Thursday, May 29, 2014

Of bluebirds and arrowheads

During that long, hard, cold winter, it was easy to forget about how fast and how thickly things turn green up here.  Winter ended only a few weeks ago, it seems, and now summer is coming on like a steam locomotive rushing into the station as if to make up time.  I've been mowing and sowing and weeding and feeding and every so often standing back to look at spring busting out all over, as if it had to get out of the way of summer before it comes piling in.

On the east side of our house the firepinks -- a spectacular little bright-red wildflower -- have come on the strongest we've ever seen.  The flame azaleas are astonishingly bright, and on the road down to the barn the lane is lined with big pink rhododendren blooms.  The laurels are just now beginning to show their white lacy blooms and the irises have shot up and overflowed with purple blossoms.

Longtime residents up here see this kind of thing all the time, and may be used to the sights. But for me, a city boy who spent as much time as I could outdoors and out in the country when I could, it's still new.  The other day I found the first arrowhead I can recall. It was a reddish piece of something, unmistakable shaped as a projectile point, lying there in the dirt not 50 feet from where I picked up a stone ax head a few years ago.  My father-in-law had found arrowheads on the property in the same place, and my father as a boy had found a handful of arrowheads in Guilford County as well, but in more than 60 years of looking, this was my first.

Then yesterday, coming down the driveway from the mailbox, Diesel engine roaring, I flushed out two bluebirds -- bright blue and rusty orange slashes jetting out of the hay -- from the nearby field where the grass is getting waist-deep, and seconds after that I flushed out two turkeys, both of which took wing over my head and into sanctuary of the woods.  It was a heart-pounder. Where else are you going to get a show like that?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Watching magic made in the sound studio

Wood Allen never mentioned the topic to me, nor I to him.  But except for getting together and picking every now and then, it was looking like the days of The Villagers were over.  We still mourn the loss of boyhood friends Fred Birdsong and Jimmy "Squirrel" Garrison. Fred, who could carry on an intelligent and informative conversation on any topic, died in an awful accident when his car was hit by a drunk driver while Fred was returning from a prison ministry meeting where he counseled and prayed with inmates.  Jimmy, who had put off going to the doctor for too long so he could play at my daughter's wedding a decade ago, put up the hardest fight against cancer I ever saw in a human being.  He wore that cancer out a number of times, but it kept creeping back.  After losing our friends and playing one final duet at Jimmy's son's wedding, Wood and I probably both wondered if there'd be another performance, or any more of those long-slow whiskey-sippin' afternoons picking out old standards like "Abilene" and "Delia's Gone" and "Chilly Winds." Without Fred's banjo and Jimmy's style of Merle Travis picking, it was hard to even think about going back before a crowd.
Jack, Wood and Jim on a good night in Buncombe County, 2004

Then last fall Wood saw that the Kingston Trio was seeking submissions from songwriters for a second album of new songs written by people who liked to play what used to be known as folk music and may be more widely known now as Americana.  Wood had an idea: "You write the words and I'll write the music."  I'd tried to write a song a couple times before, but got nowhere.  This time, though, Wood suggested writing about sailing, and after a few false starts and a little consultation, I came up with enough for four verses, refrains, a chorus, a bridge and a coda.  That's a fancy way of saying it looked like a song, and Wood got on the Martin guitar, figured out a melody, smoothed out a few rough spots and sent me a demo. It sounded great.  He sent it in, and astonishingly, it got picked for recording by the new Kingston Trio's George Grove, Bill Zorn and Rick Dougherty.

Wood and I flew out to Phoenix and spent an amazing week in John Wroble's Porcupine Studios in Chandler, AZ as the Trio, with original K3 star and now owner Bob Shane watching most days, recorded our song and that of four others -- Tom Craig from Scotland, Mike Murray from Portland, OR, George Weissinger from Long Island, NY, and Dan Yount from Tuscon and originally from Michigan.  Tom wrote a tribute to the great songwriter and performer John Stewart; George did a memorable piece about having the chance to live life again, Dan wrote an ode to Lake Michigan and Mike wrote a riveting piece about snake handling that gives me high-lonesome chills.  Here's a photo of John Wroble at the big control board:
John Wroble, master of the big board

These songs will be on an album that may be released late this year after recording 7 more songs from others who sent in submissions.  While we've got copies of the rough tracks of our song, none of them has been mixed yet, so they won't be released until later. We also met Paul Gabrielson, the Trio's fine  bassist, and Gaylan Taylor, who plays with the Limelighters and who sat in on these sessions to play rhythm guitar.  Here's a photo of Wood warming up just before recording a picking track for our song, "On the Wind."
Wood Allen, about to record at Porcupine Studios, Chandler AZ

One night we jammed with the other writers as well as folks like businessman Bert Williams, who has attended the K3's fantasy camps and who shelled out the big bucks for a wrap party the last night, and Rick Dougherty, who in his long career has managed opera companies as well as sung with the Limelighters before joining the Trio.  Here's a pix from that, with my shiny new Blueridge tenor guitar.  Since I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I thought it appropriate to get it just before we went out west, even if it does spell Blue Ridge as one word. 
Jamming on the tenor gitbox with Bert Williams, left, and Tom Craig, right

 Bobbie Childress, Bob Shane's wife, who handles much of the Kingston Trio's business operations as well as The Kingston Trio store,  worked with Wood to put a few things musical up on the Kingston Trio's website You might get a kick out of these:  Hint: click on the word "click" when you get to the  line reading "Here are some photos & videos uploaded by Wood Allen: click"

The lightest moment came at midweek after several days of hard work recording track after track, working to get things just right.  George Grove, the great singer and masterful picker on banjo and guitar, had kept the tension down with various antics, including a stray chicken cluck every now and then on a bad take.  Since several folks were still to arrive at that point, we did one chorus of George Weissinger's song with our interpretation of chickens clucking the choral melody.  You can access this by clicking on "McClucker" on the K3 Facebook website at John Wroble dubbed that fowl thing in midway through the song, and when it was played back for the unsuspecting, the double-take-whiplash-bugeyed-stupefactional hysteria level was pretty near a 10.  You'll have to wait for the release of the CD to hear George's fine song. 

Quite apart from their music and their singing and their place in American music history, the think about the Kingston Trio that I think sets them apart is this: They're a bunch of nice guys who make themselves accessible to fans after concerts and who are, in my book, friendly, engaging, creative, welcoming and just happy to have a beer or swap jokes or go for pizza or tell tall tales as anyone you would ever want to meet. When they'd end a concert, they'd say something like, "Look, we're going to go across the street to the lobby of the hotel and have a few.  Join us if you can."