Thursday, October 4, 2012

Birthstones: Topaz Moon

Becky Buller : Topaz Moon


Within bluegrass circles, Becky Buller is known as a young woman with impressive talent, musicianship and dedication. Buller fiddles with a buoyant, silky touch of the bow. She also sings with an unmistakable sweetness of tone and wholesome sound. As a songwriter, Buller has been prolific with an enchanting repertoire of engaging compositions. In 2001, she took first place in the bluegrass category of the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in Wilksboro, N.C. Her material has been recorded by many “big” names (if there are such things) in the bluegrass community.

At age 13, Buller took up fiddle and joined her parents' band (Prairie Grass) in southern Minnesota. In 1996, she became Minnesota's Junior Fiddling Champ. Classical violin lessons and music studies at East Tennessee State University helped her become even more well-rounded. After graduating in 2001 with a degree in public relations, she began performing, touring and recording with Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike. Buller's first solo album, Rest My Weary Feet, in 2003 set the stage for many great things to come.

On her eclectic Little Bird album in 2005, Buller showed that she can write new material with traditional leanings in the style of a 1930s brother duet ("The Master's Garden") or contemporary songs with interpretive twists like "Topaz Moon" and "Save Your Goodbye." Her music delivers plenty to thrill acoustic music fans. I see that she and Valerie Smith also collaborated on a 2011 release entitled Here’s a Little Song, and I need to hear that album one of these days.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Birthstones: Pearl

Cedar Hill : Pearl

Cedar Hill : Pearl


From the Midwest, Cedar Hill is an award-winning bluegrass band known for its strong songwriting, vocal and instrumental skills. The group originally was formed in 1967 by mandolinist Frank Ray. They perform Darren Haverstick’s song called “Pearl” on their 2007 album entitled Portrait of a Song: The Drasco Sessions. Cedar Hill features Frank Ray (mandolin, vocals), Mel Besher (guitar, vocals), Lisa Ray (fiddle, vocals), Kenny Cantrell (banjo), Irl Hees (bass, vocals), and Kevin Strain (guitar, banjo). Guests include Ferrell ‘Stobro’ Stowe (resonator guitar, Oahu guitar) and Robert Bowlin (guitar). Following the band’s stellar Stories album, this was their second release on the reputable Hay Holler label that is known for its stalwart advocacy of traditionally-based bluegrass.

Recorded over a three-day period in December, 2005 at Raney Studio in Drasco, Arkansas, the album is also subtitled as The Drasco Sessions. Engineer Jon Raney did a fine job capturing the Cedar Hill sound, charm and mystique. While they have a distinctively traditional stamp, their music’s demeanor emphasizes originality. On the album, 13 of the 15 songs are new originals like “Pearl.”

Cedar Hill has a knack for knowing what it takes to be a great bluegrass song. Their originals have clear messages, smoothly flowing melodies, uncomplicated chord progressions, and lyrics that grab your attention. A few weeks ago, we posted songs on Star Maker Machine that covered storytelling. Ballads with evocative, loving or uplifting statements are some of my favorites. Haverstick’s “Pearl” is a tale of time passing and affection of a man for his hunting dog. In fact, you can see that some folks on You Tube have even uploaded videos with photos of their old family hunting dog to the music of the song.

I see a comment from the band’s mandolin-player Frank Ray in response to one of the touching videos. “It blesses my heart. That is a beautiful, true song written by a wonderful friend about his dad. They were from my part of the Ozarks.” The songwriter’s brother (Dale Haverstick) also posted a comment: “My brother Darren Haverstick wrote this song that Cedar Hill did an awesome job with. I showed him your video and he thought it was AWESOME! If you look at the CD cover for ‘Portrait of a Song’ … there is a picture of a man and a Walker hound. That is our dad and the real Pearl. Thanks so much for your great video!”

In keeping with their personalized signature sound, Cedar Hill’s Portrait of a Song album emphasizes story songs typically presented with slower to moderate tempos that allow the group to accentuate the messages of their compelling narratives. Their songs paint pictures that dramatically describe life’s ups and downs without dwelling on them. I’ve always appreciated Cedar Hill’s music because their messages resonate with consolation, inspiration, and resolve.

Birthstones: Ruby Tuesday

The Rolling Stones: Ruby Tuesday (via YouTube)

Now … I was ‘round and actively listening to this stuff called rock (not too far – relatively - from St Petersburg) when this song came out, and my exposure to it was when I picked up a copy of Between the Buttons in about ’67. Although many of the songs on the album (is it only me?) call up a (bland) taste of Herman’s Hermits (cf: Something Happened to Me Yesterday), Ruby Tuesday has survived the intervening 45 years fairly well.

One source credits Brian Jones as author – reporting that he (fact) played the tune on a recorder. Other sources tell the story of Keith Richards’ input. My guess is that Jones conceived the music and Richards took the next steps. Jagger has clearly said that it isn’t his work, but that he always loves singing it. It is, like most Stones songs, credited to Jagger and Richards.

Like the diamond, the red ruby is the subject of this week’s theme of Birthstones. It is (currently) the birthstone for July, but it hasn’t always been so: Wikipedia tells us that before the 19th century, it was the birthstone for December, not July. And in Hindu lore, it equates with the month of August. I guess the good news is that it has always been special: ruby lips … What else comes to your mind (aside from the restaurant chain)?
My favorite lines?
"Dying all the time" 
"Cash your dreams before they slip away"

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Birthstones: Diamond Head

Phil Manzanera: Diamond Head

When you think of Roxy Music (if you think of Roxy Music), you probably think about Bryan Ferry’s suave, sultry vocals. Or you may think about the pioneering “treatments” that Brian Eno provided in the band’s early years. The contributions of guitarist Phil Manzanera to Roxy’s sound and success are often overlooked. Manzanera is, however, a brilliant guitarist who was capable of terse, tasteful solos but preferred to use his guitar in layers, processed to create sonic effects and textures.

Manzanera was born in England, of an English father and Colombian mother, and grew up around the world, including Hawaii, Cuba, Columbia and Venezuela, before returning to England for public school. His music incorporates influences from his Latin American experiences, as well as his involvement in the English prog rock world of the 1970’s. His schoolmates and friends included members of Soft Machine, Matching Mole and Pink Floyd.

His first solo album, Diamond Head, was recorded while he was between Roxy Music albums, and includes contributions from Eno, Eddie Jobson, Paul Thompson and Andy Mackay (of Roxy Music, among other bands), Robert Wyatt, John Wetton and members of Quiet Sun, his band while still in school. In fact, while recording Diamond Head, Quiet Sun reunited and released their only album, the quite interesting, jazzy, Mainstream, (which features a song with one of the best titles ever—“Mummy Was an Asteroid, Daddy Was a Small Non-Stick Kitchen Utensil”).

Most reviews of the Diamond Head album take pains to note the lack of ego displayed by Manzanera, who lets his collaborators shine. Manzanera’s live album, 801 Live, released the next year, and featuring some of the Diamond Head players, has gotten more adulation, but Diamond Head is one of the lesser known gems of its era.

The song starts simply, and Manzanera begins to layer on guitar effects, strings, keyboards and drums, all expertly played. As much as I enjoy electric guitar, I am ignorant of what effects he uses, but Manzanera coaxes a number of interesting sounds from his guitar. The solos are fluid and extraordinary, but without being showy. And the song is simply beautiful.

Diamond Head, the volcano, is, of course, the signature sight of Honolulu, a place that I have been once, but quite memorably. The song “Diamond Head,” doesn’t scream “Hawaii” but there is something about it—maybe its calmness and beauty, but also its complexity, that makes the title fitting.