Merlefest: Bitten By The Bluegrass Bug


Chris Thile joins James Leva and John Doyle at the Merlefest Creek stage.

It’s been a little over a week since the end of the 25th annual Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC, and the blogs and photos of this year’s festival are now being posted online. Since I was not there, this is not one of them, but it made me realize that this marks ten years since my first music festival at Merlefest 2002. I was completely absorbed by the cascade of music from the stages, but it was the community that I saw around the campfire jams that made me want to learn the music at a deeper level. With ten years hindsight, here’s what I remember from those fateful days when American roots music became a driving force in my life.

Memories of Merlefest 15

One of the first bands I came across that Merlefest was the Krüger Brothers, Jens on banjo, Uwe on guitar and vocals, and their bassist Joel Landsberg. I remember being right up close to the stage and hearing the power of the banjo as it rattled off notes like a machine. Their medley of classic television theme songs was hilarious, but they didn’t rely on gimmicks and gave serious treatment to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” among other songs. Tim O’Brien was a highlight performance on the first night of the festival. He was one of the few performers I was a little familiar with, and his band The Crossing included John Doyle, Karan Casey and John Williams, who I knew form their work with the Irish band Solas.

I got to see John Doyle again at the Creek Stage, as he played rhythm behind fiddler James Leva, who I have since met several times. Nickel Creek was still together then, and Chris Thile stopped by to jam a few on stage with Leva and Doyle. Although I was a bluegrass newbie, the name Tony Rice was known to me, and was often mentioned with reverence by others at the festival. My first chance to see the legend in action was when he sat in with the Nickel Creek on their set. Another great memory was walking near the main stage when I got hit by “The Voice” of John Cowan. It’s a special gift to be able to stop someone in their tracks by the power of your singing, and Cowan has it.


My friend Resophonic Rael at the “Sewerfest” campground.

In Doc Watson‘s main stage sets I saw a line of musicians eager to join the revered guitar master. Then there was a double dose of Gillian Welch, which along with “O’Brother Where Art Thou” had been my gateway into American string music. One of my favorite moments was the first time I heard Sam Bush back at camp, listening to the live broadcast of the main stage on the local radio. By the time he sang “Howlin’ At The Moon” and hoots erupted across the campsite, my conversion to a bluegrass fan was complete.

The music was enthralling, but my lasting memory of my first festival was the community around the campfire jam. Being so close that you could almost touch the music, seeing how the musicians who may have only just met each other seemed to draw from a common pool of music with ease, seeing the faces of the crowd while they enjoyed the music and outdoors together. That is what really compelled me to learn an instrument and become a part of this community of traditions.

How about you? Is there a moment that you can pinpoint when music or art had altered the course of your life? Was it momentary inspiration or a life-defining moment? I’d love to hear your “eureka” stories in the comments.

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The Local Time Traveller: 8 Historical Sites in Frederick County, Maryland

Display of a wounded solider being tended to from the Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Display of a wounded solider being tended to from the Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Spring is a time for growth and revival, so what better time to pull the South Mountain Media blog out of its recent doldrums. Although it’s been quiet here, I have been writing monthly “heirloom” articles for hyper-local news site Want2Dish Frederick, covering historical sites and stories of Frederick County, MD. I’ve always been a student of history, and enjoy learning about the past of the places I live and visit.

Writing for Want2Dish has been rewarding on several levels:

  • Getting my first job as a writer.
  • Meeting other writers who cover a diverse set of subjects.
  • Writing on a regular schedule.
  • Using my history degree for the research I was trained for.
  • Honing my photo and video skills.

To catch you up on where I’ve been, here is a summary of my posts for Want2Dish up to now:


Frederick County is rich in civil war history, but for my debut article I wanted to set a greater challenge for myself than the well known battlefields of Monocacy River and South Mountain. These included sites like Barbara Fritchie house, Landon House and War Correspondents Memorial, and trivia like Lee’s Order 191 and Stonewall Jackson being bucked off a horse given to him by a local Confederate sympathizer.


My first article was a light survey, but for my second post I wanted to get into more detail about my subject, and turned to this blog’s namesake for inspiration. But the Battle of South Mountain is already well documented, and I wanted to go beyond another account of the battle that preceded Antietam and connect it to the present world.  I thought about what information might be


Soon after I moved to Frederick County, my wife and I went for a hike in Catoctin State Park, and I was captivated by this interpretive walking trail telling history of distillery in the region, including the true story of a large-scale, prohibition era moonshine production at this site, that ended with the killing of a local deputy during the raid to shut it down.


Another popular local hiking and biking trail is the tow-path of the C&O Canal, which was once the main source of coal transportation along the Potomac from Cumberland, MD to Alexandria, VA. The canal required the use of several aqueducts to cross wide rivers and streams, and one of the most interesting of these stone waterways was one that crosses Catoctin Creek, between Brunswick and Point of Rocks. But its beauty was its undoing, as the oval center arch succumbed to the test of time and collapsed in 1973. A grass roots movement to restore the aqueduct and a grant from the Department of the Interior led to its reconstruction  in October, 2011.


Brunswick, MD is known for its annual Veteran’s Day parade, but the respect for veterans in this old railroad town goes back all the way to WWI, when an old howitzer stop at Veteran’s Park. The old artillery was needed again as scrap metal in WWII, but the Department of Defense came through on its promise to deliver a tank to replace it when the war was over.


A must-see attraction for any student of Civil War history. The museum comprises two levels of exhibits depicting life and death of the civil war soldiers, the challenges faced by the doctors and innovations they made in facing them. The museum gift shop contains a wealth of local Civil War history books. This piece also marked my first attempt at a companion video, where I mixed still images and Ken Burns effects with video motion action and panning. The soundtrack is me playing “Lorena”, a song of the era that was popular on both sides of the lines.


It being winter at the time, I stayed with the museum theme to give folks ideas of things they could see indoors. Among train enthusiasts and kids, one of the most thrilling is the giant HO scale train layout on the third floor of the Brunswick Railroad Museum. The model railroad depicts the tracks along the Potomac River from Union Station in Washington, D.C. to Brunswick (with an extension to Harper’s Ferry under construction). The second floor of the museum houses exhibits made from the donated railroad memorabilia from members of the community. I made another video of this trip, this time getting an interview with the curator that I played over the images.


March was Women’s History Month, and an obvious subject was Frederick’s most famous woman, Barbara Fritchie. This patriotic Union woman waved her flag at passing Confederate soldiers as they passed by her house, and her story quickly rose to legendary status, culminating in the poem “Barbara Frietchie” by John Greenleaf Whittier. The popularity of the story and poem obscures the actual facts around the incident for which no primary sources exist.

Frederick County has much more history to offer, and for my upcoming April article I will look at a piece of modern history – the President’s retreat at Camp David, in the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont. Mystery and history will collide as I look at the sites origin and historical significance as it prepares to host the 2012 G8 Summit next month.

Posted in Civil War, history, local | Leave a comment

Every Meal A Feast

Having just completed the Christmas holiday and feast, I got to thinking about the ritual aspects of the holiday beyond the presents and sweets, even beyond Santa and Jesus. The philosopher Joseph Campbell described the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree as that of a sacrifice, and our ritual of adorning it with lights and ornaments and other pretty or personal tokens is similar to how many religions of the world bestow honors on their sacrifices.

In preparing the holiday feast and delivering two beautifully roasted chickens to the table, I realized that the act of cooking was also part of the ritual, and a ritual unto itself. Every meal represents a sacrifice of some form or other, and we honor that sacrifice by the way we prepare, cook and serve the food. When we cook, we try to transform the raw ingredients into something new and beautiful beyond the utility of fuel, and by doing so we respect the food with our labor, care and creativity.

Certainly not all food preparation is done as part of a ritual, and cooking is required simply to make foods some edible. But in cooking a decent meal, we often go beyond the basic heating needed to digest the food. Why do we go that extra step of preparation needed to add special flavors or change the texture? Why choose ingredients based on non-nutritional characteristics like color and appearance? Why do we present the food on a platter garnished with things that we may not even eat?

We go that extra mile enhancing and arranging the meal because as with the Christmas tree, we recognize it as a sacrifice that has been made for us in the circle of life. We also honor the food by using as much of it as we can: the drippings and giblets for gravy; the carcass for chicken stock; the celery and fennel leaves for flavoring; the stale bread that becomes pudding.

Of course not every meal receives the elaborate presentation of the holidays, but when we take time and care in preparing and cooking our food, we are not only enhancing our own enjoyment, but are participating in a scaled down version of the ritual feast.

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The Christmas Twist: Some Alternative Holiday Songs

According to this XKCD chart, Christmas is music has been stagnating since the late 1940’s and early 50’s. Although I love to sing along with the classics, for the last couple of years I have tried to seek out some modern and alternative holiday music. This year I augmented my holiday playlist with some non-holiday songs that still fit the Christmas spirit, at least for me. My Christmas gift to you, music friends, is to share this list of modern holiday and non-holiday songs that you might enjoy as a respite from “Rudolph” and “Frosty”, and yet still be in the spirit of the season. I’ve tried to link to decent videos where possible, as well as noting what versions I listen to at home.

What would you add to this list? What would be in your personal list?

Modern Holiday
Sarah Siskind‘s 2010 EP “All Come Together Now” is among my favorite new holiday music, with original songwriting band Sarah’s beautiful voice. For example: “May Love Fall Like Snow“. Grace Potter also has a pair of freshly rockin’ holiday songs.

Nerdy Christmas
Among the songs on John Aneallo’s holiday EP, two stand out for the kid in me: “Batman Smells – A Rebuttal” and “The Millennium Falcon for Christmas”, a song with which I can truly identify since I never got one. Johnathan Coulton‘s Christmas card from the Anderson family is a favorite at our house: “Merry Christmas from Chiron Beta Prime“. “Christmas At Ground Zero” by Werid Al Yankovic is a must have for all Dr. Strangelove fans. One more for the geek’s Christmas is Space Zombie Christmas” by Hecktor Zick Zack and Death Ray.

Dysfunctional Family Christmas
The Pogues great duet from Shane McGowana and Kirsty MacColl “Fairytale Of New York“. “Christmas In Prison” by John Prine – a great song for which I could not find a good YouTube of Prine singing it himself, but judging by the number of home videos I am not the only one who loves this one. “Merry Christmas From The Family”  – Robert Earl Keen. Mom got drunk and dad got drunk at the Christmas party…

Old Time
Breaking Up Christmas” performed here by one of several great fiddle players we lost in 2011: Benton Flippen of Mount Airy, NC.  Another is West Virginian fiddler French Carpenter’s “Old Christmas Morning“. A great version of “Hard Times Come Again No More” was sung by Mavis Staples on the “Songs of Stephen Foster” compilation,  but I love the Emmylou Harris version as well.

Folk Rock
The Simon & Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is quite at home in a holiday mix, though I like Johnny Cash’s version from American IV. Another from that album is The Beatles song “In My Life”, which bring out memories of family. Jethro Tull’s “A Christmas Song” is a personal favorite. Hey, Santa, pass us that bottle, will ya?
Leonard Cohen’s beautiful “Hallelujah” fits right in, but I prefer Rufus Wainwright’s singing or  Jake Shimabukuro’s ukulele instrumental. “Ring Them Bells“, a Bob Dylan song performed beautifully by Sarah Jarosz, whose first two albums are always in high rotation at my place.

Other Spirituals
Several Gillian Welch songs fit in this section: “By The Mark“, “Red Clay Halo” and “Rock Of Ages” are in the mix, as well as her duet with Allison Krauss on “I’ll Fly Away”, though I also love this fresh version by Del McCoury & The Preservation Hall Jazz Band from “American Legacies”. “Amazing Grace” was an obvious choice. My favorite versions are an instrumental by guitarist Andy Falco, and Ani DiFranco jamming on it with a full orchestra backing. Hank Williams’ song “House Of Gold” is also in tune with the season of giving and receiving. I like both the Willie Nelson version from his recent album “Country Music”, as well as Darrell Scott & Tim O’Brien’s duet on “Real Time”. I could not find a YouTube of either of those, however, so enjoy this one from the Secret Sisters. Another Hank Williams classic spiritual is “I Saw The Light“, with my favorite version by banjo innovator Earl Scruggs. Last but not least, the haunting vocals of Blue Highway singing “Wondrous Love“. Highly recommended.

For the Non-Believers
A trio of tunes for the agnostics, humanists and all-of-the-aboves in your life: “Let The Mystery Be” by Iris Dement, the hilarious “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” by Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers, and the Grateful Dead acoustic classic “Ripple“.

Movie Themes
With so many TV specials and movies that come out for the holiday season, there are bound to be some that strike a chord of nostalgia. For me there is “Linus & Lucy”, the theme from the Peanuts. Probably because they both came out around Christmas, “May It Be” by Enya, from the Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings soundtrack and “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter soundtrack. It would not be Christmas at our house without a little Jack Skellington. We love the whole soundtrack by Danny Elfman, but the “Christmas Eve Montage” I find fits best in the playlist.

How about you? What are your alternative holiday songs? What are your favorite obscure ones?


7 Reasons To Pick Your Own Fruit


Blueberries from Frog Eye Farm in Knoxville, MD.

Gathering your own food is a very basic human survival function that many people never experience in this day and age, but spending some time to pick your own fruit can have other benefits besides the ripe, delicious fruit you can eat straight from the vine. I recently wrote about blueberry and blackberry picking, and April Finnen has compiled a great list of pick-your-own orchards in the Frederick, MD area.

Why sacrifice some of your limited time to get something you can get at the store? Here are seven reasons why I think you should get outside and gather:

  1. It’s a great deal – pick your own berries are much cheaper than in stores, and it’s easy to wash and freeze them for later use so you can impress your guests with a local berry dessert in winter.
  2. It’s a great way to get natural, low stress exercise that will help offset the cobbler and ice cream you will have when you get home.
  3. You get to meet the farmer who grows your food.
  4. You will gain a lot of respect for folks who work the fields for a living.
  5. It puts money directly into your local economy and helps that green space continue to thrive.
  6. You will learn something about the growing seasons, the land and local ecology.
  7. It’s fun for families, groups and dates.

Fresh blackberries from Crooked Run Orchard in Purcellville, VA.

    With a mountain of fresh, local fruit at your disposal, who knows what recipes you might try? Let me know about your favorite places to pick fruit in the comments below.
Posted in environment, farming, food | Leave a comment

Civil War? Farmer Fights Town’s Takeover

Stepen Mackey of Notaviva Vineyards, left, interviews Sam Brown of Crooked Run Orchard.

Stepen Mackey of Notaviva Vineyards, left, interviews Sam Brown of Crooked Run Orchard.

A gem of green space like Crooked Run Orchard should be cherished and protected by its local elected officials, but unless more citizens and business owners of Purcellville, VA rally to Sam and Uta Brown’s cause, they are fighting an uphill battle against powerful forces that desire their land for development. It is my hope that citizens of both parties can come together to help Sam and Uta Brown of Crooked Run Orchard in Purcellville whose land and business are under attack by town officials who seem hell bent on destroying the twenty five year old orchard on historic farmland. For the left, this is an issue of environmental impact and access to green spaces.  For the right, this is an issue of personal property and business owners rights against entrenched government power. For the Browns, it is simply a matter of survival.

Endagered apples at Crooked Run.

Many mature apple trees will be lost with the impending road.

Crooked Run Orchard contains acres of pick-your-own apples, peaches, plums, raspberries, blackberries and pumpkins, but seven acres of the Brown’s land have already been condemned by the town through eminent domain for construction of a road that will cut the land in two, destroying mature apple and priceless elder boxwood trees. For the last many years, the Browns have stoically bore the time and cost of litigation against the full might of the town’s legal assault, but allies are now gathering in support for the besieged orchard led by Stephen Mackey of Notaviva Vineyards.


Fresh local blackberries, but for how long?

Starting with a press awareness event on July 17th, Mackey interviewed the Browns for a video presentation of Crooked Run’s plight. While none of the invited Purcellville town officials were present, many of the press and bloggers stayed for a stroll into the orchard to pick their fill. Not only is Mackey helping to promote Crooked Run’s legal fund, but he’s also harvesting a small mountain of the Browns’s pesticide free blackberries for use in a Notaviva blackberry wine.

Across the country, demand for fresh, local food is growing as knowledge spreads about the health consequences and environmental impact of industrial agriculture and processed food. At the same time, suburban sprawl and big box stores are eating up farmland at an alarming rate in pastoral Loudoun County, VA.

Please spread the word about the situation at Crooked Run Orchard, especially if you have any connections in the Purcellville, Loudoun County or Virginia State governments who may be able to help the Browns though actions or advice.

Posted in environment, farming, small business, small towns | 2 Comments

The Real Blueberry Hill: Frog Eye Farm

blueberry bushes

Frog Eye Farm

Gathering your own food is a task that is central to the survival of most species, but for many humans it is becoming lost knowledge. Celebrate this critical survival skill by picking your own berries this summer. For the last three years, my wife and I have picked blueberries at Frog Eye Farm, where row upon row of blueberry bushes droop to the ground with tasty fruit from late June to early August. A fun family activity, this pick-your-own operation is also a great value, where the pesticide-free berries are only $3 per pound.


A bounty of berries.

Baskets are available from the proprietor, who is quick to offer a tutorial on how to pick the best berries. Although it is getting late in the season, we found plenty of berries in the lower rows and came home with 10 lbs. Some of that immediately went into this blueberry crumb bar dessert, some was cooked down into syrup for an ice-cream topping, and the rest were washed and frozen for later use, like in hot oatmeal.

Blueberry hill? More like blueberry mountain. Got any recipes to share?

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