For people of a certain age, hearing the name The Buzzard Rock String Band
evokes memories of nights along Bardstown Road, Washington Street and – for some – The Bluegrass Hotel. Harry Bickel Jr., owner of the “Hotel” and member of the Buzzards, has been motivated to regroup as much of the original band as possible, specifically, himself, Doc Hamilton
and Harry Sparks
, with help from Charlie Cushman
and Vince Gill
, a former resident of the Hotel now living in Nashville, for the purpose of recording an album, entitled Nobody Special
. The tale of how that came about is the subject of some pretty lengthy liner notes accompanying the record. (You’ll have to buy the record or hope the band puts up a web site with the story to read it.) It was recorded at Vince Gill’s home studio in Nashville, with help from Charlie Cushman. Harry agreed to answer a few questions about the record and related matters.
The Record Release party is scheduled for 5 p.m., April 27 at the Red Barn on the U of L campus. It’s also available at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/buzzardrockstringband
>1. What prompted you to get the band back together and make a record and how did you get Vince to come along?
About four years ago, Harry Sparks was about to turn 70 and was having a big birthday party. I talked to him several weeks before the party and told him I thought he and I should go in a studio and put down some of the stuff we did together back in the 1970’s. He loved the idea and suggested we get on it after the birthday party was over. During the birthday party, I was calling some of our old friends like J.D. Crowe and Sam Bush so they could wish Sparky a Happy Birthday. I would run up to Sparky with my phone in hand saying “Birthday call for Harry Sparks, birthday call for Harry Sparks”. It was actually pretty funny because he never knew who he was about to talk to. When I called Vince, however, his phone just kept going to voicemail, so I finally gave up. The next day, Vince called me back to apologize for not answering. He had just gotten back from Italy and had crashed. I told him why I called and that Sparky and I had decided to record some of our old stuff. To that he replied “that’s great, I’ve got the perfect place for you to do it.” I said “where?” and he replied, “my house, I’ve just finished building my own studio and you guys are welcome to come down.” Later that day I called Sparky and he was very excited. We decided that we couldn’t do it without Doc, so I called him in Texas and he said he was in. So that’s how the whole thing started.
> 2. When was the last time the band had been together before this project began and what caused you to stop performing?
Sparky, Doc and I performed together as the Buzzard Rock String Band for several years beginning about 1976. Vince was living at the house (the Bluegrass Hotel) at the time and would play with us when his band (the Bluegrass Alliance) wasn’t working. Vince moved away first, sometime in 1976. Doc moved back out West a few years that so Sparky and I added other musicians. FInally, Sparky moved away around 1980. I kept the band together, with different people, until the early ‘90, at which time we started drifting apart. In 1988, the final version of the band recorded an album for June Appal Records called “I’ve Got the Blues for My Kentucky Home.” So, in answer to your question, the three original members had not played together since the late ‘70s. We had not played together with Vince since the mid ‘70s.
> 3. What are you going to do with this project to promote it?
We’re not going to do a whole lot to promote it. Doc lives in Texas, Sparky in Northern Kentucky and I live in Louisville. We just did it to have fun and to leave some of our music behind. It’s available from CD Baby and for download from Amazon and several other places. We’ve also sent it to several magazines for review. I don’t, however, envision any grand tour.
> 4. How do you think the bluegrass scene has changed since you last performed professionally? (Your yearly parties don’t count but what you heard there does.)
This CD is actually Old Time Music, not Bluegrass, but we’ve all continued to be involved in Bluegrass over the years. When we got started back in the 1960s, the traditional bands like Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanleys, etc. were the mainstays. Of course, J.D. Crowe was the top gun in Kentucky. The first Bluegrass festival was in 1965 in Roanoke, Virginia and things really started to take off after that. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Louisville was probably the top city in the country for Bluegrass. The list of musicians who passed through here is amazing. Sometime in the 1980s, things started to die out around here, but a core group of musicians remains, a lot of them centered around Bluegrass Anonymous.
I think Bluegrass Music, itself, has changed a lot over the years. Unfortunately, all of the changes have not been good. Many bands started speeding things up to the point that all of the subtle aspects of the music are lost. Art Stamper, who was one of my closest friends for 40 years, was very disillusioned with the music in his later years. He used to say “they’ve ruined it!” The technical level of the players has increased greatly but the tendency has been to add too many notes to the solos. To that, Art used to say “don’t play everything you know on the first break.” Some bands also try to overpower the audience by playing very loud and all at the same time. Doc calls it a “wall of sound!” Don’t get me wrong, I still love Bluegrass. I just prefer the older, more traditional sounds.
> 5. The technical aspects of recording business have changed since you last recorded – how did everybody adapt to those changes? Did you just record live instead?
The first time I recorded, studios were still using two inch tape and the final products were LPs and Cassette Tapes. Now we’ve gone to all digital and CDs. From the standpoint of the musician, things aren’t all that different. You still sit there and play your music. Making changes or correcting mistakes is a little easier. Mixing on this album was much easier. In the past, I’ve always sat with the engineer and gone through every cut, over and over. This time, since Vince’s engineer is in Nashville, we did it over the Internet, so to speak. Vince brought us CDs of the rough mix. We all listened to them and made some suggestions. I then worked with his engineer, Matt Rausch, via email and Drop Box, a program that allows you to exchange files with others. As far as sound quality, Matt did an incredible job the first time through. I went through each song and told him exactly where to raise or lower instruments or voices and also where we needed Vince to add a break, and in one instance, a harmony vocal. He would send me the new file and I would review it again to make sure it was the way I wanted it. From a technical standpoint, the end result was fantastic. Because there was no time crunch, I was able to listen to each cut, over and over, and with several types of speakers and various types of headphones and ear buds.
We actually did record live as opposed to the way most recordings are made today. We sat around and played and sang and added a few bits and pieces after the fact. Vince prefers to do harmony parts later so he can listen to the way you sing and match it as closely as possible. That’s why everyone in Nashville has wanted him to sing harmony on their records for the past 30 years. I prefer to do our kind of music that way because I think it gives it more of a live feel. With so many recordings today, the musicians never see one another. They come in, record their bit, and that’s it Technically, the recording is perfect but I think a lot of spirit and emotion is lost in the process.
> 6. Since you were there for the beginning of the newgrass/Newgrass subgenre in bluegrass, what’s your opinion about how the many variations on that theme now, particularly the jamgrass kind, have changed the style?
I think I alluded to a lot of this in the question about the Bluegrass scene. I was there for the very first Newgrass Revival gig and followed them closely until their demise. Actually, we literally did follow them once at Winfield. The Buzzard Rock String Band went on stage right after Newgrass finished their set. It was kind of like showing up at a gunfight with a pea shooter. I loved the Newgrass Revival and all of the guys in it. I thought they did a great deal to bring Bluegrass to a wider audience. Of course, they were the offshoot of the Bluegrass Alliance and I think both bands were responsible for catapulting Bluegrass into the modern age. I guess I must be getting old, however, because I don’t even know what “jamgrass” is.
> 7. Dude, aren’t you kind of old for to be gigging and promoting a new record? (Stock audience question)
Of course I’m not too old. I can still feed and dress myself. I don’t think there is any reason to ever stop playing as long as you are able. At some point, you’re not going to play as well as you used to, but that’s no reason for quitting. I sat many times and listened to people like Tommy Jarrell, Virgil Anderson, Mississippi John Hurt, Eck Robertson, Cousin Emmy when they all were at an advanced age, and still came away with something. It’s how you connect with the past. If you don’t know where your music came from, it’s hard to decide where you want it to go.
The show is at the Red Barn on UL’s campus on Sunday, April 27th, beginning at 5pm. I have actually reinvented the Buzzard Rock String Band with two old members and two new members. We will start playing out in the near future. They will all be there on Sunday plus some faces from the past, including Harry Sparks. Doc Hamilton couldn’t come for this gig. It should be a real good time and a chance to show off some of the songs from the album. Excuse me, that’s CD to you young folks.
Thanks, Harry, and for all the music that came out of the Hotel.