On episode 65 of the Americana Music Show, Mary Flower talks about the Piedmont blues as “band in a hand,” how she met Elizabeth Cotten, her square-necked Gibson and when she works it into her shows, playing everywhere from bars to Merlefest, and talks about three tracks from her Misery Loves Company CD.
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We talk about Mary Flower winning the Cascacde Blues Association award for Best Acoustic Guitar. She’s the first woman to win it.
One of the things she’s known for is being a master of the Piedmont Blues style of picking so I asked her to describe it. She says her own original music is based on that style of blues. It’s based on Piedmont area. Based on Ragtime. Mary Flower describes it as “band in the hand” because the hand plays both rhythm and melody. So complex it was danceable. Blind Blake, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller. Merle Travis also played a similar alternating thumb and melody style. Mississippi John Hurt was not from the area, but he had a similar style.
We talked about local Piedmont Blues legend Elizabeth Cotton. Mary Flower recorded “Shake Sugaree” on her new CD. Elizabeth Cotten came to stay with Mary Flower in the 70′s when she came to play at the Denver Folklore Center. She was in her 70′s. Was supposed to only play two sets, but she kept playing on and on. Mary Flower teaches Cotten’s “Freight Train” to her students as a precursor to more complicated music. That song is called pattern picking because the melody falls in the same place on every measure. Once you learn that you are on your way to learn more melody style picking.
Mary Flower introduces the song “Jitters” because it’s a good example of the Piedmont style blues.
Mary Flower talks about playing with the acoustic blues group at Merlefest. She will be returning to Merlefest in 2012. She has taught at Swananoa in North Carolina.
Mary Flower sets up “I’m Dreaming of Your Demise.” Dave Frishberg is playing on the song with her.
We talk about Mary Flower’s work with an acoustic version of the lap steel. Hers is a square-necked Gibson. For her it’s kind of a substitute for bottle-necked blues. Makes a great accompaniment instrument. She uses it to break up the pace of a show.
I asked her to talk about her sense of stage presence and performing and what she tells her students about developing their confidence. She talks about how her students are just beginning and she would advise them to let your heart and soul come through your playing and not let the audience get between you and the music. And of course the more you play in front of an audience the more confidence comes. Mary Flower also recommends playing in a bar because no one listens.
Mary Flower introduces “Death Letter.” It’s a Son House tune and a good example of the lap/slide guitar.
Mary Flower talked about her recent tours and upcoming tour to California in December. She’s doing a Honey Boy Edwards tribute show soon. She’s going to be teaching two weeks at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia. Teaching at Centrum in Washington State in Port Townsend.
Full Transcript of Interview With Mary Flower
Calvin: My guest tonight is Mary Flower. She is an acclaimed blues guitarist. She is formerly a nominee for the Blues Music Award and she was in the Colorado group, the Mother Folkers Collective, and she is a blues teacher. Her most recent album is called “Misery Loves Company.” Mary, welcome to the Taproot podcast.
Mary Flower: Thank you so much. I’m very well pronounced, I might say.
Calvin: I understand that you just won another award.
Mary Flower: Well, yes, I won a local award here in Portland, Oregon from our blues society called the Cascade Blues Association, and it’s quite a wonderful group. It’s a big well-organized group that has been going on for years, and I was presented with the Best Acoustic Guitar Award. It’s officially been given to a couple of different guys in the area. This year, it went to a woman, so I was thrilled to be the recipient of that.
Calvin: Yeah, congratulations. That’s exciting news.
Mary Flower: Thank you so much.
Calvin: Now, I understand that one of the things that you’re known for is being a master in the Piedmont Blues style of picking, and I was wondering if you could share with our listeners what the Piedmont Blues is exactly.
Mary Flower: Sure, and I don’t know if I’m a master. I’m certainly a supporter and somebody who really reveres that kind of music and teaches it. My own music is based on that sound.
What exactly that is is… Piedmont Style refers to the Piedmont region, where you are, up and down the east coast of the United States, between the mountains and the water. That’s where many of the solo guitar players lived who played this style of music.
It’s synonymous with rag-time, really. Usually, the players were soloists and they have this style on my right hand I like to call “band in the hand.” Your fingers play the melody and then there’s rhythm in there too.
There’s a lot going on, and it was so good that it was danceable. So one person… And many times… This person was blind and they were just phenomenal, like Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller and somehow these guys were just amazing. But this style has always fascinated me because there’s so much going on and it’s really a complete style. There’s no room for a bass player. You’re kind of doing it all.
Calvin: Now, that’s about the best way I’ve ever heard it described. It’s like a band in one guitar. A single person could make a performance that other people could dance to all from the one guitar.
Mary Flower: Right, right, that’s the idea.
Calvin: You have the melody and the rhythm all together coming out of the one instrument.
Mary Flower: Yup. Then, you could also look at this in terms of some of the guys from the Appalachian mountains… I mean, Mark Travis plays… I don’t want to call it Piedmont Style, but it’s definitely finger picking with alternating melodies and he had a little bit more of a jazz sound.
But still, you could trace it back to that area. Then, you can also look at Mississippi John Hurt who is not regionally a Piedmont Style and that term really had not been invented when he was around but that’s what he was playing. There you go, it’s pretty interesting stuff.
Calvin: Our local legend, of course, in that style is Elizabeth Cotten. Do you ever cover the music?
Mary Flower: As a matter of fact, I just recorded on my new CD, one of my favorite tunes, “Shake Sugaree,” which I’ve always loved. It’s kind of a children’s tune and Elizabeth Cotten came to stay with me back in the ’70s. I believe it was the early ’70s.
I was living in Colorado and she came to play, a place called the Denver Folklore Center. It was pretty funny because she was in her 70s and she was scheduled to do basically two sets and be done by 10:00. It was a Sunday night, and she got up there and she just kept playing. All of a sudden, she started repeating songs and it got to be 10:30. The owner finally went up and says, “OK. Well, you can stop playing now,” and she looked at her watch and her watch had stopped at 10:10.
Mary Flower: She kept going boy, and it was pretty funny. But she was a lovely woman. So many times… The song she would call freight train is the tune I would teach as sort of a precursor to a lot of the more complicated things and that song in itself is a… It’s called pattern picking.
The melody falls in the same place every measure so that’s kind of an easier thing for people to grasp, it’s complicated but it’s just kind of a… Once you learn that, you’re kind of on your way to learning more melody style finger picking. Yeah, it’s kind of cool.
Calvin: That’s really interesting…
Mary Flower: She was wonderful, she’s a great lady.
Calvin: Let’s hear a song from your most recent CD, “Misery Loves Company.” What shall we play first?
Mary Flower: Well, I think what would make sense would be to play my song called “Jitters” because we’re talking about Piedmont Style. This is kind of the heart of it and it’s an instrumental of mine and it has all the elements we’ve been talking about and I think it would be a good example of a Piedmont Style to play.
Calvin: I understand that you’ve been to North Carolina not too long ago. You got the chance to play what we sort of think of the Big Kahuna of the Folk Music Festival’s Merlefest. Can you tell us what you’d like to play there?
Mary Flower: It’s an incredible festival. As a matter of fact, I will be back in 2012. I’m scheduled to be back there then and that will be really fun. We’re sort of the underdogs of the festival, I’m with the acoustic blues people and there are only six or eight of us. Roy Book Binder is sort of our fearless leader.
Then there’s Emy Lou Harris and Sam Bush, and there’s the whole other elements but which is pretty amazing. But I think it’s a jaw-dropping festival. There are so many stages and there’s so much good music that it’s quite something.
Calvin: We will have to try to get you online for an interview when you come out in 2012 that would be terrific.
Mary Flower: Oh, sure. I would love to do that. Yeah, it’s always great to be back there and I’ve played a few other places in North Carolina and I’ve taught at Swannanoa numerous times and played a few other little gigs here and there. I love coming back to North Carolina, it’s a great music place. They’ve got great players.
Calvin: What should we play next from your CD?
Mary Flower: Well, I was thinking… We talked about the finger picking and you mentioned that my compositions have their own character. I thought we’d play “Dreaming Of Your Demise,” which is a fictional song so I don’t want anyone out there to get afraid me.
It’s kind of a fun piece and it’s a musical. It’s got a real interesting progression to it and playing with the great Dave Frishberg who is a local guy, he just actually lives down the street from me.
And he’s a phenomenal jazz player. But he writes these quirky little off-beat songs of the zone and I thought, “Boy, this would be perfect to get him on this CD because it’s kind of right up his alley.’ That’s what’s going on in this tune, so keep in mind that I’m not such a bad gal. It is totally fictional.
Calvin: Now, one of the things I was reading about you which kind of surprised me a little bit is that, in addition to being accomplished in this finger picking style, you actually are quite skilled at the lap steel. It just seemed to me like the other end of the spectrum in terms of styles of playing. I was curious what kind of gave you the taste for the lap steel?
Mary Flower: Well, I actually don’t play so much lap steel as an acoustic version of the lap steel which is a lap guitar. Mine is an old Gibson that it’s a square neck so it’s got raised action. I have been playing for a lot of years and, basically, it’s not too far off the spectrum because, if you think of it, there’s bottle neck guitar playing and all kinds of blues.
This is kind of my substitution. I play lap guitar a lot better than I played bottle neck and it’s just easier for me. It’s a little more limiting in terms of what you can do, but it makes a great accompaniment. It’s really better in groups, so it’s kind of harder to find pieces that work on the lap slide because you’re missing… Well, it’s complicated but… Anyway, it is a great instrument and it’s a different feel.
When I do shows, I have another instrument to kind of break up the monotony if there is monotony, so I do love it. Actually, I do have numerous lap steels that I can sit in with the bands on a lap steel, and that’s always really fun.
Calvin: I’ve been watching some of the videos that’s around your website and YouTube, and one of the things that always strikes me in every video of yours that I see is this sense of stage presence and sense of really performing a piece of music rather than pandering to the audience or something.
It’s like you’re giving the audience this music and it really, I think, takes a lot of confidence to get up there and really perform in that manner. I’m curious, what do you tell your students in terms of developing a stage presence or developing that level of confidence in their playing?
Mary Flower: That’s a really good question because I’ve never gotten to that point with my students.
Calvin: Well, you’re good at picking it, then.
Mary Flower: That’s another whole class. I think many of my students are just too nervous to perform in front of these people and they’re just not ready for it yet. But I think, if I were asked this question, I would talk a lot about heart and soul and being true to yourself and letting your heart and soul come through the music. Try to not let the audience be in the way or, in any way, affect your playing.
But I used to get nervous, or I’ve been nervous from time to time. I think, the more you do it, the more you play in front of an audience, the better or the more that goes away. But I just think you need to be very well practiced, and sometimes it’s really good to just sit and play in front of audiences that aren’t listening. Go play in the bar and see what that does for your playing because that’s humiliating, might as well get out.
Mary Flower: I did it recently and I thought, “Boy, I haven’t done this in a long time.” You go from playing in front of thousands of people to playing in a place where nobody knows who you are and little do they care.
There’s some talk about a spectrum, that’s a big one right there but I think that’s a great place for people to cut their teeth if they want to get in front of people. It’s a terrible gig but it’s a great place for them to kind of ease into it but I don’t know if that answered your question.
Calvin: Yeah, it sounds like it did a little bit. Let’s get back to music, let’s play one more track from your CD, “Misery Loves Company.” What should we play last?
Mary Flower: Well, we were talking about the lap slide guitar, and “Death Letter” is kind of a long song but I think it might be worth it. I’m playing with one of the guys, Alan Hager, who is a local guy around here who is also up for the same award that I won last week for the Muddy Awards. He’s playing guitar, backing me. This is one of my favorite fun-house tunes and it’s a good example of the use of the lap slide guitar.
Calvin: That is a beautiful song, and I wanted to ask you… You said you were coming to Merlefest in 2012. Will you be touring to support the CD, what’s next from the calendar?
Mary Flower: Well, I have been touring. Yeah, I was just out for two weeks in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. I go to California, let’s see, in December and also in February for different things. I’ve got a lot playing up in Seattle next week and have a bunch of local gigs for some real interesting kinds of things, a Honey Boy Edwards Tribute and just some unusual different groupings of people. It’s like the next nine days are all gig everyday and everything is different. In the bigger picture, I do teach at these guitar camps that happened around the country.
And I’ll be teaching two weeks at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia. One is for Blues Week and one is for Guitar Week and now I also teach at Centrum in Washington State and that’s a wonderful place, an important town, right on the water. It’s an old army barracks, Fort Worden State Park, it’s an old military base. And it’s a wonderful place to be. It’s called Centrum.
That’s all July for me, pretty much. We’ll see what’s beyond that, but it’s looking like a pretty good schedule coming up. It keeps me busy.
Calvin: We’ll have links to your website on the show notes page so that people can find out more details about where these various camps are and things like that.
Mary Flower: Wonderful, all these guitar players need to know about these things because they are really quite wonderful. They really kind of light a fire under you if you’re a musician with any promise at all. It’s pretty fun.
Calvin: Cool. Well, a lot of times, when we think of the blues, we think of folks down and out of the sidewalk, moaning and wailing and trying to get us to feel their pain. One of the things I really enjoyed about your CD is, you kind of show us that blues music can be downright beautiful also, so I wanted to thank you for that.
Mary Flower: Well, thank you so much. That’s wonderful to hear. Yeah, I don’t want to drag people down too much. I want to make it happy and fun and upbeat, so no use for me to share my misery.
Mary Flower: Keep everybody happy.
Calvin: Yeah, thank you for being my guest on the show.
Mary Flower: Thank you so much, Calvin, for having me. It’s been a pleasure.