1. C&O CANAL (by John Starling)
2. JOHN WILKES BOOTH (by Mary Chapin Carpenter)
3. BOULDER TO BIRMINGHAM (by Emmylou Harris & Bill Danoff)
4. BLUE RIDGE (by Richard Malis & Bob Artis)
5. HE RODE ALL THE WAY TO TEXAS (by John Starling)
6. RAINY NIGHT IN TEXAS (by Karl Straub)
7. IF THAT’S THE WAY YOU FEEL (by P.S. Bland & Ralph Stanley)
8. BEEN AWHILE (by Joe Triplett)
9. LOVE WAS THE PRICE (by Alice Gerrard)
10. BOAT’S UP THE RIVER (by John Jackson)
Sitting at a table at the Birchmere back then, the fabled Alexandria, Virginia, nightclub on any Thursday night, you could drink a beer, and stare up at the crease in Mike Auldridge’s blue jeans, and at John Duffey’s bowling shirt, and at Ben Eldridge’s pretty banjo, and at John Starling and his Martin guitar. Oh, and at regal Tom Gray and his doghouse bass.
You had to get there early. Doors opened at seven. Show at 8:30. Line formed at six, and you could bide your time reading Pete Kuykendall's Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, or just listening to stories about John Duffey. You were waiting to see the Seldom Scene, and they were always worth the wait.
Every Thursday night they’d play the Birchmere. They’d play songs by Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Gram Parsons, J.J. Cale, Paul Craft, Herb Pedersen. And they’d play John Starling’s songs, too. They’d play one called “C&O Canal,” about the worth of an antique life.
Sometimes they’d bring Tony Rice on stage, the man who somehow managed to re-invent an acoustic instrument made with wood and wire. Sometimes Tony sang a song called “John Wilkes Booth,” written by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Everybody at the Birchmere adored Chapin. One night she had a song-swap there with a couple of unknowns: Shawn Colvin and Cheryl Wheeler. Brilliant stuff.
Chapin loves Emmylou Harris, because Chapin has ears. Emmylou wrote “Boulder to Birmingham” with Bill Danoff. Bill used to work the door at the Cellar Door when he wasn’t writing songs for his duo Fat City. He co-wrote “Country Roads” for John Denver. And he helped Emmylou write “Boulder to Birmingham” after the way-too-young death of her mentor and country conduit, Gram Parsons. Emmylou first sang with Gram in a D.C. restaurant called Clyde’s, in front of an audience of three. It was Emmylou’s regular gig, just a block off the C&O Canal.
As for Chapin, she led the open mic night at Gallagher’s on Connecticut Ave. for a good while, but once her debut came out on Columbia Records, she didn’t have to do that anymore. It was called Hometown Girl, and it she made it with a bunch of longtime supporters, led by producer John Jennings. One of those supporters was Jonathan Edwards, who sang harmony vocals and played harmonica on Hometown Girl. Edwards is the guy who wrote “Sunshine.” The Seldom Scene played that one on a lot of Thursdays. Edwards made an album with the Seldom Scene in 1985, called Blue Ridge. Gorgeous song, the title track. It was written by Bob Artis and Richard Malis.
If you look up the definition of a “starling,” you’ll find that it is a gregarious Old World songbird with a straight bill. Which is to say that John Starling is aptly named. Starling wrote “He Rode All the Way to Texas.” He sang it solo, and he sang it with the Scene. The Seldom Scene. You can hear it on their Live at the Cellar Door album. It’s about a man who knows freedom, written from the perspective of a man who didn’t.
Karl Straub was at the Birchmere most often as a listener, not as a performer, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That’s because he was a young buck back then, and now grown up into musical truth-teller, a genius of quirk. He wrote “Rainy Night in Texas,” about a man who knows when he’s being lied to. He’s never recorded it, but we just did.
Hey, if you want to hear one of the worst mandolin solos in recorded history, check out the egg John Duffey lays, beginning at the 1:10 mark on the Scene’s otherwise pristine recording of “If That’s the Way You Feel.” It starts okay, but by the 1:22 mark, things go horribly awry. Duffey must have wanted to leave it on there just to annoy the fastidious “Mr. Clean,” Mike Auldridge. Anyway, it ain’t the song’s fault. Ralph Stanley wrote it, and the Stanley Brothers sang it, but it was also heard in the D.C. area during the sets of the Country Gentlemen, Charlie Waller’s band that brilliantly expanded Washington bluegrass in the ‘60s (joined by future Scene-sters Duffey and Gray).
What we’re saying is that Washington history is as rich with genius-level roots music as it is with tricky politics. And the Birchmere was, for young Eric Brace and Peter Cooper, as vibrant and important a center for cultural learning as the Smithsonian. There, you could hear DC’s 1970s country-rock kings, the Rosslyn Mountain Boys, doing Joe Triplett’s crowd favorite “Been Awhile.” Rosslyn, by the way, is a soulless urban village in Northern Virginia. No mountains there. That was the gag, see?
Alice Gerrard wasn’t much for gags, at least in the songs she wrote. She favors the mournful, and revels in marrow-deep sorrow. In the early 1960s, she started playing folk music parties around Baltimore and Washington, in a duo with Hazel Dickens. The records she made with Dickens were inspirations to many, including Emmylou Harris. Gerrard recorded “Love Was the Price” with another D.C. inspiration, Mike Seeger, in 1980. Such a sad song of broken love, sung by a married couple who would soon divorce.
The C&O Canal sometimes gets called the Grand Old Ditch. It runs along the mighty Potomac River, a short drive from the Fairfax County cemeteries where John Jackson dug perfectly squared-off graves. When he wasn’t digging graves, he was making music, in a signature finger-picking style. He recorded “Boat’s Up the River” on a 1965 Arhoolie Records album called Blues and Country Dance Tunes From Virginia, and he played it under the stairs at a row house party in southwest Washington one night in the 1980s, ignored by most everyone there, but not by Eric Brace. Jackson played it at the Birchmere, too, on several Saturday nights. Then he rested on Sunday, and rose Monday morning in the blue-black Virginia dawn, to go dig permanent homes for impermanent souls.
Anyway, you could sit there and see him. And hear him. We did, like we saw the Seldom Scene, and Chapin, and a bunch more. And what we saw and heard changed us in ways that seem fortuitous and crucial.
We dedicate this album to all of what we saw and heard, and to the Birchmere, and the Red Fox Inn, and Gallagher’s, and the Cellar Door, and the Tiffany Tavern, and the house party stairwell, and Bluegrass Unlimited, and the kindness of strangers, and the brilliance of friends. And most of all, to John Duffey’s bowling shirt.
Mary Chapin Carpenter:
It’s a real honor to have a song on this record.
Eric and Peter cut their musical teeth on Washington D.C.’s folk, acoustic, and bluegrass greats during their “impressionable” years. They have lovingly curated a collection of songs that shows the depth and range of artists who made Washington home – or a mandatory tour stop -- as well as giving it the informal title of “Bluegrass Capital of the World," especially on Thursday nights when the Seldom Scene had their regular gig at the legendary Birchmere.
Washington D.C. is often thought of as a city of transplants, but when it comes to the music on this record, it’s the hometown we can all claim, with love, passion, and respect.
The road to here began for me in the '70s, when a high school friend took me to the Birchmere to see the Seldom Scene. Their Thursday night residency became a regular destination, opening a hundred musical doors. They were gods, but they had day jobs. They were just folks, but they flew above the rest of us. My flowchart flows from those nights to the Cellar Door, Mr. Henry's, Desperado's, the Childe Harold, the Folklife Festival, WAMU, Katy Daley, Dick Spottswood, Gary Henderson, more Birchmere, the Unicorn Times, Cerphe, Mary Cliff, WHFS, Damien, Bob Here, Weasel, House of Musical Traditions, Gallagher's, and many more dots on Washington's musical map. Years later, I got to write about the local music scene for the Washington Post (thank you, Richard Harrington and John Kelly). And the bands I was in with my brother became part of that scene.
When I moved to Nashville, I met Peter Cooper, who had spent his high school years in the D.C. area, and had attended those Thursday night tutorials at the Birchmere as well. This is our thank you to those days and places and people. This record wouldn't exist without you.
I’d get to the Birchmere by five p.m.
No reserved seating.
Doors opened at six. Show at eight-thirty. First one in got his pick of tables.
My first time at the Birch was on my fifteenth birthday. We got there at seven and sat in the back. After that, I always got my pick of tables.
I’d sit there on Thursdays, staring up at the crease in Mike Auldridge’s jeans. Auldridge played dobro for the Seldom Scene, the band that opened me up to a world of acoustic roots music: Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, the Stanley Brothers, Paul Craft, Tony Rice, John Prine, and all the others. I remember the way the multi-colored stage lights shone off of Mike’s dobro. I remember the harmonies, and the jokes, and the record store downstairs, and the feeling of being allowed into a world of mystery and intrigue and music.
I remember standing outside, waiting for the doors to open, listening through the walls as Mary Chapin Carpenter and Nanci Griffith sound-checked.
I remember learning that what I was seeing and hearing at the Birchmere was a small bit of a larger, richer musical story. The Country Gentlemen, Emmylou Harris, the Johnson Mountain Boys, Red Allen, the Rosslyn Mountain Boys, Alice Gerrard, Mike Seeger, Tom Paxton… all of them, and many more, had breathed this air, and lived in this place.
I also remember meeting Eric Brace, some two decades later, in Nashville, Tennessee. We talked about the Seldom Scene, about the crease in Mike Auldridge’s blue jeans, and about how we likely shared many of the same music nights in the crowd, as young bucks at the Birch.
Then we formed a duo, and then we made a record with Mike, and recorded “Wait a Minute,” a song the Scene played every night.
And then we called friends together to make this, our hat-tip to what we heard, feel, and know, thanks to our time in the District, near the C&O Canal waters.
This ain’t Lee Atwater’s blues, or Bill Clinton’s saxophone, or the Singing Senators. This is D.C. music.