A few years back I came across a group of children--black, white, Asian, Indian--all sitting together on the floor of a K-Mart store in NYC, watching The Incredibles on a big-screen TV. They clearly enjoyed each other’s company, they were delighted to be in the same place together, and they filled the store with their laughter at what was happening on screen. The studio that released The Incredibles, Pixar, was founded by Steve Jobs. This publication is designed on an Apple computer and much of the content is written on a Mac. Since his passing on October 5, Mr. Jobs has been the subject of countless deserved tributes worthy of the visionary he was. Some of us believe the most beautiful sound in the world is childrens’ laughter. Of the many thoughts that ran through my mind when I heard of Mr. Jobs’s death, foremost among them was the memory of that rainbow coalition of youngsters made so deliriously happy by yet another Jobs innovation. More than anything else--and there is much more--I thank Steve Jobs for the happiness his vision brought to those kids. What a great gift to give the impressionable future leaders of a world he helped create. --David McGee
Imagine our shock to find NFL.com using a genuine doo-wop classic in its new commercial, reviving The Students’ obviously timeless 1958 evergreen “Everyday of the Week” for its current TV campaign. The NFL.com version may be a remake but it hews closely to the original save for the distinctive scratchy guitar mixed lower in the TV commercial than it is on the actual Students single. The singer sounds remarkably like The Students’ lead singer Leroy King, who himself sounded remarkably like Frankie Lymon. Hailing from Youngstown, OH, The Students were a six-man group led by King and including Richard Johnson, John Bolden, John Ford, Dorsey Porter, and on guitar, Ralph Byrd. Backed with a teen misery ballad, “I’m So Young,” “Everyday of the Week” (written, as was “I’m So Young,” by the group’s manager, Prez Tyus) was released in May of ’58 on the Note label, then picked up and re-released twice by the Chess/Checker/Argo operation, first in August ’58 on Checker, and again March 1961 by Argo. The bass singer’s chanting of the days of the week sets the stage for the plaintive-voiced King’s entry, Byrd’s guitar keeps plowing ahead and the track takes flight in a glorious burst of precision group harmony. The Students broke up shortly after their second session for Note in 1959, with an album reportedly in the can but still unissued. In the liner booklet for Rhino Records’ first Doo Wop Box, annotator Bob Hyde says King was eventually institutionalized, “never to emerge.” In the comments section of this YouTube clip, one viewer reported that King had passed away; in reply another visitor, writing in 2010, confirmed this as fact and added that King’s daughter had recently attended an oldies convention as a fan, not as a guest, but was recognized by someone running the show. Coaxed onstage, she was introduced to the crowd. In turn, attendees responded to her presence with a standing ovation that moved her to tears.--D.M.
COVER STORY: BACK TO THE SOURCE On Country Hits Bluegrass Style, Ricky Skaggs recasts some of his ‘80s mega-hits in down-home fashion and, lo, he is pleased By David McGee
After a near-decade’s dominance of mainstream country in the ‘80s, RICKY SKAGGS walked away from it in 1989 and returned full-time to bluegrass.Now it’s 2011, and Ricky Skaggs has come back to country. In a way. But he hasn’t left bluegrass. That is to say, on his new album, Country Hits Bluegrass Style, Skaggs revisits 14 of his monster country hits, including 10 of those #1 singles and, as the title indicates, recasts them into bluegrass songs, the end result of which is to emphasize how close he remained to bluegrass even when he was a big-time country star. Speaking about his new album, which is an updated version of a CD he released exclusively through Cracker Barrel in 2008, Skaggs looks back on an era he played a big role in defining.
COVER STORY: SHARON ISBIN, WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HER FRIENDS TheBluegrassSpecial.com Interview By David McGee
Coming off her 2009 Grammy winning Journey To the New World, SHARON ISBIN explores other new worlds on Guitar Passions, with the assistance of some guests you wouldn’t expect to show up on a classical album. Chalk up another triumph for the world’s pre-eminent classical guitarist. In our exclusive interview, this giant of classical guitar gives us an inside look at the friendships and mutual passions that produced the captivating, and sometimes surprising, performances on her new album.
COVER STORY: MARIA MULDAUR--STEADY AS SHE GOES By David McGee MARIA MULDAUR goes to New Orleans to cut a new album, Steady Love, and feels the spirit moving as she chronicles the sorry state of the world and seeks grace through faith. ‘I came up with a batch of tunes I think were funky and high spirited, good energy and most of all have an uplifting message, which is something I think people are really needing these days,’ she tells us in another freewheeling interview.
A BILL MONROE CENTENNIAL MOMENT When Lester, Earl and Chubby Came To Town
In this month’s installment of our year-long celebration of the Bill Monroe Centennial, we look back on the origins of Monroe’s classic Blue Grass Boys lineup featuring Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Chubby Wise, how they changed bluegrass music, and the travails they endured simply trying to make a living and spread their new bluegrass sound to a larger audience.
VIDEO FILE: JUST MAHALIA, BABY!
Celebrating the 100th birthday of gospel’s greatest singer, in words and video, including a book excerpt recounting her breakthrough appearance on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show in 1958. In it we learn how Shore fought for Mahalia’s appearance and received a valuable lesson from Mahalia about the difference between blues and gospel that perfectly illustrated the towering artist’s musical integrity. Having once declared gospel music “the staff of life,” Mahalia Jackson brooked no ambiguity in defining its essence.
CLASSICAL PERSPECTIVES: PIANO SHOWMAN LANG LANG IN TUNE WITH FRANZ LISZT
The flamboyant, immensely gifted Chinese pianist LANG LANG is generating critical controversy anew with his latest album, My Piano Hero, his tribute to Franz Liszt on the occasion of the composer’s bicentennial. But Lang Lang marks more than Liszt’s birthday with this recording: as a three-year-old, he was inspired to being studying piano after seeing the Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘Cat Concerto,’ in which the rambunctious duo have a go at Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C sharp minor. So My Piano Hero is gratitude in a big way from this most celebrated of young piano phenoms. Our Classical Perspectives selection this month includes appraisals pro and con, which indicate the intensity of critics’ responses to Lang Lang’s work, which in turn often seems part and parcel of their disdain for his rockstar-like appeal to young audiences and the way he cultivates same. Where else, though, are you going to find serious critiques of an important classical artist with the added context not only of the Tom & Jerry ‘Cat Concerto’ segment that first inspired Lang-Lang, but also the very first cartoon appropriation of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, in the 1929 Mickey Mouse cartoon, ‘The Opry House,’ and--and--a link (because embedding is disabled--drat the luck) to Bugs Bunny’s distinctive interpretation of Liszt’s influential composition as depicted in the 1946 Merrie Melodies short, ‘Rhapsody Rabbit’? Where else, we submit, but here?
BORDER CROSSINGS: UNITED KINGDOM The ‘Meaning' of Nitin Sawhney NITIN SAWHNEY’s ninth studio effort, Last Days of Meaning, is a concept album in the truest sense of the term. At times challenging and often melancholic, his brand of social commentary is perfectly suited to the broad musical spectrum he employs. On the surface Last Days Of Meaning is a diverse set of songs in different styles weaved together with spoken word sections; however, the narrative it creates is fascinating and, for some critics, problematic.
Remembering WILMA LEE COOPER, who with her husband Stoney Cooper and their band the Clinch Mountain Clan, recorded some of the purest, most evocative and rhythmically furious mountain music of the 20th Century.
A tribute to MARVIN TARPLIN: There are few sounds sweeter than the voice of Smokey Robinson and it was at its sweetest when he and the Miracles were a hitmaking machine for Motown in ’50s and ‘60s. About the only sound, in fact, that could challenge the beauty of Robinson’s singing was the nuanced emotions emitted by Marv Tarplin’s guitar. Tarplin’s contributions to soul music go beyond his memorable instrumental work: collaborating with Robinson he penned some of ‘60s soul’s enduring hits, bonafide classics, for Robinson & The Miracles, for Marvin Gaye, for the Four Tops and for Robison solo. He shunned the spotlight, but his voice was ever present.
*SHIRLEY MURDOCK STAYS ‘TOUCHABLE TO THE PEOPLE’ By Bob Marovich
'I always take time out for the people. God first, but without the people's support, I couldn't do what I do.’ So says Shirley Murdock, and her new album, Live: The Journey, bears out her the artist-audience kinship she leans on.As she tells Bob Marovich: ‘I call it the ‘triangular effect’: what I do, I give to God first. I believe God touches it and He sends it down to the people. And they send it back to me. It's a magical thing.’
VARIOUS ARTISTS, Slingshot--‘We’re a new generation…we say it loud!’ So announces talented newcomer Bria Manaway on “Say it LOUD,” the initial single from the SlingShot 2011Soundtrack. And she does, they do, and the result is impressive.
OAKLAND INTERFAITH GOSPEL CHOIR, Hear My Prayer--Hear My Prayer is a capably produced, superbly wrought work that captures the live spirit of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir with fidelity. But as meaty, polished and well trained as the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir is, the CD belongs just as much to its talented lead singers.
MUYIWA AND RIVERSONGZ, Declaring His Name All Around The World-- Someone asked me recently what I thought gospel music would sound like in five years. Without missing a beat, I said it would incorporate more components of world music. The person looked at me as if I had seven eyes and a tail. Enter Muyiwa Olarewaju and Riversongz, a U.K.-based praise and worship ensemble who on Declaring His Name All Around the World take the listener on a global musical journey.
VICKI YOHE, I’m At Peace: A Praise And Worship Experience-- Stellar- and Dove-Award nominee Vicki Yohe is among a handful of blue-eyed gospel singers who have not only found an appreciable audience in the African American church, but whose work has also landed on Billboard's Top Gospel Singles and Albums charts. Her tenth and latest CD, I’m At Peace: A Praise and Worship Experience, was recorded live at Bethel World Outreach in Brentwood, Tennessee. The album demonstrates the praise and worship leader’s tuneful vocals and proclivity for pop-rock beats, evocative of fellow P&W artists Martha Munizzi and Mary Alessi. Smooth and pleasant, it is Ms. Yohe’s best work to date.
KEVIN BROWN, The Country Primaries-- Kevin Brown’s online bio says he hails from rural eastern Washington ‘where the arid Columbia Basin Plateau meets the Ponderosa Pine forest of the Selkirk Mountains. The key, though, is the bio’s comment about how Brown’s music addresses ‘the interwoven fabric of nature and humanity.’ In exploring matters relating to faith, family, self-worth, romance and similar weighty issues, Brown’s characters are often either at odds with, buttressed by but never separated from the natural world. On The County Primaries, the scenes Brown paints in his lyrics are defined by lightning strikes, gusts of wind, wooded areas, rainbows, fallow fields, Indian Summer, all God’s creatures, the moon and big blue skies, mountains and canyons and water—always water, the most fundamental of life’s building blocks.
HAL CANNON, Hal Cannon-- Hal Cannon’s love of the land is specifically centered on the western region of the country. Based in Salt Lake City, Cannon is the founding director of the Western Folklife Center and its beloved Cowboy Poetry Gathering festival and has gone the extra mile in promoting western music as a member of the Deseret String Band. Drawing on his extensive catalogue of original songs, Cannon introduces himself on Hal Cannon as a singing storyteller whose evocative tales range from the Civil War era to a vividly imagined present day and are presented in graceful, subdued arrangements that rise to exalted planes on the strength of Cannon’s conviction and his partners’ spiritually transcendent musical accompaniment.
NELL ROBINSON, On The Brooklyn Road-- Those who missed native Alabamian-current Bay Area resident Nell Robinson’s 2010 album debut, Loango (titled after home town), will want to go back and catch up after diving into the family lore, personal history and flat good roots music informing On the Brooklyn Road, named not after a borough of New York City but for the road leading to the Robinson family home in Alabama, not far from where Hank Williams grew up. This time out Ms. Robinson, who is turning 50 but has only been performing music in public for the past five years, sprinkles five new original songs among some traditional fare from days of yore, tackles a couple of legendary songs with pleasing results and adds a couple of the most charming bonus tracks you’re likely to hear on any CD in any year.
JACKIE DESHANNON, When You Walk In The Room-- When You Walk In The Room reminds us, if we needed reminding, of the special treasure Jackie DeShannon is. Not as prolific as Carole King, no Tapestry-like success on her album discography, no Brill Building background, but a unique songwriter with a common touch people can relate to, a voice everyday folks recognize as speaking to their feelings, fears and joys. She does that here by stripping away all the big arrangements she’s used to working with and using only her voice, mostly acoustic guitar with only a meager dollop of electric (it’s needed on ‘Bette Davis Eyes’), a bass and strings so discrete they are easily overlooked.
THE STAPLES SINGERS, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself-- Be Altitude: Respect Yourself may be a reissue, but the fortuitous confluence of events that coalesced in the Muscle Shoals Studio where the basic tracks were recorded in 1972 produced a statement with unsettling resonance in 2011. Back in the day, Pops, Mavis, Yvonne and Cleotha would have you believe in a bright tomorrow. What to do now but soldier on? You have a better idea?
JOHNNIE TAYLOR, Taylored In Silk--In 1973 Stax artist Johnnie Taylor and his producer, Don Davis, crafted a remarkable album-length statement, Taylored in Silk, that played more into the artist’s balladeering/philosophizing strengths and less to the gritty, accusatory style of his big hit, ‘Who’s Making Love.’ With its low-key arrangements, lush strings, subdued rhythms, thematic cohesiveness and deeply nuanced Taylor vocals, Taylored in Silk was a hybrid Memphis/Philly Soul-style treatise on the complex nature of relationships. The philosopher in Taylor simply ate it up.
MIKE ZITO, Greyhound--Greyhound refuses easy answers and in the end leaves the future, and its protagonist’s fate, as uncertain as it was at the outset of this tale. It has the feel of life about it. Zito’s rough-cut voice doesn’t even come close to being pretty, but its urgent, lived-in quality makes his tales of restless wandering, in search of love—of the physical and spiritual type alike—and stability of any sort impress as nothing less than a blues epic.
CHRISTINE SANTELLI’S VIDEO OF THE MONTH
‘Our Crazy Ways,’ from the artist’s 100 Videos in 100 Days project. For the latest Christine Santelli news and live performance schedule, visit her website.For those in or visiting New York City, the PATH Café at 131 Christopher Street features Ms. Santelli hosting and performing an opening set at its Singer-Songwriter night every Wednesday, beginning at 7 p.m. Check her out live--seeing is believing.
IN MEMORIUM: WANGARI MAATHAI Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, died on September 25. A biologist by training, she founded the Greenbelt Movement and made visible the links between trees and soil, war and peace, and the human body and spirit. Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Her books include Replenishing the Earth and Unbowed: A Memoir. In this introduction to her NPR interview with Ms. Maathai, KRISTA TIPPETT, host of NPR's On Being with Krista Tippett, reflects on the achievements of and lessons to be drawn from Wangari Maathai’s life and from the faith behind her ecological passion--‘a lively fusion of Christianity, real world encounters with good and evil, and the ancestral Kikuyu traditions of Kenya’s central highlands,’ Ms. Tippett writes.
*In Wangari Matthai: The Measure of the Woman, poets, novelists and world leaders pay tribute to Ms. Maathai’s legacy, and in interviews preserved on video Ms. Maathai discusses the urgency of the Green Belt Movement, stressing what cannot be stressed too often: 'The environment is an every day issue: it’s the air we breathe, it’s the water we drink, it’s the food we eat. And we can’t live without these things.’
I LOVE LUCY: A 60TH BIRTHDAY SALUTE
On October 15, 1951, I Love Lucy made its debut on CBS. For four of its first six seasons it was the most watched show in the United States; 60 years after its launch, it is syndicated in dozens of languages across the world and still viewed by an estimated 40 million Americans in reruns each year. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, along with their landlords/comic foils Fred and Ethel Mertz, are enduring pop culture icons. We love Lucy, too, and honor the show named after her in a five-part tribute, including:
*WHY WE LOVE LUCY--A video tribute to television’s greatest comic actor, Lucille Ball, featuring classic scenes from I Love Lucy. Worth the price of admission alone.
*101 (+1) I LOVE LUCY FACTS--Courtesy the LucyDesi Center in Lucy’s real hometown of Jamestown, NY, comes this list of 101 I Love Lucy Facts, plus a 102nd fact contributed by this publication.
*THE MUSICAL DESI--Years before I Love Lucy made him a household name, DESI ARNAZ was doing his part to bring Latin music to mainstream America. Although Arnaz wasn't a prolific recording artist, he made his mark with a body of work that inspired like-minded artists who surfaced after he had moved on to new challenges. Musicologists will find much to admire in the sturdy intellect in evidence on his recordings; fans merely seeking supremely entertaining fare will find they love it when they do the chick-chicky-boom. In addition to a guide to Arnaz’s recordings, this appraisal includes videos of the memorable musical numbers from I Love Lucy as well as Desi’s1946 recording of ‘El Cumbanchero.’
*BABALU A YE! THE ORIGINS OF ‘BABALU’-- A tribute to a Santeria deity captured mainstream America’s heart when it became Ricky Ricardo’s theme song. And then there’s the matter of Miguelito Valdés, who predated Desi as ‘Mr. Babalu.’ Check out the raw, incendiary Desi performance of ‘Babalu’ from his 1946 short film, Desi Arnaz and His Orchestra, that shows off the charismatic stage presence that made Arnaz a club sensation in New York in the late ‘40s, when he was one of the reigning mambo kings in the country after introducing the conga line to American audiences.
*MEET THE MERTZES--I Love Lucy without Ricky and Lucy’s comic foils, Ethel and Fred is unthinkable now. But the Mertzes were not part of the show’s original plan. How that changed, and how two obscure actors became part of one of television’s history’s most beloved casts, is a story unto itself.
TALKING ANIMALS: MARC MARON’S WTF: CELEBRATED PODCAST CELEBRATES REAL, CANDID CONVERSATION By Duncan Strauss Marc Maron, host of the much-lauded WTF podcast in which he, a comedian, interviews other comedians, recently visited Duncan Strauss, host of NPR’s Talking Animals, to discuss a host of issues, not the least being cats and talking with cats. ‘I have long conversations with cats,’ Maron tells Strauss. ‘I find myself talking to them a lot, and probably asking them questions they can’t answer. Well, they can’t really answer any questions--they’re cats. But it doesn’t stop me from asking questions, and waiting for answers.’ This insightful take on Maron’s evolution as a comedian and podcast host includes some entertaining video of the man himself at work, on WTF and as an animated character on the lamented Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.
A PEEK INTO KADIR NELSON'S HEART AND SOUL By Jules
What can I add to the discussion about this already much-lauded book, Kadir Nelson's Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans? The book takes on nothing less than African American history from the founding of America to Barack Obama's Democratic nomination for President. Actually, I didn't have enough coffee before breakfast today and I take that back: Nelson, as noted in the book's closing timeline, goes back in the first chapter ("Declarations of Independence") to 1565 when Africans first arrived in North America as slaves of Spanish colonists. What we have on our hands here is nothing less than a stunner, a visual tour de force and a powerful narrative that tells the stories of discrimination, sadness, and triumph that make up the history of African Americans.
THE BLOGGING FARMER Alex Tiller’s Blog About Agriculture and Farming Farmland Prices Feed Tension between Farmers and Financial Investors--The double-edged sword here is that taking advantage of business and financial opportunities, on the part of both farmers and investors, could lead to more financial hardship than both have already faced in tough economic times. Further Reading: ‘Are Farmland Prices Returning us To the 1980s?'--a blog published at Farmgateblog.com. Also this month: Farmers Work the Land Through the Texas-Oklahoma Drought-- The hardship that farmers face is sometimes blamed on government agricultural policy. However, the biggest problem in many areas has been from Mother Nature herself. The drought in 2011 in the plains has caused total losses for some crop farmers, particularly on the Texas and Oklahoma border. Experts at Texas A&M University say as much as $5.2 billion has been lost in agricultural revenue as the land has dried up, crops have perished, and the topsoil has dried into dust that blows in the wind. Even systems that efficiently keep crops watered have failed. In a related Must-Read and -See, the Austin-American Statesman’s stunning photo blog about the devastating impact of the 2011 drought in Texas will give anyone pause. We provide a link to the heartbreaking, heart-wrenching photo essay by Jay Janner, ‘Dry Season: The Texas Drought of 2011.’
NATURE’S TEMPLE To Autumn:Celebrating The Turning Of The Earth With Keats, Whittier, Dickens, Piaf, Durante and Washington (Dinah, That Is)
The changing of the seasons is wreaking havoc on our sinuses, but nothing can stop us from appreciating the arrival of autumnal beauty. To that end, we offer: JOHN KEATS’s ‘To Autumn,’ declared by Harold Bloom to be “the most perfect shorter poem in the English language”; EDITH PIAF singing ‘Les Feuilles mortes’ (‘The Dead Leaves,’ or ‘Autumn Leaves,’ as we know it in the States) on a Christmas Eve radio show in 1950, on which she is joined by host Tallulah Bankhead and guests Margaret O’Brien and Ed Wynn; a striking photographic depiction of Autumn by YANN OKADA; the poem ‘Autumn Thoughts’ by Quaker poet and abolitionist JOHN GREENLEAF WHITTIER in 1849, from his book Poems of Nature; the great Schnozzola, JIMMY DURANTE, with his indelible treatment of ‘September Song,’ the classic expression of late-life melancholy co-written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson; the 23-year-old CHARLES DICKENS’s Autumnal songs as written for his first play, a comic opera titled The Village Coquettes, which was accepted for production a week prior to the publication of Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers; and DINAH WASHINGTON’s singular reading of Warren and Dubin’s ‘September In the Rain,' Ms. Washington’s final hit, in 1961.
O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at last. Amen.
After finishing recording his new album, The Three Kings, guitarist Jeff Golub lost the sight in both of his eyes due to collapsed optic nerves. A fund has been set up to help defray his daunting medical expenses. Donations are accepted via PayPal, check or credit card. If you wish to donate, click here: http://www.jeffgolub.com/golubmedical.html.
THE BLUEGRASS SPECIAL
Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: [email protected]
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024