Saturday, January 9, 2021

How About This for a List of Ten Bluegrass Albums?

The years 1995 to 2005 were my prime bluegrass listening years. During this span I listened to a lot more than just bluegrass, and a lot more bluegrass than just these ten tapes or CDs, but these are the ten most prominent ones that come to mind for me.

Old and in the Way - Old and in the Way. I'm not unique in the fact that the Grateful Dead > Jerry Garcia > Garcia/Grisman were my gateway to bluegrass, and subsequently this 1973 recorded and 1975 released live album was my gateway to even more bluegrass. Peter Rowan, David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements, and John Kahn.

New Grass Revival - Barren County. Before Leftover Salmon, before String Cheese Incident, you had NGR. They were just before my time but I had heard about them and the wake they left behind was still being felt when I first started tuning in. I liked New Grass Revival's earlier albums the best with 1979's Barren County being a perfect ten out of ten!

Hot Rize - Hot Rize. I was digging Hot Rize's 1979 debut album long before I understood the context and influence of Hot Rize on not just the Colorado bluegrass scene, but bluegrass music as a whole. Here's where Tim O'Brien first started to make a name for himself. The fact that Phish began covering Nellie Kane in 1993 didn't hurt either. Twenty years after the release of this CD, when I spent some time in Colorado, Hot Rize banjoist Pete Wernick was still very active as part of the Boulder area bluegrass community.

John Hartford - Nobody Knows What You Do. I'll admit that Aereo-Plain is perhaps a better John Hartford album, and Mark Twang and Morning Bugle aren't too shabby either, but 1976's Nobody Knows What You Do got played the most, probably because of the Granny Wontcha Smoke Some song. It caused me to check out more in the Flying Fish records catalog. 

The Tony Rice Unit - Manzanita. It's Tony Rice. What else is there to say? There were other Tony Rice CDs to be gotten but this is the one I had and in my opinion it's the best. A classic full of non-stop excellence from start to finish. 1979 was a good year for bluegrass. Phish bassist Mike Gordon recently revealed that they learned the Norman Blake song Ginseng Sullivan not from Norman's initial recording but from version on this album.

The Bluegrass Album Band - The Bluegrass Album Vol. 3: California Connection. Tony Rice once again on lead vocals and guitar. The track list of this heater from 1983 honors the first/previous generation of bluegrass, but for many listeners (myself included) these would become the standard versions of these songs.

J.D. Crowe and the New South - J.D. Crowe and the New South. This 1975 masterpiece is a dream-team of players including J.D. Crowe on banjo, Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and fiddle, a very young Jerry Douglas on dobro, and you guessed it) Tony Rice on lead guitar and vocals. Kicking things off with Old Home Place as track one doesn't hurt at all. No, not at all.

Bad Livers - Dust on the Bible. This obscure sleeper cassette tape from 1991 is perhaps more country-gospel than bluegrass, but it's bluegrass nonetheless. With tongue ironically not so planted in cheek, Danny Barnes, Mark Rubin, and Ralph White play it about as straight as three punk-minded tricksters might be capable of. Tracks like Crying Holy Unto the Lord and Jesus is on the Mainline ensured its place in the hearts of those who were lucky enough to find it as the years passed.

Steve Earle and Del McCoury Band - The Mountain. I welcomed this CD with open arms when it came out in 1999. It was the first legit bluegrass album that I knew of to be released and come along as I was still getting to know these older classics of the prior decades. The Mountain hit like a freight train and instantly joined the ranks, eclipsing much of what had come before. Not only did Steve Earle have the best bluegrass band backing him (Del McCoury Band), but he also wrote what is probably the best album's worth batch of songs of his career to go with them.

Yonder Mountain String Band - Elevation. Despite all that had come before in bluegrass - generations 1 and 2 - there was still one more big step to take in the evolution of the genre and Yonder Mountain String Band took it. In hindsight it seems like a no brainer, like low hanging fruit, but why not position yourself to appeal to the already burgeoned jamband scene by playing a different setlist every night, playing two sets a night, hitting all the right festivals, towns, clubs and venues, and constantly touring to create a Phish-like atmosphere or buzz around your brand? Duh. With charismatic front man Jeff Austin at the helm, YMSB did this. It may not be apparent from this pretty straightforward 1999 song and tune oriented debut but Yonder Mountain would pretty much be singularly responsible for the 3rd and final(?) evolution of bluegrass, with help of course from Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident who had primed the pump.

I wouldn't consider myself to be well versed in bluegrass, but I dabbled enough to feel confident that the above list is a valid take on the genre at least for a period covering the 1970's through Y2K, recognizing that early masters Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and The Stanley Brothers are noticeably absent. Honorary mention also goes to Norman Blake, whose Whiskey Before Breakfast CD probably outplayed all of the above but I can't in good faith strictly define it as "bluegrass". I would also be remiss if I didn't give a shout out to Red Clay Ramblers' 1986 LP It Ain't Right. A little too vaudevillian or theatrical to be considered bluegrass, I somehow managed to get this disc into the CD shuffle many a college party night in between the Grateful Dead, moe., Ween, Phish, John Prine, Little Feat, P-Funk, and Zappa that dominated our little corner of Richmond VA.


The Jamband Scene in Colorado at the Time

I spent the years 1999, 2000 and 2001 in Colorado. A short but influential time. I never did take up skiing, but by moving to Colorado I suddenly had hiking - real mountain hiking - a short, scenic drive away. There were cool, small mountain towns to visit including Lyons, Nederland, and Estes Park. And the local craft beer scene had achieved liftoff thanks to Left Hand in Longmont, Mountain Sun in Boulder, Oskar Blues in Lyons, and New Belgium in Fort Collins, home of the mythical Fat Tire. Beer was important to me at that time.

Most importantly though, Colorado was a mecca for music, particularly jamband music. My life was based around and defined by this. Previously having lived in Richmond, VA I often had to drive 2 hours to the Bayou in DC, 2 hours to the Boathouse or Norva in Norfolk, 1 hour to Trax in Charlottesville, or yikes 2.5 hours+ to Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill to see the bands I wanted to see. In Colorado the bands came to you.

Boulder was the hub. Between the Fox Theater, the Boulder Theater, or the more intimate and beloved Tulagi, there was something to see in Boulder every week without fail. Performers would often do two nights in Boulder. If not, or if that wasn't enough, there was also Denver, home of the Fillmore, the Gothic Theater, and Quixotes, as well as the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins. All you had to do to fit in in Ft. Collins was replace your Patagonia with Carhartt and you were good to go. For outdoors open sky venues, always a weather risk in CO, there was Red Rocks and Mishawaka. Slightly farther away was a super fun heady venue called State Bridge Lodge.

Instead of Phish Big Cypress in Florida (which I may not have gone to anyway) I spent Y2K New Year's Eve 12/31/99 seeing Peter Rowan, Sam Bush and Leftover Salmon in Denver.

Except for maybe San Francisco I can't think of any place better positioned in the late 1990's for this type of music. Certainly no other smaller cities had what Boulder had - a confluence of outdoor activities, hippie vibe, and music scene. OK, maybe Burlington, VT or Asheville, NC or Eugene, OR or Athens, GA or Santa Cruz, CA...but that would have probably been to a lesser extent wherever you went.

The list of bands that rolled through included Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, Dark Star Orchestra, Sound Tribe Sector Nine, moe., The Big Wu, Phil and Friends, Strangefolk, Steve Kimock, and many, many more. Of course the local scene was already well carved by local heroes String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon, and just before we moved to CO there was internet talk of an awesome bluegrass band with unheard of jamband sensibilities called Yonder Mountain String Band. In fact, that word of mouth buzz was probably the tipping point in feeling assured enough to make the move. I placed a lot of faith in a hunch that Yonder was going to be great. And they were. 

The Jeff Austin led Yonder Mountain of this early era was small enough to feel ultra local - you could still see them in tiny venues like Wolf Tongue in Nederland, Mountain Sun in Boulder, or Oskar Blues in Lyons (and watch them grow before your eyes) - but good enough to not feel like you were coming down several rungs by seeing some local band instead of say, Phish, whom we had pretty much abandoned back on the east coast. Phish would play Denver once during the years I was in CO, but I also had to drive as far east as Kansas or as far west as Vegas to keep seeing them. This was long before Dick's. YMSB had to fill that #1 band void and for a few years there they did, with help from STS9.

When I did move back to Virginia post nine-eleven I often found myself driving all the way to Asheville, NC - a good seven hour trip each way - to keep the party going. It was the closest Appalachian thing we had to the high-peaked Colorado atmosphere out west. Richmond did eventually get its act together and also my taste would continue to evolve to where I became more interested in what might be going on in New York City over whatever sounds some stoned vanilla hippies were making in the mountains of Colorado. But I don't regret that time at all though. It was like one continuous vacation while it lasted.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

My Three Favorite Tony Rice Albums

The passing of Tony Rice made me realize that I went through a bluegrass "phase". It was a many years long phase, but a phase nonetheless. It preceded the 2000 release of O Brother Where Art Thou so thankfully that wasn't really a driver. My gateway to bluegrass was via The Grateful Dead. I first got their acoustic album Reckoning, which led to the Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band, Garcia/Grisman, and Old and In the Way. Which then led to Norman Blake, John Hartford, New Grass Revival, and Hot Rize. Which, of course, all led to Tony Rice in one way or another.

This was the mid to late 90's before Spotify and YouTube streaming services. If you wanted to hear an album you pretty much had to buy it. So unfortunately at that time I didn't get to hear every recording with Tony Rice on it. However, I did my research and made the following three choices: Tony's Manzanita album from 1979, the self-titled 1975 J.D. Crowe and the New South album featuring Tony Rice on guitar and lead vocals, and Bluegrass Album Band Vol. 3 - California Connection from 1983, again with Tony on guitar and vocals. Pretty good choices. As I listened back to these yesterday I was reminded that I must have listened to them A LOT! Manzanita in particular is easily a candidate for the best bluegrass album ever recorded. I eventually got the classic first Blake and Rice CD as well. Tony's singing and his guitar playing were equally distinctive.

I got to see Tony Rice perform at least four times. Twice with Norman Blake at the intimate Prism Coffeehouse in Charlottesville as Blake and Rice. The first time must have been around 1995. Then The Tony Rice Unit once as part of the VCU Guitar and Other Strings series. And also at Rockygrass in Lyons, CO with Peter Rowan and others. He had pretty much stopped singing by the time I first saw him live, but his guitar playing was still in full command. It was especially fun to see the push and pull of Tony Rice and Norman Blake playing together, as Tony would push Norman to "pick it son", while Norman would mellow out some of Tony's intensity.

It's obvious now that this was only the tip of the iceberg, and that I have let many years get between me and the bluegrass I used to listen to. If you're around my age - of the Leftover Salmon into Yonder Mountain generation - then these Tony Rice recordings feel like standards. The standard versions for many bluegrass songs. Even though quite often what Tony was doing was simply re-interpreting a previous generation's standards. Pretty impressive. 

The last thing I'll mention is for every person Tony inspired to pick up a guitar, he probably also convinced someone else to give it up in defeat!  He was so precise, so technically perfect, that except for the most dedicated and talented, emulating him wasn't an option. When you start listing the guitar players of guitar players - Django, Jerry, Trey, Frisell, Doc, Norman, Wes, Grant Green... - Tony Rice is on that list!

Friday, January 1, 2021

How I Lost 40 Pounds in 2020

It sounds funny but I realized the other day that a Target gift-card I got for Christmas in 2019 changed my life. One year ago - January 1st 2020 - I drove down to Target, actually went in the store (this is before C-19) and decided to use that gift card to get a new scale. I weighed myself when I got home and made note of the weight. I was alarmed by the number and acted immediately that very day by beginning an exercise regimen which I am still actively engaged in. Today - January 1st 2021, exactly one year later - I weighed myself on that same scale and my weight was 41.9 pounds less than it was a year ago today. I had lost over 20% of my bodyweight in one year. 

How did I do it? The secret isn't a secret - diet and exercise (and discipline). Here are some tips and suggestions.

Number 1) Get this book and follow its principles as closely as you can: The Cruise Control Diet by Jorge Cruz. The author has done the research and it's effective; not just some disposable fad. You will start to see results immediately. You need to do more than diet though. Changing the way you eat will help but it's not a miracle cure. (If you are vegan I mention a couple vegan friendly books near the end of this post).

Number 2) Do a 20 minute strength-training/cardio workout nearly every day, preferably in the morning. Be creative with it. Not only does this improve your physical health but it also improves your mental well being, feeling of self-worth, and so on. I suggest using either kettlebells, steel mace, club bells, or dumbbells. Find what's right for you. From a martial arts angle, I've also been doing a 20-minute Tai Chi (Bowling) Ball form as taught by Dr. Jay Dunbar of Magic Tortoise in North Carolina - a complete full body workout in and of itself. For more of a bodyweight calisthenics angle you could try these Equalizer Bars from Lebert Fitness. They are awesome!

TACFIT offers downloadable training materials on Kettlebells 101, Steel Mace 101 or Clubbell 101 which I recommend for whatever option of those you choose. For dumbbells and more, Jorge Cruz's 2001 book Eight Minutes in the Morning never goes out of style. That is the book I pulled off the shelf and turned to on 1/1/2020 when I needed to get things going again.

3) Get out and walk regularly. If you're already doing the strength-training mentioned above then less pressure will be put on walking as your primary source of exercise. Instead you can look at it as a fun ramble or stroll. Go for 2 to 4 mile walks 3 or 4 times per week if not more. Get out in nature and hike! Don't let the threat of bad weather - too cold, too hot, chance of rain - be an excuse not to get out and take your walk. Leave the phone behind, headphones behind if you can do it and just walk unencumbered.

4) If you have this option, set up either a virtual online or in-person one-on-one session or consultation with a good fitness trainer. I highly recommend Will Parker of Girya Garage/Power By Parker. I also like Mark Robson and team at Me First Fitness.

Other Thoughts:

Stop drinking beer. It's passé anyway so why bother LOL?! I had a 4-pack of Guinness (my all-time favorite) leftover from 2019 in my fridge allllllllllll year long. If I could resist that temptation then anything is possible! If you need to consume alcohol, try vodka mixed with seltzer water or find a nice sipping rum and stay hangover free by never having more than one or two shots worth in a given day.

Order groceries online and do the curbside pickup thing. A) it'll save you time and B) it'll keep you on track. Granted, whatever app or site you use for ordering is going to try and upsell you but I feel like you're more likely to stick to your guns when ordering this way vs. in the store. When you actually go in the store you're more likely to make bad decisions.  

If you're reading this and you feel like you need to lose a few pounds, chances are good that you've been ordering too much takeout and/or eating restaurant food too often. Most restaurant food does not have your best interests in mind and there's all kinds of ingredients and cooking methods used that will rack up the pounds. The more you can control your food intake the better, and you do that by taking Jorge Cruz's dietary advice and sticking to it. If you eat most of your meals at home and curate the groceries you allow into the house then you're less likely to cheat or binge. 

If you're vegan here are two great cookbooks I recommend!: Vegan Keto by Liz MacDowell and Happy Herbivore Light and Lean by Lindsay S. Nixon. Please note Lindsay's recipes are not low carb keto-friendly but they are low calorie. There are also some great workouts in the back of the book. In my case I've found that my body responds best when on a keto, low-carb, paleo style diet.

Bottom line - you don't need fancy equipment or fancy technology. Eat simply and exercise regularly. If you can get into a Sylvester Stallone Rocky IV train in Russia mindset, even better! Good luck.