Apr 29, 2013

Merlefest 2013...

Overhead view of the Main Stage area.  We are in row 28 on the lower left in this image.

The late, great Doc Watson
As I've posted many times before, Merlefest is a marvelous celebration of Americana and "Roots Music" that takes place in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina every April.  It was established to celebrate the life and music of Merle Watson, son of legendary guitarist and singer Arthel "Doc" Watson, who passed away last year.  This was my 24th Merlefest and would be the first without Doc's inspiring presence.  The weather man was predicting a wet weekend, but Mary Ann and I left on Thursday prepared for any kind of weather.

For the last 22 years, the Mead entourage had stayed at the Red Carpet Inn in North Wilkesboro.  It was conveniently located near Wilkes Community College, the venue for the festival.  But each year, the motel became less attractive and more expensive.  This year we decided to break with tradition and stay in Boone, about 35 miles from the festival, and commute each day.  We were in a brand new Courtyard Marriott -- clean, bright, fresh, and free of mold.  Hooray!

After we arrived Thursday evening we drove to Wilkesboro and reserved a parking place for the weekend at a parking venue just outside the entry gate.  This way, even if we got a late start in the morning, we'd have a convenient place to launch our daily expedition.  We then proceeded to Amalfi's, a local Italian restaurant that we had discovered a couple years ago and are very fond of.  After a pleasant, liesurely dinner, we returned to Boone for a great night's sleep.

The Hillside Stage, one of many venues

The Courtyard chain has forged an alliance with Starbuck's Coffee, so first thing after I awoke, I went to the lobby and got two cups of strong coffee to get us started.  We got ready and proceeded to the festival, got our wristbands and went to our reserved seats near the main stage.  Because of the size of the festival, there are nine active stages and venues.  Each act or performer rotates through various performance venues over the four-day course of the event.  They might appear on the main stage one night, then be in the dance pavilion the next day, and then lead a workshop at a different location at another time.  The whole thing is very carefully choreographed and seems to go off like clockwork.

We always see new acts that surprise us.  This year, we discovered Scythian (an upbeat band with a Celtic flair), Della Mae (a terrifically energetic all-girl band), and Matraca Berg (a very talented songwriter from Nashville).  Ms. Berg inspired the audience with a description of a charity she was involved in, Magdeline House, that helps prostitutes proceed out of their unfortunate lives.

Della Mae
We stayed until after 10:00 PM on Friday, making sure we heard a couple of numbers from Government Mule before we left.  It was already drizzling when we arrived on Saturday, so we tended toward indoor venues -- the Old-Time Tent and the Walker Center Auditorium.  We stayed until a little after five, at which point it was raining pretty steadily.  As we were leaving the Walker Center, I turned to two young ladies and asked them if they had tickets to the "Midnight Jam."  They didn't have tickets.  I told them it was their lucky day and gave them our tickets.  The Midnight Jam is a limited admission musical free-for-all that is a great experience, but we had already decided not to go.  We were glad to see that someone could use our tickets.

On Sunday, we slept in.  We had wanted to hear some of the Sunday acts, especially the Avett Brothers, but it was raining cats and dogs.  We decided to have a liesurely lunch and take a little tour on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  One of the hotel staff recommented Coyote Kitchen.  We found it and had a wonderful lunch.  Then it was on to the Parkway for a few miles to the Cone House Visitor's Center and Craft Center.  We went a few more miles after enjoying the Cone House, but the fog was too thick to see any vistas, so we decided to descend on an access road and head home via Elizabethton and Knoxville.

Although we didn't witness as much music as we have at some previous Merlefests, it was still a relaxing and enjoyable music weekend.

Apr 21, 2013

Banjo Boys, Chapter 17

Clint had completed nearly everything as we started today's work.

Today was going to be very special.  As we started the day at Hardee's in Meridianville, Clint and I anticipated the COMPLETION of his banjo.  All that remained for him to complete was finishing his nut (the bone at the top of the fretboard with grooves in it to control the string position), installing the fifth string tuner, a separate nut for the fifth string, and to install strings.  I could almost hear the music.

When we arrived at the shop, Clint started working on his nut.  He had to craft a small wedge-shaped piece of ebony to fit under the nut and glue that in place to create a straight surface to support the nut.  Then he crafted and carefully shaped the nut and glued it in place.  In the meantime, I was installing my fifth string tuner.  This tuner has a tapered shape that is pressed into a tapered recess in the side of the neck.

The tapered reamer

I first made a jig to hold the neck rigidly in place while I drilled a hole into the side of the neck.  Then I began reaming out the hole and enlarging it using a special tapered reamer.  After several trial-and-error test fittings, I felt that the hole was ready.  I then removed the knob from the tuning peg, placed a piece of wood over the tuner body, protected the neck with a soft rag, and used a screw clamp to carefully press the tuner into the recessed hole.  The pucker factor was high.  Did I have the hole large enough or too large?  Would I split the wood?  Was the hole in the right position?  The end result was just fine.

My fifth string tuner and nut (the little white spot)
I finished my tuning peg installation just in time for us to start on Clint's.  His installation also proceeded just fine.  We also drilled tiny holes to install the individual nut that positions the fifth string relative to the other, longer strings.  I had purchased a small white nut and Clint made his out of ebony.

We had lunch at Honey's Pool Hall and Diner in Fayetteville (home of the original slawburger).  Then began the next step in Clint's progress -- installing strings.  I showed Clint how to groove his nut for the strings and how to wind the strings on his tuners.  

I proceeded to work on the remaining brackets that are needed to complete my "pot."  As you may recall, Monty had made all his brackets out of brass stock and even gave me 8 finished brackets to get me started.  I had to drill and tap several of mine and also to polish them.  This is a tedious job.  To hold the bracket while polishing it, I made a handle with a long screw that cinches the raw brass bracket against the wood of the handle:

The polishing handle
Soon. I started to hear notes coming from upstairs, where Clint was installing strings. Then I heard the telltale "pop" of a breaking string!  And I had left our other sets of strings at my office.  Clint only broke one more before he decided to leave well enough alone.

So here's our status:  Monty and I are waiting for clear plastic heads for our banjos.  Estimated delivery is sometime in May.  Clint has a three-string banjo.  Our plan is to visit a banjo player this week to discuss nut design and breaking strings and other setup issues.  I will continue to work on my brackets and associated attachment hardware during the coming weeks.  We're close!

Apr 7, 2013

Banjo Boys, Chapter 16

Even though I've been out of town and the Banjo Boys haven't convened in a couple of weeks, there has been progress worth reporting.  Monty has proceed to apply his tung oil to finish the wood of his neck.  The results are beautiful:

Monty has also crafted his tension hooks out of spoons, and they are ready to install.  He very cleverly drilled and tapped holes in a tab that he bent in the end of each spoon.  This enables him to use screws going through the brackets, rather than threaded rods and nuts, to control the tension on his head.  We now have to wait for the head to arrive.  The original estimate was May.

The spoon-made hooks, ready to install
My rim with brackets (Courtesy of Monty)
I've done very little to my banjo since our last update, as I've been working in Texas.  Last weekend, I did shape my tension hoop and deliver it to Dan Shady.  I also attached the first 8 brackets to the rim, courtesy of Monty Love, who gave me these finished brackets when he decided to use 16 in lieu of 24 on his banjo.  I was in the process of making the remaining brackets when I broke a drill bit and didn't have a spare.  So I have yet to complete,  polish, and install my remaining brackets.

In the meantime, Clint has been proceeding as well.  Both Clint and I finally got around to shaping our tension hoops and took them to Dan Shady to get them silver soldered.  We picked them up on Friday.  Clint had decided to have his rim powder coated in a semi-gloss black finish.  He was notified on Friday that it was ready, and he picked it up.  It looks great:
That wasn't enough.  The pressure was too great.  The neck was finished, the rim was finished, the hardware was all ready, the tension hoop and flesh hoops were now available, and Clint had bought the goatskin to make a banjo head.  The temptation was too much.  So on Saturday, April 6, 2013, Clint followed the directions he had found on the internet, carefully soaked the leather, made the head and assembled his first banjo.  He has ordered strings, but if I were a betting man, I'd bet he'll buy some at a local music store before the mail-order ones arrive.  I don't think he'll be able to wait.  I know I couldn't if I had this beautiful instrument this close to being playable.

Mule Day!

The Spirit of "Mule Day"
This past week, the city of Columbia, Tennessee, celebrated "Mule Day."  “Mule Day” has been a popular Columbia tradition for nearly 170 years, since the 1840s.  It began as “Breeder’s Day”, a single day livestock show and mule market event held on the first Monday in April.  Over time, “Mule Day” evolved from a single day event into a multi-day festival, attracting thousands of attendees, lasting almost a week.  The heavy involvement of Maury County in the mule industry has caused the event to grow over time into “one of the largest livestock markets in the world.”

Mary Ann and I had selected Mule Day as an event we wanted to attend "one of these years."  This turned out to be the year.  We arose early and did our household chores and got ready to leave home around 11:00 AM.  We had read that Saturday was full of exciting events -- the Mule Pull at noon, followed by the Skillington Draft Mule Show at 2:00 PM.  And of course, there was the possibility of seeing the Mule Queen and her court sometime during the festivities.

Lined up for the beauty pageant...
We headed over to Interstate 65 and turned north.  About 20 miles south of Lewisburg, everything came to a stop.  I can only assume that there had been some kind of serious conflagration ahead, as there was no evidence of southbound traffic.  Something had all four lanes blocked.  I was able to get off at an exit ramp a couple of miles up the road, on highway 373, which took us through Mooresville and Culleoka en route to Columbia.  We followed the sizable crowd to the city park adjacent to the fairgrounds at which most of the events take place.  A short hike later, we were in mule owners' heaven!

There are lots of mules (and horses) at this event -- mule wagons, individual mules being led and ridden.  You have to keep an eye out for mule traffic as well as motor vehicles.  After a few minutes getting oriented, we found the entrance gate and found the center of the junk-food universe!  Fried anything, funnel cakes, kettle corn, and beverages that Mayor Bloomberg wouldn't approve of.  We found a Cajun food trailer and enjoyed a lunch of red beans, rice and Cajun sausage (you don't want to know how it's made...).

Then it was off to the Skillington mule arena, where we saw a number of mules being tethered in preparation for the class judging.  It was a great place for peple watching as well as observing the festivities,  At this point, it was about 70 degrees, partly cloudy, with a gentle southern

breeze -- perfect!  At 2:00 PM promptly, the judging began.  The announcer would call for the class and the animals would be led to the judging area in front of the bleachers -- Jack (the father of the Mule) and Jennet classes first, graduating to the Draft Horses (the mother of the Mule).

After the first couple of classes had been judged, we were treated to the arrival of the Mule Queen and her court.  They proceeded to be seated in the judges' pavilion in the center of the arena.

The 2012 Queen and her court
After a couple hours here, we decided to meander toward the parking area.  We stopped to get a tee shirt for a friend and a button to make a refrigerator magnet, and then walked to the car.  And to bring the day to a relaxing end, we took the slow road home, avoiding the interstate.  You ought to consider going to this event sometime.  It was a lot of fun.