The Orange Blossom Special Comes to Texas

So many Houston-area music festivals have  been rained out in the last couple of years that the great weather for the Tomball Bluegrass Festival yesterday was almost a shock to the system.  With temperatures in the high fifties at the beginning of the day that topped out around eighty degrees in the afternoon, the weather couldn’t have been more perfect – and the three thousand or so people who came by to hear the great bluegrass, sample the food, and enjoy the shopping couldn’t have enjoyed it more.

We just don’t get enough bluegrass around Houston (although that is improving some in the last year or two), so I try not to miss anything this close to home.  The city of Tomball is located about eight miles northwest of me, so this is as good as it gets for me as far as driving distance goes.  The city brought in two really good bands from out of state (David Davis & The Warrior River Boys and Chris Henry & Hardcore Grass) in addition to the two very good local bluegrass bands (Kenny Snow & The Bordertown Ramblers and Chris Hirsch & The Lonestar Bluegrass Band) that opened the festival.

Here’s a taste of the great musicianship and sound coming from Tomball yesterday.  I shot this video at the end of the day when the bands combined for one final jam session at the end.  Most of you will recognize the song whether or not you are a fan of country music because this one has been hard to miss for the last few decades and has become a genuine American music standard: “The Orange Blossom Special.”

The end of show jams are always fun because of the improvisation required to take advantage of multiple fiddles, guitars, and mandolins in the same song. These guys did a great job making the most of the talent on stage without stepping all over each other.

The Earls of Leicester & Sister Sadie

I just got home from the Bloomin’ Bluegrass festival in Farmers Branch where I was treated to some really great bluegrass/country music on Friday and Saturday.  I did manage to get in a little reading and even finished the audiobook version of A Man Called Ove while driving the 230 miles each way to the festival.  I also managed to read the last chapter of The Maximum Security Book Club and about 100 pages of the new Carol Burnett memoir In Such Good Company, so despite not reading a lot of pages, I feel like I didn’t neglect my reading all that much.  I’m delusional that way, sometimes.

I want to share two bands that particularly impressed me this weekend.  They are very different from each other, and it’s the first time I’ve seen both of them live.  The first is a group called The Earls of Leicester and it’s the creation of the amazing dobro player Jerry Douglas (the guy has won 14 Grammys).  Jerry created the band to keep the song catalog of the late Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs alive and they really get into their performance – as you can see from the authentic period clothing and hats they all wear.  The band does nothing but Flatt & Scruggs music and they do it completely in character.  Shawn Camp, guitar player and lead vocalist, sounds so much like Lester Flatt that it’s downright spooky sometimes to hear him introduce a song.

The second band is an all female group called Sister Sadie.  These five superb musicians and vocalists (Dale Ann Bradley, Tina Adair, Gena Britt, Deanie Richardson, and Beth Lawrence) originally got together intending to do only one show in Nashville, but it’s turned into something much bigger than any of them ever dreamed it would.  They were nominated this year by the IBMA, in fact, for the award given to Emerging Artist of the year (but did not win).

I hope you enjoy both groups.

Bluegrass Weekend in North Texas (with video)

I’m spending the weekend up in Farmers Branch, a little city of 30,000 residents that sits between Dallas and Fort Worth.  This is the weekend of the community’s seventh annual Bloomin’ Bluegrass festival, a festival that I try really hard not to miss.

Bluegrass fans who haven’t come to Texas for this festival really should fix that because the best part about Bloomin’ Bluegrass is that it is free, and the food at this thing puts to shame most of the larger, better known bluegrass festivals I’ve attended.  But best of all, every year the festival bands include some of the biggest names in bluegrass music.  This year’s performers include: The Gibson Brothers, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Tim O’Brien, Band of Ruhks, Jerry Douglas & Earls of Leicester, and the Del McCoury Band with David Grisman as special guest – and it’s like this every year.

So unless you can get out here tomorrow, mark your calendars for October 20-21, 2017 because that will be your next chance at Bloomin’ Bluegrass.

Here’s a taste of Friday night’s show: The Gibson Brothers singing “Walking West to Memphis”

He Died a Rounder at Twenty-One

While searching for things I could delete from my iPhone’s internal storage tonight, I found this video of Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice that I shot up in Columbus, Ohio, on July 21 at the Musicians Against Childhood Cancer festival there.  It’s one of the few videos I’ve ever recorded on an iPhone and I think it came out OK…not quite video camera quality, but not all that far off it.

I love Junior’s voice and have long thought that this song that he first recorded in 2010 is one of the best things he’s ever done.

…memories, great memories.

The Day I Met Ray Benson, Dwight Yoakam, and Lyle Lovett in a Houston Record Store

One of the events I’m most looking forward to at this weekend’s Texas Book Festival is the presentation by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson (with co-author David Menconi) on his brand new bio called Comin’ Right at You.  Ray Benson is probably the premier Western Swing musician of his day, a man who has flown that torch for a career long after the genre’s heyday.  And he’s made it work for decades.  

Many, if not most, people just assume that Ray is a born Texan because he has become an Austin icon.  But Ray’s roots are far, far from Texas.  As the blurb for his book puts it:

A six-foot-seven-inch Jewish hippie from Philadelphia starts a Western swing band in 1970, when country fans hate hippies and Western swing. It sounds like a joke but—more than forty years, twenty-five albums, and nine Grammy Awards later—Asleep at the Wheel is still drawing crowds around the world. The roster of musicians who’ve shared a stage with the Wheel is a who’s who of American popular music—Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, George Strait, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, and so many more. And the bandleader who’s brought them all together is the hippie that claimed Bob Wills’s boots: Ray Benson.

I first saw Ray and the Wheel in 1986 in a Sound Warehouse record store about two miles from my then house in what is now extreme North Houston.  Those were the days.  Record shops were the only place to go to sample new music and to speak with others about what to be on the lookout for…and Sound Warehouse was a regular Saturday morning stop for me.  But that Saturday would be different from the rest.

I noticed that a bunch of sound equipment was being set up near the rear of the store and that a really, really tall guy was milling around back there with a band.  Well, enough said.  I’m always in for that kind of thing, so I decided to stick around even after I made all the purchases I could afford.  And what a decision that turned out to be, because the lineup that morning (actually around noon by then) was going to be Dwight Yoakam (a man I had never heard of), Asleep at the Wheel (a band I was only vaguely familiar with), Lyle Lovett (a singer I had never heard of), and Roy Head (somewhat of a local rock and roll legend and a great entertainer).  Needless to say, I figured that Roy Head would close the show, and I prepared myself to listen to the others first.

But, as it turned out, Dwight was considered the big star of the day and he was only there to sign album covers for fans (of which I very soon became one).  Roy was the opener and he put on a great show, even doing a forward flip of some sort at one point in his show (as I think I recall).  Then it was Lyle Lovett, who completely caught me by surprise, so much so that I had to buy his album before leaving the store.  Turns out he only lived three or four miles from the record store himself…and we browsed the shelves together after the free show was over.

And, finally, there came Asleep at the Wheel.  And wow, did I fall in love with their music and their enthusiasm for Western Swing, a sub-genre of country music I was only just beginning to appreciate at that time.   And the rest is history.  Since that day in 1986, I have been a dedicated fan of Ray’s in his roles of solo artist, producer of several wonderful Bob Wills tribute albums, and bandleader of Asleep at the Wheel.

For certain, this is one stop in Austin that I won’t be missing this weekend.


2010 Texas Book Festival vs. Bluegrass Weekend

The 2010 Texas Book Festival, as started by Laura Bush in Austin when she and George lived in the Governor’s Mansion there, is fast approaching – and I am faced with a choice I never expected to have to make.  It turns out that the Book Festival is being held two weeks earlier this year than in 2009, the weekend of October 16-17, to be exact.  Well, guess what?  That’s the exact weekend that what is probably the best bluegrass festival held in Texas every year will be happening up near Dallas.  Even though the bluegrass festival ends late Saturday night, there is no way I can get to Austin early enough on Sunday morning to catch even the second day of the book festival.

What’s a guy to do when the art gods conspire against him?  I’ve been thinking about this for a week now and – get ready for this – have decided to go to the music festival and skip Austin this year.  The way I look at it, quality bluegrass music is harder to find in this state than are quality book events.  I still can’t believe the two festivals are overlapping this way, though…never saw that one coming.

The festival organizers have posted a list of authors who will be at the festival and the first thing I notice is that the authors of my top two fiction choices of the year (as of my last update) are both on the list: Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone) and Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn).  Wouldn’t you know it?  

Now, I’m going to try to put the festival out of my mind until October 2011.  Yeah, right.