Bluegrass/folk music pickers making an audiophile record? When you think about it however, it all makes sense. Except for the much improved microphones and recording gearno more disc cutters and single ribbon mikessitting in a circle, playing off each other is exactly how most of the great old bluegrass records were made. On Wednesday, the day Merle Haggard passed, I ventured to Greenpoint, Brooklyn to watch David Chesky and his engineers/gear operators make a record of mostly Felice and Boudleaux Bryant tunes with a group of acoustic string music heavyweights that included Jay Ungar, John McEuen, Bruce Bromberg and John Cowan. Perhaps the most underappreciated husband and wife songwriting teamsGoffin and King, for example, get a lot more inkthe Bryants wrote a boatload of hits for the Everly Brothers including “Wake Up Little Susie,” and “Bye Bye Love.” Buddy Holly covered “Raining in My Heart.” And Gram Parsons recorded “Love Hurts,” “Sleepless Nights” and “Brand New Heartache.” Robert Wyatt, The Beach Boys and Fairport Convention all covered Bryant tunes. They penned the University of Tennessee anthem and bluegrass standard, “Rocky Top.” And to answer an obvious question, Gram’s “Love Hurts” is the same tune that the band Nazareth also made a few bucks on with their screechy mid-70s cover.
The venue for this sessions was a gorgeous, old, semi-dilapidated former Catholic church that the Chesky’s have used very successfully for a number of recordings. The acoustics of the sanctuary where the musicians actually work and record are outstanding. The scene pictured above is Ungar and McEuen locking in their fiddle parts. When I walked in, and sat down in the room next door where all the gear was, the headphone mix of what was being recorded sounded exactly like much of the patter that was left in on Will The Circle Be Unbroken record. Which as all acoustic music fans know is the landmark 1972 session in which a bunch of longhairs like McEuen and the rest of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band combined with Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson and other older players and changed music history.
The tune the group was working on when I walked in was a cover of Gene Clark’s wonderfully chilling “She Darked The Sun.” The musicians were all audibly excited and from what I heard, the musical juices were definitely flowing. While different members of the group kept wanting to record guitar and vocal parts over again, they seemed to pretty much nailing everything they tried. The chemistry, as they say, was good. Very good. It should be one hell of a record, and an unusual and welcome entry in the Chesky catalog that leans more heavily towards jazz and classical music.
During a break, while Steve Guttenberg, Herb Reichert and I were representin’ for Stereophile, I got a chance pay my respects to this all-star crew. Jay Ungar, who is perhaps best known for being in a duo with his wife Molly Mason, is also the man who in 1982 composed, “Ashokan Farewell” which was later used as the signature tune in the documentary, The Civil War. Apparently, and not too surprisingly, “Ashokan Farewell” has become a favorite of UK classical radio and especially radio up north in Caledonia.
“I think of it as the greatest Scottish air composed by a Jewish guy from the Bronx,” Jay told me.
Upon meeting John McEuen, who was in the zone musically and not ready to relax and chat, I handed him a copy of an Aural Robert column I had written on the LP reissue of the Circle Be Unbroken album in 2013. He scanned it and said much to my gratification, “It’s because of people like you that I have a career.” When I asked about a possible future remaster and reissue of the Dirt band’s masterpiece, Dirt, Silver and Gold he shook his head and said there was already a European LP reissue. And that in this country there wasn’t enough interest to justify reissuing a double album.
“You mean a triple album?’
“Was that a triple?,” he shot back with a faint smile. Like I said, in the zone.
As I was about to leave David Chesky (pictured above on the right with John McEuen in the middle and Bruce Bromberg on the left) and I were idly chatting when he said, “Well, Dylan will be here at four.” With my heart suddenly racing and though I couldn’t see them, I’m sure my eyes were slightly buggin’ out, I gulped, “Bob Dylan’s coming here at 4?” Enjoying my heart spasm, Chesky smiled, “No, Allen Dylan one of my engineers.” No need to call 911. I returned to earth unscathed. Though seeing Bobby Zimmerman woulda been a gas.