of friends who have quietly accepted that my world is different now. There are no words that will ever bring back the love of my life.  


Monday, March 23, 2015

Springfield Exit - That was Then - Right Now is More Important

Springfield Exit - an official photo
David Lay  -  Marshall Wilborn  -  David McLaughlin  -  Linda Lay  -  Tom Adams

13 March 2015

      I laughingly told a friend once that if I'm going to call myself a writer then I should be able to accept a self-imposed challenge of being able to write the most beautiful thing I could write. How easily this comes to mind - there's that reminder to myself again! - especially after I found this photo on Linda Lay's Facebook Page of the members of Springfield Exit posing in front of  barn and the Blue Ridge. The photographer had spatially positioned everyone just right, exemplifying the incredibly well-documented individual talents of each member of this bluegrass band. Individual talent is an awfully nice thing to possess. But seriously genuine bluegrass music requires a commitment to the group effort as much as a string quartet attempting to perform Vivaldi. If you think I make too much of this, go back in your memory to the last time you heard a truly bad bluegrass band. I've heard some so bad that they had nothing to offer the audience except to parody the form - dress funny, assume a funny name (it usually includes the word "Pickers") - fill half the show-time with corn-pone jokes and how much they bicker with the wife. Yawn. Ed's leaving. Another evening of wasted time and money. For all the kind words written about Hee Haw and "O Brother Where Art Thou" those two entities had a negative downside to the popularity re-bound of bluegrass. It's the natural outcome of focusing on the superficial and not researching the prime sources. Springfield Exit is everything right about any justification for sustaining bluegrass music as an ensconced American music idiom.

     The first time I heard Linda Lay sing some years ago I was stopped dead in my tracks. It wasn't so much that she possesses a beautiful voice (she does!) but it was what she could do with that God-given talent to win an immediate audience. There was no necessity for embellishment; no need to milk a line or a note for audience sympathy. None of this screaming "hot dog" stuff  I've seen on American Idol. Anybody can get on a stage in front of a television camera and scream one note for a couple of minutes and call that entertainment. No. I saw and heard Linda Lay capture an audience on a hot summer day, basically out in an open field with a lousy sound system, and she invited a couple hundred people to sink into silence while she performed under the most grueling of  venue standards. Let the American Idol Screamers indulge in their wishful thinking about what constitutes actual talent. There is no better barometer than to have a few people turn to me on my left and right and ask me, "Who IS that singing?" This to me is the true test of good entertainment. It's the difference between good bluegrass and something that's trying to pass as bluegrass. I have a shared addiction with a few million other citizens both here in the U.S. and abroad. It's called the Bluegrass Sickness. Just when you think you've heard the best you're led down a road to something that sounds even better. You choose your favorites and you keep coming back to them because they've stood the test of time and you enjoy listening to them over and over again. Each of us has a different opinion of what that certain something is, that keeps drawing us back to our personal music addictions. There is no easier way to explain it.

      Last summer I was at a concert (right here in Vienna, Virginia). The band was Seldom Scene. Of course they're great. Of course they're good. And they bring with them that link to the history of bluegrass, especially if you enjoyed them back in the Old Days of the Washington, D.C. bluegrass scene. The D.C. scene has unfortunately faded, and you can analyze the reasons why till the cows come home. What struck me on this particular evening was the immense crowd shouting out requests for favorite Seldom Scene numbers from a list of long-play albums that I had in my own collection. I started counting the titles of the songs people were shouting. I counted 23 songs that were so entrenched in people's memories that they wouldn't let the band leave the stage until they were all performed. It got humorous but it was an homage to the collection of work the original Seldom Scene had established. 

      The biographies of the individual members of Springfield Exit are legendary, too. They've each paid their dues and are nationally recognized for who they are, the bands they've been members of, and the body of work they've established through recording and performing. I'm an unabashed fan. I'm also pretty lucky to know that they've been appearing monthly in the Grand Ballroom of the George Washington Hotel in nearby Winchester, Virginia and most months of the year, when I'm desperate for a bluegrass fix, I can drive 60 miles west and see them. They continue to pack in a monthly audience, especially after the release of their latest CD. You have one more opportunity to see them in the Grand Ballroom in April before the summer season of traveling begins. My advice? Don't hesitate. The monthly concerts are usually on the Third Thursday of the month, but April's concert will be on April 9th.

   Springfield Exit's latest CD.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Photo Collection - The Fisher House Marathon Jam - The 2015 Edition!

10:00 am.  - Two Hours Before Launch Time

High Noon!
The crowds started pouring in at 11:30. By Noon the Hall was packed and the parking lot filled to capacity. After a Presentation of the Colors by the Young Marines, the music started and never quit for the next twelve hours. The team that runs this event also filled in as part of the musical support. Folks came from Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and West Virginia. I have to hand it to the families from Delaware - very vocal, very supportive, and very enthusiastic. It's impossible to name everyone who helped or all the musicians (both Pro and amateur) who participated. They weren't there for the recognition or applause. They were there to support such a wonderful cause - The Fisher House Foundation.


6:00 pm. - Six Hours Later

11:58 pm. - The Last Song Set!

12 Hours Later - Midnight - The "Iron Pickers" Shut it Down.


Neil Hamrick

The core group known as the 'Iron Pickers' went the full distance for a full 12 hours of picking and acting as back-up for everyone else in-house. An amazing bunch of people dedicated to local, home-grown Bluegrass.

The Staff Volunteers who did so much to make the day an unbelievable experience for all who attended. There were also volunteers (in teams) running the parking and shuttle services, food sales, cleaning, accounting, and lots of young people running  merchandise sales, games, raffles, and helping at the welcoming/registration table at the door.


The 6th Annual Marathon Jam (Baltimore, Maryland) had hoped to raise $30,000 for the Fisher House Cause. As of the end of March 2015,  with contributions still coming in,  the total has gone beyond $38,000! Of course the organizers are ecstatic and overwhelmed with gratitude at the results of so many hours of volunteerism. Over 500 people attended the event.