Thursday, October 27, 2011

Creativity is the opposite of routine.

I believe that we need more moments of communal creativity.   We are coming up on one of the very few times when communal adult creativity is both expected and celebrated: Halloween.   This is a day that we can let our creative lights shine bright by putting on a different "skin," and thereby allow ourselves to momentarily break free from our rigid box of temporal safety that we create and lock ourselves into.   It is a beautiful moment in time for many who rarely take the opportunity to put their energy into creating something from nothing, and I wish we had more times like this.

When I first moved to Boone I read an article about the local band Snake Oil Medicine Show, who exemplified how to lead a creative life, even taking it to the edge of spasticity.   They described how they would require all the guests of their house parties to "create something" during the party, and I was immediately turned on to this thought.   I read that article over 12 years ago, yet I can remember the feeling that I had as if it was this morning.  It was genius.   Take people out of their boxes and allow them the freedom to create anything.   Create a poem, drawing, melody, craft, idea, dance, feeling, philosophy...anything, and then celebrate it.  And as much as I love and believe in this idea, the stark reality is that I don't create enough either.   There is not a day that goes by that I don't go to sleep telling myself that I should have created more.

It seems as though a lot of people view creativity as either something you have or you don't, and I think that is just a cheap way out.  Watch children play for 20 seconds and you will realize that humans are inherently creative from birth; but you will also notice the sheer joy children find in their creations.   Are kids ever more engaged than when they are creating their own little world?  They become 100% absorbed with this new construction of roles, without any slight feeling of self-consciousness.   Can we tap into that joy by allowing ourselves the same freedoms?  Removing the ego and self-consciousness is the first and most difficult step, but like everything, once you learn to do it it becomes easier. 

I was thinking about what it takes to have this creative confidence as an adult, and there are several routes that come to mind that are congruent with different personality types.  Some people are just born with natural confidence, and throwing their creative visions into this big world is easy for them;  at least on the outside, they appear to do everything with ease.  They are like the business people who just can't seem to make a bad choice or settle for anything less than success.   The second type, and most of us seem to be here, work their butts off for years and the genius is in the fact that they keep trying no matter how many times things don't work.  They build the confidence it takes to consistently put creative visions into the world (read the great quote by Ira Glass below).  And the third type that came to mind - and this is my favorite type of person - are the ones that don't have the capacity to see things as "good" or "bad,"  instead they see creativity, much like a child does, as something that just is.   Like the musician that goes from note to note, and the next one will not be a good note or a bad note, instead it is just the next note.   And that particular note will exist for its brief moment in time and when it is gone it is gone, and there is no reason to dwell on it.   People like this are a treat to be around because you never know what you will get from one moment to the next.   A fully realized person of this nature will live their life as an art-form and the books, poems, paintings, and songs that come from these people are not the product, but just an extension of their everyday being, and the world is a better place because of it.  

I hope everyone enjoys creating their Halloween costumes this year. 


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Expanding the Universe with Bluegrass Music

     Bluegrass music has a way of finding the deepest pockets of your heart and soul, and then fill them up with a certain sense of lightness that can only come from the bounce of the banjo, the high-lonesome fiddle, and 4-part family harmonies so powerful they seem to expand the universe by themselves.   Diving head-first into this music is one of the most life-changing endeavors a person can experience.  And to do it properly you must follow the timeless Yoda Wisdom:

Of the first generation Bluegrassers, there are only two still alive, and they are both banjo players: Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs.   I believe we are a special hard-headed breed, so leave it to a banjo player to start one of the hottest debates that bluegrass music has seen in years.   Chris Pandolfi, the banjo player for the top-notch band "The Infamous Stringdusters," started the discussion/debate by posting his Bluegrass Manifesto on his blog.   It's a beautifully written piece that describes the marketing conundrum that the "Dusters" found themselves in after several years of hard work and well-deserved growth.   The gist of it revolves around the question, "Do we continue to call ourselves bluegrass?" He then describes the thought process that forced them to decide that to continue and reach the growth they desire, they had to stop labeling themselves "bluegrass" to take part in the acoustic music revolution that is seeing acts such as The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, and Yonder Mountain String Band reach new heights for string-band based music.
Yonder Mtn String Band playing to a sold out crowd at Red Rocks. 

The Avett Brothers

As his post took off through the bluegrass community with the same intensity as Chubby Wise's fiddle on Orange Blossom Special, it naturally forced the question of "What is bluegrass music?"  More importantly the post also raised the tangible question, "Should the bluegrass community open itself to these acoustic bands that have obvious bluegrass roots, but yet aren't 100% Bluegrass?"  And here is where the division starts.  You have the big-tent progressives that want to include these bands, recognizing the windfall of new fans that could possibly push the genre out of its current stagflation; and the conservative side that thinks these bands don't deserve the recognition because they are not 100% Bluegrass, and that fans who aren't "true fans of bluegrass" will only water-down one of the most beautiful American legacies that is still alive and well (nevermind the current stagflation in the industry that counts things such as tickets sold and $ earned).  See, you have to understand that bluegrass hit its peak in what we call the "O Brother Where Art Thou" period,  where both semi-professional and professional bands were raking in the money, and has since fallen back to its natural state of a tightly controlled niche market where even the most talented players struggle to make a living.  So the big green and purple elephant in the room of this discussion, that happens to be playing the wash-tub bass,  is that it's really about money.  Of course, that fact is a little too blunt for the keepers of such a beautiful art-form that has remained impressively true to its 1946 roots of the Monroe/Scruggs/Flatt/Wise/Watts super-group that started the genre.  The performers who want to make a living know that we need the influx of these big-tent fans that are both passionate and willing to buy CDs and tickets, while the flame-keepers who typically work other careers and participate in Bluegrass for the sheer love and passion of it do not want to see the music morphed into something unrecognizable.  You can see why it is a hot topic, as both sides have very valid arguments. 
Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs
What sets this music apart from everything else is the sense of ownership that the fans claim - rightfully, I might add - over it.   Most types of music have a distinct line between the fans and the musicians, but not bluegrass.   For a lot of fans the next logical step is to become a participant, and as this art is passed through the generations aurally, the only boundary for admission is desire, some practice, and a hint of musical ability which is desired but not always required.  It is interesting that the same can be said for free-style rap.  I've always believed that bluegrass and rap are congruent since they were both born out of an artistic expression of a specific cultural experience.   In fact if you're ever at a boring dinner party just make the statement, "Bluegrass and Rap are the same thing." And things will either get more interesting, or you will be ignored for the rest of the night; you win either way, as I see it.

The last, and most important, piece of this puzzle is the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association).   This body is the only association dedicated to the Bluegrass Industry (although others seem to be trying to get going) and unabashedly takes the role of Godfather for the music. The fans are going to enjoy the bands that they love no matter what happens, and the players are going to play their music and try to grow their bands each year, and also look up with respect and awe to Yonder Mountain and The Avetts for the huge audiences they play to all over the country.   The question is will the IBMA accept these bands openly and invite their fans in to discover the genius of Blue Highway, Vincent and Daily, Michael Cleveland, etc.   In my opinion, it should, as bluegrass has managed to survive the jazz of Tony Rice and David Grisman, it survived the mad genius of John Hartford, it survived the absurdity of Nickel Creek, and I'm sure it will also survive The Punch Brothers.

But survival for legacy's sake misses the point.  Bluegrass is an art-form--one of the most beautiful in the world--and as a salubrious art-form, it should always move and grow and evolve.  If it doesn't then it isn't art, because, like the human race, growing is the main purpose.    I believe the reason that this debate hits on such a visceral nerve is because we are dealing with one of the most beautiful, truly American, art-forms that has ever been created.   And it all started, as John Hartford sang, in the heart of the cross-eyed child.  

Monday evening jam at the Crouse House in Sparta NC
The very fact that people are currently discussing this is all the testament you need to understand how special Bluegrass music is.   It lives not in albums, or memories, or the fingers of our elders, but in people's hearts.   It has roots all over the world and through different cultures, but yet it remains quintessentially American.   There's no difference between the 12-year-old who can burn up a flat-top Martin D-28 or the old farmers who come to the weekly "Crouse House jam-session" every Monday night in Sparta, NC.  This music is stronger than most, and will continue to endure because of its earnest roots and the quality of people that keep the flame burning bright.   I'm honored to be a part of it.

 I believe the one point that is most easily overlooked is that musicians will consistently look for different ways to express themselves and these different combinations will always produce different sounds that will not fit in any conventional labeling.  The only reason Bluegrass is called Bluegrass is because that was the band name back in 1946.  It was a brand new voice expressing itself individually and no one knew what else to call it.   Individual skills and personalities that work together can create a brand new combination.   Technically an Earl Scruggs banjo timing should not match up well with a Duane Allman blues timing, yet in our band it somehow does.   We are always asked how we describe our music and we have yet to come up with a perfect answer.  Appalachian Rock is a beautiful term but it does not help someone gain a better understanding of who we are.

As we debate what is and isn't Bluegrass in 2011 we must also remember that one of Bill Monroe's greatest pieces of advice to up-and-coming musicians was, "Learn to play it right, but then go find your own voice."  Jerry Garcia used to always point out that both he and Grisman were Bluegrass/Monroe disciples, and then they created the "Dead" style and "Dawg" style.  While some work furiously to preserve Monroe's voice of 1946, other voices will sprout up and take off.   Bill Monroe would have been 100 years old this year, and there's probably some kid practicing in his bedroom right now that will create a style that will survive the generations, and people will be trying to preserve that voice in 2111.  It is exciting to think about isn't it?

(I've had this piece written for well over a week now and for some reason I just could not post it, and then I found out how sick my good friend Billy Constable is and it all became clear.  This post wasn't complete without the following paragraph - about one of the main people that taught all of us young Boonies what Bluegrass music really is.  Thanks Billy!)

Billy Constable.  More than likely playing a jaw-dropping solo.
Next week on Wednesday, October 26th we'll be playing a fundraiser in Boone, NC for Billy Constable, who played a huge role in helping all the young Boone NC bluegrass pickers play the music the right way!  Billy has a large tumor on his brain and will be going into surgery soon (with no health insurance).  To know Billy is to love him, and to look up to him as the archetypical Bluegrass picker.  You see, a lot of us didn't catch the bluegrass bug until we got to college.  And as we were all meeting each other and learning how to play this beautiful music, Billy Constable was there showing us the right way to play it.  He would say things like, "Leftover Salmon and String Cheese are good bands but the heart of the music is in people like The Stanley Brothers, Don Reno, The Kentucky Colonels, and Jim and Jesse."   He was always helping us learn new songs, but he also taught us how to really hear the music - like the old-timers.   He taught us where to find the spirit of the music.   And for that we will forever be indebted to him.  You can find updates and donate money at

The next generation of Bluegrassers proving that the music is in good hands!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Think Different. We are the 99%

        “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.” - Steve Jobs

As I sit here this morning finishing up this piece, I have a weary heart for the passing of Steve Jobs at such a young age, 56 yrs old.  A true innovator and artist, in every sense of the word, who changed the world.  If the meaning of life is to make the world a better place then Mr. Jobs did his part.  I want to do my part, and I want everyone else to make an effort to do their part.  We are all in this together.    Here's our chance. 

"We are the 99%"

That is the key to it all.   That statement will either make or break this beautiful American uprising that is now in its 20th day, and has just started to receive mainstream reporting.

Look, I know a lot of you don't like politics and don't like to hear or read about what is going on.  It seems like it's a broken system and there's nothing we can do about it.  If this is the case then I ask you to stay with me, for one simple reason: we are the 99%.    If we put our energies into the right places, and most importantly not let them divide us back to 49% vs 49%, then we could actually see a fundamental change in the political landscape.   Forget conservative/liberal, forget republican/democrat, forget all of it.  Let's put aside, even for a brief moment in time, the circular arguments that never get us anywhere.   If we all can assume the mindset that we are the 99%, then beautiful things can happen, and it should, I believe, produce a constitutional amendment that removes all political donations, and ends the wild-west auction house that American democracy has become. 

This is from a statement from the protesters in NY. 
"The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%."

I was first introduced to this idea by the excellent book "Griftopia" by Matt Taibbi.   I wish I had the exact statement (I've loaned the book out and have no idea who has it now), but it was along the lines of "If the two parties were properly aligned then it would be the 99% of the populist against the 1% of the ruling elite, and the 99% would storm the gates of both Wall St and Washington for the blatant crimes they've committed in destroying the world economy."  Taibbi was pivotal in investigating the cause of the financial meltdown that has brought the entire world to its knees.   It all started with this piece explaining how investment banks, and especially Goldman Sachs, are able to engineer and make huge profits off of the bubbles that nearly kill the economy.  It opened with the iconic line  "The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."  This is the ruling elite.  The small handful of investment banks that dictate American political policy in their favor while the rest of the country and world suffers.   And this is why people are camping out in front of Wall St.

I believe the most important point that we have to be cognizant of is the ruling 1% will produce a backlash soon. They will use their money and influence to paint this uprising as a liberal hippie-infested nuisance that any respectable conservative will openly mock and condemn, or as I said earlier, divide us back into 49% vs 49%.   If this happens, and it is already starting, then it will be business as usual for the robber barons of the 21st century.   This is what we cannot let happen, until their is a constitutional amendment that stops the corporate money from buying politicians. 

The best option we have as the 99 percenters is the "Get the Money Out" campaign by Dylan Ratigan, who I've became a big fan of lately.  Ratigan has started the campaign to force politicians to create a constitutional amendment that will take money out of politics and will not allow corporations to own politicians.  90% of political problems can be solved by this amendment.    It does not matter what label you attach to yourself, who you vote for, or what you believe, every single one of us can agree that this would be a positive step forward for this country.   Click on the link and sign the petition.

Question: What percentage of politicians who raised more money than their opponent won their respective elections?   60%? 75%?    No, in the 2008 elections, 94% of politicians who raised more money won their elections.   It is estimated that every politician spends half his day, every day, solely raising money for upcoming elections.  Imagine if we can put a stop to that?  We all know that Obama raised a lot more money than McCain, and we also know that he broke the record for small donations from ordinary people like us.   But did you know that the majority of the money he raised came from the financial institutions (the ruling elite), and that the majority of that money was from Goldman Sachs?  Of course there hasn't been any meaningful Wall St regulations put back into place since his election.  They own him, just like every other politician out there.

I know these details can seem boring to some but hang with me here.  Financial de-regulation started in 1999 with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act of 1933, which was put into place after the Great Depression to stop the boom/bust cycles of the economy--and it worked!  In fact it worked fantastically, until it was repealed under Bill Clinton.   Now the Wall St banks can over-leverage to the brink of destruction and they all know that the U.S. Government will bail them out with tax-payer money.   These bail-outs will no longer be guaranteed if the banks are not allowed to buy the politicians that will ultimately provide these bail-outs.   The last thing worth pointing out is that a few years ago, in a huge "WTF moment," the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can now spend unlimited amounts on campaigns.   The flood gates have opened. 

What can we do?  It is simple.  1. Do not let anyone convince you that you are not in the 99%.  2. Sign the petition.    3. Work to make the world a better place.   And most importantly 4. Think Different

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. - Steve Jobs