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The Long Road from Lonesome
A generation ago, Bill Monroe planted the roots of bluegrass. Today, David Long is learning where to dig.


makeshift sign hanging from the ceiling in the hallway of Nashville’s Sheraton Music City reads, “No Jamming In This Hallway.” Underneath it a family of five, plus the babies, is picking out a tune older than the father’s father’s father. Meanwhile, around the corner, a man carrying a banjo case disappears into the lobby’s crammed coatroom and joins four other musicians in a rough version of “Bluegrass Breakdown.”

Or maybe it’s “Uncle Penn,” or even “Volaré” -- it’s hard to tell. Although the Sheraton Music City lobby is spacious, every inch is taken up by about 500 musicians jamming: mandolin, banjo, guitar and upright bass players; ancient fiddlers from western North Carolina and the odd Boston dobro whiz still asking others to buy his beers. The result is a cacophony that few electrified musicians could fathom: Walk 10 paces and you’ve gone from Nashville to Alabama to Woodstock, from 2003 to 1938. This is the annual convergence of the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America, alternately known as “Lick-fest” or “Noise-fest” by disparaging Nashville pros.

It’s the corner of the first floor, the hotel room where somebody’s supposed to sleep that night, that’s the loudest: women laughing, men hooting maniacally. Inside are some of the players who’d earlier graced the stage of the hotel ballroom where bluegrass’ bigger names -- Reno Tradition, the James King Band, the Wildwood Valley Boys -- play more conventional concerts for those able to tear themselves away from the lobby jams. But whereas a few hours ago these fellas were singing songs about families, old stone churches and farms, now they’re more like rock ’n’ rollers, surrounded by bluegrass hussies and jars of gasoline-like North Carolina moonshine. One is wearing a bag of weed poking out of the front pocket of his bib overalls, a soon-to-be-classic look.

In the eye of this noisy, half-drunk hurricane, 28-year-old Pittsburgher David Long is playing his mandolin and singing harmony with David Peterson, a tradition-minded bluegrass musician with a band called, appropriately, 1946. The two are practicing “brother duets” -- the harmony vocal songs popularized in the ’40s and ’50s by the likes of the Delmore Brothers and Bill and Charlie Monroe. It’s an old, somewhat wholesome sound, one somehow out of place in this Nashville tourist hotel. Even as his booming voice harmonizes with Long’s heady tenor, a drunken woman is eyeing Peterson while another stumbles to the ground behind him. But though Peterson is distracted, even annoyed by his late-night audience, Long pushes him to play more: This is his seminary, and Peterson is one of his many spiritual guides.

With a job playing mandolin and singing tenor harmonies for a well-known band, the Wildwood Valley Boys, and a new album under his own name, Midnight from Memphis, it seems like David Long is nearing center stage. But where does a Yankee boy who had barely even heard of bluegrass eight years ago fit into this distant world? How can he master a music based on a culture several states -- and decades -- removed from his own?

n the early 1940s, while on the road with his recently formed band the Blue Grass Boys, Bill Monroe got it into his head that he’d invite his whole band of four men to climb onto him. He got one on his shoulders, one on his back, and held one each in his left and right arms, as detailed in Can’t You Hear Me Callin’, Richard D. Smith’s Monroe bio. Even since his 1996 death, Monroe has carried bluegrass with him: For disciples such as David Long, his are still the shoulders to stand on.

It’s impossible to overestimate Monroe’s importance to bluegrass. He is the solitary progenitor of bluegrass music as we know it: “high lonesome” three and four-part harmony vocals; the mandolin, fiddle, bass, banjo, guitar lineup; driving instrumentals and swaying ballads. Many other well-known bluegrassers -- Flatt and Scruggs, Del McCoury, Jimmy Martin -- got their start in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. As, of course, did the music’s name.

Most importantly to David Long, Monroe begat a style for playing the mandolin unlike any other, a musical archetype that somehow encompassed an entire philosophy within that eight-stringed “little guitar.” And as with so much in traditional music, Long’s introduction to Bill Monroe is shaded in apocryphal tale.

“The day I had my first formal mandolin lesson,” says Long, “we started playing this Monroe tune. And right as we stopped playing, the phone rang -- my teacher didn’t answer it. So the answering machine got it, and they were calling to say that Bill Monroe had just died. I thought, ‘Oh, God, I’ve killed him.’ He somehow heard me, all the way from Nashville, fucking up his tune, and just said, ‘That’s it.’”

The youngest of eight, Monroe was born in 1911 in the tiny town of Rosine, Kentucky. He was cross-eyed, a stigma that marred his social skills from an early age and, according to popular wisdom, led to his explosively cathartic method of playing. Monroe made it through just the fifth grade before beginning to work for a living. After picking up the mandolin (his brothers wouldn’t let him near the more popular guitar or fiddle), his Uncle Penn introduced Monroe to old-time fiddle music -- the Scotch-Irish influenced dance tunes of rural Appalachia. From local black guitarist and fiddler Arnold Shultz, Monroe learned the swagger and soul of blues music -- and a lifelong counterbalance to the racism of the South. His songs, both original compositions and traditional numbers, were about a time and a way of life that is not just anachronistic now, but was slipping away even in Monroe’s early years of fame.

Along with a select group of other originators, including the Stanley Brothers (Ralph, of recent O Brother, Where Art Thou? fame, and late brother Carter), Monroe serves as an archetype for a music that’s more about encompassing an entire way of life than it is about a style or trend.

For David Long, it’s a way of life as distant as the hills of Kentucky, as removed as the Great Depression. Long grew up in a semi-rural part of Washington County, and began his musical career on saxophone in fourth grade. Sax led, somehow, to percussion and to the inevitable high school guitar. During his two-year college career at Dickinson College, Long studied music and planned to declare a music major before “unenrolling.”

David’s older brother Rob Long, a Pittsburgh-based photographer, had laid the groundwork for David’s decision to eschew the college life, but it wasn’t easy. According to Rob, neither parent had finished college, and they foresaw the consequences from such a decision.

“My dad’s a coal miner,” explains Rob, “and I think he saw this chain of events that might develop in which I’d have to get a job like in the mines, which he did not want. [Then], Dave went to college and followed nearly the same pattern. That’s because, one, I did it already, and, two, because I encouraged him to find his path -- whether it was college or not, to listen to what his heart and his mind said.”

Even so, when Rob Long dropped out of Carnegie Mellon University, he had a clear path ahead of him: While not yet established in the field, he was working as a photographer’s assistant, learning what he knew would be his trade. David Long may have had a sense that music was where his future lay, but when he left college and moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to join a friend, he didn’t even have an instrument in mind, much less a career.

When he eventually found it, it wasn’t Bill Monroe, or even necessarily bluegrass music, that brought David Long to the mandolin.

“Before I left Dickinson I went into a little pawn shop and bought an old mandolin for $10,” says Long. “I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I played that old [Jerry] Garcia and [David] Grisman album, and they did the Grateful Dead song ‘Friend of the Devil.’ And there’s a mandolin solo in it, so I picked that out and played along with it. A friend of mine played me some of Grisman’s quintet, and [the mandolin] just spoke to me on a tonal and melodic level.

“At that point, my knowledge of mandolin and mandolin music was -- well, was none. I’d heard of Bill Monroe, but I wasn’t even paying attention to that kind of stuff. I thought [Grisman] was the end-all be-all of the music. I had no idea of what traditional music was; I’d never heard real blues, no old-time fiddle, nothing.”

But in Jackson Hole, Long frequented a popular open-stage night at a local bar, where he would hang around the musicians until someone asked him to play. He befriended an old-time fiddle player who brought Long into a few gigs as a backup player. The fiddler may have introduced him to the music, but didn’t instruct: “I was playing everything wrong,” says Long, “and if I didn’t know it I’d just chop through it.”

fter returning to the Pittsburgh area in the fall of 1996, Long reconnected with Ben Hartlage, a high school friend who’d just returned from a stint in Los Angeles and taken up guitar. The two began playing music daily, with Hartlage exposing Long to the kinds of blues and old-time music with which he was becoming increasingly obsessed.

“We both grew up in a semi-rural community,” says Hartlage. “And there was a lot of farmland to be viewed from our front porches, so when we finally set out for college on our own -- I think you start looking for something out there in the world that has resonance to you. And it ended up being traditional music and bluegrass that had a personality that fit our own.”

At the Pittsburgh bluegrass jam sessions the duo began to frequent, Hartlage’s songs and Long’s fiddle-style mandolin instrumentals got them embraced by other local musicians. It also attracted a bass player and ace fiddler John McFarland -- turning the pair’s songwriting pastime into an actual band. Coal Train quickly became one of the most prominent bands on the Pittsburgh music scene by combining all manner of old-time, hot jazz, and old blues music and presenting it to college and rock audiences outside the normal old-music circles. Long was still playing David Grisman’s more jazz-influenced, modern, melodic style of mandolin at the time: It wasn’t bluegrass, but at that point, neither was Long.

“Monroe happened over a period of time for me,” says Long. “Coal Train was never a bluegrass band, and throughout Coal Train I never got rid of that Grisman style of playing, which doesn’t fit at all into old-time music. The more I tried to do that, the less authentic it sounded.”

Eventually, Coal Train was derailed by its members’ personal success: Fiddler McFarland moved to California to teach philosophy, and the band fizzled out. By that time, Long had discovered a new approach to his instrument.

“I took an instrument-repair workshop at Augusta [Heritage Festival], in Elkins, West Virginia,” says Long. “I came off like I was a hotshot kid playing the mandolin because it was cool, and that I didn’t know anything about it. At Augusta, I picked up on that really quick. There was this guy down there who was an old-time fiddle player who heard me and was just like, ‘Uck, get a clue!’ I realized I was going about this all wrong.

“I don’t know what it was I was looking for, but when people started playing tapes of [Monroe-style greats] Mike Compton and Frank Wakefield, it piqued my interest more than anything I’d ever heard Grisman do. It was a case of personal preference -- it just took me a long time to get to.”

he tiny Station Inn seems to be built entirely from old, troubled wood. Crossing town from the Sheraton Music City brings one past all manner of Nasvhille music venues, most with neon from foundation to antenna-topped roof, but the Station Inn is darker outside than in -- and the inside is the kind of pitch called for by a hangover. The long school-cafeteria tables with uncomfortable seats are packed to capacity with all manner of bluegrassers -- from bespectacled New England visitors and London tourists to overall-clad fans from the region. (“But I drove from Kentucky,” shouts one fan, after his request from the band is denied. “That ain’t so far,” comes the reply. “Yeah,” he counters, joking, “but I had to take the car off the blocks in my front yard first!”) This is the world’s foremost bluegrass venue -- it hosts live bluegrass seven nights a week -- and few venues could match the Station Inn for its dedication to austere musical presentation: Simply put, nothing else matters.

On stage, Mike Compton stands like an oak, sturdy and with little expression but an intense stare out into the darkened crowd. His right arm swings like a hatchet man, coming down on his mandolin to rake coarse rhythmic chops from its muted strings. Singer Pat Enright, one of Compton’s longtime associates in the Nashville Bluegrass Band, belts out a verse, and then steps back for Compton to take his solo, or “break.” Compton steps up, lifts his mandolin to the microphone and shakes it: Inside, the rattlesnake tail that the Mississippi-born musician keeps in his instrument’s body -- just like Monroe’s Uncle Penn did all those years ago -- rattles violently. Compton proceeds to rip out a break as notable for its discarding of the song’s straight rhythm for syncopation as for its technical prowess, his left hand ripping through the strings as quickly as his right hand can bash against them with the pick. But the mandolin-enthusiast-heavy audience -- Compton alone is a draw in the bluegrass community -- barely hears the notes over their own hollering: After a night of Monroe-style mandolin wizardry, that rattle sent them over the edge.

Mike Compton is considered by many to be, as a recent Bluegrass Unlimited article put it, “the leading interpreter of Bill Monroe’s mandolin style.” And that goes beyond picking out the man’s breaks from live recordings, as David Long, another avid Monroe-style player, knows well.

“Monroe used his instrument to express a lot of feelings that he was having,” explains Long. “He was a pretty troubled man, he had a lot of what I guess you’d call demons. He had tremendous pride and was very stubborn, but he was always the little cross-eyed child who’d hide under the porch when people came by because he didn’t want them to make fun of him. It really comes down to the rawest form of musical expression.”

Monroe-style mandolin isn’t about the licks or the riffs. In fact, it’s not even about that left hand at all -- the fretting hand, the hand that dictates the mandolin’s notes. Monroe-style is all about the right hand, the picking hand: Through that, the mandolin player controls the volume, the tone and rhythm of the note. In the right hand lies not just this music, but an understanding of that whole vanished way of life that Monroe was expressing -- and that’s not something you can teach through musical lessons.

“The original guys were an entirely different culture,” explains Compton. “Their way of doing things was entirely different. This music is trying to recall a lifestyle that we’re removed from -- singing songs about cabins, about the snow leaking in through the walls, is a little ridiculous for us. It was the only recreation these people had -- they played music for inspiration, recreation, therapy as well as entertainment. By and large it was highly personal and not really meant for public consumption. All of us now, we’re trying to recreate those sounds and that attitude. And it’s a spiritually uplifting thing, because it’s such a straightforward, emotionally saturated style of music.”

David Long met Mike Compton two years ago when he came to Pittsburgh to give a workshop and performance. At that point, Compton was not a secret known only to mandolin enthusiasts: As the mandolin player on the wildly successful O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack and ensuing tour, his music, if not his name, was a national sensation. For Long, befriending Compton was the biggest step he could take towards learning that Bill Monroe legacy.

In 2000, Long had spent a week in California with Monroe student Frank Wakefield, a mandolin player who’d begun playing in the late ’40s and was, as Long puts it, “the first to play Monroe’s style as good as Monroe did.” He played for luminaries such as Jimmy Martin and Red Allen, and had taught Grisman. Wakefield was the first to begin explaining to Long the importance of the right-hand technique. But it was Compton who painted the bigger picture.

“He’s like the Freud of Bill Monroe style,” Long says of Compton. “The way he describes Monroe’s playing, he’ll hold up a book of Van Gogh and point to a painting and say, ‘Look at the brushstrokes. Look at how broad his strokes are and how sloppy it is, but how it all fits.’ It’s never like, ‘You want to put your fingers here and do this …’”

Most importantly, Compton and Wakefield have taught Long the importance of approaching other musicians. “If you want to learn someone’s style, just go to their door and camp out on their front porch,” Long says Compton told him. For Long, these veterans and old timers are the link between Pittsburgh in 2003 and Kentucky in 1946; for bluegrass music, no lesson could take the place of that.

rt Stamper’s voice is crackled, nearly inaudible. He holds the tracheotomy hole in the front of his throat when he speaks, trying to boost his volume over the crowds of pickers in the Sheraton Music City lobby as he tells his endless stories. With a wit not dulled by the years, Stamper is one of the treasures of the bluegrass convention, where many flock around to hear his old-time fiddle tunes.

“That’s the fellowship of this music,” Stamper says later, secluded in a quiet corner. “That fellowship is the greatest thing there is going. And David [Long] is one of them -- he loves to just get in there and learn. He’s got an open mind, willing to look up to old-timers like myself -- I just put it out there, and he picks it up and takes it from there.”

Raised in eastern Kentucky, Stamper got his professional start in the Baltimore clubs before the Stanley Brothers picked him up as their fiddler in 1951. Soon he was playing on the Osborne Brothers’ first recordings for MGM Records and later, in the 1980s, Stamper became a Blue Grass Boy, fiddling for Bill Monroe. But his musical origins are far older than that -- older in fact by far than Stamper himself. As a child, his family worked the cornfields, and as they worked his uncles would take turns playing old-time fiddle tunes from the high point of the field as working music.

That deeply embedded sound -- the fiddle on the ridge, playing songs older than the farm -- is one of the roots of real bluegrass.

Still, says Long, “I’m not gonna think that I don’t have anything to contribute to the music just because I don’t have that kind of upbringing. I’m sure there were a lot of people there in that field that never wanted to play music. There’s certainly benefits to being a part of it, and to hearing those kind of sounds and having them as a family experience, but I don’t think it’s got a bearing on what people have to contribute to the music. For that matter, I’ve met mandolin players from Kentucky that really don’t know anything about Bill Monroe.”

David Davis would tend to agree. A 21-year veteran of the bluegrass circuit with his band, the Warrior River Boys, Davis has a closer connection to his chosen profession than most: His uncle, Cleo Davis, was the first Blue Grass Boy -- the first person to be inducted into Bill Monroe’s band after Monroe parted ways with his brother Charlie. But Davis, who still lives in the small Alabama town he was born and raised in, sees something in the Yankee mandolin player Long that surpasses geographic or cultural boundaries.

“Those people David’s looking to,” says the gentle-voiced Davis, “like Art Stamper -- there’s probably not five people that play a fiddle that have dug into the roots of this music more than Art. David’s learning where to dig, who to dig into; he’s learning a lot of stories and history -- he’s learning a lot of old tones. And I hear those old tones coming out of his right hand on that mandolin. You don’t learn those -- you have to find them. And it takes some digging and some appreciation to bring that out in 2003.”

When the emcee announces the Wildwood Valley Boys for their evening show at the Sheraton Music City ballroom, he evokes the kind of legacy that many bluegrass fans seek.

“They come by their sound honestly,” the announcer says. “They’re the direct descendents of the Boys from Indiana …”

At the name “Boys from Indiana,” a whooping goes up from a small section of the 1,000-plus crowd, a group of men and women wearing “Indiana Bluegrass” jackets, like a septuagenarian rural street gang. The Boys from Indiana, specifically the band’s leader Aubrey Holt, are legendary in bluegrass: The likes of Alison Krauss have recorded Holt’s songs, and the band was a shoo-in for induction into the Grand Ole Opry before something -- in bluegrass there’s always some unspoken something -- happened that blackballed the Boys.

Aubrey Holt’s in the audience tonight to watch his son Tony continue the family tradition. And when Tony Holt sings, his voice resonates out of his deep chest with the melancholy breath of the hollow and the front porch. By his side, David Long stretches into the microphone to sing tenor harmony. (In the traditional style, the Wildwood Valley Boys use just one mike, with a standardized choreography, based on each instrument’s natural volume.)

In their white shirts, black pants, wide ties and cowboy hats, the Wildwood Valley Boys strike a more classic, kempt Nashville appearance than some of the other bands that have appeared on the ballroom stage tonight. David Long stands straight and stiff, that hatchet arm spinning around to chop out the mandolin’s relentless rhythm: His breaks are melodic enough to fit into the Wildwood Valley Boys’ song-based repertoire, yet still distinctly roughshod and brash. But Long never contests that it’s the vocals, and Tony in particular, that the band is based around.

“Tony’s one of the best bluegrass singers out there,” says Long, “and he doesn’t get nearly as much recognition as he should. There’s times when I’ll be on the stage with him and he’ll rip off a phrase that’s just so musical, I’m amazed. You can’t even label Tony because he’s almost timeless -- he’s not caught up in image or anything, he’s just out to sing songs, and that’s it.”

hen Mike Compton and his Nashville Bluegrass Band compatriots stop for a brief break between sets, the Station Inn immediately becomes as loud as the Sheraton across town -- though without the chaotic string-jam music. In this case the talk is somewhat more refined bluegrass discussion: Did you hear when Compton … How about when fiddler Stuart Duncan … Did Sugar Hill Records really sign …

“Excuse me,” says one large, Tennessee-accented man wearing a baseball cap and the ubiquitous overalls, “excuse me but, aren’t you David Long? I bought a copy of your disc over the Web, and I need another -- I’ve wore mine out!”

If it were to happen anywhere, it would be here in the mandolin-worship zone that surrounds Compton wherever he goes. But this sizable fan isn’t running to the green room to find the Mississippi master -- it’s Washington, PA’s own he’s after.

When it came time for Long to record his own album later last year, Long called on some of the best musicians he’d met in his brief bluegrass career. Among them, Karl Shifflet’s banjo and fiddle players, whom Long met on a month-long stint playing mandolin for Shifflet’s Big Country Show, a traditional honky-tonk bluegrass act that shares a label -- Rebel Records – with the Wildwood Valley Boys. He also got ex-Coal Train and Wildwood Valley Boys bassist Kevin Kehrberg, guitarist John Mackin, Tony Holt on two lead vocals, and Ben Hartlage contributing two of the disc’s original songs.

Midnight From Memphis is Long’s way of showcasing himself, and the music he wants to play: modern, original music that sounds as though it’s from bluegrass’ classic age -- the age before it was even called bluegrass, when the boundaries weren’t so defined. Long’s playing is full of blues and jazz syncopation and bravado, and his writing on songs like “My Final Breath Will Whisper Your Name” is gutsy and free of slickness or gloss: As David Davis says, it’s a disc that “has some meat on it -- it’ll last a while.”

But while the album has been lauded by those who’ve heard it, that doesn’t mean financial success is around the corner.

“I don’t have a band,” says Long. “I’m going out and promoting this record as a sideman [in the Wildwood Valley Boys], with that as the sole interest. Record labels want a band, not a sideman. If I had this record as a band, a label would want it.”

“If he wanted to sell lots of records, he should probably stay away from bluegrass music all together,” says Rick Easton. Easton, a former Pittsburgher, now lives in Charlottesville, Va., where he does radio promotions for Rebel Records. “Artistically, [Midnight From Memphis] is a very strong record -- there’s great original material, and it’s written in a very traditional vein. But there is an argument within the industry that says traditional stuff does not sell. Radio is key -- making sure people hear it, [and] a lot of the traditional stuff gets passed over in favor of a slicker, high-gloss product.”

Indeed, Midnight from Memphis hasn’t been what you’d call a smash hit -- it’s a small, independent release in a small, independent genre. But the influential Web site Mandolin Café gave it such a glowing review that it’s got the mandolin community buzzing -- enough to shift a few copies of the disc, and get Long a series of duet gigs with David Peterson in Kansas this spring, culminating in a prized show at the annual festival of all things mandolin, MandoFest.

More importantly, however, Long has found something that many musicians -- and many people, for that matter -- never do: his instrument, his style, his purpose.

“I think there’s a correlation between the music that he’s chosen to play and his settling down, his down-to-earth presence,” says brother Rob Long. “Maybe something in him knew that he would settle, it was something that he actively sought out; he knew he’d be at peace when he found the life he chose to live.”

“You could say that I’ve found my style more than most people ever do,” says David Long, “but at the same time, I’m like, ‘Shit, what was I doing when I was 15?’ You’d be surprised at how many musicians are on top of their game at an early age. It’s just frustrating because now I know, I’m very sure about what I wanna do and what kind of music I want to make.”

Long understands that bluegrass is not the most lucrative of careers, and that, at 28, he’s got a long road ahead of him.

“Del McCoury’s been doing this since the early ’60s,” says Long. “It took him over 40 years to get to the point where he was really calling his own shots. Forty years is a long time, and I haven’t even been playing seven years -- and that’s from the time I picked up the thing. That’s a lot to come to terms with, but I don’t want to do anything else now.”

For Long, it’s about finding the “high lonesome,” about that lifetime chasing after stories and faces and friends that are all pieces of an era -- pieces of a distinctly American philosophy -- that’s all but disappeared from view. As Mike Compton told Bluegrass Unlimited, “[Monroe’s] like the Chinese alphabet, it would take two or three lifetimes to really understand it.” And regardless of the boundaries of time and space, Long’s heroes and peers think he’s ready to look towards that.

“I think for someone like David -- when I look at him, what turns him on is what turned me on at 25 and still does,” says David Davis. “It’s the people that’s important to David, the people that he thinks did something to turn him on. If you’re gonna get in tune with a person, it’s not just what makes that sound, it’s what makes them. That’s what he’s gonna bring out later -- more than maybe licks they’re playing, but absorbing them as people, he can bring that out later on.

“David is an artist in the truest sense of the word, and because of that, he’s gonna get more than just a surface off of these people. The closer you can get to that fire, the closer you’re gonna get to getting some of that warm on you.”

David Long and his Midnight From Memphis band, plus the Karl Shifflet and Big Country Show, perform at 8 p.m. (doors at 7pm) Fri., March 21 at the Brew House, 2100 Mary St., South Side. For show info, call Green Mannequin Productions at 412-370-2177, the Brew House at 412-381-7767 or see Long’s Web site, for more.

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