Happy Birthday, Tony Rice



Today we celebrate the great Tony Rice’s 63rd birthday.  He is a musical giant who, against all notions of rationality or fairness, continues to struggle down the road of life.

This excellent article on Tony appeared in the New York Times earlier this year.  It’s worth reading all the way through.

Happy Birthday, Tony.  You have brought us inspiration and uplift beyond measure.  Blessings and peace be upon you.

A Good One for Memorial Day

As we remember to be grateful and thankful for the sacrifices our Armed Forces veterans have made — particularly as they are being obscenely ignored and disrespected by the government — here’s a real pretty song from Dale Ann Bradley.  (With some mighty nice help from Sierra Hull and Steve Gulley.)

All gave some; some gave all.  Come Home, Good Boy.

Tony Rice & Happy Traum on Rhythm, Beat and Drive



Happy Traum, if you’re not familiar with him, is a musical institution from ‘way back in the 1950’s New York City folk scene.  These days he makes his home in Woodstock, New York, where he runs a company he founded  called Homespun.  (It used to be Homespun Tapes, but they don’t sell tapes anymore and the ranks of people who even remember what a tape was dwindle by the day.)  With Homespun, Happy has a done an enormous service to the music community.  He’s been at it for awhile.  As the Homespun site says, 2014 marks the 47th year of teaching people to play better.  Happy started to get musician friends to come to his studio and give one-on-one lessons on video.  From there, his enterprise has grown into an impressive library of very solid instructional materials.

(Our first exposure to the product was a VHS tape of An Intimate Lesson with Tony Rice, procured in 1989.  That tape elicited an array of reactions, ranging from repeated slack-jawed Got-dayums!, to despair, a rage that fortunately did not culminate in any instruments being smashed, to, finally, a calm realization that we would never be able to play like Tony and should just deal with it.  Anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  Basically all your five stages of grief brought to you through one videotape.)

Homespun now has a huge library available (including much streamable content) with many of the biggest names bluegrass, folk and old-time music.  The other night we were watching a favorite: Tony Rice Master Class; Up Close and Personal with a Guitar Great.  In addition to being the amazing virtuoso we all know he is, Tony is also a real good guy and a deep thinker possessed of much insight.  The Master Class recording consists of Tony and Happy discussing some tunes, with demonstrations from Tony.  It’s fascinating to hear and watch.  We got a major “AHA moment” from our most recent viewing, and it’s worth sharing to the degree that we bothered to transcribe Tony’s and Happy’s conversation.

You ever notice how you can be listening to a band, and while they may be technically correct and instrumentally accurate, they just don’t have “it?”  We usually describe it as “drive.”  You either have it or you don’t.  The drive makes all the difference between okay and great.  In one section of the Master Class video, Tony is demonstrating how he plays Red-Haired Boy, which he first recorded on an album entitled Guitar back in 1973.  After going through the tune a couple of times, Tony observes how difficult it is to be your own rhythm section, and one thing leads to another…

Tony Rice: This is another tune where it’s real hard to get the flow without a rhythm section.  As a player, I am rhythm-section-dependent, let me tell ya.  At home, when I’m working up something, I’ll involuntarily pat my foot — if I get strapped for a time-keeping device.

But then I’ll get used to playing something like Red-Haired Boy or Monroe’s Hornpipe or something like that with a rhythm section; I’ll get used to that in my head.  With a rhythm section there’s a clock that keeps ticking all the time.  No matter what I do as an improvising player, the clock is still running, in the band.  But if I’m playing solo guitar, I’m trying to do two things here at one time — I’m trying to keep a clock going and demonstrate the solo guitar effects.

Happy Traum: Do you ever play with a metronome or a drum machine or a tape or anything?

TR: No.  The reason why I don’t is, time in most music forms is supposed to breathe.   Todd Phillips said it best, in an analogy of timing, and groove, and drive — all those stupid words we use to try to describe it.  “Pull” is a word J.D. Crowe used to describe it.  The most accurate description of playing time in a band in any kind of musical format where time is supposed to breathe — Todd used the analogy of a freight train running down a railway at a constant speed.  And in a boxcar is a hobo.  The train going at a constant speed represents what we think of as metronomic time.  But if you think of the hobo in the boxcar as representing the beat, then the hobo is free to move from one end of the car to the other — while the train is moving at a constant rate.  And so that applies to music.

If you really analyze, say, a typical piece of bluegrass music, like an old standard, then from one soloist to the next, you’re going to see the distance between notes, the distance between beats, very radically.  There’s a constant speeding up, slowing down.  And the listener doesn’t perceive that, as such, that that’s going on.  But it is very much going on.  There’s another word for it, I think, and that’s “mysterious.”  It’s a very mysterious thing how the audience perceives that.  And one of the things we’re really talking about here now is, what can make a good rhythm section compared to a mediocre rhythm section.  There are a lot of bands that strive for that on-the-beat, dead-on, metronomic sense from beginning to end.  Throughout a vocal verse, and a chorus, and through a fiddle solo and throughout a mandolin solo, a lot of bands adhere to that real strict sound.

If you could take apart an album, say, like the Manzanita album [recorded in 1979], where you’ve got myself, and Sam Bush, and Todd Phillips, and Ricky Skaggs as the primary rhythm section, if you can really get analytical about that and break it down into beats, it would startle you, as to how much that varies.  There’s a constant speeding up, slowing down — but still, to the listener, it’s perceived as almost a pulse.  That’s where it really gets complicated.

HT:  As I was watching you and Peter Rowan and Sharon Gilchrist and Brynn Bright just a couple of months ago [the Quartet] I noticed that in your show, you couldn’t put a metronomic pulse to it, because it breathes.  Brynn’s bass playing pulls the whole thing forward without speeding up.  And Peter’s a good rhythm guitar player.  It was a very cohesive feel, but you never felt like it was rigid; it was moving a lot.

TR: The hobo in the boxcar.

HT: Yeah.  That’s a good analogy.  So I can understand how when you’re playing solo, you miss having that behind you.

TR: Yeah, the freight train is not there!  The only thing there when I’m trying to demonstrate some of the effects is, I’m the hobo in the boxcar, but there’s no freight train.


-Ranch Hand

Don Julin Interviewed on His New Mando Instruction Book



Ted Eschliman interviews Don Julin about his new book, Mandolin Exercises for Dummies (courtesy of our friends at Mandolincafe.com).  We are a bit disappointed by the “…for Dummies” designation, as we were holding out for the version for Godforsaken Morons.  We will nonetheless try to soldier through this more elevated version. There are many approaches to becoming a mando maven.  This may be one.  Some people advise learning fiddle tunes on the mandolin.  The only wrinkle there is that everything begins to sound the same, and you eventually wind up with just one big amalgamated fiddle tune.  Other instructors emphasize learning strings of hot licks.  Still others advocate jamming for hours at a time, which actually did help us if only by compelling playing the mandolin for five hours at a whack.  (Makes for some serious calluses, if nothing else.)

Here’s the interview with Don.

There’s an Amazon link in the article if you’re moved to buy the book.

One little note on this subject: We’ve been finding the Kindle versions of music books very handy when used on the iPad with the free Kindle app.  We have a The Gig Easy iPad bracket mounted on a mic stand, and it puts everything right where you need it when you have an instrument around your neck and your hands are occupied.  Haven’t yet sprung for the Bluetooth foot-controlled page flipper gizmo yet, but it’s a matter of time.  (Further note: We realize no benefit from the sale of any of this stuff, beyond the satisfaction of having turned you on to something useful.  That’s not because we’re so moral; we just haven’t figured out how.)

Dan Wilson on Semisonic, Adele, and the sincerity of Taylor Swift

Here’s a good AV Club interview with Dan Wilson, best known to us as the frontman of Semisonic.  Semisonic was, in turn, best known for their hit Closing Time.  At the time of release (1998), we felt there easily a good five solid radio hits on their ultimate album, Feeling Strangely Fine.  (For younger readers, recorded music used to be played on broadcast radios as a means of promotion, thus leading to sales of albums and concert tickets.)  These days Dan Wilson is a prolific songwriter, who’s just as likely to pair up on writing projects with country stars as he is with Adele.  The man knows how to write a good song.  Definitely worth your time to read.

Incidentally, somewhere out there is an excellent version of Dan playing Closing Time accompanied only by his guitar.  We’ve heard it played once on the Sirius/XM “Coffee House” channel, but the recording does not appear to have material existence elsewhere.  But here’s a YouTube video of him doing it unplugged and telling the story of writing the song.  A little bit freaked out here because sitting next to him is one of our personal god-head humongous genius songwriters and performers, Chris Stapleton (late of the Steeldrivers).

Oh, yeah, and here’s the article from the AV Club:

Dan Wilson on Semisonic, Adele, and the sincerity of Taylor Swift.

Blogging about the Glass Armonica

Our friend Melissa Swingle (front woman with Trailer Bride and The Moaners) was over the other evening for some eatin’ and a-pickin.’ Melissa brought her musical saw, which in her extremely capable hands produces beautiful, ethereal sounds. (If you do not have perfect pitch or damn close to it, the musical saw is probably not your instrument.)

Given that we were inaugurating a new table built on the premises and that some of the guests prefer wine with dinner, we spared no expense and bought a package of four wine glasses at Wal-Mart for less than ten dollars. During the evening, we discovered the glasses each produced a note somewhere between G and G# (either a sharpish G or a flattish G#) when stroked around their lip. It says something good about the manufacturer’s quality control when all four glasses in the el-cheapo pack resonate at the same frequency.

One thing leads to another, and before you knew it we were talking about the glass armonica, which operates on the same principle. It’s also known as a “bowl organ,” and was invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin in 1761. An earlier instrument known as the “glass harp” consisted essentially of an arrangement of goblets filled with liquid at varying levels. Empty goblet = lowest note, most filled goblet = highest note, with different tones in between. The glass armonica comparatively automated the operation. Glass disks (or “bowls”) of decreasing diameters are mounted on a spinning shaft. The shaft spins by means of a foot treadle, similar to a foot-operated spinning wheel, sewing machine or lathe. You wet your fingers and apply them to the spinning disks, and the next thing you know, you’re making music. The larger the bowl, the lower the frequency it generates.

This is what a glass armonica looks like:


Here’s a short video of a dude playing some Mozart on a glass armonica.

This isn’t just purely nerdism for its own sake. Granted, it is unlikely you will have groupies throwing themselves at you because of your virtuosity on the glass armonica. Then again, Ben Franklin had a rep as quite the ladies’ man, so who are we to conjecture?

Think about all of the objects we might touch or pick up during the course of a day that make music by accident. And all the things and creatures that make music whether we’re involved or not. Music is all around us, all the time. We need only listen.


Ed Gerhard workshop March 2nd Sunday 2-4p

The Drop-D Ranch is proud to host a workshop led by Ed Gerhard, Sunday afternoon, March 2nd, from 2-4pm.

Ed Gerhard is a Grammy-award-winning fingerstyle guitarist. To read more about Ed and to hear his very fine music, please visit:

As always, space is limited at The Drop-D. Please contact Danny Gotham (details below) for more information.

email – Danny Gotham steelstringer at gmail.com

Cost is $50.00 per person.

Hope to see you there!

Rebecca, Jonathan (2 legged) and Tugboat, Maya and Laney (4 legged)

Will Kimbrough July 27th High Noon

Will Kimbrough (Guitarist for Emmy Lou Harris)Will Kimbrough will hold a workshop/demo at noon on Saturday, July 27th at The Drop-D Ranch. There are a total of 30 spots open for this workshop. The cost is $40.00 per person. Noon to 2pm. Bring your guitar, ears, interest, and enjoy an intimate setting where you’ll learn some licks, hear stories, and listen to Will play.

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