David Royko Psy.D
Alan Munde & Joe Carr
by David Royko
Alan Munde and Joe Carr are back on the music scene in a big way, which is how things are done in their home state of Texas. Not only are they celebrating the release of their new Flying Fish CD, "Windy Days and Dusty Skies," they have also co-written a book, Prairie Nights To Neon Lights: The Story Of Country Music In West Texas, recently published by Texas Tech University Press. Both projects feature wide and interesting casts of characters.
The CD, which stars Munde's banjo and Carr's vocals, guitar and mandolin, also features guest artists such as Jim "Texas Shorty" Chancellor, Laurie Lewis, Randy Howard, Roland White, Kathy Chiavola, David Grier, Lynn Morris, and Beppe Gambetta, and contains songs from a variety of sources, including Carr, Ed Marsh, Mark Kreitzer, and Terry Allen.
Their book contains chapters on the nineteenth and early twentieth century growth of music in the West Texas area, the emergence of the modern Texas singer-songwriters, Western Swing, Texas fiddlers, and yes, even bluegrass, where one can learn about West Texans with Bill Monroe affiliations, like Tex Logan and the mysterious Ed Mayfield.
Fans of Munde's and Carr's may know them best as members of Country Gazette, the band that spanned twenty years and created a string of distinctive modern bluegrass albums. And though it might surprise these fans to find that Munde and Carr have written a scholarly (though very readable) text, the fact is that these two artists are no strangers to academia. Both are members of the Commercial Music faculty at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, an institution unique in its position as the only school with a degree granting program in bluegrass music. This dichotomous life of pickin' and pontificatin' makes them an ideal team for such a venture.
The last time BU featured Munde, it was for the October, 1991 cover story on Country Gazette. Since that time, his focus has changed to some degree, and it has resulted in a hiatus for the CG.
"The Munde/Carr duo is a result of corporate downsizing," says Munde. "I had been travelling and working as a member of Country Gazette for a little over twenty years, and it felt to me like it was time to try something a tiny bit different. Joe and I are colleagues at South Plains College, and it seemed like a good match. So we're giving Country Gazette a rest."
A rest for Country Gazette means learning how to adjust to the stripped-down demands of a duo.
"Alan & I are used to being parts of a four piece bluegrass band, but as duet, we don't have the other pieces," says Carr. "So we have to look at what from that still works, and what doesn't. Sometimes its something as simple as tuning an instrument a little different than I normally do to get a lower note, dropping the E to D to get a little more depth. Or play splashier, playing more notes than I normally do as a rhythm guitarist in a bluegrass band. In the duo, there's nobody to get in the way of, because nothing I do will ever get in Alan's way. He just keeps going. I just have to be careful that I don't physically get in the way of the banjo!"
When the time came for Munde and Carr to record a new album, they planned to do it as a duo. Flying Fish had other ideas.
"The label was interested in us having some guests on the album, and we thought, 'This is a great opportunity,'" says Carr. "We've played with people for years that we just love to make music with, and here was a chance to do it [for an album]. So except for one trip to Nashville for two of the cuts, we just caught people as they were coming through west Texas."
One player with whom both Munde and Carr had already recorded was Italian guitar picker Beppe Gambetta.
"Beppe and I had recorded something together a long time ago, as did Alan," says Carr, referring to the Brambus album, "Dialogs," which found Gambetta dueting with a variety of pickers. "Beppe wasn't speaking English all that well on that trip, but now he does. And we thought we liked him back then, and as it turns out, we do!"
For their track with Gambetta, they chose "Forked Deer." "We did this guitar thing at the beginning that is, I guess you could say, Beppe-esque" says Carr. "Its like his 'Slow Creek,'" which is Gambetta's version of "Salt Creek," played considerably slower than usual.
Another friend who shows up on the disc is Billy Joe Foster. "With someone like Billy Joe, you just play the track for him and say 'do something good,' and Billy does something great," says Carr. "There's a twin fiddle cut that he's on [Milwaukee Blues], and that stuff was invented and harmonized in a recording session of about thirty minutes. He's just an incredible player."
Lynn Morris and Marshall Wilborn appear on the song "Jordan Am A Hard Road To Travel," thanks to the miracle of overdubbing.
"With Lynn, I had in my head what she'd do, and we talked about it over the phone," says Carr. "We sent it away to her, and she put the banjo on, and they put their vocals on. And it sounded just like I had heard it in my head."
Carr sees Morris', as well as Kathy Chiavola's and Laurie Lewis' appearances on the album as significant in that it reflects the changes in bluegrass that he has witnessed.
"If this album had been made 15 years ago, it might not have had as many female guest artists on it," says Carr. "Bluegrass has just done a flip flop that way, which is all for the best. For me personally, there was a time when I played rhythm guitar, but didn't know how to play melodies, or how any of the fiddle tunes went. The first person that showed me how was a woman named Debbie Bridgewater, when we were teenagers. So early in my development, I had serious input from a good player who happened to be female. That may not have happened much before, because when I was going to festivals back in the '70s, there were hardly any women. Except Delia Bell, who had that role of harmony singer playing rhythm guitar. Or traditionally, you'd put your band together and say 'Oh my gosh, we need a bass player. Honey, could you learn to play bass?' So the wife of the banjo player would play. So to see it change so much is something."
"I remember one year there was a banjo contest at a festival in Hugo, Oklahoma," says Carr. "You could enter the contest until the last contestant who had signed up stepped on stage. So right before that happened, this little Volkswagen with Colorado plates pulled up, and out jumped Lynn Morris. This was the mid-1970s, and everybody was getting into the chromatic/melodic stuff, and she got up there and played something like 'Cumberland Gap' just as straight as it could be, and twice as fast as anybody had played it, and just blew everyone away. And she won. The judges had been sequestered in a trailer, and it was funny because they came out and said 'Who was that?' They were surprised, and I think maybe even a little resentful that this girl had won the contest. They may have been present at the beginning of a wave in music that they weren't aware of."
"Nowadays, the resistance, if its not gone, is almost gone," says Carr. "Look at Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Laurie Lewis, the Cox Family, Petticoat Junction. Now the pickers have to figure out what those keys are on those capo spots in between the even numbers. It kicks the musicianship level up. It may not have been able to happen before. I think alot of bluegrassers would have had trouble with some of those keys."
While Carr and Munde may be old hands at performing bluegrass in any key, writing the book on country music's development in west Texas was a new experience.
"We set out on this adventure for the book," says Munde. "We loaded up the little tape recorder and made up a list of people we wanted to talk to. And at the end of each interview, they'd give us another ten names of people to talk to."
"They all know about one another, even across music styles," says Carr. "Geographically its a pretty big place, but its pretty small as far as the music community goes. For example, one jazz trumpet player had learned the pop standard, 'Polka dots and Moonbeams,' from a country fiddler during a break on a gig."
"There were so few people out there, they all had to band together," says Munde. "There was never hard-edged meanness. Even though they were competing for the same gigs, they were all in the boat together."
As for the current bluegrass scene, Munde sees some distinct differences between Texas and the southeastern states.
"In Texas, the music takes on a real social aspect, and I don't just mean get-togethers," says Munde. "There's a certain kind of people that get involved in bluegrass when you get out to Texas. Its sort of family-oriented, non-drinking, non-drug-doing. And you find alot of people in it in Texas who are older and have liked country music over the years, and they see in bluegrass some of the things that they used to like that current country music doesn't have. So you have alot of older people who you would think might be hip to the history of the music, but are really novices. They might know the names Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, but they don't know all their material. Even a younger player might be more hip to those players than the older people."
"As far as performing for them," says Carr, "they might like 'Cold Cold Heart' as much as they might like Flatt and Scruggs' 'Sleep With One Eye Open,' because it comes from a period of time when they liked country music."
"And I think they're more into the entertainment aspect of the artists than they are interested in how close they are to the tradition," says Munde. "If a band comes on and they're entertaining, then that is a successful outing for a group, whatever music they play, or whether the banjo player does it a different way than the traditional way. In North Carolina or Virginia, they certainly are into the entertainment, but its also tied more closely to the tradition. Like 'He's a good, solid, hard driving banjo player, and they really kicked butt.' In TX, its more like 'Did they entertain us?'"
Texans should prepare for a new and unique kind of musical entertainment from Munde and Carr that might make bluegrass purists cringe, but should delight most everyone else.
"We're blending [Mexican] Nortenjo Conjunto music with bluegrass," says Carr. "I use the bajo sexto, which is a 12-string Mexican guitar, which is an octave lower than a regular 12-string. Its used like a mandolin in a bluegrass band for that off-beat 'chunk.' A typical Nortenjo band would be accordion, bajo sexto, electric bass, and drums."
"We've written some original music for it, which we call Border Bluegrass," says Carr. "One instrumental is 'Border Baby Boogie Polka.' Some people would hear it as sort of tongue in cheek, but at the same time, I really like the sound. The banjo takes the role of the accordion, and the bajo takes the rhythm. We play Bill Monroe's 'Rose Of Old Kentucky' with a bolero beat, and most bluegrassers would think its real funny, but we're trying to do it nicely. We did it in Austin, and a woman came up to us after the set. She'd been sitting at a table with her husband and some other bluegrass fans, and she said, 'I don't care what they say, I really liked that!'"
The Border Bluegrass sound has already caught the ear of at least one promoter.
"Were booked for an international music festival just because the guy liked the name 'Border Bluegrass' so much," says Carr. "The acts are a Chinese traditional fiddler, someone from Sri Lanka, some Caribbean musicians, and us."
So stay tuned to the saga of Munde and Carr, and you just might witness the next step in the continuing evolution of bluegrass. "Blue Moon Of Tiajuana," anyone?