Reflections on Nick Ashford–Part 15

It’s been five years now, since Nick died. August 22, 2011.

It was while I was flying back from L.A. I knew he was going in the morning, and when I landed in New York, Liz had left a message to come straight to the house. I did, with shorts on, some dumb but clean t-shirt, ball cap, laptop bag and carry-on.

Nick would have loved it.

I recounted this story to J.B. Carmicle over breakfast last week at the Red Flame. He comes to New York from L.A. for a few days every year this time, meeting up with his brother Donnie, who still lives in their Louisville hometown. We talked a bit about Muhammad Ali’s funeral–Ali being right up there with Ashford in personal significance and public greatness.

J.B. hired me at Cash Box when I came to New York in 1982, when he ran the East Coast office. He got us tickets to Ashford & Simpson at Radio City shortly after I started there. The experience was life-changing.

There were four of us altogether, but I don’t remember the other two. I do remember the seats were about two-thirds the way back on the floor, center aisle. I also remember that there might have been four other white people there, it being the High-Rise album and R&B hit single tour, which places it in 1983–ahead of Nick and Val’s pop breakthrough with solid the following year.

Someone had a joint. We smoked it in our seats before the band started and the curtain went up to expose a tall stage prop in the shape of a skyscraper, if not the Empire State Building. The band struck up,and the top half of the building unfolded down into a staircase, much like a small commuter prop plane’s door. There at the top of the stairs, in all their splendor, were Nick and Val. I don’t know if the reefer had anything to do with it, but it had the effect on me of witnessing live one of those Renaissance paintings of the Ascension–no matter that Nick and Val then descended the steps to entertain their worshipful throngs.

Did I say “life-changing”?

At Nick’s funeral, among the many names mentioned in reference and reverence, was Jesus. Nick, the speaker said, was “the black Jesus.” Made me think of the many times Liz Rosenberg and I would sit stoned, if not at his feet, in front of him, seemingly looking up, eyes open wide, mouths agape, hanging on every word he spoke to us upstairs at the Sugar Bar like we were disciples listening to the Sermon on the Mount.

Nick was so deep.

The day after Radio City I called Elliot Hubbard, an Epic Records publicist who was one of the few press contacts I’d made in my short time then in NYC. I was so blown away by A&S that I had to talk to someone. He was close to Liz and said I should call her, since she was such a huge fan of Nick and Val, having worked publicity for them at Warner Bros. Records when they were signed to the label. So I called her cold, having no idea who she was, and when I mentioned Nick and Val we became instant forever best friends, who saw their shows so many times together over the next three decades that when the two-disc A&S compilation The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities came out in 2008, it had an essay by Val in which she thanked us and said we should just do their show for them, since we knew it better than they did–which was not untrue.

As I write this I’m back in L.A., where I saw Nick and Val a couple times, at the Sunset Junction Street Fair. It was always great to see them outside of New York, and see how loved they were away as they were at home.

I’ll still be out here Monday, August 22, when I’ll think back on the five years since Nick’s been gone–though it never really feels that way. In fact, it’s very hard for me to think, speak, or write about Nick in the past tense.

I’m thinking now of a year ago last April, at the funeral of Andre Smith, who had hosted Nick and Val’s Sugar Bar’s legendary Thursday night Open Mic Show for 15 hears. The service was at the Macedonia Baptist Church in Harlem, and was attended by the same close-knit Sugar Bar family that made up so much of Nick’s funeral audience at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Of course I couldn’t help but think about Nick at Andre’s funeral, what with Andre being, next to Nick and Val, the face of the Sugar Bar as its famous Open Mic host. As I walked to the church from the 145th Street A-Train stop I also thought of Val’s Aunt Bea’s funeral, which I didn’t know then was the last time I would ever see Nick. He hadn’t been to the Sugar Bar on Thursday night for probably a couple months at least then, and he entered the room just as the service started and immediately left just as it ended.

So the last time I saw Nick I didn’t even get the chance to say hi. I remember I got a ride back to the Sugar Bar afterward with Val and Tee and Nicole and Asia, and telling Asia that I was mad at her for getting the big
tattoo on her back of her parents before I did.

I thought of all this again as I walked back to the subway after Adre’s service, trying to figure out how to get from the A to the 1, 2, or 3 to 72nd & Broadway and the Sugar Bar–again for a post-funeral celebration. Luckily
I heard my name called out from an RV with an extra seat next to fellow Sugar Bar regular Anita Parker Brown. Shinuh, a singer who plays and works at the Sugar Bar, was in the front, and I didn’t know the driver–but we
all shared exactly the same thought of Nick that we expressed on the drive to the Sugar Bar: That it’s impossible to accept the fact that Nick is gone.

Yes, it’s been five years now. But I still say stuff like, “I’m friends with Nick and Val,” or, “Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar.” Depending on the awareness of whom I’m talking to, maybe, I’ll then add that Nick is no longer living. But I never start out a reference to him or to Nick and Val in any way that recognizes that he’s gone.

It’s like how George Faison, the Tony-winning choreographer who was close to Nick and Val and created their classic dance routines, said to me one Thursday night after Open Mic, shortly after Nick died.

“Who would ever imagine that Nick Ashford could be gone?” George said to me as we walked out of the Sugar Bar, probably in the neighborhood of 2 a.m.

“No one ever could,” I replied. Nor should anyone, now or ever. Like I tweet every August 22, Nick Ashford lives.

Concert Highlights: Dwight Yoakam and Cactus Blossoms at Damrosch Park, 8/7/2016

Yoak
(Photo: Jim Bessman)

I hadn’t seen Dwight Yoakam in concert in a long time, but at his Americanafest NYC show August 7 at Damrosch Park/Lincoln Center Out of Doors, he hadn’t changed much from when I first saw him here in the early 1980s. He looked to have on the same hat, and it’s not impossible he had the same jean jacket, jeans, shirt and guitar.

And he sounded the same, with that trademark hiccup at the end of his traditional country phrasing on classics like “Honky Tonk Man,” “Guitars, Cadillacs,” “Little Sister,” “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music),” “Little Ways,” “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” and Buck Owens’ 1973 hit “Streets of Bakersfield,” which became Dwight’s first country chart-topper in 1988 after he cut it with Buck as a duet.

But as big an influence as Buck was on Dwight, Dwight’s current tour pays tribute to “someone who played Americana before there was the name”: the other Bakersfield great—also now deceased—Merle Haggard.

“I learned a lot about songwriting listening to Merle songs,” Dwight said, noting that this applied to his entire generation of songwriters—and “not just country” ones. Among the Hagg hits he performed were “Silver Wings,” “Mama Tried,” “Swinging Doors,” and “Okie from Muskogee,” which he followed with the other side of “the same coin”: Little Feat’s “Willin’.”

Dwight encored with a couple other tributes to recently departed greats in Glenn Frey (The Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) and George Martin (The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” complete with a Beatles bow by Dwight and the band at the end).

Opening band Cactus Blossoms need be noted for an excellent set, kind of a cross between Everly Brothers and cowboy songs. And Dwight, by the way, has a bluegrass album coming out Sept. 23 on Sugar Hill Records, Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars, featuring bluegrass takes on choice compositions from his catalog.

Concert Highlights–Bobby Rydell featuring City Rhythm Orchestra at Damrosch Park, 7/6/2016

Bobby Rydell at Lincoln Center Midsummer Nights Swing, July 6, 2016
Bobby Rydell at Lincoln Center Midsummer Nights Swing, July 6, 2016 (photo: Russ Titelman)

Not sure who was more excited to meet Bobby Rydell backstage at Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series at Damrosch Park on July 6, me or Russ Titelman.

A few years older than me, Russ was no less starstruck in the presence of early 1960s teen idol Rydell after a great, mostly pop standards set with Philadelphia’s City Rhythm Orchestra, songs including several Sinatra staples and a Bobby Darin tribute, the only Rydell hits being “Wild One” and “Volare.”

“It goes back to my childhood!” Russ marveled, except that Rydell’s set had contemporary relevance for him as well, as he also sang “Teach Me Tonight,” the 1950s Sammy Cahn-Gene De Paul standard that Russ just recorded with Holly Cole.

After the show–and our meeting with Rydell–Russ, who’s famously produced the likes of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood, recalled the impetus for the Cole cut, within both Sinatra and Darin contexts. Turns out he was a guest of Quincy Jones at the 1984 sessions in New York at A&R studio for Sinatra’s L.A. is My Lady album, which Jones was producing. Michael Jackson was there, so was late Broadway musical luminary Michael Bennett (A Chorus Line), and among the stellar musicians in the band was George Benson.

“Mr. S sang ‘Teach Me Tonight’ and ‘Mack the Knife,’” Russ recalled. “On a break I suggested to George that we do ‘Beyond the Sea’–one of my very favorite songs and the B-side of Darin’s ‘Mack the Knife.’ He said he already had an arrangement. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and he answered that Frank Foster, who had written the ‘Mack the Knife’ arrangement for Sinatra, had written him a big band arrangement of ‘Beyond the Sea.’ When I heard that, I said, ‘We’re doing it!’ Mr. Foster said it was one of his favorites of all his arrangements!”

Russ still considers the version of “Beyond the Sea” that he produced for Benson’s 1984 album 20/20 the best ever.

Rydell, meanwhile, sang both “Beyond the Sea” and “Mack the Knife” outdoors at Lincoln Center, not to mention Sinatra’s “The Lady is a Tramp” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” He was equally at ease singing Darrin and Sinatra.

Concert Highlights–Loudon Wainwright III with Friends and Family, 6/29/2016

The extended Family Wainwright must be the biggest and most talented clan in contemporary music. Headed by Loudon Wainwright III, it includes sister Sloan, son Rufus, daughters Martha and Lucy Wainwright Roche and now Alexandra, and numerous other relatives and players associated with Loudon and his exes Kate McGarrigle (late mother of Martha and Rufus) and Suzzy Roche (mother of Lucy).

At City Winery June 29 (the second of two consecutive Wednesday night Loudon appearances there), he brought along Rufus, Martha and Alexandra (Lucy was on tour with the Indigo Girls), Sloan, Suzzy and frequent and versatile accompanists Chaim Tannenbaum and David Mansfield. Billed as Loudon Wainwright III with Friends and Family, it was definitely a family affair, albeit one that reflected an uncommonly accomplished family that nonetheless has never been wholly functional.

He hinted at this after the the nostalgic summer opener “The Swimming Song” (sung with the full family) with “Bein’ a Dad,” a song expressing both the joys and sorrows of fatherhood (“Bein’ a dad can make you feel sad/Like you’re the insignificant other/Yeah right from the start, they break your heart/In the end every kid wants his mother”). He sang this one solo, and then the set broke into various solo, duet and trio vocal combinations starting with Loudon and Suzzy—with Mansfield on fiddle—singing Marty Robbins’ classic “At the End of a Long Lonely Day.”

Nervously noting that she rarely sings by herself, the ever wonderful Suzzy Roche followed with a confident take on Connie Converse’s “Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains),” crediting Loudon for her being aware of the tragically mysterious Converse–the New York singer-songwriter of the 1950s who wrote sad and simple songs, and when her dream of a career didn’t pan out, disappeared without a trace in 1974, to be recently rediscovered with the release of rare recordings over the last decade or so. Sloan Wainwright capped her solo segment with a duet with her brother on the Everly Brothers classic “Love Hurts” (Mansfield on mandolin).

Tannenbaum took a fine turn, playing harmonica opposite Mansfield’s accordion on “I Had a Dream,” playing banjo on Kate McGarrigle’s “Talk to Me of Mendocino” (Martha Wainwright singing backup), and guitar on “Brooklyn 1955,” a poignant song of summer and baseball from his new self-titled debut album. A major part of the Wainwright-McGarrigles universe for decades, he also performed country bluesman Peg Leg Howell’s “Coal Man Blues,” whistling along solidly while Mansfield fiddled.

Loudon then returned to offer a taste of his Surviving Twin show, in which he “posthumously collaborates” with his late father Loudon Wainwright Jr. (the esteemed Life Magazine columnist with whom he had a typically complicated relationship) by juxtaposing his music with his father’s words. But youngest child Alexandra Kelly Wainwright nearly stole the show when she came out, complained how she’d had to watch her entire family perform on stage with instruments her entire life, and for this one time only, would throw her almost 70-year-old dad a bone by singing “No Time at All” from Pippin, which was written by his college classmate Stephen Schwartz. This she did with endearing off-the-wall aplomb, a girl friend holding up cue cards for the audience to sing along while Suzzy supported on guitar.

“Why did I spend all that money to send her to college?” wondered the proud papa. “That’s a gold mine right there!” Lexie really was that good, but older sister Martha, after duetting with their father on the guilt-slinging “You Never Phone,” picked up the gauntlet and ran with it on her own terrific “Traveler,” which she performed solo with acoustic guitar. Rufus then joined her on piano and vocals for the 1930s pop song “Moon Over Miami,” which they sang in French, they said, at their father’s surprise request—Rufus explaining that Loudon (and the kids called him “Loudon” as often as “Dad”) used to complain when they sang in French, having grown up with their mother in Montreal. Rufus followed solo with his angry and vindictive “Dinner at Eight,” though he noted the obvious in that while he and his father had indeed fought hard, “in the end, it’s a love story.”

“Isn’t this the greatest family?” the ever upbeat paterfamilias asked at one point. “It’s always a great contest getting the family on stage!” Then again, he added, “it’s all about what happens in the dressing room after!”

At least Loudon, Rufus and Martha were all good on “One Man Guy,” after which Loudon ended with “All in a Family,” having earlier sung his new Trump Funny or Die video nightmare “I Had a Dream.” He brought everyone back for the wacky encore, “Meet the Wainwrights,” which he wrote last year for The Wainwright Family Adventure in Alaska, in which the family did five shows in five different cities in Alaska, with the audience traveling with them through the entire tour.

Maybe now they might consider a family TV show a la The King Family Show, or even Lawrence Welk.

Concert highlights: Ralph Stanley, 8/10/2015

I wish I could remember the name of the girl who took me to see Ralph Stanley the first time. Sue Something, I’m thinking. I definitely owe her as it was a pivotal music experience for me back in 1971 or so. Definitely at the University of Wisconsin Student Union, in an upstairs ballroom.

Sue turned me on to bluegrass, as well as Cajun music–which five years later became my entry into music journalism and the music business. But that first time I saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain boys, little did I now then that Ralph Stanley and Keith Whitley were the youngsters in his band. I would get to know Ricky very well throughout my career, and I knew Keith good, too, and his wife Lorrie Morgan, before he drank himself to death in 1989.

I think they did my favorite Ralph Stanley song, “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem, that long ago night in Madison. I’ve never forgotten hearing it around 3 a.m. driving back from Milwaukee on some clear-channel country station, then switching over and hearing a live version of The Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun,” recorded, I think, in concert in Japan. Somehow both recordings had the same power.

This time, at City Winery in New York last night, I returned Sue’s favor indirectly, taking Emily Kenison, my friend Beefy’s daughter. Beefy’s better known as Troy Charmell, multi-instrumentalist for legendary Madison-based ‘70s band Dr. Bop & The Headliners, and current half of Those Weasels, a fun duo also starring Dr. Bop’s frontman Al Craven, The White Raven. Like me some 44 years ago, Emily, just out of law school, had no idea who Ralph was, or what bluegrass is.

She does now.

Ralph’s set started with the current version of his Clinch Mountain Boys band, including his son Ralph 2 on lead guitar and grandson Nathan Stanley on rhythm—also the main vocalist, who did most of the talking. He sang a wonderful, heartfelt tribute to his grandfather, “Papaw I Love You,” from his recently re-released album The Legacy Continues; in it he refers to his “father figure” Ralph, on whose boots he fell asleep on stage as a two-year-old, as “my hero” and “best friend.”

When Ralph came out after a substantial opening segment from the band, he looked every bit his 88 years, dour and stone-faced in the manner of Jackie Mason (84), not at all robust like Tony Bennett (89). He seemed to have shrunk a foot or two since the first and last times I saw him, too frail now to play banjo, let alone hold one. Yet when he steadied himself at the mic and began singing his classic “Man of Constant Sorrow,” his voice was surprisingly strong, same with “O Death,” delivered so famously in O Brother, Where Art Thou?—the dirge here a tour de force full of unintended but undeniable meaning in his a cappella plea, “Won’t you spare me over ‘til another year?”

When the band ended with “Orange Blossom Special,” Ralph appeared disoriented, but clearly didn’t want to leave the stage. If nothing else, it was muscle memory if not sheer force of will, and they closed with the bluegrass staple “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”

Nathan promised that Ralph and the band would be out to sign merchandise, and I waited 10 minutes or so for Ralph. I hadn’t spoken to him since 2009, when we talked about his support of Obama in his dressing room at B.B. King’s. I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a long time while waiting, which was nice, but didn’t want to risk a second time, and besides, Ralph looked tired and there was no guarantee he’d even remember.

But I did round the corner thinking of trying the bus, and ran into a young fan hoping for a Ralph autograph, who said Ralph wasn’t feeling well so they took him on the bus to rest. No point in knocking, but I did take a photo of the bus, which was Ralph 2’s, but carried a huge ad for a local law firm representing, among other things, black lung cases.

Ralph1

I didn’t tell the kid, but I did hope that Ralph 1 would be spared over for another year, at the very least.

Tales of Bessman: Steve Popovich and the Dream of the Fan Fair Gherm

Today’s the last day of CMA Music Festival in Nashville, which used to be called Fan Fair for many years before the Country Music Association completely co-opted it. I used to go there every year, starting from when it was held at the downtown Municipal Auditorium in the 1970s to the many years it was at the dusty Tennessee State Fairgrounds in the ’80s and ’90s.

Unable to afford much of anything anymore, I haven’t gone in years. But I have recurring nightmares over missing it. Last night’s was a doozy.

Actually, they’re all pretty much the same: I’ve been in Nashville a few days and it’s either my last day or I’m heading back tomorrow. Yet somehow I haven’t seen anyone I need to see–particularly the people I always stay with, have lunch with, hang out with, etc. So I’m completely freaking out.

Making it all worse last night was that I remember parking my car, but don’t remember where I parked it. In fact, I don’t even remember what kind of car it is, color, model, identifying characteristics. I’m frantically searching all over for it when I wake up.

So two days ago I thought I’d take a rare “selfie”–God, I hate that word!–and put it up on Instagram and Twitter, as a tribute to Fan Fairs of old. I tried to look like the biggest Fan Fair gherm–something that still comes natural.

“Gherm,” if you don’t know, is a dismissive label used by Nashville music business folk for the fans who flood the city for Fan Fair, er, CMA Music Festival–or any other time of year, really–and meet and greet their heroes, which is pretty much what Fan Fair was originally set up to do. They’d wear their favorite artists’ t-shirts and badges and caps, much as I did in my selfie (there, I said it again).

But no one was ever a bigger gherm than me, and I say that with great pride. Yes, I had business being with the stars, but I never kidded myself: I was just a big kid from Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, meeting and greeting my country music heroes, just like everyone else.

So even though I couldn’t make it again this year, I decided to put on my best gherm t-shirt and cap and take a Fan Fair tribute selfie (I still hate the word). I put on my Ronnie Milsap cap–in honor of Ronnie’s finally getting into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and a lasting friendship that began back at the Dane Country Coliseum in Madison back in the late ’80s–and my orange Cleveland International Records t-shirt, with the caricature of the accordion player who looks kind of like Steve Popovich.

Steve was the founder of Cleveland International Records. He was the sort of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back. He gave me the Cleveland International shirt. One Fan Fair he made up these hysterical “Your brain on Country Music!” t-shirts and gave me one of those, too. I wish I could find it if I still have it. Either way, I wish I could remember it, like I wish I could remember where I parked my car.

It played on those stupid “This is your brain on drugs” TV commercials, where they cut to the eggs frying in a pan. Being on drugs they only made me hungry.

I think it had a cartoon of the eggs in the pan wearing cowboy boots and hats and having a big old time, or something like that. It was really great, I remember, for sure.

And I remember Steve, of course, who died three years ago tomorrow.

No one cared more about music than Steve, who had a huge hand in the careers of Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson, and put out the Meat Loaf record on Cleveland International and then spent the rest of his life trying to get fairly paid for it.

No one cared more about the little guy, either, or the little guy’s music. He showed me what polka really is, for which I’m eternally grateful.

He had the biggest heart of anyone I knew, and after years of working hard and eating bad, his big heart finally gave out.

I forgot a lot of things, but I can never forget Steve Popovich. No one can.

BessmanMilsap

The Bessman Sideshow

So I needed a new category for commentary-type thought pieces, and a name to go with it. You know, something suitably self-important.

The Bessman Factor came to mind, but I didn’t want to tempt being confused with O’Reilly. The Bessman View didn’t work, as I’m no Barbara Walters, not to mention Jenny McCarthy.

The Bessman Perspective was too ponderous, and then The Bessman Circus popped into my head—kind of the way Cancer Funnies did. Close, but no exploding cigar.

So please make welcome herewith, The Bessman Sideshow, premiere post to follow shortly.

CF37

You may re call—that is, a) if I ever explained it upfront in the first place, and b) you go back with me here to the beginning, that doing this series Cancer Funnies was the last thing I wanted to do, that blogging about cancer and other ailments has become a veritable cottage industry, albeit a nonpaying one.

And who wants to read a self-serving, self-indulgent blog about someone’s life-threatening illness anyway?

But then I came up with the title Cancer Funnies and laughed out loud at my sense of irony and offbeat cleverness. If nothing else, I figured, I’d amuse myself, and besides, the title was too good to let go of, even though in retrospect, now, I most obviously should have.

I mean, cancer isn’t particularly funny to being with, and neither am I. Hence neither is Cancer Funnies.

This hit home hard last Thursday night at The Beacon Theater, when I left an early set by the legendary Standells to get there on time for the Ledisi show and ran into a friend in the lobby, a “cancer survivor,” she would say, whereas at this point, I remain a “cancer sufferer.”

An old friend, she’s one of the few people who know I have cancer, even though I’ve written about it extensively and pretty much tell everyone who wants me to work for free that I’m too ill to do it. Which tells you, a) that nobody reads this blog, and b) nobody is much interested that I’m too ill to work for free.

I’ll say this for her: She’s the exact opposite from me. Bubbly, upbeat, positive. She asked how I was doing and I honestly told her.

“You wuss,” she chided. “You didn’t have chemo. You only had radiation. I had chemo, twice!”

Well excuse me for livin’, Sister. At least, I waited the fuck long enough for it to metastasize before having a biopsy. Shit, I could have stayed at The Standells. Not only were they great, I left before they got to “Dirty Water.”

I winced and walked away—and then into the theater to catch the end of Robert Glasper opening set. As bad luck would have it, she was seated at the other end of the same row, as I found out at intermission. And while I may write Cancer Funnies, she sensed correctly that I didn’t have much of a Cancer Humor and came over to apologize for making light of my radiation.

She tried, too, to engage me in some kind of private cancer patient secret society, which of course I neither feel nor identify with.

“We’re cancer survivors!” she proclaimed, trying to cheer me on. You and me against the world, to borrow from Helen Reddy.

“Not me, baby. I’m the original zombie: I drink your blood. I eat your skin.”

Dear Ledisi, maybe the most wonderful, bubbly, upbeat and positive artist ever.

She spotted me in the crowd and gave me a shoutout, and after the show she asked how I was. I shrugged and didn’t say anything.

If I do say anything, I say, “Old Man’s Disease.” Of course, that could be interpreted to mean something other than prostate cancer.

As my late father used to say, nearing the end: “Pneumonia is an old man’s best friend.”

Concert Highlights–Del McCoury Band with David Grisman at City Winery, 4/17/14

Del McCoury said early on that he didn’t want to repeat any of the songs from the previous night’s first of two shows at City Winery. According to Del McCoury Band bassist Alan Bartram, he didn’t.

Alan, incidentally, also mentioned during the show how thrilled he was to see it spotlighted in New York magazine. Turns out he’s a longtime subscriber.

Speaking of magazines, the band had been to Relix earlier in the day, and had already done “a lot of picking,” said Ronnie McCoury. Del noted, too, that he’d spent a lot of time at the Winery “downstairs with the barrels.” He seemed happier about that visit than the one at Relix.

The first half of the show was all McCoury Band. They did their version of Dylan’s “Walk Out In the Rain,” actually from the 1995 album Ronnie & Rob McCoury. It’s as good a Dylan cover as there is, and Ronnie sounds a lot like Del singing it.

Del prefaced the performance of his 2008 album titletrack Moneyland by noting that John Herald’s manager had sent it to him shortly after Herald died (an apparent suicide in 2005).

Herald was one of the major players in New York City’s bluegrass scene, having formed the Greenbriar Boys in 1959. I was lucky to meet him when he was a key part of  Greg Garing’s Alphabet City Opry in the late ‘90s in the East Village.

 

Another highlight came with another McCoury album titletrack—last year’s “The Streets of Baltimore” cover of Bobby Bare’s classic 1966 country hit. As Del explained, he had lived in Maryland for a time, when he was playing with late bluegrass upright bass great Jack Cooke.

Determining after that no one in the audience was from Baltimore, Del opened it up to requests: “You paid to get in here, I didn’t,” he said. “We should do something you want to hear.” It was “High on a Mountain,” his 1972 album titletrack, and then he brought out David Grisman.

Grisman related how he met Del at Del’s first show with Bill Monroe (he played five-string banjo) in the spring of 1963 at NYU, where Grisman was a student. He and Del then sang the Monroe Brothers’ “Nine Pound Hammer,” Grisman on mandolin and Del on guitar. From their Del & Dawg album of ‘90s jams, they performed “Country Boy Rock & Roll.” Marty Stuart also does a great job of the Reno and Smiley country classic:

Also from Del & Dawg came “The Tennessee Waltz,” “Walkin’ the Dawg” and the Carter Family’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.”

Grisman scored by pointing out how late-night TV never mentions the Carter Family, and that “any financial advisor will tell you to put some of your money in CDs.” He was also the most visual guy on stage, a big, gentle bear of a man in gray shirt and slacks to match his long hair and beard, positioned in between Ronnie in a black suit and Del in a light one.

He would turn to his left to share vocals with Del, then turn to his right to trade mandolin licks with Ronnie, rocking physically while Ronnie stood and smiled—a striking balance in appearance and performing style.

Del and Dawg will now tour together, while Rob completes his first solo CD.

The Fall of the House of Bessman, Chapter 1

So my career has come down to this: I had no place to write outside my own website, and then I found examiner.com while researching.

They were looking for writers and obviously had no standards—and paid by the click. Since July 10, 2009, I’ve written 1,424 stories and have yet to make one month’s rent.

But most of the stories I’m happy about in that I got some kind of spiritual kick, not that I’m spiritual, but at least I felt I did something worthwhile, i.e., writing about something that meant something to me, whether or not anyone read them, which few obviously did. And examiner.com didn’t care.

Maybe once or twice a year I get an email saying how they “thoroughly enjoy” what I’ve written, so much so that they’re “sharing it at a higher level,” meaning that they’re promoting it on the site. I got one a day ago.

I should be happy, right? Except they’re promoting one of the few pieces that I did next to nothing on, that I basically edited and modified a press release! Nothing uncommon in the whole scheme of journalistic things, but something I rarely do because it usually doesn’t interest me. Since I’m not getting paid more than pennies, I generally write about what I care about, like I more or less said.

The case in point is an announcement from the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) about the Hal David Starlight Award going to Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons. Now as I said at the bottom of the piece, and as I do with all SHOF stories, I noted that I contribute to the SHOF newsletter. In fact, I’ve been a longtime supporter of the SHOF for years and years. For God’s sake, I’ve been in the music business for decades and as the cliché goes, it all starts with a song.

But do I care about Dan Reynolds? Imagine Dragons? God, no! I wouldn’t be able to even name an Imagine Dragons song had I not copied a few titles from the press release! Did examiner.com ever promote anything I wrote–like 99.9 percent of the 1,424 stories I’ve written there since July 10, 2009–that I cared about. God, no!

So my career has come down to this.