Friday, June 13, 2008

The June beetle - capturing a living music box

"From some long-forgotten source, I heard that June beetles made a sweet sound while flying around. I loved music, and the method to acquire this living music box was to fasten a long thread to one of the bug's hind legs.

"Now, June beetles are about half an inch across and three quarters of an inch long. The ones in the South are dark green on the back side and have an armor-like covering over their undersides. They feed on fennel and are harmless.

June Beetle"One day, I chased down a June beetle and brought it in. It was hard to hold. That bug clawed me with its sharp toes and rooted with its sharp nose. But I held on for dear life and persuaded Mother to tie a thread on its hind leg. She wasn't too anxious to oblige me, but finally the job was accomplished and I took my musical bug outside to test it out.

"The ground around the house was level, so I chose a spot where I could turn my bug loose. It gladly took off, and I ran after it, holding on tight to the thread. The bug made a pleasing sound that was music to my ears. The sound that June beetle made—along with the Jew's harp and harmonica—was the one source of music my young ears had ever heard.

"Soon the bug grew tired and sat down. I realized the thread might hamper its movements, so I waited while it rested. Still anxious to hear more music, I urged it to fly. As quick as lightening, the bug took off with me pounding along behind it. I was thoroughly enjoying the performance until the thread slipped off. With mixed emotions, I watched my music box disappear in the distance.

"I felt bad over my loss and set about repairing it. I found another June beetle, but somehow I didn't like this one quite as well as the first one. Just the same, I hurried into the house to have Mother tie a thread on its leg. This time Mother openly expressed her dislike for such activities. Nevertheless, with strong urging on my part, she tied the thread once again. I took the new June beetle outside and let it fly as I had the old one, but the knot in the thread was too loose and slipped off. This bug also flew away, heading due north. It didn’t slacken its speed for even a moment."

From a Parks family history compiled by Lillian "Lilly Ann" Parks Adams (1880-?), at Capitola, CA, 1949-50, when she was 70 years old. She was born in Wayne County, WV, which borders Kentucky and Ohio. The story is to the best of her knowledge as a four-year-old child, and from family retellings.


Original blogged at Appalachian History

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Review: Railroad Earth's "Amen Corner"

Railroad Earth
Amen Corner

I first heard Railroad Earth a few years back, soon after the release of the band’s quasi-demo, The Black Bear Sessions. Having no clue what to expect, I popped the disc in my car’s CD player. It scarcely left that spot for an entire summer.

Subsequent releases and relentless touring since then has earned Railroad Earth critical acclaim, endless comparisons to the Grateful Dead, as well as a dedicated following that is likely divided into two basic categories: Bluegrass fans that don’t mind the occasional trip out onto the experimental limb, and jam band fans that also dig a little bluegrass.

When at last I got hold of the band’s forthcoming release, Amen Corner (June 10, SCI Fidelity Records), I was naturally eager to hear the latest work of one of progressive bluegrass’s finest ensembles, and the first track didn’t disappoint. With its piddling, quiet intro that only masks the loud, upbeat tune that it is, “Been Down This Road” displays the remarkable inventiveness that has gotten Railroad Earth this far.

What follows is largely a hit-and-miss effort. Some songs simply fall flat in spite of the band’s always-masterful instrument work. In one case, songwriter Todd Scheaffer employs the standard blues-style AABA lyric structure, something that is so done over that only the best uses of it are effective anymore. Unfortunately, Railroad Earth’s take on it falls somewhat short of that.

Some tracks do achieve Railroad Earth’s delightful blend of sheer creativity and just plain fun melodies, but the album as a whole isn’t much of a showcase of it. The inclusion of horns can’t save “Hard Livin’” and “Waggin’ the Dog” seems low on willpower. Still, the sweet “Little Bit of Me” is as good as Railroad Earth gets.

The stand-out musician on Amen Corner is percussionist Carey Harmon. Where many bluegrass-rooted bands that feature drums rely heavily on tip-tapping, snare, Harmon isn’t afraid to draw more on rock influences and utilize bass-heavy, thumping beats. Of course, the entire band is owed much of the credit for arranging the songs in a way that lets Harmon shine.

Another aspect of Railroad Earth that cannot be ignored (and hasn’t been, as I noted above) is its similarity to the Grateful Dead. While the differences are obvious enough (string band versus rock and roll band), both act’s approaches to music are very similar. What’s more pronounced is Scheaffer’s vocal similarity to Jerry Garcia. Certain phrases are downright eerie as Scheaffer seems to be channeling the late virtuoso in both style and tone, leaving one remembering what is actually the better comparison, Jerry Garcia Band.

Amen Corner has enough material to keep Railroad Earth’s fans twirling for hours on end during their jam-heavy live concerts. If you’re not yet familiar with Railroad Earth, it’s advisable to seek them out, but you may be more impressed if you start with their earlier work.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Earl Brothers Impress Again

The Earl Brothers


When the Earl Brothers released their first album in 2004, the superbly-titled Whiskey, Women and Death, it was a shot of antique-sounding bluegrass in decidedly dark tones, as the recording’s name might suggest. Included on that debut disc were perhaps two of the finest original drinking songs ever recorded in the genre (“Been Sittin’ Here Drinkin” and “Bender”), as well as one of the finest and freshest takes on “Cluck Ol Hen” you’re likely to find anywhere.

Then in 2006 the band’s follow-up, Troubles To Blame, landed to a flurry of critical acclaim. The Earl Brothers had arrived and they played uncompromisingly traditional mountain music with attention-grabbing gothic undertones.

After just two offerings, a new disc from the Earl Brothers amounts to an event for a heap of bluegrass fans all over the country. In 2008, the band kept to its schedule of releasing a disc every two years with Moonshine. In it the California quartet is effectively sticking to its guns with twelve new tracks of original music.

At first listen, The Earl Brothers are easy to place. It’s gritty, gloomy, hillbilly music. This is a refreshingly simple bluegrass band that comes at the listener with no pretensions, just an honest take on life played with honest-to-God mountain music. In keeping with that theme, chief songwriter Robert Earl Davis seems uninterested in complex symbolism and extended metaphor. His formula is a simple one: See a thing, sing the thing, the thing’s the song. Consider these lines from Moonshine’s ninth track, “By the Side of the Road,” taken from the liner notes.

Billy was found by the side of the road
He wasn’t looking to good
Legs all bent from a bad accident
No one to call him there own

"By the Side of the Road" is a stand-out selection, as is the album's title track, "Moonshine" with its excellent first verse, which probably should have led off the album. Nevertheless Moonshine is thick with painful, gloomy and glorious twang that comes from another time - certainly the past, but maybe the future.

All of which amounts to pretty standard fare for an Earl Brothers album. Of course, standard fare from the Earl Brothers being as good as it is, this disc is a keeper for anyone that likes their bluegrass straight-up, with a twist of the wicked.