Saturday, March 29, 2014

Any Tune's A Good Tune: My Interview With Old Time Mandolin Player Curtis Buckhannon

In the ongoing search for albums that capture that old time mandolin sound, I came across the Buckhannon Brothers' 1993 CD Little River Stomp.  On that collection of old time mandolin instrumentals, mandolinist Curtis Buckhannon, with his brother Dennis on guitar, run through 25 tunes ranging from rags and Celtic, to Scandinavian and Southwestern, and of course a healthy sampling of tunes from their home state of Missouri.

Rather than sounding like crossover music or a jumping across styles, there's a consistency to the album as Curtis and Dennis impart the modest qualities of the old time folk musician regardless of a tune's origin.  Upon hearing this broad, well chosen selection of melodies I just had to find out more about mandolin player Curtis Buckhannon and learn how and why he draws from these far reaching sources.  So I interviewed him!  Below is a transcript in Curtis' words.  I hope you enjoy reading.
L to R: Curtis Buckhannon, Vince Corkery and Dennis Buckhannon
Definition of Old Time
(CB) The type of tunes I play are all pretty much fiddle-based tunes either from different cultures or American based tunes.  Pretty much everything I do has been played on the fiddle.  I like to interpret it on the mandolin.  

Any tune's a good tune.  I even do some Tex-Mex things.  There's some neat stuff going on in the Southwest with the tunes.  Cleoffes Ortiz knew so many unusual tunes - stuff I had never heard before.

I've always had a wide taste in music.  All my life I've listened to classical, to jazz, to blues.  More or less (my repertoire) might just be an expression of my likes in music, rather than standard old time music.  It all seems to fit on the mandolin. Then I get my brother playing on it and it's like wow this is fun!

Musical Influences
(CB) My earliest influence is Kenny Hall and the Sweets Mill String Band.  I fell in love with the way he played.  He didn't just play old time music. He did a variety of things.  

I've always loved ragtime from the get go.  It's fun to play rags on the mandolin.  The Etcetera Stringband were so scholarly about the music - so knowledgeable about it.  That very first Etcetera Stringand record was one of my best finds ever.  It was a running joke between me and a friend that we have to learn all those tunes on that record and I think we came pretty close to learning all of them.  

Blues - I've always liked Martin, Bogan and Armstrong (Carl Martin, Ted Bogan, Howard Armstrong), the black stringband from Tennessee.  Those guys came to St. Louis one time and I was just blown away by them.  They were amazing.

Fiddlers Chirps Smith (Volo Bogtrotters), Gary Harrison (Indian Creek Delta Boys) and Geoff Seitz (Ill-Mo Boys) are the source for a lot of my tunes.  And Marc Rennard.

Playing Style and Technique
(CB) I play without a lot of flashiness and just let the instrument try to shine through standard old styles of playing.  The style that I play falls into the category of old time mandolin - I don't know what else you could call it.

Kenny Hall played a lot of open chords and I tend to do that sometimes, but I'll also go up the neck and maybe do some crosspicking things to back up a tune or song.  You've got the option of tremolo.  I do a lot of double stops.  I try to be as creative with it as I can.  I try not to play the same tune the same way every time.

It's not that I'm doing it just to stretch me.  I just do it to keep my interest in the tune and to make it fresh every time.  I might embellish something more one time than I did the last time I played it.  I'm constantly finding things out about music each time I play it. There's always so much to learn.  I like to do a lot of the fun things with the rhythms - getting the syncopation, playing on the off beat.

I don't use my pinky that often - I mostly play with three fingers.  I do use the pinky once in a while, but it's not employed as much as most people use it.  I'm thinking about cutting it off - I don't really need it!

Process of Learning A Tune
(CB) I feel like if a tune strikes me as memorable then it has some quality of staying power, if not at least with me then maybe others.  So, when I hear a tune I become fond of I'll stew it over in my mind a few days or weeks and then try to figure it out.  And lo and behold it seems that the groundwork done in my head is sufficient for me to work it out.  I'll get on the mandolin and 9 times out of 10 the fingering just comes right to mind.  That's how I learn tunes usually. 

If a tune really sticks with me it'll be going around in my head and I'll be whistling it to myself.  I have a friend who plays fife and drum music.  His mother plays fiddle and he plays fife. They have a tune Hell on the Wabash.  It's like a march.  A hypnotic modal tune. I just had to work it out.  It fell right into place and has become one of my favorites here lately.

If you've been playing long enough it'll come to you easier.  The more you play the more similarities there are in a lot of the positions and nuances.

Playing with his Brother, guitarist Dennis Buckhannon
(CB) When Dennis and I are working on tunes I'll come to him with a tune I've learned and he'll figure out the chords from me just playing it.  He ends up coming up with some brilliant stuff and 6 out of 10 times he hasn't heard the recording or who I learned it from and he'll just get right onto it.

Dennis accents me.  Without him I wouldn't be half as good as some people like to say.  I can play somewhere without him and it doesn't sound near as good.  He knows where to put everything - note wise, chord wise and rhythm.

He's a year older.  Growing up we played together all the time, and then we just discovered old time thanks to County records.  They were putting out a lot of good stuff.  My dad had a collection of old bluegrass records.  We've always had some rural roots in our family and it just felt like the kind of music we should be playing anyway.  It just seemed natural.  It seemed to fit.  

Playing with a Fiddler
(CB) A lot of times I just do what the fiddle is doing.  Sometimes I accent what the fiddle is doing, maybe do a harmony or just back off and play some chords.  In some ways playing with a fiddler gives you more freedom because you're not the lead instrument - you can do little things here or there and the fiddle is still carrying the melody.  But for the most part I just play the melody.

Playing By Ear
(CB) There's something to be said about playing by ear.  There's also something to be said about those that can read music - their repertoire is bigger.  I've always played by ear so I am limited to what I can learn when others that can read are not.  

When I first met the Etcetera Stringband they were playing downtown at the old Lafayette Park Bandstand where Sousa played one time.   I played some of their tunes for them.  They read music and were mystified by how we did it by ear.  It's just how we did it.  We didn't have a choice!

Being Self Taught
(CB) I'm self taught.  My brother started playing guitar when he was younger than I and then I started playing guitar.  In the early 70's during summer vacation from high school me and my brother and a friend went on a trip to the Smoky Mountains.  We went to this little amphitheater concert and there was a guy there playing mandolin - doing fiddle tunes on it and it just enthralled me.  I asked for a mandolin for my birthday that fall and ended up getting one.  Been playing it ever since.  That would have been 1973.

I still like to play guitar. I like the old finger picking stuff - just noodling around on it. I listen to more guitar music than mandolin music.  I stumbled upon Mike Dowling - he plays Delta style guitar and has a record called Bottomlands. I could listen to that 24 hours a day.  I never get tired of listening to it.  I love the old blues players like Lightning Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell.  I love classical guitar, Django Reinhardt.  I could listen to him forever too.

It seems like I'm always finding out something different about music every time I sit down to play.  With that in mind it could be encouraging or discouraging.  I'll never know everything I want to know about music, but I like to think that it's encouraging.

Curtis Buckhannon is available for lessons to those in the St. Louis area. To learn more about the Buckhannon Brothers, visit or write to P.O. Box 6165, St. Charles, MO  63302-6165.  Their CDs are also available from County Sales.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

Is Our Definition of Traditional Music Shaped By Recordings?

I was reading through an old thread on the Mandolin Café when I came across a response by a Café user named “M. Marmot” that got me thinking.  His comment read:

I figure people back in the day made do with whatever instruments that were at hand or simply (sang) unaccompanied... and I imagine there was little in the way of grumbling by folks that any particular instrument was not 'indigenous'. I have read several accounts that lead me to believe that a lot of what we perceive to be traditional musics, say, Irish, Old-time, Klezmer, are in fact only fairly recent genres and have found their 'traditional' identities through recordings.  Quite often these recordings would have been fashioned through or influenced by an outsider’s bias or record company’s demands on what would sell.  I have in mind an account of a young Doc Watson playing electric guitar but being ushered towards the more 'authentic' acoustic guitar by the recording folks who wanted a more backwoods sound, or say the speed of Klezmer which may owe as much to the constraints of early recording technologies than any traditional virtuosity, or the similar phasing out of brass instruments, often found in early Ceilidh bands and the like from Irish music.

Now that I think about it, something like this could be happening with Irish music.  The popularity of stage-performing traditional bands like The Dubliners, The Chieftans, Planxty, De Dannan, Bothy Band, Dervish, Danu, Altan, Lunasa, Solas and more have helped shape our idea of what traditional Irish music is supposed to be.  On the other hand, expectations of what listeners might want from a traditional Irish band could have influenced the music these groups choose to play and the way they play it.
Is this traditional Irish music?
I’ll finish with one other remark by “M.Marmot” in that thread:  If playing "Liberty" on a banjo is traditional music, then playing "Liberty" on synthesizer is ........?

Friday, March 21, 2014

The InishTrad Session Guidelines

InishTrad is a community based music project in Inishowen Ireland that provides adult, beginner/intermediate Irish traditional musicians with an opportunity to play together and practice new tunes in a welcoming environment.

InishTrad hosts a regular Sunday evening session at the Excelsior Bar in Buncrana.  Regular participants bear accordions, guitars, banjos, fiddles, whistles and occasionally mandolin.  The repertoire has expanded to over thirty tunes played on a regular basis.  A couple of new tunes are added each month, presented as sheet music and recordings on their site.

Upon reading Inish Trad’s Session Guidelines I realized that they were worth sharing.  I particularly like the statements "we are never in a hurry", "a good listener makes a good player", "if the music sounds too fast it probably is, if it sounds too slow it is probably just right" and "listen carefully to the other musicians and be aware of how your playing is adhering to (or not adhering to) the set tempo".

While these guidelines apply only to the culture of the InishTrad session, there’s a lot of helpful info within and I might steal some of this language for myself!

InishTrad Session Guidelines
As the attendance has increased at InishTrad’s Sunday Slow Session we thought it would be useful to set some guidelines to help any musicians joining us on a Sunday. These guidelines have been put together for all of our benefit.

First, we all approach the music in a relaxed and comfortable manner. As the main focus is to learn to play tunes with appropriate and musical style we are never in a hurry. If you find that you are in a hurry to play, well…take a breath, lean back and enjoy all that is happening around you.

A calm, focused approach is best to learning traditional music, and a good listener makes a good player. If you are not sure of the tunes or your ability, try to listen more than play in the beginning. As you become more proficient and confident join in more.

We have a specific list of tunes that we are currently working on, and while we MAY entertain the recommendation of a new tune, the chances are that we will want to work on the InishTrad tune list carefully selected from those recommended by our workshop mentors, so don’t be disappointed. We make an effort to play each tune in a set at least 3 times or more before moving on to another tune.

It is really easy to ruin a session by insensitivity to what is going on around you. If you play too loud, fast or in the wrong key you will stick out like a sore thumb, be aware! Listen for key changes, tune changes and tempo changes.

If the music sounds too fast it probably is, if it sounds too slow it is probably just right. If you can’t hear all the other instruments you’re probably playing to loud, if you can’t hear your own instrument you’re probably playing too low.
A slow play session is a session that plays the tune at about half speed or less. As we learn the tune the pace will often progress to three/quarter speed. The overall goal of the session is to provide a supportive and friendly environment for the practice and playing of tunes in the traditional Irish style.

The tempo for a tune (or set of tunes) is set by the musician who leads the tune. Do not speed up a tune beyond the set tempo. This is easy to do, especially if there are a large number of players present and the group is spread out, so listen carefully to the other musicians and be aware of how your playing is adhering to (or not adhering to) the set tempo.

If you find the tempo set for a tune too fast for you to maintain, stop playing and listen. When the tune or set is finished, you are welcome to ask that the tune be played again more slowly, and the group will be glad to oblige you by starting again at about ¾ speed.

Remember that it’s better to play a tune slowly and well than quickly and badly.

We want to encourage each other in the playing of this music. We especially ask that all musicians be respectful and helpful to each other (this doesn’t count “slagging”) regardless of playing ability. If someone is singing or playing, please be quiet. Everyone is making a contribution to the session, for which we’re happy. Be generous with your help and encouragement. We believe that every musician can learn something from another musician.

Have fun!
Enjoy yourself but please be considerate of your session mates. This is the most important point of all. We’re here to enjoy our music, and to build musical friendships that will last for years.

Charlotte Folk Society Slow Jam Recordings

The Charlotte Folk Society has a page on their site with mp3 audio files, midi files and sheet music/chord pdfs for several old-time chestnuts in the keys of D, G or A.  You can use their mp3 recordings and notation to play along with and learn such tunes as Yellow Rose of Texas, Over the Waterfall, Spotted Pony, Seneca Squaredance, Shove that Pig's Foot, June Apple, Red Haired Boy and more.
Unless you're really trying to get into the nuances of a particular fiddler or source musician's version, a simple, slowly paced jam recording is a great way to get better acquainted with a standard tune and make it your own.  With the slower speed you can practice until perfect and then take it up a notch or two, if you like, or continue playing it at a stately pace which may bring out different qualities of the melody.  I enjoy playing tunes at a medium tempo.
Here's a link to Charlotte Folk Society's recording of the classic Girl I Left Behind Me.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Playing Mandolin and Playing Irish Music - Widening and/or Narrowing the View

One thing I love about Irish music is the openness with which it has accepted new melody instruments over the last several decades.  A wide variety of different instruments are used to interpret these timeless melodies, including fiddle, flute, whistle, accordion, concertina, tenor banjo, uilleann pipes, guitar and yes mandolin.  It's as if the tune exists independent of the instrument used to bring it to life.

One thing I love about the mandolin is the wide variety of genres that it can be used for.  I just got Don Julin's Mandolin for Dummies book and in it he goes over old time, ragtime, blues, bluegrass, Irish, Brazilian Choro, Italian, Classical, jazz, "Dawg" music, and more.  The mandolin has found a home in each of these styles.

It's true that there are certain things you need to know about playing an instrument - in this case mandolin - regardless of what genre or style you want to play.  Then, at a certain point if you want to become really specialized in one particular style, such as Irish, you have to really focus on techniques specific to that way of playing and purposely not let other elements seep into your chosen style.

While Irish tunes - the jigs, reels, slides, hornpipes, barn dances and so on - are among my favorite things to play, there's no way I could ever limit myself to just those Celtic tunes.  There's too many other great numbers which fall under the broadly defined "old time" umbrella, as well as the melody lines from popular songs, that are also fun to play and learn.

So, I'm down with playing mandolin, as well as with playing Irish music.  Those can the same thing or different things.  

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Pro Shot Late 1983 Grateful Dead Video

1982, '83 and '84 are sometimes considered Grateful Dead throwaway years, but they are worth exploring.  There's a grungy, dirty vibe going on and while not exactly tight, the band is certainly not afraid of taking chances during this period, just maybe not the chances fans were expecting them to take.

They've never officially released a DVD from these years - it could be out of a concern for Garcia's countenance being not fit for general public consumption.  But apparently, there are good quality early 80's videos in circulation, such as the seemingly pro shot video from 12/28/83.

Perhaps because it was a hometown San Francisco show, on a low pressure night (New Year's Eve was still a few days off), with no performance scheduled for the next day 12/29, they were able to chill out and play a sleeper of a show.  Early on Bobby seems to challenge Jerry to step it up and vice versa, in that not so super-friendly rapport these two kind of always had.  The Freudian ebb and flow dichotomy of Grateful Dead sets soon takes over.  The Loser at 19 minutes in is sufficiently sick.

The video is below.  If you just want to listen to the audio, here's a link.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Foghorn Stringband Returns to Ashland Coffee and Tea

Foghorn Stringband: Caleb Klauder, Sammy Lind, Nadine Landry, Reeb Willms.
Photo by Mike Melnyk.
Almost one year after their March 2013 debut performance, the esteemed Portland Oregon old-time band Foghorn Stringband is back at Ashland Coffee and Tea this Wednesday, March 19 at 8pm.

I was very impressed with Foghorn Stringband after seeing them for the first time last year.  The four-piece group is able to present vintage, old-timey stringband music on stage in a manner that enhances rather than sacrifices the authenticity of this tradition.  In addition to old-time fiddle tunes, they also find room in their sets for some Cajun and traditional country. 

Foghorn Stringband began in 2000, although over the last couple years the lineup has solidified around Sammy Lind (fiddle), Caleb Klauder (mandolin), Nadine Landry (bass) and Reeb Willms (guitar).  Sammy and Caleb are legends among the old-time community and Nadine and Reeb have strengthened the performance element of the band with great singing and a feminine touch.
Foghorn Stringband post show jam - March 2013.
Photo by Evan Davies
There’s a saying that goes “Old-Time Music:  Better Than It Sounds”.  That may be true for us amateurs who attempt to play this music as a hobby, but it does not apply to Foghorn Stringband who, as a live band, are able to meet and exceed the expectations of audiences everywhere they go.

Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the door.  For the band's full schedule, click here.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Guitar and Mandolin Tonewood Qualities

Maybe because I'm a lefty I'm always thinking about custom made instruments, and one of the cool things about hand made instruments is the choice of tonewoods.  The following images and descriptions comes from Chris Baird, the maker of Arches Mandolins and other fine musical instruments.  I copied this text directly from an old page on his site so any first person use of the word "I" or "we" below is Chris' language.  I don't have this kind of knowledge - I'm just sharing this info because I found it interesting!  Here goes.  


The material properties of a tonewood are a factor affecting the tone of the finished instrument. However, because wood's material properties (even among the same species) can vary widely, only generalities can be considered. The way an instrument is constructed, it's plate thickness, bracing arrangement and shape, overall design, etc., have just as much (if not more) to do with an instrument's tone than the woods used to construct it.

Below I've attempted to outline the generalities of the tonewoods I'm familiar with. Ultimately, I will only use these generalities to get me started when trying to attain a certain type of tone. However, when the instrument is under construction I pay no attention to the species, but, rather, consider the specific material qualities of the wood in hand when thicknessing plates, carving braces, etc. This is because each piece of wood may or may not fall within its species general specifications.

Some general rules of thumb:
1. Greater stiffness contributes to brighter more treble heavy responses.
2. Greater density contributes to darker more bass heavy responses.
3. Greater internal dampening (Q-Value) contributes to mellow round tones.
4. Each piece of wood will have a unique combination of the above 3.

Birdseye Maple
Birdseye Maple
A hard maple harvested in the northeastern part of the United States. This maple is dense, moderately stiff, and has low to medium internal dampening. It produces a clear, cutting, bright, and fundamental targeted tone. Very responsive in the mid to upper register with clear although un-complex bass overtones. Sustains slightly better than softer maples.
Curly Maple
Curly Maple
Curly Maple comes in both soft and hard varieties. See Birdseye for a description of hard Curly Maple. Soft Curly maple is similar to hard although with a general tendency to be more bassy. Soft maple is slightly more responsive than Hard Maple but with less sustain.
Walnut shares many characteristics of maple. Its material properties can range from that of Hard to Soft Maple. Slightly higher internal dampening often gives a warmer/rounder tone over maple.
Tazmanian Blackwood
Lightweight, stiff, and with moderate internal dampening this wood offers a mid-way point between the cutting and bright tones of Maple and Walnut and the darker more complex tones of Rosewood and Bubinga.
Very lightweight, moderate stiffness, and moderate to low internal dampening. Mahogany is also a good midpoint between dark and bright. This wood is very open and responsive. Mahogany is usually a bit warmer than Tazmanian Blackwood. Also used for necks and internal blocks. One of the world's most stable woods.
Spanish Cedar
Spanish Cedar
An aromatic wood with nearly the same material qualities of Mahogany. We only use this wood for internal linings.
Cocobolo is a true S. American rosewood. It is very dense, very stiff, and has low internal dampening. Cocobolo gives strong bass and treble overtones as well as lots of sustain. This makes for a more complex/darker tone. Low internal dampening gives an aggressive quality to the overtones. Strengths are in the treble and bass with the midrange being less punchy than maple.
Honduran Rosewood
Rosewoods (other)
Other types of rosewoods are occasionally available with similar qualities to cocobolo. Honduran rosewood is pictured. Rosewoods have low dimensional stability and require more care with regard to climate control.
Bubinga has similar qualities to rosewood with one notable exception, it has higher internal dampening. This gives Bubinga a rosewood like tone, dark and complex, but with less aggressive and rounder overtones. Often referred to as "African Rosewood". Those wanting a dark sound but who find rosewoods too "harsh" should consider Bubinga.
Stiff, moderately dense, with moderate to low internal dampening, Zebrawood often falls between maple and rosewood in tonal quality. Similar to Tazmanian Blackwood and Mahogany although brighter in tone.
Macassar Ebony
Macassar Ebony
An often brown and black streaked ebony variety used for fingerboards, headplates, and other decorative elements. Can be used for back and sides but is not recommended due to low dimensional stability.
Ebony - Gaboon
Ebony (other)
West African and Gaboon ebony are used for fingerboards, headplates, bridges, endpins, and decorative elements. Usually too unstable for use in back and sides.
We primarily use Adirondack Red Spruce for our instrument top plates. Red Spruce is relatively dense and stiff lending itself to a crisp clear tone that can be played hard without losing quality. Red Spruce may take some "playing in" to achieve its full potential. Softer Spruce varieties may be available for softer playing styles that require more responsiveness.
Other Decorative Woods
Many other woods are used for decorative elements when available. Pictured is Afzelia burlwood.

The woods in these pictures sure are pretty aren't they!?  If it was just by looks alone I think I'd choose bubinga!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Playing In the Moment

Last night at the Irish session the flutist played a minor sounding jig in E (dorian?) called Goat on the Green.  I had never tried to play this tune before and wasn't really at all familiar with it other than it being on the Live at Mona's CD.  Upon hearing it I was able to jump in and play along with something resembling the melody because it reminded me of another tune that I had memorized.
After Goat on the Green was done the flute player asked me if I knew that one and I said no and that what I was doing was simply using another E-minor sounding jig that I knew as a reference point and then deviating from there based on what I was hearing.  In other words - reacting in the moment.  The tune that Goat on the Green reminded me of was Apples in Winter although I haven't checked to see how close they actually are.

I was then asked to play Apples in Winter which I was able to grind out effectively, but as I was playing it I noticed a type of barrier that wasn't there on the previous tune because I knew how Apples in Winter was supposed to go based on my rote memory, so I knew when I was playing it "right" and I knew when I was playing it wrong or flubbing.  (Is this one of the differences between playing something by ear and playing something from a memorization of the notation?  When I try to play by ear I'm never sure if what I'm playing is correct, but I'm also never sure if what I'm doing is wrong so one cancels the other.)
Compare my tense playing of Apples in Winter to my in the moment playing of Goat on the Green which flowed from within because I had no concept of right or wrong with regard to that tune.  With no expectations, I was simply reacting to what I was hearing in an improvisatory manner and letting my fingers move with no pre-meditated thought.  A year or two ago I would never have been able to do such a thing, or muster any joy from the attempt, but I guess some of that blank wall practicing I'm doing is starting to pay off.

Conventional Irish session etiquette often dictates that if you don't know a tune, don't try and play it.  I can grasp the need for such a rule and noodling on a jig or reel isn't always going to work out in your favor, but had I sat that tune out I would have missed out on a memorable moment of playing that I can now use as motivation during nights when nothing seems to be going right and I am struggling with even the most common of tunes.