During this time of Covid-19 I am going to take some time to write about each of the tunes on this album. I hope the stories of these tunes provides some distraction from the news and, most importantly, I hope they find you and your loved ones in good health and good spirits.
We can do this folks!
May 25, 2020
During this pandemic I have been busy with a lot of music. My new fretless minstrel-style banjo arrived in late April. I ordered it last July from Jim Hartel of Franklin, NY. Jim is one of the world's premier makers of these historic instruments and only makes about 10 instruments a year. True to his word, it was ready exactly when he said it would be and couldn't have come at a better time - I NEVER have this much time on my hands in May and have bonded with that instrument since the minute I opened the case.
It is a copy of an instrument made in Baltimore in 1858 by Levi Brown. Brown moved from the tension tuning pegs to geared tuners on a slotted headstock, a big innovation that is still in use today on high end steel string guitars and classical guitars in general. Tuning this thing is breeze and that is really saying something - it is STILL a banjo after all! I was inspired to choose this model after hearing Rhiannon Giddens' new efforts since the "Carolina Chocolate Drops." She has this same model from Jim Hartel. After playing only a couple of notes she said something along the lines of "here's my bank account - take whatever this costs..." She was right on - the sound and feel of this thing is magical, there is an ancient soul inside this instrument to be sure.
One Sunny afternoon 8 days after receiving this (my first) fretless instrument I tuned it to its version of open G (in this case - open D) and immediately played a lick that, during the next hour, became the song "Going Home." The slow groove inspired lyrics that reminded me of what my Mother said shortly before her passing in 2014. I was talking with her on my way to school, I can still remember exactly where I was on Rt. 104, when she said that she felt that her death would be "...like passing through a veil..." I'm not exactly sure what my response was at that time or if there even was one. I'm also pretty sure that I didn't understand what she meant until I wrote this tune.
During this time of uncertainty and fear of this invisible virus that we still know so little about I have had this overwhelming feeling of being in an "Old Fashioned" time. We are eating meals together as families, taking walks together, getting to know our neighbors better or even for the first time. Musical entertainment has become a cherished and admired ability to produce - just like the old days when every home had a piano in the front room. Also, like the old days we are much more at the mercy of disease and sickness now. God willing, we and all our loved ones will make it through this but that has not been the case for many people. People I know have lost loved ones to COVID-19 even here in our very safe state of Vermont. Because of this I began reflecting on the dusty old hymnals I remember from church yard sales or the lovely St. John's Episcopal Church in Highgate where I've both performed and was married in.
Those hymnals had verses of praise, thanksgiving, reverence, biblical tales, and many, many verses on how sweet the reward of the afterlife will be. Old hymn tunes from both this county and before talk about things like "the sweet release" or "come sweet death" where the sentiment was all about leaving the pain of this world for the eternal rest and peace of the next. Times were much harder and, unlike today, folks didn't have this idea that they could "live forever." Death was more of a part of life in those old hymnals. Voices young and old were raised in song every Sunday singing about the day that the toils of life on Earth would be exchanged for their "sweet reward." In that spirit and with my Mother's inspiration I wrote this tune "Going Home."
After laying down the initial track here at home I sent it to my long time musical partner Justin Bedell for his take on the bass part. If you listen closely you might be able to tell that it is a fretless electric here and not an upright. He's a master player and always seems to know either just what I'm looking for or, better yet, just what the tune needs. I was at a loss on the guitar part for this one. Cliff Crosby, my Blue Rock Boys band-mate sent a scratch acoustic part and a couple vocal harmonies next. The vocals were the real keeper in that bunch - he had a tight, almost barber-shop sound at the end of the verse that was on the bluesy side. It ran every time in that first run. In this recording I used three newer harmonies he sent along later and layered them as the track progressed. That 'bluesy' one is only in the last time. I added some interesting echo-laden effects on his highest two harmonies in that last verse to give the idea that it wasn't all just one person singing all the parts there. At some point I sure would like to hear a full chorus come in on that section but, in the meantime, "The Cliff Crosby Chorale" as I like to put it, does a fine job.
The kicker for me was listening to Pops Staples play as my iPod shuffled in the car one day. That tremolo guitar sound of his gave me the inspiration for the sound I used on this recording. I dusted off (and cleaned books off) the top of my early 1970's Fender Super Reverb that the legendary Bill Carruth modded to late 1950's standards many years ago. I played my Telecaster through my Fulltone 'Supatrem' to get the perfect electric sound, complete with a bit of hum. It took several takes before I quieted down my playing to the simplicity I felt the tune needed. From there came the idea of having a saxophone on this recording as well.
To say that Mike Bjella is a terrific player is both accurate and understated. Mike, like so many of the people I am lucky enough to play music with, is simply a musical 'mind reader.' My most vivid memory of playing with him was at a gig last Summer where he sat in on flute and tenor for a 3 hour set with the Blue Rock Boys. We tune down a 1/2 step in that band and use only lyric/chord charts. No problem for Mike. From the downbeat Mike was there with horn lines, vocal harmonies, and solos that were everywhere from soulful to wailing. Remarkable. My favorite moment of that set was playing my tune "Who Will Part the Waters Now?" Mike joined us on the downbeat and built it to a crescendo it had never had previously. Like I said "a musical mind-reader."
I sent Mike the bass/banjo/vocal track of this on a Thursday evening and was rewarded with this performance on Friday morning. Never flashy or distracting, his 'late night' take on the tune was just what it needed. Thanks Mike.
About ready to hit the proverbial 'send' button on the tune one last thing came to mind - drums. Or, to be more accurate, 'drums?' That left one stone left to turn - send this tune out to Austin, Texas to my high school classmate and fellow Swantonian Jason Corbiere. Jason, like so many touring musicians, is home now on break from drumming with the legendary Jimmie Vaughn and getting into the idea of recording from home. Early on in this pandemic I helped him get his recording set up going and got a few tracks from him on another tune that will be out soon. I figured I'd send this his way and see what he came up with. His response was every bit as quick as Mike's - it was back to me in a flash with Jason's classic boyish excitement. I love that about him - he simply hasn't lost that feeling you get when you hear something you like the first time, kinda like peeling back the plastic shrink wrap off the vinyl you purchased at the Ben Franklin's back in 1985...
His take was this mellow drive with extra tracks of tribal-toms and cymbal rolls - to add some 'spice' as Jason said. I layered those last two in to set up the instrumentals and build into the ending verse. I really appreciated how much Jason was into the chart both lyrically and musically - his enthusiasm sure does come through. And, he has really figured out how to record his drums like a pro! I did nothing to the tracks he sent me in terms of EQ or effects, they sounded great as soon as I dropped them into the studio.
OK - if you've read until here - thanks! I hope you enjoy the track. The video was put together rather quickly so I could push this out on Memorial Day. My plan is to do it again with an old church as the backdrop and to add in the other players in some way. I couldn't resist using our crabapple tree for this though. It is both at its peak beauty now and absolutely alive with bees. Luckily they must all be music lovers because they didn't attack me or the banjo here!
I hope you enjoy it! - Eric
My Great Grandfather, LeoPaul Gauthier, c. 1920
“Four Stalks In” - August 2018
“Lawman don’t you come my way, don’t you know we can’t eat hay?”
As a child growing up I heard many stories about my Great-Grandfather Leo “Paul” Gauthier. My Mother, her Sisters and my Pepé (Paul’s son) all spoke of his loving, caring, and somewhat renegade ways. It was the latter that peaked my interest. The one story that I heard from my Pepé was that his Father was, like so many others, a bootlegger during prohibition. I always had this picture in my mind of him making the booze down in the basement. This, it turns out, was probably not the case. A recent meeting with my Mother’s first cousin Geraldine shone some light on that operation. She always understood that he smuggled the alcohol across the border in the sawdust he transported back for use on the farm. This apparently was a pretty common practice in those days.
What was less of a common practice was his method of distribution. Family legend has it that LeoPaul would bury the alcohol in his cornfields in random places. He would keep track of where it was on a sort of “pirate’s map” of booze. The buyer would come by and give him the money and he would tell them where to go dig. As the song says “ten rows down and four stalks in, head on home with a trunk fulla gin…”
But, I’m getting ahead of myself there, let’s start with the music. In early August 2018 my family was on our yearly trip to Three Mile Bay, NY to my In-Law’s cottage on Lake Ontario. It is a beautiful spot and a week filled with family, swimming, eating, music making, and simply being “at the lake house.” I’ve written several songs in that setting and find it to be a really creative place. One morning I sat down to work on the classic B. F. Shelton tune “Darling Cora.” This tune is really hip and rather hypnotic as well, especially harmonically. It uses a tuning on the banjo that gets the instrument into open C minor (gCGCC). I started on “Darling Cora” and ended up noodling around (this is, incidentally, how nearly EVERY tune I’ve written starts.) The main riff for “Four Stalks” simply jumped out of the tuning. I still have the note paper I grabbed from my niece where I wrote down that riff right then and there. Later in the afternoon I penned the intro/interlude riff and the chords of the verses. From day one the form of that song hasn’t changed a bit.
My Brother-In-Law Brett liked the riff immediately and suggested it had a “bootlegging” kind of vibe to it. My mind jumped immediately to my Great-Grandfather and together we came up with the title and the “head on home with a truck fulla gin” verse. About a week later, after returning home I wrote the rest of the words.
As a kid (especially a teenager) it was pretty sexy to have an image of your ancestor as this law-breaking gangster kind of figure bootlegging all over Northwestern VT. I still really like that image because it really is fun to think about. But, the truth really seems to be that LeoPaul was simply providing for his family as best he could. I think the song gets at that and shows a family man who simply made money in the ONLY way he really could during that time. I took some liberties with the type of alcohol he was making but only because ‘gin’ is ultimately easier to rhyme than ‘moonshine’...
Musically this tune has had several incarnations. Like nearly all of my tunes, they start off in my home studio with me playing all the parts. The original here was guitar, banjo, bass, and two vocal parts. I played the rhythm and guitar solo parts and sang harmonies over only the chorus. We quickly incorporated this tune into both the Blue Rock Boys and the Stragglers in its acoustic form. Cliff Crosby (BRBs) was more fond of harmonizing the verse and leaving the chorus to me alone. That is what we ended up doing on this recording. My Brother-In-Law Brett Shurtliffe was on the hook (my words) for the upright bass part as the song truly wouldn’t have happened without his first suggestion. He’s a terrific bassist and a member of the Buffalo Philharmonic orchestra, he recorded the plucked and bowed bass parts you hear on the acoustic version of this.
The riff on this one is heavy. When playing it on the banjo I always had the feeling that Jimmy Page must have written at least some of those great riffs on the banjo. Perhaps it’s just the open tunings that lead me there but this song struck me as a ‘Zep-Style’ rocker from day one. To that end I experimented with an open C-minor tuning on my strat here at home. I couldn’t get the guitar riff to work until I experimented with open tunings and stumbled on CGCGCEb. Magically, once again, that lick simply ‘jumped’ out of the guitar. I took all the vocals and bass parts from my first home recording and replaced the banjo part with a crunchy electric guitar playing the riff.
I then enlisted Noah to record the drum part on the digital drumset he had upstairs. It being an afternoon (mind you) in the Summer I distinctly remember bringing up my recording equipment and the Miller Lite I was working on to that session in his room. He laid down a brilliant (rather heavy metal) drum part before the beer was done. The tune rocked and lived only on my computer for another 12 months.
Fast forward to the Brooke Ostrander benefit show, August 2019. Brooke was my high school band director who literally inspired hundreds of former students over his many years of teaching (more about him later.) Every Summer we come together and have a music event that pays tribute to his memory. This past year I decided to do a set of my own tunes with a MVU-alum allstar band. We used the recording that Noah and I put together to guide our rocked-out version of “Four Stalks In.” That band is the group that plays on the first track of this album, the electric version. The only additional players on the recording are Rusty Charpentier on violin, Justin Bedell on Bass, and Sabina Perkins on vocals.
In the studio this track came together as a live, one-take track. We did it at the end of an 8-hour recording session at West Street Digital. We had the drums set up and mixed so we did everything that Erik Kilburn did on drums for the album that day. From the downbeat that tune just gelled. We tracked the solos that night as well but left the vocals to another date. Somewhere along in there André Maquera, owner of West Street Digital, asked a question like “do bluegrass musicians ever do staggered harmonies?” We tried and liked the arpeggiated harmonies at the beginning of each verse and did and kept them on both versions.
The one thing I’d like to change on this tune is the line “Don’t blame me for what I do, don’t have you have a family to?” My wife Aimee has since suggested that “Don’t judge me” would have been a more apt way to start that line and I agree with the sentiment 100%. In times of extreme hardship my Great Grandfather LeoPaul Gauthier did what he had to do to provide for his family. Now, more than ever, I bet we all can relate.
March 26, 2020
Today, during the first day of the VT "Stay at Home" order I'm very happy to annouce that I have the CD all set up for shipping directly to you. I have the CDs, Mailers, and postage capabilities right here at the house so I can do this all remotely. The CD came out really well and, even in this age of digital streaming, you're gonna want this actual physical CD! Trust me on this! :) Visit the Store link for all ordering info. Thanks and more to come! - Eric
March 15, 2020
The new album is out for digital download and streaming! Please see my Listen and Store pages for information on how to purchase/stream. (I found the entire process with discmakers.com and then cdbaby.com to be easy and, frankly, enjoyable. I would highly recommend discmakers for any of you considering doing your own CD.)
This has been a bittersweet time for me personally. I'm tremendously proud and excited about this project and at the same time I've made the choice (with my bandmates) to cancel gigs as we all try to navigate the Covid-19 reality. If nothing else, this is a pleasant distraction for me and, I hope, for some of you as well. I had intended to release the digital and physical album all at the same time in an early Spring gathering where I was going to try to get all the players on this album together. An album release party is still the plan but I'm just not sure when. Rest assured it will be at a time when Covid-19 is in the rearview and we feel safe in large crowds again. We'll have to party like it's 2020 folks - stay tuned for that.
In this world digital streaming world I have justified my own "free" listening by just how often I have sought out artists I discovered online to see their live performances and purchased their CDs or vinyl. Pandora and Spotify turned me on to many musicians that I then saw at Higher Ground or other venues around the region. It felt good to see them in person and purchase their music and merchandise knowing that I was supporting those artists in the most direct way.
I'm a music educator by profession, a job I have loved for the last 27 years and plan to finish my career doing. My students have engaged me and kept me young in both body and spirit; teaching is truly the "fountain of youth." Because of that I'm able to weather the storm of cancelled gigs, I have health insurance, and am not afraid of my family's security at this time like so many other professional musicians are. I am grateful for that. Because of Covid-19 I'm unable to promote this album at gigs as I was hoping. Many of my friends, musical heroes, and former students are trying to pay the bills playing music and in a far tougher spot than me. Please consider purchasing their music first. It is the only way to ensure that there will be new music for us to enjoy in the future. These projects are a work of love but are expensive to pull off. If you like my project please do consider purchasing it. As soon as I get close to paying this album off I'm going to start the second - I have more than enough written already for a second and third project. I'm considering an entire album of instrumentals and another of new tunes that focus on a 'new sound' that I have in mind.
March 2, 2020
My first album "Been There a Long, Long Time" is finally finished as of February 29th, 2020. Although I'm sad that I'll only be able to celebrate the 'real' anniversary of completion every leap year I'm beyond happy with the product and to have it finished after 9 months of recording, re-writing, mixing, editing, and collaborating with 18 other musicians on this project.
My new year's resolution for 2018 was to start writing my own music. After setting an old English murder ballad that January (an auspicious beginning, to be sure) it was like I hit a musical artery. Instrumentals have simply popped out of my 5-string banjo (in particular) and songs with lyrics either come gushing out or trickling out with very little in between. I'm still working on lyric writing, something I find the most challenging part of song writing by far.
After several tunes started getting reactions at live gigs in both the Blue Rock Boys and the Stragglers I decided to make my 2019 resolution to record my first album. I almost did it all in that calendar year but am glad that I took the time to finish it up right.
Songs that started as mere scribbles on notation paper as my son was prodding me with phrases like "c'mon Dad - are we ever going to hit the slopes today?" turned into the likes of "Who Will Part the Waters Now?" That tune is the most epic one on the album with the most players on it and production value by far. Each of these tunes has its own unique story that usually starts with me sitting on the coach or my favorite old chair in the kitchen which is my preferred spot to play. Incidentally, my family seems to prefer it over the living room as well...
A favorite story of this album is a day of reminiscing the life of my Mom on the 4th anniversary of her death in Mid-November of 2018. Mid-morning I found a cool old-timey lick just seemingly waiting for me on the banjo. I scribbled it down and thought about it as the day went on. Sometime around dark I fit the phrase "I hope I'm Dead and Gone" to the lick. My wife's immediate response was along the lines of "What a cheery songwriter you are Eric..." I took the challenge to somehow make that line actually work in a tune that honored my Mother's memory. Somehow these majestic twin maples from my home growing up came to mind and I realized that there are things you simply don't want to outlive. As hard as it was to lose Mom in what was truly the prime of her life it is impossible to argue the logic that no parent ever wants to outlive their child. Those trees are something I don't want to outlive either. The lyrics to that song simply flowed that evening and I had recorded basically the same version you hear on the album before going to bed that night. The last line states "When the wind blows hard and wins the fight, when that old tree does come down, when they cut her up to warm their stoves, I hope I'm dead and gone..."
As time allows I'll share more about the writing of these songs and the production of the album for any who wish to read about it here. Let me know what you think, I'd love to hear from you! - Eric