Sunday, May 28, 2006

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

I let two whole weeks pass without picking up my banjo to practise because I just haven't been in the mood lately. Not a good idea! Last night, I decided I was back in the mood for playing. I felt like I was starting all over again!

After a few days of practice, I'm sure things will begin to shape up again, but it's hard to believe how much you can lose in a very short time. We've all heard the expression "use it or lose it," but, in just two weeks?

Do as I say, not as I did. If you play a musical instrument, try to play it every day, even if you can only find 15 minutes. If you're not in the mood, try to get in the mood.

Perhaps, if you're a seasoned pro, you can get away with skipping practice a few days. But, if you're a struggling beginner like me, my suggestion is that you'd better find time to practise every day!


Sunday, May 21, 2006

Electrified Instruments in Bluegrass - The Debate Continues

As many of you already know, there's been much debate about the use of electrified instruments in bluegrass music, particularly electric bass. I personally don't like it; allow me to elaborate.

For me, it's all about the sound. I recently had a discussion with a musician that has been playing music a whole lot longer than I have, and I think this person knows a lot about the business, but we had a disagreement about this topic. Said musician stated, "I don't care what anybody says, there's no difference between plugging an electric bass into an amplifier and putting a mic in front of a stand-up bass, and then plugging into an amp. Same goes for guitar, for that matter."

Well, I disagree - and not just for the sake of disagreeing, but for technical reasons. I guess you could call me a purist of sorts, and some people may even say I'm a musical snob, but I disagree with that as well. There, now you know, I'm just hard to get along with!

There's nothing like an all acoustic group with no microphones, amplifiers or sound equipment of any kind - like at a private jam in your house with a small group of people, or outside a trailer at a bluegrass festival. In these situations, you are hearing the acoustic qualities of the instruments with nothing to color the sound whatsoever. For the rest of this rant, let's make an assumption that when talking about microphones, I am talking about using high quality microphones so there will be no argument about that. In fact, let's just say the mics are as perfect as you can get.

So, here's the deal in my opinion. The biggest difference between using a microphone as opposed to a built-in pickup of some type, is the medium through which the sound vibrations are detected, or picked up. That's where I think the purist views come into play, whether the person realizes the reason or not (and I don't think a lot of them do know or think about the technical reasons).

A microphone picks up sound vibrations that travel through the air from the instrument, just like the sound waves that come out of your mouth when you speak. A pickup is picking up vibrations through another medium, for example, through the wooden bridge on a banjo or guitar. In the case of an electric bass, a varying current is produced in a coil when the string above it is moved. The signal is then amplified. This is not at all like sound waves travelling through the air. In fact, one signal is a varying current directly from the pickup while the other is a sound wave which is then converted to a current by way of the microphone. These two methods have totally different audio properties.

Transducer technology is getting better all the time, and when it gets to the point where you can't tell the difference between a mic and a pickup, I will be on board with "electrifying" the instruments, but until that happens, I will always choose the most acoustic sounding route I can - because it more closely reproduces the actual sound of the instrument in question, and therefore, sounds better (in my opinion). That's the bottom line, I want the sound of the instrument to be as pure as possible.

Now, specifically addressing the use of electric bass in bluegrass, I realize more and more bluegrass bands are travelling this route, much to the detriment of the "bluegrass sound" in my opinion. There may be many reasons for this, but the two prominent ones that I've heard are:
  1. travelling with an upright bass is difficult because of the size of the instrument.
  2. upright basses are generally quite expensive compared to their electric counterparts.

My response to both of these is the same - tough. Suck it up, Nancy!

To this point, I've never heard an electric bass in a bluegrass band that I liked, and I'm not just saying that to be hard to get along with. If I ever happen across one that sounds good, I'll be the first to let you know. The fact of the matter is, I can tell the difference - and I don't have to physically see the bass to help my decision along; I can hear it!

I saw The Lynn Morris Band a few years ago at Imperial Theatre in Saint John, NB. Marshall Wilborn was playing one of those electric stand-up sticks, and I'll admit, he had it sounding pretty good, but I could still hear a distinct difference in tonal quality. It was definitely the best I've ever heard for an electric bass in bluegrass.

Just recently, I saw James King in Moncton, NB, and boy was I disappointed when I saw and heard the acoustic-electric bass! I couldn't hold back - I think I cried out "what are you doing?" To be sure, I wasn't the only one disappointed - I heard lots of people grumbling about it. It's a shame really, a man that can sing his heart out like James King needs that great acoustic sound to really drive it all home.

Well, apparently some people like the sound of electrified instruments while others do not. Some people like Newgrass more than traditional Bluegrass. Is any of it wrong? I don't suppose so, we just have different tastes. I love starwberries, but I understand you hate them!

The Bluegrass Blog & The GrassCast

John Lawless and Brance Gillihan author a very interesting and informative blog called The Bluegrass Blog. It's a great place to stay current with what's going on in the bluegrass world.

One of the features of the Bluegrass Blog is the GrassCast, a weekly audio podcast featuring interviews and discussions with bluegrass newsmakers from all over the world. It's a great way to learn a bit about the bluegrass artists we've all come to love.

All of the interviews are good, but one of my favourites is episode #28 with Jim Mills, one of my favourite banjo players. Why don't you head on over to the Bluegrass Blog, get up-to-date on the latest bluegrass news, and check out the GrassCast while you're there?

Note You can download the interviews as MP3 files to your own computer or listen online.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Alecia Nugent - A Little Girl...A Big Four-Lane

Alecia Nugent has one awesome bluegrass voice, and one awesome country voice as well. Her latest CD, A Little Girl...A Big Four-Lane is a mixture of country and bluegrass sounds, with a heavy lean toward a country sound, not like today's country though - Alecia's sound is pure. I love this girl's voice and the CD is a fine piece of work. I think the Rounder Records web site sums it up best by stating "A Little Girl...A Big Four-Lane is acoustic country music at its most emotional, soulful, and moving. "

One of the great things about this CD is that it's all acoustic, so we get to hear instruments like the dobro, mandolin, fiddle, banjo and guitar at their best. This pure acoustic country sound I speak of may well be the very thing that gets people debating whether an artist is a bluegrass musician or a country musician.

Alecia's first CD, self titled Alecia Nugent, was also a mix of country and bluegrass sounds, but it leaned more toward the bluegrass sound whereas A Little Girl...A Big Four-Lane leans more toward a country sound. Still, there are a couple of tracks on her latest CD that are unmistakably bluegrass, and I like the CD.

Visit Alecia Nugent's web site at

Mountain Heart - Wide Open

I've heard some pretty good bluegrass material from Mountain Heart in the past, but I'm quite disappointed with their latest release entitled "Wide Open." I guess it's just my narrow mindedness showing through when it comes to what I think constitutes bluegrass music.

The latest Mountain Heart CD is on the the Skaggs Family Records label, and on the Skaggs Family Records web site, it states "Better prepare yourself -- this ain't your grandpa's bluegrass -- this time out, Mountain Heart is running Wide Open." Well, I'll have to agree with that statement! In my opinion, this album is about as far away from bluegrass as you can get. Almost all of the tracks sound like they belong on an "easy listening" radio station.

Now don't get me wrong, the members af Mountain Heart are fine musicians and singers, but this album is far from bluegrass - so don't call it bluegrass! Don't take my word though, mosey on over to the Skaggs Family Records web site and give the CD a listen for yourself. Your non-bluegrass side may love it.

Note At the time of this writing, CMT had full length high quality audio samples of this CD, so you may want to check CMT as the audio quality is much better. If you decide to purchase, it's hard to beat the prices at Skaggs Family Records.

Note John Lawless interviews Mountain Heart on GrassCast episode #15 and talks about the "pop" feel of the CD. Check it out and listen to what the group has to say about the album.

Rhonda Vincent - All American Bluegrass Girl

Rhonda Vincent & The Rage have done it again. Rhonda's latest CD entitled "All American Bluegrass Girl" is due to be released May 23, 2006, but thanks to CMT, I've been listening to the entire album for the past few days now.

The CD features a good mix of medium and slow tempo numbers, all performed flawlessly with her award winning band, "The Rage" and with her guest artists. I would have liked to hear a few more upbeat hard driving numbers, but there are a couple numbers that should start your feet to tapping.

The CD is definitely a keeper for bluegrass fans, and I'll be getting my copy when I see Rhonda Vincent & The Rage live at the Rogersville Homecoming Bluegrass Festival this August in Rogersville, New Brunswick, Canada. It's one of those CDs that grow on you - I find the more I listen to it, the more I like it.

As to the cover photo, from what I've read, it seems to have stirred up some controversey among bluegrassers. However, everyone that hangs out on Rhonda's message board (on her web site) seems to be raving about it, giving it the highest praise. From a bluegrass perspective, the photo doesn't speak to me at all. Fortunately, it's the talent of Rhonda Vincent and her band that keeps me coming back for more, year after year. I recommend you add this CD to your bluegrass collection.

Welcome To The Bluegrass Friends Blog

Welcome to the Bluegrass Friends Blog.

This is the place where I'll post some of my thoughts relating to the Bluegrass world. You'll find news, reviews and who knows what else? Just remember this, the views expressed here are my own, and you may not agree with all of them, but that's okay. I just call it the way I see it!