Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bluegrass Unashamed Magazine - September 2009 Issue

Okay folks, I know at least one person who looks forward to seeing who is going to be on the next Bluegrass Unashamed magazine cover - so here it is, the September 2009 issue of Bluegrass Unashamed, albeit a little late. Okay, it's a lot late - but my idea was on time, if that counts for anything.

This month features the Bluegrass Widow, caught red handed with groundhog grease all over her chin. When asked if she'd share a little piece of groundhog, she told me "if you want some, you can get it yourself." I'll tell ya, you don't want to get too close to her when she's eating!

She kept muttering "ground hog" over and over, as if it was the chorus line of a song or something. I just kept my distance and backed away real slow like.

I hope you get a kick out of this months cover photo.

Alright, on a more serious note, the Bluegrass Widow deserves and receives from me, the Good Sport Award for all that she does to support my endeavors in Bluegrass music and everything I associate with it, from serious photo shoots, to doing interviews with our Bluegrass friends, hosting parties, attending musical events and of course, acting a little foolish from time to time as seen on this month's cover of the fictitious magazine, Bluegrass Unashamed.

Click on the image to see a larger version of the same.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bluegrass Unashamed Magazine - July & August 2009 Issues

We've all heard of the official magazine called Bluegrass Unlimited, yes?

I recently attended a Bluegrass Buddys (yes, that's how they spell Buddys) performance at Unity Park in the town of Grand Bay-Westfiled, New Brunswick and I had my camera with me. I convinced my friend Silas Cheeseman, the one who stole me away from Bluegrass music since about December 2008, according to some, to tag along with me. Yes, I've made photography my second hobby and there is now a battle for my time between Bluegrass and photography. Well, at least I'm combining the two hobbies by photographing Bluegrass events! You can see some of Silas' work here, here and here.

While I was at the performance, Harvey Arbo made a joke about how I was the official photographer for a magazine called Bluegrass Unashamed. I figured Bluegrass Unashamed must be a spoof on the Bluegrass Unlimited magazine and decided to grow the seed Harvey planted. What I came up with was the July 2009 cover for this fictitious magazine featuring none other than Harvey Arbo.

I never really thought much about continuing the joke, until just a couple days ago when I was looking at some photos from a Bluegrass weekend getaway that took place last year at our friends' cottage. I happened upon a photo of Kenny Innis and thought it would be the ideal photo for the next issue of Bluegrass Unashamed. Consequently, I created the August 2009 cover for the magazine.

In all honesty, I was going to trash the photo way back when, but I seem to have a hard time deleting stuff like that. The August 2009 cover photo of the Bluegrass Unashmaed magazine illustrates how you just never know when an otherwise not so great image may be useful; I guess the value of some photos is all about the context in which it is used.

Now, my mind is spinning with ideas for future covers of the fictitious magazine and I've already got an idea for the September issue which I think you'll find quite amusing, but I'm not giving any clues as to what that image might be.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the lighter side of Bluegrass in the form of poking some fun at some of my friends.

Click on the images to see larger versions of the same.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Banjo Head Adjustment - "G" For Me, Please

WARNING! This post is sort of banjo techy, but I think you should read it anyway.

Like most banjo players, I like to tinker with my banjo from time to time. When I say tinker, I'm not talking about playing it as a musical instrument; I'm talking about making various adjustments on it to see how it will react to whatever changes I've made. There are also times when I'll make adjustments that are not for the purpose of tinkering; these adjustments are required as part of the normal care and feeding (aka maintenance) of a banjo.

It would appear some people think if you need to make adjustments a few times each year, you must have a lemon for an instrument, but nothing could be further from the truth. Whether you pay a hundred dollars or ten thousand dollars for your banjo, you'll need to make frequent adjustments.

There are many factors that can affect the tone of your banjo - all instruments actually, but it seems the banjo is very adept at letting you know when it isn't in tip-top form. This is partly due to the tonal range of a banjo and the characteristic ringing that banjos produce; anything too far out of whack quickly shows up in your ear.

Probably the single biggest item that can affect the tone of a banjo is the tightness of the head. As luck would have it, head tightness is also one of the items that changes most often. This means frequent adjustments are required. When I say frequent, I'm talking anywhere from 2 to 4 times a year. I think that would be considered frequent if you compared how often most people make adjustments to their guitars.

Why does the head tightness keep changing? I think there are two main reasons for this. The main reason for the change in head tightness would be from changes in the humidity level. During the winter season in my neck of the woods, the air is dry; and even dryer indoors because of the drying effect of heating my home. If you're in an area with these conditions, the lack of moisture will eventually show up as a change in tone to your banjo as the wood rim shrinks. The tone will probably be more "tubby" sounding. As the rim shrinks, the hooks that apply pressure between the tension hoop and the flange become too long because the rim isn't as high as it used to be. This results in the head having less tension. You might even notice the action on the banjo becoming a bit lower due to less "up pressure" on the bridge as it more readily sags into the head.

The opposite is true in the summer months (in my neck of the woods). The summer months are humid, which allows the rim to take on more moisture. The banjo may become more "tinny" sounding as the head becomes tighter. The head becomes tighter because the rim is swelling and the hooks now need to be longer if the same tension is to be applied, that once was.

I've just described how the head can become tighter in the summer months, but it can also become loose in the summer. I know, this sounds like some type of contradiction, but it's not. The banjo vibrates a great deal and this can cause the nuts on the hooks to back off. If the nuts back off more than the amount required to compensate for the extra moisture, you'll witness a loose head.

The answer to all of this is simply to check the tone of the banjo frequently; I suggest at least once a month. Tap the head to determine which note the pot assembly resonates at. Is it the same as it was the last time you checked? Also, try playing the banjo up the neck. Are the notes ringing out loud and clear all over the neck? They should be.

I've talked about tightening banjo heads in previous posts and even performed a small audio spectrum analysis on my Deering Deluxe banjo. In those posts I talk about how to "tune" the head to a certain note, which I learned how to do from Steve Huber of Huber Banjos. You can read those articles (August 9 and 12, 2006) here if you wish.

Aapparently (read from what I've been told) there are those that argue whether I am able to tune the head of a banjo using the head tapping technique; that there is no way I can hear the note to which the head is tuned. For the record, I don't claim to have invented the idea of tap-tuning, but I can also tell you I'm not making this stuff up. I learned the technique from Steve Huber's Killer Tone DVD. I've also seen a Morris Music employee tune a set of drums this way; he matched each drum in a set of four to the notes on a bass guitar. I doubt anyone even remotely familiar with banjos would dispute what Steve Huber says about the topic, but I could be wrong about that too.

Somebody said "you should have your hearing checked" ... so I did. That's right, I actually had a hearing test performed this past Monday at AudioCorp in Saint John, NB and I'm happy to report that both of my ears are still in the normal range of hearing. I want to keep it that way, so I'll be practicing with ear plugs from now on.

My most recent head adjustment (banjo head, that is - if I were talking about the head on my shoulders it would be more of an attitude adjustment) was performed a couple nights ago and that was to correct a mistake I made while tightening it just a few weeks back. Yes people, I made a mistake! About 3 weeks ago I noticed the banjo just wasn't up to par; just not sounding as good as it should. The resonant frequency of the head and pot assembly had slipped all the way down to an "F" note; I normally keep it tuned to a "G" note.

Somebody said
"you should get your
hearing checked"
... so I did.

While the banjo sounded "okay" in open G tuning, it really lacked brightness and sustain up the neck. I decided I couldn't take it any longer and began to make adjustments. I inadvertently tuned the head to a "G#" note, but decided to leave it there for a while to see if I liked it. I thought it was okay, but still lacking something, so I took it back to a "G" note and now I'm happy with it again.

It is my belief that you cannot buy a banjo, have it tuned by a pro and then walk away from it, expecting it to sound great for the rest of its life; you WILL need to make adjustments if you want to keep it sounding optimal. Having your banjo tuned by a luthier up to four times a year may or may not be something you are willing to pay for. If you're opposed to paying for this service, the tone of your banjo will probably suffer; that's why every banjo player should know how to do it for themselves. To learn how to tune your banjo head and keep it in tip-top shape, I recommend highly Steve Huber's DVD called Killer Tone, available from Huber Banjos.

In the image at the top of this post, you will see the tools I use for tightening a banjo head. These tools consist of a tuner for tuning the banjo strings (Peterson Strobo-Flip tuner shown but could be any tuner), a Tee wrench for tightening the nuts on the tension hooks, and a drum torque wrench for getting even tightness all the way 'round the head. I used to tighten the head by "feel" without a torque wrench; after using the torque wrench however, I'd never do another head tightening without one.

Click on the image to see a larger version of the same.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Little Bit of This, Little Bit of That

A lot of things have transpired since my last blog in October of 2008! I'm not sure where to begin, so I'll just touch on a few of the highlights. Maybe I'll just work backward toward last October and perhaps some things will pop into my head as I type. So, starting with the most recent events...

In terms of banjo practice, the past month has been exceptional for me. This is rare indeed, as I usually have what I would deem "a good session" only once a month or so, with the remaining practice sessions resulting in a lot of frustration, usually inducing thoughts of selling both of my banjos.

This leads me into telling you about my new practice routine. On December 31, 2008 I came to the startling conclusion that one of the reasons I wasn't progressing with the banjo was because I was no longer putting any time or effort into it.

Somehow, I had become the upright bass player at the private jam sessions I attend. It just seemed the natural thing to do since we already have someone that can actually play the banjo, since I can't play one, and since we didn't have a bass player. These facts, coupled with the idea that I hadn't been showing much progress on the banjo anyway, lead to a loss of interest in the banjo for a short while. It had been a few months since I had last played the banjo.

I enjoy playing the acoustic bass, but the 5-string banjo is what I really want to become proficient at if at all possible. With that in mind, my intention is to continue playing the bass at the jam sessions, but certainly start playing more banjo when opportunities arise. No one has ever told me I couldn't play the banjo at the jams, in fact, it has been quite the opposite and I get nothing but encouragement from the rest of the group; it has been my own lack of ability that has kept me from playing.

So, back to my new practice regimen. I mentioned earlier this idea occurred on December 31 [2008] but I'd like to point out that it's not a New Year's Resolution; it's a resolution that just so happened on New Year's Eve. Do you see the difference?

The regimen simply consists of writing out a weekly lesson plan and keeping a running journal of what I actually did during the practice, how the practice went, what excuses I had for a poor practice and so on.

By way of example, a weekly lesson plan might look something like this:

Practice Foggy Mountain Breakdown roll for 20 minutes with metronome at 150 bpm. Try to increase bpm to 160. Practice moving from F-chord shape to D-chord shape using metronome. Practice tune Poor Ellen Smith.

Practice forward roll for 20 minutes with metronome. Give thumb a good workout by ensuring thumb makes it down to 2nd string on each new measure. Learn chord positions on neck. Practice tune Poor Ellen Smith.

Practice up-the-neck In The Mood licks for 30 minutes. Practice tunes Girl From West Virginia and Alice's Waltz.

... and so on.
I have to say the plan is working out quite well so far. The weekly lesson plan keeps me focused on what I need to work on and the journal allows me to review what I've actually done, and more importantly, I look forward to writing in it which makes me want to practice more. It's a little head game. I hate head games!

So what else has happened in the past few months that might be worth mentioning? On December 20 and 21, 2008 the Bluegrass Widow interviewed several of our Bluegrass friends including Ed & Becky Betts, Harvey Arbo, Larry & Carlotta Walsh, Kenny Innis, Clay Johnson and Mike Scott. Angela Curran was interviewed in mid January, 2009. The interviews are destined to appear on a DVD project that I'm working on. Perhaps the audio from the interviews will be posted on the Bluegrass Widow's blog if the interviewees don't mind. We'll seek their approval before posting, but that may be something to look forward to in the near future.

On December 13, 2008 Helen and I hosted a Bluegrass Christmas party at our home. It began with a wonderful meal, included some witty games that Helen came up with, and as luck would have it, ended with a Bluegrass jam (complete with Bluegrass Christmas songs) that lasted until about midnight. At first, I thought the idea of playing games was a bit lame, but I'm both thankful and glad Helen took the time to think of them because they proved to be a lot of fun; everyone had a great time with them!

In mid November 2008, Ed & Becky invited a large crew to their cottage for a weekend of jamming, and that's exactly what we did; we literally jammed all weekend long, stopping only long enough to eat. I guess we slept a little too, but not much.

Before we departed on Sunday, Larry Walsh introduced us to an old song (new to us) called Seek Ye Out The Old Path. I had been learning some of the backup work to a tune called Do You Call That Religion? and thought "hey, I bet that backup work would fit real well in this song" and it sure enough did. I thought we did a pretty decent job on the tune, but oddly enough, we've never been able to perform it anywhere nearly as well as we did on that Sunday morning in mid November. Not even close!

That pretty much sums up what's been going on around here for the past few months. Lots of jamming and little work around the house getting done.

A note about the image at the top of this article:
My son Hunter does play guitar, but doesn't particularly care for Bluegrass music. My wife Helen, also known as the Bluegrass Widow, has only played a few notes on the upright bass. My daughter Mallory had my banjo in her hands one other time, but not for long.

Hunter says this is a photo of the Bluegrass family I wish I had. While none of my family members are actually in a Bluegrass band, they sure look like they could play the parts, don't you think?

Click on the image to view a larger version of the same.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Importance of Practicing Wth a Metronome

It seems I'm forever offering advice to my fellow musician friends about the importance of getting the fundamentals of their chosen instrument(s) under their belt before worrying about learning a bunch of songs that are beyond their current capabilities. Sometimes I am asked for my opinion; at other times I simply offer it up - like the rest of the world.

For someone who offers up so many opinions you'd think perhaps that I was an expert musician, but of course, I can barely play anything myself. Do you need to be an expert to offer solid advice though? I don't think so. Right or wrong, I consider myself to be a pretty good observer, and from my observations and experiences, I figure I can offer some reasonable advice from time to time. Maybe not always, but at least on occasion.

On his DVD Playing Banjo By Ear and Learning The Chords, Ross Nickerson says "when you lose the chord structure of the tune, or the timing, music can simply fall apart." I couldn't agree more. My advice today will focus on the timing aspect of music and the importance of practicing with a metronome.

It seems to me, the majority of people simply refuse to put the required amount of time into this important aspect of their playing. When I ask people why this is, the answer is almost always something along the lines of "I know I should, but it's boring." Boring or not, it's important, and right now is as good a time as any to change your mindset before you develop a bad timing habit even further!

So big deal - it's boring! Get over it! Nobody is suggesting you sit down with a metronome for hours on end and play along with it. I agree - it is boring and if you're not alert, it can put you to sleep. However, if you can convince yourself that 10 or 15 minutes a day with a metronome won't kill you, I think you'll be very pleased with the improvement in your timing.

Some of us think "I don't need no stinkin' metronome." Let me tell you friend - you do. Your timing may not be as perfect as you think. In fact, it's not! Everyone can improve with a metronome no matter how long they have been playing music and no matter how good they think they are.

It never ceases to amaze me when I hear the local yocals say something like "why do we need to practice?" before playing a gig. Ron Block, who plays banjo and guitar with Alison Krauss & Union Station, plays with a drum machine or metronome almost every day of his life. Ron's timing is so flawless that you could probably say the man is a human metronome! Gee, I wonder why his timing is so good? How is it then, that a lot of us think our timing is good enough that we don't need to work on it?

I just want to make sure I have this right. Ron Block, who has been playing music nearly all of his life still thinks he needs to work with a metronome every day to keep his timing up to snuff, but most of us amateurs don't spend 10 minutes a month working on our timing because our timing is "pretty darned good." Some of us don't even know what a metronome is! Is it simply that we just don't care?

Another aspect of playing with good timing is to listen to what others are doing on their instruments when playing music. It's really frustrating to be playing at a certain tempo and then have the tempo of the tune change when someone does their break or begins singing.

Let's face it - as amateur musicians just trying to have a little fun at a jam session, we know it's not likely that we'll be the next Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, nor are we trying to be, but does that mean we shouldn't try to improve? Most of us know all too well how "not fun" it is to play with someone whose timing is so bad that you just wish the person wasn't there; they can make a jam session spiral downward real fast. It's not nice having such thoughts about another person, but man!

When we think of how bad another person's timing is we should also question whether our own timing is good relative to the other musicians in the group. In some cases maybe we are the person whose timing is the worst. Who would want that?

I'm not implying that we shouldn't try to help others by playing music with them, on the contrary. However, if the "other person" never does anything to improve and makes it known they have no intention of practicing, it's not long before I won't be inviting that person to my jam sessions. As long as I see improvement or intent to improve, I'm okay with anybody. I still question why anyone would allow me at their jam sessions; I'm just glad they do.

Earlier this morning I was working on that tough lick (Sourwood Mountain) I spoke of in my previous post. After some frustration, I took my own advice and said "it's time for the metronome." Not only did my timing of the lick improve, but at the end of the exercise I was able to insert the lick into the tune without stumbling. That's enough evidence for me.

These days you can get an electronic metronome for very little money; I paid just under $20.00 including taxes for a WC-1000 (shown in image above) . There are also lots of free metronome programs that you can run on your computer. I mostly use a computer program called Weird Metronome, simply because I'm in front of my computer a lot, practicing with other tools such as Transcribe! from Seventh String Software.

Commit to using a metronome for 10 or 15 minutes every day you practice - it won't kill you; it can only help. The boredom excuse just doesn't cut it. Now, get at it!

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tough Lick Story

There's an old tune called Sourwood Mountain that Ron Stewart recorded on a CD titled Team Flathead - The Huber Banjo Sessions - a project that was originally intended to showcase the exceptional tonal characteristics of Huber banjos. If you're a fan of Huber banjos like me, you may be interested to know that Ron used a Lexington model Huber banjo (serial #102-4) with a maple neck and resonator to record this tune. If you're not a Huber banjo fan, I don’t know what your problem is, and you can just ignore the details mentioned above.

Back to Sourwood Mountain. I liked the song the very first time I heard it, but it really caught my attention when I purchased Ron Stewart's instructional DVD titled Ron Stewart - A Bluegrass Banjo Professional. The DVD by the way, is available from Acutab Publications.

Each tune to be taught (on the DVD) is played at full speed by a three piece band consisting of only bass, banjo and guitar. After the full band version, each song is then discussed and played at slower speeds with just the banjo for instructional purposes. For all you fans of the banjo, Ron is playing a Lancaster model Huber on the DVD which is owned by John Lawless. And once again, if you're not a banjo enthusiast, I don’t know what your problem is; you should just ignore the banjo details.

Bluegrass, being a highly improvisational style of music, allowed Ron to move away from the melody (just a bit) on the second break of the song. It was this moving away from the melody with a syncopated lick near the end of the second break that actually caught my attention the most about Sourwood Mountain. This syncopated lick is not on the Team Flathead recorded version, nor is it played during the instructional parts of the DVD; it was just something Ron did on the fly while playing the song at normal tempo with the band.

Now here’s the tough lick part of the story. I just spent close to two hours trying to insert that syncopated lick into Sourwood Mountain without success. Using a piece of software called Transcribe! from Seventh String Software, I was able to slow the tune down enough to figure out what notes Ron was playing and figure out a roll pattern to execute the lick. For reference, here is a link to a 9 second clip of Sourwood Mountain; the difficult lick starts at the 6 second mark.

It seems I can play the lick repeatedly without making a mistake while practicing, but I can’t seem to get it right in the context of the tune. My fingers know how to do it, my brain wants to do it, but they won’t cooperate. In my experience, one thing is for certain; whenever you hear the word "syncopation" in the context of playing a 5-string banjo, you know there’s trouble ahead!

I shall conquer this dilemma. Somehow.

UPDATE - Sep 25, 2008
After another hour (last night) of trying to make this difficult lick work, I was finally able to get it right a few times at the end of my practice session. The question is, will I be able to repeat it tonight? And the answer is, probably not; at least not at first.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

30th Annual Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival

Note As you read along, feel free to click on any of the images to see a larger version of the same.

The Bluegrass Widow (Helen) and I, along with our friend Kenny Innis, just returned from the 30th Annual Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival in Brunswick, Maine. We saw many of our Bluegrass Friends from Saint John, New Brunswick while we were there; I can think of 23 right off the top of my head.

As you enter the park and look to the left you'll see five animal carvings. All of the carvings were done by Tim Pickett from Eliot, Maine. The first, Tommy P. Banjo Bear was done in 1998. In 1999, Trudy P. Bass Bunny was carved. Then in 2000, 2001 and 2002, Toby P. Coyote was carved playing guitar, Trixie P. Fox was carved playing fiddle, and Tallulah P. Moose was carved playing mandolin. All of the carvings were made completely using a chain saw and all were done within the 4 day period of each festival in the years mentioned. That's impressive!

The photo above right is one of the Bluegrass Widow standing beside Trudy P., the bass bunny.

As usual, the festival was one of the very best I’ve ever attended, although I’ll admit I wasn’t too thrilled on Friday due to what I thought was a lack of Bluegrass content. Saturday and Sunday proved to be spectacular days, however.

Of course, the highlight of the entire event for me was Jim Mills and Kentucky Thunder on Saturday night. Go Jimmy! Pardon me, I meant to say Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

Above left is a picture of Ricky Skaggs and some of the Thomas Point staff right after the show ended.

On the right is a picture of the Bluegrass Widow with Jim Mills (from Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder). I know what you're thinking... but you're wrong; the Widow is not all dreamy-eyed for Jimmy, she's just tired, okay? Actually, the real story here is that the Widow's eyes are faster than the speed of light itself... and there is no way you will ever get a picture of this girl with her eyes open if a camera flash is nearby. I once took 60 photos of the Bluegrass Widow and of those sixty pictures, there were only three in the whole lot in which she had her eyes open - and those three pictures were the only ones that didn't involve flash.

Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, the Grascals and the Del McCoury Band also performed outstanding shows. In addition to the big boys, there were several other lesser known groups that performed very well; 24 bands in all, I believe.

We arrived on Friday around 1:00 PM, so we missed the Rhonda Vincent shows on Thursday. However, we did see Rhonda Vincent & The Rage in Rogersville, NB the weekend before. If her shows were anything at all like the Rogersville shows, then I’d have to say you probably got your money’s worth there as well.

It’s hard to know where to begin describing this festival. They advertise it as "The Spirit of beautiful Thomas Point Beach and Bluegrass Music!... Experience the MAGIC." Certainly, there definitely is a feeling of magic in the air at this festival. Unlike many other festival grounds that only have a stage and a big open field, Thomas Point Beach has everything you could ever want for a pefect holiday weekend.

First and foremost of course is the music, which is pretty much non-stop for three solid days. The camping areas of the park at Thomas Point Beach are just beautiful - full of tall pine and oak trees that provide you with just the right amount of shade while providing you with scenic beauty at the same time. The park was absolutely loaded with RV’s, trailers and tents this year - the most I’ve seen in the very few years I have attended the festival.

All through the day and into the wee hours of the morning you can take part in (or just listen to) one of several jams going on. At any given time, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if there are at least 50 jams taking place, with the number probably doubling after the main shows have ended at night. As you walk around from camp site to camp site, you can hear the camp fires crackling and smell the smoke in the air.

While the stage shows were going on, there were also several workshops taking place. I managed to take in a mandolin workshop that was put on by Danny Roberts of the Grascals and also a banjo workshop put on by Aaron McDaris, also a member of the Grascals.

Helen and I spent a fair bit of time walking through the park, stopping to talk to total strangers and listening to several jam sessions. For the most part, we tried to stay out of the way of our Saint John friends so they could enjoy their weekend away. We made a new friend in Sharon from South Portland on Sunday evening and we exchanged addresses. I’m looking forward to visiting with her in the near future.

We had full intentions of going to the Sunday morning church service on the beach front, but alas, we stayed up just a bit too late with the jammers on Saturday evening. We almost made it, but not quite. We did take part in a Sunday morning gospel jam at 10:00 however. We saw fellow Saint Johners Tom Mason, Larry and Carlotta Walsh, David Maguire and Loretta and Clay Johnson and Irene at the gospel jam as well.

We spoke very briefly with Ricky Skaggs and Jim Mills before they headed out; Jim Mills said he remembered us from last May in Moncton, NB. Ricky and Kentucky Thunder had to make a very quick exit as they had to catch a flight from New York City at 4:00 AM. Just the same, they took time to sign autographs and had their picture taken with several fans. They didn’t leave the festival grounds until shortly after midnight, eastern standard time. I wonder how their flight worked out?

Now for the sad news if you don’t already know. The 30th Annual Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival was the final one, as Patti Crooker, camp ground owner and festival organizer is retiring. I don’t know what will happen, but it sure would be good if someone took the festival over. There are rumors of the County Bluegrass Festival in Fort Fairfiled, Maine picking up the Labor Day weekend dates, but it certainly won’t be the same as the Thomas Point festival. I just can’t imagine what could possibly generate the same magical feeling that you get at Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick, Maine.

The people that own the bus in the photo to the right have attended every Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival for the past 30 years and what's more? They have parked their bus in the same spot for all of those years! The sign on the bus reads "On The Same Spot For 30 Years!!" There is another sign on the outside of the picket fence that reads "Eviction Notice," but you can't see the sign on the fence as it is blocked by the gentleman on the roadway side of the fence.

At the conclusion on Sunday evening there was a spectacular display of fireworks as we all celebrated 30 years of Bluegrass music at Thomas Point Beach - a happy and sad occasion at the same time.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Five Types of Applause

Wow, time sure does fly when you're... busy! It's been three months since my last post. Well, here's a little something I think many of you can relate to. I was inspired to share this with you after a poor performance at last night's Bluegrass Friends weekly jam session.

Some time ago I came to the conclusion there are at least five types of applause, or five reasons why people applaud a performance. Here's my take on it.

Obligatory Polite Applause
The standard, everyday, ordinary applause is what I would call the Obligatory Polite Applause. This is the applause which is imposed on one by authority, command, or convention; probably mostly by convention. This is the standard applause that people give out of respect, whether they liked your performance or not. It’s something you do because "it’s the right thing to do."

The Genuine Applause
The Genuine Applause is one of real appreciation. This type of applause is given when a performer does something that stands out from the crowd. Frequently, this type of applause will erupt right in the middle of a performance. Examples of when this type of applause might be given are when somebody does an outstanding instrumental break or holds a vocal note for a long time; like twenty-one and a half seconds. The crowd is truly indicating "we like what you’re doing, keep it coming."

Two other forms of applause are the scream and the whistle. This is when people either scream "more... more" at the end of a performance or they put two fingers in their mouth as they ready to take the eardrums out of whomever is sitting adjacent to them. I figure both the scream and the whistle best fit into the Genuine Applause category.

Good For You Applause
The Good For You Applause is most often given to performers of lesser talent or to people that have been holding back from performing for some time, while they’re building up their courage to perform for the first time. The audience isn’t saying "wow, that was great," but simply saying "well good for you, I’m glad you got up and did your thing."

Pity Applause
The Pity Applause is a step below the Good For You Applause. In essence, the audience is saying "Bless your poor soul. You really have no talent at all do you? You're so precious!" The pity applause is reserved for people who think they have talent, but really don’t have any at all. We don’t want to make these people feel bad, so we offer up some pity applause. The pity applause is obligatory like the standard, everyday, ordinary applause, but demands a category all its own.

The pity applause is not something anyone should strive for, although it is slightly better than being booed or heckled off the stage.

The Prompted Applause
I can't leave out a mention about the Prompted Applause. The prompted applause happens when someone in the audience or somebody on stage gets the attention of the audience and signals they should give applause. This type of applause is usually reserved for somebody that is "supposed" to be pretty hot, and perhaps we should let them know just how hot we think they are by responding to the person who is prompting us to "give it up" for so and so. This applause is often prompted by the promoter of an event, but certainly not always.

Sometimes a prompter will get confused and prompt an audience when the line of thinking is 180 degrees out of phase with what I've described in the above paragraph. That is to say, in reality, an applause based on pity is called for.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Bluegrass And Geometry

Let's talk geometry for a few minutes. Specifically, let's talk about triangles with all three sides equal in measure - the Equilateral Triangle. Do you remember when you were in the grade school band with triangles and wooden blocks? Were those not the good old days? This is what my Bluegrass life has been reduced to - the lowly triangle; but at least I get to recognize the worth, quality and importance of my childhood.

It's a sad story really, but I'm not looking for your sympathy. The first instrument I tried to learn was a 5-string banjo. Well, that proved to be a tad difficult for me, so I moved on to a stand-up bass. "How hard could it be?" I wondered. Well, let's just say the bass proved too difficult as well. So, yesterday afternoon, I went to the MusicStop store in Saint John and bought me a triangle! How hard can it be?

Everyone knows I have strict rules as to the instrumentation I will allow at my Bluegrass jam sessions, so let me clarify why I need a triangle in a Bluegrass song. A small group of people, of which I'm a part of, have been working on the Flatt & Scruggs version of the Petticoat Junction theme song. Remember that old TV show that ran from 1963 to 1970? Well anyway, there are a couple of sound effects in the song that are done by a trainagle; at least that's what I think is being used to create the sounds. One of the sounds is a train bell and the other is a dinner bell. Come and ride the little train that is rolling down the tracks to the junction - ding ding ding ding ding ding...

While it is true the triangle is a bit easier than playing an upright bass and a whole lot easier than playing a banjo, I wouldn't want you to get the wrong idea; there's more to it than you think. I mean, you have to hold the thing... and then hit it with the striker... with the proper timing, touch and tone. Through trial and error I discovered some of the intracasies of handling the triangle at various points along its sides and at its vertices. Wow, that's a big word. Any instrument that can be described with a word like that must have some degree of complexity associated with it, don't you think? Seriously though, the most difficult part of using it in Petticoat Junction is getting the timing just right with the proper tonal characteristics.

Just in case you're thinking you can bring a triangle to the Bluegrass Friends Weekly Jam Sessions and play along to all of the tunes being played, let me assure you, this will NOT be allowed. The use of the triangle in Petticoat Junction is a special effect. We're also planning on having a train whistle sound and a shaker to simulate a train chug. This is going to be really fun to play, or really corny, or both; you decide. I guess you could say from a literal point of view that we're going to have all the bells and whistles in this song. And guess what I get to play?
And you thought no one would ever put to use any of their grade school geometry skills later in life, didn't you? Come on now, tell the truth.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Bluegrass Jam or Bluegrass Boot Camp?

By now, you may be aware that I am going to resume (after an 11 month break) the weekly Bluegrass jam sessions at the Saint John Marina with the help of my wife Helen and some of my Bluegrass Friends.

When I started the original Bluegrass Friends jam sessions on July 25, 2005, everyone in attendance was enthused and excited; everyone was happy they had another place to jam and lots of people said "thanks for doing this." It didn’t take long however, before I realized I couldn’t keep everybody happy. I tried my best to accommodate everyone, but whenever I did something to make one group of people happy, I was making another group angry.

I had never done anything like this (organizing a jam) before and I didn’t know what to do about the unhappy people. It didn’t appear to take much to make some people unhappy either; something as simple as asking somebody to sit in the jam circle could set certain people off - who was I to make such a ridiculous suggestion?

After a couple months of organized chaos, I came to the conclusion that I had to stay true to my original intent of the jams; namely, to learn and play Bluegrass music. From that point on I was on a mission and I'm here to say that it wasn't easy trying to enforce the rule I had set forth - Bluegrass music only! Not John Prine, not country music, not rock & roll! Bluegrass!

I bet many people won’t believe this, but before I started the jam sessions I was mostly an introvert. Thanks to having to deal with the public at the jam sessions, I am no longer an introvert. In fact, I pretty much speak my mind now. Some people respect that; others don’t.

Some people equate the enforcement of the jam session rules with the idea that I like to tell people "the way it's going to be." Nothing could be further from the truth. I don't like having to confront people when they are not following the rules any more than the next guy, but it needs to be done from time to time for the sake of keeping the jam sessions on track and true to their purpose.

I find it very awkward when I have to speak to someone and I wish I never ever had to do it. There are lots of people that want to say something to somebody, but often times they let me be "the heavy" because in their minds I don't mind taking on that role, but as I said, this is not the case at all. I have even had people say to me "I don't want to say anything, but you can do it - you're used to it."

Something people have learned about me is that I’ll tell the truth when asked a question. With that in mind, you’d be much better off asking your questions to someone else if your only reason for asking is to hear a positive remark. I'm not saying that I never respond with a positive remark; I'm simply saying that you had better be prepared for a possible negative response as well. If a positive answer is appropriate, that’s what you’ll get. If you want an honest opinion, by all means, ask me. Again, some people respect me for my honesty, others don’t like it at all.

My son has accused me of running a Bluegrass Boot Camp at the weekly jam sessions. He says "just let people play what they want. You might hurt their feelings." I say "that's just too bad!" From the very beginning, inclusive of the first e-mail newsletter I published on July 18, 2005 announcing the first jam session, I stressed the purpose of the Bluegrass Friends jam sessions, which is to learn and play Bluegrass music; and I reminded people week after week after week until I sounded like a broken record.

If people don't want to conform to the Bluegrass only rule, there are several jam sessions in the Saint John and surrounding areas that offer a "do whatever you want" format, and that is precisely where I would suggest they go; others may suggest another place. I'm not offering a free-for-all type of jam; I have a mission and I'm going to do whatever I can to see it accomplished. If people don’t like Bluegrass music they shouldn’t be going to the Bluegrass jams. Why would anyone attend an event they don’t care for? If they do like Bluegrass, then the Bluegrass jams should be right up their alleys.

So, am I running a Bluegrass boot camp? Well, if you perceive trying to keep a Bluegrass jam on the straight and narrow Bluegrass road, then perhaps to you, I am.

The Bluegrass Friends weekly jam sessions will resume at the Saint John Marina on June 2, 2008. Welcome.

Keep pickin' and keep it Bluegrass!

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Fun Day Recording at Studio 16

My good friend Kenny Innis was up to visit me on Sunday afternoon (March 9) and we had a good time playing around with the new recording software (Adobe Audition) and M-Audio Delta 44 sound cards that I purchased shortly after Christmas.

The purpose of this session was to give the software its first test drive and to determine the sound quality I could expect. I used an MXL 2003 large diaphram condenser microphone and Kenny used my Martin HD28P guitar to play an instrumental tune that he wrote.

I experimented a bit by placing the microphone at various distances and angles from the guitar to determine what effect each would have on the final sound quality. We did the recording in my living room. Although not a perfect studio setup, I think the room was fairly well suited (acoustically) for the task with its 12 foot cathedral ceiling and open end on one wall.

I was extremely pleased with the results we obtained and I'm looking forward to recording a jam session similar to the way the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded their third Will The Circle Be Unbroken CD in an open environment with everyone in the same room. I've got some ideas as to how I might (for the most part) isolate the instruments from one another so as to be able to mix the various instruments at the proper levels on the mixdown track. I guess we'll see how that works out in the future. Right now, it's just one big experiment.

During our visit we played around with another tune we've been working on called I Corinthians 1:18 written by Ricky Skaggs. I really like this medium tempo tune that Ricky says came to him while he was reading his bible. I'll give you one guess as to which book, chapter and verse he may have been reading when the melody came to him?

Kenny has put in a considerable amount of time on this tune, ensuring every slide, hammer-on and choke is in the right place on the mandolin parts. Truth be told, when I first asked Kenny to learn the tune with me, I didn't think he would put the required amount of time in, but he certainly did and I know he has learned a lot from mastering this tune. Thanks Kenny, and I'm sorry that I had doubts regarding your commitment level. Experience has shown me that the majority of people talk a lot, but seldom follow through with any action. And you know the old saying - actions speak louder than words.

In fact, this time it was me that was delaying the action part. After Kenny learned his parts, I knew I had to follow through with the banjo parts. The first few times I tried to learn the banjo parts were very disappointing for me; it seemed like it would be a near impossible task learning the new hand movements required. For any normal person, I think the hand movements are simple, but I don't have the best left hand dexterity in the world. Anyway, one day last week I tackled the job again and the pieces started to fall in place for me. I Corinthians 1:18 is one of those tunes that is full of emotion and it must be played with a lot of feeling in order to get it to sound good.

The Bluegrass Widow witnessed Kenny and I playing I Corinthians 1:18 and gave us a thumbs up. No doubt she is a little biased, but for the most part I trust and appreciate her comments. She knows what I'm about regarding my desire to hear the truth - I can handle it. I'm not implying we've got it down perfect - we don't, but it's coming along quite nicely and I'm pleased with our progress. We now have to seek out a fiddle player and a guitar player to round out this tune.

As for the tune that Kenny recorded, my job is to learn the chord progression and come up with a banjo break. I have an idea of what I'd like to do, but just how many months it will take to conquer the task remains to be seen. The tune is in A minor - oh, the perfect banjo key - NOT!

I hope your musical endeavors are proving to be as much fun as mine are at this time. Of course, I'm hot and cold with my musical undertakings; it was just two weeks ago that I was part of a jam session that I'm sure was delivered straight from Hell. That wasn't fun.

Keep pickin' and keep it Bluegrass!

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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

I Walked Into It - Again!

Earlier this afternoon I was discussing transportation plans for tonight with the Bluegrass Widow. I have to practice with Kenny, Deek and Loraine for an upcoming gig at Rocmaura Nursing Home. The Widow and I have been down to one vehicle for the last few years and transportation to and from all of the events in our lives can be troublesome from time to time.

Tonight, I have to go to east side of Saint John while the Widow visits her father at the Saint J ohn Regional Hospital. I told her she could drop me off at Kenny's place on the way to the hospital and Kenny would drive me to Loraine's place, then back to his place where she could pick me up. Then, in the back of my mind I could see all of the timing conflicts.

Feeling like I've been a burden to Kenny for the last few months (because he is always picking me up to go to jams and other events) , I suggested that perhaps I could take the car and drop her off at the hospital, pick Kenny up, drive to Loraine's, end our practice at 9:00 PM and then pick her up on my way home. Then, in the back of my mind I could see all of the timing conflicts.

At some point in the conversation, one of the scenarios left me without a drive home and the Widow asked "how will you get home?" to which I stupidly replied "I'll hitch-hike." It was precisely at that moment that I realized I had yet again given the Bluegrass Widow more buckshot to play with. Without a bit of hesitation she quickly replied "You're going to hitch-hike? Who's going to pick you up with a banjo in your hands?"


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Hag Still Miffed by Grammy Snub. Well, Get Miffed and Get Over It!

On November 2, 2007 the Bluegrass Blog made a post titled "Grammy committee says Hag is not bluegrass," in which they stated:

"The nominating committee for the National Academy Of Recording Arts & Sciences, who distribute the Grammy Awards each year, decided yesterday that the new release from Merle Haggard, titled The Bluegrass Sessions would not be eligible for Grammy consideration in the Best Bluegrass Album category in this year’s voting."

The Bluegrass Blog has updated us (Feb 8, 2008) with another post titled "Hag still miffed by Grammy snub." There is also a story on the web site. The story is currently on the front page of but will probably be archived on another page in the coming weeks.

Personally, I cannot believe some of the things I'm reading in these posts. Things like:

"Anyone who knows the bluegrass community knows that its members like to debate definitions," McCoury Music's General Manager Chris Harris said. "But this is an album that Merle and Del decided to call The Bluegrass Sessions, produced by a bluegrass musician with bluegrass musicians, recorded at a bluegrass studio, released on a bluegrass label, racked under bluegrass in record stores, aired on bluegrass radio, covered by the bluegrass press, and it's currently in it's fourth consecutive week at # 1 on Billboard's Bluegrass chart. If that's not enough, even The Washington Post wondered why 'no one had thought to pair Merle and Bluegrass together before.' "
Let's analyze some of these statements, shall we?

"...this is an album that Merle and Del decided to call The
Bluegrass Sessions..."
That's nice. You can call something whatever you want to, but a name or title doesn't turn something into something it's not.

"...produced by a bluegrass musician with bluegrass
Oh. Well excuse me! I guess the simple fact that the CD was produced by a guy that normally plays Bluegrass music himself and because Bluegrass musicians were involved, that automatically makes the CD a Bluegrass project. Honestly, where are these people coming from?

"...recorded at a bluegrass studio..."
Well, la tee da. Of course, you know what la tee da means don't you? That's hillbilly for "c'est la vie." Anyway, please excuse me again; I should have realized. Yes, I remember the rule now. I think it's rule number one. Anything recorded in a "Bluegrass" studio shall be called Bluegrass. What I'd like to know is this: what exactly, is a Bluegrass studio? Is that a studio that is owned by a Bluegrass musician or is it a recording studio within the sate of Kentucky? I'm obviously missing something here!

"... released on a bluegrass label..."
Yeah, whatever! What is a Bluegrass label? That's right, it's just a label!

"... racked under bluegrass in record stores..."
Of course it is - they're trying to pawn this project off as Bluegrass. In just what category do you think they're going to put a CD titled The Bluegrass Sessions? Um, hello?

"... aired on bluegrass radio..."
Don't even get me started on this one!

"...covered by the bluegrass press..."
Again, of course it is. Check the title of the CD.

"...and it's currently in it's fourth consecutive week at #
1 on Billboard's Bluegrass chart..."
That's because the Bluegrass radio stations are playing it every chance they get. Have you checked the title of the CD? In my opinion, this CD has no business being played on any Bluegrass radio stations but, hey, you can't get a country radio station to play the Hag any longer (through no fault of the Hag), so where else are you going to play it? It also happens to be true that by my estimation, the vast majority of Bluegrassers are also Merle Haggard fans, so they're not going to complain about it, are they? But, the fact that it's being played by Bluegrass radio stations and has been at the top of the charts for a while still doesn't mean it's Bluegrass music. Have you checked out some of the other non-Bluegrass content being played by these "so-called" Bluegrass radio stations?

Nonsense like this is the kind of stuff that tends to make my blood boil, but I'll settle down before I blow an artery. I can't tell you how pleased I am that the NARAS has not bowed to pressure and made decisions based on "who" the artist and producers are rather than the content. Good job NARAS; you have my full support on this one!

Now that I've got all of that out of my sytem and I don't feel like I'm going to have a stroke, I would like to point out that I have nothing but the highest respect for Del McCoury and Merle Haggard as musicians, and I think "Merle Haggard - The Bluegrass Sessions" is a fine CD, but PLEASE, don't try to pass it off as being Bluegrass. It's not! Not by any stretch of the imagination!

Merle Haggard says

We intended this to be accepted by people who like bluegrass music, and I want to know how I missed that...”
Well Merle, it is accepted by people that like Bluegrass music. Most of us like it. We just won't accept it as Bluegrass; the exception being all of the Bluegrass radio station owners - they'll play anything with the word Bluegrass in it.

If you want to know how you missed it, I'll be happy to tell you. It's not sung in a Bluegrass style - not at all - not even a little bit. I don't care who produced the CD or who is playing on it. This only serves to support the notion that "just because it's got a banjo in it, doesn't mean it's Bluegrass" idea. The music on this CD is sung in a 100% old country music style. Nothing wrong with that, it's just not Bluegrass.

It's not that I don't like Merle Haggard or Del McCoury. I do. I like both of them. I'm just having a small problem with their logic, which appears to go something like, if I say the word Bluegrass a thousand times, my music will turn into Bluegrass music by mere association. I'm really confused as to how two professional musicians (and they are not the only ones involved in this project that share the same line of reasoning) that have been in the music business for as long as Del and Merle have, could come to such conclusions. Actually, I think they know full well this project is not Bluegrass, but it makes for a great debate and publicity - it's all about money and marketing. But, as usual, what do I know? They're the pros; I'm just a consumer of the product.

You can listen to samples of Merle Haggard's CD, The Bluegrass Sessions, on the McCoury Music web site and come to your own conclusions. In fact, please do.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Isn't She a Beauty?

Just look at her. Isn't she a beauty? Everything from her scroll and machine heads, to her slender neck and fret board, upper bouts, c-bouts and lower bouts, top, back, sides, bridge and tailpiece; she has it all! She's a 1963 model.

Pretty as a picture, she is! And she makes a fine piece of furniture too! What's that? You thought I was talking about the Bluegrass Widow? Nah, but she's not bad either. Say, old friend, what tipped you off that I wasn't talking about the Widow? Was it the fine piece of furniture comment or something else?

Actually, I am talking about the Bluegrass Widow's beauty metaphorically speaking, excluding the furniture remark, of course. Is she not beautiful? I certainly think she is. The Widow is not a 1963 model however. She's a...

Now you may be thinking, what kind of trouble are you in that makes it necessary to write a post like this? And the answer is none - no trouble at all. Perhaps you're thinking I'm simply trying to bank some extra points for those times that you know I'm going to mess up in the future. Nope, that's not it either. On the other hand, if there are points to be gained, I'll take 'em, but don't mention it to the Widow because it would just cancel them out if she thought the only reason I said somethhing nice was to get extra points.

I did read something in an e-mail just the other day though, the subject was Why Men Are Never Depressed and it said men get extra credit for the slightest act of thoughtfulness. Sounds reasonable enough, I guess. But really, who does something hoping they'll gain extra points? Certainly not me - that's just nonsense.

I've just been taking extra notice of the Bluegrass Widow's beauty these past few months and I can't help but remark about it. Of course, you haven't seen her in the morning like I have. Did I just lose some points?

Click on the image to see a high quality version.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Think of What You've Done

Where to start? How about the jam last Friday evening with nine Bluegrassers in attendance? In terms of numbers, that's a few more than we would normally have at a private jam due to the possibility of having the noise level get out of control. While in fact it did get loud at times, I found it to be a very enjoyable evening regardless. Maybe I’m mellowing out. No, that’s not it; it was just a lot of fun! We started at 7:30 PM and didn’t end until 1:00 AM.

I started out playing the banjo but wasn't doing much with it, so I handed it over to Mike Scott and took over on the upright bass. As a result of playing the bass I had the opportunity to experience what the phrase "blistered fingers" really means. I played for some 4 hours pretty much nonstop. If you consider the fact that I'm not a bass player, you'll realize my fingers aren't toughened up in the appropriate places yet. Youch! I think that's going to change though, because playing bass is a ball. Who needs a banjo? Actually, I learned quite a bit from trying to play bass and it has made my resolve to play banjo all the more.

With the banjo in mind, I've been working on a tune called Think of What You’ve Done from an old Ricky Skaggs long play album titled Family & Friends. I bought the album when I was still in high school, so you know it’s a few years old. I remember buying it at the music store in Lancaster Mall; I think the store was called A & A Records or something like that.

I used to hang out at the Radio Shack store in the mall every day after school. You know how people that hang around skating rinks become known as rink rats? Well, I was the local Radio Shack rat; not the snitch type, but rather the hang around type. Anyway, I rushed right on over to Radio Shack, removed the cellophane wrap and put the album on one of the turntables and cranked the volume.

Wow! Did I ever get a surprise! About 5 notes into the first song I reached for that volume control and couldn’t get it to zero fast enough. My face turned five shades of red as I wondered what everyone around me was thinking. Actually, I think I knew what everyone was thinking! I had already grown used to being called names like "hayseed" and whatnot and it didn’t bother me a bit, but for some reason I wasn’t ready for the next wave with this Bluegrass stuff. That high lonesome sound is pretty extreme when you think about it.

That was the first and only time I have ever been embarrassed by playing music (except for when I’m trying to play it myself, that is). I had been playing a lot of Skaggs’ material but it was his country stuff; I just didn’t expect the album to be Bluegrass! In fact, I really didn’t know a whole lot about Bluegrass, so it was a bit of a shocker. For the record though, I love this album; it’s top drawer all the way.

I’ve been working on the intro to Think of What You’ve Done for about 4 days now. Nothing in the intro is particularly difficult in and of itself, but trying to play the right licks in the proper sequence is proving to be a bit of a challenge for me. I know the rolls in it, but I just can’t seem to get my brain and hands to work together with regard to the sequence of licks. And of course, timing is everything to get the right feel for this song. On any song, I know my timing is good when I hear that nice steady plunk that results from playing the 5th string repeatedly. Now that is music to my ears!

I worked on this tune for 3 hours in total yesterday, so it shouldn’t surprise you when I tell you I didn’t sleep well last night because I couldn’t get the tune out of my head. But, can anyone offer a suggestion as to why the Del McCoury Band singing "We’re Gonna Have A Bluegrass Christmas" was a contender as well?

I am so very tired right now.

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