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adventures in Kentucky 2000


Tree-frogs, gortex strings and that cowboy hat
adventures in Kentucky in 2000


Nancy Barker is the big-hearted lady who booked me to play in Kentucky and it’s thanks to her that I was able to tour over there this year, performing and teaching with guitar and mountain dulcimer. Herself a fine singer and musician, Nancy is the brains and driving force behind the Kentucky Music Week (KMW) dulcimer camp and the Kentucky Music Weekend festival. Nancy’s e-mail address makes reference to tree-frogs so, being interested in natural history, I was looking forward to seeing or hearing some of these little creatures during my visit.

Nancy Barker & Dan Evans, Louisville, KY


Friday 14th July
I was met at the airport by Karl & Scottie Sebree, a very kind couple who play the dulcimer and are members of the Louisville (pronounced Lou-a-vull) Dulcimer Society. Since their retirement Karl and Scottie spend much of their time supporting the local folk scene. Not having met them before, I spotted them straight away at the airport as they held a dulcimer-shaped sign with my name on it - a nice touch! Karl & Scottie were our hosts later on in the trip too and we were very well looked after during our stay with them.


The first thing you notice about Kentucky is the humidity. It’s about as hot as north Africa but as humid as the tropics. The humidity almost physically hits you as you step out of an air-conditioned environment. I thought that I would be used to this after my tour of Florida in ‘98 but Kentucky seemed even more humid than that. The second thing you notice is the warmth and friendliness of the people from Kentucky, which made the trip doubly enjoyable. 


Saturday 15th July
A folk duo from Cincinnati (pronounced Cincinnata), called Wild Carrot, gave me a lift (Americans say ride) to Bowling Green where I performed at the first concert. They took me in their Ford Econoline van south along the Interstate 65 towards Nashville, until we turned off for the town of Bowling Green. In good company, with Nancy Griffith’s song ‘Ford Econoline’ on my mind and passing signs that said ‘I-65 South Nashville’ everything felt strangely right felt somehow.


Pam from Wild Carrot has bright red hair and, with her partner Spencer Funk, they make a tight acoustic duo. They have packets of wild carrot seeds on their product stand - an original way to promote themselves! Other acts on the stage that night included a very young dulcimer duo called Next Generation who showed great promise, a slick bluegrass band called Fresh Cut Grass who use the traditional method of performing around a single microphone and Nancy’s own band The Kentucky Standard Band. The concert was in the town theatre just on the square and we played to a friendly crowd.


After the concert I took in the cooler night Kentucky air. This is a lovely thing to do - the sounds are amazing. Invisible crickets and cicadas compete in loud singing competitions that add a romantic feel to the evening. I was told that tree-frogs join in the chorus but I didn’t hear any that night.


Sunday 16th July
Nancy Barker and two of her ‘angels’ gave me a ride to the town of Bardstown, the location of the week-long dulcimer camp. Curiously Bardstown is just a few miles west of Danville and there’s an Evansville just over the Ohio river, in Indiana. The ladies I refer to as ‘Nancy’s Angels’ are Debbie Grizzell, Alice Burton and Sandy Huebel. They make sure that everything happens on time, helping Nancy’s vision become a reality. They do a great job.


Monday 17th July - Friday 21st July
Indeed, the Kentucky Music Week camp was a masterpiece of organisation, there was so much going on that my feet barely touched the ground. Dulcimers in England are few and far between so imagine my delight working at a camp of over two hundred people, most of which were mountain dulcimer players. The late night jams would include a couple of dozen mountain dulcimers, or even more.


It was a privilege for me to work with many of the top players in the dulcimer world including: Rob Brereton, Susan Trump, Maureen Sellers, Gary Gallier, Fred Meyer, Jim Miller, Molly Freibert, Steve Seifert and the man they refer to as ‘the professor himself’, David Schnaufer. David lives in Nashville and holds a university professorship. He has played with such household names as Emi-Lou Harris, Mark Knopfler, the Everly Brothers and Chet Atkin. David is a quiet and gracious man who clearly loves his work. There were instructors on other instruments who’s company I enjoyed too including: David James (hammered dulcimer), Greg Jowaisas (banjo), Lorinda Jones (harp), Neal Walters (autoharp) and the duo Cathy Barton (Banjo) & Dave Para (guitar) to mention but a few. I’m probably doing these fine musicians an injustice as they all play other instruments too. Interestingly, Neal Walters is also one of the editors of the American magazine Dulcimer Player’s News. Dave Para, brews his own ale, which I sampled. He was tickled to have his beer sampled by someone who used to be a beer taster for an English brewery.


The students at the dulcimer camp pulled out all sorts of stops and hosted a very enjoyable concert on the Tuesday evening. But if the student’s concert was good, then the Instructors concert on Thursday night was sheer magic! I had heard many of the performer’s CDs before but to hear them play live was really special. My personal favourites were Susan Trump’s beautiful singing on the song ‘Make Hay While The Sun Shines’, a highly original Mexican composition by Gary Gallier - played on one of the dulcimers he himself built, a Gershwin song superbly arranged for dulcimer by Rob Brereton, and David Schnaufer’s old-time music on a banjo-dulcimer. All of these players have expanded the boundaries of the instrument and are very fine musicians in their own right. What stole the show for me however was the virtuosity of Steve Seifert. A previous student of David’s, Steve plays a chromatic dulcimer (one with a full compliment of sharps and flats) and his skill and versatility are quite incredible.


The lessons were held during the day in an air-conditioned college, after which we would eat out in the local restaurants and then enjoy concerts followed by informal jams late in the evenings. I lead four classes each day: English Finger-Style Guitar, The Modal Dulcimer, Song Accompaniments For Dulcimer and a Performance Skills class for dulcimer players. For Copyright reasons, the pieces taught had to be either original or traditional so I used a number of my own compositions in my classes. It was a real treat for me to hear my pieces being played by the students, who I seemed to enjoy playing them. I also lead an informal session on chanting and rhythm which was attended by a large and lively group. 


that cowboy hat
The camp wasn’t all hard work - we partied a lot too. One night some of the instructors took me to a rodeo. It was quite an experience to see the massive bulls throwing their riders off in seconds. One man was picked up between the bull’s horns and tossed into the air whereupon he landed on six-foot fence. Had I not seen it myself, I might not have believed it. The instructors bought me a smart black cowboy hat which, much to my surprise, suited me very well. I wore it for my classes the next day and for my performance at the instructors’ concert, which raised a smile or two.


With my smart black cowboy hat I could pass for a local, just as long as I didn’t say anything that is. My English accent was very conspicuous and attracted a lot of interest. One evening Rob, Neil and I were eating in a restaurant and the waitress interrupted us to say to me: "where y’all from, I love your accent". This tickled Neal and Rob as she herself had a broad Kentucky accent. At this point I should explain that the people from Kentucky don’t speak English as such, but a variant of American with a few grammar rules all of their own. For example: "y’all" doesn’t mean "you all" but "you" singular, the waitress was referring to me personally. It takes a bit of getting used to. Back at the instructors lodge we had quite a few laughs about the different ways we speak. The phrase ‘two countries separated by a common language’ was never more relevant.        


Saturday 22nd - Tuesday 25th July
After the KMW dulcimer camp, my wife Mary flew out from England to join me for the remainder of my stay in Kentucky. We hired a car, booked into a nice motel in Bardstown and spent an enjoyable few days getting to know the surrounding area. Like me, Mary is interested in wildlife so we visited a park called Bernheim Forest where we saw chipmunks, red winged blackbirds and a friendly turtle. We didn’t see any tree-frogs however. On the way back from Bernheim Forest we passed the Jim Beam distillery and stopped off to visit their ‘Outpost’ visitor centre. Bourbon and tobacco are two of Kentucky’s traditional exports.    

Fox TV studio, Louisville, KY   


Wednesday 26th July
Nancy and I drove up to Louisville (pronounced Lou-a-vull, remember) to do an interview for the television channel Fox 41 to help to promote the Kentucky Music Weekend festival that weekend. We arrived at the Fox studios just after 8am and were quickly ushered into the newsdesk studio. Nancy answered questions about the forthcoming festival and I performed a couple of modal pieces on guitar and dulcimer. The programme was broadcast live and we complemented each other afterwards on a job well done.           


27th - 30th July
The Kentucky Music Weekend festival is based in the beautiful grounds of Iroquois (pronounced Urcoyz) Park in the southern outskirts of Lou-a-vull. There was a main stage that seated a couple of thousand in an open-air amphitheatre surrounded by a number of smaller stages under the trees, where more intimate concerts and workshops were held. For the weekend festival we stayed with our new friends Karl and Scottie again and saw more chipmunks, red cardinal and a Cooper’s Hawk in their garden (back yard). At the end of their road a friendly groundhog watched unconcerned as we drove by - but still no tree-frogs.


My work at the festival consisted of a performance on the main stage as well as a concerts and workshops on the smaller stages. Much of this work was recorded for a film of the event and I was also interviewed on camera by the film company. I met and very much enjoyed working with John McCormick, an American guitarist who has toured the UK many times. I also met a duo called Small Potatoes who’s exciting performances were loved by the crowd and a guitar composer called Paul Reisler who’s music we found enthralling. It was also a privilege to meet two legends of the American folk scene: Bill Staines and Jean Richie. 

David Schnaufer & Dan Evans


A number of the performers at the Kentucky Music Weekend I had already met: Next Generation, Wild Carrot, Fred Myer, David Schnaufer, Jack Twombly of the Celtic band Beyond The Pale and Nancy’s own Kentucky Standard Band - so I felt among friends from the start. David and Fred lead a dulcimer workshop at which I played a couple of pieces, one of my own and one of Roger Nicholson’s compositions. Roger is the leading exponent on the dulcimer in the UK. David, Fred and several other players there had either met Roger or knew of his work. David was at pains to point out to the workshop audience how significant Roger’s contribution has been to the development of the dulcimer in the USA.


This was not only the festival’s 25th anniversary but also the amphitheatre’s last event. The whole venue is being rebuilt this year to form a covered arena. As you can imagine this was a special year for the festival. To play in the open air in a wooded park is a lovely setting for folk music and the audience that had come, year upon year, really appreciated the whole event. Nancy does a great job of getting sponsorship from local authorities and industry and the 25th celebrations started with a formal reception on the Thursday evening with speeches of congratulations and support from various local dignitaries.


gortex strings
Uncharacteristically, it rained some of the time during the week-end. I very much welcomed the cool this brought but the humidity afterwards was oppressive. My watch even steamed up. Several of the guitar players were finding it difficult to play with clammy hands and I kept putting fresh strings on my guitar to retain a crisp tone. Practical as ever, the Americans have come up with an answer to this problem - Goretex strings, or to be more accurate, strings with a Gore coating. Those who use them claim that they last much longer and play well in humid conditions. I tried a Martin 000 series guitar with Goretex strings and I found them to have a very smooth feel but with limited sustain. I have been given a set to evaluate on one of my own instruments, which I look forward to trying out.      


I don’t want you to think that this trip was ‘too good to be true’. Far from it, lots of things went wrong. To give you just a couple of examples: on my flight out my suitcase arrived on another plane about 5 hours late, the airline did the same thing a week later to Mary, one of my flights was delayed due to engine trouble, on another we couldn’t land for a long time due to bad weather, we heard of four shootings in Louisville during the short time that we stayed there and I managed to scrape the car on a high curb on the way back to hire company. But all of these things pale into insignificance when we look back on the trip as a whole. We really did have a marvellous time. 

Dan Evans performing at Iroquois Park ampitheatre, Louisville, KY


As you might imagine, I felt quite sad driving away from the amphitheatre after the last performance on the Sunday evening, but what a memory to take away… I played to a very warm crowd and then enjoyed excellent performances from Small Potatoes and Paul Reisler. To close the festival all the performers joined Bill Staines and Jean Richie on stage and sang ‘Beneath Kentucky Skies’ which had only just been written a couple of hours beforehand in the back-stage changing rooms. After singing the song once through, we all hummed the tune while Nancy attempted to read out notes from regular supporters of their memories of the last 25 years, rather like we would have telegrams read at a wedding in England. I say ‘attempted’ as poor Nancy only got half way though the first one before she broke down and had to leave the stage for a few minutes. 25 years of memories was just too much to bear. ‘Angel’ Alice stepped in to cover and after the notes had been read, we sang one more chorus of ‘Beneath Kentucky Skies’ to finish. Then suddenly, just as the lights were fading, just as the final applause was dying down, just as we were all about to leave the stage for the last time - I distinctly heard the call of a tree-frog. My trip was complete.

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