Archive for the ‘Marty Stuart’ Tag

The Albums That Shaped Me, August 2018   Leave a comment

Over at Fervor Coulee Twitter  I am spending August exploring my music roots with Thirty-Two Albums That Shaped Me/Thirty-One Days

Inspired by a summer of sorting (not that you would notice) and tidying (again, obvious only if you knew what it looked like before) I am going to try to explain my music journey in a series of tweets over the month of August. Thirty-Two Albums That Shaped Me/Thirty-One Days will not include (necessarily) my favourite albums, but 32 that were most impactful, at least in memory and in approximate chronological order. I will memorialize this thread here, updating daily.

Thirty-Two Albums That Shaped Me/Thirty-One Days

Day 1: Various Artists Music Express A K-Tel 8-track heard via my older brothers; the trilogy of “Wildfire,” Austin Roberts’ “Rocky,” and “Run Joey Run” have forever been linked in my mind as a result.

And, Phoebe Snow.

Music Express

Day 2: Crosby Stills Nash & Young Deja Vu; Rod Stewart Every Picture Tells A Story Purchased for 25 ₵ each at Willow Park School’s ‘white elephant’ sale, the start of a collection hobby (addiction) that has only got worse. How did I ever luck out to have two classic, blemish-less albums as my first? As they were my only albums, I must have listened to them fifty times each the summer between grade 7 and 8, and maybe the first place I ever heard a mandolin. and 

CSNYRod Stewart

Day 3: The Who By Numbers For most of my life, when asked, “Who’s your favourite band?” my answer was The Who. While I purchased Who Are You first, this was the album by the band about which I said, “This is my favourite.” Maybe their least popular album commercially, but it meant a lot to me and it holds up, “Squeeze Box” notwithstanding—maybe even better in late, middle age.

By Numbers

Day 4: Bruce Springsteen Darkness on the Edge of Town Perhaps the first time I heard Bruce Springsteen, late night 630 CHED, and someone (Len Thuesen?) played several songs from this just-released album. My world shifted: songs that created movies in my head. “Factory” knocked me out, bringing my dad’s work life alive—not that he worked in a factory, but the effort it must have taken to get up, go to work, support a (suddenly) larger family: no wonder he drank! Bought the cassette from the main street hobby and pet store, and eventually bought on vinyl twice, CD, remastered box set CD, and then the next remastered, 7-album box set CD. No 8-track, tho. His best album, no arguments tolerated.


Day 5: Three Dog Night The Best of Three Dog Night Another K-Tel set, and also from the Leduc pet/hobby store…Henke’s? This was the only 3DN album I had for 20 years; wore it out. Evidence I have never been ‘cool.’ A singles band that made terrific albums- have had all their available music on the iThingy for a couple years, and never grow tired of it.

Three Fog Night

Day 6: Trooper Hot Shots If you lived in Leduc during the mid-to late 70s, Trooper was inescapable. This compilation was a ‘must have’. I couldn’t understand why they never broke thorough in the US.


Day 7: John Stewart Bombs Away Dream Babies High school albums endure. A radio favourite the summer I turned 15, “Gold” was my gateway. 40 years later, I am still listening to Stewart, from the Kingston Trio through California Bloodlines and onto his final album, The Day the River Sang. This album started it all, and like other albums of the day, I can sing with it all the way through, not that you want me to. I absorbed the lyrics, trying to see the meaning within the poetry. Maybe the best thing Lindsay Buckingham was ever associated with.


Day 8: Rachel Sweet Fool Around CREEM Magazine, October 1979 The cover feature was “Is Heavy Metal Dead?” As an impressionable Grade 10 student trying to find his way, I thought the issue would teach me about the bands the older kids were listening to—Nugent, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, etc. Instead I discovered Dave Edmunds, Lene Lovich, Moon Martin, The B-52’s, Nick Lowe, and the Queen of Akron, Rachel Sweet. Her story appealed—she liked Springsteen (girls like Springsteen?), was compared to Brenda Lee, and wasn’t that much older than me—and I went searching for this album without having heard her sing. I fell in love with her country-influenced, modern but 60s-washed rock ‘n’ roll, and stuck with her despite being the only kid in town who knew her name. Can sing-a-long with every song almost 40 years later. This was also my first issue of CREEM, my introduction to acerbic, smart-ass music writing and all things Boy Howdy!

RachelBoy Howdy

Day 9: Steve Forbert Jackrabbit Slim  I wanted to be Steve Forbert for about a week during grade 10; I couldn’t figure out how to keep my hair looking wet. With Pete Townshend, John Stewart, and Springsteen, Forbert taught me the importance of lyrics. And it came with a bonus 45.

Steve Forbert

Day 10: The Inmates First Offence Caught the Greyhound after school and was in Edmonton as daylight disappeared; walked to Kellys downtown expressly to purchase this album: was mocked by the clerk because they were ‘trying to be the Stones.’ Didn’t care. “Domp, domp, domp, daa-daa-daa…” An album full of memorable songs and grooves, it led me to The Standells and further opened my ears to blues and soul-influenced music.


Day 11: Boomtown Rats Fine Art of Surfacing I had to discover punk eventually. By thisBoomtown rats time, The Rats were more rock than punk, but what did I know? The single made me buy the album; the album made me a fan for life. Saw them live twice: brilliant.

Day 12: Ramones Rocket to Russia Music culture came to Leduc via the Gaiety Theatre. Saw Rock and Roll High School. Bought the albums one-by-one at Sound Connection over the next year. None were better than this one, until Subterranean Jungle. Ramones_-_Rocket_to_Russia_cover

Day 13: Pat Travers Band Live! Go For What You Know The classic line-up—Tommy, Mars, and the two Pats—featuring their essential songs to the time…I will never forget the words: “Hello music lovers -From the streets of Toronto, to the streets of London, now here’s to kick your ass, The Pat Travers Band.” And they did. They were never better.  Travers

Day 14: Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat No words necessary, but… First heard/saw on a late night television video show (in a clip I’ve never been able to find since). I ordered the Stiff 45 right away, and was a fan before the album even appeared. Still am. Magic.

GogOzGogos backSingle

Day 15: Emmylou Harris Last Date First record store job, spring 1983. Poster for this album was up in the backroom. Intrigued, I put the ‘play copy’ on the stereo. She sang “Racing In The Street.” From her to Skaggs, Parsons, Crowell,  Rosanne and Carlene…the road goes on forever. Emmylou

By coincidence, today I found the vinyl reissue of Live at the Ryman on sale and snapped it up. Beautiful cover art, already framed and displayed.

Day 16: Jason and the Nashville Scorchers Fervor Always in my head, ‘the Nashville’ is added. Until I heard the Fervor EP, I had never heard the term ‘roots rock.’ This defined it. I had found my path, and my fervor. Jason

Day 17: Various Artists Will the Circle Be Unbroken Found at the Edmonton Public Library circa 1984. I couldn’t believe my ears the first time I heard Doc, Mother Maybelle, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band all together. I taped the album, as well as Stars and Stripes Forever, Dirt, Silver, and Gold, Uncle Charlie…I was starting to explore the roots. the circle

Day 18: The Rainmakers- The Rainmakers Thanks to Much Music I discovered this band. Bought first chance when it arrived at ROW in WEM. It perfectly into my university listening space. Roots and rock found a perfect home with KCMO’s favourite sons. A lifetime later, I made the pilgrimage (twice) to see Bob Walkenhorst at the Record Bar: worth it! The_Rainmakers_The_Rainmakers_Album_Cover

Day 19: Katrina and the Waves Katrina and the Waves From early 1983 (when I started working in my first record store, Climax Records in Leduc) to 1987 (when I finished my university degree) I went down a rabbit hole of roots. I learned so much about country music especially, from the Statler Brothers and “Atlanta Blue” to The Judds initial EP, George Jones, John Anderson, Loretta Lynn and Gus Hardin to Jason & the Scorchers, Dwight, Steve Earle, and Emmylou.

But, I still liked my pop and rock. One of my most successful assignments for the U of A newspaper The Gateway was interviewing Katrina Leskanich; Attic Records had provided the first two albums for background. I fell hard for the group. Katrina invited Deana and I backstage- but we couldn’t find the band in the labyrinth of halls behind Dinwoodie! This is the hit version from a couple years later, but that original album with the understated, bold cover is the one that done it. Katrina Waves



Day 20: Highway 101 Highway 101  I had learned the difference between good country music and bad country music fairly quickly. This album is half a hour of perfection, released during an era when strong country music could be found on the radio- perhaps for the final time. Highway101Highway101

Day 21: Kashtin Kashtin Again thanks to Much Music, I heard Kashtin. My first connection to Indigenous rock ‘n’ roll; not my last. When I listened to the album this month, I was transported back to life in a northern town. Kashtin

Day 22: Neville Brothers Yellow Moon And we take another shift. I had listened to soul and R&B music, but mostly at a distance—Warner Brothers/Atlantic compilations, Motown, William Bell—and usually not contemporaneously to release (outside of post-disco 12″ers during the record store years—I’m looking at you “Juicy Fruit.”). I learned a lot of lessons, too late, from this album. “My Blood,” “Sister Rosa,” “Hollis Brown”…my perspective widened…again. Neville

Day 23: Marty Stuart Love and Luck This album got me through a really hard summer. Listened to it on the cassette deck in the green Mazda pick-up over and over again. Almost every song— from Billy Joe Shaver, Harlan Howard, Parsons and Chris Hillman, and Stuart—expressed my confusion. I got over myself. Eventually. I consider it the most complete album of the ‘Marty Party’ years.  Marty

Day 24: Guy Clark Dublin Blues The first time my father-in-law influenced my music listening. Not the last time. Like John Stewart almost two decades earlier, a deep dive began. I can’t believe I went 31 years without knowing who Guy Clark was: seems unfathomable now. Clark

Day 25: Del McCoury Band The Cold Hard Facts How many folks can say that when attending their first bluegrass festival, they saw three sets from the Del McCoury Band (minus Bub, who was ill)? This was the album they were supporting. If Will The Circle, Jerusalem Ridge, and the David Grisman set Home Is Where The Heart Is started me down the bluegrass path, this album cemented my feet. Del

Day 26: Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard Pioneering Women of Bluegrass I have been lucky with music over the years, never more so when I happened to be attending the Calgary Folk Music Festival and came across a backstage rehearsal of Hazel and Alice working up their set with Ron Block and a few others. I had never heard anything like it, and near ran to the record tent to find their music. This compilation of their Folkways recordings was what I found. I have yet to recover. and Alice

Day 27: Paul Burch Last of My Kind Written to complement a novel, this album was peak mountain Americana for me, connecting family, place, and loss with sparse songs whose characters spoke with candour.. Burch

Day 28: Bobbie Gentry Chickasaw Country Child  Beyond “Ode to Billie Joe,” I may not have heard a Bobbie Gentry song prior to reading a review of this compilation in No Depression. So enthusiastic was the writer, I had to find out what I was missing: I did. Some of the most remarkable songwriting and performances I have experienced. Bobbie

Day 29: James Reams & the Barnstormers Troubled Times When I was in my early years writing and was gearing up for my bluegrass radio debut, my soon-to-be friend Tina Aridas got this album into my hands. She quickly became my closest bluegrass confidante, someone who- from a distance of thousands of kilometres- cut through the bluegrass blather with me, a person I knew I could trust, and a friend I could conceptualize with in an honest and intriguing manner. I miss her. But, back to the CD: James Reams’ approach to bluegrass is unique, and I love it. This album taught me a lot, and it is as enjoyable as any bluegrass album I’ve ever encountered. jreams

Day 30: Larry Jon Wilson New Beginnings Heartworn Highways, for all the great footage of Guy Clark, Townes, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell, my big take away was Larry Jon Wilson. “Ohoopee River Bottomland” led me toward music I had never heard: country soul.

Day 31: Maria Dunn- Piece By Piece A song cycle focused on female immigrant garment factory workers, this album pushed me to better understand the purpose of music, of folk music, and the impact multiculturalism has had on Canada.

There it is: 32 pivotal albums across the month of August. I hope I have exposed you to, or reminded you of, some fine albums for you to explore. From pop and rock, through singer-songwriter, folk, bluegrass, Americana and more, my music journey has helped me better understand and appreciate the world. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee.

And, because sometimes counting can be a challenge…it was about day 16 that I noticed I had two Day 16s…so I had to adjust and bump everyone done one slot, which caused my final two albums to lock themselves in a series of painful rounds of knuckles and comb, until one emerged victorious. Maria ‘won out,’ knocking this album into ‘honourable mentions,’ but what an album it was and remains. As John Wort Hannam prepares for the release of his 7th long player, I present this final album that helped shape my music listening:

Honourable Mention: John Wort Hannam Queen’s Hotel Released almost a decade ago, I thought this album would bring southern Alberta’s great folk singer to the world. I really did. Thankfully, enough of us ‘get him’ that he has continued to release increasingly impressive albums. There are so many outstanding moments on this album, none better than when he sings of small town happenings, “In the back seat stealing kisses from somebody else’s missus…”



Curly Seckler, Don Reno, & Bobby Smith- vintage digital reviews   Leave a comment

CMH Curly

Have I mentioned lately how much I appreciate Curly Seckler? How about Marty?

Over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, I provide capsule reviews of three recent CMH digital bluegrass reissues- Curly Seckler & the Nashville Grass’ Take A Little Time, Don Reno & the Tennessee Cut-Ups’ 30th Anniversary Album, and Bobby Smith & the Boys From Shiloh’s Smokin’ Bluegrass. 

A good time was had.

CMH Smith

Curly Seckler, a bluegrass legend, remembered   1 comment

Curly-Seckler 1I don’t know when I first fully noticed Curly Seckler, but it may have been early in 2005 when he quipped, “Come here, you money-making thing!” to kick-off his penultimate album, Down In Caroline.

I had, of course, heard Curly Seckler prior to that. As a keen listener of bluegrass for more than a dozen years (at the time), it would have been impossible to have not heard his voice and mandolin playing.

Mr. Seckler was a long-time member of the Foggy Mountain Boys and The Nashville Grass, and I had frequently heard his mandolin and guitar playing and tenor vocals, including on the first Lester Flatt record I ‘owned’*, Lester Flatt Live! Bluegrass Festival, Lester(reissued and expanded years later by Bear Family as Live at Vanderbilt) which I acquired mostly because of the participation of a very young Marty Stuart. In hindsight, his recording of “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul” (from a CMH release, and collected on Once Upon A Time) with Stuart is definitive, but to 2005 I hadn’t even given it the attention it deserved. And while his distinctive voice graced three numbers on another of my early bluegrass purchases, I overlooked Mr. Seckler amongst the more prominent (to me) bluegrassers contained on David Grisman’s Home Is Where The Heart Is collection.Home is where

(*I say ‘owned’ because I ‘borrowed’ the album from a future in-law and never seemed to remember to return it!)

So, I had seen his name listed in credits, but hadn’t really paid attention. I think I knew he had played and recorded with Charlie Monroe, and had learned his “A Purple Heart” had been recorded with the McReynolds. When Down in Caroline came my way for review, I was given plenty of reason to concentrate on his voice, his playing, and to research his history and place in bluegrass music.

Within days, Mr. Seckler went from a vaguely familiar name on paper as a sideman to a personal favourite.

Curly Caroline

When Mr. Seckler passed at the end of 2017, two days past his 98th birthday, appropriate testaments were written in his honour in The Tennessean, at Bluegrass Today, and elsewhere. Others much more able have recounted his life and legacy; I simply share my personal reflections and perspective on the IBMA Hall of Fame member

I can’t locate my contemporaneous review of Down In Caroline in my archives, but listening to it again these past weeks I know I am even more impressed by it now than I was a dozen years ago.

Released on Copper Creek, the album was produced when Mr. Seckler was 85 years old. I don’t know what I will be doing when I am 85—should I be fortunate enough to reach that milestone—but I know I won’t be singing as good as he was: few have. It is an outstanding album, full of choice moments—as when he and Dudley Connell come together at around the 30 second mark of “Valley Of Peace”, and when Josh McMurray’s banjo kicks off “He Took Your Place,” soon followed by Seckler and Larry Sparks bringing chills on the chorus—and historical moments, too. Through studio freshening, a 1971 tape of Mr. Seckler singing tenor with Bill Monroe on “Sitting On Top of The World” closes the set as a hidden chestnut, and Connell also leads the group through an impromptu take of “Dig A Hole in the Meadow.”

Rather than serving as a monument to a fading talent, Down In Caroline revealed Mr. Seckler as a vibrant bluegrass force in his ninth decade. The excellent liner notes from co-producer (and biographer) Penny Parsons share that Seckler continued writing up to the sessions, finishing “Letter to the Captain” just prior to recording it in 2004. Enough material was recorded to prompt a second volume, entitled Bluegrass, Don’t You Know, the following year. (More on that in a bit.)

When Seckler takes the lead vocal position, it is obvious that we are hearing a master: one listen to “Worries on My Mind” and “China Grove, My Home” serve as evidence. Couple all of this with a playful take of “Hold the Woodpile Down” lead by Doc Watson (culled from a previous session for a Larry Perkins album), and you have as memorable bluegrass album recorded by an octogenarian as I have encountered: across forty minutes, it never drags, sags, or fades.

Curly That Old Book

Around the same time, a collection on County Records assembled  material from an outstanding 1971 recording with the Shenandoah Cut-Ups titled Curly Seckler Sings Again.  On That Old Book of Mine, these eleven tracks were supplemented by five tunes recorded with Willis Spears in 1989, taken from the album Tribute to Lester Flatt.  The music, ranging from standards like ”Salty Dog Blues” and “Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky” to less familiar fare such as Bill Monroe’s “Remember the Cross” and his own “What’s The Matter Now”, was of another era and yet timeless.

While Mr. Seckler was an appealing and certainly capable lead vocalist, he was best known as a superior tenor singer, something very much in evidence here.  For good reason, Stuart called him the greatest tenor singer of all time. On the 1971 numbers, Billy Edwards (banjo) takes the lead on many, with Seckler’s rich tenor soaring over the top.   Tater Tate (fiddle), Hershel Sizemore (mandolin)) and John Palmer (bass) provide the instrumental accompaniment alongside Seckler’s guitar.

By 1989, Seckler was singing only tenor, with Spears’ powerful voice in the lead position.  Seckler played mandolin on these tunes with Spears handling guitar, and Seckler’s vocal contributions were again flawless.  Rounding out these sessions were Ron Stewart (fiddle), Perkins (banjo), and Phillip Staff (bass).

All instrumentation on this volume was well-recorded and of the quality most often associated with classic, traditional bluegrass music of the era.  No one got too flashy, with the focus on the melding of voices with smooth harmony.  This was especially evident on “Give Me The Roses While I Live” and “No Mother In This World.”

Curly Bluegrass Dont

A final album, Bluegrass, Don’t You Know and also on Copper Creek, followed in 2006 and was just as powerful as the preceding Down In Caroline. This set—again a mix of classic songs made fresh, and fresh material certifiably classic—was highlighted by one of Larry Cordle’s finest vocal turns, taking the lead on the title track, a new Seckler composition. Lyrically adroit and instrumentally noteworthy, the song encapsulates sixty years of bluegrass evolution charged by an electrifying tenor performance from Mr. Seckler. “Honey, don’t you know,” he sings as a vocal refrain as instrumentalists, including some of bluegrass music’s finest—Perkins, Rob Ickes (Dobro), Brent Truitt (mandolin), Laura Weber Cash (fiddle), Chris Sharp (guitar), and Kent Blanton (bass)—drop in allusions to Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Kenny Baker and others who made the music what it always should be. “They say it ain’t country, but it’s bluegrass don’t you know,” indeed!

Mr. Seckler’s signature song “A Purple Heart” appears. Also included is “That Old Book of Mine” which dates from his time with Flatt & Scruggs, as do “Bouquet in Heaven,” “What’s the Matter With You Darlin’,” “Why Did You Wander,” “Brother, I’m Getting Ready to Go,” and “Why Can’t We Be Darlings Anymore,” all faithfully executed with exceptional performances from those who were selected to support Mr. Seckler on these sessions. Noteworthy is “Brother, I’m Getting Ready to Go” performed by the trio of Larry Sparks, Larry Perkins, and Mr. Seckler, with Sparks taking the lead position instrumentally (a stunning example of his signature guitar style) and vocally.

The autobiographical “The Way It Was” features twin fiddles from Sharp and Tater Tate, and like every song on this collection, its melody lingers long after it is heard. Appropriately for an album that showcases Mr. Seckler’s talents as a lead vocalist, the album closes with another new number, the vocally challenging “The Old Man Has Retired.” Perhaps not the smoothest performance amongst those captured in the 2004 sessions, the honesty of a well-lived life is on display as Mr. Seckler sings the song exactly as he wanted.

In the fall of 2005, I had the pleasure and honour of hearing the (by then) 86-year old’s still powerful tenor in Nashville at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass. I don’t recall what he sang, or with whom, but I do remember that I got to shake the man’s hand, and he signed my copies of Down in Caroline and That Old Book of Mine. I cherish my brief encounter with Mr. Seckler, and these mentioned recordings are testament to the man’s talent and legacy.

Since then I’ve sought out recordings featuring Mr. Seckler; of course, here in central Alberta, one doesn’t come across them often. There are the dozens of recordings he made with Flatt & Scruggs, and I am fully entertained when I slip my Best of Flatt & Scruggs TV Show DVDs into my player. Somewhere on the internet, I found a homey recording he made with banjoist Cranford Nix including memorable takes of “Do You Wonder Why” and “Shady Grove.”


A couple summers ago, while vacationing on Vancouver Island, I came across a copy of Flatt Gospel, an album by Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass on the Canaan label, hidden away in a roadside cafe/record shop, and while the asking price was undoubtedly too dear by half, I haven’t regretted the purchase. Hearing Mr. Seckler on “I’m Going That Way,” “Brother, I’m Getting Ready to Go,” “Awaiting the Boatman,” and other gospel songs is truly priceless.

His recordings as the leader of The Nashville Grass are not groundbreaking, but are fine examples of his traditional bluegrass style; I can listen to he and Kenny Ingram, Stuart, Paul Warren and the rest any time. Three years ago, his final recorded sessions were included on Sparks’ ideally titled Lonesome and Then Some album, “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke,” and “I’m Gonna Sing, Sing, Sing.” I feel Mr. Seckler’s voice added just the right dimension to the choruses of these songs, and again connecting bluegrass’ past to its present.

When I hear a bluegrass album featuring Curly Seckler—whether as part of Flatt & Scruggs, with Flatt in the Nashville Grass, or later as the leader of that band, or on one of these solo recordings or in a guest appearance—I lean in close because I know what I am going to experience is perfect bluegrass.

With Mr. Seckler’s death, another link to the ‘first generation’ of bluegrass is severed. Fortunately, there are many recordings featuring Mr. Secker available, if not readily, and decades of vinyl to uncover while perusing dusty bins on Saturday afternoons. I’ll continue to seek out his recordings, and to listen to his voice and his mandolin and guitar playing—I hope—until I’m 98.

{Thank you to Penny Parsons for her timely sharing of the notes to Bluegrass, Don’t You Know and her obituary for Mr. Seckler: much appreciated.}


Marty Stuart- Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down review   1 comment

Marty Stuart Nashville, Volume 1: Tear the Woodpile Down Sugar Hill

For a few years during the early nineties, Marty Stuart was a prominent fixture of New Country. By then a veteran of 20-plus years in the business- first as a bluegrass sideman with Lester Flatt and Curly Seckler, then as part of Johnny Cash’s band, and finally out on his own- Stuart was never blessed with more than a passable voice: calling it ‘thin’ may be giving it more credit than it deserves. Rather, his career has been forged from flair, personality, and a deep-rooted understanding of and respect for the traditions of country music.

Despite his success during the country video heyday, Stuart never had a number one song or album and had only a single top 5 song of his own (1991’s “Tempted”) although he went to number 2 the same year with Travis Tritt and “The Whiskey Ain’t Workin’.” Still, he hit the top 10 a half-dozen times, filled medium-sized venues, was (and is) a festival favourite, and had a few gold albums. Interestingly, Stuart consistently charted better in Canada than he did south of the border.

As his black pompadour faded with gray, so did the Marty Party. While his albums and songs performed increasingly poorly on the charts, Stuart’s critical acclaim didn’t suffer and his last few releases, notably 2010’2 Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions, have been among the most favourably reviewed of his thirty-year recording career.

Stuart celebrates forty years in Nashville with Tear the Woodpile Down, an album that goes a long way to prove his slightly exaggerated assertion that “Today, the most outlaw thing you can possibly do in Nashville, Tennessee is play country music.” While the industry may have lost its way, with no fewer than seventeen albums under his bedazzled belt, Stuart knows well what it takes to create country music- strong, sometimes sentimental, material, inventive musicianship, a bit of trouble in mind and just a dab o’ polish.

Along with his Fabulous Superlatives and a few guests, Stuart has created another outstanding album. Over a chugging rockabilly beat, honky tonk chords are punctuated by weeping steel guitar. Tear the Woodpile Down is less ambitious than some of his other albums, but with ‘classic country’ sounds serving as its unifying theme the disc soars.

On the title track, Stuart captures the mood of much of his country when he sings, “Taxpayer dollar ain’t worth a dime, governments got us in a bind.” While the album isn’t politically motivated, Stuart- who wrote the majority of its songs- touches on events and moods that should resonate with country music’s base.

“Truck Driver Blues” is essentially “Hillbilly Rock” reset in an 18-wheeler, and on “Going, Going, Gone” Stuart gets in touch with his inner Merle (and George, Stonewall and Buck).

“Sundown in Nashville” captures the loneliness and heartbreak of those trying to make it in “a country boy’s Hollywood.” The guitars of Kenny Vaughn and Paul Martin ring throughout most of the album’s ten songs. Both “A Matter of Time” and “The Lonely Kind” are more subtle, countrypolitan performances that find Stuart and his band at their best.

Connections to legends are apparent. Porter and Dolly’s 1968 hit “Holding on to Nothing” gets a stylish rendering. Lorrie Carter Bennett sings with Stuart on “A Song of Sadness” and Hank III drops by to close things out acoustically on his grandfather’s “Picture From Life’s Other Side.”

Too brief at just over 30 minutes, Tear the Woodpile Down brings with it promise that Marty Stuart is going to continue to make the music he wants to create no matter how far it takes him from the charts.

Originally published in the Red Deer Advocate, May 04, 2012

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival Oct 3-4, 2009   1 comment

After years of searching, I’ve found my people. And they were all with me at the Star Stage at the 9th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Saturday afternoon.

I’m still not sure exactly how it happened, but my wife agreed a weekend getaway to San Francisco, a couple hours by plane, was a good idea. I had an earned day off, she took a holiday day, and within a few hours of making the decision we had booked the rooms and flight.

What a treat! We decided to spend the Friday afternoon of our arrival seeing as much of the city as we could, foregoing John Prine and Lyle Lovett. Our hotel was in the heart of the Haight area- Stanyan Park- and was quite nice, although we were shortly to discover it was a bit like sleeping in a tent. The hotel was right across from the park, but deceptively far from the festival site- it ended up being about a brisk, 30 minute walk to the festival.

None the less, we jumped on the Hop On, Hop Off bus tour that stopped across from the hotel, and within 90 minutes of arriving in the city, were streaming across the Golden Gate Bridge on top of an open-air double-decker bus. I was giddy like a kid! Deana claimed I wasn’t as excited when we were in Greece, which was only partly true- when in Greece, I was constantly exhausted, so it was difficult to show excitement.

Truly a beautiful city, the Hop On tour was a nice way to get a quick overview of the city. An extended stop at Macy’s downtown demonstrated that Starbucks coffee truly tastes the same no matter where you are and that some folks will pay way too much for a sweater. We concluded our city tour unsure of how to spend our evening, and found a nice place for supper around the corner from the hotel- Siam Lotus, I believe.

But before we got there, I saw- in the distance- the glory land that is Amoeba Records! O, gosh. What a place. We don’t have stores like this in Alberta anymore, and likely never did. An unreal selection, and because I was pressed for time, I never made it past the first five aisles. The CD clearance section was bigger than most retail stores in my area! 14 discs and $30 later and we were ready to eat.

We turned in pretty early after the flight and stress of a new city, and made plans for a long day at the festival site. One of us had a long day, anyway.

My wife repeatedly challenges me on why I go to festivals. She points out that I hate crowds, which is generally true. I hold noisy chatterers in disdain. In general, I find port-o-potties psychologically scarring. Now, while I feel she is projecting her feelings a little bit here, in general she has a point. I shouldn’t like festivals for a whole lot of reasons, including the ones mentioned as well as less than ideal sound, excessively priced food, and set changeover times that are usually painfully long. And yet I continue to go. I am pleased to say that on the whole Hardly Strictly exceeded all expectations, and only the port-o-potties cast a pall over my two days on the grounds.

My wife and I decided we didn’t want to run around the grounds capturing every act of appeal. So we had made our selections based on a mutual common ground, and we had most of our day slated for the Rooster Stage. She thought Jorma Kaukonen would be to her taste, and I thought she would enjoy the Boz Scaggs revue as well.

The decision made, we set out for our walk through the park to the festival site. And we walked. And walked. With only a general idea of where we were going- even following a map- we likely added a couple kilometres to our journey, but for the most part it was a very nice walk through a lovely green space. (For the record, if you’re going- walk straight west up JFK Drive…if only we knew!)

We set up our mats at the Rooster Stage, and got ready for a day. Walking across the site of the Banjo Stage, I started to really get a sense of the size of this event- it makes the Edmonton Folk Festival seem quaint, and gives Calgary’s Prince’s Island Park a run as a primo festival site as far as trees, shade, and atmosphere go.

Marshall Crenshaw was up first, and did a fine little set. Not terribly engaging, but that had more to do with how far from the stage we were, not to mention the jerk who set up a normal-sized chair four feet in front of our ground level mats- wearing a freakin’ straw hat to boot. That he and his colleagues seldom paused in their chats did little to temper the holes my eyes were drilling into his mealy wee brain…but I had promised myself not to care about such things, and therefore eased back to listen to the power pop sounds of Crenshaw.

While a fan- I have several of his albums and believe his version of “I’m Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)” is a top 100 all-time rock song- I was surprised at how many songs I could mouth-a-long to.

My wife started the Guy Clark jokes before he even hit the stage, and she soon went for a walk rather than listen to his ‘old man’ music. I thought his set was pretty good- he was in strong voice, Verlon Thompson complemented with nice lead work, and Bryn Davies was a nice, unexpected touch on bass and vocals.

Clark did the expected numbers- “L. A. Freeway,” “Home Grown Tomatoes,” and “Let It Roll”- but no “Desperadoes Waiting For a Train” (fine by me, to be honest) or “Texas, 1947” or “Randall Knife” which would have been nice. A few new songs- “Some Days the Song Writes You,” “The Guitar”, and “Hemingway’s Whiskey”- held their own. By the time “Dublin Blues” and “Stuff That Works” were done, I was very pleased that I had forgone some of my other choices for a set from the master.

Mid-set, my plans for the day changed when Deana decided she had already had enough of the people and didn’t want to put up with a day in the wind and dirt; she happily went off to continue her city tour (“You’ll probably enjoy yourself more without me,” she claimed; I denied such, but after almost thirty years, I could tell she wasn’t buying it) and I hastily re-planned my day. O, the bounty of choices I faced!

After a few minutes at a way too crowded Banjo Stage trying to listen to the Tim O’Brien Band, I made the last minute decision to head toward the Star Stage for Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women. The reasons were numerous- I always enjoy Dave Alvin, Laurie Lewis had just appeared in Red Deer so the chance to have her in my city one week and then see her in her’s eight days later was too obviously serendipitous to pass up, and the fact I probably wouldn’t have another chance to see them as a combo also played a part. But mostly, it was sentimental curiosity- with the recent death of Amy Farris, I really wanted to see and hear what the band would do.

Since I arrived a full-set early for the show, I found an almost too good to be real space down front, and even met some folks from Utah and Wisconsin to chat with. All the signs were present that the show may be a bit rough- Dave and Laurie working up a tune with fill-in fiddler Suzy Thompson, a lot of uncomfortable milling about on stage from various musicians. But the smiles were obvious, and soon it was apparent that we were about to witness something quite spectacular.

I’ve seen Dave Alvin several times at various festivals, but never to such an attentive and involved audience. We knew all the words, we were familiar with most of the moves and riffs. After years of searching, I had found my people. And they were all with me at the Star Stage on a glorious and sunny Saturday. Without much formality, the band launched into the Cajun arrangement of “Marie, Marie” that kicks off the recent album. We were on our feet right away, and you could light a small town with the energy the audience and band generated. Powerful doesn’t start to describe it.

Appropriately, Alvin brought things down for moments of somber reflection to acknowledge the absence and passing of Farris. I’ll admit, I blubbered for just a few seconds- it was worse than a Hallmark commercial. Pushing me over the edge were the few bars of “California Bloodlines” Dave sang in honour of Amy as an introduction to “California’s Burning”, bringing to mind not only Farris’s death, but that of the songwriter John Stewart. To be in California, and to be reminded of a true son of that state was just too much for me, and I sat down and teared up. Weird.

But the only burning to be smelled on this day was of the medicinal variety, and sadness was short-lived in this environment. Anyway, the rest of the set was steaming. “Abilene” featured an extended jam and “Boss of the Blues” drew me in to vicariously cruise the bluesy streets of southern California with Dave and Phil. “Potter’s Field” was especially poignant on this day, and the band found a new way to play the blues on “Dry River.” Laurie Lewis really cut loose on the set closer “Que Sera Sera”, tearing up a bit of a hoedown with Alvin on that one.

The surprise of the set? Lisa Pankratz! Wow, she can pound. Really nice. Without doubt, the set of the weekend for me. Everyone sounded at their finest, the band’s energy was very positive, and Christy McWilson only threatened to strangle Dave once.

I stayed at the same stage- listening to the Old 97’s play on the adjoining stage- for the Nick Lowe set to follow. A fine decision, and one that was on my original list of ‘must-sees’. Again, talked to folks about common music interests- including Steve Forbert- and had a fine cookie and coffee to pass the time. Lowe was appearing solo, a bit of a disappointment as I had seen the same in Calgary a few years ago and would have enjoyed a band show. But the calm sophistication of Lowe was a nice palate cleanser after the full-bodied brew that was the Guilty Women.

 By starting the show with “Ragin’ Eyes”, Nick gave me hope that we would hear a few unexpected numbers- perhaps “Time Wounds All Heels” or “Breaking Glass.” Alas, such was not to be as he delivered a solid, well-performed but not especially inspired list of his most familiar numbers. Mood was lighter than last time out, definitely less restrained, and he cracked more than a couple smiles. But the songs were of the expected sort- “What’s Shaking on the Hill,” “Long Limbed Girl”, “Does She Have A Friend”, et al. “Heart” was a nice surprise, but he really needs to retire “All Men Are Liars.” “Cruel to Be Kind” got the sing-a-long treatment, and “The Beast in Me” silenced everyone, as it should.

It was nice to hear “Without Love,” the other song of Nick’s J.R. Cash recorded and one of my personal favourites before he launched into the expected and populist climax of “I Knew the Bride” Staring into the sun, the silhouette that was Nick Lowe concluded with his eternal song- the one that’ll last long after the bride has divorced and she discovers that being cruel is seldom kind; hearing “(What’s So Funny About)” Peace, Love and Understanding” in San Francisco was pretty darn neat for this old man.

Things were starting to cool off a bit, especially in the shade and I wasn’t exactly positive where to go next. I decided to forego the crowd of the Banjo stage- again- and skip Gillian Welch in favour of Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives. With the best corn dog I’ve ever eaten quickly devoured, and in fine company with Al and his gal Susan, I sat back to enjoy classic country music without worrying about analyzing every nuance.

Some old (“Tempted”), some borrowed (a Buck Owens- Bakersfield instrumental that some may have recognized as “Buckaroo” but that I’m just guessing at, “Long Black Veil”), something blue (“California Blues”), and very little new, Marty and his boys did themselves proud. A strong, unpretentious set highlighted by acoustic gospel vocal tunes such as “Working on a Building” and “A Little Talk with Jesus”, the Osborne Brothers’ “Bluegrass Express”, and a Carteresque guitar instrumental.

By this time, even a Canadian was getting cold, and I needed to move on, and finally gave in to the calling of the Banjo Stage for Steve Earle & the Bluegrass Dukes. That this festival’s biggest and most crowded stage hosts the most traditional bluegrass acts lends this fest a giant heap of credibility. The festival features the gamut of roots and Americana sounds (well, almost- more on that in a moment), and I’m sure would draw even more people if the bluegrass aspect was played down a bit. But, true to their roots, mainstream, progressive, traditional, and contemporary bluegrass acts play to an audience that possibly surpasses 20 000 at this one stage alone. I missed Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, Skaggs, Dry Branch, and others who played the stage earlier in the day, but managed to catch much of the Earle set. I’m glad I did.

I had a decent sightline from the side of the stage, away from the hordes, and the sound was still decent. The blowing wind was numbing fingers on stage (and off, for that matter), leading Earle to quip, “I can’t feel them, but it sounds good.” The set wasn’t particularly tight, hardly surprising given the conditions, but I’m glad I can check off the Bluegrass Dukes on my list of Bands to See. This was a particularly charged set of Dukes- O’Brien on mando, Darrell Scott on banjo and such, with Dennis Crouch (bass) and Casey Driessen (fiddle). “Sin City” sounded especially nice, as did “The Hometown Blues”, complete with familiar story about square-headed cowboys named Otto.

They did “White Frieghtliner Blues” and a few songs from the bluegrass album like “Texas Eagle” and “Yours Forever Blue.” Darkness was moving in, and I still had to walk back to the hotel, so I started off on perhaps the second longest walk of my life. Well worth it, though. A terrific day.

A couple random thoughts. Everyone has a dog, and they all come to the festival. Where I come from, dogs don’t go to festivals. It was a nice touch to see all the pets, and several were absolutely gorgeous animals. All appeared to be well-behaved, save the one who bit me! Seriously, all these well behaved, mannerly and docile dogs, and one little yapper jumps out at me and grabs my leg! Fortunately, he/she caught mostly jeans, but I felt its teeth on my leg. Gave my old heart a jump, for sure. The owners were blissfully inattentive and quite taken back that their little Foo-Foo would do such a thing.

For a cosmopolitan city, the festival is very white- both in audience and music. Race doesn’t really enter my thoughts too often, but it was pretty apparent that the weekend lacked colour. True, I didn’t exactly go out on a limb, listening to more than a few aging white guys, but I know my wife would have appreciated more world and blues music; heck, she may have even stayed around for a little while. And yes, Mavis, Allen Toussaint, and others were on the bill- but it still seemed fairly pale.

The festival merch was a bit sparse, with only t-shirts, posters, and blankets on offer. I was hoping to buy a button-down denim or black shirt, but such was not to be found. Both of the major Alberta festivals have extensive merchandise for sale, and I’m surprised HSB doesn’t take advantage of this revenue stream, while fully aware cash flow isn’t a factor here.

The port-o-potties were gross. I’m so glad I’m a man and don’t need to sit to urinate. Come on, with a 1.5 million (or whatever) budget, get the toilets pumped out over night.

Finally, I was shocked at how laid back everything was, for the most part. Little jostling for position, very few folks apparently losing their bearings- the whole festival had a real positive vibe. Even with so many people and being in a foreign land, I felt comfortable leaving my backpack unattended while moving about the stage areas. The whole festival had a very calm mood associated with it. I wonder why?

We needed to catch a late afternoon flight back home, so I knew I would only be able to take in three acts of the Sunday, but I knew which they would be- Darrell Scott, Hazel Dickens, and Doc Watson, all at the Banjo Stage.

Under a warming Northern California sky, the final day of HSB9 opened with the Darrell Scott Band. Having arrived well early, I was able to find a small spot amongst the mammoth and largely abandoned tarps covering the front of the stage area. With Casey, Tim, Bryn and Matt Flinner, Scott delivered a scorching 6-song, 40-minute set.

“Family Tree” was dusted off for a fine performance. On Paul Simon’s “American Tune” Scott again demonstrated his prowess, alternating powerful and rhythmic strumming with carefully chosen, flat-picked notes. A song I don’t remember having previously heard, maybe called “Long Wide Open Road,” featured a great, star-crossed line- “While I was looking for forever, she was looking for the door.”

Flinner did some nice work low on the fret board during “A Memory Like Mine;” the song had a real jam feel with everyone taking the opportunity for extended breaks, Driessen most impressively working the low register. The too-short set concluded with “Long Time Gone.” Time well spent.

Hazel Dickens, truly supported by a cast of trusted sidemen, was who I really wanted to see on this day, and that is no knock against Doc. But Hazel Dickens just makes my bluegrass engine purr. I love her voice, and even knowing the voice isn’t what it once was, it doesn’t hardly matter. She can flat out sing.

Called the Heart and Soul of the festival by its benefactor Warren Hellman, Hazel struggled a bit to find her voice on “Things in Life”, but rounded into form by the time she concluded “Aragon Mill.” “Mannington Mine” was performed, as was the similarly themed “America’s Poor.” (And I tripped over a wee bit on the ‘net that mentions these songs and puts Hellman’s contributions to the festival in a less positive context:

To ‘appease’ Dudley Connell, Hazel allowed him to sing the Stanley Brothers song “Lonesome Without You.” “Jack and May” had Dudley singing with Hazel, and Marshall Wilborn adding additional harmony. “Mama’s Hand,” “Love Me or Leave Me Alone,” and “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” were also performed.

Hazel also delivered the line of the weekend when she deadpanned- “I smell pot- someone’s smoking. Shame on you.” A few beats later adding, “You got to pass that around!”

When one considers the esteem in which Hazel Dickens is most obviously held at HSB, and judging from the size of her attentive audience it is considerable, it is hard to fathom why she has yet been made a member of the IBMA Hall of Fame. (Yes, I’ve flogged this old horse before, but I will continue to do so until there is some evidence of someone listening.) Could it be that this collection of liberal, wheat-germ eating, pot smokin’ hippy wannabes and their brethren of the Bay Area are more attuned to the musical contributions made by Hazel Dickens than are those who make such decisions on behalf of the bluegrass industry? I exaggerate, of course, but Hazel remains on the outside looking in at her industry’s highest honour while year after year the male (and largely dead) are recognized. All deserving, I’m sure- but really, there is no rush to get some of these names on the wall as their time has (literally) passed.

She has been a groundbreaking bluegrass performer for nigh on fifty years, and with each year that passes we (the bluegrass community) miss an opportunity to bestow upon her the honour she deserves. Her performance at HSB9 gave ample evidence that she remains a vital component of today’s bluegrass scene. Hazel didn’t perform a dozen or more songs I would have loved to have heard, but what she did perform was stellar, even when it wasn’t.

Also appearing with Hazel was Barry Mittenhoff (mandolin), a fiddler I could not recognize, and a banjo player who may have been Jason Burleson, but more likely was someone else.

Finally, my last act at HSB9 was to be Doc Watson, appearing with David Holt. Their three-disc set of interviews and performances is an absolute favourite; while I would have preferred to hear Doc with Jack Lawrence, I wasn’t about to pass up to here Doc and Holt’s homespun music.

The chosen set wasn’t nearly adventurous- “Way Downtown,” “Shady Grove,” “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” and “Stagger Lee” being the first four tunes played. But Doc gave a finger-pickin’ clinic, and Holt’s clawhammer-style of playing does complement Doc well. I was glad to hear Doc perform “Deep River Blues” before I had to leave the park to catch the plane. As I turned away from the stage area, Richard Watson was joining the duo in “Roll On Buddy.”

If considering a weekend away for roots music, one could do worse than giving Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 10 a spin next autumn. I was only able to catch a fraction of the acts I would have loved to hear- heck, I had to pass up The Knitters, Billy Bragg, Rosie Flores, Todd Snider, Del McCoury, and Emmylou Harris, not to mention Booker T and the DBTs, Richie Havens, Billy Joe Shaver, Elizabeth Cook, Robert Earl Keen…

The hard part will be to not allow this festival to overshadow all which follow.

Thanks for spending some time at Fervor Coulee. Donald