Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Change for the Better

What is it that you really want to do? Where does your mind wander? What are you driven to do? Why isn’t that your vocation and why aren’t you doing it? I faced that very thing for most of my working life. I knew early on what I wanted, but I also knew that what I wanted wasn’t particularly lucrative. So, I compromised - or I thought. I found jobs that I could do that would allow me some freedom to do the things I wanted - even if it only meant being able to do those things on the weekend. All the while I longed to do something else. It was ever present in my mind. Yet, I felt trapped in job that allowed me to live somewhat comfortably. The stress of the last job took it’s toll, and even though I still had some freedom to pursue my interests, the misery of feeling obligated to hold on to a job with an employer I despised had begun to suck the joy from the very thing I wanted most. I Was In Trouble I was fighting the worst depression I can ever recall. I was on the verge of a complete physical and mental breakdown. My life was a complete mess, and my family was under enormous strain. Something had to change. I knew it couldn’t be some little change. Something big had to happen. In May of 2012, in an attempt to affect the needed change I walked away from my job. It wasn’t an easy thing to do; like many of you I needed the income, and I needed the benefits. I needed the stability. At least that’s what I thought. At first, like with many things, the job was great. I was given a responsibility and it was up to me to manage it my way. And, as the saying goes, “I had it made.” Let’s face it; I had good benefits, and the most money I’ve made in my life. Little did I realize that I was trading away my life and happiness for a lousy paycheck. At this point I could make a lot of excuses to justify walking away from a good job during a tough economy in an area where jobs are scarce. There’s no reason I could offer that couldn’t be shot down with simple common sense. How will I buy groceries? How will I pay the mortgage? Can I afford the car payment? Can I pay our utility bills? What if we get sick? The list goes on and on. Like I said... common sense. Yet, with all of those really good reasons to keep the job, I knew my family would be happier if I was happier. If that meant giving up the money and the benefits then that’s what had to happen. Truth is, living in a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere would be better than the grief that I was bringing home every day to the people I loved. I did have a plan of some sort. I love the banjo. I love playing it and I love teaching it. I’m neither a world class musician nor teacher, but it’s something I genuinely love. Just how many times have we heard, “Do something you love”? With that in my mind the plan was to book as many playing jobs as I could and to schedule as many students as I could. A short, but meaningful, conversation with my Dad proved to be quite helpful. He understood my situation, and knew I really wanted to be free of a job that was poisoning my life. He offered four words of encouragement. Four little words I’ve heard him say when it was time to get things done. “Do it to it.” I turned in my notice that afternoon. I’m Not Dead Yet Since leaving the job I’ve noticed three things. First, my relationship with my wife has improved. My relationship with my son is better. And finally, for the first time in over a decade, my outlook on life is positive. Yes, I struggle. I even worry. However, the things I struggle and worry about are outweighed by the short list of things I mentioned above. No, I don’t make much money, and I don’t have benefits, but I do have my family. I have peace of mind. I feel happy for the first time in many years. The Holidays Oh, this year Christmas morning will happen with very few presents under the tree. That’s okay. It’s so easy to say (and I’ve been guilty of saying it in the past), “Oh, it’s not about the gifts.” No, it’s not about the gifts -- until there’s not many gifts under the tree. I sure wish I could have bought more gifts for my friends. I certainly wish I could have bought more for my family. But really, it’s okay. Here’s why it’s okay. I’m convinced that my little family wouldn’t have lasted much longer had I held onto that job that was making me miserable -- despite the money it provided. Because I was miserable, I was unwittingly destroying the thing we’re all supposed to hold dear -- family. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I wasn’t. As difficult as it is to admit, I was tearing my family apart. What’s under the tree this year is probably the best gift I could have imagined. This year the gift is having a family. Some Words of Encouragement I’d like to encourage you to change your life, but I want you to answer these questions. What would you trade for a better relationship with your family? What would you give for a good night’s sleep? What would you sacrifice for peace of mind? What would you forfeit to just be happy? Those are the questions I asked myself. I also asked my family the same questions. I thought it was important that if I was going to make huge life altering changes they had best be in on it. I didn’t think that either my wife or son needed to make big changes. We all knew I was the problem, but whatever changes were made would effect them. We thought it over. I think we all knew something had to change. We all understood the risks. What if we make this big change and things don’t get better? That seemed like a fair question, but then we asked, “How could it get any worse?” No, it won’t be easy. But I have to ask, “Is your life easy now?” No, your change might not make things better. If you’re like I was, it probably can’t get much worse. During all of the pondering of my situation a New Grass Revival song kept coming to mind -- Sail to Australia. Here’s the verse that I couldn’t get off my mind.

Sometimes I wish things were better But most times I'd settle for different Just to know that the day that's waiting for me Ain't the same one that I just spent

That really summed it up for me at the time too. I knew, though, that finally casting off that horrible job and pursuing my dream would only be better for everyone that had to be around me. Better times are coming. My mind is finally starting to heal. I love my family. I know they love me. Are you happy? If not, let me encourage you to make a change. You can do it. Do you have peace of mind? No? Make a change. You can do it. Is your family close? No? Make a change now. Yes, you can. One more thing...
It’s better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing, than a long life spent in a miserable way. - Alan Watts


Wednesday, August 08, 2012

What does it take?

"What do I need to learn to be able to play banjo like...?"

"I want to be as good as... What should I be practicing?"

The questions go on and on.  They're all about the same too.  I see them posted online.  I hear them from students.  Truthfully, they're fair questions.  I mean really, just how does one get to a level where others hear you play and stand in amazement?  What is it that sets apart our heroes?

I was talking to a young banjo player this past weekend and it came to me in a way that I could explain it - I think.

I just don't think it's a matter of acquiring knowledge.  Just simply knowing things isn't going to turn you into an artist.  I'd even go as far as saying that even being able to play scales, understanding modes, learning tons of tunes, getting the fingerboard under control, and more won't get you very far toward becoming a musician/artist of the caliber you're looking for.

I'm not saying that it'll hurt to know all of those things, but I've come to realize that those are not the main things that you'll need to know.

I also don't think it's just a matter of practicing the fundamentals, or even having a good understanding of even what those might be.

What is it then?  Good question.  While enough practice to get a solid grasp of how to actually "work" the instrument is incredibly important, there's still something else you'll need to get to the next level.

For me it's been the pursuit of creating things, and honing the craft of creativity.

I'm convinced that even moderate technical ability such as I have combined with the craft of creativity is key to attaining some high level of artistry.

Think of it like this.  Let's say I learn how to make a step stool in wood shop.  I could take those plans and build more, and each one would progressively get better.  I'd get quicker, and the step stools would look nicer.  Yet, they'd still just be normal step stools.  Getting beyond the norm would require a bit of creativity.  I'm sure those first "creative step stools" might not be so great, but the more I create the better I'll get.

Hmmm..

TL;dr -- Practice creativity.  :)

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Did I Tell You About Ireland?

Back in February I got a phone call from an old friend that had a simple question.  "Can you go to Ireland in June?"  Well, I figured sure, why not?  Okay, so I can go.  Why am I going?  Chuck explained that the band he was playing with had a tour booked in Ireland, but their regular banjo player couldn't make it.

I was suitably impressed that I was asked to go.  I wasn't even sure I would be able to learn the material or get a feel for the band, but why not?

It was also a great opportunity to play with a bona fide the bluegrass legend: Curtis Blackwell.  I learned a lot.  It was also a great opportunity to re-explore the music I was listening to when I first began learning to play the banjo.  It was an experience I won't soon forget.  Curtis knows hundreds of songs that he can call at a moment's notice.  I was also blown away by the power of his rhythm playing.  It should go without saying that his vocals were no less than astonishing.

So, how about the trip?  Okay, I'll get on with it.

We arrived in Ireland on June 12th.  It was chilly, and nothing at all like late Spring in Georgia.  We landed in Dublin and then made our way, via bus, to Belfast where we would play the first of twelve jobs.  We were greeted in Belfast by my friend Mark McCluney and then later by our agent Nigel Martyn.  Mark took us to supper then we went back to the hotel and rested up.

Our show in Belfast was exciting.  The crowd loved the music maybe as much as I loved playing it.  It was, of course, my first time to play in another country.

We did get to do a bit of sight seeing.  Since all of our shows were in the evening we usually had a bit of daytime that we could use to get out and see Ireland.  I tried to take a bunch of photos.


I hope to go back to Ireland again.

We saw Blackwater Castle, Inis Oirr, Mullaghmore, a lot of narrow roads, sheep, cattle, and more things that I could list without being a complete bore.  

I learned about Gaelic Football and Hurling.  I even purchased a Hurley & Sliotar and Gaelic Football for Samuel.  I couldn't think of anything more Irish that he would enjoy.  He looks so excited, no?  If you've not been exposed to Hurling or Gaelic Football you should look them up -- very exciting!

I enjoyed the sports, the scenery and the buildings.  Yet, with all of the beautiful country the most beautiful part of Ireland is the people.  I found everyone to be absolutely wonderful!  I made new friends, and that's why I want to go back.  There are people there I need to see again.  

-=Jim

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Homer and the Barnstormers - Banjoist Unmasked!

Over and over the topic about Homer and the Barnstormers "Bluegrass Banjos on Fire" comes up. For those of you out there that aren't familiar with this topic it's a reference to a bluegrass instrumental recording from 1963. The reason the topic comes up often has to do with the anonymity of the session musicians.

There's not much information available as to who was on the recording.


As a banjo player I had a curiosity about who the banjo player was. And oh boy, there's been tons of speculation by a lot of people about who it might have been.

I spent a lot of time as a kid learning the tunes off that record, and I heard my dad suggest repeatedly that it sounded a lot like Buck Trent to him. I had no idea at the t
ime, but figured his guess was as good as any. It did, however, sound a good bit like Buck to me on a bunch of the cuts, but my experience at the time was very limited. It's a recording that I'm very familiar with. I'm not sure how much time I put into that album learning the songs, but there are portions of it that are still embedded in my brain.

Years passed, as they tend to do, and my record collection grew. I ran across a couple of really great records of Charles Trent (aka Buck Trent). One was The Sound of a Bluegrass Banjo. That particular title was dang confounding because it's all electric banjo. The other record was The Sound of a 5-String Banjo - that one really rang a bell as I listened to it. The tunes, the licks, the tones, the other musicians, everything sounded really familiar.

It sent me searching through my record collection where I came across my copy of the Homer and the Barnstormers record. I put it on the turntable and decided that I was holding sister recordings. Those Charles Trent recordings were done in 1962. I began to speculate that perhaps the "Homer" record was just more takes that weren't used back in 62. Feel free to speculate as to why.

Homer and the Barnstormers came out on the Somerset label (SF-195) in 1963.

Charles Trent's The Sound of a 5-String Banjo was recorded in 1962. It was released under the Smash label that was distributed by Mercury - the jacket says Smash but the label on the record says Mercury.

After listening to these recordings again today it makes me wonder if the Homer recordin
gs were not alternate takes that Buck or someone wanted released but maybe couldn't due to label contract restrictions... there I go speculating - enough of that!

So instead of speculating further take a few moments and listen to these examples.

Open this one from the "Homer" album: Camptown Races

Scroll to about 1:45 and listen to the banjo break...

Now open this one from a Charles Trent's Sound of a 5-String
Banjo recording: Cindy

Go back and listen to both, back to back. Listen closely to the backup too.

While you're at it give this audio experiment a listen too: Homer & Buck Together

It's got the Homer session on the left and the Buck session on the right. Now, the tempos are not the same, but they're close enough to allow you to pan between them and really get them back to back.

Oh, I'm aware that Sonny and Bobby Osborne said that they had participated in the recording, and if you listen to a few of the cuts the banjo player sounds like it could have been Sonny (I won't try to deny that).

What's it all mean?

I think it proves that Buck Trent was the banjo player on the Homer and the Barnstormers recording - at the very least on several of the cuts. Will this proof end the de
bate? I doubt it; there are always those that won't accept the audio proof. There are those that just won't believe it unless Buck Trent says he did it. Then again, why would he? Why spoil the fun?

Oh, if you don't have a copy of the Homer and the Barnstormers recording you can download it from a variety of websites. I really recommend it!