Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Music from 2017 – Arkansas Democrat Gazette 12-24-17

December 24, 2017

What’s going on

Music from 2017 taps all the emotions — and you can dance to it (well, some of it)

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photo illustration/KIRK MONTGOMERY

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.

Three notable singers — Mandy McBryde (from left), Bonnie Montgomery and Amy Garland Angel — teamed up as the Wildflower Revue.

Dazz & Brie’s latest album

Democrat-Gazette file photo

Blues and rock musician Gregg Allman was one of the music business’ notable deaths this year.

The musicians of 2017 — hip-hop kings Kendrick Lamar and Jay-Z, brilliant songwriter Jason Isbell, country’s Margo Price, folk/Americana singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens and others — spoke from the heart and mind about, as Marvin Gaye sang decades ago, what’s going on.

That’s not to say that matters of the heart and hot dance beats didn’t matter. They always do.

For the music industry, what matters is sales and 2017 has taken a turn for the better. Revenue streams were on the rise, due mostly to the growth of streaming services. Album sales weren’t thrilling, but Taylor Swift’s Reputation moved 1.2 million its first week and held No. 1 a couple of weeks before it was released to streaming services.

But 2017 also had its losses: rocker Tom Petty, legendary country singer-songwriter Mel Tillis, rapper Lil Peep, rock pioneers Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, Mobb Deep rapper Prodigy, blues/rocker Gregg Allman, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, jazz greats Jon Hendricks and Keely Smith and others.

Here’s a look at the music of 2017 by Arkansas Democrat-Gazettereviewers:


As far as I’m concerned, the highest and best use of year-end lists is to introduce avid listeners to new music they might otherwise have overlooked. So it’s kind of a waste of time to lean heavily on bigly hyped (though in some ways worthy) products from the likes of Taylor Swift, Drake or even a band as relatively obscure as The War on Drugs. Most people who are going to read a piece like this one know about those artists and have their own opinions.

On the other hand, even though most of what I listen to these days is at least somewhat local — Isaac Alexander released an album last year that, if I get a Pazz & Jop ballot this year (and who knows what’s going on with The Village Voice now) it will certainly be high on it. Kevin Kerby’s just-released Your Loyal Desertermight be there too. I liked the Wildflower Revue record a lot; I liked Brian Nahlen’s Cicada Moon a lot. Now I’m going to stop mentioning names, because I can’t mention them all.

So what I decided to do was just list the new, nonlocal albums that I feel like (I’m not using any iTunes or Spotify metrics) I’ve listened to the most in the past calendar year. I’ve stayed away from re-releases and tried hard to be honest. So hear my year y’all — I’ve made a Spotify playlist:

Shinyribs, I Got Your Medicine (Mustard Lid). Kevin Russell’s big band tour through a New Orleans-Memphis-Austin sonic gumbo (produced by Jimbo Mathus) is the party record of the year.

Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer, Not Dark Yet (Silver Cross Records). A covers album that showcases the interpretative gifts of a couple of sisters who are marvelous singer-songwriters.

Kendrick Lamar, DAMN. (Aftermath/Interscope). OK, now I’m a believer.

Waxahatchee, Out in the Storm (Merge). Alabama-born singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield delivers her most introspective and soulful album yet. In places it blazes.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound (Southeastern). I was a late adopter on Isbell; it wasn’t until 2013’s Southeasternwhen I began to catch on that he was about the best songwriter we’ve got going these days. His wife, Amanda Shires’, record, My Piece of Land, is pretty good too.

Hurray For The Riff Raff, The Navigator (ATO). Bronx Americana from Alynda Lee Segarra and her bandmates.

The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir (Nonesuch). I meant to write about Stephin Merritt’s high concept musical autobiography — the album is comprised of one song for every year of Merritt’s life — but you’d be better off listening to it than reading about it anyway.

The Weather Station, The Weather Station (Paradise of Bachelors). Another female singer-songwriter — Tamara Lindeman — masquerading as a band. I’m too predictable.

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman (Daptone). Never intended to be a posthumous release, Soul of a Womannevertheless stands as a fitting capstone to Jones’ remarkable career. (She died of pancreatic cancer in November 2016, shortly after completing sessions for this record.) The album’s first side is made up of ferocious live performances while the second, slower side is a blue torch burning with pure, unalloyed emotion.

Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights (Matador). Memphis-based singer songwriter delivers on the promise of her emotionally naked debut, 2015’s Sprained Ankle, with a somewhat more muscular but no less intimate indie rock that channels her confessional tendencies into something tender, beautiful and, if you squint, maybe even a little hopeful.

Also recommended: Ray Davies, Americana (Legacy); Fleet Foxes, Crack-Up (Nonesuch); David Rawlings Machine, Poor David’s Almanack (Acony); St. Vincent, MASSEDUCATION (Loma Vista); Tift Merritt, Stitch of the World (Yep Roc); John Moreland, Big Bad Luv(4AD); Margo Price, All American Made (Third Man); LCD Soundsystem, American Dream (Excelsior Equity); Japanese Breakfast, Soft Sounds From Another Planet (Dead Ocean); Kevin Morby, City Music (Dead Oceans).


There was no shortage of quality jams from central Arkansas-based musicians this year.

Pallbearer, Heartless (Profound Lore). The Little Rock prog, doom metal foursome continued its winning streak with this well-received third album that melds heavily layered arrangements with singer Brett Campbell’s emotive, clean vocals.

Beth Ditto, Fake Sugar (Virgin). The ex-Gossip singer and Judsonia native, who now splits her time between Portland, Ore., and London, nailed a sassy mix of dancey pop on her solo debut. Lead single “Fire” was my favorite video of the year, while “We Could Run” still gives me chills. Someone needs to use that song in a movie.

The Wildflower Revue, The Wildflower Revue (This Machine, Inc.). Excellent originals (“Don’t Call It Country,” “Ain’t No Grave,”) and quirky covers (“Heart of Glass,” “Psycho Killer”) made for a strong debut from this honky tonk supergroup of Amy Garland Angel, Mandy McBryde and Bonnie Montgomery.

Dazz & Brie, Can’t Chase Girls & Your Money Too (self-released). The dynamic duo avoided the sophomore slump and cranked out a thundering collection of hip-shaking rock, soul and pop.

Isaac Alexander, Like a Sinking Stone (Max Recordings). Singer-songwriter Alexander stared down the workaday, middle-age blues and came out ahead with the kind of grown-up rock reminiscent of Randy Newman and Wilco.

Big Piph, Celebrate (self-released). The veteran Little Rock rapper tackled social and political ills with wit, fury and wicked hooks.

Knox Hamilton, The Heights (Prospect Park). Driving, transcendent, indie power pop from this super tight Little Rock outfit.

Kevin Kerby, Your Loyal Deserter (Max Recordings). An essential folk-rock collection from the wry pen of the Mulehead singer-songwriter.

Recognizer, Recognizer (self-released). Singer-guitarist Mike Mullins returned to the alt-rock groove of his earlier band, Underclaire, and added a little prog rock texture for good effect.

Mark Currey, Tarrant County (self-released). Currey’s assured writing and strong voice propelled these country ruminations on place and identity.

From outside Arkansas’ borders, I kept these albums in heavy rotation this year.

Valerie June, The Order of Time (Concord); Bash and Pop, Anything Could Happen (Fat Possum); Craig Finn, We All Want the Same Things (Partisan); John Moreland, Big Bad Luv (4AD); Run the Jewels, Run The Jewels 3, (Run the Jewels, Inc.); Vince Staples, Big Fish Theory (Def Jam); Tinariwen, Elwan (Wedge); Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound (Southeastern); Julien Baker, Turn Out the Lights (Matador); Micah Schnabel, Your New Norman Rockwell (Last Chance).


Music that continues to haunt and inspire:

Valerie June, The Order of Time (Concord). Her expressive voice and rich music taps blues, country, old-timey folk and gospel; each note is sung with yearning and passion. My favorite of 2017.

Rhiannon Giddens, Freedom Highway (Nonesuch). Giddens’ performance of Richard Farina’s “Birmingham Sunday,” popularized by Joan Baez, is breathtaking. Giddens’ originals, which draw on 200 years of black history and song, are remarkable, impassioned testaments by a daughter of the South.

Fred Hersch, Open Book (Palmetto). The great jazz pianist’s latest solo work is emotional and deeply moving.

Jessi Colter, The Psalms (Legacy). Inspired by the book of Psalms in The Bible, Colter created spontaneous melodies as Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith) produced this raw, quietly moving meditation.

Lee Ann Womack, The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone (ATO). Country’s best traditional female vocalist.

Margo Price, All American Made (Third Man). Price celebrates country traditions and challenges the status quo. Real life experiences as raw truth.

Mavis Staples, If All I Was Was Black (Anti-). “We don’t want to rock the boat? Who told you that?” Staples sings with force on “Who Told You That,” one of the songs on her latest collaboration with Jeff Tweedy.

Jazzmeia Horn, A Social Call (RCA). Best new jazz singer since Cassandra Wilson’s debut.

Trio Mediaeval with Arve Henriksen, Rimur (ECM). The Trio’s exquisite vocals, Henriksen’s atmospheric trumpet makes an album filled with beauty that chills.

Thomas Demenga, Bach, J.S.: The Six Cello Suites (ECM). Beautiful and gritty. You won’t forget Pierre Fournier’s versions, but don’t pass this one up either.

Also engaging: Jason Is-bell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound(Southeastern); Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, Soul of a Woman(Daptone); Kevin Kerby, Your Loyal Deserter (Max Recordings); Shinyribs, I Got Your Medicine (Mustard Lid); Bill Carter, Bill Carter(40 Below).

We still have his music; we mourn loss of Petty the man

November 5, 2017

“Everybody loves Tom Petty and burritos.”

— Marc Maron

An ancient emperor with an odd sense of humor gathered his wisest sages and asked them to come up with the saddest sentence ever written. The sages conferred and went off to think upon the subject. Weeks later they approached the emperor and humbly handed him a slip of paper on which were written the words:

“Someday Bill Murray is going to die.”

OK, I made that up. The part about the ancient emperor at least; I don’t remember where I got the “Bill Murray” part from, but I saw that somewhere, probably on social media. I stole it because it felt true to me.

If you’re of my generation, or a little bit younger, maybe it feels true to you too. Because most of us like Murray, probably more for the light way he lives on the earth than for any of the movies he has made or his time on Saturday Night Live, although Murray’s performances certainly inform the warm feelings you (probably) hold about him.

And the joke — if you can call it a joke — doesn’t have to invoke Murray. It might have worked just as well if I’d used the name “Tom Hanks.” (I’m sorry but I can’t think of a current female performer so universally loved and admired that her name would work in the joke, which might say something about how our society regards women who court public attention, though “Carol Burnett” or “Mary Tyler Moore” would have worked in the past.)

For me, the joke worked even better if the name used was “Tom Petty.”

But then Oct. 2 the saddest thing happened. There was a horrible massacre in Las Vegas. And Tom Petty died.

Guess which affected me more.

Maybe I should feel some shame about that, because every human life matters. But our world is a killing field, and random madness and malign neglect kill thousands every day. Bombs go off in parts of the world we never consider; we inure ourselves to violence inflicted on other people’s children in other parts of town. Intellectually we can feel bad about the murder of strangers, but we have to remind ourselves to think about their suffering. We shake our heads and move on, fire up the second season of Stranger Things and forget that there are sad things in the world.

So why, more than a month later, are so many of us still sad about Tom Petty?

Well, sociologists will tell you it’s because we do have a relationship with the public people to whom we pay attention. In 1956, social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl coined the term “parasocial interactions” to describe the “intimacy at a distance” fans feel with performers and artists. We don’t know them, but they aren’t strangers — it’s their job to connect with us, and the best and truest of them connect most deeply.

We don’t know them, but we do know a part of them. We know their work and the persona that presents the work (which can be as, or even more important, than the work itself). As best as I can remember, I never met Tom Petty and never spoke with him on the phone. But I connected with that grinning gaunt scarecrow with the lank corn-silk hair raking big open crystalline chords from a Rickenbacker 625-12. (That’s the model he’s holding on cover of Damn the Torpedoes. It was actually his Heartbreakers band mate Mike Campbell’s instrument — and I’ve always wanted one.)

We were born at opposite ends of the same decade, in the same part of the country. At first, Petty’s Southernness didn’t seem to matter. We perceived his first album — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, which came out just as I was starting to review records and to occasionally play my own songs in bars — as almost punk, a sort of sneer-y, skinny-tied New Wave blast with just a bit of that Byrds-ian jangle breaking through. Looking back, you could say that outside of “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” the songwriting is fairly ordinary, but the energy and swagger — the immersion in the noisy possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll — felt redemptive.

Petty wasn’t a deep songwriter, he mostly mined the rich if whiny adenoidal vein of post-adolescent romance. He mostly employed a playful snarl. He mostly sang about girls.

Maybe at the time I noticed the vocal resemblance to Roger McGuinn, but the sonic reference I picked out was Elvis Costello, whose Attractions, at the time, seemed as important to the overall effect as Petty’s Heartbreakers.

Man, I loved those first three records; and even today, when I recognize Petty was one artist who was best served by greatest hits compilations, I can’t help but be swept up in nostalgia for those backward-looking albums. In a way he was my Elvis Presley, and now I know why grown-ups cried on Aug. 16, 1977; why Don McLean wrote “American Pie” about Buddy Holly.

You can’t frame Petty’s dying as a tragedy; he wasn’t young and he wasn’t thwarted — he even acquired a little gravitas to go with his fortune. He probably had himself a pretty good time.

But yeah, it’s hard to think about not hearing a new record (although there probably will be a new record, there always seems to be plenty of material to release posthumously). Harder to think about never going to another Tom Petty show.

That feels weird, because I don’t go to a lot of shows anymore, and I probably wouldn’t have made any special effort to see Petty and the Heartbreakers anyway. But most of us don’t think about the things we’re never going to do again.

And that’s the thing that stings, isn’t it? The real crux of the thing: when we grieve for people we’ve never met, what we’re really doing is contemplating our own certain mortality — the impossible idea that there will be a last time for everything. A last time to kiss your mother, to look your father in the eye. A last time to walk to the grocery store.

All grief is frivolous and vain; but the deaths of artists and celebrities are like mile markers on our own road to nowhere. David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed — it feels like something ending. Because it is.

“It is the blight that man was born for,” poet Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote in “Spring and Fall.”

It is ourselves we mourn for.


Chris Chandler’s M.U.S.E. .A.N.D. .W.H.I.R.L.E.D. .R.E.T.O.RT. JUNE, 2017

June 5, 2017

All rise for the National Anthem…

This land is your land
This land is my land
From California
to the New York island;
From the red wood forest
to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

I grew up on a dirt road…. As the deep south’s only city Atlanta was expanding… Swallowing my little town,
leaving me feeling like Jonah
sitting in the belly of a leviathan known as Coca Cola…

The dirt road I grew up on saw encroaching subdivisions everywhere…
I remember walking through some of my sacred woods that Were now disappearing …
with my brother Kevin…
and lo and behold… I saw something that I had never seen before…
It was a no trespassing sign… it read, “No Trespassing Violators Will Be Prosecuted”

and I thought, “What we have here is a failure to punctuate!”

And my brother Kevin replied with something for which I will forever be in his debt…

He sang me the “no trespassing” verse of our national anthem…

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

I knew from an early age that i wanted to be a folk singer…
So at the age old 16 I did what
Woody Guthrie woulda done if he had been born in the early 60s…

I dropped out of school and joined a punk rock band…
called The Weasels
Not as a band member but as the the Roadie..
And at an early age I got to see….

This land is your land
This land is my land
From California
to the New York island;
From the red wood forest
to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

I got so into running lights
that even though I was a high school drop out…
… I still earned a scholarship top a prestigious university…
And as I said, “I come from a long line of trailer trash”
and in my family…
This was a big deal….

However, when I was in that prestigious university… I began writing these monologues… For plays…
And I wanted to try them out so I went out on street corners… Only people just looked  at me like i was crazy a crazy guy talkin to him self – because the cell phone had not yet been invinted….

So, I done what Woody Guthrie woulda done…
I went down to the thrift store
and bought a cheap acoustic guitar…
Now I didn’t even know how to play the guitar..
But I just held it…
as I told my little stories…
and that made me… A folk singer…
And I knew it would not be long before I would be walkin that ribbon of highway….

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

Now when I graduated from that prestigious university,
I had to go audition at theatres
around the country,
and the way I paid for that trip
was by being a street musician…

and that got me all the way to New York City,
and my friends, I am not makin this up!
I landed a job on Broadway
as an assistant lighting designer…

Now all I had to do was get back to Stone Mtn, GA,
get my stuff
and move to new York City…

but on the way back down…
my friends,
a miracle transpired…

I picked up a hitch hiker,
and he told me…

This land is your land
This land is my land
From California
to the New York island;
From the red wood forest
to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

Now that Hitch Hiker
also told me of an event in Philadelphia
called the People’s Music Network…
a gathering of people who sang political folk songs…

So I went, and for what ever reason,
I landed a spot in their big concert – to sing one song…

I had never played in front of a big crowd before – and I was nervous!  Gonna make it my last hoorah!

I carefully selected from my repertoire…
A song called “Watergate Generation.”

And my friends I saw that pitch, and I swung hard… and my friends… another miracle transpired… I knocked it out of the park!

but that is not the miracle I am referring to.

Ya see,  I had no idea at the time –
but Pete Seeger himself was in that audience…
and he came back stage just to tell me how much he liked my song…

and I told him all about my plans to give up being a folk singer and get a job on Broadway instead…

But he told me – and I am not making this up –
that I should turn down that job on Broadway
and keep being a street musician.

And I did. And I thought…

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Also at that event,
was someone else that would forever change my life
– a woman named Anne Feeney –
and she told me all about a place called Kerrville, Texas

and my friends,
I roamed and I rambled,
and I followed my footsteps…
to the sparkling sands of her diamond desserts
and that is how I got to the Kerrville Folk Festival

This land is your land
This land is my land
From California
to the New York island;
From the red wood forest
to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

Check for more information on Chris and his adventures.


Buddy Holly 2-3-1959

February 3, 2017
Innocence is apparently a renewable resource. Americans have lost it dozens of times in the last 60 years. There was JFK and Vietnam and RFK and Martin and Watergate and the Challenger disaster — every one of those signal events wounded us and made us believe the world could never be the same again.
Yet, then again, maybe there is something to the cliche. Maybe the death of idols and the indifference of heaven teaches us lessons we need to learn in order to grow up. At least we feel compelled to find some point in catastrophe. Innocence lost, something gained. Maturity, perhaps? Or wisdom?
At 1 a.m. Feb. 3, 1959, a four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza took off from Iowa’s Mason City airport in a light snow heading to Moorhead, Minn. Minutes later, it crashed in a cornfield, instantly killing its young pilot and his three famous passengers — Buddy Holly, 22; Richie Valens, 17, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28.
“The crash first scraped the ground at a spot in the middle of the field, breaking off one wing and other parts of the plane,” reported The Clear Lake (Iowa) Mirror-Record. “It then bounced and skidded about 200 yards further to the northwest, scattering wreckage and debris along the way until it piled into a wire fence along the north end of the pasture. The plane was completely demolished in the crash, but did not burn.”
Hours earlier, the three stars had performed at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake before a sellout crowd as part of a multi-state “Winter Dance Party” tour of the Midwest.
It had been a miserable tour plagued by bad weather and a creaky bus. Holly chartered the plane, feeling he needed a respite from the cold, bone-jarring bus. Originally he planned to take his band mates — guitarist Tommy Allsup and bassist Waylon Jennings — with him on the plane. But Jennings gave up his seat to Richardson, who had a cold, and Allsup ended up losing a coin flip with Valens.
That plane crash, rock ‘n’ roll’s first tragedy, shocked a naive generation into the realization they were not immortal. As songwriter Don McLean put it in his windy ballad “American Pie,” it was “the day the music died.”
And it was. The crash proved to be a harbinger of hard times for ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis was in the Army, Little Richard got religion, Jerry Lee Lewis had been derailed by scandal, the law was hounding Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins was almost killed in a car wreck. And the generation of teen-idol performers who began to emerge after the founding fathers faltered threatened to swing rock ‘n’ roll back in the finger-poppin’ direction of Pat Boone.
It is fitting that a 16-year-old kid named Robert Thomas Velline — who used the stage name Bobby Vee — filled in for Holly the night after the plane crash (amazingly, the promoters refused to cancel the tour). Holly’s crash turned out to be Vee’s big break; the death of the genuine fertilized the growth of the imitative.
And Buddy Holly was genuine. He was fast emerging as a contender to Elvis’ throne with such Top 10 hits as “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue” — bracing, brisk records that retain their fresh allure today. Though he recorded for only three years, Holly and the Crickets produced dozens of songs that have become part of the rock ‘n’ roll canon — from the anthemic “Not Fade Away” to the melancholy “Learning the Game” to the uncanny “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (Holly’s first posthumous hit).
All those songs are just part of it. Holly and the Crickets were the first self-contained rock ‘n’ roll band that wrote songs as well as performed them. Their two-guitar, bass and drums lineup became the model for rock bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
Holly popularized the Fender Stratocaster —still the world’s most popular electric guitar. Many British Invasion groups copped Holly’s guitar style and hiccuping, rockabilly vocals. Paul McCartney admired him so much he later acquired the publishing rights to his music; he has been quoted as saying if not for The Crickets, there would have been no Beatles. John Lennon and Roy Orbison said that Buddy Holly made them feel it was OK to wear glasses on stage. By dying young, Buddy Holly was caught in amber; his geeky good looks and heavy black glasses were enshrined as icons in our collective consciousness. He seems less a person than some kind of Eisenhower-era cartoon, a rock legend who didn’t live long enough to wear out his welcome, to succumb to the temptations of the high life, to make mediocre records.
But Buddy Holly isn’t just a legend; he was a rangy, raw-boned country boy from Lubbock, Texas, too. Jerry “J.I.” Allison met Holly in when he was in the seventh grade and the legend-to-be was in the eighth.
It was Allison who married Peggy Sue Gerron — the inspiration for at least two of Holly’s most famous songs — and whose steady drumming helped define The Crickets’ trademark sound. He is usually referred to as Holly’s best friend — he and Peggy Sue accompanied Holly and his wife, Mary Elena, on a double honeymoon in Acapulco.
“We really didn’t start hanging out together until high school,” Allison says, “when we started learning to play rock ‘n’ roll together. I was playing in a country band called Cal Wayne and the Riverside Range Hands; Buddy used to come out and sit in with us and do Bill Haley stuff.”
At the time, Allison says, the teen-age Holly was playing with schoolmate Bob Montgomery, doing Louvin Brothers songs and similar material. In 1954, however, Holly saw — and apparently met — Elvis Presley when he played Lubbock’s Cotton Club. Buddy and Bob added a bassist to their act and amended their business cards to read “BUDDY AND BOB: WESTERN AND BOP.”
Holly’s precocious songwriting and energetic performances earned him a contract with Decca, who summoned him — minus his band mates — to Nashville in January 1956. Although those Nashville sessions were overseen by the veteran producer Owen Bradley, Holly didn’t really click with the Nashville pros.
Starting with “Blue Days, Black Nights,” Holly recorded five straight-ahead country singles for Decca Records’ Nashville division that went unnoticed. Disappointed with the results, Decca allowed Holly’s contract to expire. He returned to Lubbock where he worked with several local musicians before settling on the lineup that would become the original Crickets — Allison on drums, Joe B. Maudlin on bass, Nikki Sullivan on guitar.
Recording with Norman Petty at his Clovis, New Mexico, studios 100 miles west of Lubbock, the Crickets soon earned themselves new record deals on Decca subsidiaries Coral (for records released under Buddy Holly’s name) and Brunswick (for records credited to The Crickets). By August 1956, the Crickets had a No. 1 hit with “That’ll Be the Day.”
They went on to have an iconic pop career — a few hits, a break-up and a plane crash.
At the time Holly died, he had made only $60,000 or so in royalties. Now his estate is estimated to bring in more than $1 million per year; and he has sold nearly 60 million records posthumously.
If Buddy Holly were alive, he’d be 80 years old now. What if the first wave of American rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t gone down in that Iowa cornfield? It is possible that, like James Dean before him, Buddy Holly left the stage at precisely the perfect time for legend-making. He had broken with The Crickets and moved to New York, and there were pressures on him — as with Elvis Presley — to move in the direction of pop music.
Buddy Holly might have tried to make himself into Dean Martin — after all, no one could have had any real expectations that the rock ‘n’ roll idiom would survive more than a few years. He had also expressed a desire to do a gospel album with Mahalia Jackson, and to do more songwriting and producing for other artists. He might have evolved into a country artist, like Jerry Lee Lewis or Johnny Cash or even his last bass player, Waylon Jennings. Had he survived, Buddy Holly might have managed to preserve his dignity, and to have escaped the appetites and excesses that ruined Elvis. He might even have done what that most perfect rock ‘n’ roll song rails against: he might have slipped away, back into obscurity.
But there are only a few transcendent moments in rock ‘n’ roll, and when Buddy Holly hit that first line of the second verse of that song — “My love’s bigger than a Cadillac” — he walked right into one of them. Not fade away? He hasn’t. Not fade away? Don’t worry, he won’t.

He Can’t Help It If He’s Lucky

October 18, 2016

By Philip Martin

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 10/18/2016

“Who are you?”

“That’s a good question.”

–Bob Dylan’s Alias answering James Coburn’s

Pat Garrett in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)

I don’t know why anyone should begrudge anyone else getting a prize; prizes are nice to get but they really don’t mean much to anyone other than the honoree. Prizes get awarded for all kinds of reasons, most of which can be dismissed by those who didn’t win the prize as trivial or “political.” Not getting a certain prize doesn’t say anything about you other than it wasn’t your turn.

Most of us never get a turn. There’s no dishonor in that. Most of us simply aren’t that lucky.

Bob Dylan can’t help it if he’s lucky. He can’t help if his life’s work–which is really more than the sum of all the words and music he has produced; it’s his persona and his myth–has had such a profound effect on so many people around the world. That’s not what he was trying to do. He was trying, like every artist, to do something essentially selfish, to somehow make the maelstrom within a thing in the world. And the genius of Bob Dylan is that he didn’t end up telling us about himself. He ended up telling us about ourselves.

He made explicit a shadow America, a place out of time and history where the Abrahams might congregate. A place of dime stores and bus stations and concrete and cascades. A floating, chimeratic America that waits just beyond the headlights of our shiny cars groping through the everlasting night.

Dylan has a magpie eye and the nervelessness of a thief. He is Coyote, and grinning reformed journalist Alias, balancing his blade and printing the legend. He made it possible for me to write a column like this one, confident that at least some faction of the presumptive audience could catch on, could project their own truth into the false tropes and dusty mannequins he trots out.

Because Dylan is a magician in the sense that none of his shtick works unless you choose to collaborate with him, to invest in his honks and wheezes and windy words that can so help me seem like second-rate college literary magazine slush-pile fodder. Some people say it’s poetry and some people say it isn’t, and while I can teach it either way I’d rather take it for itself than reduce it to typography. For Dylan, like all poets, needs the sound and rhythm to thrive.

You can’t divorce “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” from its chord structure without doing it life-threatening harm–maybe the words still work as sub-Blakesian doggerel, maybe they’re all right–at least until the third verse when the singer brings up grudging pawns and “ceremonies of the horsemen” which feels to me like a lapse of discipline (except now, because in Dylan’s time-warpy way they seem to loop in Stanley Kubrick and secret rituals businessmen get up to in their underwear).

But the song needs its melody, the tripping of descending chords, the drop from (the way I play it) D to Em (or Em7) as well as the baggy timbre of the singer’s voice to completely succeed. Yes, there are lovely covers–Ricky Nelson did it best, the Walker Brothers were OK, and if you care for Joan Baez’s schoolmarm-ish precision her pure-toned version is out there as well–but none of these really come close to Dylan’s bright, fuzzy authority.

Sure, there are plenty of people shaking their heads because they never got Dylan as a singer or a maker of music (though that’s all he ever really wanted to be; most likely he’d have probably settled for a dark chocolate tenor and a gold lame jacket and a bunch of hits with “love” in the title had some stranger unfurled a contract at some crossroads) but let’s stipulate that (a) most people don’t get most things; (b) popularity isn’t any guarantee of quality and (c) it matters a whole lot less whether someone can sing than whether they can connect.

As unlikely as it might seem to those of us who realize that show business is mostly hustle and flow (and, that like David Geffen said, there’s probably never been anyone more interested in money than Bob Dylan) every once in a while you have to acknowledge the power of a song to break your heart. What Dylan did was to make rock ‘n’ roll–American popular music–a fit pursuit for grown-ups, a legitimate way of expressing and exploring the complications of our real and dream lives. He curated our national subconscious and dragged out into the spotlight the forgotten bones of old traditions and set them aclatter. Dylan rescued and re-animated what Greil Marcus has called “the old weird America,” and set it loose in our heartless modern wilderness.

I don’t know that Dylan is a poet, but I know there is poetry in Dylan, and that we are in a season sorely lacking in that quality, an age too full of literal and vulgar minds seeking only immediate advantages and the cheapest of sensations.

I don’t know that there aren’t hundreds more “deserving,” and I’m sure that there are many who are disappointed. And I don’t know that if they’d asked me that I’d have nominated Dylan–in part because Dylan needs no nomination and his bank book is plenty big enough–but I’m just fine with him getting any roses anybody wants to throw his way.

Because I owe him a debt that I can’t pay.

There’s room for a fine-made thing (Philip Martin Article)

May 22, 2016

Published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on 5/21/2016 on Guy Clark and Skinny Dennis

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According to Wikipedia, Skinny Dennis Sanchez, a Los Angeles session musician who specialized in upright bass, was 6’11” and weighed 136 pounds.

People who knew him have told me he was probably three or four inches shorter than that, but in his cowboy boots he was pretty tall. He had Marfan syndrome, and he dropped dead of heart failure in 1975 while playing upright bass onstage behind his friend John Penn. He was 28 years old, and the only reason anyone knows about him today is that he’s mentioned in the song “L.A. Freeway,” which was a minor hit for Jerry Jeff Walker in 1972:

Here’s to you old skinny Dennis

Only one I think I will miss

I can hear that old bass singing

Sweet and low like a gift

you’re bringing

These days if you Google “skinny dennis,” the first result you get is a bar by that name located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that features “cold beer, hot peanuts, live music.” On its website is a picture of its namesake and a little bio that reads like it might have been cut and pasted from the Wikipedia site. It seems that Dennis Sanchez, whoever he was, has become a hip icon, a little more obscure (therefore a little more desirable) than the ubiquitous Che Guevara stencil. I’m surprised that there doesn’t seem to be a band out there that’s calling themselves Skinny Dennis, which would be a way of borrowing some outlaw cachet while feigning tribute. (So maybe I’ll call dibs on it. How about it, Dave Hoffpauir, you want to play drums in Skinny Dennis?)

Anyway, “L.A. Freeway,” as you probably know by now, was written by Guy Clark, who died last week, becoming the latest music legend claimed by the reaping blade of 2016. Clark was one of those songwriters’ songwriters, generally unknown to the wider world but deeply venerated by a few. I consider myself a songwriter and I work the same folkish country medium and use the same tools as Clark did, so I am familiar with his work. I admire most all of it, and a couple of songs–the lovelorn “Dublin Blues” and the eulogy for his father “Randall Knife”–strike me as near-perfect works of art.

I didn’t know Guy Clark, and frankly I’m a little weirded out by a lot of the gushing stuff I’ve seen online and in print the past few days. I’m surprised that his death has elicited so much attention though I understand that, like everybody else, I’m in my own little echo chamber. A lot of my Facebook friends are Clark fans, and some of them had a personal connection to the man. I’d only seen him play a couple of times in half-empty clubs.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for not knowing who Guy Clark was, for never hearing about him until his death seemed to take over social media last week. In many ways, he wasn’t that big a deal–he never really made it as a performer (though I tend to prefer his versions of his songs to most of the cover versions I’ve heard), at least not in the way that provides for future generations. Up until a few years ago when his failing health made it impossible to continue, he supplemented his income by building guitars in the basement of his modest Nashville house. Guy Clark was famous in a way, but he lived the way most of us live; he had to think about how he spent his money.

While I can rhapsodize about what a great songwriter he was and about how he was a master of understatement and the employment of just the right specific detail (see “L.A. Freeway”), most of the people who are inclined to receive Clark’s music favorably probably have already found him.

What I always liked about Clark was how in interviews he’d bristle when his interrogator would invariably bring up his “craftsmanship.” Mostly he was polite about it, but sometimes he was blunt. Clark considered himself an artist, and his standards for songwriting went far beyond the verse-chorus-release Nashville commercial model. Building a guitar was craft–it was something you could measure, mill and fit–but making a song was (for Clark at least) more like writing poetry or painting. Without a modicum of grace, of something ineffable, a song was a failure. Without inspiration, it was a dead thing, no matter how close its tolerances. A robot could build a guitar–for all practical purposes, robots build some guitars–but something human has to animate a work of art.

You can’t say it, or at least you can’t say it very often, but probably everyone who writes for a living understands the distance between the utilitarian prose necessarily cranked out for contractual purposes and the unreachable music in your head. Just because you don’t chase down Shakespeare doesn’t mean you can’t aspire.

Yet you know how it is; the world goes in for loud trash.

It always has, though sometimes it seems like we’re prouder of our base appetites than we used to be. People love the vulgar and the flash, the sweet and the sordid, the name-branded and celebrity-certified. Maybe it’s not hard to see why, for most of us, work is a necessary evil, something with which we want to be done. At the end of the day, the last thing some of us want is to be confronted by truth and beauty, or anything more complicated than a ball game or faked-up reality drama.

Popular taste has always been pretty bad, and most people know it. But most people don’t care all that much, they’d have you believe it’s the singer, not the song; that it’s all in the attitude and that you fake it ’til you make it. That’s why billions and billions are sold, why the best-seller lists are populated by insipid tell-alls and genre exercises, why commercial vacuity is the coin of the realm in Hollywood.

Why Donald Trump is perceived as a bold choice. Why Guy Clark is a minor figure in our culture.

But I believe there is still room in the world for a fine-made thing, that busting meter doesn’t mean anything until you learn to write in meter, that the hardest thing to do in front of others is be honest with yourself. I believe you’ve got to learn the craft to have a chance to make art. And that Skinny Dennis Sanchez is worth remembering.


Editorial on 05/22/2016

More Kerrville Folk Festival History

May 19, 2016

This story was copied from  for posterity and safekeeping.

Kerrville Folk Festival & Rod Kennedy (from LoneStarMusic Magazine, May/June 2010)
City of Song

For 39 years (and counting), the Kerrville Folk Festival has drawn music lovers from all walks of life deep into the heart of the Texas Hill Country. Some come as legends or to launch their careers; others, just to escape the real world, if only for a week or three. But nobody leaves untouched by song — and without a profound understanding of the words “Welcome Home.”

By Richard Skanse

In the before and after, Quiet Valley Ranch can be a little too quiet. Come late morning or mid afternoon or early evening or whatever time of day it is on Monday, June 14, when the very last campsite is struck and the last of many, many hugs is finally exchanged, the 39th annual Kerrville Folk Festival will be over and the ranch will once again feel as empty and forlorn as it does on this rainy Wednesday afternoon in April. While waiting for a photographer to set up her equipment for a photo shoot, festival founder Rod Kennedy sits alone in the middle of the main stage and looks out over the empty outdoor theater that bears his name, his brow furrowed in agitation.

It has nothing to do with the coming deluge, though heaven knows Kennedy’s seen more than his fair share of those over the years. Nor does the ex-Marine, who turned 80 in January, seem all that bothered by any particular physical discomfort, even though it’s been only five weeks since he underwent knee-replacement surgery. He’s not out running sprints in the rain, but in 24 hours he’ll be hopping on a plane with his girlfriend, retired nurse Carolyn Pillow, for two weeks of vacation in Florida and the Cayman Islands, followed by another week of fun and sun in Maui in early May. (“I’ve worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for about 30 years,” he explains with a shrug, “so …”) Kennedy doesn’t even seem to mind having to spend the day before his trip doing a photo shoot and conducting a lengthy interview; he’s patient and gracious, quick to flash a twinkling smile for the camera and a seasoned pro at recounting his eventful life story and the history of all things Kerrville in encyclopedic detail.

Oh, but that bank of lights laying haphazardly at the foot of the stage — left there, he guesses with a disapproving sigh, since last year? You can tell that’s driving Kennedy flat-out nuts. Ditto all the mounds of rolled up old carpet and other unsightly detritus onstage, not to mention that pile of tree limbs just laying out there in the field to the right of the theater benches, or the number of those benches that could use a fresh coat of Kerrville sea-foam-green paint, or the leak backstage, or this or that and 100 other things he probably can’t help but notice as part of the “what’s-wrong-with-this-picture” drill running through his brain. For more than half of his life, “Kennedy” was only his middle name — as in Rod Kennedy Presents — and eight years of retirement hasn’t entirely quelled his producer’s instincts. And so he frets and sighs and tsk-tsks over all that still has to be done before opening weekend in late May — even though he knows full well that his ultra-competent successor, Dalis Allen, and the rest of the festival staff and volunteers will have everything in order just in time to welcome the first wave of returning Kerrverts back “home.”

“We’re ready for you, Rod,” calls Allen, standing in the wings with Pillow next to Kennedy’s captain’s chair, from which he’s watched countless performances over the years. He stands and hobbles over to them with his cane, smiling for the camera as Allen plants a kiss on his cheek.

“Somebody’s always kissing on you,” Pillow teases. “I don’t remember what event we were at the other day, but everybody was kissing him on the mouth. Where were we?” Kennedy, boyish grin brighter than the camera flash, answers back, “Who cares?”

Everyone laughs, and just like that — chaotic appearances aside — all is exactly as it should be on Quiet Valley Ranch. Because although the music and crowds and all-night campfire song circles are still a month and a half away, the first magic little moment of the 29th annual Kerrville Folk Festival is already in the books. And come 7 p.m. on May 27, when Allen takes this very same stage to greet the crowd and introduce the first act of the year (singer-songwriter Ana Egge), the City of Song will be in full bloom again.


Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Kerrville Folk Festival — a landmark that will most certainly (and deservedly) be recognized with much fanfare not only by artists, fans and staff at the festival itself, but by media outlets across Texas and probably far beyond. After all, although plenty of artists have enjoyed careers that long or longer, only a handful of other music festivals the world over have ever made it to or beyond the big 4-0. Sure, a little Google detective work will turn up things like the 62-year-old Ozark Folk Festival in Eureka Springs, Ark., not to mention the 53-year-old Monterrey Jazz Festival and maybe even the Library-of-Congress-certified “oldest music festival in the country,” the 152-year-old Worcester Music Festival in Massachusetts, though that last one is really more of a seasonal fine-arts series than a true festival. But when you narrow the search down to continuously running, multi-day music festivals dedicated to showcasing original music, Kerrville’s closest antecedent on U.S. soil is the Philadelphia Folk Festival, founded in 1962. (The famous Newport Folk Festival, which helped launch the careers of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, dates back to ’59, but was dormant from 1971-1985).

Granted, the big anniversary is still a year away. But given that Kennedy, without whom there wouldn’t even be a Kerrville Folk Festival, had a landmark birthday of his own earlier this year, we figured we’d split the difference and get an early jump on the celebration. Allen, who’s produced the festival since Kennedy’s retirement in 2002, can relate.

“I’m already scheduling people for 2011,” she says in early April, while still literally up to her ears in prep work for this year’s festival — which, frankly, might be hard to top. The first weekend alone features not only Kerrville mainstays like Jimmy LaFave, Terri Hendrix, Eric Taylor, Brave Combo and Sara Hickman, but major-label Texas country star Randy Rogers and 2010 festival brochure cover gals the Indigo Girls — arguably the festival’s biggest nationally known headliner in years.

All together, the Kerrville Folk Festival and its shorter kid sister, the Kerrville Wine & Music Festival (held in the fall), constitute 21 days of programming — but putting all the pieces together is a full-time, year-round job. The evidence of this is, literally, all over Allen’s office. Her own little corner of the tiny festival office building on the ranch looks like the “before” picture in a before-and-after study on workspace makeovers, so stuffed with papers, folders, notebooks, posters and music that you suspect the adding of one more business card or CD to the pile would be hazardous to everyone in the immediate area. In addition to booking the festival, which among other myriad logistical details entails making travel and hotel arrangements for every songwriter and band and crew member, Allen is also in charge of managing all of the submissions for the Kerrville New Folk Competition for Emerging Songwriters. “We had close to 700 entries this year — that’s 700 artists with two songs each,” she says. “I listen to all of them, and then we have an online system where 30 to 40 other people have about a month to listen to them. At the end of the deadline, I take all of their scores and my scores, and from there we end up with the final 32. I spent all day yesterday and all day Friday listening to submissions, and I still have a couple hundred to go.”

Songwriters who make it to the “final 32” will get a chance to perform at Kerrville’s famous New Folk Concerts, held the first weekend of the festival at Quiet Valley’s second stage, the Kenneth Threadgill Theater. After that, it will be up to this year’s judges, songwriters Susan Gibson, Tom Prasada-Rao and Ronny Cox, to select the “winners”: six new names to join the ranks of such past New Folk champions as Tom Russell, Vince Bell, Eric Taylor, Tish Hinojosa, Robert Earl Keen, James McMurtry, Slaid Cleaves, Ray Bonneville and BettySoo. Meanwhile, the remaining 26 contestants who “tie for second place” can forever commiserate with fellow New Folk finalists like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Jimmy LaFave.

Add to that distinguished list of New Folk alumni even a smattering of the hundreds of other notables who’ve played the festival over the last four decades — including Mance Lipscomb, Willie Nelson, the Flatlanders, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Kevin Welch, Iris DeMent, Terry Allen, Janis Ian, Jimmy Driftwood, Eliza Gilkyson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steven Fromholz, Billy Joe Shaver and even Peter, Paul and Mary — and you’re still only scratching the surface of what the Kerrville Folk Festival is all about. Because no matter how famed and acclaimed many of the artists on the “main stage” lineup may be, people come to Kerrville year after year first and foremost to hear and share songs, not to see the biggest names in music (“folk” or otherwise). The only stargazing at Kerrville is done out on the sprawling campgrounds after dark, when anyone with a guitar can find themselves swapping songs with … well, it really doesn’t matter if its Butch Hancock, Gary P. Nunn or some dude who works for the phone company back in the “real world.” Because here in the Never Neverland of Quiet Valley Ranch, for three decidedly unquiet weeks every May and June, they’re all equals — if not practically family. Some may be better pickers, singers and far better writers than others, but anyone with an original song to share and a modicum of patience will get their turn and an attentive audience.

And there’s even more opportunities come daylight. Although the main stage performances don’t begin until early sundown, throughout all 18 days of the festival, songwriters by trade and hobby alike gather around the “Ballad Tree” and at Steve Gillette’s (of “Darcy Farrow” fame) “Texas & Tennessee” daily song circle/critique sessions. There are also staff concerts, children’s concerts, and even various music seminars, workshops, and a three-day, registration-required Songwriters School.

“I think from the beginning, Rod wanted to create an atmosphere where people could exchange ideas and work on the quality of their songwriting,” says Gillette. “And that’s what makes the festival so attractive to me. Because every year until I’m 90 years old, I can still live and grow as a writer, and going to Kerrville is like going to the well.”

Guy Forsyth, one of the many performers on this year’s lineup who will almost certainly find his way out to the campgrounds at least once during the festival, concurs.

“There is nowhere I imagine you could go that has more songwriters per capita, per square mile, in the whole world than the Kerrville Folk Festival,” he marvels. “If you’re interested in learning how to be a songwriter, you could go and camp at Kerrville for two weeks, and even if you never saw a single show on the main stage, but just wandered around from campsite to campsite with your ears and a guitar, you would probably learn more about songwriting than you would by getting a college degree in it.”

But even though Quiet Valley Ranch may be as overrun with songwriters (professional or otherwise) during the festival as the Hill Country roads are with deer after dark, there’s no entrance exam or audition to get in. Because along with drums and stereos in the campground, exclusion and elitism are strictly frowned upon here, which means that that “Welcome Home” sign at the front entrance applies to seasoned Kerrverts and first-time Kerrvirgins alike, and you certainly don’t have to be a songwriter to feel welcome here and enjoy the festival to its fullest. And whatever stereotype-based misconceptions you might harbor about folk festivals and folk music and the folks that make and/or love it, you don’t have to be a Birkenstocks-wearing, tie-dye-sporting, hybrid-driving, protest-marching, hippie-dippy left-wing vegetarian tree-hugger, either. Heck, so long as you come with music in your heart, you can even be Republican.

Just ask the guy who started it all.



As legacies go, one could do a lot worse than “only” leaving behind an institution that’s meant so much to so many people as the Kerrville Folk Festival. And though he shows no signs of being in any hurry to leave just yet, when it comes time for Rod Kennedy to move on up to that big campfire song circle in the sky, his name will forever be associated, first and foremost, with what is unquestionably his greatest production. But the Kennedy that organized the very first Kerrville Folk Festival back in 1972 was no whippersnapper wunderkind fresh out of college. He was 41 years old, and you could easily fill a book just by chronicling the very eventful first four decades of his life … or at least the first seven chapters of his 379-page memoir, Music From the Heart, published in 1998.

“You can skip all of this stuff,” Kennedy offers as he flips through the tome at the dining room table in the house he shares with Pillow in a Kerrville subdivision. “You oughta start with the Chequered Flag, which is what led to me doing festivals.”

But no, it turns out that Kennedy had already produced a successful festival or two even before he opened Austin’s first (and last) racecar-themed folk music club (“Folk songs and fast cars!” was the slogan) in 1965. In 1964, he debuted his KHFI-FM Summer Music Festival, featuring six nights of free concerts at Austin’s Zilker Hillside Theater. It may have been tiny compared to today’s massive Austin City Limits Music Festival, held in the same park, but 15,518 fans, glowing reviews and an eclectic lineup including everything from Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin’ Hopkins to Chuck Reiley’s Alamo City Jazz Band to classical music (string quartet and full orchestra) was nothing to slouch at. Clearly, Kennedy was a natural when it came to organizing and staging music events on large scale. He also knew a thing or two about owning and operating radio and TV stations, racing (and collecting) “midget” Italian race cars and even carrying a tune; as a teenager in the ’40s in his native Buffalo, he played the cotillion and private party circuit as the “boy singer” for the Bill Creighton Orchestra.

Kennedy would later draw on all of those experiences (save, perhaps, for the racing stuff) during his Kerrville era. But more than any other chapter from the first half of his life, it was his three years of combat duty as a Marine during the Korean War that had the most profound and life-changing impact on him. “War was the loudest, most disorienting experience I’ve ever known,” he wrote in his book. “The noise, death and destruction, pain and tragedy were close to unbelievable. And, when it was all over, no ground had been taken or given. … We heard on our way home, after a year had passed, that out of an original battalion of 1,050, only 200 came home …”

“I didn’t know why I didn’t get killed along with over half of my battalion,” he says today. “But I knew I was going to have to pay back, somehow.”

Under the banner “Rod Kennedy Presents,” he began producing all manner of theater shows, concerts and outdoor festivals in and around the Austin area. Classical, big band and jazz music were his first loves, but he also developed a strong affinity for blues, bluegrass and traditional and contemporary folk music. Somewhere along the line, he became friends with Texas folk singers Carolyn Hester and Allen Damron (who was also one of his business partners in the Chequered Flag), and with Geroge Wein, founder of the Newport Folk Festival. It was Wein who first connected Kennedy with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, when the folk icon needed a road manager for a few Texas dates on his first solo tour. They bonded straight away over their shared love of music and songwriters, even though, politically, they made for as odd a couple as Mary Matalin and James Carville.

“I thought he was a left-wing bomb thrower at the time that he was doing all the stuff that Peter Paul and Mary did,” Kennedy admits. And though it may have been one of his other folk singer friends, Tom Paxton, who called Kennedy “a God-damned Republican,” the thought probably crossed Yarrow’s mind a time or two, too.

“I found him to be personally very self-contradictory,” Yarrow says of his initial take on Kennedy. “He was, on one hand, very open and warm and authentic. And then he would lapse into his post-Marine perspective, and be a really blotto, biased kind of guy who was very rigid about his evaluation of certain things. He was fiercely judgmental in the military way he viewed behaviors or activities that he considered to be ‘un-American.’ But that was overwritten by his decency as a human being, because his heart and his humanity was always very much there and very special, and his respect for musicians was phenomenal.”

Kennedy had recently been asked by the Texas Commission on the Arts and Humanities to put together “some kind of Texas music” event to unofficially coincide with the new Texas State Arts and Crafts Fair to be held in Kerrville. The concert had to be produced by the private sector so as not to conflict with the state-funded Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio. Kennedy was game, and the first Kerrville Folk Festival was set for June 1-3, 1972 at the Kerrville Municipal Auditorium. Performers would include Damron, Hester, Lipscomb, Steve Fromholz, Michael (Martin) Murphey, Kenneth Threadgill and a band called Texas Fever featuring one Ray Wylie Hubbard. Yarrow wanted in on the fun from the start. In addition to offering to play the festival himself, he also sold Kennedy on the idea of adding a showcase for new songwriters modeled after the New Folks Concerts he’d been in charge of at the Newport Folk Festival during the ’60s. The “s” was dropped and New Folk was born. Although no winners were officially announced at that first year’s “competition,” which unlike the rest of the festival was held outdoors during the day, Yarrow and Kennedy did hand-pick one act to come inside for a main stage showcase: a scruffy band of Lubbock guys (Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely) who called themselves the Flatlanders.

“It was all kind of mind boggling,” recalls Gilmore. “I remember this entourage of Secret Service guys came by, and it turned out Lyndon Johnson was there.”

“I remember looking down on him in the front row, and he had shoulder-length hair,” adds Ely. “He looked like an old hippie. I kept thinking it was my old uncle J.B. from Petersburg.”

The festival’s maiden voyage was deemed successful enough to warrant a sequel, so Kennedy booked the auditorium again for the following May. Damron, Hester, Yarrow, Fromholz, Murphey and Threadgill were all back for encore performances, along with B.W. Stevenson, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker and Willie Nelson. Even with the music now spread out over five days, it was clear the festival would need to find a bigger home if it was to continue. By year’s end, Kennedy and his wife, Nancylee, had sold their house in Austin and moved onto their newly purchased, 63-acre spread nine miles south of town. They had to work around the clock for months to get it ready in time for the third annual Kerrville Folk Festival (May 23-27, 1974). They pulled it off, though the campgrounds weren’t opened to the public until Kennedy’s next major production, that fall’s Kerrville Bluegrass and Country Music Festival (a Labor Day weekend tradition for 19 years before Kennedy became a wine connoisseur and it evolved into the Wine & Music Festival, aka “Little Folk”).

Although it would be several years before it grew into a three-weekend affair, the spirit of the Kerrville Folk Festival as it is known and loved today was already very much in place by the mid-70s. The campfire culture was in full swing, the main stage lineups were consistently solid and the New Folk competition was fast becoming a benchmark for success in a field of music in which earning the respect of discerning fans and one’s peers was deemed more important than mainstream airplay or record sales. Behind the scenes, though, Kennedy often found himself hanging on by the skin of his teeth, as year after year of pounding rains kept the festival in the red. As he put it bluntly in his book, “We were actually flying on unfunded optimism.”

The Kerrville Folk Festival is now run under the umbrella of the Texas Folk Music Foundation, a non-profit 501c. Yarrow frankly opines that the festival should have been a 501c years ago, but Kennedy was determined to keep the whole thing privately run. By the end of the ’70s, though, he did begin selling stock and loan packages to help with cash flow. The ’80s were just as touch and go; in 1987, the first year that the festival was stretched to three weekends, it rained 14 out of the 18 days. But like the hero in an old Saturday matinee serial, Kennedy always managed to bounce back for another thrill ride the following year. Granted, he didn’t do it alone: the numerous “Folk Aid” benefit concerts by Yarrow and other friends of Kerrville certainly helped bail the festival out of a tight spot or two, as did the introduction in the mid-80s of a few key corporate sponsorships (including Texas Monthly and Southwest Airlines). But at the end of the day, it was Kennedy’s unflappable commitment — Semper Fi! — to the music that kept him going.

“I’ve seen him in desperate states, but I never felt that he was going to throw in the towel,” Yarrow says. “It just wasn’t in him to do that. Maybe that was the discipline of his training in the military — he was hyper-dedicated and had extraordinary determination. But mostly, the fact is, he was in love with this.”

It wasn’t just his love of the festival, though. It was his genuine belief in the importance of the songs and their need to be heard. Kennedy may claim to have been a proud Republican all his life until two years ago, “when Obama appeared on the scene,” but he was always tuned in to the decidedly hippie ideal of music as a viable agent for change for a better society.

“I never booked an artist because they were popular,” Kennedy insists. “I booked them because I thought what they were doing met my standard of excellence: It was music from the heart, that spoke to people, made people realize that they weren’t the only ones suffering under a certain problem — it could be loneliness, it could be lack of self-confidence, it could be poorness or it could be the way other people treated them for being fat or short or whatever else. And I felt that our music could bring an end to that kind of treatment of people. I was adamant about it. And I am to this day.”



True to the spirit of the festival, committed Kerrverts are, as a general rule, an open, sharing lot. Getting them to talk at length about the festival is disarmingly — and sometimes alarmingly — easy. What’s surprisingly hard, though, is getting them to pick a single favorite memory — that one perfect Kerrville Folk Festival moment that stands out from the crowd of thousands. What you usually get is an answer along the lines of, “Wow … gosh … I guess that’d be … well, honestly? There’s just too many … I wouldn’t know where to begin …” Now and then they might finally light upon a particularly magic song they heard around a campfire at 3 a.m., but more often than not, they’ll just launch into a sincere rhapsody about the “vibe” or the “people.”

Sometimes, though, you do get lucky. Like when you find one of those most fortunate of all Kerrverts who was there on the night of May 25, 1980, when the Joe Ely Band played chicken with arguably the meanest thunderstorm to ever beat down on Quiet Valley Ranch. It was a classic unstoppable force vs. immovable object showdown, played to a technical draw but with the band’s tenacious performance forever cemented in festival legend.

Lyle Lovett was in the crowd that night 30 years ago, and he remembers it as though it was yesterday. “It was packed that night,” Lovett says. “Joe Ely and his great band — you know, that great band that played on his early records, like Honky Tonk Masquerade — had come in from somewhere on the road and they had just made it in time to take the stage. And right as Joe stepped up to the microphone, there was a bolt of lightning and this big storm just seemed to suddenly come up — and they just kept playing. I’ll never forget the way Joe just stood there at the mic … it was really a powerful thing to see.”

Even Lloyd Maines, whose runaway-train pedal steel playing was as lethal a weapon in that band’s arsenal as Jesse “Guitar” Taylor’s dynamic blues licks and Ely’s Clash-approved rock ’n’ roll swagger, recalls the whole scene with awe, as though he were a mere witness rather than an active participant. “That was epic,” he enthuses. “I think we’d actually played maybe two songs, and then the storm started coming in like crazy. I mean, the wind was just blowing like hell.”

Kennedy came onstage to apologize about having to shut the show down. Apart from the danger to the crowd and band posed by lightning, there was the matter of the wind rocking the speakers so bad that they had to be taken down. “But we still had power,” Maines says. “And Joe had this Fender Super Reverb amp, and he just happened to have a high-impedance mic in the back of it with a plug that he could plug straight into the amp, so we finished out the show with Joe just singing through that amp. There was a huge crowd there, and about half of them stayed and just packed up against the stage. The band was dry because the stage was covered, but the crowd just got soaking wet. But they hung the entire time. It was absolutely just a magical night — one of those high-energy, Mother Nature moments.”

Ely himself adds that Kennedy, undoubtedly fretting about any number of liability issues, was less than thrilled that the band refused to yield to the storm after he’d tried to stop the show. “But we had just driven non-stop 2,000 miles from Duluth, Minn., and we were not about to not play that gig after driving that far,” he says. “I was not invited back after that — but we went out in style!”

Ely wasn’t the only Kerrville performer — or Flatlander, for that matter — who one way or another got sideways with Kennedy during the first 30 years of the festival. “Rod once banned me for life,” laughs Jimmie Dale Gilmore. “When I got a major-label record deal and started touring all the time, I got another gig that I just couldn’t turn down and had to cancel my Kerrville engagement. And I did it quite a bit ahead of time, but Rod didn’t like that at all. It was even in the Statesman the next day: ‘Gilmore banned for life from Kerrville.’ But then I came back the next year.”

Meanwhile, Butch Hancock still gets a kick out of telling the story about the time Kennedy sent him back out onstage for “one more song,” and he obliged with a 30-minute opus. “There’s something like 14 verses, and every verse is about as long as a normal song, so it just went on and on and on,” Hancock says. “I could see Rod out of the corner of my eye, trying to give me the cut-the-neck sign. And then at some point, he finally just left the whole campground I think. At least from what I heard. At any rate, for at least several years, he never asked me to do another encore.”

Even Eliza Gilkyson managed to get herself banned from the festival for several years. Kennedy, who prided himself on running a disciplined, family-friendly show, was not amused when she dropped the “f-word” onstage — an act Gilkyson concedes was “utterly inappropriate” on her part.

“I have some last thoughts on the time I did that, and concerning others who had their own sundry battles with Rod,” she explains in an email. “My conclusion, in retrospect, is that poor Rod was the unfortunate recipient of our last vestiges of parental acting out. Being as we had all at least by then left home, he became our surrogate father figure, and we all had to go up against his rules at one point or another just to butt our heads against something vaguely authoritarian! How’s that for a psych 101 analysis? Anyway, all is long forgiven, at least on my part.”

It’s clearly long forgiven on Kennedy’s end, too, as Gilkyson was invited to perform at his 80th birthday tribute this year at the Paramount Theater in Austin. So were all three Flatlanders, along with a veritable all-star list of other Kerrville favorites from the very beginning up to the present: Ray Benson, Marcia Ball, Robert Earl Keen, Jimmy LaFave, Terri Hendrix, Ruthie Foster and Randy Rogers. Naturally, there was a little good-natured roasting of the birthday boy on the stage that night, but just like the music, it was all delivered with genuine affection. Kennedy says he could see, hear and feel the love “coming over that stage like the Niagra Falls.”

It’s a memory that now probably ranks right up there at the top of Kennedy’s own favorite Kerrville moments. But it’s one he might not have lived to see had he not retired eight years ago. He managed to steer the ship through thick and thin (literally to the point of bankruptcy) for three long decades, but that last five years or so may well have been the roughest. His book follows the entire journey in painstakingly meticulous detail right up until the end of 1996, which he sums up as “Kerrville’s most exciting and successful year.” But instead of ending with “happily ever after,” the last six graphs read like he dashed them off right as the ship hit an iceberg. Three major corporate sponsors bailed all at once, his ex-wife (but still friend) had a serious car accident, and the pump to the ranch’s entire water system went kaput, all in a matter of weeks. “I knew I should end my book here,” he finished his memoir with “uh, gotta go now” duress, “and maybe re-title it Hit or Myth, the story that begins with a whimper and ends with a bang!” A brief epilogue, tacked on right before the book went to press a year later, offers a little relief: the arrival of a new sponsor in Elixir Guitar Strings, an encouraging update on Nancylee’s recovery, and even a little joke about the epilogue actually being Chapter 12, because “we did not want to end this book with a Chapter 11.”

Better that, though, than the unwritten Chapter 13, which might have opened with Kennedy’s heart attack in 1998 and ended with him selling his majority stock in the festival to — long story put politely short — “a fellow with a lot of problems.”

“I just had to get out of there or I wasn’t going to make it,” he says. “Too much stress.”

So much stress, in fact, that Kennedy now says that for the first year or two after his retirement, “I never wanted to hear another folk singer or deal with another artist or manager or agent. I hated everything.

“I’ve never told anybody that, so don’t headline it,” he adds with a worried smile. “But anyway, after awhile, I began to get backstage again, and I’d see the people coming back every year, people that I had known for 34 years in this business. And hearing their songs again had the same effect on me that the original songs had, which was to open my heart and my mind and get me to back off a little bit. And now I miss it every day and every moment that I’m not there. Not so much doing the work, but really enjoying the music. And with the exception of last year, I’ve been there practically every night. And I’m going to be back there again this year.”

Then he looks over and smiles warmly at Allen. “Because it continues,” he says confidently, “with this one.”

When Allen stepped into her job as only the second producer in the Kerrville Folk Festival’s existence, she wasn’t exactly new to the gig. She ran her own booking agency for years in Houston, and, give or take a few festivals that she missed in the ’80s, she’s been part of the Kerrville family going all the way back to ’72. She was running a coffee house at the University of Houston back then, and was personally invited by Kennedy’s old Chequered Flag partner Damron to come check out “this thing happening in the Hill Country.” She worked as a volunteer at the festival for several years before finally taking a full-time job running the office. Her first production was 2002’s Wine & Music Festival.

Her job is, in different ways, both easier and more difficult than it was for her mentor. Whereas Kennedy ran the entire operation — from booking talent to ranch maintenance to fund-raising — like a “benevolent dictator,” Allen handles only the creative end (booking, scheduling, MC’ing) and some day-to-day business during the festival, and everything else is overseen by separate committees. The aforementioned fellow with problems was eventually pushed out of the picture by the stockholders on the Festival Board, which later became the Festival Operating Committee when the shareholders handed full ownership of the festival over to the non-profit Texas Folk Music Foundation. Quiet Valley Ranch, though, is still owned by the Ranch Board, which leases the property to the festival year round. Oh, and Who’s on first.

“It’s a bit complicated,” Allen admits with a laugh. “And I have to answer to all of them on some level. But as far as finding and booking the artists is concerned, I’m pretty much still autonomous on that part. Everybody figured out pretty quick that that’s exactly how it had to happen.”

Kennedy reaches across the table and squeezes her hand.

“This is a business, but most people don’t know what this business is about,” he says. “The business is about people, and broken hearts and lonely hearts, and people who want to heal from what this festival has to offer. It’s not just a series of concerts. It’s a family whose roots are deeply embedded in each other’s well being. And I thank God this child has kept it going in the same way that I would.”



Indeed, the more things change, the more things stay the same. And Kerrverts wouldn’t have it any other way. Because for all that’s gone on behind the scenes, at the end of the day, all that matters is that the Kerrville Folk Festival continues to offer all of the things that have kept people coming back for (almost!) 40 years now. And between Allen’s Kennedy-instilled commitment to excellence and the Texas Folk Music Foundation’s protective stewardship, there will almost assuredly be a festival for those people to come back to for years and years to come.

“It’s an incredible thing to see when we have the early land rush for campground spots a week before the festival, and thousands of people come, every year,” Allen says.

“The line on the highway is a mile and a half long,” Kennedy adds. “Everything from Cadillacs to cars that will hardly move, just bumper to bumper, with kids hanging off of them, waving their flags when they come by the office.”

Jimmy LaFave, a 1987 New Folk finalist, has been making the pilgrimage out to Quiet Valley Ranch now for 25 years. And he still gets a tingle every time. “When I pull up to Kerrville and walk through those gates, it’s like there’s a particular smell, you know? And I don’t mean the latrines! There’s just a certain feel, like the way the dust gets on your shoes, and when you first see that little ‘Welcome Home’ sign … it’s just an amazing vive. And even though it’s changed a lot, that vibe is still there.”

Ruthie Foster has only been coming to Kerrville for the last decade or so, but it’s telling that she describes the thrill of turning off Highway 16 into the festival driveway almost exactly the same. Like they’re singing the same song. There’s no place like Kerrville, there’s no place like home.

They come from all across Texas, North America and maybe even the globe, not just to hear and play music, but to reconnect with folks they may see only once a year but who they embrace at first sight like immediate family. Many reconnect, too, with their “other,” truer selves, happily exchanging their ties, button-downs and Florsheims for tie-dyes and Birkenstocks, and all the worries of their “regular” lives for a long but somehow never quite long enough vacation in an all together better, truer and more humane world. One where it sometimes rains like a bastard and things may not always go exactly according to plan, except, of course, for the three promises that count the most: songs will be shared, lifelong memories will be made and, before it’s all over, every Kerrvert left standing after 18 days and nights of nonstop music will come together to sing Bobby Bridger’s official Kerrville Folk Festival anthem, “Heal in the Wisdom.”

“It’s an amazing thing,” Hancock says. “I think with all these years of Kerrville, somewhere back in there, I began to see it as a little small city,” muses Hancock. “Do you remember Brigadoon?”

He’s referring to the fictional Scottish town featured in the 1940s Broadway musical Brigadoon, which was later adapted for a 1954 Gene Kelly movie and, a decade later, a TV movie with Robert Goulet and a pre-Columbo Peter Falk. In the story, Brigadoon — along with all of its inhabitants — appears for one day once every 100 years, then mysteriously disappears back into the Highland mist.

“It’s sort of like that, except this one appears every year,” Hancock says. “It really is a great study of a city suddenly appearing out in the middle of a field, and then disappearing after, in this case, three weeks. And it’s wonderful that it comes out with the theme of music. Everybody that goes there, it seems they come away going, ‘Wow! I wish it could be this way the whole year round.’

“What a beautiful wish,” he continues. “People getting along with each other, singing songs and living together. It’s such a positive energy that just makes the whole thing something worth keeping — and worth being a part of.”

Kerrville Folk Festival History

May 19, 2016

This was copied from for posterity and safekeeping.

KERRVILLE FOLK FESTIVAL. The first Kerrville Folk Festival was held June 1 through 3, 1972, in the 1,200-seat Kerrville Municipal Auditorium; 2,800 fans from all over Texas and as far away as Colorado attended the thirteen-performer event. The festivals at Kerrville were a direct outgrowth of the Austin Zilker Park KHFI–FM Summer Music festivals (1964–68), the Chequered Flag folk-music club on Lavaca Street in Austin (1967–70), and the eight Longhorn Jazz festivals (1966–73), as well as the “live” and recorded programs of Austin folk artists produced on KHFI–AM–FM–TV during the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. Performers included Allen Damron, Willis Alan Ramsey, Jerry Jeff Walker, Michael (Martin) Murphey, Townes Van Zandt, Kenneth Threadgill, Carolyn Hester, Frummox (Steven Fromholz and Dan McCrimmen), Rusty Wier, Three Faces West (including Ray Wylie Hubbard), Bill and Bonnie Hearne, Mance Lipscomb, Bill Neely, and others. Many of them emerged as national recording artists identified with the “Austin Sound.”

The first Kerrville Folk Festival included many of the Austin artists as well as National Fiddling Champion Dick Barrett of Pottsboro and Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary). The 1973 festival expanded to five concerts in three nights, and 5,600 people jammed the auditorium. Among the new performers were Willie Nelson and B. W. Stevenson. The success of the event led to a search for larger quarters, preferably an outdoor location. In December 1973 a sixty-acre plot was acquired nine miles south of Kerrville on State Highway 16 and dubbed the Quiet Valley Ranch to keep from frightening the neighbors. Work began immediately dozing thousands of cedar stumps and debris from a previous runaway fire. Construction began on a stage, a seating area, a concession stand, underground water and wiring, and 6,000 feet of deer-proof seven-foot fencing.

The facilities (except for camping facilities) were completed, outhouses rented, and the first outdoor festival held on the new stage on May 23–26, 1974; the schedule had been expanded to four nights. Asleep at the Wheel, Flaco Jiménez, and Chubby Wise were among the first-time performers, who drew a crowd of 6,000. Lucinda Williams was among the New Folk finalists. The gates were opened daily at 6 P.M., and the concerts started at 8. The nonprofit Kerrville Music Foundation, Incorporated, was established in 1975 to help beginning songwriters and, for many years, also promoted and worked to preserve such traditional art forms as country yodeling, harmonic and mandolin playing, and bluegrass music. While attendance was growing, a spirit also grew out of the warm ambience of the festival, which has been described as “spiritual optimism.” The campfire singing in the now-developed campgrounds became a worldwide trademark of the festival, which maintained its momentum in spite of seven years of heavy rains out of the first nineteen.

In 1980 crowds reached 13,000, and the festival expanded to eleven days for its tenth anniversary in 1981. The present expanded and cantilevered stage was built in three weeks by volunteers that year. In 1986 the festival celebrated its fifteenth anniversary with an eleven-day festival, a special documentary album, and a musicians’ fifteen-day tour of nine states on behalf of the Texas Sesquicentennial as official state ambassadors. The next year the festival expanded to its present format of eighteen days, which includes three weekends.

By the 1990s attendance had grown to 25,000. The program included an eighteen-day schedule of eleven six-hour evening concerts, New Folk Concerts with forty writers, Folk Mass celebrations, six two-hour children’s concerts, and a four-day Festival of the Eagle honoring American Indians at a newly constructed and then expanded Threadgill Memorial Theater in the campgrounds. The festival has become America’s largest and longest-running celebration of original songwriters and draws performers and fans from around the world. It remains a family affair with the same intimate atmosphere of the early years. A companion event, the Kerrville Wine and Music Festival, held over the Labor Day weekend, began in 1992. By the twenty-second season of the folk festival in 1993 more than two dozen of its early “unknown” performers had earned national recording contracts, including Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Hal Ketchum, David Wilcox, John Gorka, Tish Hinojosa, Pierce Pettis, Cliff Eberhart, Darden Smith, Michael Tomlinson, Lucinda Williams, James McMurtry, David Massengill, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Jr., Jon Ims, and the Flatlanders (including Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore).

On October 1, 1999, ownership of the festival changed hands, as founder Rod Kennedy, now aged seventy, sold the event to Vaughn Hafner, of Dallas, and his investors. By the year 2000, festival attendance had grown to 30,000, and popular performers on the main stage included Jimmy La Fave, Trout Fishing in America, Eric Andersen, Katy Moffat, Peter Rowan, Stacey Earle, Tom Prasada–Rao, Sara Hickman, the Chenille Sisters, Susan Werner, and the Limeliters, among hundreds of others. Educational workshops sponsored by the Texas Folk Music Foundation (renamed the Kerrville Folk Festival Foundation in 2013) included a songwriters school, the Professional Development Program for Teachers, a harmonica workshop, and a Kerrville Music Camp for teenagers (held in July). In 2007 the Texas Folk Music Foundation launched a capital campaign to purchase all related assets of the Kerrville Folk Festival, Inc., and secure non-profit legal status for the festival. It achieved this goal by late 2008. Founder Rod Kennedy died on April 14, 2014. In 2015 Dalis Allen served as producer of the festival. Rachel Brown was festival coordinator, and Chuck Miller was creative director. By 2015 more than 1,500 singer-songwriters had performed at the event during its history.

Poetry 101 (for me)

April 16, 2016

For me, Iambic and Pentameter have usually been words I encounter in crossword puzzles, but I’ve just come to the realization that I need to learn what they really are. For me, poetry has fallen into two or three classes:

  1. Poetry suitable for songs
  2. Poetry that paints pictures with language
  3. Poetry that doesn’t seem to be poetry at all

Here is a good bit of helpful info on iambic pentameter from


Some people’s biggest exposure to poetry is in nursery rhymes and things like, “Roses are red, violets are blue . . . .” Unless someone has taken poetry courses in high school or college, it’s unlikely he or she will know many useful poetry terms like meter, strophes, trochees, iambs or any of the other words used to describe the techniques and word constructions that are used to write a poem. If you want to write poetry or you want to be a more careful reader of it, learning these terms will help.

What is Iambic Pentameter?

Let’s define some terms to help explain this one. Meter refers to the pattern of syllables in a line of poetry. The most basic unit of measure in a poem is the syllable and the pattern of syllables in a line, from stressed to unstressed or vice versa. This is the meter. Syllables are paired two and three at a time, depending on the stresses in the sentence.

Two syllables together, or three if it’s a three-syllable construction, is known as a foot. So in a line of poetry the cow would be considered one foot. Because when you say the words, the is unstressed and cow is stressed, it can be represented as da DUM. An unstressed/stressed foot is known as an iamb. That’s where the term iambic comes from.

Pentameter is simply penta, which means 5, meters. So a line of poetry written in pentameter has 5 feet, or 5 sets of stressed and unstressed syllables. In basic iambic pentameter, a line would have 5 feet of iambs, which is an unstressed and then a stressed syllable. For example:

If you would put the key inside the lock

This line has 5 feet, so it’s written in pentameter. And the stressing pattern is all iambs:

if YOU | would PUT | the KEY | inSIDE | the LOCK

da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM

That’s the simplest way to define iambic pentameter.

Great examples of a iambic pentameter poems would be many of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He often wrote sonnets and whole lines of dialogue from plays in this meter.

Other Poetry Definitions

It can help to understand the other forms of feet and meter that are used in poetry. These are all determined by the stressing pattern.

DA dum (FORest) = Trochee

DA DUM (RED CAT) = Spondee

da da DUM (like a WOLF) = Anapest

DA da DUM (CUT the FLESH) = Dactyl

da dum (and the) (-ing the) = Pyrrhic

Understanding the rhythm of poetry and how to read a line to determine whether iambic pentameter or some other meter is used can help you learn to write your own poetry and better appreciate the writings of classic and modern poets.


Of course there is much more to learn, but I’m gonna go back and reread some poems that I had previously put in the 3d category.

Gibson’s Kalamazoo Gals Mystery

March 22, 2016

I just finished reading this story about Gibson Guitars producing guitars during World War II – Apparently the company was supposed to be making only products that supported the war effort. Much like many other industries, their male workforce was reduced to near nothing during the war. A music historian and journalist named John Thomas investigated a photograph of a group of women standing in front of the Gibson factory during that time period and eventually was able to publish a book entitled, “Kalamazoo Gals”.  After publication of the book, Gibson backtracked on their earlier cooperation with the author and denied that it ever happened. If you own a guitar with a little golden banner on the headstock reading “Only a Gibson is Good Enough.”, you have one of the guitars that was created by these women. It’s an interesting story and well worth the time to read it.

Here’s the link: Kalamazoo Gals