Tony Rice and Norman Blake
New River Train
It’s too cold to do this. Too cold to do anything. The first cold day of the year always comes as a surprise. How the hell has this happened? I’m never prepared. I gaze out at the whited weeds and am mystified. Where has all this cold come from? How long will it stay? Can it not, perhaps, give us a break this year? I pile wood into the stove and wait. I watch the flames and listen to them pop and whistle. I do the one thing that might help; I pull out a record and put it on the turntable.
When I was growing up in Missouri, my father used to take me to bluegrass festivals. It was the way we spent our summers. Or at least, forty years later, it seems that way. Our weekends were spent listening to pure American roots music. What Gram Parsons called “American cosmic music”. Music rooted in the hard lived lives of countless in-comers and travellers. It came from Europe and Africa and got mixed up with whatever was happening in the hills of Kentucky. It was quick and it was smart; hillbilly jazz; it was fresh and it was ancient and it was straight and it was weird. It was music that never sat still; it seemed to grow up out of the ground like weeds.
If I put on a bluegrass record now, or a record made by musicians steeped in the bluegrass tradition, I can feel the summer heat. I can see my dad in his short-sleeved shirt watching Bill Monroe or Ralph Stanley. I can see my dad who, at the time, was ten years younger than I am now. Music does that. It pushes you around; takes you from where you are and strands you somewhere else and mixes the two times together.
Bluegrass gets me through the winter. Listening to Tony Rice and Norman Blake sing ‘New River Train’ never fails to warm me. It might be cold outside and the fields might be frozen but it’s also July and my dad and I are drinking lemonade and listening to Doc and Merle Watson and I’m twelve years old and it’s a hot Saturday afternoon and yet I’m also here, in the Welsh hills, blowing heat on my fingers and waiting for the flames to grow, cold and getting older and I’m a million miles away from who I once was but I’m still listening to Tony Rice sing: the same old train that brought me here is gonna carry me away again.
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