Album Review: A Ton of Bounce in Grand Ole’ Ditch’s Big Red Ball

This bluegrass band Grand Ole’ Ditch from Cumberland, MD is a serious contender for my band of the year 2014.  They have just released a full-length album and it’s a humdinger!  Here’s my review.

A Ton of Bounce in Grand Ole’ Ditch’s Big Red Ball

I only have two problems with Big Red Ball, the imminent release by the Cumberland, MD band Grand Ole’ Ditch.  It makes me drive 80mph and it’s an hour too short.  Song after song, the energy these fellas pour into the music just drives my heel.  And I don’t want the ride to end.  I want to ramble till the roads turn to dirt, the car turns to campfire and the water turns to wine.Ditch2

The Cumberland Gap is really the trail-head to Appalachia proper.  This young band reincarnates that atmosphere with sounds steeped in centuries of coal dust, thin topsoil and rarified air.  They are a traditional string band and these boys are serious pickers.  Guitar, dobro, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass: they dig deep coal, plow rocky hillsides and soar the steep peaks and valleys in beautiful, challenging territory.

Yet while the tools and traditions are old, the territory Grand Ole’ Ditch traverses leads you across some rare twists and turns.  They might start out around “Shady Grove” but they swing by Yonder Mountain.  It’s not just high-speed picking with the Ditch or getting from point A to B.  The arrangements, key changes and harmonies are thoughtful nods to the past with modern grins from the restless.  “Cap, Coats & Cables” is a great example.  The breakdowns come, then break down again and you’ve crossed two bridges and a chorus before you realize that you’re home again.  The lyric is that rugged winter landscape we all know but these fellas are grabbing their caps, coats and cables to go tame it.  Whether they’re towing cables, jumper cables or guitar cables isn’t the point.  They’re ready.  “Hindrance” is just as complicated yet as direct as a brick wall; “…I don’t know and I don’t care about useless, mindless things.  If I don’t get out of here I will surely truly go insane.”  This is modern bluegrass ala Yonder, Stringdusters and Trampled By Turtles.

The landscapes in Big Red Ball are populated with drunks, lost loves, dark characters and “Man’s Best Friend,” the song destined to be the favorite of many dog lovers.  The lyrics paint simple, accessible portraits with clever word choices and phrasings.  If the songs were paintings, they would be by Rockwell and Remington.  You will know the people, places and things portrayed.  You just might recognize new details or remember more than you care to.

Vivid, clever lyrics meet sincere, energetic playing and four-part harmonies in Grand Ole’ Ditch.  I’m not the only person who’s recognized it.  I first saw them opening for Cabinet at Dante’s Bar in Frostburg, MD.  The next I heard of them, they were invited to play Telluride, Charm City and other defining bluegrass festivals.  They will release Big Red Ball on a night they share the bill with The Steep Canyon Rangers and Bobby Hicks: October 25 at The Palace Theater in Frostburg, MD.  It’s the evening concert after the Mid-Atlantic Fiddle, Banjo and Mandolin Competition.  I figure even at 80mph I’ll be able to listen to my copy four times on the drive there.  You can download yours at itunes, Bandcamp or http://www.grandoleditch.com/.

Life, Death and Hyperbole

Life, Death and Hyperbole

I have faced plenty of deaths and tragedies in my life.  When death came to school, I always used to tell my students, “Death is a big part of life.  Save it for last.  Do everything else first.”  I taught the tragedies of Shakespeare and they always boiled down to a great person’s life ending because of a fatal flaw in character.  Pride, greed, avarice, jealousy: these emotions rob you of life and blind your vision of what makes life worth living.  I have lost four great people in my life in the last forty days.  They weren’t Macbeth or Othello or Lear but they were great to me: fine, humble, honest, loving people.  I will miss them and honor them by following their examples and owning my life.  “To be or not to be” is not the only question.  Better to start with the 5w’s: who, what, where, when and why.  Be in the present.

Triphazard living in the moment!

Triphazard living in the moment!

I’m feeling fully alive and activated right now, if a bit over-stimulated!  I built more great connections and memories in September and loved my opportunity to tour manage for Triphazard.  I’m booking tours on the Gigspots circuit and my showcases at DipCo.  I’m writing bios and album reviews for regional bands.  I’m sponsoring a rock festival in Wilmington and a simulcast charity concert from Charlotte.  I’m hired again to be Director of Operations for Lancaster Roots and Blues and it’s a thrill a minute.  I want to stand on Tellus’ roof and scream about all the great music and good times coming to Lancaster and the mid-Atlantic region.

But should you believe the hype? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Just because I say something’s great doesn’t make it so for everyone.  So let me try to quantify and qualify “great” with regard to music, performance and life.  When I say, “It’s a beauty,” what do I mean?

To me, the beauty value of a song or performance is in direct relation to how alive it makes me feel.  Physical manifestations may include toe-tapping and range through swaying to dancing.  I may hum.  I may sing along.  Regarding thought: does this performance make me curious and/or capture my attention?  Is it unique, familiar or a marriage of the two?  Can I identify with the story or idea being presented?  Life is measured in motion.  Can you put my body and my mind in motion?

Move my mind and body and you release my soul.  That’s where imagination and emotion live.  Your performance sparks my memories and/or desires.  My pains, my dreams, my secrets and my joys are animated by your melody or lyrics.  You become the soundtrack for the banquet in my head where your angels and demons meet mine.  Or you’re a nice distraction in the grocery store.  La-di-da, I need cereal.

Motion, thought, imagination: those are my criteria.  To what degree does a performance make me move, think and feel?  Genuine music moves you; it’s as biological as a heartbeat.  People are naturally curious too but humans mostly want to hear about themselves and familiar experiences.  Food, comfort, company: that’s what we like.  And not having those things makes us cry out from birth.  A great song reawakens those moments in life, beautiful or brutal, when you were totally in the present. Whether it was that perfect first kiss, watching that person walk away or just your imagination, great music takes you there.  And live music is better.  And America’s music takes me there: folk, jazz and the blues.  If you start there, I’ll likely follow a while.Queen2

So stand back while I crank up the hype machine!  The pride I take in facilitating these performances is based in humility, honesty and love for life.  Come celebrate humanity before the dust is all settled!