Friday, July 20, 2007

Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys Concert

Helen (aka the Bluegrass Widow) and I booked a short getaway package with our friends Ed & Becky Betts to go see Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys in a little town called Brownfield, Maine on Sunday, July 8, 2007. The concert was held at the Stone Mountain Arts Center, a humble 200 seat timber frame music hall nestled in the foothills of the White Mountains. We stayed at a quaint little place called Inn at Crystal Lake in Eaton, New Hamshire, about 15 minutes from the Stone Mountain Arts Center. It was a good 6 hour or better drive from our starting point of Saint John, New Brunswick - Canada.

I figured if I was ever going to have an opportunity to see Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, this might very well be as close as they would ever get to my part of the world, so a few months earlier I asked Ed and Becky if they might be interested in going as well and they said yes.

Ralph Stanley is a living legend and a pioneer of Bluegrass music - mountain style. Among the many awards that have been bestowed upon him, he did actually receive the Living Legend Award, two years ago if memory serves. I had never seen Ralph Stanley in a live performance so I jumped at the opportunity when it came along. I'm real happy Ed & Becky decided to go as well, for Helen and I might not have made the trip on our own. Thank you Ed and Becky.

We checked in at the Inn at Crystal Lake. It was a real old place with tons of "old stuff." Everyting seemed old. The building was old, the pictures on the walls were old, all of the ornaments and decorations were old. The owners were not old however, but everything else was definitely old or old fashioned. Actually, it was very nice and I would stay there again without hesitation, although I must admit I didn't care for the separate cold and hot water faucets in the bathroom.

The getaway package included a meal at the inn before the concert. We had a small amount of time to pass before dinner so Ed and I decided to practice a few tunes in my room for about 45 minutes while the ladies suffered it out. Well, they should have known better!

Near the end of our little jam session as Ed was finishing up Banks of the Ohio, out of our window we saw a turquoise colored bus go by the inn. We noticed the letters "RS" on the back and concluded that it must be Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys on the way to the arts center. Quite the detectives aren't we?

The inn served up a beautiful meal. The menu was printed just for the occasion and read Ralph Stanley Menu at the top - a nice touch. Helen, Becky and I had salmon with some kind of "special rice" while Ed opted for some kind of pork dish. I do remember the meal being very satisfying, something I don't often experience in a restaurant setting.

Okay, a small mention about the photos in this post is in order. The first photo at the top is one of Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys on stage near the beginning of the performance. The next picture is Dr. Ralph Stanley putting his autograph on what I call the banjo head of fame. It's a banjo head that I purchased at the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival two years ago especially for collecting the signatures of great banjo players. I was able to get two signatures on this trip - Dr. Ralph Stanley himself and Steve Sparkman, Ralph's current banjo player.

The third photo is one of Ed & Becky Betts standing in front of Ralph Stanley's tour bus, and the next photo is of my wife, Helen, in front of the same bus.

I took a few group pictures of Ed, Becky and Helen in front of the bus, but Helen decided to close her eyes for most of the pictures. In the one picture where Helen decided to keep her eyes open, Becky decided she would close hers. I just thought I'd explain that in case you were wondering why you don't see the three of them together. Now that I think about it, I'm feeling quite confident those thoughts never crossed your mind at all.

The next photo is Ed Betts posing with Ralph Stanley in what you might term "not the ideal lighting conditions" for taking a photo. Picture #6 is the great Steve Sparkman, a master of Stanley style banjo picking. Interestingly enough, Steve did not play a Stanleytone banjo at the concert, but instead was playing a Gibson archtop banjo with a neck made by Frank Neat.

The last picture is in fact a picture of Helen, Ed, and Becky standing on the stage after the concert was over. By the way, you can click on each image to view a larger version of the same.

Back to the subject at hand. The getaway package also included a shuttle service from the inn to the concert and back, but we decided to forgo the shuttle service. We had different plans for after the concert, like getting to know Dr. Ralph Stanley and Steve Sparkman a little better. We didn't want to be forced to leave early because of the shuttle service.

Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys put on a great performance. Dr. Ralph's voice was exactly like I've heard him on television several times before. He's got an old sounding, yet smooth voice that reminds you of the mountains themselves. One thing to note about Dr. Ralph Stanley is that even though he may be getting on in years, he is always on key when singing, at least that's what I've noticed.

Ralph's 14-year old grandson, Nathan Stanley filled in on guitar for the missing James Shelton whose mother had passed away the day before. Nathan did a great job and he's quite a singer and songwriter in his own right, and at a very young age.

Of course, one of my key interests was in Steve Sparkman, the banjo player. I was watching every move he made as he played all of the signature Stanley style licks on his archtop banjo. Like all other great players, he makes it look so easy.

Playing fiddle was Dewey Brown, a very good fiddler indeed and a good harmony singer as well. I was really impressed with the bass playing of Jack Cooke who has been with Ralph Stanley for an amazing 37 years! Jack really adds life to all of the tunes with his bass style and his onstage antics.

During the concert, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys played several of the most popular tunes in the Ralph Stanley repertoire, of which there are many. I was very surprised when they ended the show with Orange Blossom Special, simply because I had never heard Ralph Stanley do a rendition of that tune before.

We were able to speak with the band members both before and after the show. I found Ralph Stanley to be very humble and obliging and Steve Sparkman was equally so. We didn't really spend much time with the other band members. I guess you have to be a banjo player to get any attention.

Before the show I had asked Steve Sparkman about a lick used in Pretty Polly and he said "come see me after the show and I'll be happy to show you how it's done." That's exactly what I did, and it's for reasons like that opportunity that we opted out of the shuttle service. I didn't realize it at the time, but Becky captured the Pretty Polly lesson on video with her digital camera. Becky sent a copy of the video to me and I have received permission from Becky and Steve to post the video. The Pretty Polly video (8 MB) is on the Bluegrass Friends web site.

The following morning we had a nice breakfast at the Inn at Crystal Lake before departing. We packed up our belongings and prepared for the 6 plus hour drive home, listening to the sweetest sounds on earth all the way home - Bluegrass music. We had a good time.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Grand Manan Trip - David Parmley and Continental Divide

Here is my report on the David Parmley & Continental Divide concert that was held at the Grand Manan Community School on July 3, 2007.

Before The Concert
The trip started with Tom Mason picking me up at my house at 8:45 AM. As expected, he was wound up tighter than a spring in a 7-day clock with excitement. If you know Tom, I'm sure you can picture his enthusiasm. Whenever someone mentions an opportunity to jam he's like a little kid with a new toy. Personally, I don't get it because I don't really care for jamming, and furthermore, I'm not sure I can even say I like Bluegrass music any longer. Truth be told, I'm not sure I ever did! I'm beginning to identify with what my son once said when I tried to lure him to a Bluegrass festival a few years ago. He asked "who wants to sit in a field with a bunch of old people listening to music that nobody likes?" I guess that puts it all into perspective doesn't it?

A group of 14 people from the Bluegrass Friends jam sessions met at the Blacks Harbour ferry terminal at 10:00 AM, one and a half hours earlier than the scheduled ferry departure. That's when and where the first jam started. You read it correctly - we were there early to get a parking lot jam going. Making sure we were in the lineup for the ferry was only of secondary importance.

In attendance for the parking lot jam there were also a few people that I've met over the last year or so from Blacks Harbour, as well as Esther Prosser and her husband Earl, from Moncton, and her sister Lynn Hutchinson from Sussex. I'm glad they made the trip again this year. If you'll recall, last year's trip to Grand Manan was for the Cherryholmes concert.

At 11:15 or so we boarded the ferry and of course, we jammed on the ferry all the way over to the island. The crew members seemed to enjoy it and none of the passengers complained, but I'm sure there must have been someone besides me that was wishing we would stop. Oh well, no one asked us to stop. It was just a big noisy racket to me.

Let me see, when we got on the other side (Grand Manan) we stopped to make a ferry reservation for the return trip. I learned from last year's trip that there seems to be a whole lot more people trying to leave the island than coming to visit, and that you just might not get to depart at your desired time without a reservation. From there, we checked in at the Surfside Motel, about one minute from the ferry terminal. The Surfside Motel is a nice little place with reasonable rates and friendly staff.

What now? Oh yeah, how could I forget? More jamming, of course! Stupid me. This time we're on the back lawn at the Surfside Motel. Of all the jamming we did, that was the worst! I couldn't keep my banjo in tune for more than 30 seconds at a time due to the heating and cooling effects of the sun and wind. First, the sun would heat the banjo up, so I'd have to tune. Then, moments later, the wind would cool it down. This went on for the entire duration of the jam and I was becoming agitated with the torment of it all. When I suggested we stand behind a van where the wind was greatly diminished, I was promptly told "we're not standing behind a van" by somebody that apparently had some kind of affliction with vans. Okay, fine - sorry I brought that idea up.

As the afternoon wore on people were beginning to show signs of hunger. This was indicated by people saying things like "we're not jamming behind no stinkin' van, okay?" and "I'm getting hungry." Well anyway, off to the Area 38 restaurant we went for a bite to eat.

We left the restaurant and headed straight to the Grand Manan Community School to arrive there at 6:00 PM sharp! Wouldn't want to be late for the show. Everyone wants to get a good seat and my goodness, we wouldn't want to get caught in a traffic jam in the big metropolis of Grand Manan! What is it with all of you people thinking you have to arrive so early to get a good seat at these small venues? The school's auditorium only holds 450 people! There are no bad seats! There are no traffic jams - it's Grand Manan, population - 2000! Someone mentioned jamming in the school parking lot but it never came to pass. Hallelujah! One of my prayers was answered!

So, now we're all standing in the school entrance for an hour waiting for the doors of the auditorium to be opened. Finally! We're allowed into the auditorium and since we were the first ones in line, we get to pick the seats of our choosing. Man, it's a good thing we were there early, that's all I can say!

The Concert
Robert Dignard had warned me earlier in the week that David Parmley & Continental Divide can play some pretty "funky" stuff. It had better not be "funky" because I'm planning on hearing some good traditional Bluegrass music!

As it turned out, David Parmley & Continental Divide did not disappoint. They played traditional style Bluegrass music all night long with just two or three country tunes thrown in, which I'm not complaining about.

David Parmley is a founding member of the internationally acclaimed Bluegrass Cardinals. He has a voice very well suited to country music but it also works very well as a lead voice for Bluegrass. David plays rhythm guitar for the group.

Mandolin player Randy Graham was the emcee for the band and very entertaining. He's got a great high tenor voice and can also sing lead very well.

The band's newest member, Jimmy Cameron has only been with Continental Divide for 8 months. He played bass for the band but is also a fine mandolin player in the tradition of his hero, Bill Monroe. Jimmy sang lead on a couple Monroe tunes that I'm sure Bill would be very proud of. He did 'em just like Bill did. Wow! What a voice!

That brings us to Dale Perry, the banjo player for the group. Actually, Dale is multitalented in that he plays finger-picked guitar, bass, banjo and who knows what else? Dale is also a very fine bass vocalist.

Billy Hurt, Junior is certainly no stranger to the fiddle and has been fiddling since the age of 10. I really enjoyed his style of fiddling. It is said that Billy plays what needs playing… no more, no less.

You can meet the entire band by visiting the David Parmley & Continental Divide web site.

The quality of the sound was very good at the concert, yet another talent of Dale Perry. It was crystal clear. Two microphone stands were used; one in the center of the stage and one off to the left. The one off to the left was mainly used for the fiddle, but was also used when Dale Perry sang bass on a song or two. The center mic stand had a condenser mic at the top for the lead singer. Midway up the mic stand was a cluster of three microphones for instruments. One pointed straight ahead and the other two pointed slightly to the left and right for whoever was doing a break. I believe all of the microphones used were condenser types. The guitar was not boomy at all. One more thing to note about the sound is how "hot" the mics were. Instruments were being picked up from several feet away without a hollow sound. I was very impressed with the quality.

The band was very good at working the microphones, knowing just when to step closer or back away. The mix was almost like that on a CD. The vocals blended very nicely and sounded very rich when harmony was added. Once again, I was impressed.

At the halfway point of the concert a 20 minute break was taken. When the concert resumed, 73 year-old Don Parmley, David's father and former member of the Bluegrass Cardinals joined the group for a Bluegrass Cardinals reunion. I'll tell you what. Don added the most wonderful Bluegrass harmony that you could ever ask for. I couldn't believe what I was hearing from his voice at the age of 73. It sounded like the voice of a 30 year-old to me. It really was incredible.

Don Parmley played banjo during the reunion while Dale Perry took over on bass. Jimmy Cameron, who was playing bass, stepped off the stage because he was not a part of the former Bluegrass Cardinals at any time in the past. Don did make a couple mistakes while playing the banjo, but he still did a fine job. I can only hope to get as good as he is. Did you know Don Parmley played all of the filler banjo music on the Beverly Hillbillies television show? Apparently so.

The very talented Ray Legere and Lee Alward (from New Brunswick) were in the audience. Before the night was over, they were both on stage performing with The Bluegrass Cardinals. Backed up by Ray and the Bluegrass Cardinals, Lee sang Father's Table Grace, a recital made popular by Lester Flatt. Ray went on to play two or three more tunes with the band.

After The Concert
Earlier in the day, Sheldon Frost had invited us (the group of Bluegrass Friends) back to his home where a lunch was prepared. David Parmley & Continental Divide were there as well, and I got to talk to all of the band members. I spent quite a bit of time with Dale Perry, who was playing a brand new Huber Kalamazoo banjo. I also spent some time with Don Parmley and we talked banjos as well. He was playing a 1927 Gibson RB3.

Lee Alward finally announced he was going to get his guitar, and in a few minutes the entire house full of guests were in Sheldon's garage enjoying a jam session with the band. I was paying close attention to the left hand movements of Dale Perry. The jam ended at 2:30 AM.

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