•My great-grandfather on my mother’s side: Wiley Craft (April 18, 1887-June 14, 1972). My brother Tim (b. 1968) and I (b. 1972) were the first men since 1910 to not wind up in the coal mines of Eastern Kentucky. Yet I have owned and can play a banjo.•
By the age of eight, I had seen Bill Monroe more than I had seen a dentist.
I can recall going to the dentist’s office when I was four. I can even remember, after the cursory exam, slowly and methodically picking a toy out of the post-check-up toy chest. It was a light blue whistle, a weird accordion-like thing.
My parents were hardly neglectful. But dentist visits were just not in their child-rearing plans. That initial visit was tantamount to my dad paying $40 or so bucks for the dentist to examine the developing gompers of my older brother Tim and myself.
“Are their teeth all there and straight?”
I can imagine my dad asking the dentist.
“Yes? Good. Give them their toys so we can go home. The Wildcats play Alabama in an hour.”
This frugality was hard-wired into my folks. They both grew up so poor that “teeth optional” was an unspoken assurance for any familial social occasion.
One thing we did get as a family was a serious bluegrass treatment.
Every year, maybe more than once a year who knows, my folks would load up the Chevy “camelback” station wagon with some quilts, lawn chairs, chips, and a cooler filled with Falls City beer and store-brand soft drinks, and we’d head to downtown Louisville, specifically to the festival grounds of Bluegrass on the Belvedere, at 4th Street and Main.
Some of my earliest memories, my actual memories of “being a person,” are of heading to these festivals.
My earliest memory would be around age two or three, running through our new-yet-still-vacant home in Bullitt County, just outside of Louisville, hearing my laughter and screams bouncing off the walls and floor of the empty house. My other earliest memories are tied into the blast of banjos, fiddles, and high-pitched voices while standing on the grass, happy and surrounded by other elated people.
At these festivals, the crowds of bearded, red-eyed longhairs and hippie gals in their “Hey Grandma” dresses and tinted eyeglasses were balanced out by straight-up hillbilly folks. Middle-aged men in white t-shirts and bib overalls or jeans, wearing tattered ball caps emblazoned with “Beechnut” or “Copenhagen” logos, laughing as they leaned on the back of old, prime-painted pickup trucks. Countrywomen in denim skirts or floral prints, some with long braids of hair running down their backs; others balancing impossibly sprayed beehive hairdos on their heads; the country people appeared easygoing, sweet to the point of being meek…ostensibly their day in the “big city.”
This was 1970s Kentucky. Everybody smoked cigarettes. Years later, after identifying the aroma firsthand, I realized that some smoked weed on the sidelines. People lugged around handles of Jim Beam and rolled or carried coolers full of beer. My brother Tim and I had to watch where we stepped, our bare feet careful to not step on the few billion pull-tabs popped from those very same beer cans.
If music is the universal language, these bluegrass festivals were evidence of that wordless conversation. People would bring their own instruments, and between – or even during – sets it was common to see some Deadhead-looking dude trading mandolin licks with an ancient-looking old man who looked like he had finally crawled out of the mines of Eastern Kentucky; at least for this weekend.
Of course, I’m remembering this through the filter of 45 years and the recollections of a child. But it seemed like a peaceful scene and over the years my dad has assured me that he never saw a hippie-hillbilly brawl erupt in the crowd.
Bands played 45-minute sets on the few stages set around the festival grounds; for local or lesser-known acts, even shorter performances were scheduled. I saw and heard some incredible music at these festivals, only a lifetime later did I comprehend the magnitude of what I had experienced as a child.
Annual and much-anticipated, headliner performances by the aforementioned Bill Monroe and band, ditto Ralph Stanley and crew, The Country Gentlemen, the earliest lineups of New Grass Revival led by Sam Bush, J.D. Crowe’s New South (featuring a young Ricky Skaggs), the Highwood String Band from Ithaca, New York, and Boone Creek, a kind of up-and-coming progressive bluegrass band with Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, and Keith Whitley. Those were just the big names.
There were countless spontaneous jam sessions happening throughout the festival grounds. Kentucky can get a lot of shit and is an easy target for “hillbilly jokes” (including those zinged by me) but this was the Bluegrass State at its best, honoring its namesake, usually in the key of “G” and at a clipped pace, trading licks over cold beer in a downtown taken over by crazed players and music fans.
It seems like half of authentic bluegrass music is either about celebrating your life or ending it, but on a good day it all moves in a purely electrical, ecstatic direction.
Naturally, I only heard of much of these lineups and music lineages much later. Although I can clearly recall witnessing Bill Monroe count off “Uncle Pen” and clip out the lines, “Late in the evenin’ about sundown / High on the hill and above the town” … and the entire fucking crowd would whoop and go ballistic, some nodding their heads or clapping hands, others breaking into a full hillbilly-demon-foot-stomp possession.
•Early 1950s: My dad and some polyglot of his kin most likely in Lebanon Junction, Kentucky. Please note: another banjo and various “mountain-music-making” paraphernalia are also pictured.•
That included me. The only time I have consistently and willingly danced in this lifetime had been at these festivals; according to my parents I stomped and danced like the one-generation-from-the-coalmines city-hayseed that I was.
At these festivals, there was no backstage area. The bands would simply park their tour buses, vans, station wagons, and trucks to the side of the performance area. If you wanted Bill Monroe’s latest album, you’d just walk up to Monroe or one of his bandmembers and ask to buy his latest album. My folks bought self-released LPs by more than one young or lesser-known artist, albums that were jettisoned when we moved down to Florida, records that I sometimes obsess over, wondering if some later bluegrass or country legend had been featured on those recordings, back during their ‘70s longhair-and-overalls days.
Adolescence brings new flavors. In my early teens, the experience of hearing bluegrass had become the equivalent of walking by my dad as he watched some 1980s’ country show on the TV, either PBS, local cable access, or one of Ralph Emery’s goddamned repellent programs. Besides, we had moved 1,000 miles away from Bill Monroe and bluegrass. We had settled into the life of beach residents, albeit ones who still felt like resident aliens.
The suburbs had burned the bluegrass out of me. Pre-teen years were spent aping the music tastes of my older brother and his friends. Black Sabbath, Blue Öyster Cult, and Black Oak Arkansas had led to Venom, Mercyful Fate, UFO, and Saxon. Those bands would stomp the hoedown out of anyone with leather-wrapped cloven hooves. At the very least, that’s what they did well.
I was slowly teaching myself how to play the electric bass, and both acoustic and electric guitar. If I plunked out a 2/4 country-style riff, it was to mock that music. I was more into figuring out that elusive “metal gallop” or the bend-and-throttle style of bass-god Geezer Butler.
Eventually, I grew tired of, even outgrew, that early style of hard rock and metal. My teenage tastes were all about flipping through a deck of cards and the metal card was flipped away. Sixties rock became “my music,” since it appealed to me and, maybe just as importantly, my brother ultimately hated most hippie music.
•1976: In Letcher County, Kentucky, cradled by mother and protected my brother; dreaming of banjos yet to be plucked.•
When I was 13 years old, my mind blew out into shards. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, or as they still routinely called it, manic depression. While I was hardly gnawing on teachers’ desks or strangling crossing guards, it was decided that I’d be removed from school. I was conscripted into being a drop-out. I had a lot of free time, and days were spent wandering around the beaches. By the time I turned 14, no one was home at my house. My dad worked downtown as a computer programmer, my mom worked as a secretary for the school board, and at age 18, Tim was working for a swimming pool company.
My folks would leave me a couple of bucks each day, so I’d either head down to Deane’s Books at the boardwalk in Jacksonville Beach, or just wander aimlessly, chain-smoking my ever-present Marlboro Lights and avoiding eye contact with every person, place, and thing.
Located roughly seven blocks north of my parents’ house, the Bargain Factory took up three spaces in a nondescript strip mall on Penman Road. One part consignment shop, one-part hopeful antique shop, and three parts of towering, used junk, I could always waste a good hour rifling through the place.
I always headed to the books first, on the hunt for some oddball sci-fi paperback or, hopefully, a beatnik writer. But usually, it was a glut of James Michener books or romance novels with that same cotton-candy-pink cover design. I once found a Pablo Neruda book published by City Lights, but after thumbing through the poems, I discovered that I didn’t understand, so in that case like, Neruda.
Sin, Sex, and Sanity, with its lurid yellow cover and a nude woman rendered in purple washes, went home with me. It was a classic of the ‘60s sexploitation era, a “cautionary tale” of various sexual deviancies in the American suburbs, that was essentially “word porn” masked as a plea for morality. It was a well-thumbed tome.
The records at Bargain Factory were in the back of the place, a couple of cardboard boxes that appeared to have been kicked under a plastic table. There were never any real surprises there; the same impossibly-happy-looking white gospel groups, Andy Gibb, holiday, and Boston albums that apparently infected every thrift shop.
•1986: At age 14, I was a year into my “experiment with bipolar disorder.” I was also obsessed with William S. Burroughs so I dubbed myself “The Tofranil Kid,” in honor of the psych med I was then prescribed. This was also the year that I discovered the Holy Modal Rounders. My best friend Robbie looks on, understandably concerned. I am here to say that both Robbie and I turned out okay.•
Flipping through the records out of habit, I stopped when I discovered two beat-up LPs. The first record had a yellow background, stained and scuffed; with a photo of various crinkled bottle caps of drinks I had never heard of: “Moxie…Gordon Scotch Ale…SKOL…Red Stripe Beer.” Scrawled at the top in black ink, “The Holy Modal Rounders,” and at the bottom: Alleged in Their Own Time. In the lower right-hand corner, the imprint, “Rounder Records 3004” was printed in cursive script.
Flipping the album over revealed two black-and-white photos. The larger of the two featured the caption, “Peter Stampfel + Steve Weber,” with an image of two greasy-haired straggler guys who resembled most of my then-current heroes. They seemed to be leaning into each other, creating a kind of smiling hair tower. Ditto the lower image, with Stampfel and Weber bookending two fellow hippie derelicts apparently named Luke Faust and Robin Remaily.
I took this and the second album and went to the counter to pay.
“How much?” I asked.
“A quarter,” said the old guy who ran the store.
I paid him, tucked them under my arm, and headed back to my house. Once home, I inspected this new find. Tucked inside was an eight-page insert, a “libretto” maybe, featuring a piece of frothy erotica called “Arabella,” by Peter Stampfel and Antonia. Also, in this booklet is a kind of stream-of-consciousness history of the band (also penned by Stampfel) and “The Survey of World Civilization as Viewed from the Head of Peter Stampfel” (presumably also by, uh, Stampfel).
There were also four lists of “Heroes” from the 1940s-1970s. This list was the first place where I had ever seen names like “Theodore Sturgeon…Charlie Poole…Roger Zelazny…Skip James.” I had no ideas who those people were, and that list sent me on a quest to find them. It would be years before I realized how radical, and inclusive, it was to celebrate prewar country and blues pioneers with post-WWII sci-fi polymaths. Bands today might pull such a gimmick to show how cool they are; The Holy Modal Rounders were simply showing us who they were.
In my 51 years in this world, I have learned this: most any album starts out with the sound of someone blowing on a jug is usually going to be good.
That’s the first cosmic truth I learned from Alleged in Their Own Time. That opening cut, “Low Down Dog,” kicks in with four forceful (are there any other kind?) farty huffs on a jug and then the band just falls in, a crazed shamble of fiddle, guitar, maybe a mandolin, maybe even a bass; really just a big, sloppy clomp with fiddle gliding above the whole mess.
And then came a nasally, totally non-hayseed voice I immediately loved:
“Don’t you take me for no low-down dog…”
A chorus barks back: “Low Down Dog!”
“Don’t you know I got my pride, I just want to walk beside you baby..” now these dudes are barking behind the singer, now joining him on the verse, “but you say, but you say, I must walk behind! Well, I ain’t holdin’ still for none of thaaaaaat stuff!”
And more crazed fiddle.
In “Earth time,” this all happened in roughly 30 seconds, but you can’t really clock total transfixion.
Relentless and shambling.
My kind of institutionalized prejudice toward the music I had heard, really the first music that I had truly “heard” years earlier in downtown Louisville, quickly packed its bags and skedaddled.
“Low Down Dog” had everything that I loved about music…that I had actually forgotten that I loved about music.
Chaotic, unpredictable, simple, non-analytical – the Holy Modal Rounders were not out to impress. In the parlance of the Merry Pranksters, they truly “freaked freely.”
Heavy metal had promised some kind of groin-born thuggery but that was all pricy leather wristbands and choreographed menace. The Holy Modal Rounders, this kind of countercultural-hayseed music, was as mysterious as it was emotional.
If I had heard the first few bars of this album without ever seeing the band, I’m certain that I would have still had the same specific response:
These are unhinged people playing old-timey, mountain music that many folks would rather have contained or imprisoned in those mountains.
“Who will feed you peaches when I’m gone?”
And that fucking chorus: (“WHEN I’m GONE?!”) “Your new lover may be cute, but does he bring home the fruit, my baby?” Now together again as one voice, “But you say, but you say, peaches make me fat! (FAT!) Well, I ain’t holding still for none of thaaaat stuff!”
I didn’t even realize I was an atheist and now I had found God and God still had 90 more seconds until His song ended.
I could go on and on.
So, I will.
Any sane person wonders about their death, and if they were totally honest, they also wonder, just as importantly, “What song will I force my mourners to listen to at my funeral?”
My song is the second song, side one of Alleged in Their Own Time.
That song is called: “Don’t Seem Right.”
From the outset, the opening melody kind of peeks around the corner, looks behind itself, and then slowly steps into the song.
“Shortnin’ Bread” on Seroquel in the key of ‘D major”— play along: “F#/A/D/ F#/A/D/ F#/A/D/B/A/B/A/F#/E/D” then to “G”!!! All in 10 seconds, and then…
“Well, see them kids / On the skids” … each word sung atop that melody so lovingly transcribed above… “Livin’ just the way / their folks just did / well it (G major, right now!) don’t seem right / don’t seem right to me (D major) / Well, it (A major!) don’t seem like / that’s how it’s gotta be.” Stumble back to D and repeat, repeat, repeat!
It was akin to F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, pushed to the breaking point and weeping over hearing Mozart’s music. But I didn’t want to KILL the Holy Modal Rounders – I was ready to follow these hairier-than-a-horde-of-hippies motherfuckers into the frontlines of the Jug Band Wars!
“Don’t Seem Right” might be one of the more somnambulant protest tunes going, but, at age 14, it reaffirmed what I already knew and chiseled it down to its purest and refined state: everything is a mess.
People try to dismiss this truth, some are paid the big bucks to do it, but at the end of the day everything is a fucking shit show engulfed in black fire and nothing seems right. Then it is up to us to figure out some kind of religious, philosophical, spiritual aesthetic to pick through rubble that keeps on cascading around us.
People invariably come to spirituality through pain. Then they inflict more pain on others by talking about their newfound spirituality. This shit will never end.
•The “Alleged”-era of the Holy Modal Rounders with Luke Faust—who is innocently unaware of the deranged future-teenager he would transform, let alone the mawkish memoir-song review he would unwittingly spawn. •
“Don’t Seem Right” rails against indoctrinated education (“go to school / learn a rule / come out the other end an educated fool / well, it don’t seem right…”) the certain crush of life (“look at daddy / daddy’s wife / old folks cheated out of half their lives /well, it don’t seem right…”) and the checkered flag at the end, the only trophy we will all win, our true entitlement (“well, folks are born / lived it all / then they’re sorry they ever lived at all / well, it don’t seem right…”) closing out with the rallying cry (“well, if you feel the way I do / why don’t you / start singing it, too…”) then the band chiming in how it “don’t seem right.” Hope prevails.
Now look – memory and taste can pollute any experience, let alone the emotional zap that happened during that moment. But since I first heard “Don’t Seem Right,” I have played this song in every possible setting, legal or otherwise, when I have been happy, melancholy, during the ongoing “conversion process of playing the uninitiated ‘Don’t Seem Right’” and the result is always the same: a nudge into a greater, and thankfully ongoing, awakening.
I was a frustrated child and now I am a frustrated man and this song deals with universal frustration.
I’ll blast this flare even higher into the sky and claim that “Don’t Seem Right” is a campfire tune jabbing at bigger, occultic truths.
When Christ acknowledged that his disciples were “not of the world any more than I am of the world” (John 17:14), he was succinctly delivering a “The World ‘Don’t Seem Right’” sermon. Centuries later, St. Therese of Lisieux cribbed Christ’s message as, “The world’s thy ship and not thy home.”
She was right on the money.
Why? Because this world simply “Don’t Seem Right.”
Every great mystical tradition teaches this truth over eons of teaching, study, and disciplined practice and the Holy Modal Rounders wrapped it up in under five minutes.
If Sri Ramakrishna were around today, he would surely slather himself with clarified butter and joyously weep among a flock of peacocks, collapsing into deep samadhi while chanting, “Sahee Mat Dekho! Sahee Mat Dekho!”
“Don’t Seem Right” protests everything. It’s a ballad for not the fallen but rather the contorted. “Don’t Seem Right” is the sound of a single string of suet, plucking over every past and eventual graveyard.
Since discovering “Don’t Seem Right,” I have taught myself how to play electric and upright bass, electric and acoustic guitar, banjo, and mandolin and you can bet a bean-shaped organ that I have plunked out “Don’t Seem Right” on each and every one of them.
While I am all knuckles on the keyboard, I have plinked out that main riff on many a piano. I have turned my Dad into a “Don’t Seem Right” devotee and during our acoustic guitar honky tonk duets, songs by Waylon, Merle, and old Hank, are always met with a rousing sing-along of “Don’t Seem Right.” I began sending this song backward through space and time, like a kudzu vine zipping up the family tree. During the pandemic, eagerly vaccinated and masked up, I would visit my father. I would sit a good eight feet away from him, and we would break out the old 1981 Epiphone acoustic guitar and inevitably sing “Don’t Seem Right.”
I could slobber on about the entire range of Alleged in Their Own Time. The cautionary tale of “Voodoo Queen Marie,” who can terrify or hypnotize beasts with a simple walk by. The marrow-deep downhome moan of “Chitlin’ Cookin’ Time in Cheatham County” hits me right in my Kentucky solar plexus. Sung in that nasally and truly “high lonesome sound,” death-row stagger. Ditto “She’s More to Be Pitied.”
“She’s More to Be Pitied” dips deep into that pre-electricity-mountain-wail and Carter Family pool; my Grandma Edna knew three chords on the guitar, and when she played it, she held it in some esoteric, sideways position.
When she was a little girl, the family acoustic guitar hung on the wall and she was forbidden to touch it. So, as a child she secretly taught herself how to play by lifting her arms up and quietly strumming and fretting the strings.
Can you stop for a second and process that? Astounding, really. I keep trying to learn Spanish, Sanskrit, Hebrew, etc. and I give up when the “language-teaching app doesn’t load fast enough.” Fuck all.
My grandma would play tunes like ‘Will the Roses Bloom in Heaven” and “Don’t Let Them Tear That Little Brown Building Down” – songs that sound like they were written 10,000 years ago. Let me tell you, she could’ve played the hell out of “She’s More to Be Pitied.” Maybe she did. Public domain.
Shame can be as complex as more desirable feelings like love and gratitude. Within those levels, are illusory qualities. Writing a love letter and once signed, you can realize you never loved them, even though it’s a great letter.
There is such a thing as false shame, too, even guilt.
Putting the noose around your neck for a crime you mistakenly believed you had committed.
A felony mirage.
In that jarring and bumpy ride from childhood into early adolescence, it feels that, for whatever the world doesn’t blame you for, you’ll take the time to blame yourself.
By the time I had discovered Alleged in Their Own Time, I had started the chameleon-like and perpetually self-doubting process of “being” a teenager.
First I was “into” metal, then currently a hippie, soon the hair would be cut and turned black, for now I have “gone punk.”
The Holy Modal Rounders and Alleged in Their Own Time kind of cauterized and burned down this false belief that I didn’t like old time, bluegrass music. When in fact, I loved that music. Less than a decade earlier, I used to dance and twirl to it, as non-rock-star bluegrass players unleashed this music onstage at the festival stages of my childhood.
Alleged in Their Own Time not only obliterated the shame of being, essentially, a suburban hillbilly. It actually assured me that it was perfectly okay, a natural state that was equal to any other; at times even greater than most.
A few years ago, after posting some mawkish and manic celebration of “Don’t Seem Right” I posted something to the effect of Steve Weber being a “genius” for writing the song.
Thanks to the weird “no-real-degree-of-separation” that’s increasingly inherent in social media, my Facebook “friend” (the mind reels) and founding Holy Modal Rounder, Peter Stampfel, chimed in that it was actually Luke Faust, not Weber that wrote and performed “Don’t Seem Right.”
Yet another paradigm shift, delivered by one of the key culprit shifters of the main paradigm.
Oh, this life.
Postscript: The “second album” that I mentioned that day? Have Moicy! by the Unholy Modal Rounders, Michael Hurley, Jeffrey Frederick & The Clamtones, a truly seismic release from 1976. That album deserves its own separate rant, but my blood runs full of Alleged in Their Own Time.
But what a great day to be young and have a quarter in your pocket, huh?
Love your writing—and your hillbilly appreciation.