Can You Help?

I want to let you know about a charity event that I will be participating in this December. It’s called the Cure GM1 Charity Concert. The folks that have organized this event, andGM1 Poster some of those participating in it, have young children that have been diagnosed with a rare, and fatal, disease called GM1. Those living with GM1 must watch as their children lose the ability to walk, stand, speak, even swallow. Their vibrant lives are cut drastically short. But there is good news. A cure may be on the horizon thanks to promising research from Auburn and UMass Medical Schools. All that’s lacking to gain FDA approval is the required testing. I know that you can’t all drive down to Tucson, AZ and support this fundraising effort, but you can donate online. Please consider the Cure GM1 Foundation as you plan your holiday giving. Every little bit helps move them closer to possibly having a cure by 2017. Thank you and God bless.

The World of Bluegrass Just Got Bigger!

Hi folks! I just got back from the 2016 World of Bluegrass conference. What a week! I’m planning to share more of the happenings with you in the upcoming Barnstormer Newsletter next month but thought you might like a sneak peek!

The highlight of the week was, of course, the IBMA award show. Hobnobbing with Bluegrass Unlimited’s Kitsy Kuykendall, bluegrass legend Ronnie Reno, my buddy Larry Stephenson of the Larry Stephenson Band, as well as all the good folks from Bluegrass Today before the show was so much fun. But I had no idea what an emotional experience was in store when I arrived that evening. You could have knocked me and a whole bunch of other folks over with a feather when my dear friend, Danny Paisley’s name was called as the Male Vocalist of the Year. I’ve known Danny for just about his whole career. We’ve played at the same festivals, clawing for every scrap of meat off the bluegrass bone we could get. It brought tears to my eyes and to those around me, to see him stand up there, obviously shaken, and accept his award. And he certainly deserved the win. Wow! What a thrill!! Congratulations Danny…you are an inspiration to us all!

“Bluegrass in Baltimore” makes a great read!

Bluegrass in Baltimore Book JacketI was so excited to receive my copy of “Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and Its Legacy” by Tim Newby. A while back, Tim had asked me to contribute information about my hero and friend, Walter Hensley, which I was more than happy to do and then, quite frankly, I totally forgot about it.

To say I was thrilled by what I read is an understatement, I’m overjoyed and overwhelmed with gratitude to have been a part of this wonderful contribution to the genre I love so much. Not only did Tim capture the flavor of bluegrass in Baltimore, he conveyed its’ very essence. In a fluid style that captivates the reader from the preface to the final chapter, Tim’s passion and depth of knowledge regarding this rich and “woefully under-documented” history of bluegrass permeates every page. I couldn’t put it down. I was especially touched by the tribute this book pays to Walt as well as honored to be included in a work that is destined to be a bluegrass classic and must-have for any bluegrass historian. Hats off to Tim Newby for a delectable slice of bluegrass pie!

The book is now available on Amazon, at Target and probably a bookstore near you. Click HERE to see a video about the book.

Hazel McGee Is Going Home

I was just facebooking with Hazel’s son, Herman, this past weekend and learned that Hazel wasn’t doing well, but her death still came as a shock followed by a deep sense of loss. I’ve idolized the White Mountain Band since I moved to New York in the 1980s. Their music really spoke to me and reminded me of my early childhood days listening to singing from backwoods Baptist churches and church camps. Hazel and Mac epitomized that haunting mountain harmony that is a signature of original bluegrass pioneers.

James with Hazel McGee at 2005 Jamboree

James with Hazel McGee at 2005 Jamboree

I remember the year that Hazel & Mac performed at the Park Slope Jamboree. It was such a thrill to join them on stage and sing a few old gospel songs with them. Their contribution to the music we love will live on forever in the worldwide community of bluegrass. I’m sure Hazel is making herself at home in heaven.

Pete Seeger: Living Outside the Box

“To my old brown earth and to my old blue sky, I’ll now give these last few molecules of ‘I’.” – Pete Seeger

When I arrived in New York City, I had the good fortune to play at the Greenwich Folk Festival in Greenwich Village, then considered to be the heart of the folk music scene. And one of the biggest hearts belonged to Pete Seeger. Backstage, he was always warm, welcoming, and nurturing — setting an example that I still try to follow today. As part of a roots music concert tour, we rode in the van together to the shows and I loved listening to him talk (not surprisingly, he was a great storyteller!).

We made our own stories, too. One time we were at this lodge in upper state NY for a convention of the People’s Music Network and it just so happened that Pete didn’t have an instrument with him. All the musicians were doing a round robin, picking for a bit and then sitting down to let the next musician play. When it came around to Pete, he stood up on his chair and told a little story about what he was going to do and then he started hamboning while the crowd roared it’s approval. He brought music with him wherever he went. I had such an admiration for him as a performer…even without an instrument he could mesmerize a room full of musicians.

Screen Shot 2014-01-28 at 11.43.04 AMI had been working on collecting interviews for the documentary “Making Music with the Pioneers of Bluegrass” when I got a call from the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, KY, asking if I would do an interview with Pete Seeger for their Oral History Project. Seems that back in the 70s, Pete had donated his banjo to support a fundraising effort for the folk music community. This was the banjo that he had played for more than 15 years at protest rallies in the 60s and it featured his slogan “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender” on the head. The IBMM had just acquired this banjo from a private individual to display at the museum and they wanted folks to be able to connect with the instrument through a recorded interview with this living legend. Of course I jumped at the chance and headed off to Beacon, NY to meet with Pete, now 87 years old.  Now, the Clearwater Meeting House where we held the interview had this wood-burning fireplace. When I arrived with the crew, we found Pete outside splitting logs for the fireplace so we could be warm during the meeting. That was classic Pete, always thinking of others first.

I remember when the interview was over he shook our hands, tossed his ax and the remaining firewood in the bed of his beat up old pickup truck and then proceeded to back right into the front of my van before taking off like a shot. The crew and I just looked at each other in shock and then busted out laughing. It was a fitting end to the whole meeting. I’m proud to say that I still have that dent in my front bumper — probably should get a “Pete Seeger was here” sign painted over it!

Pete is still a controversial figure in bluegrass music circles. Most bluegrassers contend that Pete was not a bluegrass musician. But take a look at what he has done for our genre. His book on 5-String Banjo Instruction was the one of the seminal books for beginning banjo pickers and acknowledges bluegrass along with other styles. He brought international attention to bluegrass music when he helped produce the “Folksong ‘59” show with Alan Lomax at Carnegie Hall which featured relatively unknown bluegrass musicians Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys (including my long time friend and fellow recording artist, Walter Hensley). His TV show “Rainbow Quest” ran on public television from 1965-66 and brought guests like The Stanley Brothers, Greenbriar Boys, Doc Watson, Roscoe Holcomb, Cousin Emmy to the attention of the viewers all over the east coast (12 episodes of these rare performances are available on DVD now).

To paraphrase one of his famous quotes, “We’re all different, but we’re all singing together. It gives you hope.” When we start naming things, we put them in little boxes. I just don’t think music should be put in a box. Because he embraced American culture and the arts, Pete Seeger is bigger than any one musical genre. His influence is still being felt by generations of banjo pickers across the whole musical spectrum. Though he’s gone physically from this world, Pete will always live on…outside the box.

(This article also appeared in Bluegrass Today, January 29, 2014)

Honoring the Prescott Hot Shot Firefighters

All of Arizona, and the nation, is reeling from the deaths of 19 brave firefighters who lost their lives on Sunday fighting a wildfire in the Yarnell area some 30+ miles southwest from their home base in Prescott. Highway 89 is dotted with small towns and villages, some with less than 100 people. These quaint little towns are close-knit communities. It reminds me of the hills and hollers of Kentucky. Everyone is treated like family. The residents of the towns that the firefighters were trying to protect have put things in perspective. In many cases, these are homeowners who have lost everything. But they have all said that property/belongings can be replaced; lives can’t. To lose so many young people so quickly is devastating and our prayers are with the families and their loved ones.