Friday, May 4, 2018

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival 2018 - Preview

The Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival will run at Strawberry Park RV Campground in Preston, CT from May 31st through June 3, 2018. This year, as has once again become usual at Strawberry Park, the lineup is filled with blockbuster bands from traditional to more progressive. Producer Carl Landi has worked hard to put together another crowd pleasing show featuring national and regional headliners. There will plenty of free camping in the "Camping in the Rough" area with full access to use of all facilities. Sixty spaces will be set aside for avid jammers on the ball field, free for the festival with a paid full weekend staff. Day visitors wishing to stay beyond posted departure times may arrange to do so for an additional fee of $10.00. Further information can be found below in the section devoted to tickets. Over the years, Strawberry Park has forged a record for providing top notch bluegrass in a campground convenient for attendees from New York to Boston, as well as the rest of New England.

I've begun posting characteristic videos with each of the band profiles for you to enjoy as you contemplate this fine event.

The Bands
Rhonda Vincent & the Rage (Th,Fr)

Rhonda Vincent has been a high profile performer in bluegrass and country music for over a generation. In 2000 the Wall Street Journal called her "the queen of bluegrass." Active since 1970, first with her family band, later in a her own band as well. After a fling with country music in the 1990's, Rhonda returned to bluegrass, where she has been named IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year eight times over a period of sixteen years. Her band is always filled with top performers in their own right, with Josh Williams, three time guitar player of the year, leading the way. One of the hardest working of all bluegrass artists, Rhonda can be relied upon for a terrific performance. Be sure to stop by the Rhonda Vincent Boutique to purchase a CD or a t-shirt as well as to greet the Queen herself. 

Jam with Rhonda & the Rage (Th)

SteelDrivers - Saturday

When the SteelDrivers hit the bluegrass world in 2005 with Chris Stapleton, now recognized as one of the top singer/songwriters in Nashville, they turned the bluegrass world upside down. By bringing the rock sensibility with a blues emphasis along with a publicly acknowledged enjoyment of adult beverages to the bluegrass stage, they cultivated new fans, converted some to a wider range in the music, and turned some off. While three of the original members remain (Richard Bailey, Tammy Rogers, and Mike Fleming) to maintain the original vibe, and Brent Truitt has strengthened the band, they have had difficulty finding and retaining a lead vocalist who provides the range of singing Stapleton championed. Nevertheless, for those of us who've come to love their music (I admit to their being an acquired taste for me), they are always a welcome addition and change of pace on any bluegrass stage. The SteelDrivers won the best bluegrass album Grammy in 2015.

Kruger Brothers - Saturday

The Kruger Brothers arrived in the U.S. from their native Switzerland in 2002 in order to live in Wilkes County, NC, the home of one of their musical heroes, Doc Watson. While their roots lie in folk music, which they toured Europe busking. and polishing their skills for years, their development has transcended the limits of genre as their questing musical spirit has been constantly extended. Today, they customarily play at bluegrass festivals as well as before large, eclectic audiences accompanied by a chamber symphony in concert halls and large open air venues before appreciative audiences who travel large distances to bask in their generous musical spirits. We always welcome the opportunity to hear the Krugers play and spend some time with them. 


Gibson Brothers - Friday

Because of their consistently thought provoking and uplifting song writing combined with the charm of their brotherly edginess, the Gibson Brothers have become one of the most reliable draws and delightful performers in bluegrass music. Always staying well within the musical confines of the bluegrass format, their music explores contemporary themes and traditional lifestyles with insight and forthrightness. Their banter and mastery of the pace of their performances stands as a model of showmanship for lesser bands. 

Lonely Heartstring Band (Sa)

The Lonely Heartstring Band uses brilliant instrumentals featuring Gabe Hirshfeld on banjo with Matt Witler on mandolin and tight harmonies featuring the twin brother duo of George and Charles Clements with Patrick McGonigle. They stay well within a tradtional bluegrass template while performing new songs from within the band along with covers of challenging rock songs I've never heard from any other bluegrass band, ranging from Beatles to Credence Clearwater Revival and Paul Simon. Their version of John Hartford's "Steam Powered Aereoplane" is near perfect. They've forsaken the raw roughness of traditional bluegrass for a smooth urban sound not quite heard before. 

Dry Brand Fire Squad (Sa, Su)

Dry Branch Fire Squad has been a featured performer at Strawberry Park since the beginning, missing only one year out of the forty that have already passed. Ron Thomason's humorous observations on the world he grew up in and the world we have come to currently live in are further enlivened by his appreciation for the ironies of our contemporary world and the wisdom of the hillbilly one he grew up in. The Sunday morning gospel performance by Dry Branch Fire Squad along with Ron Thomason's "sermon" is seen as a signature closing act of the festival on Sunday morning, even though many people remain into the early afternoon for the closing bands. 

Dailey & Vincent (Fr)

Dailey & Vincent hit the trail in 2007 with a band, when featured musicians Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent left established headliner bands to form their own aggregation. They were greeted with huge enthusiasm and acclaim, winning IBMA Entertainer of the Year in three successive years, 2008 - 2010. Through the years, they have increased the size and scope of their band while seeking to broaden their audience, successfully finding new audiences for a fast-paced show which combines bluegrass, country, and gospel music delivered with broad humor and variety. They will close Friday night with a single ninety minute set. 

Mile Twelve (Fr)

Mile Twelve has its roots in Boston with tentacles reaching all the way to New Zealand, where the talented banjo player BB Bowness hails from. This group is musically well-honed with songs running the gamut from traditional bluegrass to Elton John adaptations. They've been growing in what goes on between the songs, while their music has been on an upward trajectory starting from "good with promise" towards "consistently excellent." This is a band to keep your eyes on. 

Rocket Man - Elton John

Sideline (Sa)

Sideline, making its first appearance at Strawberry Park, has gone from a startup band of established veterans seeking a few gigs during the slow season, to a band in a wrapped bus wearing out the roads with nearly 100 dates a year. Three of the original band remain, while the addition of Troy Boone on mandolin and Bailey Coe on guitar and vocals, have improved the band. Original fiddler, Nathan Aldridge, has moved on, to be replaced by Daniel Greeson, who's both young and deeply experienced. Specializing in first and second generation bluegrass delivered with high energy and deep skill, the core of the band, consisting of Jason Moore, Skip Cherryholmes,  and  Steve Dilling, one of the best band emcees in history, continues to improve. They come to each festival prepared to entertain and spread bluegrass. 

Thunder Dan - Sideline (Official)

Twisted Pine (Th)

Twisted Pine is a rootsy bluegrass-based string band bringing jazz and rock to bluegrass and Americana festivals while winning band contests. This is the third years Twisted Pine has come to Strawberry Park, and I look forward to hearing and watching their growth as a band. 

21 & Rising

Box Car Lilies (Fr)
Jenny Goodspeed

Stephanie Marshall

The Boxcar Lillies have been improving each year they've appeared at Strawberry Park, seemingly molding their band before our eyes. What's emerged is a delightful range of folk-Americana, singer/songwriter musicality that communicates pure enjoyment and enthusiasm while showcasing the blend of the two lead singers' voices. Be sure to come to the stage on Friday at noon to catch their performance. I'll be there...for sure!

I Wish It Was a Freight Train

The Stockwell Brothers (TBD)

The Stockwell Brothers have been a highly recognized and appreciated eclectic band around New England, but especially in Vermont and New Hampshire for a generation. Bruce, a banjo stylist of rare versatility and taste, won the Merlefest band contest some years ago, and is a highly sought after banjo teacher for years, despite the fact he toured as a rock and roll electric guitarist "back in the day." Brother Barry has developed the Next Stage in Putney, VT as a go-to venue for a range of music as well as theatrical performances. Brother Al runs a recording studio in Brattleboro. Meanwhile, sister-in-law Kelly, Bruce's spouse, has helped build the reach of the always reliable band to new and interesting venues.  

Stockwell - Just An Old Hobo

Blackstone Valley Boys (Sa, Su)

The Blackwell Valley Boys is a quartet of well-known New England bluegrass musicians based in nearby Massachusetts. They clearly enjoy themselves and their enjoyment captures the audience. 

Gail Wade (TBD)

We've seen Gail Wade as far away from New England as WDVX's Blue Plate Special in Knoxville, and Bristol Rhythm and Roots in Bristol VA/TN where the state line runs down the middle of main street. In New England she can be seen with her own trio, in the Hot Flashes, and as a single singer/songwriter. In each case she brings shimmering, well-crafted songs along with strong rhythm guitar. 

Gale Wade - Wash Me Down

Strawberry Park has, traditionally, also featured excellent workshops, now being showcased on a small stage in the snack bar area. As of this writing, no schedule has been posted. I'll include it as soon as it becomes available.


This festival has recovered from damage which would have destroyed less well-established events by building its lineup while listening to the complaints and needs of those who attend and adjusting to them. Plaudits for this go to Carl Landi, the festival manager, whose attention to detail and quick learning have done the trick. 

Carl Landi

The Details:

Tickets: Tickets can be ordered online using a form like the one below. Here's the Link.

You can also call Strawberry Park at  1800-356-2460 to purchase tickets or make camping reservations. The range of alternatives for camping and admission. 

Camping: Strawberry Park is a comprehensive resort campground with a variety of accommodations available including full service campsites, rental camping units, and in-the-rough camping in both an overflow area and a sixty site "jamming" area on a ball field above the main campground. Here's a link to the 2018 Camping Rates. Note that special information about the bluegrass festival can be found on the column to the right. 

A number of hotels and motels are available in the area, including, for those who are intrested, at the casino.

Many activities are available on the Strawberry Park campus for people attending the bluegrass festival. The pools are open, as are the tennis courts, horseshoe pits, and much more take a look at their web site here, for more sense of its breadth of opportunities.

Snack Bar

Vendor Area

How to Get to Strawberry Park
Click on the map then place your location in the Zero 
Click for your route

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival is one of the oldest continuing festivals in New England, if not the country. It has a storied place in bluegrass history, which will continue into the future. Hope to see you there. 

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Man in Song: A Discographic Biography of Johnny Cash by John M. Alexander – Book Review

The Man in Song: A Discographic Biography of Johnny Cash (University of Arkansas Press, 2018, 296 pages, $35.95/31.81) by John M. Alexander, with a forward by Larry Gatlin, presents the life of country mega-star Johnny Cash in terms of his recorded music, seeking to find and explicate the singer’s life story through the songs he wrote, selected, and sang. This book offers both an interesting take on the man and his life as well as presenting problems for analysts seeking to separate the man from the artist. While this can be seen as a flaw, it can also become a significant asset. Alexander is at his strongest in recounting the story of each song he selects from Cash’s massive catalog and lengthy career, stretching over fifty years. The book is at its weakest in evaluating individual songs, as Alexander is either reluctant to find fault or unable to separate the truly excellent work from songs that are either mediocre of worse. Serious criticism requires serious analysis. 

Structurally, The Man in Song moves through the Cash catalog, first as it reflects incidents in his life and mileposts in his recording history, with emphasis on the relationship between the singer and his record labels. Having cataloged Cash’s music in terms of labels, Alexander then returns to pick up missed or lost and forgotten recordings by theme and then by periods in his personal and recording lives. This gives Alexander a chance to provide more detail on the Highwaymen, the effects of Cash’s frequent subtance abuse and its effect on his singing and writing, as well as his personal life, although the personal is sublimated to the work in this volume. It concludes with Cash’s collaboration with Rick Rubin, who encouraged Cash to create new songs and revisit old ones in arrangements that he wanted to record, rather than in the commercial versions preferred by mass market labels like Columbia and Mercury, This approach serves the work and those wishing to study it, while beginning to seem repetitious to readers seeking entertainment.

As Alexander points out, many see Cash’s singing and subject matter as precursors of today’s increasingly conservative bent in country music, heralded in more by Merle Haggard, a friend deeply influenced by Cash’s Folsom prison performance, which he witnessed as convict. While current country music basks in flag waving patriotism and uncritical self-indulgence, many of Cash’s best songs celebrate a more nuanced and mature view of America and its role. In many songs celebrating the lives of the downtrodden and misunderstood of all races, backgrounds, and creeds, Cash celebrated the diversity of America as well as gua own deep roots in Christian faith. In songs like The Ballad of Ira Hayes, and collaborations with Mahalia Jackson, Trini Lopez. Bob Dylan and more, Cash demonstrated his openness to using music from a wide variety of traditions and with performers not usually associated with the largely white world of country music. His writing and song selection ranged from a deep love of gospel music through folk, rock, rockabilly, and pop to which he always was able to attach his own unique stamp. As long as there’s a comprehensive catalog of songs, it might have been useful to create additional ways of sorting Cash’s catalog. This might be a very good online project for the publisher or a graduate student. In addition, a comprehensive playlist on one of the streaming services would support the text extremely well.

John M. Alexander (R) with Larry Gatlin

John M. Alexander, a graduate of St. John’s University and the City University of New York, where he earned his Ph.D. in English Literature, is currently a senior editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which apparently is primarily an online publication with a weekly print edtion bearing no relationship to the historic newspaper from which it draws its name. He describes himself in Linkedin as a “...Senior Music Editor and Producer who takes pride in leading visionary print, music, and digital products to profitable releases in national markets.” He says, “I’m an expert at collaborating with producers, artists, designers, photographers and production crews to develop and execute award-winning soundtracks, compilations, and digital audio content.” He served as a Senior Music Editor and Producer at Reader’s Digest for eighteen years, where he produced nearly 400 box set compilations. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

The Man in Song: A Discographic Biography of Johnny Cash (University of Arkansas Press, 2018, 296 pages, $35.95/31.81) by John M. Alexander is elegantly laid out and very attractive looking with lavish pictures of album covers, family, and studio photographs. Its print layout is two column, which detracts from its readability for what I imagine is its major audience – scholars wishing to do further research on Cash. In print, I would suppose it would make a highly attractive coffee table book, but would be less useful as a resource read online, which is how I read it. I found reading down one column then shifting my gaze to read down another to be distracting. The photographs and album covers, however, added greatly to the book’s attractiveness, as they surveyed the man’s character and increasing depth of feeling as he aged. This is a very useful work to add to the resources of Johnny Cash scholars and avid fans whi collect Cash memorabilia or reference works. I read the book on my Amazon Fire as a digital download supplied by the publisher.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Ten Great Days in Shelby, North Carolina

Shelby, NC lies near the center of the bluegrass world, at least the one Irene and I have lived in for the past twenty years. Located in Cleveland County, on the South Carolina border. Shelby is near the birth place of Earl Scruggs, it emerged from the rich history of migrations from Appalachia to the mill towns of the South, many of which were located in or nearby.  Shelby was also the home of Dr. Bobby Jones, known to most of the wider world as blogger Dr. Tom Bibey, but in his real life a beloved physician to the local residents, regardless of social position, an avid golfer, a skilled mandolin player active in the local bluegrass community, and, of course, a loving husband and father.

Dr. Bobby Jones (Dr. Tom Bibey)

Soon after I began this blog, late in 2006, comments started appearing on it signed by Dr. Tom Bibey.  They were thoughtful and encouraging, while urging me to visit his own blog, which detailed the life of a small town physician, musician, golfer, husband, and father living in a fictitious southern town. After a rather long dance, we finally met, enjoyed each other's company, and began coming to Shelby for increasingly long and treasured visits. Sadly, Bobby Jones died, too soon, in 2012, attacked by a brain tumor. However, we kept coming to Shelby to spend time with the people we came to know through him - his widow Marta, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Rick Dancy (their friend and guide after Bobby's passing), and many others. Bobby's book, The Mandolin Case, is still available.  A week or so ago, we returned for a ten day stay at our lake cottage, in the nearby John H. Moss Reservoir campground, What follows is a little bit about our stay.

Our Lake Cottage on John H. Moss Reservoir

Wayne Taylor and the Carnegie Tradition - Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms

On Wedneday we got a surprise call from our friend Wayne Taylor, who, after a distinguished career as a member, lead singer, and emcee of the U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band - Country Current, has retired to his home in North Carolina where he lives in the country and continues to perform. We met him and his long-time friend Pam Cooper for supper and a catch-up at the local Ruby Tuesday. Wayne is working with several bands and has recently released two CD's, one called The Carnegie Experience, which captures the excitement and music of Flatt & Scruggs. His other CD is called The Great American Country Band, with fine covers of 1970's and 80's country classic songs. With the two bands together, he is touring with a ninety minute show. Contact Wayne Taylor Productions for more information.

Wayne Taylor & Great American Country Band - Hank Williams Medley

As we were finishing our supper, Wayne looked up and said, "Here comes Carl White, now!" Now, this certainly wasn't an accidental meeting, but I quickly was glad that Wayne had invited Carl to join us. Carl White produces a television show called Life in the Carolinas which can be seen on a number of television stations in North Carolina. Some episodes can be seen on YouTube, too. He also writes a syndicated column, and you can subscribe to his newsletter. When Carl shows up, his trusty iPhone comes out, and, suddenly, you're in an interview...and it's fun! Carl has an infectious personality, asks piercing questions, and shows up in interesting places showcasing his home state.
Carl White

Wayne Taylor & Pam Cooper

U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band Country Current - The Bluenose
Wayne Taylor's Last Bluegrass Festival in 2010

Wayne Taylor

Darin Aldridge Teaching  at the Earl Scruggs Center

We were first introduced to Darin Aldridge at a jam in a semi-buried cinder block building built during the early fifties when nuclear attack was a legitimate scare in the U.S. The building, known throughout the area as the Bomb Shelter, is home to a regular Wednesday night jam, which Dr. Bobby brought us to. We heard a lot of hot pickers, but Darin Aldridge stood out, along with his fianee Brooke Justice. Since then we've gone to churches, concerts, festivals, small jams, and more as our friendship with Darin and Brooke grew and ripened. Here's an early recording I made of their first band:

Darin & Brooke Aldridge - I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart - 2011

Darin has been an integral part of the development of the Earl Scruggs Center since its inception. He helped to prepare some of the exhibits. For instance, it's his hands demonstrating three styles of banjo picking in an interesting filmed display. On Friday morning, he was scheduled to teach two groups of elementary school students about the history of bluegrass. The kids would then go downstairs to the museum, with a series of questions to answer before they reconvened. Below, Darin is preparing his hardware including all three instruments he will play during his presentation, his boom box to play examples of music, which are coordinated with pictures he shows on the big screen behind him. Suffice it to say that few classroom teachers with advanced degrees would have a classroom preparation so well prepared in order to orient students ideas and concepts new to them.

Darin Aldridge Prepares

...And in Action

Darin's presentation introduced and illustrated bluegrass music from its country origins with the Carter family and the Big Bang of country music in the 1929 Bristol recording sessions to Chris Thile's leadership of Prairie Home Companion, and much from in between, all in about 40 interesting minutes. He varied pace, means of input, and modes of presentation while providing lots of opportunities for kids and ask questions and interact. His presentation provided a model of preparation and skill for professional teachers. 

Kids Listening Intently

...While Half the Group Experienced the Exhibits

After Darin's presentations ended, the kids, under the direction of a music teacher from their school, sang "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains" on the Scruggs Center Steps, while their proud parents look on.

My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains

The next day, we had scheduled ourselves to have lunch with Katie Wilson Espenshied and her husband Ace, who many of my readers will remember as they watched her grow up in a family band singing a song they loved, but she grew to dislike, "Five Pound Possum." When I turned the ignition switch to start our truck, it ground away without catching, a problem we had had repaired only two weeks previously at Rountree Monroe Ford in Lake City, FL. Sadly, we had to cancel lunch and call the tow truck, again!

Leadership Bluegrass Regional Seminar

Leadership Bluegrass is an annual intensive professional development program begun in 2000, which each year invites about thirty people from all areas of the bluegrass community to come to Nashville for a very well organized and useful conference of professional and personal development. Over the years, there have been over 400 graduates. Under the leadership of Ron Raxter, a retired attorney from Raleigh, a spring meeting was planned and held on Tuesday and Wednesday as the guests of the Earl Scruggs Center, which offers a large number of music related activities throughout the year under the direction of Executive Director Emily Epley. A group of ten Leadership Bluegrass graduates assembled for two days of discussion and planning. They included artists, a broadcaster, a member of a couple of IBMA Boards, a singer/songwriter, and several others. The discussions were enjoyable, active, and productive, as we sought to find a worthwhile project to pursue as a group for the good of the bluegrass community. More information about this effort will be forthcoming. The event also included an evening at the Newgrass Brewing Company, where those inclined jammed, enjoyed themselves as they enjoyed a beer and a sandwich. We were joined by Brooke Aldridge for a couple of her wonderful songs. Altogether, it was an enjoyable two days of fellowship and purposeful seeking. 

Facilitator - Ron Raxter

Scruggs Center Executive Director - Emily Epley

Bill Foster & Laurie Greenburg

Daniel Ruth (Nu Blue) and Mitch Coleman

Darin Aldridge

The Group with Earl Scruggs Statue

 Supper at the Newgrass Brewery

The Jam
Ron Raxter, Brooke, Darin, Daniel, and Bill

Here are the Darin & Brooke Aldridge Band singing Ian & Sylvia's great song, "Someday Soon," which helped win her the 2017 Female Vocalist of the Year Award from IBMA.

Darin & Brooke Aldridge - Someday Soon