“Retroviews”

We live in a world full of disposable items. Things are used and tossed aside. This is actually a great thing in many ways (think disposable gloves, paper towels, paper cups etc. – very handy) but how has this impacted the music industry and more specifically Bluegrass recordings? It seems like the flow of new music is enormous these days! This is actually very exciting and I think the quality of the Bluegrass music being created by modern day bands and artists is excellent! However, does the fact that a song or album is a few years old mean it is no longer a quality, relevant, talent filled artistic expression? I think back through a few of my favorite albums – Kenny and Amanda Smith’s House Down The Block , Dan Tyminski’s Carry Me Across The Mountain , or Ricky Skaggs’ Live at Charleston – all great music that you don’t really hear too much about now. Obviously, there is always great excitement over new music and I am very much a part of it! I just think music should continue to be enjoyed even if it’s a few years old. This thought has been the impetus behind my idea to create Retroviews  – a series of  reviews of albums that are at least 5 years old and not yet considered “classics.” Maybe this series will introduce you to some music or artists you hadn’t previously heard about. There’s a lot of great music out there – new, old, and in between. I believe that if it’s good, it deserves attention. Keep an eye out for the first “Retroview.” Thanks for reading!

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“Old and New”

Classic and Modern MustangsIt would not be unrealistic to say that every Bluegrass band that has ever existed has utilized traditional songs popularized by the “fathers” of Bluegrass in both their recorded music and live repertoires. I would like to share with you here a few of my favorite updated versions of traditional Bluegrass songs to show how Bluegrass has both changed and stayed the same over time. There have been thousands of wonderful re-imagined versions of traditional songs come out over the years. The ones I’ve presented here are just a few I thought of that I think are good. There are several things that I listen for when judging the quality of a traditional Bluegrass song by a new artist. Here are a few of them:

Does the new version maintain the traditional feel of the song?

I’m really not the kind of person who is concerned with how closely that a new version of a song resembles the original. I simply contend that changes to a song must make it better. I have heard traditional songs that sound like they were changed simply for change’s sake which in my opinion results in a less enjoyable song. If a song can be improved by a certain artist, it should be. If it can’t, then it should be left in its traditional form. A song can have any level of change and still be really good. It just depends on the song and artist.

Does the song sound like an exact copy of the original?

Again, either way can be good here. I however tend to prefer it when artists put their own spin on traditional songs. If I want to hear a song the original way, I can always listen to Bill Monroe. When I listen to XYZ band, I want to see what kind of music they have created. I really can’t say I have a hard and fast rule on this though. The quality is a major factor.

Does the new artist perform the song as if it were coming from their point of view?

Singing and playing from the heart and delivering the emotion of the story you are telling is one of the most important aspects of creating compelling music in any genre. Too often I think that Bluegrass artists fail to deliver emotion in a traditional song. If I hear “Rose of Old Kentucky” for instance, I want to hear it as a first person experience not a memorized copy. A word to artists: If you use traditional material then own it. You are the one telling the story. “Sunny Side of the Mountain” has nothing to do with Jimmy Martin if you’re the one singing it. This is what the fathers of Bluegrass did and I think it is a key to success.

I think that the comparison between original and new versions of traditional songs is illustrated well by the picture of the two Mustangs at the top. The old and the new are both great. Let’s listen to and compare a few examples that  I enjoy.

Bill Monroe—Blue and Lonesome

 

Luke Bulla—Blue and Lonesome

 

Jimmy Martin—Freeborn Man

 

Josh Williams—Freeborn Man

Bill Monroe—Sally Jo

 

Ricky Skaggs—Sally Jo

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed my thoughts on modern performances of traditional songs. I would also recommend that you give a listen to the fantastic version of “Shady Grove” by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder from their History of the Future album. You can check it out HERE  Let me know what your favorites are in the comments section. Thanks for reading!

 

Peterson StroboClip Tuner Review

Peterson StroboClip Image

Tuning is one of the most fundamental and important parts of playing any musical instrument. Major advances in electronic tuner technology have been made even since I began playing fiddle at the age of seven. I have owned and used a variety of different electronic tuners and each has had its own set of strengths and weaknesses. I was first introduced to the Peterson StroboClip in 2009 by a fellow mandolin player at a bluegrass festival in Perrin, TX. He allowed me to try out the new (at the time) tuner and I was immediately impressed. After six years of using this tuner on the road myself, I am excited to share with you my thoughts about this excellent tool. When judging the effectiveness of a certain type of electronic tuner there are several different factors that must be taken into consideration. For the purposes of this review, we will examine the areas of accuracy, durability, and ease of use. Each of these factors will be rated on a scale of 1-10. I have also added some information about the StroboClip’s popularity among musicians. This outstanding tuner has some functions which I have never used such as a Sweetened Tunings function (I prefer to ear-sweeten my instruments) so this may not be considered a “complete” review but it should cover the basics for most Bluegrass/acoustic musicians. You can visit the Peterson Strobe Tuners website for more information about all of their fine products by clicking HERE.

Peterson StroboClip Promo Video

 

Peterson StroboClip Specs:

  • 1/10 Cent Accurate
  • Smooth, Real-Time Display
  • 28 Exclusive Peterson Sweeteners™/Temperaments
  • Alternate Temperament Presets (Including Buzz Feiten Tuning System®)
  • Drop/Capo/Key Setting
  • Adjustable Concert A Reference: 400Hz to 490Hz
  • Virtual Strobe™ Patented Technology

 

Accuracy: 10/10

Accuracy is the main strength of the Peterson StroboClip tuner. When I used the StroboClip tuner for the first time, the accuracy is what immediately stood out to me. After tuning with this tuner, my mandolin and fiddle sound perfectly in tune with very little ear sweetening. According to the specifications, the StroboClip is accurate to within 1/1,000 of a semitone. Of all the electronic tuners I have ever used, I believe the StroboClip is the most accurate.

Durability: 5/10

Durability is the category where the StroboClip wavers a bit. I have had to replace mine once and other members of the band I am with have had to replace theirs as well. The “clip” part of the tuner seems to break while the electronics of the tuner are still in perfect condition which is a frustrating problem. With a retail price around $100.00, this tuner really should last a little longer. I have had to make both of mine work using electrical tape on the clip. There are really two main ways that these tuners seem to break:

1)  The bottom pad can snap off.

Broken Peterson StroboClip

As seen in the picture, the bottom side pad can snap off of the StroboClip. Without this pad, instruments can be scarred (as my mandolin has been) by the brackets which act like claws. This is actually a simple problem to fix with electrical tape which can be layered over the “claws” to protect the finish. However, with the high price tag, this really shouldn’t happen.

 

 

 

 

2) The joint holding on the bottom half of the clip can snap.

Second Broken Peterson StroboClip

This problem is a little harder to remedy. When this joint breaks, the tuner is nearly worthless. I did find a way to continue using a tuner with this problem using (once again) an electrical tape fix but this is certainly not ideal. These joints are very flimsy as is the arm that connects the electronic part of the tuner to the clip.

 

 

 

Ease of Use: 9/10

The StroboClip features a strobe tuner type display that while very easy to use, is quite different from the “needle” or “arrow” displays that many other leading tuners have. The transition to this configuration may take some getting used to if you have been using another type of tuner. I have heard other musicians complain that it is harder to “speed tune” on stage with the StroboClip because the strobe display is harder to follow with the eye than needles or arrows are. I feel that the strobe display is actually superior but that is purely a matter of opinion.

"Strobe" Display

“Strobe” Display

"Arrow" Style Display

“Arrow” Style Display

 

 

 

 

 

The hinged design of the StroboClip makes it easy to adjust so that the screen can be seen when clipped on different places on a variety of instruments. The StroboClip also works well in loud environments and rarely gets “confused” by outside noises which is a major plus.

Popularity

Bluegrass Musician Testimonials Video

Between talking to StroboClip users, hearing endorsee testimonials, and reading music publications, I have gathered that the Peterson StroboClip is incredibly popular among musicians. The list of musicians who use this product is quite impressive. You can see a list of endorsees on the Peterson website by clicking HERE.

In Closing 

I hope this gives you a little more information about this fine product. I have been very happy with my Peterson StroboClip. Give me your thoughts about this tuner or any others that you like in the comments section. Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

“Real Guitar Heroes”

As with many seemingly ordinary things in life, the craze a few years ago over the video game Guitar Hero made my mind’s wheels start to turn. Musicians are really a lot like “gamers” in the sense that we have a controller (guitar, mandolin, whatever), learn to use it, and strive to always move forward with and perfect our craft. The interesting thing is that I’ve never heard of a crowd of committed fans gathering to watch someone play Guitar Hero. I did, however hear about a kid who quit high school to play it professionally. You can read this humorous story by clicking HERE. Even this article admits that while he may make some money “groupies should be harder to come by.”  Hopefully the career move worked out all right for him. Today I thought I would share with you some information about some “Real Guitar Heroes.” This is not really a “top” list and I wouldn’t presume to put these amazing musicians into any particular ranked order. They are just a few guitar players who I have a lot of respect for as a musician myself. There are too many greats to mention them all at once in one forum but these are certainly some noteworthy giants of the Bluegrass guitar world.

Kenny Smith

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Kenny SmithThose who are even vaguely familiar with Bluegrass flatpick guitar will know this name. Kenny Smith carved out his place among the guitar greats when he joined Sammy Shelor, Don Rigsby, and Ronnie Bowman as a member of The Lonesome River Band in the mid-90s. While with this band, he recorded his first solo album Studebaker which further solidified his position as a guitar icon. He and his wife Amanda Smith recorded an album together in 2001 titled Slowly but Surely that surged up the Bluegrass charts prompting the formation of The Kenny and Amanda Smith Band which has released five very fine albums so far and is still active today. Kenny is also a two time IBMA guitar player of the year. Smoothness, clarity, and confidence characterize his guitar style. He currently resides in the Nashville, Tennessee area and is in high demand as a session musician.

Trailer for Kenny Smith’s Return released in 2011

 

Dan Tyminski

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Dan Tyminski 3Dan Tyminski is certainly a name we hear a lot in music circles today and for good reason. Few would deny that his distinctive, powerful lead and rhythm guitar styles have had a major influence upon the current sound of Bluegrass. Another veteran of the Lonesome River Band (in which he played mandolin), Tyminski’s career has been characterized by his 21 year stint with Alison Krauss and Union station. He has recorded two solo albums Carry Me Across the Mountain (2000) and Wheels (2008) and has received numerous honors including 14 grammy awards. He is perhaps best known for his lead vocal on the popular re-arrangement of the traditional song “Man of Constant Sorrow.” His guitar playing is strong, tight, and clear and he cites the sound of Bluegrass pioneer Jimmy Martin’s rhythm guitar style as a strong influence upon his own.

Official music video for Wheels

 

Uwe Kruger

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Uwe KrugerOriginally from Switzerland, Uwe Kruger, his brother Jens, and bass player Joel Landsberg have had a remarkable career performing their virtuosic classically influenced acoustic music. Both of the brothers were introduced to American folk music via records their father would bring home from business trips in America. Uwe has an incredibly strong blues influenced picking style and possesses the control to blend perfectly with the banjo style of his brother Jens. While influenced by guitarists ranging from Doc Watson to Stevie Ray Vaughan, he has also incorporated classical sensibilities into his music drawing on greats like Bach and Brahms for inspiration.  Uwe’s guitar playing has an elegant strength that both draws attention to itself and shines light upon whoever he is playing with.

The Kruger Brothers performing “Jack of the Wood”

Dan Crary

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Dan Crary

Innovation, note definition, and ability to interpret songs differently while maintaining melodic connection are what make Dan Crary  one of the guitar greats. Originally from Kansas, Dan began playing at a young age and has had an impressive and influential career as a musician. After an early career playing solo and in a variety of bands, he began playing with Byron Berline in a band called Sundance. Eventually, they formed the outstanding trio Berline, Crary, and Hickman with influential banjo player John Hickman. The trio eventually added Steve Spurgin on bass. The band was re-named California when John Moore joined playing mandolin. Recordings released by BCH and California are some of Crary’s finest work. His guitar playing raised the bar of quality picking and helped to change the way the guitar is viewed in a band setting.

 Dan Crary performing a medley of traditional fiddle tunes

 

In Closing

These are a few of my “guitar heroes.” I’d love for you to share who some of yours are. It’s always great to discover new music and musicians!

 

 

My “Picks”: Top 3 Bluegrass Albums of the 1990s

 

Just the other day while waiting for a class to begin at Middle Tennessee State University where I am currently a student, I was talking to a friend about how long ago the “90s” seem.  I realized this a few years ago when I first heard the phrase “back in the 90s” used. I suppose the span of time seems larger to people like my friend and I who were both born in the early 90s; nevertheless, 1990 was a whole 25 years ago. After this conversation, I began thinking about all the great Bluegrass albums that came out of the 90s and how much I still listen to and love them. The “new” sounds of Bluegrass music that were born in the 1990s provided much of the inspiration for the more modern Bluegrass we hear today. In addition, nods to tradition found in recorded Bluegrass from this era provided a musical link between the founding fathers of the music and the members of the “super talent” generation that powers the genre today. With that in mind, I compiled this “my top picks” list of my three favorite Bluegrass albums of the 1990s based not only on their popularity, but also the continuing influence that I perceive them to have and how much I still enjoy them. This list is certainly open to change as other albums come to my mind or I’m introduced to new music.

#1 California Traveler (1991)

Sugar Hill Records SUG-CD-3803

     California Traveler Cover 001A group of west coast super musicians, Byron Berline (fiddle/mandolin), John Hickman (banjo), Dan Crary (guitar), John Moore (mandolin), and Steve Spurgin (bass) came together for their first and only album Traveler in 1991. The band won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Instrumental Group of the Year in 1991, 1992, and 1993. The album is a cohesive collection of exciting instrumentals, emotional ballads, and traditional songs that feature the bands amazing knack for creating intricate arrangements. Strong songwriter Steve Spurgin contributes four songs to the album. Highlight tracks include the exhilarating Byron Berline instrumental “Rocker Arm Reel,” “Traveler,” a completely re-imagined version of a traditional fiddle tune, Steve Spurgin’s “Walk In The Irish Rain,” and the band’s own version of the Bill Monore classic “Uncle Pen.” Several of the group members contribute lead vocals to the project. Instrumental mastery, tight and intricate arrangements, strong songwriting and soulful lead vocals make this album a 90s standout.

California Performing “Traveler” on American Music Shop in 1992

 

#2 Alison Krauss & Union Station Every Time You Say Goodbye (1992)

Rounder Records CD-0285

Every Time You Say Goodbye CoverThe influence of Alison Krauss and her band Union Station upon not only Bluegrass music but other genres as well is undeniable. Featuring the classic Union Station lineup of Alison, Adam Steffey, Ron Block, Barry Bales, and Tim Stafford, the album brought in a new era in the sound of Bluegrass music. It is a textbook for any aspiring Bluegrass musician and a classic for any fan’s collection. Its influences can be heard in nearly all current Bluegrass. Standout cuts include the title track, banjo instrumental “Cluck Old Hen,” Ron Block original “Shield of Faith,” and “Another Day Another Dollar,” written by future Union Station member Dan Tyminski.  The album reached #75 on the Billboard Country Albums Chart, won a grammy for best Bluegrass album in 1993, and was IBMA’s album of the year for 1993. Every Time You Say Goodbye certainly presents some top notch 90s era Bluegrass.

Alison Krauss and Union Station performing “Every Time You Say Goodbye” recently. Though first recorded in 1992, this song continues to be popular among her fans.

 

#3 Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder Bluegrass Rules (1997)

Rounder Records 0801

     Bluegrass Rules Cover Bluegrass Rules represents the first recording by music star Ricky Skaggs after his official departure from mainstream country music. You can read more about his departure from country  by clicking here   This recording is certainly a tip of the hat to the fathers of Bluegrass music. It features mostly traditional Bluegrass songs like “Get Up John,” “Little Maggie,” “Rawhide,” and “Riding On That Midnight Train” as well as a couple of new songs including the Skaggs original “Amanda Jewell.”  The band featured bluegrass veterans Bobby Hicks (fiddle), Dennis Parker (fiddle/guitar), Marc Pruett (banjo), Paul Brewster (guitar), and Mark Fain (bass) and Bryan Sutton (guitar) at the time this fine record was made.  Bluegrass Rules was certainly a strong announcement of Skaggs’ re-entrance into the Bluegrass genre.

Ricky Skaggs performing “Little Maggie” filmed the day before the release of Bluegrass Rules in 1997.

 

There were so many great Bluegrass recordings made during the 90s that I don’t have space here to give them each a mention. These are certainly some good ones. Please let me know what your favorite 90s Bluegrass albums are in the comments section!