Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Essential Clarence White

When I was in Nashville a couple months ago for the NAMM show, I visited some local guitar shops, including Guitar Gallery, the Opryland Gibson Guitar showcase, Gruhn Guitars, and Cotten Music, where I made my only musical purchase of the week: Roland White and Diane Bouska’s wonderful new book The Essential Clarence White: Bluegrass Guitar Leads. In addition to an illuminating biographical intro by Roland that details his life with his brother from their births in rural Maine to Clarence’s death at the age of 29 in 1973, the book includes detailed transcriptions of 14 traditional instrumentals that Clarence recorded at home in 1962. These recordings are included on a CD, along with a couple of video clips made the year he died, and a second CD provides backing tracks (by Roland on guitar and Missy Raines on bass) so students can practice the tunes in the book.

The transcriptions, by Matt Flinner and Steve Pottier, are worth the price of the book by themselves, but each tune is accompanied by detailed notes and technical tips about Clarence’s playing, along with shots of Clarence’s hands in action. So, for example, in the basic instruction section about how to hold the flatpick, you get a close-up example of exactly how Clarence held the pick. One technique that Clarence used in particular, and which is not often talked about in flatpicking technique manuals, is the rest stroke, and in addition to a clear and concise description of this important technique, the notes point out Clarence’s use of it in various points in the transcriptions.

Although these recordings were done at an early stage in Clarence’s life (he was just 19 at the time), and the versions are somewhat simpler than many of his later recorded versions, his style was already fully formed. The wealth of detail and technical information here will keep even advanced guitarists busy for quite awhile, and students just discovering Clarence’s revolutionary style will appreciate the more straightforward approach and essential repertoire, including “Shady Grove,” “Black Mountain Rag,” “Wildwood Flower,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” and “Sally Goodin.”

The Essential Clarence White can be ordered from For more info about Clarence White, see my lesson on his playing in Acoustic Guitar magazine. Password: mandolin.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

My Week at Kamp

I spent last week at Steve Kaufman’s award-winning Acoustic Kamp, teaching guitar to around 150 guitarists, jamming with campers, and performing with current and past musical partners. It was Flatpicking, Banjo, and Mandolin week, which you might think would be dominated by bluegrass pickers and jams, but the presence of Celtic guitarist Tony McManus, Italian flatpicker Beppe Gambetta, jazz chord–solo specialist John Carlini, old-time oriented flatpickers Robin Kessinger and Eric Thompson, theory buff Mike Kaufman, and Swiss new acoustic powerhouse Uwe Kruger kept things lively and varied.

I arrived a day early to get settled in, just in time to join Steve’s Saturday night jam, the final event of the previous week’s camp, and ended up in a wonderful four-guitar jam with Rolly Brown, Mark Cosgrove, and Jeff Jenkins in a room that was being used by luthiers Ken and Virginia Miller, providing us with a ready store of wonderful guitars to sample. An auspicious start to the week.

Kaufman Kamp is organized a bit differently than other camps I’ve taught at. Every camper is assigned to a class, based on their level and experience, and this week there were eight guitar classes, which ranged from a maximum of 20 to a cozy 11. There were also eight guitar instructors, and every class rotated through the instructors, spending two hours with each one. (There was also a Guitar 101 class taught by Cindy Gray for total “which end do I blow in?” beginners.) So I got to see every guitar student in camp, but only for a couple hours. This provides the campers with a helping of each teacher’s wisdom but doesn’t provide much time for in-depth instruction.

However, the daily morning and afternoon classes are just part of the curriculum. There are also slow, medium, and “genre” jams (I co-facilitated a Celtic jam with mandolin instructor Robin Bullock) as well as a Tune of the Day group. These organized picking parties are intended for all instruments and were led by Casey Henry and Keith Yoder. (Casey, a great Scruggs-style banjo player and the youngest instructor at Kamp, seemed to be working 30 hours a day. In addition to teaching the Mandolin 101 and Banjo 101 classes, and leading jams a couple times a day, she also organized the Saturday band scramble and guested on numerous staff concerts.)

Evenings are reserved for staff concerts, which are bookended by open mics for the campers. I was fortunate to have a few performing pals also teaching. In addition to guitarist Eric Thompson, Bill Evans was teaching at Banjo Kamp, and John Reischman was one of the all-star mandolin instructors. We had a great time guesting on each other’s sets, but, of course, part of the fun of these events is getting to play with musicians you don’t normally play with, whether in an impromptu jam or a barely rehearsed onstage performance. I got to try to match pickstrokes with Beppe Gambetta on a blazing version of “Ride the Wild Turkey” and to accompany Yoder and Kamp sensation Marcy Each on a laconic, folky version of “Under the Boardwalk.” (Each’s gorgeous, soulful singing and songwriting was the talk of the dining hall—calling her a combination of Norah Jones and Gillian Welch describes her without really doing her justice.)

And while I enjoyed listening to all of the concerts, I was quite unprepared for the final act of the week: the Kruger Brothers. I’d met Uwe and Jens in Switzerland in the early ’90s at an Alpine country music festival while on tour with Tim O’Brien, and I knew they were great musicians, mostly from seeing them deliver a few pyrotechnic performances at MerleFest in the late ’90s. But I was unprepared for the depth of feeling, sophistication, and earnest soulfulness of their current music. Their seamless “suites” combine classical-sounding passages with folk/country songs and contemporary bluegrass instrumental work, resembling medleys that consist of thematically related banjo tunes, folk songs, classical études, old-time fiddle tunes, funky folkish rock and blues grooves, and wistful ballads, all interwoven with a symphonic eye to the overall arc of the piece.

The Krugers play with a virtuosity that is almost incomprehensible, even to accomplished peers, delivered without a hint of braggadocio and with a sense of joy and self-deprecating humor that seems intended not just as a way of “expressing themselves,” as some virtuosic and overtly emotional “romantic” music can be, but as a way to connect and communicate with their fellows. Jens is truly one of the greatest stringed instrumentalists alive, and his banjo technique is mind-boggling, equaled only by Béla Fleck and Noam Pikelny. And the Krugers’ classical insertions seem totally at home with the rest of their music and never descend to the level of musical chest-thumping. They use what they’ve learned from classical composers to expand and personalize their music, not as a macho display, a way to distinguish themselves from an audience mostly made up of amateur musicians, or to simply make people think “Wow, how did they do that? We certainly got our money’s worth tonight.” What the Kaufman Kamp audience got last Friday night, and all week, while of great value, is exactly the kind of thing that money can’t buy.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Jack Hansen, RIP

When asked about influences, most musicians tend to cite the marquee names: Django, Doc, Jimi, etc., but people like Seattle-area music icon Jack Hansen, who passed away May 23, tend to exert just as much, if not more, influence on young musicians than do the standard-issue guitar heroes. At least that was the case for me.

Jack never saw much of the limelight and you’ll be hard-pressed to find much about him on the Web, but he played a large part in the Pacific Northwest’s musical life during the last 40 years. He played electric guitar with late-’60s rock band Fat Jack (which included vocalist Kathi McDonald, who, after being fired by Fat Jack for not rehearsing, went on to sing with Ike and Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, and the Rolling Stones), bluegrass banjo and mandolin with Southfork, archtop swing guitar with violinist Paul Anastasio (who has fiddled with Merle Haggard’s band as well as Asleep at the Wheel), and even lap-slide guitar with the Hawaiian band Stowaways in Paradise, among many, many others. And Jack made much of his living as a guitar repairman, a trustworthy caretaker of the vintage instruments prized by the Northwest’s folk and bluegrass scene.

I was lucky enough to play in a couple of bands with Jack during the 1980s and he was always welcoming, friendly, and forgiving, even to a young whippersnapper like me who could barely keep time and who didn’t know who Jo Jones or George Shuffler were—just two egregious lapses in my swing and bluegrass education. He taught me how to swing—not just to emulate the pulsing flamboyance of Django Reinhardt but the profoundly precise, laidback feel of Count Basie and the melodic, laconic brilliance of Lester Young.

What impressed me the most about Jack was his ability to play bluegrass, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, and folk music equally well, with no hint of pretension or dilettantism, and with a deep understanding of what gave each kind of music its underlying soul and style. When I think about it, that’s pretty much what I’ve aspired to during my own equally broad musical career. Jack seemed to understand exactly why people loved a particular kind of music and his playing never strayed too far from that: Beatles songs are to be sung, swing is to be danced to, etc.

And Jack never took himself or anything else too seriously. I’ll always remember one of my first weeks teaching at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop in the early ’80s when Jack and a few others decided to turn the unsuspecting church camp into the MASH 4077th and Jack appeared at dinner dressed in a bathrobe, cradling a pitcher of martinis. Then there was the time he did an open mic playing a six-string banjo-guitar while his friend Gene Wilson played a wood-body five-string banjo (think about that for a minute).

Jack would have cringed at the idea of his musical life being boiled down to a sound-bite philosophy, especially a namby-pamby new age one, but I think Jack’s can be summed up with the admonition to “play music you love, with people you love, and play it with love.” But perhaps I’m just getting maudlin thinking about the fact that I’ll never get to play “Minor Swing,” or “All Day and All of the Night,” or “I’ll Remember You Love in My Prayers” with Jack again. What Jack knew was that music is something fun you do with your friends, like playing basketball, or poker. That’s why legions of his friends are mourning with me today the loss of one of our biggest influences.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Joey's Sea Otter Race Report

Sea Otter Classic 2009
Joey Nygaard

Jr. 15-16 Circuit Race 13th place
For once the race started at 4:00 pm and my dad and I got to Laguna Seca a nice four hours early, leaving time to figure out the insane registering process, hang out around the booths and then get into the racing state of mind. It was not long before we were on the starting line and waiting to see just how fast this years 15-16 field would push the pace. But when the whistle blew it was not the sprint off the line I was expecting and as we slowly made our way up the easy part of the climb I began to wonder whether the race might not be too hard after all. But just when the harder part of the hill came, the attacks went flying and I found myself on the back of the pack, not the place I wanted to be entering the corkscrew, and I had to fight hard to regain my place in the middle of the pack.

I hung on for a few more laps until I was officially dropped. Luckily I was not alone, a rider from the AC team was also off the back. We fought hard to catch up but in the end we ended up fighting it out for the sprint, where he got the better of me and I was unable to come around him.

Cat. 4 Circuit Race
After the Jr. circuit race the day before I decided it would be good training to do the Cat. 4 race. So at 5:00 I made my way to the start line and got lined up with the other 4s. Unlike the Juniors, the Cat. 4s set an extremely fast pace both on the climb and down the descent. Up the climb i could handle, but when it came to the descent I found myself off the back and scrambling for wheels.

I hung on to a variety of different groups, getting ahead on the hill so I would have a head start on the descent and was not blown away. I was starting to feel really good on the hills but with two laps to go I, along with the group I was riding with, got pulled.

I had not expected that they would be pulling riders but I was not too down about it. By that time it was around 6 o'clock and getting very windy so my dad and I retired to the car and then to get a good night sleep for the early road race the next day.

Junior 15-16 Road Race 10th place

The morning of the road race came bright, early and hot. After warming up, I began to make my way over to the start line, where we had to sit for 15 minutes before starting. The whistle blew and we began to proceed along the four mile neutral promenade. As soon as the group hit the first major climb, Team Specialized set up a blistering pace and the group splintered. Stanley and I got off the back and we had to work hard on the descent to catch up.

Once we had caught up it was not long until we were back around to the climb again. Once again the group splintered and I found myself off the back. I found a rhythm and soon enough I was passing people left and right. I came up behind Stanley and as I was passing him, I slowed down a bit, just in case he had enough energy to stay on my wheel. When he did not, I kept up my pace. I was slowly catching the group, and would have but the climb ended and I was faced with a long windy descent. At this point there was only one rider between me and the group and I buried myself to catch him. Once I had caught him we started working together, trying to reel in the main field.

We worked very well together. He, being bigger than me, pulled me down the descents, and I, in return, pulled him up the climbs. We worked together like this for almost the rest of the race, until he bombed the last descent and I could do nothing to stay on his wheel. All I could do was tuck, pedal and hope he didn't get too big a gap. As I made the turn onto the final two-mile hill he had a pretty big gap but nothing I couldn't catch--I thought. Unfortunately the hill was not that steep at all for the first half mile and although I was doing the best I could, the terrain suited him better and I lost ground. But not for long, soon the hill kicked up in gradient and I began to catch up rapidly. I saw the "one K" to go sign, and then 500 meters. By the time I saw 250 meters I had reduced 3/4 of his gap and was closing. But despite all my efforts I was about 10 meters behind him at the final turn, not close enough to pass him, and I crossed the finish line in a satisfying 10th place.

Because of the extreme heat, we only stuck around to check on results, get an iced mocha or two, and watch my teammates on the podium! It was a good end to a long weekend and All Sport-Team Swift had rocked. Keep it up All Sport-Swifties!

--Joey Nygaard

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Girls Just Want to Play Bluegrass

I don’t know what’s going on in high school these days, but all my favorite recent bluegrass-based music seems to have been created by teenage girls. Or perhaps, given the depth and maturity of their music, they should be referred to as “young women who have not yet reached the age of 20.” The best folk/bluegrass album I’ve heard this year is by Sarah Jarosz (above), whose debut CD Song Up In Her Head will be released by Sugar Hill Records around the time she graduates from high school in Austin, Texas, this June. It may be difficult to understand how Jarosz has managed to master the mandolin, guitar, clawhammer banjo, octave mandolin, and piano (all of which she plays on the album) at such a young age, but it’s even more astonishing to hear such an assured collection of original songs rivaling that of any of her most obvious influences—Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch, Nickel Creek, or Darrell Scott. But Jarosz, who will be featured in an upcoming issue of Acoustic Guitar, is not just the next great roots-based singer-songwriter. Her instrumental chops are inventive, fluid, and virtuosic. For example, Song Up In Her Head features many guest appearances from acoustic music superstars, including Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Jerry Douglas (Dobro), and mandolin masters Mike Marshall and Chris Thile; Jarosz also plays mandolin on the CD, but you’ll have to consult the liner notes to tell whether it’s Jarosz, Marshall, or Thile playing mandolin on any given tune.

Another new CD that will have you reaching for the liner notes to see who’s playing those great mandolin (and Dobro) solos is the Lovell Sisters’ Time to Grow. Mandolinist Rebecca Lovell was the youngest person (and only female) to win the MerleFest mandolin contest, at the age of 16 back in 2006, and on this CD she not only plays hot, melodic mandolin solos, reminiscent of Chris Thile’s early playing, she leads her sisters with passionate pop bluegrass singing and songwriting (her song “Distance” was a Grand Prize Winner in the “country” division of the 2008 John Lennon Songwriting Contest). In addition, Megan Lovell may be the best young Dobro player to come along in years, with a fat tone and lyricism usually only heard from the likes of Jerry Douglas. While their sophomore recording doesn’t hold up as well as Jarosz’s debut (few do), the Lovell Sisters are definitely a band to watch, as attendees at this summer’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Bonnaroo Festival (among others) are encouraged to do.

Of course, the boys are also getting in on the fun. Jarosz’s CD features the virtuosic fiddle playing of 16-year-old Alex Hargreaves, who is a member of both Jarosz’s band and Mike Marshall’s Big Trio, which can be heard on an eponymous CD released this spring. Hargreaves and his sister Tatiana (13) are the latest sibling string duo to emerge from the West Coast, following Brittany and Natalie Haas and Tristan and Tashina Clarridge. Tatiana’s forte is traditional Appalachian fiddling and singing, as exemplified by her mentor Bruce Molsky, and her debut CD, which will be released this summer, should be a stunner.

So add Sarah Jarosz, the Lovell Sisters, and Alex and Tatiana Hargreaves to the list of great acoustic music being created by the too-young-to-vote crowd, a list that includes (or has included) Cherryholmes, Sierra Hull, and Crooked Still.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

On the Road with Joan Baez, pt. 2

The prospect of spending a few days in any unfamiliar square-state city tends to inspire thoughts of, oh, I don’t know, catching up on my sleep, or finishing whatever 800-page novel I happen to be reading. Last month, while on tour with Joan Baez, my schedule called for spending three days in Lawrence, Kansas. The only thing I knew about Lawrence was that it is the home of the University of Kansas and, well, that’s what I could remember about Lawrence. The first day was our arrival—mid-morning after an overnight bus trip from Madison, Wisconsin. The second day we’d play in Columbia, Missouri, but return after the show to our Lawrence hotel, and the third day was a performance at the Liberty Theater in Lawrence. After stumbling out of the bus the morning of our arrival, I was pleased to discover our deluxe accommodations at the historic, comfortably stylish Eldridge Hotel, across the street from which was both a very promising espresso café and a suitably dusty used bookstore. OK, I thought, a few days in Lawrence could be quite pleasant.

What I’d forgotten was that Lawrence is home to Mass Street Music, one of the best guitar stores in the country. So, after a day of catching up on my sleep, and another filled with a bus ride, sound check, and another great show with Joan and company, etc., I finally remembered that when I’d met Mass Street Music owner Jim Baggett at Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp a couple of years ago, he’d invited me to come by any time I was in Lawrence. So I walked the seven or eight blocks down the street through a crowd of college-age St. Patrick’s Day revelers and found Mass Street Music in a cozy residential district.

At first glance, Mass Street looks like many a successful, well-organized music store, with a couple of large rooms full of keyboards, electric guitars, accessories, and sound equipment downstairs, and an acoustic room upstairs with a good complement of Taylors, Collings, Eastmans, Martins, and Goodalls. But what really distinguishes Mass Street, at least for guitar junkies, is Jim Baggett’s vintage expertise. He’s been collecting guitars for decades and he moonlights as a vintage-guitar expert for PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. Jim appeared while I was a making my way through a brace of very tasty Collings dreadnoughts, and after a few pleasantries, he said, “Wait here, I’ve got something to show you.” Believe me, any guitarist who hears Jim utter those words isn’t going anywhere.

Soon enough, Jim appeared with a couple of guitars from his personal collection—a luscious late-’30s D-18 that had the richest, fattest tone of any late-’30s D-18 I’d ever played and what he described as “the first D-28,” an amazing 12-fret, slot-head, rosewood dreadnought that sounded like nothing I’d ever played. Jim explained that it was actually the third D-28 ever made, but that the first two had never surfaced, so as far as anyone knew it was the first D-28 in existence, as close to the Holy Grail as any bluegrass-infused flatpicker like me is ever going to get. After playing it and the D-18 for as long as was seemly—I didn’t want to actually start drooling on the finish of these priceless gems—Jim showed me the rest of the repair shop, including a few more prewar dreads he was restoring and one of the cleanest early-’30s 000-28’s I’d ever seen. The back and sides looked liked they’d been hewn from the same log—not something Martin was all that particular about back then—and it was utterly pristine, as if it had rolled out of the Martin assembly room the day before. This wasn’t just a case of a kid in a candy store, but a chocoholic set loose in Willy Wonka’s factory.

So, yes, I now know exactly what there is to do in Lawrence, Kansas, thank you very much.

—Scott Nygaard

Photo (c) Anne Hamersky

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

On the Road with Joan Baez, pt. 1

Around 2 AM on the morning, of March 7, Joan Baez’s tour bus oozed out of the muck in the parking lot of the Barangus bar, where I, along with the rest of the Joan Baez band (including Joan herself) had been listening and dancing (or more like wriggling, given the lack of space in the crowded roadhouse) to the All-American Hell Drivers, a loose aggregation of hippie country rockers whose repertoire included Hank Williams classics, New Orleans boogie blues, and even a Michael Jackson hit (a countrified “Billie Jean”). Joan had joined the band on a rockin’ “Long Black Veil” and JB band multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell had spent most of the evening at the piano.

Thus ended my first night playing guitar and mandolin and singing harmony with Joan Baez, filling in for guitarist John Doyle while he goes off to play a few Irish festivals that he’d booked before getting hired by Joan as musical director/guitarist last summer. The evening had started at the State Theatre in Ithaca, New York, where Joan’s first appearance onstage had elicited the first of many loud, enthusiastic, and adoring ovations from the crowd of 1,600 or so. Though it was the first time I’d played through the entire two-hour set with Joan and her band, it went better than I could ever have expected. Yes, I’d fumbled a few lyrics, missed a couple chords, and gotten a few tempos wrong, but all in all it was a great gig, and by the time we’d finished our funky encore of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” I was grinning from ear to ear.

I’d approached these gigs with mild trepidation. Even though I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble locking in with the rest of the band (Dirk on mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and piano and Todd Phillips on acoustic bass, both of whom I’d recorded and gigged with numerous times) I’d been a Joan Baez fan since high school and I didn’t want to let her down. I knew that John Doyle’s shoes would be tough ones to fill—his guitar can be a whole band by itself and his rhythm is as varied and exciting as any guitarist in any genre. I’d also have minimal rehearsal time, so I assiduously studied the gig tape John had sent me, realizing at the same time that the band’s arrangements and feel on that early-November gig may very well have changed by the early-March gigs I’d been hired for.

I arrived a couple days early, so we could rehearse on the band’s day off and I could observe one show with John in action. At the first rehearsal, which Joan shyly wandered into about halfway through, I discovered that some of my fears were well-founded. John led the rehearsal, though of course he wouldn’t be at the gigs I played, and his guitar was definitely the rhythmic heart of the band. In addition, some tempos had indeed changed and details that had seemed potentially spontaneous on the tape turned out to be essential parts of the arrangements. But everyone made me feel at ease and I knew I’d have another day to regroup and work things out. Joan was particularly gracious. After one song, where I’d kind of weakly warbled the harmony line and stumbled over a few chords, she suggested that since I had so much to learn, I didn’t necessarily need to sing on every song, but after another, she said, “You seem more comfortable with that one.” (The next morning, while she had breakfast on the bus, she told me that she’d liked what she heard and asked if there was anything she could do to help me.) The thing that ended up helping the most, actually, was sitting in the audience and listening to John play a show with the band. After all that study, I knew the songs pretty well, but watching the show, I found myself thinking “OK, I need to be more aggressive on that intro,” etc.

After the next day’s soundcheck, at which Jason Raboin, the band’s soundman outfitted my mandolin with one of the new DPA clip-on mics and pronounced my amplified guitar sound as “pretty good,” and at which Joan seemed happy and confident, I felt good and ready for the first show. At dinner, Stephanie Hudacek, Joan’s assistant, asked if I felt “nervous? excited?” and I said, “Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.”
--to be continued

photo (c) Anne Hamersky

Monday, February 23, 2009

Joey's Cherry Pie Criterium Report

Joey Nygaard
Cherry Pie Crit., 2/8/09
15th place, Junior 15-16

The start of the season is always marked by Cherry Pie Criterium, which is usually a rude awakening for me to my form, and makes me want to train afterward!
As usual, the race was early but not early enough to miss warm-up. We got to the race with time to register, warm-up for a while, and watch Stanley and Ryan Grant kick butt in the race before mine!
The whistle blew, the big pack started off down the hill, and I grabbed a wheel. The pace was fast but not fast enough that I would get dropped right away. I managed to stay in contact for awhile until 4 laps to go when I was near the back of the pack, coming around the little S-curve before the climb, a group of about 5-6 guys went down right in front of me with just enough space for me to slip around them. As I went by I looked to see if any Swifties had gone down but didn't see any (always a good sign!). Although I had avoided the crash I was now way behind the main pack! It was too far to bridge so I began to look for a group to ride with until the end. Luckily (for me) Zack was not that far ahead of me and I caught him. Together we formed a group and started a paceline. Unfortunately I got dropped by a little bit and had to cross the finish line alone.
Although I did not get a great result I was happy. My goal for the race--my first as a 15-16--was to stay with the pack for as long as possible and find a group to ride with if I got dropped. I felt better than I thought I would and I am excited for the season to come!
We stuck around for the Cat. 4 race to cheer on the other Swifties! Then we decided to call it a day and head for home!

Great racing Swifties!
Joey Nygaard