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The resonator guitar reviews database is here to help educate people before they purchase an instrument. Of course, this is not meant to be a substitute for playing the instrument yourself!

256 reviews in the archive.

Josh Graves, Ed. Fred Bartenstein: Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir

Submitted by akfb on 10/28/2012

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A version of this article appeared October 27, 2012, on page C8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: That Old Appalachia Sound.

That Old Appalachia Sound
A plain-spoken memoir from the man who turned bluegrass into a global sensation.


The typical country-music memoir these days—a paean to self and flag-waving kin—can be a sentimental, smoothed-over thing, closer to a sales pitch than the scars-baring grit of classics like "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1976), Loretta Lynn's famous chronicle. So it's a bracer to hear an old-timer talking straight, with nothing to peddle or prove. "I just play it the way it comes down," says resonator-guitar legend Josh Graves (1927-2006) in his posthumous memoir, "Bluegrass Bluesman." "I wouldn't hype nobody." Not himself, and not his family either.

Graves tells of threatening his sons when they quarreled by invoking the discipline meted out by a "real mean man," his Uncle Bud. In the family's part of east Tennessee, Uncle Bud was known for his ornery ways and his 12-gauge shotgun. And what exactly was Uncle Bud's approach to childrearing? Graves says that, when Uncle Bud's boys "was drinking and all this," he warned them: "Next time you come around like that, I'll fix you." And so, Graves says, "a couple of weeks went by and they done it again. He lined every one of them up and shot them in their ankles. He got their attention. My cousin told me, 'I picked buckshot out of my ankles for three months.' "

This happened in Tellico Plains, "the wild-boar capital of the world," deep in the Smoky Mountains where Graves grew up hard in the Depression. It was a remote place where generations lived and died and never left. But Graves managed a getaway at age 15, when he decided to make a go of it with his Dobro guitar—and without the blessing of his father, who said: "I don't care where you go or what you do. Don't ever ask me for anything, and I hope you starve to death." Recalls Graves: "There's been a few times I've come close to it."

Graves's name won't ring a bell for many outside musicians' circles, but Burkett "Uncle Josh" Graves helped take bluegrass from southern Appalachia to college campuses and beyond, to the world-music status it enjoys today. When he joined Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in 1955, his fiery, blues-inspired playing on the Dobro resonator slide guitar gave the Foggy Mountain Boys a signature sound that set the band apart from the herd. The Foggy Mountain Boys played fast and hard-driving and as loud as acoustic music can get. Their dynamic stage shows, featuring acrobatic turns at a lone mic for breakneck solos, remain the stuff of legend.

Cobbled together from interviews conducted before Graves's death, "Bluegrass Bluesman" is unfiltered, off-the cuff oral history. Graves clearly relishes the chance to tell what he saw and heard in his 15 years with what many deem the finest bluegrass outfit ever. He shows respect and affection for his former bosses, Flatt and Scruggs, though he was grossly underpaid, even after the pair became stars in the wake of "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," a million-selling hit in 1962. "Maybe they didn't pay as much as they should have, but they paid you what they said they would," says Graves.

In exchange for the low wages, Graves had the freedom to experiment and develop into an adventurous innovator on his Dobro, a guitar played strings-up with a steel-bar slide whose metal resonating chambers work as amplifiers to produce a brash sound that can clear a room of polite company. Graves adapted Scrugg's three-finger banjo roll for his vintage 1935 model Dobro, giving bluegrass a bold new instrumental voice.

"Play the melody on the first part of your solo," Scruggs told him, "then I don't give a damn if you cut it all to pieces." Graves's blues-drenched tone and blazing improvisations thrilled the band's fans, making him much more than a typical sideman—and securing the Dobro's iconic status in bluegrass.

Graves reveals a warm, brotherly fondness for Scruggs. "Earl hates hats, but I'll tell you I need one," he says. "The sound bounces right up on it." After Flatt and Scruggs's bitter split in 1969, stoked in part by Flatt's aversion to recording covers of Bob Dylan and other rock singers, Graves remained loyal to both men. In fact, he pulled separate stints, first with Flatt, who kept his music traditional; then with Scruggs, who piloted his own plane to gigs and whose electrified band included drums. The sheer volume eventually spurred Graves to turn in his notice. "I was the only one playing acoustic in the bunch, and I couldn't hear nothing," he says. It was only then that Flatt agreed to speak to Graves again after two years of the silent treatment. (Flatt and Scruggs reconciled before Flatt's death in 1979; Scruggs died this year at age 88, still playing his banjo, hatless but crowned with laurels.)

From the mid-1970s on, Graves fronted his own bands and cut several solo albums, for a while teaming up with another former sideman, the fiddler Kenny Baker. Some in the crowds didn't take to the comedy routines that Graves revived, harking back to the days when he played his "Uncle Josh" rube character. "In this little bit that I pulled on Kenny, I said that the doctor told him he had to lose 120 pounds of ugly fat, so he went home and run his wife off. Just a joke, but this woman jumped all over me, and she kept on and she made me mad." For his part, Graves was offended by the slick young bluegrass bands, with their fancy gear, all flashy chops and no soulfulness. "These boys can't play it," he says. "They can't do the old hard drive."

"Bluegrass Bluesman" has some choppy stretches, but giving only a light editorial touch to the transcripts was the right decision; it allows for a full airing of Graves's "old Southern brogue," a dialect he retained from his boyhood. He had an abiding love of the Tennessee mountains and returned there often to visit "them old residenters" who knew his father and uncle. The place remained a touchstone. As a boy, Graves had gotten a feel for the blues from local black musicians like Buck Roper, a sharecropper from across the creek who, after a day in the fields, would put a coal-oil lamp in his cabin window and sit on the front steps and play bottleneck on his banjo while the young Burkett listened at his feet.

In his final years, Graves assumed a similar role of mentor for generations of Dobro enthusiasts, many of whose testimonials are included in an epilogue to the book. At shows, the more devoted would ask the master to bless their guitar, a request that made him uneasy. "They'd open the case and want me to put my hand on it," he recalls. "I said, 'Well, yeah, I'll do that.' But it is embarrassing. You don't know what to do or say. But things like that are what make this business so interesting."

—Mr. Dean is co-author of Dr. Ralph Stanley's "Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times" (Gotham).

Overall Rating: 10

Josh Graves, Ed. Fred Bartenstein: Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir

Submitted by akfb on 10/21/2012

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This review appeared in the October, 2012 edition of "County Sales Newsletter":

BOOK: BLUEGRASS BLUESMAN “Josh Graves—A Memoir” by Fred Bartenstein, (Univ. of Illinois Press), 142 pp, softbound.

Editor Fred Bartenstein has done a beautiful job in covering the career of one of the great figures in bluegrass, Buck Graves (or Uncle Josh as he was known to many. Josh did as much as anyone for the Dobro, and the greats of that instrument like Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas will be the first to point that out. Graves was known for his work with Flatt & Scruggs, with whom he played for over a decade, but he also picked for Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, Mac Wiseman, Esco Hankins, and Charlie Bailey, among others, and spent several years late in his career in partnership with the great fiddler Kenny Baker.

Bartenstein worked from earlier interviews of Josh, and the book reads more like an auto-biography than a biography. Graves talks freely about his life on the road and provides many recollections of the various artists that he worked with over the years. An especially nice feature is a chapter of more than 20 pages of tributes to Josh by various folks in the music business, including most of the dobro players who were influenced by him or inspired to take up the dobro after seeing Uncle Josh in action. These include Earl Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Tut Taylor, Leroy Mack, Russ Hooper, Sally Van Meter, Rob Ickes, Fred Travers, Marty Stuart, and of course Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas. There is also a nice photo section in the book.

This is a fine book, especially if you are a dobro player or a fan of Graves, Flatt & Scruggs and the early days of Bluegrass—an excellent work that flows smoothly, and a hard book to put down. $ 20.00

Overall Rating: 10

Josh Graves, Ed. Fred Bartenstein: Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir

Submitted by akfb on 9/26/2012

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This review was written by Linda Beck, and appeared in the September 15th, 2012 edition of "Library Journal":

Univ. of Illinois. (Music in American Life). Sept. 2012.
c.184p. , ed. By Fred Bartenstein.
photogs. discog.
ISBN 9780252078644.
$21.95, MUSIC

The father of bluegrass Dobro (a resonator guitar), Graves is a big name in the world of bluegrass, akin to Earl Scruggs or the Smoky Mountain Boys. This memoir, compiled primarily from interviews taped in 1994 at Graves's Nashville home, tells not just his own story but the history of American bluegrass from the 1940s through the 1960s, providing a fascinating look at the musical culture of the South and encompassing themes of race, commercialization, and the divide between bluegrass and country music. Graves's love of music, his talent for working with musicians of all stripes, and his folksiness come through as readers absorb his spoken words. Introductions to each chapter set the stage for Graves's comments. The book also includes 16 pages of black-and-white photos, a chapter of testimonials about Graves, and an extensive list of notes and bibliographic information. VERDICT: While the exterior suggests it may be a bit dull, this book is in fact thoroughly Southern, spicy, real, and lots of fun. Excellent for popular music history collections.-Linda Beck, Indian Valley P.L., Telford, PA

Overall Rating: 10

Josh Graves, Ed. Fred Bartenstein: Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir

Submitted by akfb on 9/11/2012

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This review was written by Ray Olson, and appeared in the September, 2012 edition of "Booklist":

Released: Sept. 2012. 184p. illus. Univ. of Illinois.

Graves (1927-2006) cemented the last stone in the instrumental foundation of bluegrass when he joined Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs' Foggy Mountain Boys in 1955. He'd been developing his blues-inflected style for more than 10 years, deliberately adapting Scruggs' three-finger banjo picking to the dobro (or resonator guitar). With F&S until their 1969 breakup, Graves there-upon joined Scruggs' lucrative foray into country-rock and later played with Flatt's less remunerative Nashville Grass (Lester was a tightwad) as well as in plenty of other aggregations and contexts. In 1994, Graves and Barry Willis made the oral-history tapes that, augmented by other interviews, editor Bartenstein has masterfully fashioned into a smooth autobiographical narrative. Like the as-told-to's by Ralph Stanley (Man of Constant Sorrow, 2009) and Charlie Louvin (Satan is Real, 2012), Graves' is presented as he spoke it, not with the grammatical punctiliousness of a professional coauthor. Focused on its subject's professional life, it doesn't tell as many road stories and domestic memories as Stanley's and Louvin's. It is fully as mesmerizing, though, especially for lovers of bluegrass.

Overall Rating: 10

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