Sunday, June 28, 2015

My friend Larry

Several times over the years I've joyfully celebrated my Moravianess in this blog, mostly because that was the culture in which I was raised and, consequently, one that invokes much nostalgia and honest meaning for me.

Today, I gladly became a Presbyterian for about 90 minutes.

Chad (left), Larry and myself celebrate the good old days.
That was the time it took to celebrate the final sermon of my friend, Rev. Larry Lyon, who has decided that at the age of 64, his latest calling is retirement. So we traveled to West End Presbyterian Church in Seven Lakes — along with current Dispatch editor Chad Killebrew and his wife Shelia — where Larry has been the pastor the past nine years or so.

I didn't want to miss this.

I first met Larry in 1977. I was still pretty much a rookie sports writer for The Dispatch, and Larry arrived as the newspaper's newest sports editor. I think we got along almost right away. We shared a small 8x10 office as a two-man sports staff, and if our personalities hadn't somehow meshed, it could have been a disaster.

But we were both the same age. We both loved to write. We both loved sports. We both came into our jobs with our own sense of humor — Larry was a little dryer, and a little more pointed than me, and I guess I was a little cornier and less incisive — but it seemed to work.

To this day, even after my own retirement from journalism in 2006 after 30 years in the business, I still regard Larry as the one person who taught me everything — and I do mean everything — I was to learn about newspapering. More, even, than I learned in college.

We worked together as a pretty darn good award-winning sports staff for about six years, until Larry took a promotion as the paper's editor. He spent another 10 years or so in that capacity, guiding the paper through what I consider to be its heyday.

Sometime around 1997 or so, he announced that he was leaving the newspaper business to enter the ministry.

Say what? I certainly never saw that coming, although I probably shouldn't have been surprised. My own father left public school teaching to become a minister, and a former girlfriend of mine also went on to become a minister. And now this.

I'm not saying I drove these people into the ministry (indeed, years later, yet another Dispatch colleague of mine also went into the ministry), but the odds... the odds... so I can't quite deny it, either.

At any rate, after seminary, Larry and his wife, Martha, went on to have a very successful tenure at Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church in Blowing Rock for about nine years before coming to West End, where it was clearly evident they were both loved and appreciated.

I can only imagine the number of people he's reached, guided, gave solace and inspiration to over the years. So while he's no longer the pastor of a church, I'm sure his ministry will continue in his well-deserved retirement.

I hope he finds a way to write about it.




Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Underhill Rose: 'The Great Tomorrow'

Disclaimer: I'm not a music critic, although I know what I like when I hear it, which makes me critic enough. The songwriting process is a mystery to me. How can I truly interpret the inspiration that leaps through the neurons and synapses of artists as they create their own vision of truth? Having said that, I am an unapologetic fan of Underhill Rose. They are friends who have something to say, and I sit back and listen.

Artistic evolution is never a sure thing, and I suspect that little notion of development anxiety certainly holds true for many musicians, too.

For one reason or another, some artists might become boxed within a certain sound or formula — something that gave them their initial audience to begin with — and perhaps they never find their way out to newer ground.

Underhill Rose, the female Americana trio from Asheville composed of guitarist Molly Rose Reed, banjo picker Eleanor Underhill and upright bassist Salley Williamson, is about to officially release its highly anticipated third CD, "The Great Tomorrow" on June 30.

An advanced listening to the 11-track CD, independently released and financed by their fan base through Kickstarter, tells you that the women have taken a confident step forward in their collective careers. They know it, too.

"We wanted to showcase our growth as writers and singers, and this album demonstrates how we've matured," Molly Rose said in a recent online press release that serves as liner notes. "This is truly our best work yet."

Indeed, the CD explores a recurring theme of relationships, loves lost and found, of personal strength and persistence.

"We wanted 'The Great Tomorrow' to have a bigger arc and overall theme than the last album ('Something Real')," said Eleanor. "We wanted there to be a definite beginning, middle and end."

Underhill Rose fans will delight in knowing that the group's signature harmonies and tight musicianship are interwoven all through this album. What really comes forward here is the songwriting. There's the true evolution.

The journey begins with Salley's "Our Time is Done," a tune of caring gratitude with Molly singing the lead. The song's chorus has a Celtic feel to it reminiscent of The Rankins, a family of songbirds based out of Cape Breton Island, and maybe that's why this number, for me, has such a beautifully lyrical quality about it.

Molly's "When I Die," curiously titled for such a vibrant woman in her 30s, is actually life affirming when you pay attention to the words. Paced by a shoulder-pumping beat, we hear Molly singing:

 "I'm going to sit with my best friend
over a cup of tea
and share wine with my lover
while we drink each other deeply."

Perhaps the most intriguing tune on the CD is Eleanor's "Whispering Pines Motel," inspired by an actual motor lodge located in West Asheville. The song is southernly sultry and moody enough to be edgy while at the same time perspiring with passion and urgent rendezvous. Clearly, our reluctant Sugar Mama from the past is now a distant memory.

"Montana" is Molly's catchy ode to wanderlust and a not-quite forgotten love. She follows that up with "My Friend," a slow-tempo heartacher about a relationship that did dissolve, but not without a little pain, and why didn't it work out anyway, weren't we friends? Molly's remarkable voice leads you by the hand through this emotional minefield, and that helps. A lot.

Just when you think your throat can't clench any tighter, Eleanor soothingly reappears with "Love Looks Good on You," a rhythmic appreciation of an imperfect lover. That tune might be spiritually connected to the ensuing "Rest Easy," where you can find solace in that imperfection. Eleanor knows:

"Content with conversation
Fiftyone playing cards
Well I've weighed all the things that we have
And all the things that we aren't
And it looks alright"

Molly returns, her voice nearly camouflaged by a bluesy bullet mic to sing Salley's "Shine," a kind of paean to moon shining. It's about a family doing what it takes to survive the hard times, but you can almost see Salley snickering as she jots down the lyrics as they come to her.

Paul Abdul's "Straight Up," written by Elliot Wolff, is the first CD cover track ever done by Underhill Rose. The song gets the full UR treatment and it certainly fits the album's theme, but I have to wonder if there wasn't another original tune somewhere in the Underhill Rose vault that the group could have used. The trio simply has too much talent to give a pass on its own work.

Eleanor cleans up with "Not Gonna Worry" and "The Great Tomorrow," both expressions of optimism. "Not Gonna Worry," with its wonderful three-part harmonies and Eleanor's versatile up-front banjo, might be the connective tissue (perhaps along with "Montana" and "Love Looks Good on You") to the band's previous albums as this CD boldly moves them forward.

The album is slickly produced by Cruz Contreras of the Black Lillies (who also produced "Something Real") and features Nicky Sanders (violin) and Mike Ashworth (drums) of the Steep Canyon Rangers, Mike Seal (electric guitar) of the Jeff Sipe Trio and Matt Smith (pedal steel) of the Honeycutters/Amy Ray as accompanying artists. It all comes together very seamlessly and the album should be poised to make a serious move on the Americana Music Association Top 20 chart, where "Something Real" spent 10 weeks several years ago.

I have a friend who lives in Nashville, and she thought "The Great Tomorrow" is "light years" beyond "Something Real." She might be right.

But here's a thinly-veiled secret: as good as this album sounds — as good as it feels — there's nothing better than the three-piece string band of Underhill Rose performing live on stage. You want an artist's vision of the unvarnished truth? Buy their CD, but see them in concert.














Sunday, June 21, 2015

Dad

I can't be sure if he wanted to teach me the game, or just get me familiar with it.

This must have been around 1957. I was six years old and dad had taken me to Little Lehigh Parkway, a relaxing scribble of greenway in the middle of Allentown, PA, where people went to get away from the meat packing plants, steel mills and accounting houses of their daily lives.

Dad teaching some English.
Dad brought a bat, a ball and two gloves, and there he taught me how to hit, catch and throw like a ball player. He'd hit me lazy pop ups or soft grounders that died before me in the lush grass, but I learned how to get down on the ball and catch everything with two hands.

I think that's when I first became a baseball fan. With my nascent understanding of how it all came together, he took me to American Legion baseball games, where we'd watch a few innings from the car, licking our fast-melting ice cream cones and keeping score.

How could I know then that I wouldn't become a baseball player, but rather, a sports writer who covered games for a living? For a career. For more than 30 years.

Isn't it amazing how these things play out?

Dad wasn't a player, either, but he was a teacher. A high school English teacher. I have no doubt that he was probably a decent writer, although I never saw anything that he might have written. He probably kept it personal.

So he didn't teach me how to write. But he taught me how to observe. How to formulate ideas. How to anticipate what might be next. I still use those skills.

He later found his calling as a Moravian minister, and when the time came, he officiated the marriage of Kim and myself. That was a pretty good day.

Later in both of our lives, we each learned how to play golf. By then, we each lived in different states, hundreds of miles away from each other. But our vacations were filled with quality time — although not quality golf — while discussing life, families, and the Phillies during our curiously satisfying strolls to 16-over-par.

Cancer took dad when he was only 58, and just like that, I lost my mentor and one of my best friends. That wasn't fair, but he'd taught me that life wasn't particularly fair, either. So I learned about inner strength in the midst of adversity. I learned something about him, and it still makes me smile.

Happy Father's Day, Dad.



Sunday, June 14, 2015

Underhill Rose in full bloom

It's been a while since I've posted anything about Underhill Rose, that wonderful female Americana trio from Asheville whose trademark harmonies and skillful musicianship can sometimes take your breath away.

I hesitate because I don't want to keep repeating myself. But some things simply bear repeating.

Kim and I have seen them perform maybe 20 times or so in the past three years that we've known them, and I look forward to each of their shows with the unbridled enthusiasm of a child at Christmas.

It was no different Saturday night at High Rock Outfitters when guitarist Molly Rose Reed, banjoist Eleanor Underhill and upright bassist Salley Williamson took the stage for the next two hours, musically taking us places we've either been to before, or directing us down different avenues in their ever expanding (and original) catalog.

The venue was nearly full on this steamy June night where friends gathered to be entertained. Make no mistake: High Rock Outfitters is where friends gather. It's intimate, comfortable and cordial. Consequently, even the performers become your friends, even while they're performing. Even while you're listening.

I keep waiting for the girls to reach an inevitable plateau, but thankfully, that hasn't happened. The harmonies were as crisp as ever and dead on. The pathos was sincere. The ethos was genuine.

Plus, there seemed to be a little magic in the room last night. They tell us Lexington is one of their favorite tour stops, and I believe it. We've seen them play in Roanoke, Greensboro, Charleston, Asheville, Salisbury and Charlotte, in bars and dives and in festivals, playing for 20 people or 200. So even in my perception, they seem to feel at home at High Rock Outfitters. It's a place where they can raise the bar — literally, and on several different levels.

Which brings us to last night. Tunes I've heard them sing 20 times previously seemed fresh and alive and beckoning. You can't wait to hear them. One song — Salley's "They Got My Back" — includes an extended instrumental bridge that features Eleanor's clawhammer banjo picking. She nearly brought the house down.

Molly's "Little House" features her own powerful instrument: her unequivocal voice. You really need to hear her sing.

The girls are about to release a new CD, "The Great Tomorrow," and Lexington was lucky enough to get a serious preview in advance of the album's official release on June 30.

I'm ready to give it a good listening. I sense there's a groundswell of support building around them as they point themselves to the next level.

These girls are great. But there I go repeating myself again.














Sunday, June 7, 2015

Shedding layers

I'm really, really bad with my hands.

OK, OK. I guess that begs an immediate explanation.

I'm talking about carpentry skills. Plumbing skills. Electrical skills. Home improvement skills. Skills that elude me because they require the use of my hands (as well as a tape measure. That's another issue entirely: my head for figures is limited to calculating batting averages and yards per carry).

I once had a woodshop class in junior high school where one of the assignments was to use a hand plane to make a perfectly level edge on a strip of lumber that was held firmly in place in a vice. I planed and planed and planed, stripping off beautiful curly shavings without ever getting the edge level.

Our utility shed, before its sorely-needed restoration
 Not until I had planed off about two inches of the wood, that is. Seriously. My frustrated shop teacher eventually had me glue the finally acceptable piece of nearly level wood — now about a half-inch thick — to another strip of lumber to use in whatever the project was. Waste not, want not, I guess.

I think I got a C- in a course that just about everybody else was acing.

The point being, I'm dangerous with home improvement tools in my hands. You do not want to see me within the city limits with a hammer, nails and a saw.

Which brings us to our current project. We bought our 95-year-old house a little more than a decade ago. The property included an utility shed, probably about as old as the house, that was in considerable disrepair.

Now we're getting somewhere. All it needs is a new roof.
The plan was to replace some of the rotten boards and move on. But the years passed and we lived with the eyesore.

Until now.

Given my carpentry skills — or the lack thereof — we decided to go with a contractor who knew what he was doing. We hired Lee Brady, and the next thing we thought was why didn't we do this years ago?

Suddenly, the shed — and a variety of other nagging projects — have been completed, or nearly so. Doors that didn't quite close or latch are now behaving properly. A mantel we bought five years ago is now installed. Trim and lattice work make the place more appealing.

When Lee gets done, about the only thing left to do is to prime and paint the shed. I enjoy painting and I think I can handle that.

Uh-oh.

Before: The front of the shed — everything is a little unhinged.



















After: I can't believe this is the same building.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Train of thought

Even more than the visual, which I had been eagerly anticipating, was the aural, which came as an unexpected surprise.

And it also came first.

It was the whistle that got to me, the vibrant, perfectly pitched and steam-released Hello, I'm Almost There. I could see a mile or so down the empty track, but had yet to see the Spirit of Roanoke, the Class J 611 steam locomotive and the only survivor of its kind from another, perhaps less complicated era.

But I knew she was coming. We all did. About 100 of us gathered around Lexington's reconstituted freight depot to watch our 65-year-old history steam by us, on it's return trip to Roanoke after a year of restoration at the Spencer shops.

Then, in a moment, she was in sight. First was the billowing black coal smoke above the trees. Then the incredibly bright engine light. And still there was the whistle with its promise of that mysteriously delightful Doppler effect — is it only train whistles that we hear that way?

When the engine finally reached us, bringing with her a symphony of sounds, including the unmistakable chugging rhythm of the boiler, pistons and drive wheels in 4-8-4 time, I almost missed her. I was busy scanning a view finder, one eye looking through a camera lens, the other on the train itself. Impossible multi-tasking. Wait. Wait. Wait. Now! Click.

The Class J 611 majestically steams through Lexington and on to Roanoke.
If I'd waited one more second, I might have had a better picture.

I thought I had time to snap one more, but by then I was being Dopplered. So I had to be content with the image that I caught.

As it was, Kim and I had seen her in Spencer a week ago, regally posing for her fans with less pressure on the photographer to make snap decisions. I have a pretty nice photo gallery going.

Later in the day, I started Googling various Web sites, including the NC Transportation Museum, trying to see how the locomotive was received at other towns along the way.

Apparently, fairly large crowds turned out all along the route. Thomasville was impressive. So was Lynchburg. The 611 pulled into Roanoke sometime around 5 p.m., taking something like nine hours to cover what an automobile can do in under three hours.

I know. Not a fair comparison. This trip was a sendoff excursion, after all.

And there's no romance in car travel. Not really.

But as the 611 showed, there is plenty of romance in history.

It was a special day.












Sunday, May 24, 2015

In training

For more than 30 years, I thought I had the best job in the world.

I mean, I was a sports writer, for crying out loud. I got to go to games. I got to meet famous athletes. I got to write about them. And I got paid for it. What could be better than that?

Driving a vintage train locomotive, perhaps?

"Do you have the best job in the world?" I asked the friendly man sitting at the controls of the gigantic Spirit of Roanoke, the absolutely beautiful art deco-ish Class J No. 611 Norfolk and Western Railway steam engine that just completed a year of restoration — its second such career overhaul — at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer.

I (center) am dwarfed by the magnificent elegance of Class J No. 611
"Yes," replied engineer Sandy Alexander without a second wasted in thought. "This is a great job."

No doubt. The No. 611 is one of only 14 Class J engines ever built by the Roanoke Shops, and is now the only surviving locomotive of its kind in the world. In the world, mind you.

And it's in Spencer.

But not for long.

On Saturday, May 30, the engine returns to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, VA, under its own power. That means something like the equivalent power of 5,100 horses will race through Lexington sometime between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.

Turns out Sandy Alexander really does have the best job in the world.
The bullet-nosed 611 with the Tuscan stripe is 65 years old, just a year older than I am. (My claim to fame here is that I have yet to need one restoration, much less two). If you notice, I keep mentioning that the 611 is a "steam" engine, which might seem a bit odd given that the first generation of the more economical diesel engines were coming into vogue by 1950, when the 611 was built for $251,544. (The current restoration, by way of contrast — and inflation— cost somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million, much of it through donations).

But much of the trackage of the N&W ran through the Appalachian coal country of West Virginia, something that required both the incredible power and the anthracite patronage of the Class J vehicle. The N&W actually built two more Class J engines before going diesel in the late 1950s.

The Class J series is said by those who should know to be the most reliable and precisely engineered of steam locomotives. There must be something to be said for a 65-year-old locomotive that might still be the state of the art in steam rail travel. Back in its day, one of the Class J engines hauled 15 cars at 110 miles per hour on a test run on a straightaway in Pennsylvania.

What? You mean we had high-speed rail in the 1950s?

But by any measure, the Class J is a strikingly beautiful piece of machinery that somehow manages to exude subtle art, unbridled manifest destiny and wistful nostalgia all at once.

Yeah. Train engineer is the best job in the world.