Across the Tracks

I have been at this quite a long time. ‘Seen some amazing things, heard and was fortunate enough to play a lot of music, wore out a few passports and sets of tires, and generally rode guitar music around all over the place. I’m planning a book that will tell some of the more bizarre stories. The people who did the bizarre stuff should tremble at the prospect; but actually, they don’t need to worry, since by the time I get it written, I will have outlived most of them, and bizarre dead guys don’t have to sweat their reputation.

But today, I’d like to introduce this column by telling you a Crary road story of one of the most positive, one of the happiest things that ever happened to me in music. Back in college, when I was an announcer on the campus arts radio station, somebody programmed an album of something they called “early music.” The performers were the Waverly Consort, directed and produced by Mike and Kay Jaffe, and the music was medieval songs of The Virgin (Las Cantigas De Santa Maria). And OMG, it was exquisitely beautiful. Never heard anything like it before. Talk about old time music, this was really old. I had loved the old songs that my bluegrass heroes, The Bluegrass Boys, The Stanley Brothers, and The lonesome Pine Fiddlers sang, songs that were so old that no one knew who had composed them; but here the Waverly Consort sang stuff that was centuries old.

It was a little like raising the dead: whoever had composed these beautiful songs long ago turned to dust in a forgotten grave. But here, on FM radio in high fidelity, the coffin creaked open and you could hear that ancient voice sing again. From that moment, I made sure I had every recording the Waverly Consort ever made, medieval, renaissance, age of exploration, a huge repertoire, one record better than the next. It was incredible how parallel to bluegrass music the sound was; Mike Jaffe later pointed out that the parallels and similarities between a so-called broken consort and a standard bluegrass band are, instrument by instrument and voice by voice, precise, with a sort of ker-chunk. I listened to that early music hundreds of hours over the years, and its dark, raw, cold-wind-from-the-cosmos beauty crept conspiratorily into my playing, made it darker, more raw, more “lonesome” than ever.

Cut to 1983, The Waverly Consort came to Pasadena, and I’m sure I, their greatest fan, was one of the first to buy a ticket. These folks had appeared all over America, from Carnegie Hall on down, and now, here they came to my neighborhood. It was surely one of the greatest concerts I ever attended: they employed voices, viols, woodwinds and a lute and drums to make the middle ages come back to life again. The music was beautifully unfamiliar and obscure to that audience, and they went standing-o berserk anyway. It was magic, it was mesmerizing and transporting, it was musical time travel on the wings of a “broken consort.”

When it was over, I played groupie… went backstage, shook hands with the director, Michael Jaffe. And I asked him if I could purchase from him one of his out-of-print LP’s. Our beloved old English setter (name: Raisin Cookie) had innocently (and characteristically) eaten my original copy. He said no, but was impressed that I had every one of their many LP’s and CD’s. And that was that….

But there’s another chapter to this: about six months later, I had a nice concert in New York. After the show, backstage, I was talking to some attendees, and lo and behold, the Waverly Consort director Mr. Jaffee walked into the New York backstage area and right up to me. I thought, well maybe he’s paying a return courtesy call, so I said, “Hi Mr. Jaffe, how are you.” His response: “How do you know my name?” Long story short, he didn’t know who I was when we met before, but as it turns out, he’s a major flatpicking guitar fan, and had for years been listening to my recordings. Man, that was a moment: I got to meet both Mike and Kay Jaffe and became great friends with these geniuses of early music.

I hope my telling you this story conveys a little of why it was important to me. But now, here’s why it’s important to you: one of the most important, enriching, immediately valuable things you will ever do for your playing is to listen to music outside your own primary genre. Go over the walls of one’s ghetto, cross the tracks to another neighborhood. Get in the habit of listening to somebody else’s music, both for the feel and spirit of it, and also as a goldmine from which to extract, borrow, “steal,” or otherwise lift musical ideas to insert into your thinking and playing. Of course, you don’t have to make the same choice of somebody-else’s-music I made; but somewhere out there is other people’s music that will tickle your passions. Whatever it is, it just needs to be an escape from the myopia of one’s own music and experiencing the wider world of somebody else’s.

You will be amazed at what happens in your own head when there is a fusion of great ideas from diverse backgrounds. Surely you know the story of Bill Monroe’s “putting the blues in Bluegrass” as Bill used to say it. It’s a great story, available to you in his biography. Doc Watson used to talk about the great old jazz bands and everything else among the many things he listened to as a young player. This is no secret: all the great traditional players are articulate and dedicated to multiple kinds of music.

So listen up to some exotic music: among other styles, try on a little Italian romantic music from Beppe Gambetta. Or check out Sabicas’ 1960 masterpiece “Flamenco Puro.” Or check out the Waverly consort or the Baltimore Consort or Anonymous 4 or a thousand examples of really old time music. Or listen up to the incredible Baroque guitar of Rolf Lislevand, or the harp and classical guitars of our pal Muriel Anderson. Or venture into the blues with recordings of the late John Cephas. Or make your ears bleed with some powerful Nashville cats playing from Brad Paisley or Keith Urban.

One of the best licks I ever came up with was seriously borrowed from the old doo-wop group, Peaches and or Herb. Another of “my” licks that has been copied worldwide I stole from a blues piano guy… dang, it sounds pretty on the guitar. As Chet famously said, it’s not stealing, it’s research. And it’s called teaching yourself how to play the guitar.

The Passing of Doc

Assignment: Write something in your Flatpicking Guitar column about Doc that is worthy of him, captures something authentic about him, avoids saying the same things that everyone else is saying about the life  and passing of Doc Watson. It turns out to be very difficult assignment: so much has already been said about the guy, he has been decorated, praised, applauded, and lauded by the whole world it seems, and well-deserved too.

The ancient Greeks, who were great speechmakers, had a category of oratory called “Epideictic;” speeches in praise of the deeds of heroes. These speeches were often funeral orations like Pericles after the Peloponnesian War and Lincoln after Gettysburg. Ironically, these tribute speeches don’t do much for the departed heroes themselves: we should have given them flowers while they were living, as the old Stanley Brothers song has it. Well we did… happily Doc received many honors in his lifetime. But epideictic speeches do something important for those of us left behind. Our sadness and loss at Doc’s departure is not the only thing: there’s also the joy and satisfaction that we are in the lucky generation of people he touched, and his life continues to teach us important things.

Many writers will tell you more details and stories of Doc, so the best I can do here is to add a couple of things you might not have heard about him.

For one, Doc was unique in his ability to avoid labels, to duck being categorized or fenced in. Was he folk? Yes, of course. Blues? Damn straight. Country? Yes he was. Bluegrass? Whenever he wanted to. He was at the top of all those fields of music, and totally free to step outside any of them to go do something else. In my last interview with him, he said it was because as a youngster he loved Guy Lombardo and Woody Herman just like he loved Wade Mainer. From the first he found all kinds of music to be beautiful.

Something else about Doc: he was a full-on citizen of his world. The stereotypes of blindness and of musicians might lead one to think of this guy as sequestered, out of touch, etc. But he was anything but: in a conversation with Doc in the early 70’s backstage at the Walnut Valley festival, he told me he had just bought and installed a high-powered shortwave radio so he could listen to the BBC. I asked him why, and he said he didn’t completely trust the US media to be giving him the full story, so the BBC would give him more perspective.

Something else not often recognized about Doc: the worldwide popularity of the steel-string guitar has occurred in the last 50 years, and it started with the international touring of Doc and Merle in the late sixties. In 2006, when we were planning and writing our film Primal Twang, the first call I made to any musician was to Doc himself at home. When I told him we intended to tell the story that he and Merle during the sixties had started the rise of the steel-string guitar, he said: “Well, Dan, I’m not all puffed up about it, but I’d sure like to have that story told.” Then when he appeared in the film and we returned to the subject in the interview, he said he wasn’t egotistical about it, but he knew that great guitarists worldwide had been inspired by what they did.

Here is another wonderful Doc-ism: the guitar chose him, rather than the other way ‘round. There is a theme in the biographies of great musicians about how “they chose” their instrument. Often as not, it is more like the instrument chose the player; the little kid unpredictably and inexplicably hears something beautiful in the instrument and wants it, desires it with a passion unexpected in children. Doc said that while he was listening to all those kinds of music as a child,

“The guitar to me was the most fascinating sound I ever heard and knew; I don’t know why it was and it was something wonderful, and I wondered what it looked like.”

Something he had never seen or touched, grabbed the little blind boy, made him want it, and with one in his hands, he literally change the world.

So in the ancient tradition of speeches praising heroes, we both honor the man and also remind the living to learn from him. Doc Watson rose from humble roots to move the world, and performed and recorded a vast array of brilliant music. He was multi-layered, funny, kind to fellow musicians, counter-stereotypically worldly and sophisticated, and proud of the dues he had paid to do it. And those who worked with him and knew him better than I, can tell you more of the personal stuff of Doc’s life.

But this much I do know: we who have been influenced by him can be reminded by his life to love music more than camps and clubs and genre. Doc’s example reminds us to play the guitar better not to be cool or to posture for audiences, but because, like him, we just love the sheer beauty of the thing. And he reminds us that playing traditional music for people is not a little thing, it is a big thing, worth doing more of, worth supporting in society, and worth giving to unlikely little kids from nowhere, little kids who may just become the next implausible world-beating prophet of the beautiful.

If that seems too idealistic or implausible, listen to Doc’s own words:

“…we paid the dues in full. Being away from home out there, and well, I’ll say it and talk just like it was, workin’ our butts off for very little money, but we kept at it. I needed the income, but even more than that, I needed to play the guitar for the people. I had to do that. And Merle and I took pride in playing the best we could when we had an audience that was there that knew what they came to hear. That was wonderful.   

 And the guitar made us welcome wherever we went.”  

                                     – Watson Interview, “Primal Twang,” September, 2006.


Winfield 40th

They asked me to write a few words about the Walnut Valley Festival on its 40th anniversary, I guess because of the matter of perspective. Long life gets you, if nothing else, a bit of a sweep in your view of things. So I definitely got sweep: I was here at the first festival, and also at thirty-some of the intervening ones.  One of the accomplishments of this festival is that in some ways it is always the same; it’s no accident that thousands of people return every year, plan their lives and holidays around it, their kids grow up coming here. Every year they camp around the same friends from last year, share food, jam and pick and sing, and it goes a long way beyond an event to be like family, a culture of families, and those things never vary.

On the other hand, some things vary; it’s been hot and it’s been cold, wet and dry, and occasionally interrupted by storms. The musicians and the interactions vary too: every year there is some event that just happens, beyond the ken of careful planning or organizing. Once, in 2001, history intervened, but the music and the spirit and the Winfield family survived.

In the very early days there was a Saturday night guitar panel made up of Doc and Norman and me, and then the following year Doc and Norman and Tony and me. The temperature dipped to about 40, the players’ hands were so cold you couldn’t feel the pick as you traded tunes, and as Doc blazed through a solo, snorting steam in the cold air like a great Elk I once saw in Wyoming on a frosty morning, that Winfield audience, very late on a very cold damp Kansas night, went, simply, beserk.

But, speaking of a sweeping perspective, I can take the Winfield view even farther back than that. I started playing the guitar in 1952; it was a year when if you bought your kid an instrument, there was about a 99% chance it would be an accordion. Nobody much bought their kid a guitar in 1952. But my folks blessedly did.  So the really long view is: in my lifetime I have witnessed the steel-string guitar rise from deep obscurity in 1952 to be the centerpiece of the Walnut Valley festival, itself still thriving and growing after 40 years. The steel-string guitar has become the universal instrument of the world, and the Bob Redford’s Walnut Valley Festival has been its major event.

Now, 60 years later, every time I drive into Winfield the fairgrounds are always jammed, the thousand campers are in place, the campfire smoke is on the air and I’m late for stage 2. It’s like Brigadoon; at the appointed time, the Walnut Valley Festival leaps to life, and 30,000 people are ready to listen to, believe it or not, guitar music. Listen closely… you might just hear the voice of God humming a little tune down behind the strings.

Gambetta & Crary: On the Road, UK (9 May, 2002)

Back to business and it’s over to Leicester for a concert/workshop for the Taylor Guitar folks and Sheehan Musical Services. Part of the Gambetta/Crary team assignment is to put on these guitar company backed workshop events where we play, meet a lot of other guitar players and try to get out some information on a very important topic: How to teach yourself how to play a musical instrument. Oh, and we talk up the guitars of our sponsors. But, funny thing, we’ve found that if we take care of the former, the latter comes right along of its own accord.

Andres Segovia once said in an interview that all the great players are self-taught, a comment that may have been disconcerting to a music journalist who expected a different answer, like “I sat at the feet of the Master” or “I did a PhD in guitar at Barcelona.” Being “self-taught” in some circles comes across like something rustic or low class or maybe not-very-good. But when the ultimate guitar master dignified being self-instructed, it threw a different light on the matter. And the only thing wrong with Segovia’s statement is that everybody is self-taught, the great and the not-so, occupying the same boat on that one. So a workshop or a lesson book or private lessons or a conservatory degree should all attempt the same thing: they should all assist a person to teach herself or himself to play music.

So at Leicester Beppe and I not only played, but also tried to give folks a few guitar lessons that we presume to think make a good life strategy as well. We’ve found that most of the ways people try to learn things are fraught with boredom, discouragement, and getting stuck. So they respond with everything from giving up, to years of standing still, to bootstrapping themselves up to a new level by some heroic leap forward. Bad news, none of these work; good news, what does jolly well work is, you arm yourself with a method for learning, then you apply the method in small, steady doses, giving yourself a verrrry tiny littttle success every day, one so small that it only takes you about a half hour to achieve it. This doesn’t create great leaps forward. But it does create in the player a lust to do it again, tomorrow. There’s a big body of research on this from social psychology, industrial psych, music education, counseling, etc., etc. These fields don’t agree on much, but they are unanimous on this: failure stymies, success, even a little success, feels great and motivates.

So when someone asks a question about cross-picking, Beppe has an answer that doesn’t exactly tell you what to do, here, now. Instead, he gives you a way to approach the thing, a method that will keep you busy for about two years, if you take on a little of it each practice session. There’s good/bad news in this as well. On the one hand, people actually learn something from this and get unstuck and think you’re a hero for helping them. On the other hand, such students actually progress to where they don’t need to buy Gambetta’s books and tapes any more, because they get in the habit of teaching themselves.

Another spinoff of this process is that if you really help people teach themselves, some of them come back as competitors who can kick your butt in the marketplace, so the teacher has to try to keep ahead of the pack of young guitarists who have caught the fever of steady progress. They have time, ambition, and your own information to compete with you. Keeps veterans like us sharp. And Worried.

Gotta’ say a word about the company that sponsors us in these workshop events. In folk music, corporations are, well, not exactly in the club. Somehow you can’t even visualize taking ten quid out of your pocket to purchase a CD with a corporate folksong on it. Gadzooks, what a thought. But in our case we’re collaborators with a company that has thrown in its lot with the very traditional music that wouldn’t ever do a song about it. And the guys at Taylor Guitars recognize that if you get people fired up about teaching themselves how to play, they turn into customers at a very high rate, especially if they find out that the company sponsors the straight shoot on how to teach yourself the guitar, also makes first rate instruments. These enlightened corporate characters even believe that it’s their ethical job to contribute to a world where music makes people more peaceable and humane. It’s worth meditating on this incongruity that writes a few new lines in the history of traditional music and business.

Sometime, I will meditate on that topic. But not now; right now I’m got to figure out how to get this to the BBC from a beautifully remote little town in Wales, where the nearest internet access is a valley away. Let’s see, I could take a taxi, but there isn’t one. And anyway, I can’t pronounce the name of the valley so the driver would understand it. On a Gambetta & Crary tour, this definitely sounds like a plan.

Gambetta & Crary: On the Road, UK (8 May, 2002)

When you last heard from us we were on the way to calendar, via a quick stop at PC world to pick up some adaptors to attempt to connect us with, well… with the world. Mind you, that’s not an unmitigated blessing, that getting connected. Northern Scotland is a place where I want to feel that I’ve gone ‘way far away. It’s a lot of trouble to fly across oceans and continents, so it’s a shame to go to all that trouble, and then feel like where you’ve gone isn’t very far away from anything. Once in Dublin on a rare night off, I picked my tired frame up and walked across the city looking for a pub where there was supposed to be a session. When I got there, I opened the door to find, not Irish music, but a busload of gum-chewing twang-talking fellow Americans. That’s OK for at home, but I had to get the hell outta’ there, found a Pub with eight Irish guys watching a football match who kindly invited me to ante up a quid for the pool, whereupon I did the ungracious thing and won the pool. But at least it was an out-there place to be, and a couple of pints helped blot out the effect of the world shrinking when a chunk of America shows up on a bus a little too close for comfort.


All of which is by way of saying that we’re back on line and in touch with you, our readers, but in touch also the tacky stuff that comes unbidden to one’s e-mail box. Still, Scotland by car, even with incoming e-messages, is quite an out-there experience, beautiful, wild, unpredictable, more stunning than its travel literature. On previous trips to Scotland, we often blew in on the train or an airplane, played the gig, and had to blow out again. But this time, by car we really got a sense of Scotland as a country, not just a region of something else. Of course, we already knew that, but this time it sunk in more.


Our Scottish friends are smart, musical, worldly, ironic, outspoken, and very subtle, and they carry around this sort of northern Celtic perspective that’s a standard deviation’r two aside from the grand mean. By god, I love talking to these people.

Oh, and another thing about Scottish folks: they like to put you through little tests to find out if you’re what people back in Kansas would have called “regular folks.” Whenever I passed one of these, I really enjoyed feeling a little in the club. However, I actually did flunk one Scottish test… didn’t much like haggis. It (or is it “they?”) never quite connected with me. And now I’m really confused…is there one haggi and several haggis? Or is it one haggis and several haggises? Or, as they say back home about fruitcakes, is there maybe only one haggis which gets passed around a lot because nobody ever actually eats one? Nope, flunked that one.


Anyway, I passed the firewater test, having no problem enjoying the fiery, peat-smoked beverage they call the “wee drop,” a euphemism derived, I’m told, from what “we do” when “we overindulge.” Meanwhile, moments at the bar notwithstanding, we needed to get to Callander for a concert for the Scottish Bluegrass folks, who received us rousingly, and let us get away with being, sort-of bluegrass-minus-four, not a real bluegrass band, fitted with guitars-only. It was to be, unfortunately, our last stop in Scotland, but the Bluegrassies gave us a great evening to send us on our way.


Leaving Scotland was, actually, a bit of a bummer, but we consoled ourselves with a couple of days’ visit to old friends John and Carole Atkins who saw to it that we were not denied multiple pints of Batham’s and a major fix of Balti, all in proper West Midlands fashion. The remainder of the scepter’d isle lay before us and we put the ol’ Vauxhall on the road, swerved to avoid a bunch of clearly disoriented motorists who were driving on the left, for pete’s sake, and pointed the Gambetta/Crary enterprise for points south and west.

Gambetta & Crary: On the Road (April 28, 2002)

The last scheduled thing you do at the Shetlands Folk Festival is hang out very close to a bar and listen to music. It’s also the first thing you do. Also the middle, the early-middle, late-middle, and…. Well, you get the idea. On the very last night the festival folks throw a bit of a party for those who performed, those who helped, and those who played other roles in the massive series of events here this past weekend.

Some of the best music Gambetta and Crary heard this weekend was during some jam sessions that last evening in the Lerwick community Hall. Everywhere in the hall that night different genre of musicians found each other and wound up in sessions. In one of these, a bunch of young people (some very young) were gathered around an upright piano playing fiddles and jamming out Shetland trad tunes. It’s the most impressive gathering of young people playing traditional music we’d ever seen, and Beppe wound up in the middle.

Not only did Senor play guitar with this group of fiddlers, but also he got them to teach him a tune’r two, and for one unpredictable moment, there was Gambetta, actually playing somebody’s fiddle. Well, it wasn’t good enough to take on the road, and the intonation was a little shaky, but his connection to the tradition was virtuoso.

Meanwhile, on the ground floor in a corner of a closed café, Crary was jamming it down, not only with fellow Yank Al Perkins, the steel guitar and Dobro ace, but also with a growing gathering of great local players. But the highlight was the singing of local Shetland woman-with-great-pipes Sheila Henderson. It’s been about three years since I did some gigs with Sheila, and if it’s possible, she’s singing even better than three years ago. This is major stuff, and we were aware we had heard the best singing of the festival, no make that the year, after Sheila had belted some classics. Holy Mackerel, as they say in Shetland (and Kansas), this was good.

Next day we made our departure on the ferry, and many of the Shetlanders saw us off at the docks. Presumably this was not to make sure we left, but instead as a nice bon voyage, which was continued by some of the folks who drove to a hillside street and blew car horns and waved as we sailed past the city. Nice people here… even after having us hanging out in their homes for a week, they still act like they like us.

‘Got one more comment on the Shetlands: the festival is intended to further the effort they’ve (successfully) mounted to foster their own musical tradition, a tradition which was nearly lost, I’m told. What’s interesting about this is that the Shetland folks seem to recognize that in the right environment different traditions can thrive on the friendly competition of bumping up against each other, or to be more precise, of listening to each other. So the festival brings in a very wide variety of music, including Gambetta and Crary, and sends the whole package (including Gambetta & Crary) out to remote communities in the islands, where the local tradition gets, er, invaded, for want of a better word. .

In my country, we pursue the folly of “purifying” a tradition by sanitizing it, boxing it up in exclusivistic environments, and attempting with great futility to prevent its “contamination” by other influences. Here, they’ve done the opposite: they promote the vitality of their traditional music by annually throwing it into the mix of a great festival, and letting it sink or swim. And of course it works; Shetland music certainly “swims,” and the real deal happens: the tradition is stronger for its exposure to such alien counterparts as hairy-armed flatpickers and others. So our hats are off to these enlightened souls who plan this event and who understand music, not just their own scene. Just goes to show: it’s not enough to have virtuosos on the stage, you need a couple back in the office as well.