Thursday, September 28, 2006

Bluegrass in the blogosphere

This blog covers the world of bluegrass through the lens of music festivals, but for the last year the bluegrass community has enjoyed direct daily news and perspectives in The Bluegrass Blog, which has begun to make an impact in the genre's media market.

In a field where two monthly magazines have previously been the main media, The Bluegrass Blog's promise to "deliver news at the speed of bluegrass" is a significant development. (Festival Preview subscribes to the blog's RSS feed, so our readers are already familiar with The Bluegrass Blog's festival coverage.)

Yesterday I sat down with one of The Bluegrass Blog's two proprietors, Brance Gillihan, for a lively discussion about the growing interest in Internet communications in the bluegrass community and about trends in the music itself. I won't get around to writing up the interview until next week, but in the meantime be sure to check the blog's coverage of this week's events, especially tonight's awards show, which Brance and his partner John Lawless will be covering live.

Gibson crafts Skaggs-model F5

In an impromptu ceremony on the IBMA exhibit hall floor, Gibson USA announced what is likely to become an object of desire for mandolin pickers everywhere--a Ricky Skaggs-autograph distressed-finish Lloyd Loar F5 mandolin. The company will make 30 copies of the instrument, designed with a "speed neck" to Skagg's specifications and carefully worn to appear as old as a Lohr original.

Each instrument will be inspected by Skaggs and come complete with his signature, certificate of authenticity, embroidered case cover, tone guard and a CD of Skaggs instrumentals. Final pricing has not been set, but a Gibson spokesman said it would list at around $23,000.

Skaggs himself opined that the resale value of the instruments could easily reach twice that after the production run was complete. "You can always buy a new F5 from Gibson, but this looks and plays like it is 60 years old," he said.

Gibson also offers signature models endorsed by Sam Bush, Doyle Lawson and several others, but the Skaggs model will be the only distressed-finish mandolin in its artist series. I want one.

Rhonda's Bluegrass Express

A few weeks ago, I posted an item about Rhonda Vincent's appearance at the Strawberry Music Festival, noting that the one missing component of her commercial pitch for Martha White flour was that her tour bus was not on site for the show.

Here's the bus parked in front of the Nashville Convention Center, where Vincent made appearances during the IBMA World of Bluegrass Week. Most observers expect her to win another female vocalist of the year and compete strongly in the entertainer of the year category in tonight's IBMA awards show.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Chris Thile's triumphant return

The second day of IMBA showcases was anchored by mandolin wunderkind Chris Thile, who introduced the next act of his bluegrass life with his How to Grow a Band. About a month after announcing that his long-time grouping Nickel Creek would go on an indefinite hiatus at the end of its current tour, Thile's new vehicle has already released its first record on Sugar HIll, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground. And he used the IBMA conference to indtorcudce his new direction to the bluegrass faithful.

How to Grow a Band is an all-star conglomeration of hot young pickers. Besides Thile, widely recognized as the most inventive young mandolinist on the acoustic music scene, the band includes Noam Pikelny (formerly of Leftover Salmon and The John Cowan Band) on banjo; Chris Eldridge (also a member of The Infamous Stringdusters) on guitar; Gabe Witcher (Jerry Douglas Band, The Witcher Brothers) on fiddle, and Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon, Drew Emmitt Band) on bass.

Besides repeated laments about the fortunes of Thile's beloved Chicago Cubs, the band produce a wide range of styles--acapella, jazz grass, classical gas, fiddle tunes, contemporary bluegrass, and more--during its official showcase and a longer after-hours set. It included original compositions and well-selected covers, including Gillian Welch's "Wayside (Back in Time)" and the album's title song by Tom Brusseau. Overall, Thile appeared loose and liberated to be leading his own band.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lovell Sisters wow audience at IBMA

The IBMA showcase schedule kicked off with some fine but understated performances from Sweet Sunny South, Above the Town, and the Alan Munde Gazette. The night's major infusion of energy came from The Lovell Sisters, a band we first saw here last year in an unofficial showcase and then again at this summer's Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival.

The Lovells are three teenaged sisters--Rebecca (15), Jessica (20), and Megan (17) left to right in the photo)--and two supporting pickers from Georgia who have only grown more assured as they've become more accustomed to performing. ASCAP executive Dan Keen, who introduced the band as "three Georgia peaches," said to expect some big news about the Lovells in the next few weeks.

I'd not be surprised to see the Lovell Sisters Band take the bluegrass market by storm and possibly cross over to mainstream country. They are certainly photogenic, but there's no doubt they also have the chops.

Jerry Douglas on "the soul of bluegrass"

Dobro great Jerry Douglas, who has appeared on more than 1500 recordings during a 33-year career, declared in his IBMA keynote address that bluegrass music is "in its best condition ever, with world-class talent showcased on the most prestigious stages."

While paying homage to the genre's historical greats, he said that the music continues to evolve with the current crop of artists. On the commercial side, he noted that recent years have brought great progress in terms of airplay and recognition in the wider world of country and popular music.

"We now have a market share of record sales in this country, not a big share, but we are now recognized," he said, pointing to Billboard's bluegrass charts as one milestone. Another example is that Grammy awards are given for legitimate bluegrass artists instead of country musicians who may have dabbled with traditional styles.

However, he noted that the genre still faces challenges in an economic climate where a few music conglomerates drive the music industry. "Bluegrass does not conform to the cookie cutter. We don't fit the demographic," he said.
Douglas spoke movingly of his own roots and continuing love for the music. He recalled how his father worked 33 years in the mill in southern Ohio but lived to play music at nights and on weekends.

"I woke up every morning listening to Flatt & Scruggs," he recalled.

The elder Douglas took his son to some of the early bluegrass festivals, where he was exposed not only to traditional artists but performers such as The Newgrass Revival who were extending the genre in exciting new directions.
"Dad didn't want me going to [the late-night shows]. He thought something might happen to you amongst all them hippies. But I went anyway," he said.

Douglas went on to perform with bands such as The Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe, Strength in Numbers, Alison Krause and Union Station, and many others, and today he fronts his own Jerry Douglas Band, which mixes bluegrass traditions with jazzy improvisation.

"The Jerry Douglas Band doesn't always play bluegrass, but it is always with me. It is there on every record I have ever played on," he said.

He considers himself to be an ambassador for the music. "I have a dream of a great syringe inoculating people like [country music power brokers] Tony Brown and Tim McGraw, or of pouring bluegrass tonic in the water," he said.

Later this week, he is embarking on the second half of his tour with Paul Simon, taking an opportunity to expose many people to a music they might not otherwise hear. He said that audiences at rock venues such as the Bonnaroo festival are receptive and often enthusiastic.

Summing up, Douglas tried to define "the soul of bluegrass." Listing some of the music's unique qualities--"the vocal quality, the subject matter, the Scots-Irish ancestry"--he concluded that none of those is the essence of the music. "You don't have to have a drawl in your voice or dirt under you fingernails, but you have to know your bluegrass history.

"Bluegrass is physical and improvisational. It could qualify as a contact sport. You have to be competitive to be heard, but you also have to be compassionate to hear your fellow combatants," he said.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Coming attractions

Regular readers may have noted that each of Festival Preview's genre pages is driven by news coming from regular sources, which we receive via the magic of RSS, a web standard for content syndication. On the roots page, one of our mainstay feeds is The Bluegrass Blog, which provides timely coverage of pretty much all things bluegrass.

Today, I had the pleasure of meeting TBB's two principles, John Lawless and Brance Gillihan. They are trying something new for the World of Bluegrass week, with guest bloggers contributing items to a new section of their site. Later this week, I hope to sit down with Brance for a deeper discussion of the state of the genre. I've also lined up a chat with Dan Hays, executive director of IBMA.

The music gets underway tonight after a dinner keynote by master dobroist Jerry Douglas. Tonight's official showcases are Sweet Sunny South, Above The Town, The Lovell Sisters, Alan Munde Gazette, Carolina Sunshine and Bradley Walker. Following that the after-hours showcases start with lots of big names--Jim Lauderdale, Laurie Lewis, Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch, Casey Driessen, The Grasclas, and many more.

I expect to be enjoying the music too much to get any further posting done today. I'll be back in the morning for a first night overview.

For festival promoters, a word from our sponsor

The IBMA conference kicked off today with its first set of seminars for bluegrass industry insiders. Generally this blog covers topics aimed at festival goers, but some of the inside baseball as relates to festival production and business matters will also be interesting to Festival Preview readers. Today's event-track session covered "funding events before the first ticket is sold."

For the most part, that means sponsorships, although grants, concessions, program advertising and other revenue streams were also discussed. Richard Tucker, who runs an event in Texas called the Argyle Bluegrass Festival, moderated. Unfortunately, all of the panelists represented relatively small festivals. The largest of the five festivals covered was the Huck Finn Jubilee, which has been running for 18 years each June in Victorville CA. One that I had not heard of but that sounds like a great event is the Americana Folk Festival, which is coming up next month in Dickson TN outside of Nashville.

Most of the audience comprised promoters of smaller bluegrass festivals, all hungry for ways to boost their income. What they heard was that they need to become much more sophisticated in how to go about attracting sponsors. While that could include going after national sponsors of the type that MerleFest has been so successful with, most of the attention here was about getting local businesses--banks, title companies, and the like--to pony up to support programs that build community.

Several of the panelists claimed that they are able to cover up to 70 percent of their costs from sponsorship income. Tucker, who is also the mayor of Argyle, said that in his first year he gained sponsorship support from 20 of the 21 businesses that he targeted. Those are fairly surprising numbers, and a number of people in the audience said that they have not had similar success.

Most of the session covered tactics promoters might use to boost their success. Most of these had to do with techniques for giving sponsors maximum exposure, including on-site visibility with video screens and kiosks, web links and program mentions, special pre-festival events, exclusive sponsor opportunities, access to artists, and many more. The advice seemed not to vary whether the festival was for-profit or not-for-profit. Besides paid sponsorships, the panelists also encouraged promoters to seek in-kind trades for items like hotel room nights and RV rentals.

Nobody was very concerned about any possible downside to over-commericialization of events and the possibility of turning off ticket-buyers, other than one caution from Huck Finn promter Dan Tucker (no relation to moderator Richard Tucker) that "you have to be really careful about tobacco and alcohol."

Festival Preview in Nashville

We'll be blogging this week from the International Bluegrass Music Association conference in Nashville. Depending on WIFI coverage at the Nashville Convention Center, there may or may not be live posts from conference sessions, showcase performances, the awards ceremony and other events during the weeklong World of Bluegrass.

This was the event where FP got its launch last year with this article about how festivals book talent. We expect to see event producers from some of the top roots-music festivals here again this year, as well as hear some breakout performers who will be featured on the festival circuit next season. Stand by.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Wakarusa - Testing Ground for Surveillance Tech

This article in Government Security News highlights the evolution of police surveillance, particularly as it was used this summer at the Wakarusa Festival in Lawrence, Kansas.

A new high-tech wireless system utilizing a half dozen covert cameras scanned the crowds at the fest looking for evidence of crime. Instead of the old school undercover cop cruising the site, hidden cameras operated from a state of the art control center caught drug dealers in the act. The Festival was attended by members of the local police and sherrif's departments, state police, the FBI and the DEA.

Was it worth it? 50,000 fans were monitored four days and nights by advanced electronics and representatives of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies yielded 140 drug arrests. No word on the outcomes of trials, however

". . . there is no doubt about the fate of funds confiscated from
drug dealers at Wakarusa. Under prevailing law and custom, 75
percent of all such monies are turned over to the police agencies
responsible for the drug arrests that generated them."

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Marty Stuart shines

For me, the surprise of the festival was Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. Of course I know that Stuart is a fine musician, but my experience is that mainstream Nashville acts frequently fall flat at Strawberry. Stuart, of course, is part of the Nashville royalty, a favorite of radio, video and award-show programmers. (I draw a distinction between a Stuart and someone like Rodney Crowell or Rosanne Cash, who edge closer to the Americana end of the country music universe. Performers from that end of the spectrum--Steve Earle, say, or Guy Clark--are always well at home in a Strawberry lineup.)

And Stuart came on with all the trappings of traditional Nashville--big hair, leather pants, guitarist in a Porter Wagoner nudie suit. But unlike some other Nashville artists who have played Strawberry, Stuart went out of his way to customize his set for the Strawberry audience. Yes, he played many of his radio hits, such a "The Whiskey Ain't Working Anymore." But he leavened that with plenty of hard-core bluegrass and gospel--"In the Pines" and "Working on a Building," for example.

I shouldn't have been surprised. This is the guy who started out at age 14 with Lester Flatt and who was a disciple (and son-in-law) of the great Johnny Cash. His audience rapport was terrific and his band's musicianship was outstanding. Then he topped all that with his great original song, "Badlands," about the Lakota Indian tribe and some really unexpected covers--the Byrds' "Mr. Spaceman" and the Bee Gee's "Staying Alive."

All in all, a near perfect Saturday night closer.

Rhonda Vincent breaks ban on commerce

One of the wonderful things about Strawberry, which distinguishes it from every other music festival I know of, is that it takes no money for commercial sponsorships. There are no corporate logos of any kind on display, even for subject-appropriate products such as musical instuments. By comparison, one of the standout festivals in the category, Merlefest, slaps a sponsorship on every stage and part of its program. Most others are somewhere in between, raising a significant portion of their revenue from sponsorship sales.

In general, if the products that are promoted are relevant to the musical style and spirit of the event, few patrons take exception to festival promoters raising some additional dollars by selling sponsorships. But that has never been "the Strawberry way." In fact, I was once told by head honcho Charlie Cran that he once had to threaten Robert Earl Keen with being pulled from the lineup when he showed up at the festival with signage and materials for his personal sponsor, Copenhagen chewing tobacco. In that case, according to Cran, Keen had to hide his tour bus out of view and agree not to promote Copenhagen before he went on.

So I had been wondering what Cran would do about Rhonda Vincent, who is well known for her constant promotion of her sponsor, the Martha White flour company. Vincent's bus, the Martha White Express, is emblazoned with commercial messages and her standard set includes two songs celebrating the wholesome goodness of Martha White.

The answer is that Vincent went on without any restraint on commercial messages. I was keeping track of Martha White mentions during her set. In addition to the two songs, she made were no fewer than five mentions of the product and even tossed promotional t-shirts into the crowd. (However, the bus was not on display since she and her band had flown in especially for this appearance.)

I must say that I was not personally bothered by the blatant display of commerce, and I don't think many in the audience were. Martha White was been sponsoring bluegrass music for decades. Before Vincent, Flatt & Scruggs were the standard bearers for the company. Also a biscuit company is fairly innocuous compared with chewing tobacco. And Vincent is so earnest and well-meaning that it is hard to hold it against her. Nevertheless, it did break tradition for Strawberry, and I wonder if Cran knew in advance what was coming. If not, I would not be surprised if we don't see Vincent at Strawberry again.

If so, that would be a shame. She gave a wonderful performance.

Rodney and Rosanne

It was great to see former spouses Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash playing consecutive sets and guesting for each other. In Rodney's set, which was flopped with Rosanne's since her equipment arrived late, he invited her out midway through the set for a duet on her very first hit song, "No Memories Hangin' Round." Then she had Rodney join her for her finale "Seven Year Ache" and encore "Big River," the Johnny Cash hit.

They appeared to be very friendly with each other, though not overly affectionate. She introduced him as "my friend" and called him a gentleman for going on first. Looking on from stage right was Rosanne's current husband, John Leventhal, also her producer and lead guitartist and formerly Rodney's co-producer on his "Life Is Messy" album, which chronicled his breakup with Rosanne.

All a bit incestuous, but fun. I'm uncertain how Strawberry booker Charlie Cran pulled off the little reunion. I'd love to know whether the two performers agreed to do it in advance, or whether Charlie set it up on his own. As far as I have been able to determine from googling, this may have been the first time the two have performed together since they split in 1992. They both appeared at a tribute to Johnny Cash at the Ryman Auditorium in November 2003, but they did not sing together. (If I am wrong, I would love to have someone send me a citation to any previous joint appearance.)

My camera was acting up Friday night and I missed getting good shots of them together. The one here is courtesy of Bill Frater of Freight Train Boogie. In the photo, they are looking over at Leventhal while taking a bow to the audience.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Delayed Strawberry Fall coverage

I had a busy schedule last week after returning from Strawberry on Labor Day, so apologies are in order for my delayed coverage. I have a lot of material that I hope to post a bit at a time all this week.

For now, some overall impressions (and a couple of photos). Going in, I thought this might not be the strongest lineup, despite the obvious intent to program many festival favorites for the 25th anniversary event. I was wrong. With headliners Sam Bush, Marty Stuart, and Rodney Crowell/Rosanne Cash supported by acts such as Rhonda Vincent and the combo Cowan, Flynn & Scott , there was plenty of star power. Laurie Lewis, Peter Ostroushko, Tom Ball & Kenny Sutton, Incendio, and Big Sandy added very solid sets. Wolfstone and Grupo Fantasmo put out high-energy sets for the dance crowd. Nostalgic throwbacks Way Out West and Fiddlestix entertained, while newcomers Blame Sally, Harry Manx, Blue Shoes and That 1 Guy all impressed.

I'll have more to say about many of these in the posts ahead. For now, I'll just congratulate Charlie Cran and company for 25 wonderful years and 45 wonderful festivals. By my calculation, if all the festivals ran back to back, it would total about 180 days of music, or roughly six months. People like to talk about how the Strawberry community resembles a city that sets up shop for two weekends a year with its own culture and customs. Imagine if it were a full-time metropolis. We'd just be beginning our second six months, but it would already be a well established utopia.

Hardly Strictly schedule posted

The full stage schedule for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is now posted. All I can say is get ready to be on the move among the five stages in Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadows (in San Francisco), or else be prepared to miss a lot of great music.

The other notable thing is that this sixth edition of the free annual event, taking place October 6-8, is a three-day event, with one stage operating Friday afternoon in addition to the full-tilt boogie Saturday and Sunday. The Friday show features Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock followed by Elvis Costello.

Other performers are too numerous to mention, but some that I will be most interested in are: Steve Earle, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, Gillian Welch, Todd Snider, Ricky Skaggs, Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez, Del McCoury, Richard Thompson, Robert Earl Keen, The Waybacks with Bob Weir, Tim O'Brien, Emmylou Harris and many, many more.

In years past, I have come away frustrated that there was so much great music running concurrently that I could never be fully satisfied to sit still and listen. This year, it could be even worse for me if I try to do daily blogging. I plan to study the lineup and make some hard choices in advance. See you there. Talentwise, this is the event of the year.