Tuesday limerick: On Being Better at Blogging

Some say a writer must blog,
her vocabulary for to jog.
For storytelling chops
to allay grammar cops,
I must trod through this blog bog.

I’ve been distracted, admittedly, by various jobs – those which pay and those which may someday. Doc and I have been trying to make a baby. I blog about that on a separate site. There’s the ol’ day job. And the ol’ book I’m working on. And summer. Summer’s a bitch for blogging. The sun is bright enough – who needs extra blue-light hours? (I’m mocking myself here.) All this to say I hereby commit to updating this site well more than once a month. Hold me to it, will you? 

Where I learn to stop worrying and appreciate Brandi Carlile’s ‘Bear Creek’

Brandi Carlile - Bear Creek

Originally written for NoDepression.com

This week in Seattle, Brandi Carlile climbed atop the stage at Easy Street Records in lower Queen Anne, as she’s done a number of times before, and ripped through a set of tunes from her new album Bear Creek. I wasn’t there because I live in Asheville, NC, but I’m familiar with the familial atmosphere which swells around any appearance she makes in Seattle. I’ve borne witness to it and it’s not all that surprising.

After all, Brandi started making her way as a performer when she was barely in the double digits. It’s easy to imagine everyone around her instantly recognized her freakish talent. Indeed, she has that certain thing which glues a roomful of eyes to her the second she steps on stage. I’ve heard plenty of critics question what the appeal is until they finally see her live. Two minutes into the show, they get it. That’s not something you hone, so I’m going to guess she had it when she was a kid.

By the time she was old enough to drink a beer, she had sung her way into the arms of one of the major-est major labels. No doubt there were image people on the case.

Which leads me to something I hate to point out, because I too am a woman in a male-dominated field and I know well that there are certain considerations women have to wrangle, with which men don’t as frequently have to concern themselves. When I find myself at a Brandi Carlile concert, or specifically some kind of event where Brandi is one of the headliners (Cayamo is a good example),  it’s hard to ignore the feeling in the crowd that her appearance and her image weigh at least as much as the music does. Her fans may bristle at this, but would they be so goo-goo-ga-ga if she wasn’t also so “dreamy”?

These things have always bothered me about Brandi Carlile, the performer – or perhaps rather the way the world has been presented with her, the way audiences have prioritized their response to her music. Because here’s the final thing: I think she’s a to-the-bone artist. Between the number of interviews I’ve had with her (too many to count) and the various times our paths have crossed in casual life, I believe she understands music in a way so many artists who pursue it don’t. I believe she considers her main instrument (her voice) on a fairly profound level, and I think she takes her journey as a singer in the world very seriously. Indeed, there’s a kind of seriousness one has to have when they pursue a major label recording contract in this music industry environment; when the music their voice naturally creates isn’t necessarily what you’d call “perfectly commercial.”

Yet, she did it. As an Americana singer-songwriter influenced by Elton John and Johnny Cash, in a world of American Idols and Lady Gagas, she got the money people to roll the dice on her. You’ve got to appreciate that kind of spunk.

As much as I’ve enjoyed the albums she’s released over the past few years, I’ve had this sense both as a critic and a fan that she was being held back, away from the proverbial ledge. Her genuine skills have been shaped and honed and directed by some exceptionally gifted producers (T Bone Burnett, Rick Rubin). Mostly, though, my interest in her career has remained because it’s felt like, with each record she’s made, she was edging just a little bit closer to making the kind of record she’s really capable of making. It’s been an interesting story arc, watching the artist grow, watching the leaves change color, etc.

Then came Bear Creek, which dropped on Columbia this week.

And I totally understand.

I’ve never been to Bear Creek, the recording studio just outside Seattle, but I know it from being in the Seattle music world. Plenty of artists have made the trek out there: Fleet Foxes, Gossip, Modest Mouse, Laura Love, Bill Frisell. Etc. If you’re an independent artist of any clout in the Seattle area, it’s one of three or four places you go. If Brandi Carlile was going to shirk major mainstream producers, drive into the boonies, and record some songs the way she wanted them done, it would be a natural choice.

The first time I listened to the album, I got very excited. Making my way through the first few songs, I felt like, Here’s Brandi Carlile, the singer whose spirit has been tied to a tree for a few projects in a row. Then track six happened – a pop song with an 80s vibe that just made me think, Oh no. From there on out, it was a grab-bag array of disconnected songs that had nothing to do with each other – sonically, emotionally, melodically, or otherwise. It felt like an album made for an iPod world; she’d resigned like every other band to the silly idea that people won’t listen to albums from start to finish anymore, so there’s no point in making one that calls for such an experience.

Having placed Brandi under the “true artist” category in my mind – that is to say, the kind of person who has a vision, dammit, and if you just trust her, she will take you for a ride – I suddenly found myself falling against the notion that perhaps she had, after some anticipation, released an album which is terrifically mediocre, lacking any cohesion or direction or thorough consideration. Most of the songs are good, taken alone, but some of them aren’t so much. The last song isn’t, and when it ended the album, I felt gypped. Which, when I was expecting this disc to take me to some kind of  “next step” from the one which preceded it, was a bit of a let-down.

Don’t get me wrong. A great song will sound just as great with your iPod on shuffle as it will in the middle of a solid record. But, there’s something to be said for the artistry of a cohesive album. It’s sort of the aural equivalent of a collection of Jhumpa Lahiri stories or Barbara Kingsolver essays. I love both those authors for their ability to deliver short stories which speak to each other, play off each other. If you read the books in full, from cover to cover, you have a certain cohesive experience with the characters and ideas, which you would not have had you simply plucked a single story from the collection then ignored the rest.

Or there was that movie years ago, Four Rooms, which was really a collection of short films by different filmmakers. You can watch those shorts separately, sure, but together they tell a much more meaningful story.

You see where I’m going here?

Had she not previously released a couple of albums in a row which were well-considered statements of vision, whose cohesion was central to each statement made on the album (from title to cover art, to sequencing, etc.), I may be swallowing this pill with a little more grace. Instead, I felt like she’d dropped the ball; it didn’t make sense.

Then I read this post from Charlie Bermant, where he quotes her as having said: “Everything is fair game on this record and anything you want to come up with is going to work. Nothing doesn’t fit. After the participation of (past producers) Rick Rubin and T-Bone Burnett we thought of this as our ‘the parents are away for the weekend and what are we going to do?’ record.”

That got the wheels turning and all the stars aligned. Of course, I thought. I turned the disc on for another spin and found myself smacked in the face by track number one. The first time through, this tune assaulted me in a way that wasn’t altogether pleasing. It’s catchy, it’s decidedly more country-Americana, for sure. But she sings the whole damn song at full voice. She knows better, I thought, than to sing an entire song with zero dynamics in her voice, creating zero terrain, just to show off her pipes. After all, one of the things I’ve always appreciated about her behemoth vocals was that she knew how to reign them in. So I got tangled in that.

What I should have been doing was listening to the actual lyrics:  

Follow my tracks
See all the times when I should’ve turned back
I wept alone
I know how it feels to be on my own
Ooh, the things I’ve known
Looks like I’m taking the hard way home

And so it is. She sang this whole song at full voice because she could, because nobody was there to stop her. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. But it doesn’t really matter what I think. This is the album Brandi Carlile got to make, the one where she got to wrestle away from the grip and fly out of the nest on her own. The one where she got to explore how much she’s learned from the people whose musical paths she’s crossed. Who cares if it’s not perfect, if it doesn’t follow the tracks laid for her by the big time fancy-shmancy producers she’s worked with before. This is what you get when you let her focus on her raw talent. And raw, it is, granted. But still, it’s not anyone else’s vision.

Bear Creek may not be the best thing she’s ever done but perhaps it’s the record she needed to make. At least half of it is excellent. “Raise Hell” is a freaking gem. But, if she decides to go forward with this kind of raw, basic, honest approach to recording – and I personally think it suits her best – maybe next time get Buddy Miller to produce.

follow @kimruehl on Twitter

Campaign for a Woody Guthrie Google Doodle

The folks at Woody100 (celebrating folksinger/trailblazer Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday) posted a note on Facebook today asking people to chime in on a campaign aimed at having Google honor that occasion by making a custom “Doodle” on July 14, 2012. As you can see in my letter to Google below, I suggested using Woody’s signature political cartooning style. He was, after all, an illustrator too.

Anyhow, I’d encourage any Woody Guthrie fans in the world to join me in petitioning Google. It’s a fun way to take a break, anyway. You can email your request for Woody’s 100th to proposals@google.com.

Now for my full letter to the Google Powers That Be:

Hi there –
I hope this finds you well today.

I don’t know how you folks determine which people and things throughout history deserve a Google Doodle to commemorate their existence, but I’d like to put a good, honest word in for Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday.

Sure, Woody’s been gone for 45 years, but his music has been played by everyone from Pete Seeger to Wilco to Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. He was one of the first artists to straddle the crooked and precarious line between American pop and traditional music – attaching traditional melodies to contemporary ideas. The way he approached the folk music vernacular not only adjusted the way it was used in the 20th Century, but helped to define the directions it would take as the form marched into the 21st Century. There isn’t a singer-songwriter alive who doesn’t owe a certain debt to Woody Guthrie’s approach to the craft – whether they’ve received his influence directly from his recordings, or through the filter of folks like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Jeff Tweedy, Joan Baez, or any number of other artists who have recorded and interpreted his legacy through the years.

And anyway, considering all the political muck and economic woes getting tossed around these days, it’s a good time to reconsider the work of someone like Woody Guthrie – a guy who found beauty and hope in the chaos of the Great Depression and created songs which reminded us of what we do best when we work together. It’s a good time to remember that sort of thing is possible.

What’s more, Woody was an insightful and humorous cartoonist. I can imagine your illustrators could have a field day adapting his signature political cartooning style to a Google Doodle.

In fact, I went ahead and pulled up a page full of his illustrations, using my trusty Google Searching Machine. Here you go.

Finally, beyond being a great songwriter and cartoonist, Woody was a fan of equal opportunities, everyone getting a fair shot. I have to believe he would have delighted in knowing there was a way, in the future, for everyone in the world to have the same access to all the information in the world. I don’t think it’s going too far out on a limb to imagine Woody would have been a Google fan.

So, there. I’ve made my case. Thank you for considering this, whichever way you decide to go with the Google logo on July 14, 2012 – what would have been Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday.

Kim Ruehl
About.com Guide to Folk Music
(part of The New York Times Company)

Review: Mercyland – ‘Hymns for the Rest of Us’

Mercyland Cover - small.jpg

Originally written for FolkAlley.com

The relationship between music and spirituality has a history about as long as human beings have been capable of giving voice to their beliefs. In fact, there’s reason to believe music has had a place in spiritual practice since before any of the contemporary religions even took root.

Conversely, modern music would likely have little place without the various tenets of faith. But, whether it’s faith in god or love or humankind, music is evidence of the persistence of the human spirit. Maybe that’s why so many predominantly secular artists occasionally perform and record spiritual songs at some point in their career. When an artist sings a song about faith in something larger than themselves, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re looking to make a testimony about their religious beliefs. It’s simply a moment for them to tap into whatever holds the key to their creativity.

And so it is that a handful of today’s finest folk and roots music artists – The Civil Wars, Shawn Mullins, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Buddy Miller, and Emmylou Harris among them – have gathered to record an album titled Mercyland – Hymns for the Rest of Us.

This is not a collection of tent-raising revivalist spirituals, though there are certainly plenty of those in the folk tradition. You’re unlikely to find on this disc a clear and determined statement about Jesus or God or any specific Biblical lessons. (Except for North Mississippi All-Stars’ “If I Was Jesus,” which takes the phrase “What would Jesus do?” in an interesting direction.) Nor, for that matter, will you find lessons from the Torah, the Qu’ran, the Tao Te Ching, etc.

What you will find are existential spiritual explorations about things like life and death, love, struggle, dissent, and peace. In fact, Shawn Mullins may carry the crux of the album’s motivation in his song, “Give God the Blues,” which comes up second on the disc:

God don’t hate the Muslims
God don’ hate the Jews
God don’t hate the Christians
But we all give God the blues.
God don’t hate the atheists
The Buddhists, or the Hindus.
God loves everybody, but we all give God the blues

Like the rest of the album, Mullins’ song neither confirms nor negates anyone’s religious practices.Mercyland acknowledges faith, love, and mercy are not merely features of religious doctrine, but are human compulsions toward which we’re all pulled. Regardless of any community’s relationship with God, there is always common ground in music.

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes”

Originally written for NoDepression.com

There’s a certain haze which gathers below the top of Bays Mountain some mornings after sunrise, some evenings, moments before dusk. It’s like a sheer net someone has dropped on the hay, cascading down the hill toward the barn. In the distance are a few cattle, two donkeys. A pickup truck is usually parked. Birds and crickets sing the truest song of peace. On dark nights, when the sky is clear, lightning bugs flash their fire in visual syncopation across the hill. Their glow always appears to be rising out of the ground. It’s easy, considering where you are, to imagine these are the ancestors of the Highlander Center – the revolutionary spirits who started the movement spinning and have kept turning the wheel toward justice for 80 years.

I sat there one night after hanging up from a phone conversation with my partner. I was feeling sad after learning about the passing of North Carolina Amendment One – a constitutional amendment which would not only write a gay marriage ban into the constitution (it was already written in state law) but would also outlaw civil unions for gay and straight couples alike. For three months, my partner and I had been housing the regional organizer of the Coalition to Protect All NC Families (working against Amendment One). I’d also spent time on the phone talking with people across the state about how this amendment would harm people like me. So, there was a palpable sense that the countless conversations I had with unsure strangers had amounted to defeat.

I was sad, yes, but also could not ignore the pull of hope.

After all, here I was under a tree on a hilltop where, for generations before me, people have come together across color and class lines to forge a way forward, guided by peace and equality. Here I was with 15 artists from across the South (Texas to DC and everywhere below that line) who had agreed to stop their lives for six days so we could figure out together how our work can be used to create a climate of social justice not only in this region, but across the world.

The day had been dedicated to a discussion about nonviolence – a principle tenant of the Highlander ideal and something which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who had been a friend of Highlander founder Myles Horton) championed. It required as much mental paradigm shift as physical practice, and it was a hard day. Early on, one brave woman admitted the culture of violence and oppresion with which she and her family had always struggled made her question whether nonviolence could not only be possible, but worth it. In a room full of people who have made a verbal commitment to peace and respect, it was a ballsy admission, but something many of us could completely understand even if we didn’t have the nerve to admit it.

And so started our day.

This being somewhat of an arts institute, though, we were encouraged to communicate in whatever way was necessary. Some danced it out. Others laid down a beat and led an improvised song. Others grabbed markers and drew in their notebooks. I let melodies run away with my head. Erykah Badu kept singing through my gut reactions, just the refrain over and over “Oh what a day / what a day, what a day.”

When one of our facilitators entered the room singing, “Free free free free / free free free free,” that simple mantra took over.

As the week marched on, this basic sung declaration became my guide. Along with another hymn of sorts with which we’d started our time together: “We are climbing up the mountain / til we reach the top of the hill.”

This last one is sung in two parts, with half the group taking it like a staccato, rhythmic foundation; the other half sings it in higher, longer, legato notes. You stretch out the words “climbing” and “mountain” – those words which represent real things that take time. The singing of the song was a reminder that the climbing and the mountain could not be achieved quickly. That even in this six-day intensive institute about art, culture, and social change, we had only just begun to climb; we had only just approached the mountain.

It was the singing which reminded me of the journey. It internalized the intention (“free free free free…”) and solidified the mission (“we are climbing…”).

On the final day, after breakfast, we gathered in the office at the bottom of the hill and had Skype conversations with activists from around the globe. One man was organizing farm workers in North Carolina – navigating immigration laws to ensure human rights. A woman from El Salvador who had been introduced to violent revolution before puberty was now in the United States dedicating her heart and soul to a peaceful path toward justice for immigrants and others. A woman from South Africa schooled us on “corrective rape” – a practice rampant throughout her country as a response to gay rights, a somewhat institutionalized practice which perpetuates the raping of lesbians particularly. She’s using theater to educate and empower people and, no doubt, to reinforce her extraordinary courage.

At the end of that call, we thanked her by singing “This Little Light of Mine” – an old children’s spiritual which, once upon a time when Highlander was located in Monteagle, Tenn., Zilphia Horton (among others) helped make relevant to adult activists. Now, this woman’s face, which had been very serious as it told of the injustice which still pervades her culture despite what has been written in the law, suddenly leaped into utter joy. She clapped her hands together and smiled an un-erasable smile, powered by the unquenchable light of her heart.

Shine, shine, shine
I’m gonna let it shine

I tell you all this for a few reasons. I’ve been absent for a week or so and wanted to let you know what I’ve been up to. I felt like addressing the passing of Amendment One in North Carolina – something which directly affects me and my family. But, as we learned from the woman from South Africa, the law isn’t everything. I believe the law needs to change, and I believe it will much sooner than many of us – with our culture of pessimism – are capable of imagining. But the law isn’t the whole thing. The law can and will be irrelevant until we live in a culture which embraces human dignity and any expression of love over that of power and control.

We have to change the law, yes, but we also have to change our minds.

I’ve always believed that was one of the most important things music is capable of doing in the world. But, after this past week, it’s become clear to me just how essential it is. Just as you cannot stand still when the fiddle starts sawing and the band is really cooking, you also simply cannot, when surrounded by voices singing the same words about universal truths, disagree.

Whether some indie rock band like the Lumineers are stirring their magic around something secular and aimed at just having fun, or whether Sweet Honey in the Rock are asking you to join in this tune below (as we did on the final day at Highlander), it’s the music which cuts through the bullshit and reminds us why we’re here: to celebrate and appreciate what makes us all human.

We’d be well-advised to guide our laws and lawmakers to do the same. But, until we do, until that haze clears, I’ll be over here informed by those revolutionary spirits, pushing the music.

Monday limerick: Bringing Up Bebe – A book review

I have just completed a read
’bout how the French raise patient babies.
You must be firm and have grace,
Use a convincing face.
Often non is the only word you need.

Like the rest of the birthing-age world, I’ve just finished reading Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman. I found it engaging and a quick, easy read. I’ll probably at least try to implement some of the suggestions on my own children, whenever they arrive in my life. But mostly it was just an interesting ethnography about how another culture does it, and how they end up that way. Recommended.

A winding road to Gerry Mulligan, or Why I love music: A reminder

Originally written for NoDepression.com

I don’t especially remember when or why I started piano lessons. I can only imagine I must have been young enough to be pre-memory. But I do clearly recall my first piano teacher, her house, the living room, not being able to reach the pedals. She had a son, who had an Atari. There were four of us – my two sisters, my brother, and I – and we took turns with the lessons. Whoever wasn’t receiving a lesson would be back there playing Q-Bert with the boy whose name I can’t recall for the life of me.

Thinking back, this must have been the most glorious babysitting proposition for my mother – a single mom of four kids who was working full time and putting herself through grad school. She could drop us off, leave us there for hours, and we’d return both chaperoned and cultured.

In our house, the piano was in the center of the living room. It didn’t hold the same allure of private music experience that the violin, flute, and guitar would later possess for me. Those, I could practice in my room, door shut, imagining a rapt audience hanging on my every “Little Brown Jug” note.

No, the piano was central. The siblings had to turn off the television and either disperse or sit and listen to me practice. I hated it. I hated running through my scales and practicing my rhythms. I hated alternating between staccato and legato notes in the “exercises” book. The entirety of music theory seemed so obvious to me, like something I already knew. Practicing sixteenth notes felt redundant. I tried to attack these with as much artistry as possible. First speeding up the scale, my fingers stumbling over each other, then playing the descending notes in a long, painful ritard. Sometimes I would try asserting some dynamics on them. But no amount of decoration could convince me I was really truly playing the instrument. I was just practicing scales. Boring.

It’s a wonder I got anywhere with that instrument. I had such an unwavering desire to be proficient. My inner performer was so determined and self-conscious from a young age that playing scales within undeniable earshot of my siblings was painful. I wanted to give them the exceptional artistry of Debussy; the frantic flailing of Rachmaninoff.

My sister Kristin never practiced, but she could sit down, open to some random page in her Tchaikovsky book, and sight read the hell out of the piece in one sitting, then get up and walk away.

I wanted that skill.

In fourth grade, I started taking violin lessons in addition to piano. I loved the complex sound of the notes played out between the strings and the bow. It sounded to me like waking up in the morning – the first words you use, getting your voice to work right. Of course I was terrible at it, so the squeaking rawness was my poor playing. But there was something authentic and gritty about it. I would have stuck with the instrument beyond elementary school had a friend not indicated to me that people who play in the middle school orchestra are total social rejects. So, instead, I registered for band. Way cooler.

I was noncomittal in choosing an instrument. Secretly, I wanted drums real bad. But there were no other girls on drums, so I talked myself into thinking it was a boys-only instrument. Where I got that idea is anyone’s guess. Trumpet was another thought, but it was too loud. So I landed on the flute. Quiet and subtle, it was only capable of playing one note at a time. Unlike piano and violin, where you could chunk up chord progressions and be your own symphony, the flute was the sonic equivalent of a singular ballerina dancing en pointe across an otherwise empty stage.

I took to the flute with some kind of natural appetite. It wasn’t a mystery to me how to blow into it. Didn’t take too long to figure that one out. The positioning of my fingers on the keys seemed like slipping my hands into a custom glove. I enjoyed how, like with singing, the fever with which the instrument was played depended entirely on my breath. I didn’t particularly like where the flute parts led me in the context of band class, though. Didn’t appreciate the flute arrangement in our Beach Boys medley. That struck me as hokey. Flute is for Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” not silly classic rock tunes. So I developed a disinterest in practicing for band. I don’t believe I made it past seventh grade in that ensemble. Instead, I started taking private lessons, moving on to what I considered “real” flute music: Mozart concertos and the like.

Meanwhile, I was singing in a  choir for children based out of the university in town. We sung in German and French, which felt very serious and heady. By high school, I had convinced my mother I needed to pile private classical voice lessons onto my plate, in addition to piano and flute. The whole time, I was also studying ballet – a fact which has ensured I don’t just experience music aurally – it’s something which must also be experienced bodily.

In college, a friend invited me to participate in a “Battle of the Bands” with him. Most of the other bands were punk rock or hardcore screamy distorted guitar troupes, but we didn’t have time to form such an outfit. It was just the two of us. I played flute and he played guitar. We wrote existential navel-gazing songs and won the battle.

That was the moment when I finally lost interest in classical music. I continued to study it – composition and theory ad nauseum. Took classes in sight singing and all that stuff. But my interest and attention had turned to songwriting. Now that I was performing songs I was writing, listening to any music became an endless source of fascination. The way songwriters navigated around the dominance of the 4 and 5, manipulated a song and its listener(s) by hanging on the 7. The way words asserted their own rhythms and melodies, begged to be sung certain ways, to be emphasized through pauses. I started noticing when parts of songs stood out above the rest, and whether it was because of the point the songwriter was making, or whether it was a clear and lazy mistake.

I became a student of the radio.

Around this time, I met a man in Buffalo named Michael Meldrum who I think liked me because my hair was pink and I clearly had no idea how to play the guitar. After a lifetime of studying music with teachers, I picked up guitar determined to figure it out on my own. I knew enough chords to make songs happen, but I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Michael was endlessly encouraging. He booked me gigs, he crammed me onto showcase lineups where I’d be there just to play three songs between two much more seasoned and gifted songwriters. He got me onstage as much as he could, and drove me home when it was snowing. All of this, I know now, was part of my education. He knew the more I was around people who were doing it right, for the right reasons, the more it would start to rub off. That’s how he rolled, and what he did for so many budding songwriters in Buffalo.

I started to pick up that the person onstage with the instrument has a responsibility to the people in the room. They’re louder than everyone else, because they’re amplified. And, the world being as it is, they have the opportunity to inject those people with a will and spirit to shake off today and withstand whatever happens tomorrow.

It’s not about you, in other words. It’s about what’s in that box of wood. It’s about what the music can do.

I didn’t fully grasp this until years later.

After years of struggling through coffeehouse gigs for four people (including two friends and one barista), I moved to Manhattan to see how far I could take the music thing. I did okay. I got to play on some legendary stages, met some incredible people, wrote some songs that were actually quite good.

But then 9/11 happened and the world turned upside down. I’ll spare you the details.

One day when I was unemployed and living in Bed-Stuy, I brought the dog into the city to wander with me for the afternoon. It was just about dusk and people were starting to gather in Union Square, as they had been for weeks, with their candles and drums and sidewalk chalk. The fires were still burning at Ground Zero. The need to connect, to remember what life is, what peace is, was palpable. I walked up on the square and could hear a small group of people had begun singing “We Shall Overcome.” Suddenly that lesson Michael had taught me about what music can do, made perfect sense.

Of course I had no clue I would, a decade later, wind up working on a book about the woman who introduced that song to the labor movement and, by extension, civil rights leaders. But that is the moment to which I return when the stack of review CDs piling up in my office gets too high. When I realize I haven’t been to a live music show in “too long,” whatever that means. When I open up Spotify and find myself at a loss.

I tell you all this because I’ve been at odds with music lately, preferring silence more than anything. It’s been a busy year, full of travel and hectic weeks between road trips. I stare at the review CDs and see only the promise of cacophony. It’s bothersome to me because I have loved music my whole life, but I also know it’s only temporary. Like Gillian wrote in this space recently, sometimes you just have to not like music for a bit.

This week, my car radio has been easing me back to myself. I’ve tuned it away from the stations which usually fill my body and brain with the kind of artists we discuss here. Instead, I’ve been listening to classical and jazz music. Specifically, yesterday and today, I’ve been hung up on Gerry Mulligan – a jazz player about whom I’d never heard a thing until now. How I managed to miss him in my eighteenthousand music history classes is a mystery, but he’s bringing me back to what I know too well.

Music, when you close your eyes and let the day fall off, is humanity’s most selfless expression.

Wednesday limerick: For Katniss

Giving in to the Hunger Games craze,
we read the first book in two days.
Now we like it the best.
We’re completely obsessed
in at least 4600 ways.

I’m sure there will be more once I’ve completed Catching Fire. 

Remembering Earl Scruggs – A word about the banjo

Originally written for FolkAlley.com

Q: How many banjo pickers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: 100. One to screw the lightbulb in, and 99 to complain it’s electric.

Everyone knows a good banjo joke. There’s a reason for that. The banjo can be a pain in the neck. It’s hard to keep the darn thing in tune. That fifth string – the high drone – can be grating to listen to if it’s not employed correctly. The whole setup requires delicate balance.

A good banjo player is a master of restraint. No matter how lightning-fast they can deliver those Scruggs-style three-finger picking rolls, you better believe, if it doesn’t sound awful, they’re holding back more than they’re unleashing.

The strings resonate so hard and naturally against the skin on the instrument’s body, you can easily turn a banjo into a tool of dissonant ire. To make the thing musical, well, that takes darn near genius.

Earl Scruggs made his instrument sing. He developed a picking style so aurally attractive, hardly a banjoist since hasn’t at least tried to emulate it. Some have done a darn good job. Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers) picks a good banjo; Bela Fleck has his way; one mustn’t forget the great Tony Trischka, nor underestimate Steve Martin. In fact, Scruggs’ influence on the banjo has been so remarkable, those wishing to break the mold and innovate its sound in new directions are dialing it back to clawhammer style these days (Abigail Washburn comes most readily to mind).

But, I doubt even the clawhammer folks would hesitate to call Scruggs a major influence, even though they’ve chosen a path away from his definitive style.

Borne of the trailblazing troupe Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, Earl Scruggs spun off that band with his buddy Lester Flatt before long. Together, Flatt & Scruggs became a benchmark of the bluegrass revolution. Their guitar-and-banjo breakdowns have influenced generations of instrumentalists.

Through it all, Scruggs seemed happy to join any band. He lent his skills to the peace effort, playing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in Washington, DC, at a concert aimed at ending the Viet Nam War. He collaborated with everyone from Johnny Cash to Elton John and released somewhere around 30 albums in his lifetime. He earned a Grammy Award and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was inducted to just about every Hall of Fame and Honor in Nashville and was given the National Medal of Arts.

Not too shabby for a banjo picker. Indeed, Earl Scruggs proved the banjo can be taken seriously after all. Without a doubt, his physical presence will be missed in this world, but the music he made will never die.

Rest in peace, Earl.

Wednesday limerick: The waiting is the hardest part

When awaiting the Doc’s ovulation,
It’s best to avoid contemplation.
The eggs won’t drop faster.
Tis not a disaster.
You see, you must always be patient.

Follow @gnomeandfairy for more context on this one.