Exploring the Discography of Life

“…there is a playful randomness about what we find and read.  Or rather, what finds us”

When I first rekindled my interest in songwriting and music again, sixteen or seventeen years ago, I began hanging out in music stores, playing the guitar again and digging out songs from my memory and on faded notebook paper from years ago.  One day, a worker in the store I frequent most, Fretted Instruments of Birminghm, said, “Are you just starting to explore the discography?”  I had just said that “I was getting into bluegrass music” and that was his reply.

I began to delve into just that—listening, going to shows, scooting to Nashville now and then.  I bought a collection of Bill Monroe’s music.  Over the coming years, I heard a lot of music live—Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Nickel Creek, J. D. Crowe, Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, as well as a lot of lesser-known but excellent players and singers coming through the Station Inn in Nashville or here in Birmingham, especially at the old Moonlight Music Café and it’s descendant, Moonlight on the Mountain.  I listened to all kinds of music, leading me back to the Carter family, rekindling my love for Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, but also eventually delving back to my own eclectic roots in James Taylor, the Beatles (naturally), gospel music, hymnody, classical musick and the serendipity of albums I happened to buy at certain times.

It’s a little like books—there is a playful randomness about what we find and read.  Or rather, what finds us.  Somebody tells us about a book they love, or something they came across while reading something else.

Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe

Whatever interests you will eventually lead you forward and backwards, into new ideas, but also back into all that preceded it and explain it.  As technology has made more and more available, it is possible for anyone with a computer to go and find all sorts of interesting musical ancestors.  So for me, “exploring the discography” was going to graduate school.  It led me first to my initial interest, bluegrass, but then on to jazz, blues, soul, R&B, folk, gospel, old-time, and all sorts of fusions.

The intersections can be quite interesting.  There are purists, of course, who insist on telling all the rest of us what we are supposed to like, and they are in every genre, but both the honoring of the past and the acceptance of the new have a place at the table of creation.  In recent times, I find myself going back again.   Perhaps an inevitable preference of aging,  you want to re-touch meaning from the past.  But I also think there is another rich vein of possibility unearthed when we cease from our worship of “novelty,” (which often turns out merely to be unconscious borrowing or worse) and revisit the discographies of the world.  What we find is that, even if the work of art or song or words we read before are exactly the same, we no longer are.  We hear differently each time.

A little backward exploration enlightens you to know that everything is borrowed and reassembled.  Monroe forged together old-time music with gospel, country, blues and other streams to create bluegrass.  The Carter family recorded and handed down hundreds of songs that came from families and groups in the hills that had been sung for generations “by our people” and commercialized it as country music.  The great classical composers always stood on the shoulders of others.  The old becomes new when it is rediscovered and reqppropriated.

“The Road Less Traveled” is one way to live.  But there is value in traveling the road we have walked a hundred times with new eyes and ears.  It can be an astounding discovery of something we never saw in the first place.  So what is back there for you?  It may not be music, but something that keeps yielding fruit for you may still be waiting where you left it.

Mapping the Bluegrass Genome

“The genetic code of bluegrass and old time music is more sophisticated than that.  It carries stories of birth, life and death in the old days.  It tells of children dying young, tragic love, shame, murder, alcoholism and faith.  To learn the code, no stereotype will do.  You have to descend into the music and listen.”

 

In 2005 I took a three month sabbatical to study, pray, and feed the senses.  I went to art museums, read books, went to Nashville to learn about the music industry and played at open mic at the Bluebird Café, reaching one

Shuffler and Boosinger

Shuffler and Boosinger

of my bucket list items (the ultimate would be a gig on the “Prairie Home Companion Show” while Garrison Keillor is still on earth!).  But a lot of that time was “exploring my roots,” musical, theological and spiritual—which led to a week at Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp.

I’d been to the Kamp before, in Maryville, Tennessee.  Unless you are a devotee of the guitar and acoustic cousins like the mandolin, the “fiddle” (violin played a certain way), bass, banjo or dobro, you don’t realize that hundreds of camps happen every year across the world where musicians gather and play and learn the heritage of “roots” music—folk, jazz, country, celtic, and so on. In these places, campers rub shoulders with the legends of bluegrass, swing, fingerpicking and new acoustic music.  I met legends like Bill Keith, Clarence White, Read the rest of this entry

Daniel Murphy, Sports and Babies

“J——, this is your pastor.  Now having heard your

confession on the air, will you stop by to receive

penance instructions about being a better father and husband?”

It’s just too easy to weigh in on the comments of Mike Francesca and Boomer Esiason about Daniel Murphy’s decision to take two days to be present for his baby’s birth.

Daniel Murphy, new Dad, plays second base for the New York Mets.

Daniel Murphy, new Dad, plays second base for the New York Mets.

Of course, we live in a time of sportainment.  More and more, as politics becomes hopelessly unresponsive and global problems impinge on every part fo life, sportainment is the way we escape–from real life.  Except that ultimately isn’t an option.

One day I listened in on sports radio–I admit, it’s a guilty pleasure on the way to the hospital or a meeting, in part because I will always laugh at something pretentious, silly or absurd.  And much of what is discussed is fun to consider.  A husband caller complained to Paul Finebaum about a player’s tweet after Alabama lost its bowl game that “it’s only a game.”  His argument was that it isn’t.  He went on, passionately, to say that though he was a member of a church and loved his family, that during the football season he spends more time and money on the sport than on his wife and kids or his church.

My jaw dropped since I am a minister, but why should it?  I like to imagine that I might follow up crazy calls.  What would I say?  Disguised voice: “This is Dr. Hapner Wogwillow.  I am a marriage therapist.  I treat his wife for depression and recognized him in the call.  He needs to go home.  She just left for good with the kids.  I will tell him their names if he’ll call me.  BR-549.”  My other idea was to, “J——, this is your pastor.  Now having heard your confession, will you stop by to receive penance instructions about being a better father and husband?” Read the rest of this entry

Johnny Cash’s Music Lives On

Johnny_Cash_-_Out_Among_the_Stars

Johnny Cash material released this week.

Johnny Cash, in many ways, lived as a prism of

the last half of the twentieth century,

at least a Southern version of that.

 

Johnny Cash died on September 12, 2003, going out in a blaze of recording glory with his last work, four albums titles “American I-IV”.  Ever experimenting and interacting with the musical world, the series, produced with the help of Rick Rubin, was highly acclaimed.  “Hurt,” and the accompanying video, appearing three months before June’s death and seven before Johnny himself succumbed to diabetes.

The brilliant video serves as a summary and eulogy for the man in black.  But apparently it was not the end of his recording career.  This week the world is meeting the music of Johnny Cash once again.  “Out Among the Stars,” a never-released album of songs recorded in 1984, was unearthed by his son and released to the public.  I just got it and am listening through.

Read the rest of this entry

ALABAMA FOLK SCHOOL offers Songwriting Class With Kate Campbell

Kate Campbell has created an impressive body of original work in the past eighteen years.

Folksinger and songwriter KATE CAMPBELL is coming to Alabama to lead a class on Songwriting during March (21-23) as part of a weekend school on writing.  If you write lyrics, always wanted to, are a performer who tours or just somebody whose been writing songs in the basement for twenty yearsa and never had the courage to sing one in front of anyone, you might enjoy coming to the Alabama Folk School’s latest offering, “WORDS, WORDS, WORDS.”  The Alabama Folk School is a lovely new place to go and learn about crafts and arts of all kinds—playing the mandolin or quilting.  And now, songwriting and the written and spoken word.

OK, the Grammys are over.  And I didn’t watch.  I am not a sourpuss who needs to pour water on people who want to make millions of dollars dressed as French mimes from Venus.  Free world, have at it.  I like most music, but not all.  Again, your right.  But me?  I like making music more than buying it.  I like crafting, thinking about it, playing with friends, encouraging others.  I like singing with my Dad whenever we’re together.  Singing in church.  Singing with our band, but I like practicing even more.  I love writing songs.  I love learning about it, crafting, exploring something until it is “finished” (which is the hardest part—letting baby leave home!).  And the best way to grow in your craft is to be around others.

MORE INFO CLICK HERE:

The weekend event will offer a class on writing and one on songwriting.  No prior knowledge or expertise is necessary, just interest.  I’m sure the place will be full of people with guitars and notebooks, jamming, telling stories and swapping ideas.  Maybe you have words and want to meet people with a head full of tunes.  Or vice versa.

The weekend is NOT a competition for “greatest songwriter on earth.”  It is a community to encourage everyone to

deux deux idiots ou des génies?

find their voice and grow in their skill.

There will also be a sonn-to-be announced instructor for a writing class the same weekend.

Asking Good Questions: A Sermon for a Young Parent

 I’d want them to know my love was so strong that no matter how bad it gets,

how far down they go, who leaves them and abandons them, I won’t. 

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.    

Looking at a newborn is a pretty overwhelming reality.  It is the age we are in.  Vickie and I were sitting outside in the

waiting room, getting more anxious by the moment for our daughter and her husband and a little one.  Being born is

from cdc.gov site

from cdc.gov site

dangerous, not guaranteed, and full of anxiety, no matter what reassurances we are given.  In fact, the greatest advice from the OB to our daughter the last two months was, “Don’t Google.”

We don’t know how to know what to do with all the information.  In the old days, they took the mother, the father paced outside, and  the baby arrived.  It was the first inkling of what you had—boy or girl.  No paint colors until you knew.

Now, you have more knowledge about this infant than the NSA has of your cell phone.  But what to make of it?  Truth is, there is still a place where we cannot intrude with knowledge, and it is the miracle of life itself.

But don’t get me wrong.  It’s great to know.  And here’s how we got the word.  We’re sitting there, grandparents, waiting, worrying, praying.  Getting texts from our kids and friends—praying for you, hoping, let us know, that sort of thing.  And we occupy ourselves by answering these as we wait.  Naturally, we are watching the other occupants of the room.  A waiting room is pure democracy.  Rich, poor, well-dressed and barely dressed, country and city, every Read the rest of this entry

Musical Profile: Laura McGhee

Laura 2

Laura McGhee

Laura’s talent is immense and her music full of heart…,I hope you get to hear Laura sometime.  She’s a terrific musician and … You’ll find these tunes getting in your head and your voice humming along!

 

Laura McGhee performed together with Shades Mountain Air on Saturday evening, then came and performed at our church on Sunday morning, doing her two beautiful compositions, “Roxburghe House” and “Commemoration,” the former a musical reflection on a house in Scotland where hospice work now takes place, the latter a piece she composed for a 9-11 memorial in New York.  Set in the context of worship, they affected the congregation deeply.  It was quite a weekend, one in which I was able to spend more time than I often do with a fellow performer in a co-bill.

I met Laura last year when we shared a performance at Moonlight on the Mountain in Hoover, Alabama, near where I live.  It was a delightful evening, and her talent and musical chops were evident to all of us.  When our host on Saturday evening scheduled a retirement party for all of her friends this weekend at the same listening room, Read the rest of this entry

A Championship for God

I watched all the passion and powerful energy around the football season this year.  I have watched the most 3college football in years.  “What if the church generated such passion?”  I imagined a coach’s assessment at the end of the year.  It went like this:

  1. (At the end of the year banquet)  Great season, people.  We had our MVPs and our Most Improved.  It looks like we have a solid core back this year and that bodes well.
  2. We finished the year with a winning season.  Of course, we had our losses, too. Some major leaders and talent have gone to the next level, which in the kingdom of God is heaven.
  3. We had some transfers to other teams, and more than a few injuries.  In this league, the injuries

    C’mon!

    are harder to see.  Quite a few have torn ACLs, (Attitudinal Christlikeness Lethargy) and more than a few are on suspension for inactivity.

  4. The most exciting news, though, is we had a great recruiting season.  Gifted people everywhere you turn, at every position.  And that’s good.  We have more than a few seniors who are not far from graduation.  They’ve kept the faith and fought the fight for a long time, and our lack of depth has been a real challenge, so they are happy to see these freshmen and sophomores  coming in here to help.  We need them to step up and help right away.
  5. We ought to be motivated to have a championship season.  The big game every week comes when we file into the sanctuary and listen to the Lord’s word, re-tell the story of our team, and get inspired by the great heritage of saints.  That’s our name, you know.  The Saints.  Not the New Orleans’ ones.
  6. And when we all execute our assignment we’ll win every time—blockers removing the obstacles out there and making way for the good news, passers sharing the gospel and kindness, practicing stewardship and pouring out blessings for the world, when our receivers go out and catch the ball and run for daylight, they carry the good news of the gospel to the world, to the lonely, the desperate and the hopeless.
  7. This year, we aren’t settling for a few measly points of improvement.  We are going to the top.  It’s silly for grown men to mope around for months over football games.  We’re about real and eternal things.
  8. 8.      No, the real championship is the Kingdom of God.  Healing diseases, crushing poverty and injustice, helping the illiterate to read, telling the story of Jesus to those who don’t know it.  Loving the unloved, working for reconciliation and forgiveness.  I’m tired of being number one in football, obesity and high blood pressure.  I’m ready to lead the nation in hope and the love of God and blessing little children everywhere.
  9. We have our opponent, of course.  The Bible describes him as a roaring lion, seeking to devour us.  Mostly that happens when we turn in on ourselves, or look at our troubles, or abandon hope and think we’re beaten.  Or responding with hate and fear.  Or worse, start blaming each other and sulking.  Win together, lose together.
  10. If we believe in the One who called us here we can do it!  Just believe in each other, do our assignments, don’t listen to the crowd and the critics, get up when we get knocked down, and always, always play the game with fearless confidence.  Now let’s get out there, and when you walk into this arena of worship on Sunday, come dressed for the fight, come for a victory, come to praise and pray and go forth.  And accept nothing less than the victory of God for everyone.  YEAHHHHH!h

“Live at Moonlight On the Mountain”

Our band has produced two CDs in the past, in 2000 (Shades Mountain Air) and in 2004 (Sky’s a Clearing).  For the last nine years, we’ve been promising a “new” CD while going about busy lives.  I have had four individual collections of songs in the meantime, and the band has done a CD related to Greg’s short film, titled Christmas At Virgin Pines.

DSC_1789 (1024x678)Sometime last year, we said, “Why don’t we try a live CD?  It can capture the energy and experience of a performance, the joy of sharing with an audience, in a venue we love?”  So, the result was a June 1 concert at Moonlight on the Mountain in Hoover, Alabama, one of our very favorite places to play.  Engineer Fred Miller of Knoddingoffmusic came and meticulously recorded the night and mastered the CD for us.  After many months, Live At Moonlight On the Mountain  is finally here and available for purchase.  It’s a great CD, maybe the best ever.  It shows our fifteen years together, the long experience of performing our songs until the arrangement is just right, and the love and energy of playing together.  I think our fans will love it!

So, I encourage you to visit our store on our website.  Eventually it will be available on Amazon and iTunes, but for now, you can purchase directly here by credit card.  Just click the link! LIVE AT MOONLIGHT ON THE MOUNTAIN

Thou Shalt Love Thy Bandmates

Anyway, riding in a van for a week turned us from “Friends

and Brothers” to angry inmates who couldn’t wait to bust out.

Fifteen Years.  That’s how long Shades Mountain Air has been together, at least the core of Greg and Nancy Womble, Gary Furr, and Don Wendorf.  We have spent a couple hours a week most of that fifteen years weekly at Greg and Nancy’s house, practicing, horsing around, composing, arranging, learning and growing from one another.  We’ve only had one personnel change in all that time–Don’s son, Paul, our outstanding fiddle player, left us to move on with wife, kids, career, to Texas, and so, we were four again for a while, then found Melanie Rodgers.  Mel has added dynamic new joy to our sound, and is now a part of our 15th Anniversary Live Album that is now available.     (Go to the website store for our new CD click here!)

Image

Shades Mountain Air at Moonlight, 2013

The album sounds great!  We hired Fred Miller of Knodding Off Music to record and engineer our live concert.  Fred did a fantastic job and we are so happy with the result.  He captured our live sound and energy.  It sounds like us!  There is NOTHING like live music, and though it’s fun to be in a studio and monkey around with something until you get it “perfect”, there is a corresponding loss of that spark that performers-audience and a venue provide.  We did it at our favorite gig–Moonlight On the Mountain in Bluff Park in Hoover, Alabama, with Keith Harrelson, as always, handling lights and sound.

I say all this because Shades Mountain Air is more than a band.  We have become family together.  We love playing together, singing, creating, whether anyone is listening or not.  Greg and Nancy’s kids grew up having to hear us every week in their house. We have been through life crises, griefs, and changes Read the rest of this entry

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