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.