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.