Toad Suck Campground & the Arkansas River

Good morning! It’s Thursday, October 6, and I am in the Natural State of Arkansas. I camped last night in the Toad Suck Recreation Area and Campground near Conway, Arkansas where I will be playing a concert tonight at the Faulkner County Library. Jeni and I have stayed here many times and always enjoyed it.


I drove from Nashville yesterday and arrived at the campground in just enough time to set up camp before the sun went down. I brought along a small two-person tent and a screen tent for dining, practicing, yoga, writing, and general privacy. I  set up the smaller two-person tent first and discovered I had left the rain cover and vestibule back in Nashville. I thought well at least there’s no threat of rain tonight. And now I’ll be able to really see the stars as I’m going to sleep. Then I set up the larger screen tent and then had the brilliant idea of seeing if I could put the smaller sleeping tent in the screen tent and still have room for my other activities. And I did! My friend, Si Kahn, wrote a song called It’s What You Do With What You Got and it worked out for me on this first night of camping.

Since my blog is a sound blog I wanted to write briefly about the sound of Toad Suck and share a little bit of the history. The campground is right next to the Arkansas River and the sound of the river is ear candy the way I hear it. Ever since I was young I have had a love of rivers. I grew up in Baltimore and frequently visited, hiked and fished along the Patapsco River in Baltimore and Howard counties.

The Legend of Toad Suck

There are two stories about how the area got its distinctive name. In the first account, it is said that steamboat captains plying the waters of the Arkansas regularly stopped here and drank at a local tavern nearby. Supposedly residents commented on the propensity of these captains to “suck on the bottle ’til they swelled up like toads.” Bolstering this explanation, the term taudis sucre is also said to be a corrupted French expression meaning “sweet water” and possibly referring to rum drink. The second, and more likely, account explains the name as a common name for a protected eddy in the river where boats might be tied up. A map of the river dating to 1853 also purportedly shows a Bear Suck and a Cow Suck. From Wikipedia

There is a Lock & Dam at Toad Suck and at different times in the night I could hear the Lock & Dam open and really hear the river. I’m one of those folks who likes to have a little white noise when I sleep and the river gave me plenty last night.

Well that’s all I have time for this morning my stomach is making noises almost as loud as the Lock & Dam and I’ve got to get ready for tonight’s show. Till the next time-

Much Happiness,



The Number Three

Edgar Cayce said that if you eat three almonds a day your health will be better. Earl Scruggs popularized the banjo with a three finger picking style. And the Golden Biscuit Hour is hosted by three music purveyors. The list could go on. But I want to write about something I heard and observed on the Golden Biscuit Hour (GBH) in January.

I have a small segment, the Country Side of Folk, on the GBH but I also edit and mix the show. That means I probably listen to the show more than anybody. And I listen to the songs repeatedly. In January there was a segment about Saro songs. And two particularly caught my attention because of their juxtaposition – something that Jeni and Greg had decided on. Jeni and Greg are Jeni Hankins, my true love, and her Dad, Greg Hankins, and they are the main hosts of the GBH.

The songs featured were My Saro Jane by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Rock About My Saro Jane by Uncle Dave Macon. They were played in that order and when the Uncle Dave song came on, I immediately heard something in the recording that reminded me of Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Breakdown.




I don’t have to explain to many of you who know the importance of that instrumental tune, but for those of you who don’t know here’s an explanation. Earl was a banjo player from North Carolina who played with Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, and later left Monroe’s band to form a new band – Flatt & Scruggs. These two bands were playing the music before it was even called Bluegrass. They collectively informed the genre more than just about anyone.

Flatt and Scruggs recorded the tune, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, first for Mercury records in 1949 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Fast forward a few years to around 1957 and in a high school classroom in Northern Virginia Pete Kuykendall gave a presentation about music for his classmates.

One of his classmates was the actor Warren Beatty. Pete played that original 1949 recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown as part of his presentation. Fast forward ten years to 1967 when Warren Beatty is starring in the film Bonnie and Clyde and they are looking for music to support the score for the film. There are car chase scenes in the film that are wild, fast, and dangerous. Warren remembered the banjo music from Pete’s music presentation and believed it just might support those scenes. He gave Pete a call to find out where he could get a copy of that recording. And the rest of that story is a good one for everyone who loves film and music.


The soundtrack to Bonnie and Clyde was award winning and it was a game changer for lots of folks including yours truly. I had a paper route in 1967 and being independently wealthy from my earnings, I went and saw the film Bonnie and Clyde fourteen times at the Westway movie theater in West Baltimore. And the reason for the fourteen viewings? Because of that 1949 recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I went out and bought a banjo – I was playing guitar at the time – and I taught my little brother, Dougie, the chords to Foggy Mountain Breakdown on the guitar. From there we played at a couple of coffee houses in the local churches and the Catonsville library. I loved the sound of the banjo and played it for a couple of years but then put it down to spend more time with the guitar. And then I met Jeni in 2005, and after a thirty-five year sabbatical picked it up again and now I play it almost everyday. It’s been really fun to write tunes and songs on the banjo.



Fast forward to January 2016 to the Golden Biscuit Hour. I hear the Uncle Dave recording, Rock About My Saro Jane.

I hear a sound in the Uncle Dave recording which was recorded in 1927. Now I’ll try and keep this short, which isn’t an easy thing to do for me when it comes to explaining musical sound. Here’s another reference to three. In Western music, some say there are three sounds in music: Major, Minor, and Dominant. The letters of the musical alphabet, A,B,C,D,E,F,G  can also be referred to as the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Those three musical sounds are defined by the letters/numbers.

Major and Minor sound are defined by the number three. This is a huge thing we’re talking about here. If the number three or the third in musical sound is not flatted or lowered the sound is Major. If the third is flatted or lowered the sound is minor. So the number three is probably one of the most important numbers in music. It’s that simple. Lower the third the sound is minor.

In Uncle Dave’s 1927 recording of Rock About My Saro Jane, it sounds like he is playing in the key of G#/Ab. I don’t know if they were using capos back then, but if they weren’t, then his banjo was just tuned up to the pitch of G#/Ab. He was probably playing with open chords. I don’t know if he was tuned to a “G” chord like they do in a lot of Bluegrass music, but he could have been. So Uncle Dave is playing Rock About My Saro Jane in G#/Ab. Throughout the song, every time he plays the 6 chord, it sounds like a major chord. If you are playing in the key of G then the 6 chord would be an E major, if you are playing a major sound. I’m calling it the key of G rather than G#/Ab for familiarity. Here is a link to the Uncle Dave recording:

Now let’s go to Foggy Mountain Breakdown. The 1949 recording by Flatt and Scruggs has the 6 chord in the progression and it also sounds major. Here’s a link for a listen: Here is a link to same recording with images from the film Bonnie and Clyde:

I’ve heard musicians, particularly banjo players, speak about whether to play the 6 chord with a major or minor sound in Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Here is a quote from an article I found about the tonality of the chord in the recording of Foggy Mountain Breakdown written by Thomas Goldsmith for the Library of Congress.

“And in a musical oddity that marked the dying days of older tonalities in modern string bands, Flatt often plays an E major chord, creating a weird dys-tonality with the banjo’s confident E minor. In later years, Scruggs said that he had tried to get Flatt to play a consistent E minor during “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” only to become used to the unusual sound and even partial to it.”

Here is a link to the full article where that quote comes from:

So it sounds like Earl Scruggs was playing an E minor riff on the banjo while Lester Flatt was playing an E major chord on the guitar. What a sound! A Major-Minor tonality. I think the dissonance works perfectly for the film Bonnie and Clyde and the tempo of the tune matches the speed of a get-away car racing to find the next state line And the sound they get has to do with the number three. Earl plays a major third while Lester plays a minor third.

So a big thanks goes out to Lester Flatt for holding on to the old ways and to Earl Scruggs for being forgiving about Lester’s persistence. And a thank you also goes out to Uncle Dave Macon for his 1927 recording that uses the major third on a six chord.

I would love to know if Lester Flatt listened to Uncle Dave and if his recording had anything to do with Lester playing the six major chord.

One contemporary song that uses the change 1 to 6 major in the hook intro is Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival. And that is also a song about a river boat like Uncle Dave’s Rock About My Pretty Saro.

I’ll end with a quiz. How many blind mice are there written about in song? How many bears did Goldilocks stumble into? And finally how many times does it take to be a charm?

Answers here:

Much Happiness,


Early January

January  2016

Early January usually has me thinking about the year ahead for Jeni & Billy, which tea to drink, my high school friend Cotton who’s birthday is on January 7th, and stringing up instruments with new strings. This year is no exception.

Jeni and I headed to Florida on January 14 to play seven concerts over a two week period beginning in Gainesville at the home of our good friend and banjo buddy, Chuck Levy and his wife Sandy.

Our touring this year will take us to Florida/Alabama, Mid-Atlantic/Merlefest in North Carolina, England/Wales/Scotland, the Mid-Atlantic again, the Mid-West/Canada, and then the West Coast. Please visit our website for more info at:

On our final tour last year, on the West coast we took our older guitars, a 1957 Gibson J-50 and a 1930 Martin 2-17 parlor guitar. During our winter break we played our Collings guitars and we decided on bringing them out for the Florida/Alabama run. We found our Collings CW and C-10 at Cotten Music in Nashville. Here’s a link: If you haven’t been it’s time to head over to their new location at Houston Station. We love the new shop and always enjoy our time visiting with Kim, Rick, Kit, and Andrew, the Mudge.

I put on some D’Addario light bronze strings, before the tour, on both Collings guitars and our National Resophonic, Natty Boh. I remember the days when I liked new strings, crisp and clean, with lots of overtones and partials. But these days I’m into strings that have been played for at least a week so that they are a bit tamed. Our rehearsals were a bit challenging because of the new strings, but they calmed down by the end of the week.

I’m excited about the new songs that we’ll be doing this year. We’ve written a bunch of songs about Jewell Ridge again, Jeni’s hometown in Virginia, and we’ll be recording them in February for a new album release in the spring. If you haven’t heard our recording, Jewell Ridge Coal, please check it out at our website and have a listen.

We have a fan club that gives folks a chance to hear unreleased recordings over at Patreon. Please visit us at: There’s even a pledge where you can have a two hour lesson from yours truly on guitar or banjo. It would be my pleasure to spend a couple of hours with you exploring the strings and sounds.

And finally we have something new over at Mixcloud. Jeni and her Dad, Greg, came up with the idea of doing a podcast once a month to share songs and stories about folk music. I have a small bit that we’re calling The Country side of Folk and, for our January podcast, I feature songs by Bob Dylan, Bobby Bare, Hank Snow, and Willie Nelson.
Please check it out. Here’s a link:


When we were in California last fall we got to stay with our good friends Ali and Craig. Craig is Craig Eastman, the fiddler, who played on our Picnic In The Sky record we recorded in 2014 in Los Angeles. During our stay, Ali introduced me to a tea sometimes known as southern ginseng. The plant or vine has saponins which are also found in ginseng. It is a tea that sweetens on its own as it sits in your cup. It is officially called jiaogulan. It comes from Southern China and other parts of Asia and is known to have numerous medicinal effects. Here is a link:

I ordered some when I got home from the 2015 fall west coast tour and it took about a month to arrive. It came from Malaysia. The package had these really neat stamps in a soft bag. It has been my go to tea of choice for the afternoon. I’ve been brewing about two cups in my Japanese tea pot with about two teaspoons of the tea for just a minute. I really enjoy it because you don’t have to add any sweetener and it supposedly can have life extension results. But the main reason I enjoy it is because of the taste. It’s smooth, round, and has a simple, herbal sweet flavor. Ali had a jar from Teavanna and the tea came in small compressed balls about half the size of the ball used for playing jacks. I checked with Teavanna to get the same jar Ali had but they didn’t have it available so I just bought some bulk from a place called TeaCuppa. Here’s a link to this tea:



I went to high school in Catonsville, Maryland just on the west side of Baltimore, Maryland, between 1970 and 1972. My best friend during those years and several years after was named Jonathan Karrer. But I knew him by his nickname, Cotton. I think about Cotton every January because his birthday was on January 7th, the day before Elvis’ birthday. Cotton passed away suddenly in February of 2011. We were friends because of art. We liked a lot of the same music, film, and architecture. We loved going downtown in Baltimore on Saturdays and walking around Mount Vernon visiting the same shops every week.

Without fail we would go to a record store on Mulberry Street just west of Park Avenue called The Back of the Moon. It was a small store on the ground level of what was probably a row home at an earlier time. The shop was filled with vinyl and magazines with posters on every possible piece of acreage on the walls. A guy named Glen would always be there sitting in the back of the store behind the counter. Cotton and I loved perusing through the records looking for something different to listen to. We would each buy an album and share the records with each other after we had listened to the record for a week or so. Cotton introduced me to the music of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. We both loved folk music and we both played guitar.

In 1971, in my junior year of high school, I was dating a piano player named Sara Huff and the three of us formed a trio with Sara on piano, Cotton on bass, and yours truly on guitar. I loved the sound of those three instruments together. Cotton aptly named the band Po Buckra which he said he’d read in a John Steinbeck novel. We were white, and being only fifteen or sixteen we were poor and that’s what Po Buckra meant. We played songs by Woody, Leadbelly, Dylan, the Band and even wrote some of our own. Unfortunately any cassette recordings that we made haven’t survived. We never recorded in a studio. We only played a few gigs and didn’t stay together very long. But Cotton and I remained friends and shared art with each other and enjoyed going to films and concerts.

We would also go to Ted’s Music Store on Centre Street just east of Charles next to the Peabody Conservatory of Music. Ted’s was like walking into a museum that had filled all of its floor space and had to go vertical. There were stringed instruments hanging above over the entire footprint of the place. Someone at Ted’s, and it might have been Ted, was an instrument maker and they called their instruments Martini. I think Cotton might have bought one of Ted’s guitars. Ted’s is still open but I haven’t been in years. Maybe on our next visit to Baltimore in the spring, Jeni and I will stop by Ted’s and brush a few strings.


By the way for all of the folks that will be in the Baltimore area in April we’ll be performing at the Paradise Festivus on Sunday, April 24. The festival is from 2:00 until 7:00. Here’s a link to the festival webpage:

We would also go to a Jewish charity shop on Eutaw Street, just off of Mulberry, called Hadassa. Hadassa means compassion in Hebrew and the folks at the store always extended that expression. Cotton and I would buy our entire wardrobe there – shirts, trousers, vests, hats, sports jackets, and winter coats. It was one stop shopping for us. There was another threads shop on Park Avenue also just off of Mulberry called The Bead Experience that had a totally different vibe. They were a new clothing shop with lots of hippyish kinds of things. I bought my first pair of bell bottoms there, polyester black, grey, and white lined print. I only wore them once. That’s another story.

After going to Back of the Moon, Ted’s, Hadassa, and the Bead we would usually end up at the Peabody Bookstore on Charles Street. The store opened in 1922 and was full of old books. I believe they had concerts also. You could sit, have a tea, read a book, and listen to music. It was a great way to finish our usual Saturday ramble.


Then we would catch the number 23 bus on Franklin Street or the number 8 on Lombard Street and head west back to Catonsville about ten miles from the Inner Harbor.

And now back to January 2016. We’ve played four concerts already, the Chuck Levy House concert in Gainesville and the Garage Mahal in San Antonio, plus two in Naples. San Antonio, Florida, is a very cool town with very cool people. Thanks to Jim and Jeanne and Rochelle and Norman for hosting us again this year at the Garage. And thanks to Chuck and Sandy for hosting another J & B concert.

Today, we play at the Headquarters library for the Collier County Friends of the Library. And the strings on Eck (my Collings dreadnaught CW, named after Ezra Carter the brother of AP Carter of the Carter Family), Maybelle (Jeni’s Collings parlor C-10, named after Maybelle Carter, wife of Ezra “Eck” Carter), and Natty Boh (my National Resophonic guitar named after the Baltimore beer National Bohemian, colloquially known as Natty Boh) seem to be in good shape and ready for Jeni & Billy.

Time to go play some scales and get ready for the show.

Until next time.

Much Happiness,


I’m A Fan


I am a fan of recording devices, musical instruments, musicians, singers, songs, and new music. I became a fan of these things from the first time I saw or heard them. For example, my paternal grandfather was an attorney who practiced law from the 1930s until the 1970s. Early in his practice he used a wire recorder to record statements from clients and witnesses. Fortunately, for me, he left the recorder in the garage of our house. When I found it hidden under boxes of stuff, it was like finding gold. That was in 1968. I had just started playing the guitar. The recorder was a Webster Chicago Model 80. Here is a photo:


My grandfather’s wire recorder was my introduction to recording and I am still recording all these years later and still a fan.

The Americana Music Conference was here in Nashville recently and Jeni and I went to see Ry Cooder interviewed at the Country Music Hall Of Fame and Museum.

The thing that struck me was that he was still a fan, and still a fan of many of the musical genres he discovered early on in his career. Kudos to Barry Mazor for covering an amazing career in one hour. And we got to see some friends from out of town that were here for the conference. It’s always inspiring to see someone who has been doing something for a long time and who is still a fan of what they do.

In the nineties I lived in Baltimore and did a lot of producing and recording. Most of the work I did was on an eight track cassette recorder made by Tascam called the 238 Syncaset. Here’s a picture.





I still love to record on that machine because it’s analog and it’s cassette. International Cassette Store Day just happened on September 27 and I recorded a new banjo tune called “Goldie’s Chase” on the 238 in honor of the celebration. Here’s a Sound Cloud link:

Goldie is a golden lab who lives up on Smith Ridge with MawMaw, Jeni’s Grandmother, and Mr. Kyle, and is the only dog I know that can give a weather forecast. She’s an outdoor dog who is usually found sleeping by the front door looking out onto the road. But if she is ever turned around facing into the house, you better get an umbrella out ’cause it’s gonna rain. I’m a big fan of Goldie who inspired that banjo tune and, though she’s older, she is still a fan of chasing things up on Smith Ridge.

Repetition and fandom go together. I remember I did a gig once with the Hula Monsters, a Hawaiian swing band from Maryland that I used to sub for occasionally. The gig was in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, at the Dogfish Head Pub. The drive from Baltimore was about three hours. I didn’t mind the drive because you got to go across the Bay Bridge and the Chesapeake, across the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I drove a Honda Civic, Little Red, and it had a cassette deck in the dash. This was sometime in the mid-nineties and I was listening to a lot of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. My sister, Jeanne, used to listen to their albums when I was a kid. I listened to “Don’t Worry Baby” on repeat the entire drive. It’s about a three minute song, the drive was three hours, so I must have heard the song around sixty times in a row. It was fantastic. I like to listen to music about place in the places from which it comes. I thought, since I was going to the beach, I would listen to the Beach Boys. I love Brian Wilson’s vocal, the words (it’s about a race car driver and his encouraging girlfriend), the gorgeous melody, the modulation up to the choruses and back down for the verses, the arrangement, and the sound of the recording – the latter is probably the most important thing for me.

This idea of writing about fandom and repetition started when I saw the Ry Cooder interview. One of my favorite guitar riffs that he recorded was on his “Get Rhythm” record. He does a version of “All Shook Up” and the intro features a solo guitar that just gives me chicken skin every time. Eight seconds in, he strikes a string and gets this fabulous harmonic overtone that is way distorted.

Last weekend we went to Vintage King for a gear expo and saw John McBride give a demonstration on drum sounds he had recorded at his Blackbird Studio in Berry Hill, here in Nashville. He also was quite the fan. For the demonstration he had Steve Jordan on drums and Willie Weeks on bass. It was a real treat to see John McBride speak about the process of recording the drum sounds and to hear him mix the Jordan/Weeks rhythm section while adding various ambient treatments to the mix. It was hard not to get caught up in his passion and enthusiasm about microphones, musicians and sound.

One last note about repetition and fandom. When I was thirteen I saw the film Bonnie and Clyde at the Westway movie theater in West Baltimore. I went back and saw the film thirteen more times. I had a paper route serving the Baltimore Sun and, with the money I made from serving the newspapers, I was able to go see the film that many times. I think I went with my brother on the first showing, but on the subsequent visits, I was solo. I was struck by the sound of the banjo. To hear the Flatt and Scruggs soundtrack behind the moving images of the chase scenes was the greatest thing I’d ever heard or seen. And I just had to see and hear it again and again. Here are a couple of links:  and

I’m still a fan and I could listen to “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Get Rhythm,” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” another three hundred and sixty-four thousand times and still want to hear them again. Don’t worry baby, the mountain may be foggy, but when you break the rhythm down and listen closely, it’s easy to find your way back home. Keep on listening. I sure am!

John Prine at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

The year was nineteen seventy-one. A former mailman from Illinois released an album on Atlantic records, self-titled, John Prine. The songs were narrative — filled with empathy for his characters. Sam Stone, the drug addicted veteran; Hello In There, a song about aging; and Paradise, the town that was taken away by the coal company. Paradise was also the name of the neighborhood I grew up in in West Baltimore.

Jeni and I got to see John Prine interviewed today at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum by Nashville’s own Peter Cooper. Prine was much shorter than I remembered, although anyone will look short next to Peter. He might very well be the tallest singer/songwriter/ journalist in Nashville. Prine had the very guitar that he wrote those early songs on back in Maywood, Illinois. It looked like a dreadnought.

Humor was flying around the place with Prine piloting the stage. Later in the interview he said that, “Life is humorous.” He spoke about one of the first songs he wrote, “Frying Pan.” A song about a woman who left her husband and left the good-bye note in the frying pan because she knew that that would be the first place he would go when he got home from work. He said his limited style of playing came down to two ways, slow and fast.

That reminded me of the primitive partner that I travel and sing with, Miss Jeni Hankins. Only difference being Jeni’s two modes of playing are slow and slower.

In nineteen seventy-one I was in high school, the eleventh grade. I had been playing the guitar for a couple of years and was playing a lot of folk and country music. The town of Ellicott City was just four miles west of Paradise and many of my friends lived there in a smaller community on the east side of the Patapsco River called Oella. Many of the folks who lived in Oella had come to Baltimore for work from West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. They worked in the mills. And they loved the Appalachian music and introduced me to it. My friends loved the music of John Prine and I really wished that they could have all been there today at the Hall to hear and see Prine speak about his journey. We would gather in Oella at the bottom of Holler Road and sing John Prine songs at the little country church. Robbie , T.G. , and Frazier to name a few.

On the weekends I would drive my 1960 Rambler over to Oella because on a clear night I could pick up the Grand Ole Opry on the AM radio up near the Westchester Elementary school. Oella had a bit of altitude compared to the inner harbor of Baltimore. I would listen to as much music as I could back then. And the John Prine debut release was one that I wore out.

Prine spoke about one of the first music venues he played in Chicago, the Fifth Peg. He said he played Sam Stone, Hello In There, and Paradise and the people were speechless. He wasn’t sure if they loved it or hated it.

He spoke about how his characters were vehicles to express the way he was feeling. He said he wrote songs while on his mail route delivering the mail. He said that there wasn’t much to it, “Once you know you’re on the right street.” He shared a story about the song, Angel From Montgomery. He was asked to do some co-write by Eddie Holstein. Eddie had heard his, Hello In There, and when Prine asked him, “what would you like to write about?” Eddie said let’s write a song about old people. Prine said, “I’ve already done that, how about a song about a middle aged woman who feels old?” Eddie said, “I don’t want to do that,” and Prine went home and wrote the song all by his lonesome. He spoke about how gender doesn’t really matter when it comes to songwriting. The opening line from Angel From Montgomery is, “I am an old woman, named after my mother.” An example of a character he made up to put across his feeling about women who were ignored by their husbands.

In Oella, at the bottom of Oella Ave was a drinking establishment called, The Valley View. It was right next to the river. The locals called it, The Bloody Bucket. The jukebox featured songs by Hank Williams Sr., Ernest Tubb, Freddy Fender and Willie Nelson to name a few. In nineteen seventy-five I got a gig to sing at the Valley View and asked my friend, Jack, to play bass with me. Neither of us had ever played there so we were both excited and petrified at the same time. We thought the idea of singing songs for pay, twenty five bucks, and all your drinks complimentary sounded mighty nice.

We were to play from nine to one. I’m pretty sure we did a number of repeats because we didn’t know enough songs to play that long. There wasn’t a stage so we just played in a corner of the barroom. There were maybe twenty people there that night. Sometime later in the evening there was a bit of a scene. A man and a women were having an argument and the guy started shoving the woman. My friend, Jack, walked over and tried to make peace and got himself into a mess. I wasn’t exactly sure what had happened at the time but when our last set came around. Jack was no where to be found. I had to end up doing the last set solo. At the end of the night I packed up our guitars and still had no idea what had happened to Jack. I started up the Rambler and headed east back to Paradise. The Washington Flour Mill was directly across the street. There was a guard rail because of the parking lot for the mill workers. There was a patch of grass just this side of the guard rail and I noticed someone lying by the side of the road. I stopped the car and it was Jack. I helped my friend up and got him into the car. He was hurting pretty badly. The couple had both turned on Jack and beat him up. That was the last time we ever played at the Bloody Bucket.

I perform now with Jeni and Billy and fortunately we get paid more. I wish I had that Rambler. I know Jeni would love that car. Last night, we were trying to think of band names for the band that backed us up on our new CD, Picnic in the Sky, coming out this summer. We were both looking in various books and Jeni was looking at this book, All-American Ads from the Fifties. Jeni said, “look at this” and it was an ad for the Rambler.

John Prine’s reading of Angel From Montgomery today reminded me of the woman that Jack tried to help that night at the Valley View. I think the bartender’s name was Dan. He was a friendly person. I think that the folks in the Valley View that night had either grown numb to scenes like the fight or they knew better than to get in the middle of an argument like that. Over the years I’ve always thought that the folks knew the couple and thought it best not to get involved. Too bad Jack had to learn the hard way. It’s one of those things in life that you’re just not sure about what the right thing to do is. It was like a traffic light turned yellow. Some folks just speed up and go on their way and some stop.

Prine spoke about his album, The Missing Years. He said that, Howie Epstein produced the record and built the songs arrangements and production around Prine’s guitar playing. That struck a chord in me, no pun intended, because I’ve wanted to do the same thing with Jeni for years. I love listening to Jeni just sing and play her guitar. It’s like they, her voice and guitar, are one. And she definitely accompanies herself in a most beautiful way. We co-write most of our songs, with Jeni contributing mostly lyrics and my contribution is mostly music. On our new CD there will be a song, The Mill Hurries On, which Jeni wrote alone. It is a well known story about a mill worker who has died because of unsafe working conditions. The character or singer is the ghost of the mill worker who has died. Jeni’s melody is just perfect. And the chords are also. Just three of them. The recording is with our backing band, Little Pioneer (we’re thinking this will be the name of our band), and they just make magic on the recording. I can remember Jeni playing it for me when she first wrote it and I wish I would have recorded it. She had that Prine thing that happens when the writer is singing their own song. It’s pure joy. Even if it is primitive.

Peter Cooper asked him about the song, Jesus, The Missing Years. It closes his recording of the same name. It’s a recitation. He said he’s always liked recitations. He mentioned Hank Williams Sr. as Luke The Drifter. He said the chorus lyrics were unrelated to the song, just some words he had written but hadn’t done anything with. He inserted them in the song just to kind of break up the recitation. He likened it to the end of a Disney record when a voice says, “Turn the record over.” Everyone laughed. He said that they had recorded eleven songs for his Missing Years album and was waiting to hear from Epstein about the mixes and was thinking about the photos for the record when Epstein called him and said, “I think we need one or two more songs for the record.” Prine said he thought he was crazy. He thought, “I don’t have anymore songs in me.” He said, “If they did an autopsy on me at then, they wouldn’t have found any more songs.” Don’t get any ideas Dave. Dave is Dave Way one of our two producers on Picnic In The Sky. Prine said the next day he wrote, “It’s A Big Ole Goofy World.” Thank you Howie Epstein!

And thank you Peter Cooper for a fantastic second introduction to John Prine.


Here’s a short clip of Prine doing the chorus from his Paradise. His singing is a bit affected by the spring allergies here in the Nashville Valley. That’s me and Jeni singing in the background. Jeni’s singing is a bit warbly because she was so happy, she was crying.

And here’s a link to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. If you dig deep enough you’ll find how to listen to archived interviews.

Al “Madman” Baitch

I read on my Baltimore Sun app this morning that Al “Madman” Baitch died on March 24th at the age of 89. He was one of the great Baltimore club and concert musicians who played for nearly seventy years. His instrument was the saxophone. I had to call my Dad to let him know because Dad knew Al. They had played some music together, my Dad was a singer, and they also knew each other from the racetrack. My Dad loved the horses and so did Al.

So tonight Jeni and I watched  the Barry Levinson film, Diner, because Al makes an appearance  towards the end. He’s in the wedding scene and of course he’s playing in the wedding band. There’s a singer singing Blue Moon, and Al gives this great look in reaction to the singer.  Being a singer myself made me wonder if I’ve ever had that look from any of the musicians I’ve performed with. Probably so.  My Dad told me tonight on the phone that Al used to tell my Dad that I was a hundred times better than my Dad.  Now I gotta say I’ve always thought my Dad was the greatest singer and composer. My Dad would make up little tunes and sing songs that he would make up to my sister, brother and me when we were growing up. And then there was my Dad’s band, Bill Kemp and the NuTones. He sang songs from the American popular songbook. Check out the recording below. That’s the NuTones with Dad. The recording was done by an amateur recordist  fan on a cassette recorder in 1968 at the Howard Place in Baltimore. The basement of our house on Symington Avenue in West Baltimore was where the NuTones would practice sometimes. Lucky for me and my brother we got sit on the sofa and listen and watch the rehearsals. We had an upright piano in the alcove of the basement that John Yeager would play. He made it sound so good. He mostly played by ear in the NuTones, though I’m sure he could read as well. My mother, Marcia, also played that piano but she played piano pieces by Bach and probably other German composers. My mother’s mother, Vera, was from Germany and she taught piano as well as being a player herself. But my mother would make the piano sound  good in a different way than John Yeager. She would always have the music score on the piano and made the notes sing that were written on the lines and spaces. John Yeager seemed to pull the notes from out of  thin air, somehow magically making them all work nicely together. It was my early education in music. Informal listening sessions with the NuTones and informal, but very serious tinkering on the piano while I sat and played with my mother. She would let me “sit in” with her on a minuet by Bach and I would somehow find notes that seemed to go along with what my Mom was playing.

So tonight my thoughts are about my early days spent in the basement with Bach and the American song book. And here’s hoping Al “Madman” Baitch is playing in that Angel band with all of his friends and heros. Goodnight Al…,0,4117319.story

Thoughts On How I Play The Guitar and Banjo

Last Saturday night, Jeni and I played in San Antonio, Florida, at a house concert series called the Garage Mahal. The hosts, Rochelle and Norman, were just the greatest. Rochelle is a yoga instructor and told me a story about a woman who did not hear so well. At the end of her yoga session the woman said she enjoyed it when Rochelle said, “I must say” when in fact she was saying namaste. We had a good laugh about that. And Norman is a hiker who is going to attempt for his second time to do a through hike of the Appalachian Trail starting this fall. He told me that a “through hike” is when you hike the entire trail within a year after your start date. Go Norman!

The concert went well and I met two delightful folks during the break, Ernie and Bonnie. Bonnie had seen us before and it was Ernie’s first time to a J and B concert. We spoke during the break and Ernie commented about my right hand playing technique. He said, “I noticed that you play with your thumb and middle finger while your index finger is bent over a bit.” And he asked me about how all of that happened. Lots of folks over the years have asked me that question, and I felt like my answer to Ernie and Bonnie was my best explanation so far. It went something like this:

The first song I learned on the guitar was “Ode To Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry. My guitar teacher, Ronnie Cook, from Bill’s Music House in Catonsville, Maryland, taught it to me in the key of E. Bobbie Gentry plays a dominant ninth chord on the intro but I’m not sure how she played it whether with a pick or her fingers. I learned it by playing a right-hand technique with a flat pick only. That would have been in 1967 when I was thirteen.

Then in 1975, I heard Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.” After an independent study of Willie’s guitar playing style, I learned about the pick and two-finger right-hand technique. That’s where you play with a flat pick by holding it with your thumb and index finger, primarily doing downstrokes, and playing upstrokes with your middle and ring fingers. The pick plays single note bass notes – walk-up and walk-down melodic lines – while the two fingers play two other strings that are usually two notes that are part of the chord. You can also play three-note or triad chords by playing the lowest note of the chord with a downstroke with the pick, and the middle and highest notes of the chord with your two fingers. It’s also a way to play a fast melodic single note line by alternating between the pick doing downstrokes and the two fingers doing upstrokes.

And then in 1983 I was introduced to the music of Dire Straits. The guitarist, Mark Knopfler, played with a thumb and two finger method by using only the skin of his fingers on the strings, rather than striking the strings with a pick. When you watch Knopfler play, he is usually playing with the thumb, index, and middle fingers, while his ring and little fingers are anchored on the top of the guitar. I learned some of his songs and really liked playing without a pick.

I started to practice with thumb and fingers only and no pick. However, the music I was playing still asked for some pick playing. So I would be playing a song using a pick only attack, but then wanted to do some thumb and finger playing within the context of the same song. So, I would play some of the song with the pick, and then slip the pick into my bent index finger, actually folded over, and hold the pick, while I would play a thumb and middle finger skin only part. Sometimes the ring finger would also strike the strings depending on the line or part.

For most of my finger style playing, I play with my thumb and middle finger, and strike the strings with skin and no nail. I like the tone with the skin playing. I’ll use this method on guitar and banjo.

And now when I practice, which I try to do at least an hour and a half everyday, I mix up the right hand technique with pick, pick and two fingers, and thumb and two fingers.

At the end of the concert Bonnie and Ernie thanked Jeni and me for coming to the Garage Mahal, and then presented us with some honey. What a sweet ending!



Here are a couple of SoundCloud links that feature the thumb and finger style.