On the Renovation (or Not!) of Old Hymns

A few years ago College Avenue Baptist Church did the unthinkable by pulling the plug on its two Sunday morning worship services. These services, one held in the gymnasium, the other held in the sanctuary, divided the congregation according to their preferred worship styles. One service was casual and hip, featuring music by contemporary artists heard on Christian radio. The other service was formal and not-so-hip, featuring worship music by hymn writers who are now dead. As you can guess, the hip service attracted young people; the formal service attracted all the old folks.

But those days are long gone at CABC. Today, everyone attends the same worship service.  Old folks and young folks (yes, even children!) worship together in the same place at the same time. The emphasis has been on congregational unity and intergenerational discipleship.

But this has not been an easy transition for the church or its worship leaders.

I was reminded of this last Sunday when our worship music team (bless their hearts), after a couple of contemporary songs, led the congregation in the beloved old hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The hymn, written by the English theologian Isaac Watts (1674-1758) is one the treasures of the church, a familiar old hymn with an elegant musical score.

But not so fast. Apparently there is an alternate version of this hymn which is set to the Celtic love song “O Waly Waly” (or, “The Water is Wide”). It is this version that our worship leaders have chosen for our congregation this week.

215px-River_wild_movie_posterDuring the first verse, I look around the sanctuary and see puzzled looks on the faces of older worshippers who aren’t sure they know how this hymn is supposed to go. The words are familiar but the music, the melody … I’ve heard it before. Wasn’t it the soundtrack to the movie “The River Wild” a few years back? There’s confusion in the air and it’s obvious that very few people are actually singing.

The hymn ends and now it’s time for the offering. The ushers – or hospitality team — come forward and our worship leaders begin singing another hymn while the plates are being passed. This time it’s “Be Still My Soul” by Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel (1649-?). Given that our pastor is teaching this week on the subject of busyness, it’s a good choice right before the sermon. The young woman who is singing lead on this hymn has a lovely voice, but wait … she has changed the melody. I don’t remember it this way. And a new chorus has been added … with a heavy drumbeat. Now I’m wondering what this song is all about. The beat of the drums and the sentiment of the hymn seem to be at odds with each other.


Look, I try not to be a chronic complainer or curmudgeon. My wife and I attend worship every Sunday with the hope that everyone in the congregation (young and old alike) will be able to worship together in unity. I’m all in when it comes to intergenerational worship. But having sat through many good (and not so good) attempts to pull it off, I’ve learned a few things.

First, despite its messiness, intergenerational worship is worth the effort. I love seeing children (even the little ones who have no clue what’s going on) in the worship service sitting with their parents, taking in all that’s going on. That’s how we pass faith on down from one generation to the next. Kids need to see their parents worshipping God. It makes an indelible imprint on them. Likewise, it’s good for older people to get out of their comfort zones and to experience worship in new ways. It’s good for them to be around young people who love and worship the same God they do but have different ways of expressing themselves in a worship service.

Music is of course the elephant in the room that stirs up the most grumbling and disunity. It doesn’t have to be that way.

I don’t believe old folks (like me) really want to stay stuck in the last century nor do they want their churches to die of attrition (which they will do it they don’t connect with young people). This may be a bold thing to say but old people can handle today’s new music. Well, maybe not all of it, but certainly they can handle more than most people think. They just need to be exposed to it in a positive and inclusive way. Sure, there will always be resisters but most seniors don’t have a problem with new music at all. They hear it all the time. What they do have a problem with is music (in a worship setting) that is impossible to sing. Honestly, way too many of today’s worship songs were never meant to be sung by congregations on Sunday morning. They were meant to be sung by recording artists in recording studios and concerts. A radio hit may have a catchy hook in the chorus but that doesn’t make it appropriate for congregational singing. Too many worship services resemble karaoke bars.

But back to intergenerational worship. Is it possible for all age groups to worship together even when they don’t all agree on the style of music? Yes, absolutely they can. It’s possible for a worship service to include new music along with a few golden oldies. Why not? The musicians—at our church anyway—are very capable of playing any kind of music they want. I’m a bluegrass musician and even I can handle a set list with back to back songs by Mercy Me and Fanny Crosby.

I confess that I am guilty of leading Amazing Grace to the tune of Gilligan’s Island … but never in a worship service. I’d like to suggest that it would be wise for worship leaders who are leading intergenerational worship to refrain from getting too creative with those old hymns.  A hymn should be sung in a version that is as close to the original as possible, the way older members of the congregation remember it. In my way of thinking, this shows respect not only for the hymn but also for the congregation.

There are exceptions of course. Some old hymns have been renovated with good (or at least acceptable) results. Chris Tomlin’s “My Chains Are Gone” version of Amazing Grace is a good example of this although I remember it took a while for some people to wrap their brains around the idea that Amazing Grace needed any improvement at all.

And while “When I Survey” doesn’t need movie theme music to make it relevant, Tomlin added his “Oh the Wonderful Cross” as a bonus chorus and it works very well. Maybe all future renovations of hymns should be put in the hands of Chris Tomlin.

We still have pews at our church with seldom-opened hymnbooks in the pew racks. Occasionally I pull one out and browse through it.  There are some treasures of the church in there. There are some real stinkers in there, too, but that’s for another article. Truth is, there is a lot of great music from the past that younger Christians should hear (and learn to sing). And there are a lot of great songs for worship being written today that certainly deserve to be heard by generations of worshippers yet to come.

What do you think?

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Remembering Bill Keith

bill_keithBill Keith, newest member of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, died on October 23, less than a month after being inducted into the IBMA’s prestigious Hall of Fame. Bill accepted the honor in person at ceremonies held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Confined to a wheelchair, he uttered a brief but heartfelt acceptance speech, thanking his many friends and fans for the recognition.

I first learned about Bill Keith some fifty years ago from other banjo players in California where I live, who were learning to play what they referred to as “Keith-style” banjo. I didn’t know who Bill Keith was at the time but I heard the “style” and was very intrigued by it.  I learned that Bill Keith was a young banjo player working with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys (although in Monroe’s band, he was known as “Brad” Keith because there could only be one Bill in the Blue Grass Boys.) After working with Monroe, Bill played with a number of other bands including Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band

“Keith-style” banjo meant that the notes played on the banjo did not harmonize with each other in an arpeggio style like Earl Scruggs and my hero Doug Dillard played. Instead the notes flowed along in a melodic style, one note after the other, sort of like the flight of the bumblebee which I had learned as a child to play on the piano. Most Keith-style banjo players like to play fiddle tunes note-for-note.

When Steve Martin made his acceptance speech at IBMA this year (upon receiving the IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award) he commented that his banjo journey consisted of a series of “OH NO” moments–those times when he heard a newer, better way to play. He recalled how as a young Scruggs-style player, he first heard Bill Keith. “OH NO,” he realized, “Now I have to learn how to play like that!” I laughed at the truth of this because that was my experience exactly. I did try (and try and try) to learn how to play in the Keith-style, but I never mastered it. I learned to play “Soldiers Joy” and “Sailor’s Hornpipe” enough to get by, but that was about it. I never did get the concepts in my head, so I had to memorize those tunes. If I made mistake along the way I would get hopelessly lost and have to start over. But I have always loved to listen to the great Keith-style players (and there are many)–guys like Carl Jackson, Larry McNeeley, Alan Munde, Bela Fleck, Scott Vestal, Noam Pikelny. Out here on the west coast, the first one I heard (and admired) was Pat Cloud.

Bill Keith's Lilly Brothers Speech-1Many years later, I had a chance to meet Bill Keith and even work with him on one project. When I was producing the IBMA Awards Show in 2002, I asked Bill if he would present the Lilly Brothers for induction into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. He agreed and I met up with him in Louisville on the day of the awards ceremony. He had not yet written his speech for the Lilly Brothers. I told him that we really needed a copy of the speech before the show. So he went straight to his hotel room and scratched out a lovely tribute to the Lilly Brothers on a sheet of Galt House Hotel stationery. A few minutes later, we transcribed it to the show’s teleprompter and the induction of the Lilly Brothers went without a hitch. I have hung on to that sheet of paper … it’s a little piece of bluegrass music history.

During rehearsal for that show, I mentioned to Bill that I had purchased a pair of his famous “Keith tuners” (tuning pegs for the banjo which allowed you do tune a string up or down on the fly) many years ago and that they were no longer operating properly. I wondered if he could give me some advice. He simply reached into his backpack and handed me a pair of brand new tuners and said, “Try these instead. Send your old ones back to me and we’ll fix them for you.” I did and he did.

My only other encounter with Bill Keith was after the 2006 awards show, which I also produced. The show had gone well but there were some controversial moments during the show which had everyone talking. Among them was our decision to combine the individual instrumental awards into one presentation rather than the usual six (requiring six acceptance speeches), mainly to save time on the show. Not everyone was happy with this decision. After the show was over, I went back to the hotel and got on an elevator with Bill Keith. Seizing the opportunity, he pointed his finger at me and said in so many words that he was quite offended by how we had marginalized the individual instrumental award recipients. “How could you do such a thing?” which of course was not a question but a reflection of his frustration and concern. Dell Davis (my co-producer) and I received a lot of criticism from a lot of people regarding that particular awards show (on another issue entirely) and most of it was completely unwarranted. Bill’s criticism, however, was not unwarranted. Had I been been able to produce another awards show, I would have fixed how we handled those instrumental awards.

There are people who add immensely to your enjoyment of life and Bill Keith was one of those people for me. I will always respect and admire him for his immense talent and his generosity, not only to me but to others. Thank you Bill for all that I learned from you and for giving me the chance to know you personally.

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A Celebration of Bill Monroe’s Birthday

The “Father of Bluegrass Music” is Bill Monroe, the first recording artist to incorporate into his band the five acoustic instruments (mandolin, 5-strinbill monroeg banjo played three-finger style, fiddle, guitar and string bass) that make up a classic bluegrass ensemble. He was born September 13, 1911 in Rosine, Kentucky, 104 years ago. September 13 fell on a Sunday this year so I played a lot of Bill Monroe music on my Sunday night radio show. For at least a month, you can listen to it in it’s entirety at kson.com/bluegrass.  Included are performances of Monroe songs by Monroe himself as well as other artists including Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Tom T. Hall, Robert Earl Keen, Dwight Yoakum and Elvis Presley.

I do recount on the show a couple of personal Bill Monroe experiences from the days when I was a member of Brush Arbor. We opened for him at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood and that’s one time when I was so nervous I remember breaking into a flop sweat. During one of our faster songs, my thumb-pick flew off my thumb and landed somewhere in the audience. Fortunately, my brother Jim had an extra thumb-pick nearby and handed me one.

We also played a bluegrass festival that same year (1973) which was called “Bill Monroe’s Golden West Bluegrass Festival” in Norco, California. The promoter of the show invited us to play but wouldn’t allow us to set up our drums. Bill Monroe intervened, however, and gave us permission to go ahead and set up our drums on the stage, which was generally a no-no at bluegrass festivals. Today it’s a lot more common, but that experience convinced me that a lot of bluegrass fans put more limits on the music than even the Father of Bluegrass Music himself did. He always encouraged young musicians to play their own music, not just copy what everyone else was doing. Bluegrass music today is much richer and still alive and well because of that.  Happy birthday, Bill Monroe!

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So Long Eucalyptus Hills, Hello Alpine!

100_5799aLast week Marci and I moved out of our home in Lakeside after 37 years. Located in Eucalyptus Hills, it was a wonderful house that we purchased in 1978 after a couple years in another house just up the street. We leave behind a ton of memories in that old house which was built in the 1950’s and moved onto the property in 1972. We did some remodeling along the way and added a driveway, lots of landscaping, a swimming pool and an office/bedroom over the garage among other things. We added so much to the house, I think, that it simply became too big for just Marci and me. In this house, we raised our family, started a church, ran a business/ministry, hosted weddings and celebrated holidays, especially Easter Sunday. This is the house that our children will remember as their home for many years to come, even though it now has a new owner.

easter musicThe decision to sell the house and downsize was accelerated somewhat by our visit last summer to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. It was there that we learned Marci’s disability was caused by a disease called MS and was not curable. Since walking up and down stairs was nearly impossible for Marci, we knew we needed to move to a home without stairs. We also knew that we needed to reduce our expenses considerably since I was planning to resign from the church and could no longer afford the upkeep that a big house requires.

Of course, the decision to move was a hard one emotionally. Telling our children that we were selling the house was almost like telling them we were dying. Of course, we ARE dying, but not just now. The house on the other hand, has to go right away. Besides feeling sad about the decision, we also felt a sense of extreme anxiety. What would we do with all our “stuff?” After 37 years in the same place, you tend to collect a lot of things. We have plenty of storage spaces at the house in the basement, in the garage, in the attic and in two outbuildings. Besides the usual kinds of household items, I collected 40 years of bluegrass LP’s and CD’s from my years as a bluegrass disc-jockey. I also wrote a few books and stashed them in the garage, in the office, under the house and anywhere else I could put them. I do not throw away albums that I listen to and I don’t throw away books that I read. I am a man of many bookcases.

And then there is the memorabilia. I am a collector of memories. I have all sorts of youth ministry memorabilia from my Youth Specialties days that I have no idea what to do with. And having played in several bluegrass bands, I have instruments, sound equipment and music paraphernalia that normal people don’t have. What to do with all this stuff? (In the end, it took three garage sales, a few dumpsters and the rental of a storage unit.)

The other problem was just getting the house ready to sell. It needed a lot of repairs. Some things were little things (like replacing the window screens) and some things were big (like replacing the entire septic system). After my resignation from the church, I spent most of my time (January through June) on this project. One repair seemed to lead to another. It was never-ending, it seemed.

But finally we put the house on the market at the end of June. We met with our realtor (the same one who sold us the house in the first place, Norm Orgel) and started the process by agreeing on a selling price. There were times when I felt like the price was too high (who would pay such a price for an old house like ours?) and other times when I thought we priced it too low (who wouldn’t want to live in an old house like this one with so many happy memories attached to it?)

After the house went on the market (Friday, June 19), Marci and I decided to take a couple days off and go to Rosarito, Mexico for a little R&R. We were exhausted. By the time we got home on Sunday, our realtor informed us that we had an offer on the house … for the full asking price.  We were of course elated. The prospective buyer of our home agreed to our “counter-offer” which was simply to give us a 90 day escrow period so that we could find another place to live.

The house-hunting began in earnest a couple of weeks later after we attended my aunt Mabel’s 100th birthday party in Florida on July 4th weekend. Our realtor signed us up for a real-estate search program that delivered potential houses to our email in-boxes every day. I began to realize that we were perhaps dreaming to think we could find a house that could meet our needs and also fit into our price range. The homes we liked were all way too expensive.

The housing market in San Diego was also heating up in July. Houses didn’t stay on the market very long so we had to move quickly on houses we liked. During the month of July we looked at about 15 homes and couldn’t pull the trigger on any of them. There was always something about the house that didn’t seem right. Our search included east San Diego, La Mesa, El Cajon, Spring Valley, Santee and Lakeside. We wanted to stay in the same general area we lived in before.

As August was getting closer, we were starting to feel a little more urgency because I had a mission trip to Mexico coming up in a couple of weeks. Maybe we needed to just rent a house until we could find something that we wanted to buy? But that would mean moving twice. Still, it seemed like a viable solution, so I started looking on Craigslist and Zillow for rental properties around San Diego. Suitable homes for rent were few and far between. The ones that I visited were in terrible locations or the houses were dingy and smelled like cigarettes.

Then a house showed up for rent in Alpine. I really hadn’t considered Alpine as a place to buy a home but we could possibly rent there if the house was right. So we went to look at it and it was very nice, in a community called Crown Hills. But we were too late. Someone else had already applied to rent the house. We were second on the list and would be contacted in the other renter didn’t have a decent credit score or backed out for some reason.

IMG_20150905_142537442aWe didn’t get that house but we discovered that there were other houses for sale in that same neighborhood. We visited three homes in Crown Hills and the third was the charm. Marci loved it and so did I. We didn’t want to make an impulse buy so we waited one day … then contacted our realtor to make an offer on the house. Our offer was accepted right away and we got the house. We discovered later that the family selling the house connected with us because of our Christian faith, which they likely learned about from our Jewish realtor Norm.

The move happened on Friday, August 29 and the whole experience was both exhausting and exhilarating. We couldn’t have done it without the generosity and hard work of friends and family members who helped us get things packed up in boxes and then help us load and unload on moving day.  Everything arrived safely and now we are trying to unpack, find things and figure out where to put them. We still have way too much stuff.

IMG_20150906_180431107aBut we love our new home in Alpine.  We are so grateful to God for his provision. We wake up every morning feeling like we’re on vacation—but with a very large suitcase since all our stuff is here. There is an artificial brook that runs behind the house which reminds us of the living water which Jesus continually supplies to our hearts. It is God who delivered this house to us and we want it to become a place where God is honored and Christ is served. Come visit us when you can.

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Lost and Found Keys in Mexico

This little girl now has a new house!

This little girl now has a new house!

I just returned from another incredible week of ministry in Mexico. For the past six years, I’ve led a family (intergenerational) mission trip designed to give families and individuals an immersion experience in serving the poor and living in community with each other for a few days. We built a house for young Mexican family, conducted a daily Vacation Bible School (VBS) program for neighborhood children and this year we helped a local Mexican church build a new multi-purpose building that will provide a place for youth and children’s ministry, feeding programs and medical/dental services.

The week couldn’t have gone much better. We had a group of 32 people ranging in age from 7 to 70 and we built a lovely home for the Ramirez-Perez family, appointed with some very nice furnishings that were generously supplied by members of our team. Their previous home was a plywood hut covered with tarps and a dirt floor. What a blessing it is to be able to change someone’s living conditions in such a short time.

Our VBS program went very well, with about 40 children attending each day. They played games, won candy prizes, memorized Bible verses, sang songs, did craft projects and heard “The Big God Story” from the Bible in their own language every day. I was amazed by how the children listened and learned so well. Our goal is to bring joy to the lives of children during the summer and to plant the seeds of the gospel in their hearts. Mission accomplished!

IMG_20150811_123340247During the week we gave all the children white t-shirts with the words “Dios está conmigo” printed on the front (which means “God is with me.”) These shirts were connected to the Bible story of Joseph and his coat of many colors. God was with Joseph, the Bible says, and so he was able to accomplish great things even though his brothers treated him badly and sold him into slavery. The children saw the story acted out in front of them, and then they decorated their new shirts with colorful fabric paints.

Dios está conmigo became the theme of the week. Certainly God was with me on Tuesday night. I lost the keys to my truck … I just couldn’t find them anywhere. I looked high and low—in and around the truck, in and around my bunk bed, in and around the camp (YUGO’s Ensenada Outeach Center). I went to the evening “chapel” service feeling frustrated, worried and very distracted about my keys. I just had to find them. Where could they be? During the worship time (singing), I got up and went to look some more. Still, no luck. I came back into the meeting and tried to listen to the speaker but I was getting more and more anxious. Not only did I lose my truck keys (in Mexico!) but the keys to my house, my office, my radio station locker, etc. etc. I was feeling really stupid. I didn’t want to have to tell anybody that I lost my keys. I’m a leader after all! How embarrassing!

We all had little notebooks where we’re supposed to take notes on the chapel speaker. But I was thinking about my keys and what would happen if I couldn’t find them. I didn’t hear a word the speaker was saying. Then I started praying. I wrote down the “Anxiety” and asked God for help with that. I crossed out the word Anxiety and wrote “Trust God” beneath it. I also wrote down the word “Embarrassing.” Eventually I crossed it out and wrote “Humility” beneath it.

After the evening chapel service, we met together as a team and I admitted to everyone that I had lost my keys. Immediately they began to ask me questions and offer suggestions: “Did you look in the ignition, in the bathroom, in your sleeping bag, in your suitcase, in your pockets, etc. etc.” I answered “Yes, yes, yes ….” Everyone was very sympathetic of course and promised to keep their eyes open for a clump of car keys. Hopefully they would turn up. They’ve got to be around here somewhere, right?

Then we prayed together as a team. I asked several of the children on the team to pray, and they did. They were very sweet prayers and one of the girls prayed especially that I would find my keys.

It was about then that I got the idea to look in the big garbage can where I had dumped trash from my truck earlier in the day. Could my keys be in there?

Swallowing my pride, I started picking through the garbage can, one piece at a time. The can was completely full. I found some of the trash from my truck, but no keys. As I got closer and closer to the bottom of the can, I knew this was a bad (not to mention disgusting) idea. I was getting pretty discouraged.

Then one of our team members shined a flashlight into the can and suddenly I saw a sparkle. There they were! All the way down at the bottom of the garbage can. I grabbed the keys and put my hands in the air … Thank you Lord! This can would certainly have been emptied during the night and the keys lost, probably forever. But God was with me, I truly believe that. I went to bed—not only with my keys in a safe place—but with confidence that the prayers of a young girl had been answered.

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MexiGO! 2015

One of the things that I continue to do at College Avenue Baptist Church is to organize and lead a family mission trip to Mexico. Here is a video that describes the trip. Thanks to my buddy Ed Watts for putting it together.

MEXIGOFINAL1a1 from College Avenue on Vimeo.

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Not Just a Desk

desk - back viewI sold my desk this week for $75.

I put it on Craigslist, first for $300, then for $200, then for $100. Somebody offered me $50 and we settled on $75. I even delivered the desk across town in my truck for that.

And then I came home and cried.

Emotions run deep when you part with something that has been a big part of your life for so long. I remember when my friend and business partner Mike Yaconelli and I went to an office furniture store in downtown San Diego to buy that desk about 35 years ago. We were moving Youth Specialties to a new location in El Cajon and since I was going to have a nice big office, I needed a nice big desk.  We picked out an impressive, solid oak executive desk that cost more than $2000. It was an extravagant expenditure for a fledgling company like ours but we were dreamers and we were dreaming big.

About five years later when Youth Specialties had grown and we had more employees than we had space to put them all, I decided to build an office over my garage at home. After all, Mike had moved his office to Yreka, California which was over 400 miles away. There was no reason I couldn’t move mine to Lakeside, which was only about 5 miles away.

Eventually I left Youth Specialties and I didn’t take much with me … except that desk. It has been my place of work for more than three decades.  And because I consider work and worship to be pretty much the same thing (which is Biblical, by the way), in a very real sense that desk has been my altar. I gave God my best every single day at that desk. It is stained with blood, sweat and tears.

But now the desk is gone.

I sold it because we are planning to move to a new home soon, one that won’t have room for a big desk like mine.  We are downsizing.

Marci understood my tears and tried to console me. She knew it wasn’t just a desk.  I’m glad it’s now going to be used again. The young man who bought it plans to refinish the top and get another 30 years out of it.

Not bad for only $75.

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The Punch Brothers: Something Special Indeed

punch brothers 2The Punch Brothers played the North Park Theater on Wednesday night and I just had to write about the experience, because that’s what it was for me—an experience, not just another concert. The Punch Brothers are at first glance a bluegrass band—four musicians playing mandolin, guitar, bass, fiddle and banjo—a little younger, a little more hip perhaps than your average bluegrass band—but a bluegrass band nevertheless. But it didn’t sound like bluegrass at all. Truth is, their music defies any kind of description or category. It’s Punch Brothers music, a blend of folk, rock, classical, jazz, Irish, baroque, country … yes, all of these and more with maybe a bluegrass foundation (if you dig deep enough).

Chris Thile was on familiar turf Wednesday night, having grown up around San Diego with Sean and Sara Watkins as one third of the astonishing kid band Nickel Creek which went on to have several hits on the country and Americana charts. He is also a past recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award ($500,000) which acknowledged what we already knew—that he does things on the mandolin that nobody has ever imagined before. A couple years ago, for instance, he recorded a mandolin album of “sonatas and partitas” written by Johann Sebastian Bach.  It was flawless and I’m guessing he did it without charts.

The other band members are able to match Thile note for note:  Gabe Witcher, fiddle (who I remember playing with his Southern California family band, The Witcher Brothers as a teenager), Noam Pikelny, arguably the best banjo player on the planet these days, Chris Eldridge, guitar (son of bluegrass Hall of Famer Ben Eldridge of the Seldom Scene), and Paul Kowert, who stole the show by playing the highest note on a double bass I’ve ever heard. It was dog-whistle high. Of course he could also play notes so low that the room shook. .

Some say The Punch Brothers are the future of bluegrass, but I really don’t think that is being either accurate or fair. What they do musically is so special and so unique that I’m not sure it will ever be duplicated, now or at anytime in the future. These guys are creating something entirely new and to call it the future of anything would be far too limiting and short-sighted.

Even though this wasn’t my first time hearing them live, I was completely blown away by their performance on Wednesday. Just like the rest of the sold-out theater, I stood in awe and amazement at the Punch Brothers’ talent and creativity and I as I usually do when I’m having a wonderful musical experience, I thanked God for them. God is after all the giver of all great music—both the ability to play it and to enjoy it.  Music is uniquely human and uniquely divine.  Heaven is and will be a very musical place, you can count on that.

When Bill Monroe (the “Father of Bluegrass Music”) assembled by trial and error the original bluegrass band back in 1945 (the year of my birth!) he discovered that these particular five instruments (mandolin, guitar, fiddle, five-string banjo played three-finger style, and acoustic bass) blend together perfectly to create a wonderful sound. That sound would spread like wildfire and eventually be known as bluegrass music, named after Monroe’s home state of Kentucky. Now, with these same five instruments, The Punch Brothers are making music that can’t be called bluegrass but it can be called wonderful.

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39 Years on KSON!

KSON poster 1980s

A KSON poster from the 1980’s

KSON’s Bluegrass Special went on the air for the first time on March 7, 1976 from 9 PM to midnight. The first few programs were aired on KSON-FM 97.3 which at that time was called “Country 97” and honestly had very few listeners. Most country music fans listened to KSON-AM 1240. AM radio was still king 39 years ago.

But after a few months, station owner Dan McKinnon decided the Bluegrass Special deserved a bigger listening audience, so the show was moved to KSON-AM from 4 to 7 PM. At that time, the KSON studios were located in College Grove Center, one of San Diego’s original shopping malls—and the control room was visible to mall shoppers behind a big glass window at the bottom of the mall elevator. Back in those days, you did your radio program not only for listeners on the radio but for a live audience of spectators. I must say that I was happy when my show moved to back to my original slot, 9 PM to midnight, after the stores were closed for the day.

It took quite a few years for FM radio to catch on with the public but by 1989, AM radio was pretty much obsolete except for news and sports stations.  So KSON let all its AM staff go and began simulcasting its programming over both KSON FM 97.3 and AM 1240. I was among the staff let go at that time but it wouldn’t be for long. Within a few weeks, KSON’s program director found a spot for me on Sunday nights on the FM station, from 10 PM to to midnight. In his words, “Your fans have spoken and we got the message loud and clear!”

So Sunday nights at 10PM it has been ever since. For the last 25 years, it has followed three hours of country classics (oldies), first hosted by Bill Mackey, then Doc Holliday, now Rick Jackson, who is also our station’s GM and one of the nicest guys in the world.

It’s a testament to all the wonderful  people I’ve had a chance to work with at KSON that I’m still there after 39 years.  I’ve been very blessed to be accepted as part of the KSON family even though bluegrass music is generally not accepted by country radio. Of course KSON isn’t your typical country music station.  It’s San Diego’s country music station and that makes all the difference in the world.

So this coming Sunday night (March 8) is my 2019th radio show, the Bluegrass Special’s 39th anniversary. I still love doing it each week and I’m thankful that I now benefit from technology that allows me to pre-record the show a day or two earlier and listen to it myself on Sunday nights. Of course I still enjoy doing the show live on Sunday nights when I can do it that way. I also love having bands come into the studio and play live on the air, mistakes and all. In my opinion, that’s good radio and I’m so thankful to KSON for letting me do it here in San Diego for so long. I’m also very grateful  to the bluegrass music fans who listen faithfully every week. That’s really why I’m still on the air.

So here we go, pushing on to our 40th anniversary celebration next year! Same time, same station!

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Robert Earl Keen Records Bluegrassy “Happy Prisoner”

robert-earl-keen-2You may or not be familiar with Texan Robert Earl Keen as he has never been a mainstream country or pop artist, preferring instead to stay on the fringes and record his own brand of folk, roots, blues, protest, outlaw, alt-country (Americana) music. And like bluegrass, Americana generally gets marginalized by the major record labels and promotors who can’t see a way to take such a niche market to the bank. So Keen has been content to build his audience by prolifically recording dozens of very interesting albums of original songs on a variety of labels and unorthodox distribution channels. So far, so good and today he is one of the most popular and well-known Americana artists working today. His songs have been recorded by everyone from George Strait to the Dixie Chicks.

I rarely played his stuff on my radio show because he never claimed to be a bluegrass artist … UNTIL NOW! I just received a copy of his new album Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions and immediately checked to see who the backing musicians were on the album. After all, that’s what makes a bluegrass album a bluegrass album, right? You’ve got to have the right pickers who can give you that bluegrass sound. Lots of country or pop artists have cut bluegrass albums—recent examples being Alan Jackson , Dolly Parton, Dierks Bentley and John Driskoll Hopkins of the Zack Brown Band. In each case, these artists employed some of the Nashville A-list studio musicians who are able to take any song, whether it had bluegrass content or not and turn it into a bluegrass hit. There are some amazing bluegrass musicians in Nashville who can make almost anybody’s record a great bluegrass record.

Well, I’m happy to report that Robert Earl Keen did not go that route. Instead, he used his own band (which includes some notable non-bluegrass elements like keyboards, drums and electric guitar) and added some bluegrass authority in Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) on fiddle, Danny Barnes (the Bad Livers) on banjo, and Kym Warner (Greencards) on mandolin. Singing with Keen is Lyle Lovett, Peter Rowan and Natalie Maines (Dixie Chicks). And rather than trying to turn Keen’s original songs into bluegrass standards, Keen chooses to turn a dozen or so bluegrass standards into Robert Earl Keen songs while using these great musicians to pay homage to their bluegrass roots. It’s clear from listening to each cut that the musicians find a good groove for each song and have a blast improvising and trying to do something truly unique.  I’m reminded of when Steve Earle recorded his bluegrass album with the Del McCoury Band a few years ago, or when Bob Dylan cut the Stanley Brothers’ classic “Lonesome River” on Ralph Stanley’s “Clinch Mountain Country” album. Robert Earl Keen gets to do what he does best on Happy Prisoner while all the backing musicians are left to improvise and create something truly unique. Yes, it’s a bluegrass album featuring real bluegrass songs but it’s nothing like you’ve ever heard before. That makes it a perfect fit for KSON’s Bluegrass Special. Be listening!

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