Thursday, December 8, 2016

Don't Mean Maybe: Gene Vincent and "Be-Bop-a-Lula"

At 60 years old, the song “Be-Bop-a-Lula” still seems improbable. Written by a hospital patient now lost to history, sung by a sailor with a crippled leg, performed by a ragtag group of country radio musicians, the two-minute, 34-second “Lula” has become an acknowledged rock ’n’ roll classic, celebrated the world over (Rolling Stone ranked it #103 on their Greatest Songs list). The story behind the tune, recorded by Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, is also a potent piece of Virginia history.

"Don't Mean Maybe," my latest piece for Coastal Virginia Magazine, takes a look at how "Be-Bop-a-Lula" came to be, and why it resonated over the years with so many later-influential performers -- the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, etc.
Vincent’s voice was not only chameleonic in the way that Elvis’s was—it was schizophrenic. Going from a drawling croon to a piercing cry, he was volatile, loving, temperamental, soothing; the ultimate “tough” teenaged child-man. His brooding performance, aided by deep, cavernous slapback echo, perfectly matched up with the tortured teenage fantasia being played out on theater screens at the time, in movies such as The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle.
Click here to read "Don't Mean Maybe: The Story of 'Be-Bop-a-Lula'."

If you enjoy this article, you'll also dig "Virginia Rocks," a 2-CD box set and book of liner notes (co-written by yours truly with archivist Brent Hosier). You can get that here. In 2007-08, Brent and I worked with the Blue Ridge Institute to research Virginia's rockabilly and early rock 'n' roll history. For more on that project, click here.  

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Noah-O in The Rain

Richmond rapper Noah Oddo is bursting out all over, with a fresh new album, a web video series and a new way of working. The man known as Noah-O says he's just getting started.

In this article for Richmond Magazine, "I'm Around," Noah-O talks with me about his new album, The Rain, a collaboration with producer DJ Mentos, as well as his new net series, "Evolution of Noah-O."

To read "I'm Around," click here. 

For more on "The Rain" and the music of Noah-O, go here.

Bad Santa: All Hail the Krampus

He sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake. But instead of withholding gifts, Santa Claus’s wicked older brother, the Krampus, may just carry you away to your doom in a wicker basket.

All hail the Bad Santa! I recently penned an overview of Richmond's annual Krampusnacht, a celebration of Santa's less jolly sibling, for Richmond Magazine.

“Krampus was a part of yuletide lore long before the Americanized version of Christmas happened,” says artist and promoter Parker Galore, who has helped to popularize the centuries-old, mythological Bad Santa with this annual celebration, one of nearly three dozen tributes that take place across the world. “This is really us bringing the character, that figure of the dark side of St. Nicholas, back into the story.”

To read "Bad Santa," click here. And be good, for goodness sakes.

(Photo by the mighty Dave Parrish!)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Tony Jackson: Country Convert

With an expressive singing style infused with pure vocal honey, Tony Jackson is a welcome anomaly in the country music genre.

In one way, the friendly, goateed vocalist is a throwback to classic sounds — Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Lefty Frizzle, Waylon Jennings — with only a courtesy nod to the “bro-country” currently assailing radio.

But he’s also an African-American man singing country music. Other than Charley Pride and (of late) Darius Rucker, there haven’t been a whole lot of those. My profile of star-on-the-rise Tony Jackson can be found in Richmond Magazine.

To read "A Country Convert," click here... 

(Photo by the mighty Jim Shea)

The Seductive Serenade of Miramar

Miramar specializes in the beautiful, slow-burning male-female duet singing found in classic Latin American bolero music. Miramar singer Rei Alvarez and pianist Marlysse Rose Simmons are also key figures in the long-running Richmond salsa band Bio Ritmo. The third member is vocalist Laura Ann Singh.

My profile of the trio can be found in Virginia Living Magazine:

The three members of Miramar never knew they would be in the vanguard of an international resurgence in bolero music.  
“Suddenly a lot of musicians, especially in Puerto Rico, are releasing albums of boleros,” says Marlysse Simmons, keyboardist for the Richmond-based trio, which specializes in the long, smoldering male-female duet singing found in classic Latin American boleros—music fueled with minor chords, sinuous bass-lines and a slow motion groove. “People were asking me, ‘What’s this new movement all about?’ I would say, ‘I don’t know if it’s a movement. It’s a coincidence.’”  
And a happy one. The group’s debut full-length CD, Dedicated to Sylvia Rexach, shot to the top of the Latin music charts on upon its release in June. NBC Nightly News, CNN and NPR have hailed the disc, and a recent tour saw appearances at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and New York’s Lincoln Center.

Go here to read the rest of "Seductive Serenade"...

And to read my in-depth history of Bio Ritmo, which I penned for Richmond Magazine, go here.

(Photo by the mighty Chris Smith)

Kehinde Wiley: The Economy of Grace

The celebrated visual artist Kehinde Wiley recently brought his audacious, career-expanding "A New Republic" exhibit to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I attended his artist talk and filed this report for Richmond Magazine:
"I don't enjoy fist-raising political work," artist Kehinde Wiley told the sellout crowd at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' Leslie Cheek Theater on Friday night. "My work, my passion, comes from a small gray area where we are all indicted."  
While establishment-challenging presidential candidate Donald Trump held a rally in downtown Richmond, a more colorful, and subtle, revolution was happening at the state museum a few miles west — the opening of Wiley's stirring "A New Republic" exhibition, a stunning and large-scale assemblage of the prolific African-American artist's work that sends a shot across the bow of everything the VMFA and other museums are about. Wiley's lecture — his only planned public appearance in connection with the exhibition — was eloquent and biting at the same time.
"I'm playing with the museum culture as a color in my palette," he told the (largely white) crowd. "Art is such a guilded rose, this ivory tower that we participate in presupposes that exclusion adds value to the appreciation of the work." He'd like to reverse that.
Click here to read the rest of "The Economy of Grace"...

(Photo by Travis Fullerton / VMFA)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Map of the Music: The Return of the Virginia Music Column

I'm pleased to announce that, after an absence, I have returned to Virginia Living Magazine as contributing editor and Virginia music columnist.

My first column back is about Richmond disc jockey and musical archivist Carl Hamm and his work in documenting the groovy "Pop Yeh-Yeh" music of Malaysia and Singapore.

Read it by clicking here. And to order Hamm's excellent and well-researched musical compilations, go here.

Below, you'll find an incomplete list of the other topics I have explored over the years in my Virginia Living column, which is still the only statewide music column out there. Unfortunately, most of these pieces are not documented online so you'll have to visit the library (or nearby doctor's office) to read these, or go online and order back issues of the magazine. You can do that here.

The early music of Jamestown
The Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College
John Cephas, Piedmont blues master from Bowling Green
WGH in Norfolk and the legacy of top-40 radio
Swamp Dogg, R&B/soul legend
The Rah-Bras, Richmond punk-pop trio
Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse
Robbin Thompson, singer-songwriter
The Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News
Archivist/engineer Chris King and the People Take Warning box set
The legacy of Portsmouth's Ruth Brown
The Lonesome Pine label and the Music of Coal box set
The James River Blues Society
The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities' "Crooked Road" CD series
Hobart Smith, banjo master
Invisible Hand, Charlottesville alt-rockers
Music producer Steve Buckingham
Barky's Spirituals record shop in Richmond
The Mockers, Hampton Roads power popsters
Maura Davis and Ambulette, Richmond alt-rockers
The Patsy Cline museum in Winchester
The Richmond Folk Festival
Special Ed and the Shortbus (now called the Hotseats)
Anousheh Khalili, singer-songwriter
Aside Oceans, Blacksburg hard-rockers.
Paul Shagrue, DJ and host of Norfolk's "Out of the Box"
The emergence of WRIR 97.3 FM in Richmond
Margot McDonald, NoVa singer-songwriter
Billy Ray Hatley, roots rock singer
The William & Mary Hip Hop Archive 
The Last Bison, Chesapeake folk-pop ensemble
The Trash Company, one-man Richmond funk pioneer

(Photo courtesy Carl Hamm)

Saturday, July 2, 2016

By the Time I Get to Henrico: A Talk with Jimmy Webb

Someone left the cake out in the rain, and it was the legendary Jimmy Webb.

The Grammy-winning composer of such iconic tunes as "Wichita Lineman," "Up, Up and Away," "MacArthur Park" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," Webb was a small town Oklahoma farm kid who dreamed of writing popular hits, and eventually became one of the most celebrated (and imitated) composers of all time.

We talked about his early days at Motown, his views on songwriting, and his amazing collaborations with the likes of Glen Campbell and the late Richard Harris, among other things. My Richmond Magazine interview the man called "America's Songwriter" can be read here.

And for more on Jimmy Webb and his music, go here.

(Photo: The Press Office)

Interview with Lucy Dacus

My interview with up-and-coming Richmond singer-songwriter Lucy Dacus has been posted to the Virginia Living Magazine website. 

The talented and husky-voiced Dacus has been winning accolades and buzz from the likes of Rolling Stone, NPR and Spin Magazine for her recent debut disc on Egghunt Records. I caught up with her while she was on the road for her first big national tour.

For more on Lucy Dacus and her music, click this spot.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Interview with Insane Clown Posse

The Juggalos are among us!

My interview with Shaggy 2 Dope of Insane Clown Posse can be found at Richmond Magazine's website. The two-man ICP is still indulging in its distinctive aural mayhem after more than two decades of controversial "horror rap," and Shaggy (Joseph Utsler) talks about the duo's devotion to professional wrestling, the early Detroit rap scene, the changing music industry, and why the group's rabid fans -- the Juggalos -- have been officially classified as a "gang" by the F.B.I. We also address the unlikely strains of spirituality that some have found in their rancorous music.

Catch the mayhem by going right here. Photo courtesy Psychopathic Records.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Candy Land: A Look at the H.E. Williams Candy Company

The H.E. Williams company is Virginia's oldest and longest-running candy manufacturer. And the factory is still going strong, creating sweets the old-fashioned way.

Using much of the same archaic equipment that it started with, the family-run operation has been selling handmade hard candy (like its trademark Peach Buds) in South Norfolk for nearly 100 years. You won't find a more delicious throwback.

My feature article, "Candy Land," tells the story of this fascinating, defiantly old-school business -- no web presence, no credit cards, no social media -- and is now online at the Coastal Virginia Magazine site.

And, yes, I had to do a lot of very thorough research into H.E. Williams' products while writing this piece -- that's just the kind of diligent journalist I am.  Don't mention it. I'm just dedicated like that.

Read "Candy Land" by clicking right here.

(Photo by the sweet-toothed David Uhrin!)

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Interview with Marshall Crenshaw

Marshall Crenshaw has played Buddy Holly on the silver screen in La Bamba, impersonated John Lennon in "Beatlemania," and issued more than his fair share of classic albums and songs ("Someday Someway," "Whenever You're On My Mind") over a still-evolving 40 year career in music.

The Detroit native is also one of my favorite singer-songwriters, so getting to talk to him was a real treat. My Q&A interview with Marshall Crenshaw is now online at the Richmond Magazine website. Read it by clicking here.

And for more on Crenshaw and his music, go right here.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Beacon Revived

The Beacon Theatre, a beautifully-restored movie house built in 1928, has been renovated and expanded with a state-of-the-art sound system. The Hopewell, Virginia landmark is currently trying to find its legs as a city-run popular music venue. 

But if you restore it, will they come?

My recent feature for Richmond Magazine shines a light on this out-of-the-way gem. Read "Beacon Revived" by clicking right here. 

(Photo of promoters Susan and Laurin Willis by the mighty Jay Paul!)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Standardized Testing: Rethinking the Standards

For public school students, testing time approaches. But many parents and politicians are pushing back against standardized testing.

A new Federal law (the Every Student Succeeds Act) may or may not fix the identified problems, which include educators teaching to the test, classroom stress, and shifting standards.There's now a growing "assessment reform movement" of organizations and community groups urging parents to opt their kids out of testing.

My Coastal Virginia Magazine article on the changing face of standardized testing in public schools, and the emerging "Opt Out" movement in Virginia, is now online. The print headline is "Rethinking the Standards." Read it here.

(Photo illustration by the mighty David Uhrin!)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Fresh Voices: The Afrikana Film Festival

"Fresh Voices," my feature article on Richmond's Afrikana Independent Film Festival, is online at the Richmond Magazine website.

The grassroots Afrikana produces a floating series of events called "Noir Cinema," which brings up-and-coming African-American filmmakers to different venues around town. The non-profit's founder, Enjoli Moon, says that it's "a series dedicated to exploring the genre of short indie films by and about people of color from across the globe."

Read "Fresh Voices" by clicking right here.

For more on the Afrikana Film Festival, go here.

Photo by the mighty Jay Paul!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Virginia Gospel History at the Google Cultural Institute

I'm proud to be one of the content providers for a new online exhibit created by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, in partnership with the Google Cultural Institute, that celebrates African-American history in Virginia.

The special web exhibit focuses on Virginia gospel artists, and my liner notes for Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes' Live in Richmond CD are included, along with music clips, bios and other information on the Paschall Brothers and Charlie McClendon.

A huge shoutout to the VFH's Jon Lohman for putting this together. Check it out by going here.  

For more on the Google Cultural Institute's celebration of African-American history, prepare to spend a lot of time here.

For more on the great work that the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities does, and especially its Virginia Folklife Program, go to this spot.

Photo of Maggie Ingram by the mighty Pat Jarrett / Virginia Folklife Program.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Interview with Arlo Guthrie

My interview with folk music mainstay Arlo Guthrie is now online at the Richmond Magazine website.

During our online exchange, the singer-songwriter talks about the 50th anniversary of his most famous tune ("Alice's Restaurant Massacree"), the changing music industry, and why he -- the son of left-wing musical icon Woody Guthrie -- now votes Republican.

Read it here:…/q-a-arlo-guthrie/

(Photo courtesy the mighty Arlo Guthrie!)

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Coastal Virginia Magazine: The Generic Brand

Norfolk's Generic Theater has been a destination place for new, edgy and experimental theater since 1981. The low-budget black box company was originally started by the city's Parks and Recreation Department, and is currently in the middle of its 35th season, now housed in the recesses of Chrysler Hall.

My Coastal Virginia Magazine feature article on the history of this unique and ever-evolving theater company is now available online. Read it here.

(Note: The print headline of the article is "The Generic Brand.")

Photo of the Generic's original staff courtesy of Ron Stokes (From left, Pam Riley, Ron Stokes, Jill Stevenson and Terrence Afer-Anderson. Not pictured: Russell Barnes). 

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015: The Year in Don

2015 was a busy year for me. I worked for three clients primarily, and they kept me hopping with big assignments that occasionally took me out of my comfort zone. I was often so booked up with writing work that I couldn't properly promote it or talk it up. There are worse problems. So consider this long blog post a corrective to bad marketing and too little spare time in 2015.

It was also a weird year because quite a number of my bigger and (to my mind) better magazine writing assignments never made it online. These days, that basically means they didn't exist. In order to read them, someone would have to buy a print issue of the magazine in question -- who does that anymore? -- or visit the local library to snag same, or wait until the next checkup to pick up what's on the waiting room table. I'm told that, in 2015, I was very popular in doctors' offices across the region.

Outside of writing, I celebrated something of a milestone this year. The radio show that I co-host on WTJU 91.1 FM in Charlottesville and WHAN 102.9 FM in Ashland/Richmond, Radio Wowsville, celebrated its 20th year on the air in 2015. These days, I'm aided and abetted on alternate weeks by the resourceful Colin Brother Breakdown Powell and our "anything goes" free-form music show can be heard each and every Sunday at 11PM — with streams of the program available after the fact — at I'm not a braggart, but Radio Wowsville does not suck, has never sucked and will never suck, and if you are a music fan enticed by challenging sounds, the Wow (and the rest of WTJU's stellar broadcasting) is always worth your time and attention.

This was also the year that I started getting recognized for the commercials and voiceover work that I often do for WTJU. One of the radio spots I wrote and voiced won the award for Best Station Promo from the Virginia Association of Broadcasters. Read (and hear) all about it here. I was also nominated for a Golden Mic Award from the national Intercollegiate Broadcast System and will learn if I'm "Best in the Nation" in March. More info here. This all follows the commemorative "Don Colorado Award" that I copped from my WTJU brethren -- so much better than an Oscar!

In 2015, I continued to host a weekly news-talk radio show called Open Source RVA on WRIR 97.3 FM in Richmond, another great non-commercial frequency that I'm proud to be a part of. Primarily focused on local guests and topics — plumbing everything from the arts to business to local politics — the Source can be heard every Friday at 2PM, and live broadcasts and rerun streams of the show accessed at You can visit the show's Facebook page and see what we've been up to right here. A tip of the hat to OSRVA producer Baylen Forcier, who helped me to weather quite a few off-air storms and dance around some formidable obstacles in 2015.

When it comes to the written word, here was The Year in Don... or what I can remember (or will admit to):

"The Water is Coming," for the January issue of Coastal Virginia Magazine, told of the imminent threat of rising sea levels nationwide, and how so-called "nuisance flooding" is already affecting Virginia's coastal towns. I have to say that this was among the more difficult of the assignments I took on this year. I had a wealth of research and data to draw from, and the experts, city planners, advocates and water-logged citizens all gave me great quotes and sobering stories. I regret that I couldn't quote or cite everyone who gave me their valuable time and insight on this one. (illustration by David Uhrin).

Also in January, I wrote a piece called "Back in the Spotlight" for Richmond magazine.  It was about live theater (in the form of a production of "A Lion in Winter") returning to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, once the home of the now-defunct TheatreVirginia. I would write more about the VMFA later in the year (see below).  Photo by Chris Smith.

My Coastal Virginia Magazine feature on Virginia Beach's Cape Henry Lighthouse, unofficially titled "The First Beacon," tells the story about America's very first Federal works project (overseen by the team of Washington and Hamilton) and how it is getting a second life through careful restoration. (I love the folks at CV but their preferred headline,"Cape Henry Lighthouse Is Finally Getting Fixed," gives the article a severe urgency that was not intended.) Photo courtesy Preservation Virginia. 

More theater: For Richmond magazine, I interviewed Carol Piersol, the founder and artistic director of 5th Wall, who was infamously ousted from her stewardship of Richmond's Firehouse Theatre. Read "Rising Action" here.

I wrote a piece in January for Coastal Virginia Magazine that was not published until the magazine's October issue, and never reprinted online, but it may have been, if not my best published work this year, certainly the one feature that I most enjoyed writing. Surprisingly, the story was about quilts. Yes, quilts. My feature, "In Stiches," took a long look at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation's stunning collection of early American coverings as well as a handsome new book on the collection, "Four Centuries of Quilts." I fell in love with the brazen colors and evocative social history contained in these beautiful old blankets, and while it didn't spur me to take up the art of quilting myself, I all but went Quilt Crazy for a month there. (To order a copy of this and other CV back issues, click this spot.)

For Virginia Living, I took an enjoyable trip to Tennessee to interview the legendary Jesse McReynolds at his spread outside of Nashville. He couldn't have been more gracious. The veteran bluegrass mandolinist, formerly of Jim & Jesse, is now the longest-running member of the vaunted Grand Ol' Opry. The online version of this cover feature, titled "A New Song," has been augmented with vintage video clips of Jesse in action. (Photo by Michael Gomez)

I wrote about the reactions of randomly-selected Richmond residents to the Affordable Care Act — a.k.a. Obamacare — for Richmond magazine's health section in March. Get it here

The Norfolk Tides are one of America's most successful minor league baseball franchises, and my Coastal Virginia Magazine article on the history of the ball club, "Roll Tides," was one of my more pleasurable 2015 assignments. Some legendary MLB players and managers have logged time with this team, once known as the Tidewater Tides, including Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Bruce Bochy, Mookie Wilson and others. 

This year, I got to profile a regional trailblazer that I've admired since childhood. Disc jockey and Top-40 pioneer Dick Lamb has been the go-to morning show guy in Hampton Roads for decades. But he's also the former host of the legendary local "American Bandstand" show, "Disco 10," an announcer who called the William and Mary basketball games for years, and the promoter who brought acts like the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Sly and the Family Stone to Tidewater. I remember waking up as a school kid to "The Dick Lamb Show" that ran in the early '70's. The retrospective ran in Coastal Virginia Magazine's July 2015 edition — obtain a copy here — but is, alas, not online. Here is an awesome photo of the man and other WGH Radio personalities with the Beach Boys in 1965. He's in the middle, shaking hands with Carl Wilson. The great Glen Campbell, a replacement for missing BB leader Brian Wilson, is second from right. While it is not available online, I'm told that this article is a doctors' office chart-topper. (Photo courtesy Dick Lamb)

My interview with the stellar multi-instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs, who is still out there "saving" country music, was published in the June issue of Richmond magazine. Skaggs talked about the changing recording industry, balancing his religious faith with life on the road, and his friendship with local boy Bruce Hornsby. You can read that here. (Photo by Erik Anderson)

In the past few years, Virginia, and especially Richmond, has seen a rise in both outside film production and indigenous movie making. "Changing Reels" charted this activity, interviewing moviemakers, producers, festival overseers and Virginia Film Office personnel. The question: "Is Richmond a Film Town?" The hefty Richmond magazine piece was complemented by articles on local movie extras and crew members by Harry Kollatz Jr.

Sometimes you nail it, sometimes you don't. I don't think too much of my article on the up-and-coming party rock band, Major and the Monbacks, which I  penned for Coastal Virginia Magazine. But I was glad I did it, if only to be introduced to a fun and creative group of young musicians who have been tagged as "retro" for their engaging old-school blend of pop, soul and beach music. I received some positive feedback for the story so maybe it isn't as bad as I thought. Let me know what you think. (Photo by Karla Espino.)

Richmond was the host city for the Electric Football Championships and Convention this past year, along with a special related art show, and  I profiled the obsessive followers of the electro-magnetic board game for Richmond magazine, charting how this once-frustrating electric toy has been turned into the centerpiece of a thriving subculture peopled by a new generation of 'ballers. Feel the hum here. (Photo by John Pollard)

Going in, I knew as much about hot rods as I did about quilts, so my feature on Virginia's first documented custom-built automobile, titled "Car Talk," was a bit of a learning experience. The vaunted roadster, built by a man named Slick Patterson and finished in 1951, was recently rediscovered and restored to its full Caribbean Coral-painted glory by folklorist Roddy Moore and a hand-selected team of gear-jamming experts. I also penned a sidebar about various vintage auto clubs and organizations. This is another Virginia Living special, lifted from dentist waiting rooms across the commonwealth.

"Seven Minutes of Funk" by the Whole Darn Family has become one of the most sampled tracks in modern music, appropriated by more than three dozen rap, soul and hip-hop acts over the years, including Jay Z, EPMD, Public Enemy, the Wu-Tang Clan, Jodeci and Grandmaster Flash. But the seven-piece funk band's story had never been told until I wrote an in-depth feature story for Richmond Magazine, called "It's Their Thing." As detailed (and long) as this piece was, I felt that a lot of great stuff ended up on the cutting-room floor after editing. I'd like to revisit the subject at a later date and flesh it out some more. (Here's a cool web extra by Maureen McNabb).

Sometimes a story can actually make a difference. Not long after I wrote my Virginia Living Magazine historical piece on Bacon's Castle in Surry, Virginia — the oldest surviving brick home and pleasure garden in America — I learned from the folks at Preservation Virginia (the BC caretakers) that it had inspired a deep-pocketed donor to help fund a new, much-needed roof for the old girl. I was glad to hear it because this was probably the most difficult story I've written in a while. It's hard to find an original angle on a subject that has been around for 350 years, and seen so much history. I really had to grind this one out, but I think it turned out just fine. And I look forward to seeing that new roof. Read "Surry's Stalwart" by clicking here. (Photo courtesy Preservation Virginia)

The most controversial feature that I wrote in 2015, "Ripple Effect," took a long, hard look at the state of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts since that venerable institution's much-celebrated expansion five years ago. For the in-depth piece, I talked to numerous museum insiders, past and present, and chased down an internal employee survey that reflected problems that the museum was having in retaining longtime staff members. This project was a huge headache, frankly, because several higher-ups refused to talk with me — including the president of the VMFA board of trustees, who cancelled a scheduled interview at the last minute  — and the state-funded museum blocked my attempts through the Freedom of Information Act to see internal documents. While it wasn't as thorough as I would have liked, I received more positive feedback for this than almost any other writing this year — especially from VMFA employees, who appreciated that I went the extra mile to tell a balanced, nuanced story that included their perspectives. (Photo by Barry Fitzgerald)

The Richmond-area group Edge of Daybreak, made up of inmates housed in the Powhatan Correctional Facility, recorded a soul album at the prison called Eyes of Love in 1979. This obscure LP was rediscovered and reissued by Chicago's Numero Group label in 2015 and my Richmond magazine  piece, "I Shall Be Released," told all about the unusual recording and its unlikely (but deserved) rediscovery.

Also for Richmond magazine, I profiled a musical unit that I used to sneak into local clubs to see as a young and impressionable youth. The Dads were Virginia's great lost pop band. A popular East Coast live attraction in the early '80s, the group featured the late Bryan Harvey, who would later go on to form House of Freaks. The quartet recorded one, lamentable, LP for CBS before breaking up in 1985, but a fine new CD of lost recordings (Redemption) was released on the Planetary label this past year. Sadly, Dads drummer Mike Tubb passed away mere weeks after talking to me for the article, which was titled "A Second Album, Three Decades Later."

Here's another one that never made it online -- my Virginia Living Magazine feature on the ancient art of Bowhunting. As with my stories on quilts and hot rods, I started off not knowing one whit about archery or hunting wild game with a bow, and ended up fairly fascinated with not only the difficult mechanics of the sport, but also the respectful code of conduct that the hunters shared. These are hardly Ted Nugent-like yahoos just out to kill stuff. In the end, I was proud of the result, which was titled "Me and My Arrow." The article ran in the magazine's October issue, and you can go here to order a back issue.

Some good things come in small packages. While I specialize in long-form, 2,000-4,000 word-plus features, one of my favorite assignments this year was a short article I wrote for Richmond magazine about a new exhibit at Richmond's Valentine museum. It features the work of the late street photographer Edith Shelton, an amateur shutterbug with a style not unlike the recently discovered Vivian Maier. Shelton roamed Richmond for decades taking pictures of buildings and streetscapes. Good thing she did, too, because much of what she captured is now gone. You can read "Obscured Observer" by clicking right here. (Photo courtesy of the Valentine Museum.)

The Dream Syndicate were part of the West Coast "Paisley Underground" sound of the 1980s, a raucous guitar band that toured with R.E.M. and U2 back in the day, leaving a small but potent recorded legacy. The band, under the guidance of bandleader Steve Wynn, recently reformed, and are currently recording a reunion album at Montrose Studio in Richmond. I interviewed Wynn about the band's connections to Richmond, and their rebirth, in a piece for Richmond magazine called "Medicine Show."

The legendary (and feisty) Judy Collins took some time out to talk with me for a Richmond magazine piece in December. The celebrated singer and political activist spoke of leaving the world of classical music for folk singing, recording her classic album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes, how she chooses material, and the ups and downs of mingling political protest with pop music. Read the Q&A here. (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

Throughout the year, I also wrote a slew of live music and album previews, Q&A's and reviews for Richmond magazine. These are called "blurbs" around my house. You can read those here and more. Yeah, I do blurbs. A lot of blurbs. I'm not too proud to blurb.

So, yeah, 2015 was a pretty busy year, just like last year. Read about "2014: The Year in Don" here.

I generate most of my story ideas but many of these pieces were assigned and greatly aided by the excellent editors that I work with, including my lovely and talented wife, Tina Eshleman, at Richmond magazine, Melissa Morgan Stewart and Angela Blue at Coastal Virginia Magazine, and Erin Parkhurst and Taylor Pilkington at Virginia Living. I'm sometimes asked if there's a secret to writing professionally, and I only have one helpful piece of advice to share — stretch yourself. Don't just concentrate on what you know, or what you "like." Write about everything and make it your own.  This is not only good for your own personal growth, it's good for your clip file.

As for what I'm working on in 2016, stay tuned.