Whether its making instruments, finding books, or finding bluegrass recordings, we have the music information you need.
Marc Bristol is a fount of useful music information.
Photo by Brent Thorgren
Well folks, spring has finally sprung! It's time to restring the old guitar, shine up the penny whistle, and sit out on the back porch to jam awhile in the sunshine. And it's also a great time to explore some fresh ideas and new sources of information. In fact, since I've been doing a bit of spring cleaning (by way of going through my mail!), I've discovered a virtual potpourri of "noteworthy" music information that I'd like to pass on to you right now — before you get caught up in chores yourself!
First off, I've been really pleased by all the feedback I've received on Part I and Part II of my "Make a Bamboo Flute" article. (By the way, if you've already crafted one of these instruments, now that the weather's warmer I'm sure I don't have to tell you how much fun they are to play outdoors!) Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there's an entire network of woodwind enthusiasts. One of these musicians, Sandi Bushnell, from the state of Washington, took the trouble to send me a list of various makers of flutes and ocarinas (small, rounded whistles that give a soft, hollow sound), a news sheet about ocarina design, and a cute little handmade, four-hole ocarina shaped like a dragon. Thank you, Sandi! Since her letterhead featured a picture of an instrument just like the one she'd sent me, along with the title "Clayzeness Whistleworks," I suspect that Sandi makes and sells these woodwinds herself.
The one-page news sheet that Ms. Bushnell included in her "surprise package," as well as the list of woodwind crafters, was compiled by a whistlemaker in San Francisco, Alan Albright. I checked with Alan, who said he'd be glad to send the list and/or the design sheet (as long as supplies last), at no charge, to anyone who requests them.
I also noticed, while going through my mail, that many of you are still asking where you can locate books for beginning musicians. Well, one source of addresses is my book, Homegrown Music. In addition, a good how-to book company has come to my attention: Centerstream Publishing .
I wrote and asked for Centerstream's catalog, which was quickly mailed to me. The listing is chock-full of instructions for playing the guitar, banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, harmonica, and drums — it even includes a book entitled Guitar Tuning for the Complete Idiot (tuning can certainly be frustrating, and is all too often a neglected topic!).
The folks at Centerstream also sent me the Backpacker's Songbook, which sells for $4.95 plus $1.00 for postage and handling. This paperback contains the words and chords to more than 200 folk songs, a whole chapter on how best to pack a guitar (or banjo) so you'll be able to carry it easily on the trail, as well as a short section on first aid (and other emergency situation procedures). Why, this nifty little publication could be the picker's ultimate outdoor handbook!
The cover of Backpacker's Songbook features a photo of a hiker leaning against his pack and playing a small portable guitar. Yep, that's right ... a portable git-fiddle! I did a bit of research into this and found out that the fellow on the handbook's cover is Bob McNally, a travel-minded musician who makes not just one, but two sizes of portable guitars plus a minibanjo and another small instrument he calls a "stringed penny whistle" (it's somewhat similar to a dulcimer). Bob's scaled-down music makers average 6" x 32" and weigh about two pounds, and he also makes traditionally sized ones. (As a matter of fact, he started to make them easy to carry only after he recognized a need for the miniature version.)
In the event that you're happy with the instrument you've got, and maybe only need a few strings, picks, or other supplies for it, I've found a small, reputable discount mail order house that sells musical paraphernalia for guitars, banjos, violins, and so forth. It's Southern Sound, and the company offers terrific markdowns on all its items (for example, 25% off the list price on accessories and 30% off on strings). However, since a minimum postage payment is required for shipping charges, you might want to wait till you need about $10 worth of equipment before you place an order.
A few months ago I sent a note to Bluegrass Unlimited magazine mentioning that I write a column for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and have listed the journal's address several times in these pages, but that I'd never actually seen a copy of the publication. In no time at all, I received a package from BU's editor, Pete Kuykendall, containing three years' worth of back issues!
For days after that music-lover's deluge, I spent every spare hour reading Bluegrass Unlimited. As a result, I can now heartily attest to the excellence of the publication! It's filled with fascinating articles on past and present bluegrass heroes, as well as other pertinent pieces of information about the genre, and even an occasional short story or two. It's well worth the $12-a-year ($22 for two years) subscription rate.
While reading one of BU's back issues I came across an interesting article on Barry Poss, the man who founded Sugar Hill, the progressive bluegrass recording studio in Durham, North Carolina. According to Bluegrass Unlimited, Poss got his start in the music business with County Records in Virginia, which deals almost exclusively with old-time bluegrass. Barry, seeing a need to establish a studio that could better fit the needs of modern pickers, moved to Durham and set up his own record company.
I got pretty interested in Sugar Hill from the magazine piece, so I wrote Barry. I told him who I was and asked him to send me some information about what recordings were available through his studio. Like Pete Kuykendall, Barry was more than happy to help me out: He sent me a catalog plus three just-released albums!
I was so impressed by these recordings that I couldn't resist taking the first opportunity — namely, this column — to tell you about them. My favorite of the three is by Chris Hillman (former member of the Byrds) and is titled Morning Sky. This song-filled recording contains compositions by popular tunesmiths from Dylan and Kristofferson to Fogelberg and Gram Parsons. Each cut is performed in a basically acoustical bluegrass style by Hillman, along with Herb Pedersen (who was formerly with the Dillards, and who's also done backup vocals for Emmylou Harris); Bernie Leadon (who played with Chris in the Flying Burrito Brothers, and later was one of the Eagles); and Byron Berline, Al Perkins, Kenny Wertz, and Emory Gordy.
Besides Morning Sky, Sugar Hill's creator sent Busy Bee Cafe by Marty Stuart and another recording that's called, simply, Berline-Crary-Hickman. Stuart is a bluegrass Whiz Kid who got his start in the business, about ten years ago (at the tender age of 13), playing in Lester Flatt's Nashville Grass and who is currently a member of Johnny Cash's backup band.
Marty (who plays guitar and mandolin, and sings) has enlisted the talents of Cash on vocals and guitar, along with Doc and Merle Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Jerry Douglas. The Busy Bee Cafe tunes range from old favorites by each of the artists to a couple of Stuart originals. As you can imagine from its all-star lineup, the recording has more than its share of blazing-hot licks!
The Berline-Crary-Hickman album is mostly fiddle, guitar, and banjo tunes, with an occasional vocal. Since I've always liked Dan Crary's voice (as well as his fine picking), I was a bit disappointed that the disk didn't contain more songs, but the picking and fiddling do shine and sparkle throughout the whole recording. Any fan of instrumental bluegrass is bound to be dazzled by the virtuosity of these three fine artists!
The rest of the selections that Sugar Hill offers in its catalog sound nearly as exciting as, if not more so, than the three albums that I've just reported on, especially since they're performed by such musical lights as Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Doyle Lawson, David Grisman, and Buck White (to cite only a few). So if you're interested in progressive bluegrass, drop this company a line to receive a catalog.
Sugar Hill, incidentally, is now a part of County Records, which as I mentioned also produces traditional bluegrass recordings.
Marc Bristol — a homegrown musician who performs regularly throughout the Pacific Northwest — began sharing his knowledge of do-it-yourself entertainment with MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers back in 1978. Marc's columns have touched on everything from sources of recorded folk music to detailed instructions on how to make your own instruments.
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