Why the resonator?

There's nothing like the tone of a resophonic guitar. I firmly believe that statement to be true. They drive the sound of delta blues, commit the twang into bluegrass, give Hawaiian music it's distinct sway and hypnotic sound, and of course, they're cool to look at.  They aren't just growling beasts of volume as many believe them to be. I find they are some of the sweetest and nuanced acoustic instruments out there. I have been lucky to own 4 resonator instruments in my short lifetime and my journey to acquiring them has brought me my current point of fascination with them.

The very first resophonic guitar I got was a $300 Craigslist purchase of a Johnson brand biscuit resonator. It came with two glass bottleneck slides and a cheap cardboard case that could barely contain the guitar's weight. I strung it up once I got it home and just never found my groove with it, I tried standard tuning, open D, open G, and other variations but just never liked it's sound. I set it aside and only pulled it out when it's tone escaped my memory and I thought that maybe I was missing something and it actually sounded good. (it didn't) I learned later what I was really looking for was a quality biscuit cone, but more on that later. All in all it seeded my disdain for cheaply made resonator guitars, no "bargain brand" resonator ever sounds good to me, they just sound like a poorly manufactured knockoff of the real thing.

Once I had moved to Chicago I started getting more into bluegrass music and thought I might like the Dobro. The Dobro is of course the common name to the spider bridged squareneck resonator. See, back in the day there were two competing companies, the National Guitar Company, and the Dobro Company. Though in the beginning they were just the National Company. National's main inventor and designer, John Dopyera left National to form his own company where he designed the spider bridge with his brother. They called the company "Dobro" after their name: Dopyera Brothers. Eventually the two feuding companies merged together to better navigate the new electric guitar industry and eventually shut down after WWII. (Gibson now owns the Dobro trademark) As for my square neck, it was a Regal, (a model up from the RD-40) and it was pretty good for what it was. I learned a lot about bluegrass music, and blues, and loved the warm tone it gave off. I even played it on a few tracks on "Songbirds and Fog". I don't use it much anymore but still love to play it when I get the chance. 

Of course this is all just fodder when it comes to my favorite instrument. There's an old adage in guitar playing: "when I die, don't let my wife sell my guitars for what I told her I paid for it". See, I had been listening to a lot of delta blues, and was realizing that the cheap Johnson guitar I was using was just poorly made. I needed a good resonator if I wanted to play one well. I searched for many months to find a guitar I wanted, I even ordered one and sent it back; I was so picky in what I wanted but I remained strong in my faith that I would find my guitar. It was on one day we were on tour in Colorado that Rocky and I stopped into a guitar shop and asked if they had any resophonics. The guy laughed a bit and said "yeah like 200 of them". I thought he was joking but it turned out he wasn't. A collector had passed away in town and his wife was left with his massive collection of Nationals. I played several of them that day and had a great time. I couldn't get over one of them though and just had to have it, it was a 1936 National Duolian and it has since become my primary instrument. I bought it for the price the collector's wife said it was worth, and learned a lesson that day: always tell your partner what you paid or they might rip themselves off. I did feel a touch bad but I felt it needed to be played not put in storage as a collector's item. I would later learn that it's the same make, model, and year as Blind Boy Fuller's guitar. (I've done a lot of research to see if it might be his but that's a conversation for another time.) It's one of the finest instruments I've ever played and I used it on both sides of our 7" lathe record released through Leesta Vall. (You can get a copy here) The biscuit cone resonator was $32.50 when they were first issued and became a favorite of blues musicians for their affordability, volume, and durability. (they said they were bullet-proof!) Famously played by Son House, Booker White, and of course Blind Boy Fuller they provide a sound that I just can't turn away from. Also the fact that this guitar was built before planned obsolescence was common place means it will last for many more decades.

My last acquisition was my National Tricone. It has 3 small resonator cones that connect to a T-shaped bridge and give off a more sweet and mellow tone. It's a really lovely guitar and was expertly made. I stopped into the National factory in San Luis Obispo and got to see the machinery and factory where it was made, These guys really make the best reproduction of the original instruments. I got the tricone mostly as a backup in case my duolian ever acts up, and I use them interchangeably depending on my mood now. I use it on a few YouTube videos on our channel.

So what's the deal? what makes them so special? I think it's their ability to respond to everything the player does. I love my flattop guitar but if I strum hard on it it gets to a peak volume that can't be surpassed. If I do the same to my duolian it gets as loud as I can hit it and can get as quiet and mellow as I want to play it too. Some folks just get them because they're loud, which I can also understand. I love them because they have so much more to offer than a traditional guitar.  They're great for slide of course, and I like to play slide on mine as much as one could expect. The irony is not lost on me however how these guitars of the working class musician are now collector's items, I think every roots and blues guitarist should try one out at some point. They contain a simple type of industrial magic that captures the 20's and 30's of America so well. Part mechanical, part artistic, and completely untraveled land at the time of their release, this class of guitar will always hold a special place in my ear and my heart. 

Twang on~🎶

-J

I'll take a one way ticket out of this town. (Trains and how they shaped American music)

We can all agree and disagree on most everything. But I have a hunch that most of us have at least thought about what it would be like to buy a one way ticket to a destination never to return again. Some of us have manifested that exact thought into reality and we find ourselves living many miles away from the places we once called home. Luckily, or maybe not so luckily, we have social media to keep up with old friends and family from the past. It's becoming increasingly more difficult to permanently "loose touch" with the people you don't have an interest in out of the sake of being polite. But imagine yourself during a time before computers and cell phones; before airplanes and greyhounds were a common mode of mass transportation for the middle class and before car ownership was only possible for a select few types of people. If you needed to get somewhere far away in a hurry, you'd most likely board a train. Jeff and I have been listening to a lot of old records over the years (mostly old blues, Carter Family, various folk Anthologies, and Bob Dylan). We've observed the different ways these roots and folk musicians sing about trains and how important the train is to the origins of American folk music. We've listened to these records countless times and have had many discussions about how music has traveled and transformed since the dawn of American train culture. Of course these train songs originated with the makers of the train tracks themselves (songs known as chain gang songs invented by slaves and later prisoners who pounded their picks into the ground, chanted, and sang with the voices and rhythms passed down to them from their ancestors). 

It's almost as if you can feel the construction of the train tracks in the music of their children and grandchildren recorded later on. Today we commonly refer to these musicians as "the old blues men and women" such as Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Blake, Blind Boy Fuller, Elizabeth Cotten, and Bessie Smith who all sing about riding trains, leaving, or returning home.

Jeff and I talk about what it must've been like to be African American upon the end of the Civil War and how the train must've been quite the symbol of freedom to these newly freed people. Many of these people who were once enslaved were able to flee to other destinations by train hoping that a better life was waiting at the track's end; and they took their voices with them and passed their train music down to their kin. We are incredibly lucky that their children and grandchildren preserved and recorded these original train songs while inventing a whole new style of music. Since then you have other genres of music, such as bluegrass, old time, folk, and country music that talk about trains but the origin of American train music in the United States was invented by the people who built the tracks and it traveled with their children from coast to coast, north to south, which is why we've been able to learn so many songs even in the most remote locations of the country.

Growing up out on the western prairie and the Great Plains was as desolate as you can imagine it to be. The first time I saw Urban style graffiti was when I'd see it painted on the sides of trains that passed through my childhood stomping grounds. I thought it was beautiful and wondered what it would be like to hop on a train and end up in a big city just to observe it all. I would think about how much more interesting life, art, and music must be in a big city. But what I didn't know is that the music I had learned as a child in small-town America was also being taught in cities. It wasn't until I moved to Minneapolis and met my husband, who spent the majority of his life in the Twin Cities, that I learned we had grown up learning the same songs. This is why we love roots music. It's amazing when you can sit down with a complete stranger and sing and play the same songs. The train made it possible for this music to travel up, down, and all across the country. I can only imagine that many songs written about trains were written on trains (I wish that I could write and drive at the same time because cross-country imagery and travel sure does stir up the songwriting senses.) Jeff and I are committed to a life of music and the road and we couldn't be more at peace to be out driving on the highways next to the train tracks that made it possible for music to travel back in the old days. 

-R

How I learned to love the banjo

Just yesterday afternoon I was struggling with a metal ring. It was a large metal ring the exact diameter of my banjo. This was intentionally done back in the 1890's or so when the ring was made. It was one of the many, many parts that would eventually come together in the course of the day to make a complete playable banjo. After much swearing, and self bargaining I finally got it slipped over my goat skin drum head and slipped around the tone ring. Then I had to meticulously attach all the little hooks and nuts on the side to bring the tension to that perfect spot. Once I finally did that, I had to set the tailpiece, then find the perfect spot for the bridge in accordance with the fret board. Finally I set new my nylon strings on this antique beauty and strummed.

It was horribly out of tune.

The banjo is a horrendously unforgiving instrument. I have owned 3 in my lifetime and all of them have been complete with their quirks and trials. They often can be difficult to tune, sometimes the bridge collapses and needs to be reset. (Often right before a gig too!) and some of them are very very heavy. This was particularly true with my first banjo. It was a Jida brand banjo I got at a music shop. I knew nothing about banjos other than "I wanted to learn it" and this made in Korea banjo seemed fitting for me. I remember bringing it home, tuning it and sitting alone on the 3 season porch on a rainy spring Minnesota night plucking it horribly in the solitude of an empty house. (perhaps my banjo playing had driven all my housemates away)

I would learn a lot on that banjo, and eventually take it with me to a dozen or so states and into Canada. I never recorded with it, though a friend of mine did on our trek through Nashville. The five-string banjo has 2 distinct styles that a player will generally choose from. There's the "Scruggs style" or "3 finger" which is the bluegrass oriented picking style I was most familiar with. (Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, etc.) Then there's "clawhammer" style which is the style I mostly stick to these days. (Buell Kazee, Bruce Molsky, etc) This is the more "old-time" style often played on old records and usually associated with mountain music.  I tried both out quite a bit but never really got the hang of the 3 finger style. I was never motivated enough to actually practice the style, often finding it tedious and boring to practice after a few minutes. 

The clawhammer style was the most suited for me, it tends to accompany a solo singer better and have a great rhythmic quality to it that I find mesmerizing. Once I figured this out I traded my Jida bluegrass banjo for a fiddle that I never learned to play and got myself an open back banjo. The banjo I got was  Gibson RB-175LN and is my current primary banjo. It was built in 1964 and carries a very unique part of the folk legacy with it.

The Gibson banjo I have is a longneck banjo that was popularized by Pete Seeger. Seeger who liked to do sing a-longs with his crowds and found the key of E suited his voice best. Banjo players can likely attest the key of E can often be tricky on banjo since it's tuned to open G. His solution? Add 3 more frets to the banjo allowing it to go lower. The result is a longer banjo neck and an instrument that's a touch longer than your average bass guitar.  These banjos were popular in the 60's often seen in Seeger's hands as well as the Kingston trio. (George Grove fancied the key of F on his). It's rich deep tone paved the way to allow the banjo into more ears and spaces and brought it down from the mountain and into the general public. 

My final banjo, and my current project is my Buckbee banjo. It's an antique banjo built around the 1890's and was the source of my frustration just yesterday afternoon. I finally fixed it up yesterday and it's playing better than ever. It was one of the first mass produced banjos and therefore isn't particularly valuable but it sure is fun to play an instrument that old. Banjos have a rich and often dark history tied to American history. It's one of the only truly American instruments after all. It evolved from African gourd instruments brought during the slave trade, its sound maturing through minstrel shows, and finally resting on the tops of hills and mountains in the countryside where their design and sound became more refined. This is why I love them. They're not easy to work with, and sometimes they aren't exactly pretty. They get made fun of a lot, and still carry a stigma about them as a low-brow instrument, but they are what they are: simple, built to work, and played to pass the time. They're as simple as you want them to be and complex as your imagination will allow. They're highly evolved and just plain fun to play. It's complex issues are of no mind to me, I will always forgive their shortcomings of being hard to tune some days, and being a bit too echoing on a humid day. After all, nothing beats the sound of a banjo on the porch on a hot summer day in Arkansas!


Thanks for readin'
-J

Rocky's roots: 20th century women

Life was desolate and cold out on the eastern Montana prairie where I spent the first six years of my life. I was very sick as a young child with respiratory problems induced by a collapsed lung at birth and was frequently hospitalized. Because of my ill health, much of my time was spent indoors doing less physical activities. My preliminary introduction to using my voice came from singing songs with my father who grew up on a farm in Montana. He had learned a handful of cowboy songs from his mother's cattle ranching side of the family alongside his girl cousins (The Holsti Sisters) who performed at fairs and other events in the community. When my dad wasn't around to sing and play with me, I would spend countless hours at home singing along to various Disney movies and the The Wizard of Oz (Judy Garland's voice has influenced me from the first time I heard her sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I listened to that song over and over until I had it memorized. It was one of the first songs that I learned how to sing on my own and perform.

My family moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota a few months before my 6th birthday to a community with more opportunities for children to be immersed in the arts. Still, there weren't a whole lot of singing opportunities for children outside of school, church, and singing along to the radio. If learning songs from contemporary country radio stations and the two pop/rock radio stations we received in the area didn't satisfy you, as a kid the only other option you really had to learn music and sing with other children (without paying for music lessons or seeking out “special” opportunities) was to participate in children's musicals and other theatrical performances at the one historic community theater in town called the Matthew's Opera House located in Spearfish, SD. Having the opportunity to participate in this theatre community sparked my interest in learning more about the vocal styles of cabaret and vaudeville. In junior high I was introduced to the booming voices of Broadway pioneered by singers such as Ethel Merman, Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters. I knew that if I ever wanted to have a singing career that I needed to get to work fast. Enough about me and where I've come from. Let's take a look at some of the women who are the reasons why I am the way I am today.

Leontyne Price- My high school choir director introduced me to this soprano when I chose to sing Handel's aria Bel Piacere for the annual Solo and Ensemble Contest that year. I listened to a recording of her singing the aria and instantly felt a connection with her voice as she sang passionately in Italian. Price was born in Mississippi in 1927. After intense vocal training at the Juilliard School in New York City, Price rose to international acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s and was one of the first African Americans to become a leading artist at the Metropolitan Opera. Her rich, warm, undertones support her bell-like upper register and her delivery of words is immaculate. She has been my favorite voice in classical music for years.

Joni Mitchell- Mitchell was one of my biggest influences when I began writing lyrics as a late teen and young adult. Mitchell was born on the Canadian prairie in 1943. This multi-instrumentalist songwriter has been called “one of the greatest songwriters ever” by Rolling Stone. She began her career by performing in Saskatchewan's nightclubs and frequently busked the streets of Toronto. In 1965 she moved to the United States where she began an active career touring with her remarkable songs. She instantly found success with her clean yet raspy wide range and captivating songs filled with poetic imagery. Mitchell's 1971 hit album, Blue, was rated the 30th best album ever made in “Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time”. This album is definitely worth a listen if you haven't heard it already.

Edith Piaf – Piaf was born in 1915. This French Cabaret singer, songwriter, and actress has long been regarded as one of France's greatest international stars. Piaf most notably performed songs of love, loss, and sorrow weaving in autobiographical mentions throughout her lyrics. One of her most well known songs is “La Vie En Rose” (1946) which has touched the hearts of many people throughout the decades. I truly believe “La Vie En Rose” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Considered as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century, Piaf's voice and music spirit lives on globally.

Bessie Smith- Smith was born in Tennessee in 1894 and was the most popular female blues singer in the 1920s and 1930s. It's no surprise that she was given the nickname, Empress of the Blues. One notable song of hers is “Nobody knows you when you're down and out.” She is very important to American history given the era of her performance career and being an African American woman singer. She used her bluesy pipes to sing her way through the depression and also found work performing on Broadway. The recordings I've listened to are, of course, old and a bit fuzzy but I enjoy listening to them nonetheless. She has a smooth lower register that packs a punch with her swoopy, seductive styling and she'll grab your attention with a wicked belt during the climax of her songs. There's a heavy charm to her vocal performance and she'll leave you humming the blues all day.

Ella Fitzgerald- Fitzgreald is a legendary American Jazz singer. She was born in 1917 in Virginia and has a beautiful wide sweeping voice that she immersed in swing, bibop, jazz, blues, and traditional pop. She is known for collaborating with Jazz legends Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington who recorded several notable songs like “Cheek to Cheek” and “It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Aint got that Swing)”. Fitzgerald's voice always puts a smile on my face. She sings with strong animation and has phenomenal pitch over her challenging scat solos. There's nothing like listening to an Ella on a rainy day.

Maybelle Carter – Born in the mountainous region of Virginia in 1909, Carter grew up learning to play the autoharp, guitar, and banjo. She is a notable American country musician and singer who was an original member of the Carter Family. Mother Maybelle, a nickname given to her, would use her thumb to play melody lines on the guitar while keeping rhythm with her other fingers on the high strings. Her voice is one of my favorites to hear and sing along to. She has a deep and soothing vocal tone, like a lazy river in the sumer, that fits perfectly with her driving guitar style. Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family's vocal lines were very influential in helping me learn how to sing classic country vocal harmonies.

Consuelo Velazquez- Consuelo was born in Mexico in 1916. She is a notable concert pianist, songwriter, and recording artist. In 1941, She wrote the song “Bessame Mucho” and it became an international hit. The way she sings and performs touches my senses in a way that only a woman who sings love songs in Spanish can do.

Astrud Gilberto – Gilberto is the female singer on the hit bossa nova jazz song “The Girl from Ipanema” which was recorded in 1964. She was born in Brazil and emigrated to the United States in 1963. She was given the Latin Jazz USA Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1992 and was inducted into the International Latin Music Hall of Fame in 2002.

~R

From the record collection: Blind Boy Fuller

One of the best parts to a semi-remote location is the need to get in touch with more "old school" mechanics. Since we started living in the Ozarks we've gotten much more in touch the record player which pairs well with our love of old recordings. One of the frequent records we spin is by the late Blind Boy Fuller. The record, "Truckin' my blues away" features a great illustration by R. Crumb which is probably why it ended up in our collection. 

Fuller, real name Fulton Allen, was a talented and often underrated bluesman of the delta blues era. Like many of his contemporaries only a few photographs exist but his recordings are what really matter. Legend has it he lost his sight to "Snow blindness" in his teens to early 20's. He had already learned guitar but started to play more as his sight left him. He played a lot of rags, and walking blues, and often let his low brow humor shine. ("what's that smells like fish" is  great example.) aside from his signatory style he played everything on his National brand duolian guitar which used to make the record execs nervous because it was so loud. During his sessions he would sit in a chair and have a man behind him poke him gently when the "recording" light went on since he couldn't see it himself. What he produced afterwards was some of the the most influential music of it's time. In his lifetime he would play tobacco houses, and taverns, or even on the sidewalks of whatever city he was in oftentimes with a washboard player as you sometimes hear on his recordings.

His playing style is distinct and a perfect mix of complex and simple. Using no finger picks he plucked his guitar in a bouncing Piedmont blues style that many try to emulate today. He used to play slide too, until he learned to finger pick and decided he liked that better. His slide playing can still be heard on a few select recordings and you can tell on some songs he got his licks from his slide days. ("walking my blues away" is a great example)

He spent sometime in jail as well which formulated some of his material. He had a great relationship with Sonny Terry as well as some ties to the Reverend Gary Davis and Booker White. One mystery that I wish would be solved is where his guitar ended up. (Booker White's is in England apparently) He died 1940, due to organ failure, most likely from heavy drinking. He did teach Brownie McGhee quite a bit, and after his death the record execs tried to label poor Mr.  McGhee as "Blind Boy Fuller 2". His influence is very apparent on Brownie McGhee's recordings. 

All in all, I love his music. His song structures often remind me of contemporary music and I really see his influence stretch across the American soundscape. If you're unfamiliar with his material it's worth a listen and he's one of the most "accessible" blues men of his time. 

Thanks for readin'!

-J