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Labor Day and its Laborious Aftermath

Labor Day is the most bittersweet holiday. It affords a welcome day of rest from the labor that it honors, but unofficially marks when the carefree days of summer give way to the seriousness of autumn and winter. As much as we enjoy the bratwurst and beer and the day of rest, we still feel the annual resentment of the Huckleberry Finn freedom of summer vacation coming to an end with our forced return some stern schoolmarm’s classroom, along with all the adult responsibilities that are supposed to kick back in with the cooler temperatures, and this being a leap year we’re also obliged by a quadrennial political cliche to start paying even more attention to that dispiriting presidential race.
Here in Kansas, at least, we don’t acknowledge Labor Day as the actual end of summer. The kids have already been back in school for a couple of weeks, a form of child abuse we were happily spared back in our school days, those slowing-to-a-crawl school zone speed limits are back in effect along with all the rest of the adult responsibilities that never did really go away, and politics is a constant obsession even in off-years, so some arbitrary date on a calendar doesn’t mean much around here. The warm weather usually persists at least the first few weeks into September, sometimes even into October, until the big bluegrass festival down in Winfield and the Kansas State Fair over in Hutchinson have concluded no one around here will call it a summer, and we’ll keep wearing a straw fedora until the temperatures require a cloth cap, no matter what rules of hat etiquette they might have cooked up in the frigid northeast.
We’ll take today off, too, and enjoy family and friends and good food and the absence of labor, along with the strangely perfect weather we’ve been lately been having around here, and we suggest you do the same. Tomorrow is another work and school day, and there’s that dispiriting presidential election lurking in the day’s news, and it would be good to face it well rested.

— Bud Norman

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Two Hot Fiddlers, RIP

One of the many crises America faces in this period of cultural decline is a severe shortage of first-rate fiddle players, and the problem was greatly worsened over the past few weeks by the deaths of Benjamin “Tex” Logan on April 24 and and then Johnny Gimble on Saturday. One can hope that we’ll hear their likes again, and that the quintessentially American traditions they came from will be revived, but the way things are going we can’t help but worry that it will be a long while.
Gimble’s name is the more familiar of the two, at least to those music lovers fortunate enough have to lived on the plains for a sufficient number of years to be familiar with the ineffable wonders of western swing. Born in 1926 to a  musically gifted family in sparsely populated west Texas, Gimble was reared in the Scots-Irish tradition of fiddling but also absorbed the blues of his black neighbors and fellow cotton-patch pickers, the sophisticated jazz music that was making its way through the radio waves to even the remote regions of the country, from such far-away sources as the New York City Onyx Club where Stuff Smith was fiddlin’ hokum and even from as far away as Sweden’s unaccountably jazzy Svend Asmussen, and especially the strange hybrid of those three styles that The Light Crust Doughboys and Milton Brown and his Brownies and other bands were gradually developing in the southwestern states. By his early teens Gimble was making such a professional splash that he was playing with and learning from the likes of the great J.R. Chatwell of Adolph Hofner’s Texans, which was understandably re-dubbed “Tex” Hoffner’s Texans around the time of America’s entry into World War II, the great Cliff Bruner of Texas Wanderer’s fame, and the great Huggins Williams of Prince Albert Hunt and his East Texas Serenaders, who had started the western swing ball rolling with its stone age recordings of rural white string-based ragtime. By his late teens Gimble had so successfully melded these disparate styles, and with such an astounding degree of virtuosity, that he landed a gig at the very top of the western swing heap with Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys.
By that time the Playboys had been dominating the music scene in the southwest quadrant of the United States for two decades, and had featured such formidable fiddlers as Jesse Ashlock, who laid down some sizzling jazz, and Wills himself, who as good as anybody in the old-fashioned Scots-Irish style, but Gimble’s few years with the band were among its very best. In the mid-’50s rockabilly and the rest of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution at last overwhelmed western swing even in its native region, and Gimble was forced to retreat to Nashville and earn a good living and a stellar reputation playing more straitlaced country music in Nashville’s still-lucrative studios. You can hear his perfectly appropriate playing on a number of hits by the most popular country musicians of the era, including George Jones and Roy Clark, but Gimble inevitably grew bored and returned to his beloved plains to play for the aging aficionados who still flocked to the dance halls of Texas and Oklahoma and Kansas and the western swinging region for the real deal prairie stuff, although he still continued to make classic recordings.
When Merle Haggard went to cut his epic rendition of “Brain Cloudy Blues” he insisted on Gimble providing the fiddle, and the result is a masterpiece of American music. A few notes into Gimble’s solo Haggard urges him to “get it low, man, get it low,” and Gimble gets right down into that loamy dirt from whence America’s best music has always come. He showed the same knack with a younger generation of talented performers such as Mark O’Connor and Asleep at the Wheel who were eager to learn what he had gleamed from Chatwell and Bruner and Wills and Asmussen and all the rest of that great line of fiddling. Our hope is that they picked something up, and will somehow be able to pass it along.
There’s also a lot to be learned from both Benjamin F. Logan Jr. and his alter-ego, “Tex” Logan, but the former will probably more influential than the latter. “Tex” Logan was an awe-inspiring bluegrass fiddler, who mastered the technically demanding style with such virtuosity that he was frequently invited to play along with none other than Bill Monroe, the acknowledged original master of the genre, and although his fame never spread far beyond the elite circles of bluegrass musicians he was highly regarded within them. Emmylou Harris and Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan and the “newgrass” generation of players that kept the style alive frequently recorded his tunes and employed his playing, but he always took the stage with the same corny cowboy-hatted persona that he had learned in his tiny Texas hometown of Coahoma. The music was always rural and rough-edged, too, with a high-lonesome hillbilly sound so many city-slickers associate with that oddly-shaped banjo player in “Deliverance,” but a more careful listening to “Tex” Logan and the other virtuosos of this ancient and intricate music will reveal a remarkable level of intellectual sophistication.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Benjamin F. Logan Jr. was also one of the most remarkable scientific thinkers of his generation. A graduate of the electrical engineering school at Texas Tech, with a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a doctorate from Columbia University, Logan became well-known within engineering circles as a research mathematician at Bell Laboratories from 1956 to 1993. He wrote a dissertation on high-pass signals in the mid-’60s, did groundbreaking work in computer-generated reverberation of sound, which unfortunately led to all those kids downloading his songs off the internet instead of buying them on records, and along the way he threw in such innovations as colorless artificial reverb and an echo canceller for satellite communications and some big thoughts about the “Shepp-Logan Phantom” which helped doctors to render potentially life-saving images in cranial scans. We’re confident that a lot of bright young men and women are following up on all these ideas, this being a very high-tech age, but we’d like to thank that some of “Tex” Logan’s low-down fiddlin’ will also echo through the internet and the ages.
In Tom Wolfe’s intriguing history of the technological revolution of the past decades, “Robert Noyce and His Congregation,” he notes how many of the era’s greatest scientific minds seemed to come from tiny little towns on the windswept plains and deserts. He attributes this partly to the egalitarian-by-default nature of the educational systems that provided learning to both the rich and poor seated together in those hardscrabble places, and to the strange snobbishness about engineering and other technical professionals among the educated upper-classes of the east, but we believe that the freedom of that time and place also played a role. The bright young men and women of that time and place were free to let their imaginations soar over the vast landscape, rooted in the traditions of their upbringing but open to the intuitive brilliance of their supposedly unsophisticated neighbors and fellow cotton-pickers, inspired by the sounds pouring through the modern age of radio, ready to encode those sounds on to something so far-fetched as internet, unrestrained by the prejudices of the past or the fads of the moment, well educated by home-grown, human-to-human cultural institutions safely outside the official academy, and always able to take it low, man, low with the highest level of soulful craftsmanship, which is pretty much America at its best. You can still hear an inspiring few notes of that freedom and excellence in the recordings of Gimble and Logan, and we hope that a few generations from now they’ll still be able to hear live in some low-down beer joint and not just on whatever newfangled gizmos they’ve come up with to play the old stuff.

— Bud Norman

A Down-Home Kind of Greatness

Today we take a break from our usual grumblings about politics, economics, and the gradual decline of civilization to note the passing of one of the great men of American culture. Earl Scruggs died Wednesday at the age of 88, and the nation is vastly poorer for the loss.

Scruggs wouldn’t have minded a bit that most of the obituaries will describe him as a banjo player, but anyone who ever heard him play that much-maligned instrument knows that he was much more than just another picker. He was a extraordinary virtuoso who revolutionized the way his instrument is played, became a key figure in the development of an important American musical genre in the process, and influenced musicians in fields ranging from country to rock ‘n’ roll to jazz. Just as important, he was widely respected for his character, helped bridge the musical generation gap of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and stood as an example of the democratic greatness of American music.

Born to a poor but loving family of talented musicians in the hills of North Carolina, Scruggs was a child prodigy who began to develop his own three-fingered technique for playing the five-string banjo by the age of 4. Passionate about the music, and free of the modern distractions that have doubtless derailed many young talents in a more affluent age, Scruggs was single-mindedly devoted to music and given to a legendarily rigorous practice regimen. By his teens he was ready to change the course of American music history, although he was probably only hoping to make a living.

He first came to prominence by joining Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, a crack outfit that was beginning to attract attention with an innovative style of traditional rural music. Scruggs replaced the beloved David “Stringbean” Akeman, a capable banjoist of the old claw-hammer school whose main role in band was to provide cornball comedy between songs, and the change transformed the band. Although his shy, taciturn, and rigidly dignified personality made him ill-suited to the comedian’s role, Scruggs had a fast, flowing, propulsive style of playing — known to fans everywhere as “the roll” — that sped the band into a brand new style of music that became known as bluegrass.

Having played the pivotal role in creating bluegrass, Scruggs joined forces with fellow Bluegrass Boy Lester Flatt to do more than any other musicians to popularize it. The pair and their outstanding band introduced the music to the folk-crazed college students of the early ‘60s at numerous festivals, serenaded an audience of millions every week with their “Beverly Hillbillies,” and gave millions of others their very first taste of bluegrass by providing the soundtrack for “Bonnie and Clyde” with their signature tune, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Bill Monroe had been famously hostile to the hippies who were already taking over his musical creation by the late ‘60s, but the easy-going open-minded Scruggs had a more accepting attitude than his old boss. When he formed the Earl Scruggs Revue, featuring his long-haired sons, both fine musicians in their own rights, Scruggs added songs by Bob Dylan and The Byrds to his repertoire and welcomed the tie-dyed set to his shows. We had the privilege of hearing Scruggs play at the old Henry Levitt Arena in Wichita on a bill with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Dave Bromberg, and a little-known comedian named Steve Martin back in the early ‘70s, and we vividly recall that everyone in attendance seemed to agree that the quiet, middle-aged hillbilly in the non-descript suit was by far the hippest cat they’d ever seen.

Scruggs has been a constant musical companion ever since, his finest recordings taking their place of honor our shelf along side those the other truly great musicians of the American tradition. In addition to the hours of happy listening, he also provided us with a cheering reminder that true greatness can come from anywhere, and in any form. Scruggs proved that greatness can be learned through family traditions as well as an academy, that it can be honed out behind the barn as easily as in a classroom, and that it can happen in the Grand Ole Opry as well as the fanciest opera halls.

Rest in peace, Earl, and may your music always roll on.

— Bud Norman