Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Old Dominion Barn Dance

It was Virginia’s biggest hoedown. First airing in 1946, the Old Dominion Barn Dance was broadcast on Richmond’s WRVA radio as the city’s version of Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry. Hosted by pioneering femcee Mary “Sunshine Sue” Workman, the country music variety show lasted a little more than a decade, but its steel guitar-sweetened echoes still resonate.

“The Barn Dance had great entertainers, musicians, and vocalists,” remembers Cal Newman, 86, a fiddler who grew up listening to, and later performing as a backup musician on, the Saturday night performance. “A lot of legends used it as a stepping stone to greater things, like Chet Atkins, Mac Wiseman, Reno and Smiley ... for some, it became a jumping off place to Nashville and stardom.”

With its blend of rustic, sometimes sentimental songs (“You Are My Sunshine” was Sue’s signature sign-off), folksy product placement, and cornball humor, the Barn Dance became wildly popular, and not just in Virginia—WRVA’s 50,000 watts could span several states, and portions were heard across the world on Armed Forces Radio. Sue and her cast even made it to Broadway in 1954 to perform in a country musical called Hayride.

My photo feature on the Old Dominion Barn Dance is now up at the Virginia Living Magazine website. Lasso it right here. Find out about the amazing legends who passed through the program, as well as the contemporary reboot of the big show that happens at Hopewell's Beacon Theatre.

(Photos courtesy of the Library of Virginia)

Screenwriter Ramona Taylor

Screenwriter and independent movie producer Ramona Taylor wrote her first screenplay as a form of therapy after she went through a painful divorce. “But soon it was my relaxation,” says the Virginia assistant attorney general, who serves as legal counsel for Virginia State University.

Taylor, a winner of the 2018 Virginia Screenwriting Competition, is a self-admitted science fiction nerd who began her writing career exploring futuristic themes — early work that, in her mind, was not ready for prime time. “But I was learning,” she says, and gaining confidence “That’s something that I had to get over before I entered competitions. Do not be ashamed of your writing. If it’s good enough to be put down on paper, it’s good enough for someone to read. You have to believe that.”

Read my interview with Ramona Taylor on the Richmond Magazine website. Photo by the mighty Ash Daniel!

Tricked-Out Whiskeys

There are currently more whiskey distilleries in Virginia—55 and counting—than in Kentucky or Tennessee, and many operations, established and new, are helping to push the palate on how whiskey can taste.

Using unique smoking and aging methods, bold flavor infusions, and even ingredients that are way out of the norm, Virginia is at the vanguard of tricked-out whiskeys. My feature on steeping and infusing is now online at the Virginia Living Magazine website. You can read it right here.

In this piece, I profile the pioneering whiskey flavorists at Belmont Farms Distillery, Copper Fox Distillery, Virginia Distillery Co., Belle Isle Craft Spirits, MurLarkey's, among others.

(Photo of Chuck Miller of Belmont Farms Distillery courtesy of Belmont Farms)

Interview with Jon Spencer

It might come as a surprise that Jon Spencer — the guiding force behind some of the best, most dangerously playful rock 'n' roll of the modern era — would only now be releasing his first solo album. The 12-song Spencer Sings the Hits is of a piece with the trademark punk blues and fuzzed-out retro rock he's specialized in for 30 years with bands like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Boss Hogg and Heavy Trash.

"Part of the reason I used my name is so I can let people know what to expect," the 53-year-old performer says, calling from his New York City home base.

Spencer's music and cameo performance in last year's hit film “Baby Driver” introduced his yowling, beat-heavy sonics to a new generation. Read my Richmond Magazine interview with the man by clicking right here.

And for more on the solo music of Jon Spencer, go right here.

(Photo courtesy Jon Spencer)

Monday, December 31, 2018

Sarah White: High Flyer

“When you’re around for 20 years,” singer-songwriter Sarah White says, humbled, “I guess you do have some fans out there.”

White successfully crowd funded her new album, High Flyer, through Kickstarter. It came with some trepidation. "All my life, I’ve never liked asking for help. I like for people to think I’ve got my [act] together all the time. I don’t, of course, but I didn’t want to beg.”

The resulting 11-song disc, praised by Rolling Stone. and featuring an appearance by Dave Matthews, is a landscape of both familiar and uncharted territory for the soulful performer, a Central Virginia mainstay who has leapfrogged from folk to lo-fi pop to indie-rock to country in her troubadour’s journey.

Read my profile of Sarah White by going to the Virginia Living Magazine website.

And for more on Sarah White and High Flyer, go here.

(Photo courtesy Sarah White)

King Vinyl: Record Stores in Virginia

With more new vinyl being manufactured—and available in chain outlets Barnes & Noble, Urban Outfitters and others—sales of record albums keep climbing. Nielsen Soundscan reports that 2017 marked the 12th straight year of growth for the once-abandoned LP format.

“People like the ritual of putting on an album, looking at the cover, the aroma of it,” says Ian Little, co-owner of Roanoke's Vintage Vault. “Vinyl just has more personality to it. The gatefold covers, the inserts, they are sort of like art objects.”

Virginia Living Magazine has posted my October music column about the resurgence of vinyl and the growing number of independent record retailers. There are nearly three dozen brick-and-mortar album outlets currently making noise across Virginia, including longtime fixtures like Richmond's Plan 9 and Birdland in Virginia Beach,. but also newer spots like Vintage Vault, Richmond's Steady Sounds, and Sound Idea, which is located on the Eastern Shore.  In Virginia, it seems, albums never went away and are as hot as ever.

To read "King Vinyl," go here.

Do you want to take an Old Dominion Record Store Tour? Here's a list of selected vinyl shops across Virginia. 

(Photo of Steady Sounds Records by the mighty Markus Schmidt)

Tear the Roof Off the Hof: Bigfoot's P-Funk

How did legendary Parliament-Funkadelic drummer Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey get his nickname?

"It's because of how I hit the bass drum. I like that push in the music," he says. "When we'd be in the studio, George [Clinton] would say to turn the bass drum up, yelling, 'Give me that foot, give me that foot.' "

Brailey leads a band of ex-P-Funk vets and family members -- including bassist Jeff "Cherokee" Bunn and the original Sir Nose D'Voidafunk, dancer Larry Heckstall -- in a big New Years Eve show at the historic Hofheimer Building in Richmond.

Find out all about this revamped Grooveallegiance -- and the enduring appeal of P-Funk -- in my new  feature on the Richmond magazine website.