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.

http://countrymusichalloffame.org

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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…

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/obituaries/bs-md-ob-al-baitch-20140403,0,4117319.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!

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

 

Way Down Upon The Suwannee River- Songs and Biscuits

Jeni and I are camping at the Stephen Foster State Park and we’ve written three new songs. One about a bug that casts a shadow of a horse, one about a Maryland horse racetrack, and one about Jeni’s grandmother, Mawmaw Margie.

During the day the carillon, the world’s largest tubular bell instrument, plays some of Foster’s tunes and they reverberate for miles. We know because we’ve taken many four to five mile hikes along the Suwannee.

We made some homemade chili last night for dinner and Jeni made some of her “I have arrived” homemade biscuits. She has arrived because her grandmother has said so about her biscuit making.

Back to biscuit and song making!

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Booker T Jones at the Country Music Hall of Fame

Last week brought the Americana Music Festival and Conference to Nashville and Jeni and I got to go to a couple of spectacular events at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum. On Thursday in the Ford Theater, Robert Gordon interviewed the legendary Booker T Jones – musician, composer, producer from Memphis, Tennessee. Mr. Jones was honored this year with a Lifetime Achievement award for his contribution to American music.

Right out of the gate Mr. Gordon asked about race and how it had affected Mr. Jones and his music. He said, “the only white folks I knew from the neighborhood were the grocer and the insurance man.”  When asked about his early days in music he spoke about the Satellite Record Shop near his neighborhood and that guitarist/songwriter Steve Cropper was the clerk. He said, “there was music making going on behind the curtain at the record store” and that he wanted to be a part of it. He said that when he was “too young to go in the clubs on Beale Street” in Memphis he would “loiter outside to hear the music.” He was listening to that “big organ sound of Bill Handy” (W.C. Handy).

When I was too young to go into the clubs in Baltimore I used to do the same thing. There was a blues club on W. 25th Street where Nils Lofgren used to play. He played his guitar through a Leslie tone cabinet and did acrobatics on a trampoline. It was amazing. And he had such a great tone and sound from the guitar coming out of that cabinet. I was transfixed.

Mr. Jones spoke about the first time he saw a Hammond B3 organ with the Leslie tone cabinet. His piano teacher had one in her house and he thought it was “just another piece of furniture.” I can attest to the fact that a Leslie 147 tone cabinet is like a piece of furniture. I used to play a guitar through one powered by a Fender Pro Reverb rather than the Leslie amp. It was so cool to hear the guitar through the Leslie on the slow speed with an MXR phase 90 pedal. I got the idea from Nils Lofgren. But after numerous gigs hauling “the furniture” around my band mates suggested just to play the guitar traditionally through the amp. But I enjoyed many solo concerts in my parents basement with my Fender Telecaster through the Leslie. What a sound!

One day an organ student was getting ready for a lesson at his piano teacher’s home. Booker T asked if he could hear the organ. He heard just three notes and knew at that moment that that’s what he wanted to play. His piano teacher suggested to stick with the piano because the lessons were more costly for the organ. He decided to “expand the perimeter” of his paper route to afford the organ lessons.

He eventually got behind the curtain at the Satellite Record Shop and one of his first sessions was playing saxophone for a Stax recording for Rufus Thomas. He was still in high school and his friend got him a hall pass, they borrowed the band director’s car and went to the session. After that he would do sessions for Stax after school. He said the early Stax artists were, “neighborhood people” like William Bell. Mr. Jones would later write “Born Under A Bad Sign” with Mr. Bell.

He said his family was “given to education.”  His father had gone to college and his grandfather was a teacher. But before he left Memphis for Indiana University in Bloomington, he had formed a group with fellow session musicians at Stax. That band was Booker T and the MGs. They were given free recording time on Sundays and the group recorded two sides, “Behave Yourself” and “Green Onions” in 1962. Green Onions was the B-side and a DJ named Rubin Washington played that side more than the A-side. It became a hit for the band that same year.  He enrolled at Indiana University after “Green Onions” was a hit. He said he bought a Ford Galaxy convertible with his first royalty check. My own grandfather used to tell me that “food and shelter are priorities” and Booker T said that the key places in the studio were “the heater and the coffee machine.”

The interview also included a Q & A and I got to ask Mr. Jones about his work with reading and non-reading musicians. He said there were no charts in the early days and that he didn’t really use any written charts until his sessions with Bobby Darin out in California. He did say that he usually brought or formed a “head chart” for his studio work. When asked about where his sound and music come from he said, “It’s a mystery.” He said that he hears music in his mind’s ear and that he has been fortunate to “remember enough of it to make a living.”

While at music school he listened to works by Jean Sibelius and was moved by his “emotion on paper” which became Mr. Jones’ “hash mark.”  He also spoke about the jazz musicians in Memphis and how “because of those guys I developed a great respect for proficiency and reading skills.”

Booker T said, when speaking about the 1960s, that Memphis was a “seed of dissension” and that “transformation has to happen for healing.”  His music and his eloquent way of speaking left me transformed as I left the Hall last week. Thank you Mr. Jones for your music and your generosity. Here is a link to his website http://www.bookert.com/ and a link to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum http://countrymusichalloffame.org/calendar/view/1975?month=09&day=13&year=2012

First Recording Session on the Series 70 Recorder at Artland

This was the result of the first recording session at Artland in Nashville using a vintage analog tape recorder, the Tascam Series 70 1/2 inch eight track. It actually is a six track recorder now because the heads are worn on tracks 1 and 8.
The music is for a sextet. 2 acoustic guitars, resophonic guitar, banjo, harmonica and electric bass. I played all of the instruments and had a lot of fun making it. I used a 1957 Gibson J-50, a 1916 Martin 2-17. a 1930 Style O National Resophonic, a Jeni Hankins made Mike Ramsey Style open-back banjo, a 1968 Fender Precision bass and an “E” Marine Band harmonica.

A special thank you to Charlie Brewer for getting the recorder back in a good working condition.

 

Patsy Cline Exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Jeni and I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (CMHOF) today with Marcy, Jeni’s Mom, to hear songs and stories about Patsy Cline.

There were two events celebrating the new Patsy Cline exhibit, “Crazy For Loving You”,  that just opened on Friday. The first one was a panel discussion, “I’ve Got Your Memory: Family and Friends Remember Patsy Cline”, with Patsy’s husband, Charlie Dick, Charlie and Patsy’s daughter, Julie Fudge, Country music singers and Grand Ole Opry stars George Hamilton IV and Jan Howard, and Nashville session musician Harold Bradley. It was moderated by CMHOF senior historian, John Rumble.

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The stories from Patsy’s family and friends were heart-felt, down-home shared memories that recalled a feisty, funny, hard working wife, mother and singer who loved family, friends and fans most likely in that order.

Charlie spoke about her love of singing and how she could sing anything, her favorite being Western Swing songs. Julie spoke about how her Mom and her Grandmother painstakingly made Patsy’s stage clothes by hand on a treadle sewing machine. One particular red fringe dress had over three thousand sequins sewn by hand.

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George Hamilton IV spoke about the first time he heard Patsy sing in Washington D.C. She sang a gospel song, “Life’s Railway To Heaven”, and how he later sang that song at his grandfather’s funeral who was a railroad man. Jan Howard told a story about the song, “I Fall To Pieces” and how her husband, Harland Howard, had co-written the song with Hank Cochran. She said she didn’t like the song jokingly because she had been promised to record the song for her record label but then her demo was pitched to Patsy who recorded it for release first which went on to become Patsy’s first number one hit Country song.

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Harold Bradley, who played guitar and/or tick-tack bass on all but four of Patsy’s recordings, spoke about Patsy’s intensity every time she stepped up to the microphone. He also said that two of the things he’d learned from being a session musician was that 1. the singer is always right and 2. the singer is never wrong. Here is a picture of Harold’s personal calendar that shows the session for Patsy’s “Crazy” written by Willie Nelson.

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Just another day in Nashville.

Thanks to Jeni, her Mom, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.