Bill and the Belles: Their Old-Time Radio Show Heads for PBS

JOHNSON CITY, TENNESSEE—Some American cities have come back, and others are still dominated by boarded-up storefronts and memories of former glories. Johnson City is somewhere in between, with sprouts of new life dotting Main Street.

Bill and the Belles

Kalia Yeagle (left) and Kris Truelsen of Bill and the Belles are steeped in tradition. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Willow Street Café is one such sprout, a funky, comfortable coffeehouse with live music, including—on the night we attended, Abby the Spoon Lady and her one-man-band accompanist, Chris Rodrigues. When not on stage, she can often be found busking on the streets of nearby Asheville, North Carolina.

bill and belles ralph

Ralph Peer went looking for talent in Bristol, Tennessee–and found Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family at the same session in 1927.

Willow Street was the perfect place to rendezvous with Kris Truelsen and Kalia Yeager, core members of Johnson City-based Bill and the Belles. The group is one-of-a-kind, deftly combining old-time country (as performed in the place where it was born) with the pop sensibilities of the 1920s and 1930s. Truelsen is convinced, and I heartily concur, that period pop (a/k/a The Great American Songbook or Tin Pan Alley) sat side by side in the repertoire of local and regional musicians.

bill and belles radio bristol

The Radio Bristol home of “Farm & Fun Time.” (Jim Motavalli photo)

Due to the rigidity of record companies (then and now) they stayed within their chosen genres on disc, hence our conviction today that it was all they played. In reality, musicians had to eat, so they were only to happy to play the hits of the day for paying audience.

The group’s name comes from Bill and the great singer/songwriter Ollabelle Reed, who recorded in Johnson City. (The group Ollabelle was also named after her.) After some personnel changes, it now features Truelsen on guitar and vocals, Yeagle on fiddle and voice, Helena Hunt on banjo and vocal, and Andrew Small on bass.

Bill and the Belles

The Willow Tree is part of the rebirth of Johnson City, and musicians like Truelsen and Yeagle are helping make it happen. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Truelsen is from Colorado and Yeagle from Alaska. They came together in the mountains of Tennessee, where both studied Appalachian music at East Tennessee State University. Yeagle, who also played with the New Reeltime Travelers, is an educator with a geography degree from Vassar and a graduate certificate from ETSU.

bill and belles carter family

The Carter Family, in their original glory.

Truelsen was the first person to get a master’s in Appalachian Studies at ETSU, and is the producer and music director of Radio Bristol, housed at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in nearby Bristol, Tennessee. That’s where Ralph Peer’s historic recording session was held circa 1927, producing country’s first two major stars—Jimmie Rodgers (“The Singing Brakeman”) and the Carter Family.

The museum is great fun—go if you can. I didn’t realize that the so-called Bristol Sessions were one of the first recording dates to be electrically recorded. That meant vastly better sound, and great sales of country records—at least until the Depression put a damper on things.

The central radio show on Radio Bristol is the monthly “Farm & Fun Time,” an hour-long homage to the original show (launched in the 1940s), which featured such artists as Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Mac Wiseman and Jim and Jesse. Now it’s back with a new format, broadcast on Radio Bristol from a studio at the Bristol museum. A pair of musical guests are complemented with heirloom recipes, farming segments and Truelsen’s original ad jingles.

bill and belles jimmie

Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman.”

The big news is that “Farm and Fun Time” is headed for TV, at first regionally on Southeast PBS stations, but maybe later it will go national. The program’s burgeoning success recalls another old-time radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” first heard back in 1974.

bill and belles bristol

Truth in advertising. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Before we go to the interview, let me add that a month or so after the rendezvous in Tennessee I caught Bill and the Belles right close to home, in a barn close to home in Newtown, Connecticut. It was an ideal place to see them, congenial, rural and relaxed. The audience was relaxed, anyway; the band was on fire, and tore through dozens of tunes, including some very hot fiddle tunes led by Yeagle. This band is just so darned good. Catch them now before the crowds get huge.

bill and the belles newtown 2019 whole group

Bill and the Belles, with a borrowed (very good) bass player, heat up the barn in Newtown, Connecticut. It was hot, in both senses of the word. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Kris Truelsen: Radio Bristol started with folks at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. The whole point of the station was to celebrate all the great regional artists we have here in central Appalachia. Radio is such a prominent part of country music history, yet there hasn’t been a community station in our region for some time that really celebrates local and regional artists.

Jim Motavalli: The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville actually started the year before the Bristol Sessions, in 1926.

And it had quite a long reach; it made it up to here. “Farm & Fun Time” is one of our flagship shows at Radio Bristol now. The original Farm & Fun Time was on WCYB out of Bristol, with pretty heavy wattage, and it hit a five-state region. It was a noontime show and had a huge following. A lot of the farmers would take a break at lunchtime and come in and listen. Many of the first-generation bluegrass artists started their careers on that show, folks such as the Stanley Brothers, Mac Wiseman, Jim and Jesse. There was a revolving cast of house bands.

There were many artists in southwest Virginia who were doing tour routes throughout the area, and they would come through, using “Farm & Fun Time” as a way to push ticket sales for their events. We brought the show back, knowing the impact it had on our region. We put a contemporary spin on it—performing in front of a live audience at the museum. The reception has been amazing. It’s monthly and it sells out every month. People are really happy we brought it back. It’s also becoming a TV show. It’s been picked up by PBS. It’s going to start out syndicated throughout the Southeast, and after six months hopefully it will become national.

Bill and the Belles is the house band, and we play a lot of jingles that we write for our sponsors. We have a food segment coming up, and I have to write a song about morel mushrooms.

Kalia Yeagle: Kris is a jingle-writing machine.

Will the TV filming change how you do “Farm & Fun Time”?

Kris: I’m hoping it’s not going to change a thing. We’ll film it in the museum, and we’ll also have another studio we’ll shoot in for larger shows. At the core, our mission is to keep “Farm & Fun Time” as a radio show. So it will be a 58-minute radio show on TV. We have two featured artists every month, with Bill and the Belles as the house band. We have our heirloom recipe storyteller, and we have a visit to a farm. Tomorrow I’m going up to a state park and we’re going to be foraging for medicinals. We’ll be working with a lady who puts together packages of medicinal herbs for cancer patients at St. Jude’s in Memphis.

Your show obviously brings to mind “Prairie Home Companion.” They at least played around with the conceit of being an old-time radio show—with the commercials and such.

Kris: What an influential show. It’s impacted my work tremendously. As a kid I listened to “Prairie Home Companion” for years. My parents loved it. I snuck into a “Prairie Home Companion” show in Philadelphia once, and saw Garrison Keillor rehearsing. It was inspiring to me, seeing 20 or so people working together on the show.

Considering how much you tour, it must be difficult to fit everything in.

Kris: The radio is a full-time job, but the band is also a full-time commitment. We do 100-plus dates a year.

I’ve seen you at several festivals in the Northeast. Which ones are you playing in 2019?

Kalia: We’re doing our favorite hometown event, the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Revival, in September. We do a live “Farm & Fun Time” from the festival, which is always a lot of fun. We’re also doing a UK tour in August and September.

bill and the belles newtown 2019

Bill (Kris) and the current Belles, Kalia Yeagle (left) and Helena Hunt, in Newtown. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Kris: In June and July we’re playing some arts centers in the Northeast. We’ll also be out west and in Canada.

Kalia: We did a month-long tour in Germany last winter, and it was really interesting to hear the reactions of international audiences. They really seemed to dig it, the Americana sound.

Kris: For traditional American music, there are pockets around the world where there are real subcultures of people who are 100 percent invested in it. Not only do they bring American bands over, but they also learn to pick and sing like those bands from the 1930s and 40s. It’s pretty wild.

When I first heard Bill and the Belles, I was struck not only by Kalia’s great fiddle playing and singing, which is a constant in your band, but also by the way you sing, Kris, which is unlike anyone I’ve ever heard singing old-time or bluegrass. You sound a lot more like the contemporary crooners, who would be singing Tin Pan Alley songs. I’m sure if you heard some of the old singers back then, they would have included some of that repertoire, but it didn’t get recorded. The record companies wanted to keep you in your niche.

Kris: You’re picking up on some of the focal points where Bill and the Belles started. The pop music of the 1920s and 30s was huge here in our region of eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. But like you said, when the A&R guys came down to record, they wanted authentic “hillbilly music,” with fiddles. It didn’t fit into their aesthetic. But many of the artists were very open to playing what was then the modern music.

That being said, there are a few examples of country musicians from this region who did record and had a repertoire of pop music. And for us we find that very interesting. I love the chord progressions of what you might call more uptown hillbilly music. The melodies have quite a bit of depth to them. And for my voice, it really is very fitting. I like to see myself as kind of a hillbilly crooner.

The songs you write have the feel of Tin Pan Alley, too.

Kris: We want our songs to have a timeless quality to them. Tin Pan Alley really stretched for decades, and the songs don’t hearken back to a specific era. We pull from a lot of eras. We combine music of the 1920s and 30s with the 50s and 60s. And we get into today, too, and inevitably that becomes the Bill and the Belles sound. It’s an amalgam of all these different eras of American music, because that’s what we like.

My theory is that Bill Monroe heard jazz, the popular music of the time, and it influenced him to add solos to old-time country and create bluegrass. I think both bluegrass and country swing are reactions to hearing jazz.

Kalia: I think you’re on to something there. I think that’s a great theory. There are pivotal moments of crossover and collaboration. People get exposed to new sounds and try to fit them in within their own existing voices. It’s those moments that really excite us as a band, and it’s what has stayed true for us. We like to hear sounds that arose from two seemingly disparate sources that somehow found a way to work together.

Kris: Jazz crossover, for us it’s incredibly inspiring. Not only was Bill Monroe very aware of jazz, but a bunch of other musicians—Clayton McMichen, for instance, who was in the Skillet Lickers, a world-class fiddler—

Kalia: One of my favorites, he’s still an influence on me, definitely.

Kris: The Skillet Lickers hearkened back to the 19th century, and McMichen has been quoted as saying playing only old music drove him crazy, and he wanted to push the boundaries. He started a band called the Georgia Wildcats, which was hillbilly jazz. He went forward with that and left the old-time field behind, but the DNA was still in there.

There’s a lot of jazz in your playing, Kalia. Who were influences on you besides Clayton McMichen?

Kalia: I grew up in a pretty diverse musical situation, in and around Anchorage, Alaska. There’s a really thriving musical community up there. My dad was a bluegrass musician growing up. But so many people have moved there from so many places that the music scene really reflects that. So if you grow up learning fiddle you’re going to get some folk music, bluegrass and swing, as well as some French-Canadian tunes and old-time too.

David Grisman was the catalog of my youth for sure. That Dawg Music is burned into my memory. I moved to upstate New York for college and got into playing music there, a bit more on the swing side of bluegrass and old-time fiddling. I met Kris when I came down to Tennessee for graduate school, and that’s when I really started digging into old-time music.

I have the sense you’re quite an historian, Kris.

Kris: There’s been a lot of study, a lot of listening to old records, for sure. Early country music is part of my lifeblood. I did get my masters in country music studies. I wrote a thesis on early country music history. I’ve spent a lot of my life studying the old folks and what they did.

Ralph Peer actually came back to Bristol several times, looking for talent. And he was the catalyst to get A&R men from other labels to come down. It made sense, because they saw the record sales that were happening from the Bristol Sessions. Once the music was electrically recorded, the sales took off because the sound was so clear. With records made before 1927, there’s some amazing music on them, but you have to listen through the scratches and the noise. So they’re a little bit more inaccessible for a lot of folks.

I saw you first at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, which is a great event that grew out of the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook.

Our latest record, DreamSongs Etc., is on Jalopy Records. They’re a great organization—the Brooklyn Folk Festival to me is one of the great festivals in the U.S. Curator Eli Smith is really good at finding people who are dedicated to their art. He brings in artists you aren’t going to see at any other festivals. And then they get recorded for Jalopy Records. It was an honor to be part of that.

Because of the Jalopy Theater and the folk festival, Brooklyn has a very developed old-time scene.

And it has been for a very long time. We’ve been fortunate to be friends with John Cohen, who lives in the Hudson area and started the New Lost City Ramblers, one of the important figures to help the folk revival become what it became. He has been incredibly inspiring to us as musicians and artists. It amazes me to see the impact he continues to have in his life today.

Mike Seeger in that group was a real catalyst, too. It’s interesting that the Ramblers’ music still sounds authentic, but the popular groups of the period—The Kingston Trio, the Limeliters—which had a real tinge of Tin Pan Alley and sophisticated harmonies in their music, sound more ersatz. It’s funny, the repertoire of old-time country is completely different from what those groups drew from. Those groups were college-influenced folk.

Kris: Mike Seeger and John Cohen, they were coming down south, they were making field recordings with amazing artists. They weren’t interested in commercial recordings, and it’s reflected in the music they played, which has great depth.

 Tell me about your personnel changes.

Kris: We’ve been working with Helena for about a year now. I met her through ETSU—I was teaching there and she was one of my students. She’s from Waynesville, North Carolina and has been playing banjo her whole life. And an incredible singer too. When we started looking for a new banjo player it was a no-brainer to go to her first.

Andrew Small of Floyd, Virginia is our new bass player. He’s the manager of the big old-time country music store County Sales and a world-class musician. The band is hitting the road a lot more and doing more touring in far-off places. And the group we have is really ideal for that.

“Farm and Fun Time” airs from 7 to 9 p.m. on the second Thursday of every month. Here it here. Keep an eye on local listings for the PBS show. And here’s a show from 2018:

Dena DeRose, Home From Europe

It was another stellar night at Sarah’s Wine Bar/Bernard’s Restaurant in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where the Jazz Masters Series comes out once a month courtesy of the husband-and-wife team of Marcia and Ken Needleman. The Dena DeRose trio (Martin Wind, bass, and John Wikan, drums) was joined by veteran trumpet player Marvin Stamm (Bill Evans, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Duke Pearson, Thad Jones, Wes Montgomery, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine).

Dena DeRose

Dena DeRose meets the media at Sarah’s Wine Bar in Ridgefield, CT. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Not many places in Connecticut let you dine splendidly while listening to top-rank jazz through a clear-as-a-bell sound system. And the audience is quiet, too.

In Ridgefield, DeRose was in good form, and sailed through a repertoire that included tributes to the late Mark Murphy and Bob Dorough, standards such as “It Could Happen to You” and “Get Out of Town,” and a Martin Wind original with DeRose’s lyrics, “Simple Song.”

Dena is a cool vocalist, sort of like Patricia Barber but warmer. And she’s a hell of a vibrant pianist, slamming those keys with exuberance. As you’ll read below, she got into the vocalizing late, and almost by accident–just like Nat Cole.

I’ve written about Dena before, but this time I sat down with her and conducted a Q&A interview (after we missed each other on WPKN the week before).

Marvin Stamm

Marvin Stamm made an album of duets with DeRose called “The Nearness of Two.” (Jim Motavalli photo)

You’ve been teaching in Europe. How do you like living there?

I love living in Europe! I moved to Graz, Austria about 13 years ago. I accepted a professorship for jazz voice at one of the oldest institutions for the music in Europe, started around 1965 or 1966. They didn’t really have jazz voice until Sheila Jordan started the program in the late 1980s.

It wasn’t really a university then, more like one of our community colleges. But in 2004 it became a university, which meant they wanted to have one professor for voice long term. Before that, Sheila would bring over Mark Murphy, Michelle Hendricks, Andy Bey, Jay Clayton and people like that. They’d go over for a semester or even a year and teach, workshops and private lessons, the jazz choir.

Martin Wind

The hard-working Martin Wind is DeRose’s go-to bass player. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I got called and told there was an audition for the professorship, much different than it would be in the States. I taught at NYU, Purchase, Hartt School in Hartford, and they just ask you—“Do you want to come and teach here?” It was nerve-wracking to go over to Europe and audition—I had never had to do that. But I got offered the job, and in a month’s time had to move my life over there after 16 years in New York. It felt like the right time.

You still come back regularly, once a year.

Well, I love New York. I just played Birdland for four nights, and we had bassist Martin Wind, plus Steve Williams on drums, and guests that included saxophonist Houston Person and trumpet players Ingrid Jensen and Jeremy Pelt. I love Ingrid, and Jeremy was on the cover of Downbeat this month. He’s a deep cat for a young guy.

I had a thought while listening to you play “Joy Spring” with Marvin Stamm. Maybe if the 1950s hadn’t been what they were, and you were born back then instead of now, you’d have been one of those Blue Note pianists–Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan, Herbie Hancock—who played on a million albums. It was mostly men on those sessions.

It was a man’s world, and times have changed a little bit. Now we have people like Ingrid Jensen, Virginia Mayhew, Sue Terry, Grace Kelly, Tia Fuller, Sherry Maracle with the Diva band. It’s finally getting more equal in the reviews and in the magazines. There were a lot of great women players back in the day—Marian McPartland, for one—but of course there weren’t as many. These days when I do workshops and clinics, at high schools and universities, there are a lot more women instrumentalists—it’s not just singers, but saxophonists, trumpet players, flautists, trombonists. We’re more in the forefront.

I was listening to the new Norah Jones album, and her piano playing is more in the background than it used to be. That’s also true of one of my favorite artists in the old-time country field, Rhiannon Giddens, who is an instrumental virtuoso but is concentrating more on being a singer. One of the things I love about your records is that the piano is so upfront.

Thanks, I was first a piano player. My singing came out of having some operations on my hand when I was younger, so I couldn’t play. I had to pay the doctor’s bills, so I took some voice lessons and studied technique and started working in my hometown with a trio. And when my hand healed, I was still singing. It just happened.

Nat Cole didn’t sing at first.

I didn’t either. When I first got into jazz it was just piano. They used to tell me when I was younger that I had the Nat Cole syndrome. He was playing in a place regularly, and one night the manager comes up and says, “Hey, your piano is great, but how about you sing a tune?” And Cole replied, “I don’t sing.” This happened a bunch of times, and finally, he did sing. And then he became Nat King Cole.

Back then, it really helped if you could sing. These days, you can pretty much do what you want to do.

Tell us about your most recent record, United [HighNote, 2016].

It has Ingrid Jensen, Matt Wilson and Martin Wind, Peter Bernstein. We were all in New York, and we’re all about the same age. We were in New York together learning the music. That was my school—I didn’t go to a university. New York was it. If you were on the bandstand you had to know the tunes.

When you record in Europe, can you find musicians of the same caliber as those in New York?

I made a duo album in Europe, the Nearness of Two, with Marvin Stamm. It was a live concert and they didn’t tell us it was going to be a CD. But there are great players everywhere. I travel through Europe constantly, at least two or three weekends every month. And I have the Spanish band, the Italian band, the Danish band. Bands in Germany and Austria.

You’d be great with the WDR Big Band in Germany. There’s a new album with Fred Hersch, and arrangements by Vince Mendoza.

I had the opportunity four or five years ago to do a project with the Frankfurt Radio Band. Ed Partyka did the arrangements around my Shirley Horn homage CD. And that was really fun. But it wasn’t released as an album. At the end of May I go to Portugal to be with Benny Golson and the big band of the Algarve region. All of Benny’s songs have been arranged for big band. I’ll probably be mostly playing piano on that, and doing some of my own big band arrangements. Benny is 90.

So is Tony Bennett. He’s also 90.

Next month in the Jazz Masters Series is violin player Jason Anick and his trio, Sunday May 26.

Priority Gal: A World War II Story

I was born in 1952, during Korea, but too late for World War II.  Still, it’s stories about the Greatest Generation that get to me, because both my father and grandfather were in that war, and for once it isn’t all hype (as it can be for sports figures). Some of these men and women really were heroes. I watch a lot of reruns of Combat! starring Vic Morrow, a show that was on when I was young and impressionable.

Priority Gal

“Priority Gal” and her crew. (Air Force photo)

And then there are World War II books. I came to The Final Mission: A Boy, a Pilot and a World at War (Westholme) by Elizabeth Hoban and (her father) Lt. Col. Henry Supchak via a circuitous route.

final mission

The Final Mission tells–very well–an untold story of World War II heroism.

Jim Allyn, a wizard of a multi-instrumentalist and producer, recently appeared on my WPKN radio show. I knew Jim’s wonderful work on mandolin and other instruments from the first few Terence Martin albums. He has just completed his first album, Backyards of the Brave, and I was immediately taken by the song “Priority Gal.”

Jim-Allyn

It’s a true World War II story. Allyn’s wife’s uncle, Henry Supchak, was a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber pilot in the European theater of operations. He flew “Priority Gal supported by a crew of eight. He was on his 33rd combat mission, about to be sent Stateside, when on July 31, 1944, his plane was shot up over Neustift, Austria.

B-17

The B-17 Flying Fortress, seen here with her bomb bay doors open, was a fearsome weapon of war. It carried a crew of nine. After 60 years, Supchak finally flew one again–and kept it to an arrow-straight course. ((American Air Museum)

With no hope of reaching neutral Switzerland, and shrapnel embedded in his right knee, Supchak ordered his crew to bail out. “I was alone in a crippled bomber with no hope of reaching England,” Supchak writes in the book.

“I released myself from the seat and glanced up through the caustic fumes enveloping the cockpit. “Priority Gal” was headed straight toward a village at the base of the Alps. Her current course would wipe out most of the town and its residents.”

It didn’t matter that this was enemy territory. The village was full of non-combatants—civilians, women and children.

“Instinctively,” Supchak and Hoban wrote, “I jumped back in the seat and readjusted the controls to a maximum leftward flight pat and flipped the wing trim tabs. Forcing the extreme turn was not an easy task and it took some muscle and no room to spare to get my ‘Gal’ to make a 90-degree turn. Her riveted metal seams groaned in protest to the drastic maneuver, but she cooperated and veered clear of the village.”

Henry Supchak

Henry Supchak at the controls of “Priority Gal.” (courtesy of Elizabeth Hoban)

Supchak bailed out, and landed in an Alpine knoll, where he was quickly arrested. His dramatic change of course had been witnessed on the ground by a six-year-old shepherd boy, Ander Haas. Even at that age, he recognized that this airman had saved their village, Neustift. He and his aunt made their way to the German outpost where Supchak was held, distracted the guards, and slipped food to the prisoner over the course of several days. He might have starved to death otherwise.

Miraculously, the whole crew of “Priority Gal” survived the jump, and all were in prison camps until the end of the war. Supchak suppressed the bad memories of the prison camp after the war, but repeated bad dreams eventually convinced him he needed closure. Supchak lived a very long life that included 20 years of service as a process engineer at the Ford Motor Company, and he eventually went on the road and looked up all the surviving members of his crew. Only one died before that reconciliation could occur.

supchak and hoban

Elizabeth Hoban and Henry Supchak in later years. (courtesy of Elizabeth Hoban)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Ander Haas—by now a successful developer of Alpine resorts—hadn’t forgotten about the airman who saved his village. He erected memorials to “Priority Gal,” and dug up parts of the buried plane. And when Supchak was 91 years old he went back to Neustift for dedication ceremonies. It’s all in the beautifully written book. I read it (in China!) and recommend it highly.

Jim Allyn and I talked about all this on the radio show. He was particularly taken by the fact that Haas’ bar has a drink—a strong one—called the Henry Supchak. So here’s a video of the song, and the lyrics are below. Supchak is no longer with us, but what he did will live on forever.

“Priority Gal” by Jim Allyn (used by permission)

Twas in the year of ‘44, the last day of July/Twenty thousand feet and falling/over German countryside/the plane they call Priority Gal was spinning in dive/and out jumped eight brave souls/as one remained at the controls

Here’s to all we knew so well/the Bride of Mars, the Memphis Belle/Jack the Ripper, Old Maxine/Careful Virgin, Sweet Seventeen/and to you old friends and pals/and the man who flew Priority Gal

There’s a little town in Austria/where they drink all night long/and there’s one they make called the Henry S./and they make it good and strong/for long ago, as that plane dove/‘twas Henry at the wheel/spinning as he gripped it tight/somehow he set those wings aright/five hundred feet above the ground/with one last turn he spared that town/he spared that town

Here’s to all we knew so well/the Bride of Mars, the Memphis Belle/Jack the Ripper, Old Maxine/Careful Virgin, Sweet Seventeen/Lady Luck, the Nine-O-Nine/Desperate Journey/Bachelor’s Bride/Just Plane Lonesome, Red Wing, Nightmare/Anxious Angel, My Baby/My Prayer/and to you old friends and pals/and the man who flew Priority Gal

Taking Chances: The Brooklyn Folk Festival 2019

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—The 11th annual Brooklyn Folk Festival, in its long-time home of St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights, is about the agony and the ecstasy. The agony of sitting in hard, upright church pews for days at a time, and the ecstasy of a sublimely curated festival of folk music (using the most creative interpretation of that genre) for three whole days.

 Ozark Highballers

The Big Dixie Swingers brought their energy with them. (Jim Motavalli photo)

We walked in Friday evening as Tenares de Alelerúe was just starting. It’s a vocal quartet that sounds like a cross between barbershop music and shape note singing. They gathered in close to sing, holding each other’s shoulders. Has Joe Biden heard about this?

Little Nora Brown

Little Nora Brown is gaining control of that foghorn voice, and adding stage presence, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The repertoire was Sardinian and Corsican, and I thought that’s where these folks came from, but when the talked, lo and behold, Americans. What kind of Americans, bred on Top 40, decides to take on ancient European vocal traditions? Well, welcome to the Brooklyn Folk Festival, where this kind of dedication is commonplace.

Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton was a wunderkind on every instrument he picked up. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Up next was Jake Xerxes Fussell, whose Columbus, Georgia songs I’ve played on my WPKN show. “Did you ever see peaches growing on a sweet potato vine?” he asks. Fussell is getting known; he has a strong tenor voice and an even stronger guitar style. Some of his songs are a bit odd at first, but would probably wear like old boots. “Jump for Joy”; I want to hear that one again. He played a song he described as coming from Duke Ellington, but it sounded like 60s singer-songwriter.

The Downhill Strugglers

The Downhill Strugglers: Brooklyn’s house band. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Jackson [Lynch] and the Janks play R&B from New Orleans, where Lynch is now resident. Unusual instrumentation: steel guitar, sax and drums. Lynch is a master fiddle player, guitarist and folklorist; I like him better solo or with the Downhill Strugglers (featuring curator Eli Smith and John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers).

Frank Fairfield and Meredith Axelrod

Frank Fairfield and Meredith Axelrod. Fairfield seemed to be having a bad day. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Big Dixie Swingers, also from the Big Easy, were my hit of the day. “Western swing, that’s mostly what we do,” said fiddler/vocalist Aaron Bushnell Gunn, but there’s a really big dose of New Orleans jazz in there too, thanks to Aaron Olwell’s clarinets and Nathan Wolman’s heavily Louis Armstrong-inspired trumpet. They swung like a gate. They also have a gem in vocalist/banjoist Elizabeth Gunn Bushnell, who conjures the crackly vocals off an old 78. Ruth Etting, maybe? Points for repertoire, too, with tunes like “On a Chinese Honeymoon.” Sample lyric: “We will live on love and kisses/On our Chinese honeymoon.”

Jontavious Willis

Jontavious Willis is still in college, but already a strong performer. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Jontavious Willis is still in college, but showed enormous promise as a young bluesman, particularly in his stellar harp and “talking” guitar playing.

The Old Plantation.

The Old Plantation. See the granddaddy of the banjo? (Jim Motavalli photo)

At this point I took a break from a music and walked up the winding stairs to the workshop room, where a lecture on the origins of the banjo was in progress. Scholars Pete Ross and Kristina Gaddy were knowledgeable and funny. The earliest banjos we know about were found with slaves in the 18th and 19th century Caribbean. They are seen in old paintings of revels at the slave quarters, and were made from a wooden stock stuck in to a sliced-open gourd (often with a sheepskin or hide covering)

Baby Gramps

Under that beard somewhere is Baby Gramps. (Jim Motavalli photo)

They’ve found them in Surinam, Haiti, Barbados, Madera, Jamaica, and in the U.S. too. A song—played during the workshop—was transcribed around 1687 by a visiting European from “the best musician there.” Was it called “Strum Stomp”? By 1736, there were references to slave instruments called “bangers” in New York (and from Congo Square in New Orleans, circa 1819). One definitive reference point is a 1792 painting called “Old Plantation,” with a banger and drummers and women waving scarves (also seen in Caribbean depictions).

Jim Kweskin

Jim Kweskin, with music unaffected by the passage of time. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues reminds me of a group that might have been seen in Washington Square around 1969. A visit to the Square didn’t turn up much music now, though somebody had mysteriously left record albums (Lionel Ritchie, anyone?) strewn about the benches. The vocals of Samoa Wilson, sometimes heard with jug band pioneer Jim Kweskin, were a highlight.

Nat Polly was one of the musicians brought from eastern Kentucky by the Appalshop group of folklorists. He wasn’t stuck in the past—he did a song about the opioid crisis. “That song moved in next door to me,” he said. Also strikingly contemporary were the Local Honeys, two Appal Shop women with clear voices and a strong political conscience. Fiddler Linda Jean Stokley’s song about the coal mining czars was biting, specific and on-target.

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Kids singalong at the Fest. (Jim Motavalli photo_

I’ve written so much about the Mammals I won’t go into detail here. I usually see them upstate at their Summer Hoot. But they met in the city, and it was particularly appropriate that they did their Woody Guthrie-lyrics New York subway song in Brooklyn. (Guthrie lived out on Mermaid Avenue.) Mike Merenda wore a shirt celebrating Greta Ernman Thunberg, the young climate activist, and then performed “Sunshiner” (his renewable energy song). Ruth Unger’s interpretation of an Etta James song reaffirmed what a great vocalist she is.

Little Nora Brown (just 13) is getting better and better, and is developing both stage presence and vocal command. Opening with a Shaker song, she calmly informed us that it had just been recorded for a Shaker tribute that also features Yo Yo Ma. She was joined by Anna Roberts-Gevalt of Anna and Elizabeth, and at one point played a banjo that had been used by Roscoe Holcomb in New York.

The Lovestruck Balladeers

The Lovestruck Balladeers were awe-inspiring on every level, with a ragtime repertoire. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Ozark Highballers do a wonderful job of keeping alive the music in and around their Ozarks hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. They’re an old-time string band with a great respect for the tradition, and have a new album out on Jalopy Records (the Jalopy Theatre in Red Hook is the parent organization of the festival.) The Highballers have a wonderful asset in the vocals of guitarist Aviva Steigmeyer, but don’t avail themselves of it enough—she sang lead on only one song.

The absolute high point of the festival for me was a set by the recently formed Lovestruck Balladeers. It’s a supergroup of sorts, with stars from a variety of ensembles. Everyone is a multi-instrumentalist, and the repertoire is ragtime and early jazz.

I saw the amazing fiddle playing of Aaron Jonah-Lewis last summer on tour with Roochie Tootchie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings, and he’s even more amazing with the Balladeers. Dennis Lichtman, also a monster on mandolin and fiddle, is most often seen with a clarinet (and also plays in The Brain Cloud, regulars at Barbes). Pianist Dalton Ridenhour knows his Scott Joplin; guitarist Jake Sanders has Django licks and more, and Sean Cronin had the audience in awe on bass. At one point, the whole front line was on mandolins.

Meredith Axelrod and Frank Fairfield were having an off night. Something was clearly bugging Fairfield, and his incessant tuning prompted Axelrod to quip, “Tuning is important. It’s more important than having a good show.” When they did play, they were great, especially an antique tune called “On the Brandywine” that was in the original Wizard of Oz stage play, circa 1905.

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton was captivating on a bunch of instruments, including fiddle, guitar, harp and more. He’s not bad on piano, either. He started one tune, then noticed that the audience’s hand clapping was out of sync. “It’s a waltz,” he said. “The African-American contingent of the audience is now up to at least half a dozen, and they should be the ones to set the tempos.”

Paxton was joined later by Jonah-Lewis and Fairfield for two trio dazzlers.

I wish I was more awake for Kashiah Hunter and friends. Sacred steel is amazing live, and there were two players on the instrument—one Hunter’s uncle. In full cry it always reminds me—for some reason—of the Allman Brothers. If they were spiritual, of course.

Tamar Korn

Tamar Korn was made to front a tight jazz/swing band like The Brain Cloud. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Brain Cloud, featuring Lichtman and the vivacious vocalist Tamar Korn were still cranking when we left for the night. There’s only so much bench time one’s nether quarters can take, and we were worried about the subways still running. Lichtman is the best kind of historian, and he told a long and fascinating tale about “My Window Faces the South” being first recorded by Fats Waller in 1937. Now it’s a country swing classic and sounds positively corn-fed.

On Sunday, events started with a kids’ singalong of Pete Seeger material sponsored by Smithsonian Folkways. Seeger would be 100 now, and his legacy is large. The kids seemed happy enough singing “This Land is Your Land” with Emily Eager and Chris Q. Murphy.

It was just as Pete would have done it, but surely an update with some new songs is permitted. The kids would become an issue later when their running around and yelling got in the way of the quieter performances. Host Eli Smith handled it properly, telling the parents that they were loved dearly, but the kids had to be corralled.

Jim Kweskin, who’s 79, is still singing and playing at the top of his game. Kind of amazing. He even looks good. A set from him is like hearing music in your own living room. On his own, instead of with his trademark jug band you get a musician strongly influenced by Mississippi John Hurt, which isn’t a bad thing. He did Uncle Dave Macon’s “Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train,” gave “Eight More Miles to Louisville” another go-round and sang a hilarious song about the life of a guitar player—to the tune of “Swinging on a Star.” Inspirational wisdom: “My buddy Geoff Muldaur likes to say we play for old people—and their parents.”

John Harrod

John Harrod and friends. Don’t let the baseball cap fool you. (Jim Motavalli photo)

John Harrod, a Kentucky fiddler, sounded great and did a set that was strongly regional in flavor. One song was from a guy who had to be gotten out of jail to record it. But don’t let the baseball cap fool you—Harrod went to Oxford, and his accompanist wife to Vassar. Harrod made a strong pitch for his state’s music, Appalshop, and the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School (held the last full week in June). Indeed, many of the performers on Sunday had attended it.

The Downhill Strugglers were in rude good health, with Jackson Lynch in particularly fine form on fiddle and songs like “That’s All Right.” Eli Smith played a delicate banjo tune, “The Wild Goose Chase,” that was perfect for Sunday in church.

I’d describe the much-anticipated film The Ballad of Shirley Collins, about the British balladeer who accompanied Alan Lomax on his southern adventures, but the video player didn’t work. Oh well.

Ian Felice of the Felice Brothers looked like he just rolled out of bed, and his songs were in that same spirit. They were more like random journal entries than actual songs. For his information, Fred Neil did not write “Shake Sugaree”; Elizabeth Cotton did.

Molsky, Trischka and Daves

The dynamic trio of Molsky, Trischka and Daves. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I can’t say too much about the uniting of Bruce Molsky, Michael Daves and Tony Trischka. As Trischka pointed out, they have busy schedules and don’t get together all that often. But when they do, sparks fly. All three are giants in old-time (and progressive) circles, and they played at blistering tempos when they weren’t making you cry with ballads like “The Blackest Crow.” The breakneck finale, a workout on something called “I Get My Whiskey from Rockingham,” was just awe-inspiring. Here’s video (but not of that song!):

Anna Roberts-Gevalt, half of Anna and Elizabeth, appeared earlier accompanying several of the acts (including John Harrod and Little Nora Brown), and was totally well-behaved. But her own set on Sunday night was the most avant-garde folk performance I’ve ever seen. One song was accompanied by the amplified sound of her washing her hands in a basin. In duet with Robbie Lee, she played the viola and he the alto sax, and they walked towards each other from corners of the church. It was dramatic, to say the least.

Anna Roberts-Gevalt

Anna Roberts-Gevalt reinvents folk music. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Other songs had her wailing like Yoko Ono, deconstructing the standard “Careless Love,” and radically re-interpreting the purpose of the banjo. Bravo for taking chances. The same should be said of the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Long may it wave.

The 11th Brooklyn Folk Festival is Here!

BROOKLYN, NY—This year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, the 11th, offers one of its best lineups ever, strong this year on Southern folk and country or, if you prefer, Americana. The musical trees and their offshoots, presented by Red Hook’s famed Jalopy Theatre, grow in Brooklyn April 5-7 at St. Ann’s Church, 157 Montague Street.

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Jackson Lynch, an MVP at the Brooklyn show, playing old-time country and New Orleans R&B.

Eli Smith, both the curator and the main announcer, said that string bands from Georgia and Kentucky will be featured this year. There will be three bands, a pair of films, a workshop and square dance presented by Appalshop, the nonprofit folk arts aggregation based in Whitesburg, Kentucky. And, as always, they’ll be plenty of blues and gospel. As well as a slightly smaller dose of music from New York’s immigrant diaspora, though there’s Tenores de Aterúe (a Sardinian vocal quartet), La Cumbiamba NY (playing music from Colombia) and Ukrainian Village Voices.

One of the Appalshop films is Catfish Man of the Woods, about a fifth-generation herb doctor living near Glenwood, West Virginia. Speaking of films, I’m looking forward to seeing the documentary about British folk singer Shirley Collins’ Southern adventures with folklorist Alan Lomax in the late 1950s.

jerron paxton

Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton dazzles on just about any instrument. (Jim Motavalli photo)

As usual, a lot of the music is new to me, but it all looks intriguing. The Ozark Highballers and the Dixie Swingers? I’m there. “A good part of my job is knowing what’s happening and bringing it either to the Jalopy or to the festival,” Smith said. “I hear music on the road with my band [The Downhill Strugglers] and via word of mouth,” he said.

The Brooklyn event seemed packed to me last year, and the fact that it’s a younger crowd is encouraging. Is it growing? “It can only grow so much if we’re going to stay at the 800-seat St. Ann’s which we definitely want to do,” Smith said. That said, the audience turns over quite a bit during the weekend, and there’s lots of room (f instance) Sunday afternoon and evening. I’ve done the whole thing several times in the last few years, and there’s never a flat spot—or sets you’ll be glad you missed.

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Little Nora Brown will be back, 365 days older. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Groups I do know about and am looking forward to seeing include: Jake Xerxes Fussell (Friday evening), Jackson and the Janks (Friday evening, featuring the versatile Jackson Lynch), The Mammals (Saturday afternoon; their Summer Hoot is also strongly recommended), Little Nora Brown (Saturday afternoon), the workshop on the early African-American history of the banjo (Saturday afternoon), a panel on the impact of the late folk impresario Izzy Young (Saturday afternoon), Frank Fairfield and Meredith Axelrod (Saturday night), The Brain Cloud with Tamar Korn (Saturday night), Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton (Saturday night), Jim Kweskin (Sunday afternoon), the Downhill Strugglers (Sunday afternoon), the trio of Bruce Molsky, Tony Trischka and Michael Daves (Sunday night) and Anna rg of Anna and Elizabeth (Sunday night).

brooklyn 2019

A great festival find: Meredith Axelrod, appearing with Frank Fairfield. Don’t think the 40s, think the 20s and 10s. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The church pews are kind of hard, but you’ll get wrapped up in the music and won’t notice it. There’s good food on the premises, restaurants a-plenty just outside the door, and the opportunity to buy records from Jalopy’s own label. I recommend the albums by Jerron Paxton, Tamar Korn and Mamie Minch, the Downhill Strugglers, Jackson Lynch, and the Whiskey Spitters.

The Downhill Strugglers

The Downhill Strugglers take old-time into the city–as the New Lost City Ramblers did. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I asked Smith why he’s so successful at attracting young audiences. A graying crowd is a big issue at other events. “We have young bands, and they have young followers,” he said. Makes sense. Smith said the event is holding its own, but “on a shoestring every year. It would be nice if we didn’t have financial problems.” All the more reason for you to get your can down to Brooklyn.

Smith is working on an oral history of folk music in New York, 1935 to 1975. That covers a lot of territory, and I’m looking forward to it. Researching that will make him a better curator. He’s already revived The Fugs and the Holy Modal Rounders (or at least a piece of them).

I’m telling you, this is a good event. Don’t miss it. The Brooklyn Folk Festival kicks off the summer season in fine fashion. For details, visit the website or email lynette@JalopyTheatre.org.

This video captures the spirit of the event, though it was recorded in Texas. The duo will be in Brooklyn Saturday evening:

A Cold Night in New Haven

NEW HAVEN—For a city its size, New Haven, Connecticut has a pretty darned impressive music scene. There’s the annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas, which sometimes goes all avant-garde on you, a passel of clubs (Café 9 is a favorite—it really punches above its 30-seat weight) and now the State House.

proud flesh

The Proud Flesh in action. Sorry to blur you, Alexander. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This new space has a warehouse-type entrance off a parking lot, but once you’re inside it’s a compact layout with an open floor for standees, a few tables around the periphery, and a big bar. Don’t ask for food—they’ve got bags of chips, and that’s about it.

But there’s plenty of food for thought—the bills are really adventurous. I don’t know a lot of the acts, but almost all of them sound worth coming out for—even on a snowy night in February.

state house morgan eve

Multi-instrumentalist Morgan Eve Swain played bass with Ian Fitzgerald. (Mary Ann Masarech photo)

What drew me on one such evening was a triple bill of Proud Flesh, Ian Fitzgerald and the Brother Brothers. I didn’t know Fitzgerald, but it turned out he had my old friend Morgan Eve Swain (late of the Liz McNicholl Band and Brown Bird and currently of The Huntress and Holder of Hands), on standup bass. It’s an instrument in which she excels. (Liz herself was there to show support.)

The Flesh are local to New Haven, and they’ve been on my WPKN radio show. They have really good singers and songwriters in Pat Dalton and Alexander Burnet, and for this show had two guitars, bass and drums. Dalton left his trumpet in its case.

Ian Fitzgerald

Ian Fitzgerald was a presence. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Dalton took most of the lead vocals on music that was a nice blend of punchy folk rock. He’s a good lyricist, but the band was loud and it wasn’t a poetry reading. This was also a problem with Fitzgerald’s set—on the basis of snippets I heard, he’s a wordsmith, too, but the message is a lot clearer on his records. The quieter songs were more effective. “Lillian,” written when he was a teenager, apparently, was a standout.

brother brothers

The Brother Brothers make magic together. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Brother Brothers don’t carry a band around on the road, and don’t need one. These identical twins (hey, I’m one too!) are exceptional on fiddle, cello and guitar, and they switch off at will. Both are full-bodied, expressive singers, and excel at harmonies—drawing inevitable Everly Brothers comparisons.

But the Everlys, good as they were, didn’t write songs as good as “Cairo, Illinois,” “Bird in a Tree,” “Tugboats” and “The Banjo Song.” I’m telling you, this is the Americana band to see in 2019. It’s a quiet storm of folk genius. Even if they did forget the words. Here’s the video:


I’m going to keep an eye on the State House. I’m sure I’ll be back soon.

Westport and Brooklyn: On the Road in Search of Music

You can be twins and have diametrically opposed views on things, contrary to the impression created by Three Identical Strangers, the fascinating documentary about triplets separated at birth. For instance, my identical twin just told me he doesn’t care for live music, and I can’t live without it. To that end, I recently took in a pair of performances, one in Brooklyn and one in Westport, Connecticut.

The fourth annual Brooklyn Americana Music Festival was a delightful free event at multiple venues September 20 to 23. I saw music in two vastly different spaces—inside the Dumbo Archway, with trains rumbling past every 10 minutes, and on Pier 3 of the newly built—and bustling on a Saturday afternoon—Brooklyn Bridge Park. The latter was more intimate, with tables set up to create a kind of club, and the former offered spectacular views of Manhattan and a chance to watch the passing parade.

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Little Nora Brown (right) and Stephanie Coleman: peers, rather than student and teacher. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I think I’ve seen 13-year-old banjo player Little Nora Brown three times in the last month—lucky me—and in Brooklyn she was paired with fiddle player Stephanie Coleman. It’s a tribute to Brown’s burgeoning talent that they seemed more like peers than teacher and student. Her singing is maturing, too. Here she is on video with Stephanie Coleman:

What little I saw of Nashville-based Indian-American sibling duo Giri and Uma Peters was impressive, in a Nora Brown kind of way. He plays fiddle and sings, she plays clawhammer banjo. On their website, it says, “They have attracted the attention of MacArthur Genius Grant awardee Rhiannon Giddens, dobro master Jerry Douglas, guitar virtuoso Molly Tuttle, and blues harmonica great Phil Wiggins.” Add me to that list.

The M. Shanghai String Band was missing some key players, and one regular singer had lost his voice, so it didn’t add up to a stellar performance. Also, songs from John Prine’s first album should be retired due to over-exposure.

minch and korn

Mamie Minch (left) and Tamar Korn: the odd couple, but two big talents. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I loved the combination of Mamie Minch and Tamar Korn, first encountered at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Korn was also fine up at Oldtone this year. As a duo they’re a bit like the Odd Couple; Minch is quite tall and relatively still when she plays, and Korn is short and extremely animated—really “putting over” a song, as they used to say. She plays an array of fake instruments, too. Their harmonies sounded a little under-rehearsed, but I love their choice of material—old gems, for the most part. Minch has an absolutely lovely, deep alto, and is a fine songwriter and guitarist, too. They’ve made one somewhat lo-fi EP; I hope they do more soon.

Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton, whose work I loved in The Be Good Tanyas, were curiously slack in Brooklyn. The songs (including a cover of Dylan’s “Minstrel Boy”), and the harmonies, just weren’t cohering.

Karen Dahlstrom is from Idaho, but has been resident in New York many years. She’s been on my radio show, and I’ve caught her in the band Bobtown. She was fine solo, with the wide open spaces of Idaho a frequent theme. Check out her album Gem State.

Cricket Tell the Weather, which relocated from Connecticut to Brooklyn, is one of my favorite bands, but fiddle player and leader Andrea Asprelli recently started graduate school at NYU so the version of the band we got was a duo with guitarist Jason Borisoff, her former partner in Atlantic Crossing. They were just fine in a set that showcased her singing and songwriting and his hot picking.

queen esther

Queen Esther under the arch. (blurrily photographed by Jim Motavalli)

And I love Queen Esther, who always reminds me of Valerie June, but is a bit more urban in her approach. Although fine with just a second guitarist, she’s working in a staggering number of genres and formats, including theater.  Listen to this:

Her work as a vocalist, lyricist, songwriter, actor/solo performer and playwright/librettist led to creative collaborations in neo-vaudeville, alt-theater, various alt-rock configurations, (neo) swing bands, trip hop DJs, spoken word performances, jazz combos, jam bands, various blues configurations, original Off-Broadway plays and musicals, experimental music/art noise and performance art.” She played with Elliot Sharp, and was in the original touring company of Rent.

Queen Esther is working on a song cycle about Cathay Williams, probably the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Army—albeit, disguised as a man. Despite many possibilities of exposure, she served for two years after the Civil War. She’s in an upcoming book of mine; stay tuned for that.

**

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The grand finale at the Connecticut Ukulele Festival. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And last night in Westport I went to the first annual Connecticut Ukulele Festival, produced by Peter Propp and held at the Westport Suzuki School. I missed all the workshop stuff—I’ll never be a musician, and I know it—but the point is that this is an instrument you can pick up and be playing straight away.

Steve Forlano is an amiable uke player who embraces that philosophy wholeheartedly, and began holding sessions for would-be strummers at the Westport YMCA. These days they get 20 to 30 beginners at the weekly events. Forlano brought Propp and three or four other uke players (collectively known as the Cukes) up to my WPKN radio show. They performed the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon.” Very nice. That’s the video above.

fleas

The Edukated Fleas play the hits–from 1930. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I made it down for the concert, which was very well attended for a first event. The Edukated Fleas have a laid-back approach to standards like “Me and Jane in a Plane,” “Deed I Do” and “No Moon at All.”

uncle zach

Uncle Zach revives the Allen Sherman songbook. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Uncle Zak was amusing, playing song parodies and oddball tunes. He grew up in a family where all his uncles played music—especially ukes—and a lot of the songs were from that repertoire. There was “Blue Moon” and something called “She Ain’t Rose but Rose Ain’t Here.”

abe deshotel

Abe Deshotel’s quirky songs were modernized with effects pedals. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Abe Deshotel was the evening’s moody singer-songwriter. He played his uke through pedals and played both some striking originals and covers by Leon Bridges and Hozier. Could work on his stage presence, though.

The headliners were worth waiting for. I’ve followed uke pioneer Victoria Vox through 10 albums and maybe a dozen live performances, and even when she’s down the evening is up. These days she’s decidedly upbeat and playing with her husband, the talented guitarist Jack Maher.

vox

Victoria Vox is upbeat these days, and has a lot of new songs flopping around on the deck. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Vox is a one-woman band with her uke and mouth trumpet, but Maher (who records with Feed the Kitty) adds a lot, both in terms of fills and the occasional solo, plus vocal harmonies. I was thrilled to see Vox has written a whole crop of new songs, all of them strong, and some of which appear on her latest album Colorful Heart. “Out on the Rails” is a tuneful number about hobos, and “I Remember the Music” about the stuff that stays with you.

“Leaving Without Goodbye” is from her new project with Maher, Jack and the Vox. It’s about a fight Jack and Victoria had, but as Maher pointed out, “We got a song out of it.”

I’m sure there will be a second Connecticut Ukulele Festival.