Author Archives: StringDancer

Foster on WFHB’s ‘Local Live’

On January 19, 2011, I had the opportunity to appear on Local Live, a weekly 30-minute radio show on Bloomington, Indiana’s WFHB Community Radio. It was originally booked to be a spot featuring myself and Frank Jones, the other half of our musical duo, Foster Jones. My esteemed partner, in the meantime, spaced out the date and had booked himself a trip to the west coast. For this annoying but not unpredictable failure of focus, whatever I’m paying him, I’m gonna cut it in half. Let’s see, that comes out to about… nada, actually. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts.

In any event, I arranged to do the show solo, and posted the live stream link on my Facebook page. The host, Abe Morris (an affable fellow) soon set me at ease in the WFHB studio. When we went live, he introduced me, I played a tune, we talked about guitars, I played some more, then we went into what I’m doing musically these days, then I played some more… the usual thing one might do on a community radio show dedicated to local musicians. The half-hour skipped along quickly, and the next thing I knew I was on my way back home.

Below is a stream of the show.

Jeff Foster on WFHB, January 19, 2011

Apparently I did okay, as I received favorable reactions from my FB family and friends, and Abe invited me to come back on the show at my earliest convenience. Maybe next time Frank will actually think to glance at his calendar. We’ll see.

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Guitarist Mark Robinson Finds Quitting His Job A Smart Move

Mark Robinson ripping it up at his CD release party at The Player's Pub in Bloomington, IN, September 18, 2010

It’s always fun to interview a musician whose star is on the rise. Even more fun when the artist is an outstanding guitar player with blues in the veins, jazz in the head, and soul in the heart. Even more fun yet when the artist’s backstory is rich, diverse, and truly exemplifies the realization of a lifelong dream despite decades of hard work and disappointment.

But the fun factor pegs the meter when the man is an old and dear friend. So readers will forgive me if I take an unusually high level of satisfaction in presenting my buddy Mark Robinson, the most recent addition to Blue Boulevard Records roster of artists. The label, with a luminous catalog including classic blues re-issues from such seminal artists as Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Solomon Burke, and Howlin’ Wolf, and acts representing the new wave of blues and blues-rock such as Delta Moon and Alvin Jett & The Phat Noiz Blues Band, makes Robinson’s recent deal about as auspicious as it gets.

  • Go ahead… stream some original Mark Robinson music while you finish reading the article:

[wpaudio url="http://www.stringdancer.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/01-Poor-Boy.mp3" text="Poor Boy by Mark Robinson" dl="0" autoplay="0"]

  • And scroll down to the end of the article for a video of Mark and company performing Runaway Train.

Mark Robinson’s success had humble antecedents, of course, to which I can attest, as for a few years our musical paths crossed. Back in the late 70s, Mark and I both worked at a local music store here in Bloomington, Indiana, a funky, well-loved hole-in-the-wall with absolutely decrepit carpeting and an extremely battered workbench called The Guitar Gallery. The classiest thing about the shop was a large print of Picasso’s Old Guitarist hanging on the wall. For all its street grit and beat decor, during its existence on Bloomington’s main drag for downtown shopping, Kirkwood Avenue, the store was widely known as the shop of choice for all the pro and semi-pro players in town.

A veritable Who’s Who of local talent walked through the door every day — buying, selling and trading — and the poorly-insulated booths in the back of the store were occupied at all hours by teachers of various string instruments supplementing their gigs with a steadier (and often more lucrative) music-related source of income. As music shops go, The Guitar Gallery may have been low-rent and dingy, but the musical spirit of the place was a shining beacon to every guitar player in the region. Business was typically pretty damn good.

Mark and I met at the store as teachers, and soon grew to know and respect one another as friends and musical colleagues — hanging out, shooting the bull, jamming between students, walking three doors down to The Pizzaria to talk guitars over strombolis and beers, the usual thing. Back in those days, Mark and I were two of Bloomington’s busiest hired guns, often finding ourselves subbing for one another in various local bands and working with well-known Hoosier singer-songwriters such as Bill Wilson, Tom Roznowski, Randy Handley and others.

As times and individual fortunes evolved, our paths diverged. Over thirty years went by and Mark and I fell totally out of touch, both of us leaving town for adventures elsewhere. I was gone for 16 years, but eventually returned to the musical mecca that is Bloomington, Indiana. As I reconnected with old friends who had the good sense to never leave this town, I learned that Mark had gone insane and moved away in hopes of finding success in that god-awful, soul-destroying machine they euphemistically call “the music business” (and in Nashville, Tennessee of all places). I lamented the delusions under which my old friend was obviously suffering, and was prepared to have to attend services for the man any day. He should have known better, I thought.

Oh, but it was I who should have known better. Had I, I would have known that Mark had diversified his musical portfolio considerably — had gone from being a professional go-to guitar slinger to fronting the band, unleashing a dark, gravelly voice no one back in the old days even knew he had, and setting out to be not just a gifted interpreter of tunes, but one of those folks actually putting pen to page and making up tunes of his own.

The story of Mark Robinson’s journey from sideman to headliner is an inspiring one. It’s the age-old story one never gets tired of hearing, replete with discouragement eaten for breakfast, dreams dashed but never forsaken (or if forsaken recovered, rejuvenated and redeemed for hard currency), and determination to just go for it, by God, no matter the odds against success. It’s a story about believing in yourself and the talents with which you were born, and making the necessary sacrifices to make your dream come true. Even if that means quitting your job to play guitar for a living.

Quit Your Job, Play Guitar cover

Which not so subtly brings us to the self-produced CD Mark released last year, Quit Your Job – Play Guitar… a homemade CD which would not just put his name on the map as an musician, but would propel him on a face-paced road to becoming a recognized and respected roots artist, signed to one of the world’s premiere blues recording labels. Since the release of his aptly-titled CD, my old drinking buddy has been gaining some serious traction, and it makes me smile to see him punch his way through a labyrinthine business widely known for being virtually impenetrable.

In September of 2010 (long before the record deal was inked), Mark returned to his spawning ground here in Bloomington for a CD Release Party at the town’s most committed music club (offering live music 7 nights a week), The Player’s Pub. I was in attendance, along with a slew of Mark’s old friends and many of Bloomington’s musical illuminatti, past and present.

Mark Robinson and The Nashville All-Stars, his band of ace Nashville-based musicians (including Paul Griffith on drums, Daniel Seymour on bass, Brian Langlinais on guitar and vocals, and the uber-talented Randy Handley on keys and vocals, joined by local area backup singers Bobbie Lancaster and Janas Hoyt) put on a sweltering show, ranging from pure straight-ahead 12-bar blues to funky rock to jazzy Louisiana-style improvs and most everything in between. If it was roots-based and electrified, Mark and his cohorts set it on the stove, covered it, let it simmer, poured on the hot sauce and served it up with an ice-cold beer.

Not one to forget his old buds, Mark was later joined onstage by his former Bloomington bandmates (Rex Miller on drums/vocals and Steve Mascari on bass/vocals) for a rousing set gleaned from their Kookamongas songlists of old. Mark was in high spirits and fine form, comfortably coaxing some rather high-end jazz licks out of his G&L ASAT — twisty, atonal yet melodic chops that I didn’t recall him having in the old days. Clearly the man hasn’t been resting on his laurels, nor simply recycling the tried and true pentatonic riffs common to the blues vocabulary, but had continued to evolve his playing with some serious woodshedding over the years. As a guitar player, he had me grinning from ear to ear. It was a glorious night, not just for Mark, but for every Bloomingtonian there. Hometown boy makes good, indeed.

After Mark’s show, and all the back-slapping and ‘atta-boys’ had been delivered, I pulled him aside and told him I’d like to do an interview with him for StringDancer. He graciously accepted the offer, and in the ensuing weeks we discussed in a private Facebook message how we wanted to do the piece. But it was news of his recent signing to Blue Boulevard that finally got me off the stump, figuring I’d best make hay before Mark’s tractor left the farm. So we began messaging back and forth in earnest, me asking questions and Mark responding. What follows is a direct transcription of our Facebook discussion.

StringDancer Interview With Mark Robinson

Jeff Foster November 11 at 11:14am

So Mark… as someone who has known you for decades, I recall you being mostly a hired gun in the old days, one of the go-to guys here in Bloomington when a bluesy electric guitar player was needed. But at some point you decided to become a singer-songwriter as well, and it seems your star has been rising ever since. When did this happen, and what was it that inspired you to move from the sideline to the spotlight fronting your own band?

Mark Robinson November 11 at 12:05pm

Hey Jeff, OK here goes… I am sleep deprived and rambling, but I don’t want to put this off.

When I moved to Nashville and started playing guitar here in 2004, I ended up working with several really great songwriters (Davis Raines, Randy Handley, Mike Cullison among others). I had worked with some fantastic songwriters before — like our old friends Bill Wilson and Tom Roznowski . But in Nashville there was an expectation that a traveling guitar player would contribute to songs, would co-write with the artists they play with. So I was soon writing songs with all these cool songwriters.

In Nashville there are tons of songwriters gigs — rounds, showcases, mini-sets. I ended up accompanying artists at these gigs. Frequently, if you are on stage at one of these gigs– they just turn to you and say “your turn, sing one”. So I started singing my own songs once in a while.

At some point I realized that the best way to understand songs is to play a whole lot of them — which I had been doing my whole life. And the other way to get better at writing songs is to write a lot of songs. Which I have been doing for several years now. But I admit that I throw a lot of them away.

So I’m in Nashville, playing guitar, writing songs and producing CDs for artists in my home studio. At some point last year I realized I had enough good songs to record, I had a studio to record them in, and I was working with an amazing bunch of musicians that I could call upon to record with me. Time to make a record (I still call them records…)

While I am still working hard at being a better player, produce and songwriter — I am really concentrating on being a better singer and performer. I didn’t sing at all until I was in my later 20′s, and I’ve never really been the lead singer in a band. So I’m working pretty hard at it.

Producing other artists made me realize that some singers/performers can connect with an audience live — and if they can do that, they can do it with a recording. So I am working on finding that connection with an audience, in live performance and in the studio.

I have been surprised by the reception the CD has gotten by the media and radio stations. I wasn’t sure that this CD would be considered a “blues” CD, but the blues world has embraced it. The positive feedback on the CD has given me reasons to try and book myself and continue to learn to be a compelling performer.

So I continue to write, work as a sideman, produce, teach, and front a band — trying to move forward as a musician and an artist.

Jeff Foster November 11 at 12:49pm

Excellent, Mark. We’re on a roll. :-)

Next question: The title of your recent album (I still call them albums… we’re showing our age here ;-) ‘Quit Your Job, Play Guitar’, pretty succinctly sums up your path to Nashville. You had a secure “monkey job”, as you call it, and was living what would be called a good, responsible life. Yet you were dissatisfied with things and wanted to go for broke in the music business while you were still young enough to take it on, which to many people would seem a risky choice.

Give us a snapshot of your process — what was going through your mind as you came to the decision to put your music first, and what was it that gave you the confidence to go ahead with your plan in spite of the risks?

Mark Robinson November 11 at 2:00pm

I was really ready for a change from my “monkey job”. It had been unsatisfying for a long time. The decision to move to Nashville was made for me when my wife Sue was offered a job at Vanderbilt University.

I didn’t know a lot about Nashville, but I knew the best musicians in the world are here. I wanted to be a part of it somehow. I didn’t know how much work there would be for a guy who plays the way I play. I’m pretty versatile in roots music styles, but not well versed in pop music or modern country-pop. But Nashville is pretty diverse, and there are so many artists and songwriters working in all kinds of genres and styles. I soon found out that producers and artists don’t care about guitar chops, they want someone who knows how to play what the song calls for. I think I was pretty good at that when I moved here, and I have gotten better at it working with a lot of talented people here in Music City.

I guess the catalyst for jumping into music with both feet was a serious health problem that I had soon after arriving in Nashville. It made me realize that I didn’t have unlimited time to do the important things, and that I had an opportunity that most players would never have — I was living in Nashville TN. So I started going out and listening to music and meeting people and trying to get playing. I heard such great music and such fantastic musicians, singers and songs. I knew quickly that I was going to give it everything I had and try to be a full time guitar player in Nashville.

And lest your readers get the wrong idea, I’m not getting rich. I teach guitar lessons 3 days a week, as well as band workshops. I teach music theory at a small college. I produce demos and CDs for unknown artists. I play gigs in town and around the country. It is not an easy way to make a living, no matter how good you are. And there are more great guitar players in Nashville than in the rest of world combined, so the competition is rough for every gig. But I have found the music community in Nashville to be very welcoming and friendly.

I’m glad I took the leap, it has been incredibly rewarding and I have worked with so many amazing musicians, singers and writers. And while I don’t want people to take the title of my CD as career advice, it has worked out very well for me, so far.

But it’s not easy, so I just do the best I can at it everyday. I hope I can keep doing it for a long time.

Jeff Foster November 11 at 2:41pm

You mention your wife, Sue, and the role she played in your move to Nashville. Knowing Sue and the long history you share, I know there’s much more than just her job at Vanderbilt that contributes to the success you’re enjoying these days. A spouse’s support and encouragement is really fundamental to both a successful career in music and a successful relationship. Care to share a few thoughts and experiences of this often overlooked dynamic?

Mark and wife Sue Havlish on vacation in Egypt

Mark Robinson November 11 at 3:04pm

Sue Havlish is not only the best thing that ever happened to me, but the best thing about knowing me is knowing Sue.

In our case, Sue is an equal partner in my musical ventures. She moved to Nashville 9 months before I did, and her job involves working with the Country Music Hall of Fame. And Sue is a big fan of all kinds of music. She knows more about music than most musicians. So she had Nashville figured out and knew all kinds of folks in the music business before I even got here.

I don’t know if I would have had the courage to jump off the cliff and try music full time without Sue’s full support. Her belief in me was probably the real deciding factor in me giving it a shot.

There is a lot more to our partnership than this. Sue has worked in marketing and promotion in the publishing industry for many years. She is a fantastic organizer, a great researcher and has all of the skills to put together a marketing and publicity campaign for anything. The music business is a lot like the publishing business. So she has been a partner in my CD from the beginning. I joked about using the title “Quit Your Job – Play Guitar” and she said, “that’s it, that’s the title. It will make people curious, it will make them want to hear it.” She was involved in picking the songs I put on the CD, she hired the designer for the CD package, and she did all of the marketing and promotion.

I could have made this CD without her — and it would have sounded as good as it does. But it wouldn’t have looked nearly as good, and it wouldn’t have gotten any attention from the media or the radio. I wouldn’t know where to begin, trying to get my CD out to the world. I would have sent it out to the few media and radio people I know and that would have been it. Sue has gotten me airplay all over the world, and reviews in most of the major blues and roots publications. I’ve gotten signed to a record label due to the exposure I got from her marketing campaign.

Because of Sue’s skill and hard work, this CD is the start of a career, not just a footnote on an artist. I predict that Sue will be a bigger star in the music world than I could ever be.

Jeff Foster November 11 at 3:32pm

So tell us the story of your recent recording contract. How did that come about, any interesting/juicy sidebar observations of the contract process you’d like to share, etc.

Mark Robinson November 13 at 8:57pm

I got an email from Alfie Falckenbach, the head of Blue Boulevard Records in Belgium. It came out of the blue, so to speak. I have my songs up on a couple of websites that allow radio stations to download your songs for airplay. One of those sites is Radio Submit. Radio Submit sent out a “picks of the week” email and I was a pick. Alfie got the email, went to the site and listened to my CD. He liked it and emailed me with an offer of a record contract. A solid offer for the CD, just as it is, no changes to it.

I looked up the record company, and it’s real, and it has a good, long history and some fine artists and CDs. Not knowing much about record contracts, I asked a friend and guitar student of mine, who is in the music business, to take a look at the contract. He looked it over and had a few comments — but he suggested that I have his lawyer look it over. His lawyer is a Nashville music business lawyer, who would normally charge me several hundred dollars to look at the contract. My friend suggested that I trade him an hour long lesson for a phone conference with his lawyer. Only in Nashville — I traded a guitar lesson for a legal consultation.

It turned out the contract looked good, and I signed it. The CD will be released in Europe in February, and in the US in March. I’m really pleased with the deal, and I am starting work on the next CD already.

Jeff Foster November 15 at 3:31pm

How about a little gear talk? Tell us about the home studio where you recorded your CD, and the instruments, amps and whatnot  in your arsenal these days. And what’s up with the Mark Robinson Signature Slide?

Mark Robinson November 15 at 8:05pm

I recorded the CD in my home studio in my basement (Guido’s Studio South) with the help of my friend Jim Burnett engineering. Jim has been in Nashville a lot of years, but we met studying audio at IU in the 70′s.

I tracked the CD to an Alesis hard drive recorder– the HD24. I can record up to 24 tracks simultaneously on it, so it’s good for tracking live. We tracked bass, drums, rhythm guitar and scratch vocals live– everything in one room except the guitar amp. We overdubbed guitars, percussion, horns, vocals, backup vocals and keyboards. Everything was done in my studio except the B-3 organ, which I recorded at Johnny Neel’s studio. He has his B-3 all set up and uses the same hard drive recorder I use, so it was easy.

After all of the songs were recorded I bounced them into Protools and mixed “in the box”. It was my first real Protools project — so it took longer than I had hoped, while I was learning how to mix in Protools.

During the mixing of the CD, the Nashville flood hit, and my basement got flooded. So I moved everything upstairs, set it up, and kept mixing. Most of the CD was mixed in my dining room.

I have a fairly inexpensive collection of microphones and preamps, so I borrowed a few while we were recording, but most of the CD is pretty low tech. I had Bloomington audio guru Paul Mahern master the CD. He has golden ears, and great gear — he made it sound great!

Guitars — I’ve been playing an old G&L ASAT, which is their version of the Telecaster. The old one with the soap-bar pickups which are *not* P-90s, but they look like them. I used the ASAT a lot on the CD. I also played my Ron Volbrecht Stratocaster. It’s a guitar Ron built for me many years ago, and it is a great guitar. I also played my old Gibson Melody Maker, my Regal square neck dobro, my Larrivee OM-09 acoustic guitar, and my beat up Harmony tenor banjo. Oh yeah–I have a crazy electric dobro, a Galveston. It’s the thickness of a 335 and the size of a jumbo acoustic. It has a big old resonator plate on it, and a P-90 pickup.

Amps — Mostly I use an old 80′s Fender Concert, which is a 40 watt amp with one 12 inch speaker. Mine is stock. I also used an old 70′s Princeton and an ancient Ampeg Reverb Rocket. I have no idea how old it is, and it needs to be refurbished — but I love the sound.

Pedals — Tube Screamer, Boss Tremelo, Vox Wah, and a weird old Ibanez delay pedal.

Slides – I mostly play slide in standard tuning, but I do play in open G and open E a lot as well. I had been using a glass bottle neck for years (real wine bottle necks). But a couple of years ago a friend of mine gave me some Rocky Mountain Slides. They are made from clay, glazed and kiln fired. They are hand made by Doc Sigmier. I love the sound of them– they aren’t harsh like metal or ceramic, but they have a bit more bite than glass. Doc and I worked on the exact size and thickness, as well as the glaze I wanted on my slides. During the process, I have introduced a lot of pro players to RMS slides. Doc decided that the slide model I wanted would be a popular choice for players, and he is going to make it the Mark Robinson Signature Slide.

Mark Robinson drenched in blues

Jeff Foster November 15 at 11:17pm

And I also read where you’re planning your follow-up CD. What can you tell us about that?

Mark Robinson November 16 at 3:09pm

Well, I just found out I would be doing another CD for Blues Boulevard a few weeks ago, so I am just now getting a concept of what I want to do. Right now I am looking into doing a live performance recording. I’m looking for the right recording engineer and venue to make this work. I think it will be another self-produced effort.

I like the idea of a live recording, as it will be easy to perform the songs on tour. With a European tour in the works after that CD, I’ll probably need to travel light. If my recording band is small — 3 or 4 piece, I can easily duplicate the sound of it on tour.

It’s still in the planning stages, but I think I know how to make it work.

Jeff Foster November 16 at 4:17pm

Lastly, as I’ve mentioned earlier on in this article, you and I have known each other for over 30 years, and as such I find myself reveling in your success since the release of QYJPG. Your rise seems to fly in the face of almost every stereotype we have about breaking through in the music business — that you have to be young and pretty (no offense), that you have to use a top-flight studio and a big-name producer to garner any attention for your CD, that you need to spend huge sums of money on publicists, agents, managers, promoters… that you can’t get the job done with just a belief in yourself and the support of friends and family. And yet here you are, a year or so after the release of what could be described as a seminal, self-produced, self-promoted CD of unapologetic blues, some covered and some original, with an oddly amusing title, now signed to a well-respected record label with a career ascending brilliantly, all because you had a little faith in yourself and took the long view, backed with hard work and unflagging commitment. What do you have to say about that, brother?

Mark Robinson November 16 at 11.13pm

No offense taken. ;-)

I guess one of the really surprising factors in me deciding to go after my dream of being a full time musician in Nashville is my age. In Nashville, there are a lot of older players, writers, and artists. So there is no difficulty in working in Nashville if you are over 20 or over 40. But I came to Nashville as a mature player, with a lot of years and a lot of styles in my trick bag. There are a lot of guys with incredible chops and fast fingers who play the same things over and over again. That gets old pretty quickly.

And with age comes patience. As a young man, I would probably have come to Nashville and left after a year or two if nothing big had happened for me. Hundreds of guys do this every year. But I saw pretty quickly that it would take time to get any kind of reputation in music city. It’s about paying your dues — if there is another player of equal ability up for the same gig as you, and he has been in town a lot longer, he’ll probably get the gig. He’s done his time, more people know him, and he’s more likely to be around next year.

One of the advantages of having played thousands of gigs with different people over the years, I have become fairly fearless. If somebody asks me to play a gig with no rehearsal, no preparation at all — I’ll do it. You get good at flying blind by doing it a lot. And I have done it.

I also began to believe that I was good enough to play with the Nashville cats. I kept getting hired and playing with some serious heavy players, so it was obvious that I was being counted among the real players.

Another factor for me is how I judge success. If I am writing good songs, playing with good players, doing good work in the studio — and enjoying it — then that is success to me. If your criteria revolves around playing in a big hit-making band and having huge international acclaim — well, you are most likely to be a failure. I think my goals and my measure of my own success have been pretty realistic. If I can keep playing, teaching, writing, performing and recording and paying the bills each month, then I’m doing what I want to do, and what makes me happy. So that’s my plan. I quit my job to play guitar, and so far it’s going pretty well.

Jeff Foster November 17 at 2:19am

Mark, many thanks for taking time to chat with me about all the exciting things happening in your life and career these days. I’ve seen first-hand the love and devotion you have for music and playing your guitar for folks, and the success you’re enjoying couldn’t happen to a nicer guy, bro. I’m proud of ya, dude!

Mark Robinson November 17 at 1:11pm

Thanks for doing this, Jeff. I appreciate being a part of the StringDancer community. BTW: Off in the distance, I would like to work on some kind of a guitar workshop with you. Not sure what, when or how — but it seems like something we could and should do.

Jeff Foster November 17 at 1:24pm

Absolutely Mark, it would be big fun to spank planks with you again and do a little teaching in the process. Have your people get with my people. ;-)

Mark Robinson November 17 at 1:37pm

Jeff — it hurts my brain to think about when we played together last. I think it had to be in the late 70′s or early 80′s. That is way too long. Given that we are both still performing, we need to do some playing on stage together soon. And given that we are both still teaching, we need to do some kind of guitar workshop in the near future. My ties to Bloomington Indiana are still very strong — my family is still there, and many, many friends. So I do visit frequently. Let’s figure out how we can play some music and do some teaching in 2011. Thanks!!


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Reviews of Quit Your Job – Play Guitar

“Excellent debut … a nuanced mix of blues, soul, and twangy roots-rock in its grooves. … serpentine guitar play … Expect big things in the future from this ‘self-employed’ singer/songwriter.” —Rev. Keith A. Gordon, BLUES REVUE

“The strong point of this CD is Robinson’s versatile guitar playing, which drives his thoughtful and passionate songwriting and tough vocal style. … He wields a nasty slide along the way … It’s a tasty first effort … with plenty of style and sass.”
—Jim White, BLUE NOTES, (Pittsburgh) Post-Gazette.com

“An outstanding new album … very special and very cool. Mark Robinson simply ROCKS.” —Robert Bartosh, ROOTS MUSIC REPORT

“Top quality blues guitar … This white boy sure can play the Blues, and not just Chicago Blues, but Country Blues, Juke-joint Blues, and my very own favourite, Rhythm and Blues.” —MAVERICK

“The career advice in the title applies nicely in [Robinson's] case, thanks to his ability as a songwriter, vocalist and particularly as a guitarist — lap steel, dobro, you name it.” —Jeff Johnson, SPIN CONTROL, Chicago Sun-Times

“ … scorching guitar work … Just give him a guitar, give him The Blues, give him a lyric he believes in, and Mark Robinson can bring it with the best of them.” —Janet Goodman, MUSIC NEWS NASHVILLE

“Roots-based blues, Americana, rock … all Mark Robinson. His musical soul is poured out on the Memphis-inspired balled ‘Try One More Time,’ with Johnny Neel on the B-3 and great backup vocals by Vickie Carrico and Tracy Nelson. … This CD is for blues lovers everywhere.” —NASHVILLE MUSIC GUIDE

“’Back in the Saddle’ [is] close to the best Stones, Bob Seger work … ‘Backup Plan’ [has] a great New Orleans groove. … ‘I Know You’ll Be Mine’ [is] a great example of juke joint, groove blues … This CD turns the roots-based blues, Americana, rock landscape into an undertaking not to be missed.” — ROOTSVILLE

“Hard-hitting, emotionally charged music that strikes the heart. Well written originals and well chosen covers—immaculately played, well orchestrate … melds blues, rock, soul, country and more for a sound that is fresh as a spring breeze.” —Bill Wilson, BILLTOWN BLUE NOTES

“Mark Robinson has himself one hell of a debut disc here and if it should be heard by the right ears, he could possibly have himself a ‘Best New Artist Debut’ nomination come the 2011 Blues Music Awards.”
—Peter “Blewzzman” Lauro, Blues Editor, MARY4MUSIC.COM

“Mark Robinson … isn’t looking back … his music spans a much broader spectrum of music than just the Blues or the music that Nashville is traditionally known for. This musician and songwriter is most definitely not a ‘one trick pony.’ ”
—Ken Utterback, NASHVILLE MUSIC EXAMINER

“Robinson rambles, strums, picks and packs Blues, Americana, Soul, Zydeco, Roots and Rock into his songs … the man is a natural guitarist, his playing an extension of his soul. … Vocally, his gruff growl brings the blues to all it touches … Throw out the alarm clock and start tuning.” —THE ALTERNATE ROOT

“Beautiful guitar solos …[The CD is] full of great songs …” —ROOTSTIME

“Robinson is a master on the guitar … a great debut release … the world should be happy that Robinson has not only decided to make music but write some songs and give us a great record to listen to.” —BROKEN JUKEBOX

“A gem of an album … really fine Guitarist, Writer, and Vocalist …Highly recommended, thoroughly enjoyed.” —John Vermilyea, BLUES UNDERGROUND NETWORK

“A soulful tour of American roots music’s hot spots … Mark’s erudite guitar … narrates the journey.”—TED DROZDOWSKI, Guitarist, Songwriter, “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award-Winning Journalist

“A talented and versatile sideman … walks out of the shadows and into the spotlight as a leader … It’s evident that Mark belongs in that spotlight.” —TAD ROBINSON, 5-Time Blues Music Award Nominee, Severn Records Recording Artist

“This aptly titled solo debut release of guitar player/songwriter Mark Robinson proves it’s never too late to follow your dreams—a soulful collection of roots/blues.” —KAREN LEIPZIGER, KL Productions, “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award-Winning Publicist

Copyright 2010 Jeff Foster & StringDancer.com. All Rights Reserved.

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Carrying Instruments On Airplanes Might Get Easier

The United Federation of Musicians (AFM) has muscled language into a new FAA reauthorization bill to help make traveling with precious musical instruments by air a less terrifying prospect. This from their website:

Musicians constantly face difficulty traveling with their instrument. Although AFM won a commitment from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to allow instruments through security checkpoints, policies for carrying instruments on to airplanes still vary wildly from airline to airline.

The inconsistencies in airline policies make it extremely difficult for musicians to plan their travel and earn a living. Thus AFM fought for language to be included in the Senate version of the FAA Reauthorization Bill (S.1451) that will streamline the airlines’ carry-on policies regarding musical instruments. If this bill passes musicians will be able to carry most musical instruments on board and place them in the overhead compartment or in a seat (if a ticket is purchased).

This bill is currently being debated in Congress and it is critical that all musicians weigh-in to demand that the Senate version (S.1451) of this language be included in the final bill. Please sign our petition below to support streamlining airline carry-on policies, so that travelling with an instrument is safer and more reliable.

SIGN THE PETITION

My Two Bits

Almost all professional musicians have faced the prospect of traveling with their instruments aboard commercial airliners. Many semi-pro players have as well, as have many recreational players who just happen to own nice instruments and desire to travel with them safely. Safety is the operative word here, as commercial air carriers are notoriously unsympathetic to the unique value (financial and emotional) of musical instruments to their owners. We have all heard horror stories of instruments being roughly handled, at best, or if damaged or destroyed in transit, the owners being disallowed any compensation from the carriers.

A few years ago a guitar player named Dave Carroll experienced the horror of seeing for himself his Taylor guitar destroyed by baggage handlers, and 9 months of haggling with United Airlines resulting in no settlement. Dave took the high road… not by accepting defeat and loss, but by writing and producing a series of videos detailing the experience, much to the chagrin of United Airlines. The full story is available on his website, and here’s the first of the famous videos:

Personally, I’ve been lucky over the years. Not only have I flown with a guitar on numerous occasions (and experienced no damage), but I once had to fly from Los Angeles to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, fully laden with not only two guitars but all my gigging gear, including guitar synths and other electronics, mixers, amps and speaker cabinets, plus clothing and supplies for a three-month engagement. Another time I had a similar load to get to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico to do a three-month cruise boat gig. Both of these mega-transports went via Alaska Airline, which was known at the time (perhaps still is) for not flinching at larger-then-normal baggage needs on the part of their customers. I’ve usually been able to sweet-talk my way into carrying my instrument on-board with me, or at least have it hand-checked at the gate instead of going into the cargo hold through the hands of the baggage apes. I’ve only flown with a guitar once since 9-11, and again was able to carry it on-board with me. But overall, I don’t fly much at all. As I said… I’ve been lucky when it comes to dealing with guitars and airlines.

But my heart aches for all the more mobile musicians who have suffered great loss at the hands of disaffected corporate transportation companies. So I signed the petition, and I would encourage anyone who plays, or knows someone who plays… or who just likes to give a little push-back to greedy corporations at any opportunity… to sign the petition, as well.

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REVIEW: Savarez Corum Alliance “Carbon” Strings

I slapped on a new set of normal-tension Savarez Corum Alliance strings about a month ago. I’ve been wondering for, oh, the past forty years or so, if somebody would one day come up with a viable alternative to nylon strings. Leave it to Savarez to finally get the job done.

If you play a classic guitar much at all, you most likely know full well how nylon strings behave, their strengths and weaknesses. Beautifully mellow and perfect for yanking with bare fingers probably sums it up.

But I’ve often yearned for a nylon string set that exhibited a bit of the sound and behavior of acoustic bronze-wounds. Something a bit brighter, with more robust resonance and punch, but not sacrificing the finger-friendliness intrinsic to nylon strings. I still wanted to be able to yank and dig into the strings as you can on nylons.

These new Savarez trebles are made of a composite monofilament, commonly called “carbon”, apparently. Here’s how Savarez describes them (in their somewhat stilted English translation):

The KF ALLIANCE fibre has the same density and elongation properties as gut. Its density is higher than the polyamide fibres. The KF ALLIANCE strings are thinner than the nylon ones. They can resist a 35kg tension (harp). The low internal frictions between the molecules increase the durability of the string beside a sustained sound. The G-3rd string provides a great homogeneous transition between the B-2nd and the D-4th. It ideally balances with the other strings of the set in terms of sound quality. It is no longer necessary to use a G wound string to balance the set.

Now, the basses are also a bit different:

Our technological discoveries enable us to manufacture strings of greater pliability unlike anything else in the world, offering a very quick and accurate response. Their flexibility allows the musician to build his own sound, to create many other colours of sounds and nuances. Their design has been based on a reduction of the internal frictions. The string hardly vibrates, the sound lasts longer at a higher level. The CORUM basses offers a perfect balance coupled with the KF ALLIANCE trebles, exclusive to Savarez.

This “reduction of internal frictions” sounds interesting. I’m not sure what the hell that means, but I sure could use a lowering of my own internal frictions from time to time, so I’m good with it. 

My impressions after a month:

  1. The strings, once they settle in, hold tune remarkably well.
  2. The sound is unmistakably brighter, and more resonant. I find the tone quite suitable for classical, jazz and flamenco stylings. Very nice sustain in both registers, and not at all harsh to my ear.
  3. Durability seems decidely better than nylons. After a month of gigging several times a week, both basses and trebles still ring well, and judging from the fret wear on them (which seems less than one would get from nylons), I suspect they will last another month without problem.
  4. While the trebles are a bit thinner in diameter than nylons, I’m not noticing any issues with regards playability or comfort. I can play hard without discomfort.

As I mentioned, this first set was normal (medium) tension. I’ve stocked up on a set of high tension to try next. Want to see if the bite I get out of these puppies is enhanced with the higher tension.

I bought the strings from JustStrings.com, a good online source for strings of all types. I paid about $13 a set, which given the clearly greater longevity of the strings, isn’t bad at all.

Anyone else have some experience with these strings? I’d be interested in hearing other opinions.

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Will Ray Jammin’ With Jeff Foster

Just had to archive this in my StringDancer blog. Ego is a terrible thing to waste. ;-)

One of my favorite kings of twang, Will Ray, was doing a clinic in Muncie, Indiana a few years ago for Muncie’s premier music store, Muncie Music Center, where I worked as a guitar teacher for eight years after returning to Indiana from California in 2000. I had since moved back to southern Indiana, but the guys were kind enough to give me a jingle and ask me to sit in with Will onstage, which of course was my distinct pleasure.

I didn’t do too bad, I guess. My hands weren’t warmed up, and I was on a borrowed axe with a strap that was a tad too long for me. Those are my excuses and I’m sticking to ‘em. ;-)

It was a fun evening, and my little bit up there was over all too soon… would have loved the chance to really stretch out with the man and try some other genres on for size. Will is a walking encyclopedia of unique, cool and unpredictable guitar tricks. His use of slide rings (on both hands, no less), the Hipshot B-Bender, and a fertile imagination make him a player to fear, yet he is an affable, easy-going guy who just loves to play, and it shows. It was a gas to jam with the man, and I hope I get the chance to do it again sometime.

Thanks to all my old and dear friends at Muncie Music Center for the invitation. It was well-worth the trip up from Bloomington.

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Anticipating ‘The Banjo Project’ Documentary

'The Banjo Lesson' by Henry O. Tanner, 1893

If the guitar has a first cousin, it’s the banjo. In standard tuning, 3/5ths of the 5-string banjo’s strings are tuned the same as the guitar. Way back in the dawn of history, I started out on guitar, and found that adding the banjo to my musical arsenal wasn’t all that difficult. Which is not to say that playing the banjo is a piece of cake, it isn’t. But certainly any guitar player (especially one who can play a little fingerstyle) will find a quick friend in the banjo.

While the guitar didn’t originate in Spain (there exist references to strummed stringed instruments in ancient Egypt), it was Spain nonetheless which embraced the instrument and claimed it as their own. In similar fashion, the banjo originated in Africa, but came into its own in America, evolving from a crude wooden drum with strings into a highly refined amalgam of bell-brass, fine hardwoods and exotic pearl and abalone inlay. Today’s banjo rivals any instrument in terms of the painstaking attention to detail in its construction, and when it comes to ornamentation, high-end banjos outpace virtually all other instruments in luxurious inlay, carving, engraving and ‘pimp-factor’, some models costing well in excess of $50,000.

Maybe it’s the lack of respect banjos have gotten over the years that makes players crave the (what some might call) ostentatious trimmings, or maybe it’s because banjos are the hot-rods of strings (unlike other stringed instruments, they can be reduced to a pile of parts and reassembled into a working instrument in a matter of hours). In any event, banjos, like Americans themselves, run the gamut from simple, utilitarian instruments to downright whores of opulence.

John Hartford was known to joke that he had spent the better part of his life “trying to learn to play two of the most despised instruments [banjo and fiddle] and one of the world’s most universally unpopular styles of music, polkas being the other”. An old boy stood up one night and said, “don’t forget about bagpipes”. Some would say the accordion should rank in there somewhere, but we won’t split that particular hair at the moment. I suppose it’s fair to say that banjos are an acquired taste. They don’t sensuously insinuate themselves into your ear the way a guitar does, they don’t sing with the gorgeous sustain and glissando of a violin, nor do they possess the stylistic versatility of many other instruments (though in the hands of Béla Fleck, one could certainly argue the last point). But they do make a joyous sound. I personally find it next to impossible to play a song on the ‘jo that doesn’t sound ‘happy’, never mind the subject matter.

One thing is certain: every nation should have a national instrument, should lay claim to a means of making music that is distinctly their own. As a relatively young nation still, America has been preceded by most of the instruments of the world… they existed long before we invaded this land. But if we look to our brief, tumultuous history in search of an instrument deeply interwoven with the American story, an instrument that intimately connects the primary continents from which this nation was borne, one instrument quickly rises to the surface… an instrument as staccato as the abrasive American temperament itself; an instrument round as the map of routes folks the world over have taken to reach our shores; an instrument brought to us by the poorest of the poor that today can cost the price of a small home; an instrument that bombards the ear with a flurry of notes rolling along as quickly, intricately and powerfully as the great river flowing through the core of our country. Without question or possible debate, I should think, America’s instrument is indeed the banjo.

So as a long-time American ‘banjer picker’ and lover of the instrument, I look forward with considerable anticipation to a new documentary slated for release later this year.

The Banjo Project

The Banjo Project: The Story of America’s Instrument is a trans-media cultural odyssey: a major television documentary (now in production), a comprehensive DVD package with 5+ hours of programming, a live stage/multi-media performance and a resource website that will chronicle the journey of America’s quintessential instrument—the banjo—from its African roots to the 21st century.

Narrated by Steve Martin, The Banjo Project television documentary brings together contemporary players in all styles—Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger, Bela Fleck, Taj Mahal, Ralph Stanley, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Mike Seeger, Buddy Wachter, Don Vappie and Cynthia Sayer, among many others—with folklorists, historians, instrument makers and passionate amateurs to tell the story of America’s instrument in all its richness and diversity.

TheBanjoProject.org | The Banjo Project on Facebook

An excellent choice tapping Steve Martin to narrate this documentary. Besides being a world-class comic and movie star, Martin has been picking the ‘jo for decades, and is well-respected by other top pickers for his skill on (and devotion to) the banjo.

But enough of my palaver. Let’s watch the trailer, shall we?

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Indy House Concert: Bob Lucas

April 11, 2010 - Had a wonderful house concert experience tonight up in Indianapolis. My dear wife Rhonda and I cruised up from Bloomington to catch a fellow StringDancer member in the act, the multi-talented Bob Lucas performing solo at Cyndi Wagner‘s house (Cyndi is a tireless advocate for the Indianapolis Songwriter’s Cafe, a community of Indy-based fans of songwriter-driven acoustic music). It had been a long week for wifey and me, and we both needed a nice shot of some sweet acoustic music before starting another round of work.

Bob Lucas is a friend from my ’70s Bloomington, Indiana days, when he pretty much ruled the roost around this town with the local wood-music hipster musicians and the fans who kept them busy, and his skills haven’t diminished over the years, but rather have mellowed and matured like a fine cabernet. Once you catch a taste, you quickly learn to savor it, and keep coming back for more.

Now, Bob is a mighty good acoustic guitar player and fiddler, and to my ears his far-reaching, versatile frailing 5-string banjo picking ranks among the best I’ve ever heard (being a banjo picker myself, I have a soft spot for players who can embrace this quintessentially American string instrument and do it justice). But certainly it’s his amazingly supple tenor voice and deeply satisfying songwriting skills that set this man apart from the vast majority of his contemporaries. And besides his musical talents… Bob’s warm, down-home and engaging presence is simply a treat to be around.

This from his website:

Bob Lucas is a songwriter, actor, singer & multi-instrumentalist. He has lived in Logan County, Ohio for the last 15 years working for the locally known as well as nationally famous Mad River Theater Works where he holds the position of music director and songwriter in residence. While at Mad River he has written music for and performed in 25 original plays.

Before coming to Ohio, Lucas formed the ground breaking folk group “Eclectricity,” touring internationally with famed actor and singer Theodore Bikel. As a songwriter he has achieved success having his songs recorded by international recording stars such as Alison Krauss, New Grass Revival, Sam Bush and Kathy Chiavloa. His debut solo album, “The Dancer Inside You” received a four star rating from Downbeat Magazine. Recently two more of his songs have been released on the award winning Alison Krauss and Union Station album “New Favorite”. BobLucasMusic.com

For tonight’s show, Bob contended he was a little out of practice, having been preoccupied in recent months writing a play on the life of the brilliant black inventor, Lewis Latimer, whose efforts to improve on Edison’s incandescent light bulb contributed significantly to the success of modern electric lighting. But rusty or not, Bob delivered the goods this evening, singing and playing his beautifully etched and inlaid open-pot banjo, acoustic guitar and fiddle, showcasing several songs he wrote for his play and many old favorites from his large repertoire of original compositions and traditional tunes, all intermixed with a judicious sampling of stories and ad-libs delivered in his typically affable style. Bob was accompanied on guitar for a couple tunes by his longtime cohort and Bloomington icon, Mark Bingham, who produced Bob’s above-mentioned 1972 album, The Dancer Inside You. The music flowed on, the hour got late, and Bob finally let loose his hold on the audience (which BTW included StringDancer members Bob Stoner and Allen Deck). Those gathered reluctantly accepted the inevitable, but were mighty glad to have been there to enjoy it all.

It’s evenings like this that confirm my belief that the best music is often acoustic music, delivered with a lot of heart and soul and not so many decibels. It’s not all that difficult, really, to crank up the volume, crunch out the power chords, appeal to the god of boogie, move the booze, rock the house and send folks home with ears ringing. It takes real artistry to coax the subtle goods from acoustic instruments and quietly lift up the spirits of those who will listen. The most magical concerts I’ve ever experienced consist of one, two, maybe three players who have that special knack for the sweet acoustic side of music. Bob Lucas was born with that gift.

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Video Review: The Godin Grand Concert Ambiance Guitar

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Goin’ To Work In Tall Buildings by John Hartford

Been on a bit of a nostalgia trip lately, remembering one of my favorite banjo-pickers (and all-time favorite steamboat pilot), the late great John Hartford. He was my greatest influence when it came to playing the banjo and the fiddle, the man had a style all his own. I’d seen Hartford weave his magic onstage more times than any other entertainer, and his musical legacy shows no sign of abating, thankfully.

Here’s a video of John playing guitar (his 3rd instrument, really, after the banjo and fiddle), singing his haunting Going To Work In Tall Buildings.

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Concert Review: Tommy Emmanuel

Every so often, a musician just has to go catch a genuine touched-by-God talent in concert. It’s vital to occasionally reinforce the desire to practice and improve by witnessing a true master at work. Such was my agenda this evening when we drove off to Terre Haute, IN to see Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, a man the great Chet Atkins declared to be one of the greatest fingerstyle players in the world. Now happily ensconced back at the hacienda, I thoroughly understand why Chet effused so.

We had front-row seats, off to the left but still with a great view of the stage at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology Performing Arts Theater in Terre Haute, IN. We were sitting right in front of a small EV speaker, one of several house speakers lining the front of the stage, and which produced amazingly robust sound. And God knows robust would aptly describe Tommy Emmanuel in concert!

People often ask me who my favorite guitar player is, and I have a short list to rattle off, based on genre. Inasmuch as Tom E. pretty much morphs into, amongst and between a veritable boatload of genres, he has to be categorized a little differently. So I’d say Tommy Emmanuel is my favorite gonzo acoustic fingerstyle guitarist who unabashedly throws caution to the wind and utterly shreds as if he were keenly aware that he was destined to die the moment he stepped offstage. His playing is that intense.

Emmanuel cannot be faulted for exhibiting so little restraint. His playing is more than energetic, it’s borderline frantic, but doesn’t come from being desperate to impress. On the contrary, watching him perform, it’s abundantly clear that his kinetic exuberance for attacking the guitar melodically, harmonically, rhythmically and VERY quickly is a direct reflection of an insatiable joie de vivre, a zest for life that is readily seen in the sparkle of his eyes when he plays. The man smiles and laughs at the slightest provocation, and would seem one of the most genuinely happy guys in the world. Such a blessing could not help but permeate anyone’s playing, and it certainly forms the root of Emmanuel’s joyful noise.

At one point he said, “you know, people often ask me where I live, and I always say “nowhere’… as in ‘now’ & ‘here’. Who knows what tomorrow may bring? But tonight, I am right here, right now. This is my home, up here, and now I’m playing for you.”

One tune he performed (dedicating it to Les Paul) was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. TE’s deft handling of the melody and chords would be enough for most fingerpickers, but that lingering, rising and falling cascade of artificial harmonics (ala Lenny Breau) is something else. I’ve been known to pull off similar riffs, but TE raises the bar on execution several degrees. That particular technique is very hard to do, and if you manage to ascend and descend the scale once without duffing a harmonic or missing the alternate string with your ring finger, you’re doing well. To ascend and descend time after time, so quick and clean, with NO duffed harmonics or dropped notes, making the guitar sound more like a glissed harp than a plucked guitar… well, it’s mind-boggling, frankly, and perhaps more than any other trick he pulls out of the hat demonstrates the level of devoted practice and attention to detail TE brings to bear on his instrument.

Kudos should also go to Rick Price, Tommy’s Aussie bud who opened the show and also joined Tommy at the end of the show for a rousing finale of classic chestnuts (Taking It To The Streets by the Doobs, Wake Up Little Susie by the Everly Bros, and Dream Baby by Roy Orbison among them). Price is an excellent songwriter, competent acoustic guitarist and pianist, and has an utterly splendid tenor voice. The two of them are a fantastic team, and present a lesson on how a couple of very talented guys with a couple of acoustic guitars can, in fact, rock the house.

I have several guitar playing buddies who have seen Tommy Emmanuel live before, but this was my first opportunity to witness him myself, and I have to say that it was one of the most musically satisfying and entertaining three hours I’ve ever spent. I would think it so for anyone, but for a guitar player… well, catching Emmanuel live was a real treat.

Tommy scurried off to his tour bus after the show, so I was a little disappointed I didn’t have a chance to muscle my way into a photo op, but one shouldn’t complain. The man played his ass off for a solid two hours solo, plus the finale with Price. Given the intensity he brings to his music, I would think doing a show would be exhausting enough without glad-handing every guitar player in the house hoping some Emmanuel mojo might rub off.

As it is, I copped some mojo, anyway. Being that close to a true master of the guitar is always a cool thing, and if you know enough about guitar and music to actually understand the ideas that inform his playing (even if there’s no way in hell you could actually play it yourself), you can’t help but walk away inspired, with an enhanced view of what is possible on our instrument. I came home and, as dear wifey crashed on her couch, I pulled my favorite guitar close and bent a few rules myself. I have a feeling that’s what Tommy would have done.

http://www.tommyemmanuel.com

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