For their fourth duo record, Eric Brace & Peter Cooper pay homage to their years spent in Washington DC. They cover songs written by -- or associated with -- such Washington folk and bluegrass artists as The Seldom Scene, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Emmylou Harris, John Jackson, The Rosslyn Mountain Boys, The Country Gentlemen, and more.
Produced by Thomm Jutz
In association with Eric Brace & Peter Cooper
Recorded and mixed by Thomm Jutz at TJ Studios, Nashville
Mastered by Alex McCollough at True East Mastering, Nashville
Cover photo, "Lock 18," by Gary Anthes
From his book "The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal"
Eric Brace: Acoustic guitar, vocals
Peter Cooper: Vocals
Thomm Jutz: Acoustic guitar, slide guitar, mandola, vocals
Andrea Zonn: Violin, vocals ("Boulder to Birmingham")
Justin Moses: Dobro, mandolin, banjo
Jeff Taylor: Accordion
Mark Fain: Bass
Lynn Williams: Drums
Mary Chapin Carpenter:
It’s a real honor to have a song on this record.
In their impressionable years, Eric and Peter cut their musical teeth on the folk, acoustic, and bluegrass greats of Washington -- and those who came through the D.C. area. They have lovingly curated a collection of songs that shows the depth and range of artists who made Washington home -- or a mandatory tour stop -- as well as giving it the informal title of “Bluegrass Capital of the World," especially on Thursday nights when the Seldom Scene had their regular gig at the legendary Birchmere.
Washington D.C. is often thought of as a city of transplants, but when it comes to the music on this record, it’s the hometown we can all claim, with love, passion, and respect.
1. C&O CANAL (by John Starling)
2. JOHN WILKES BOOTH (by Mary Chapin Carpenter)
3. BOULDER TO BIRMINGHAM (by Emmylou Harris & Bill Danoff)
4. BLUE RIDGE (by Richard Malis & Bob Artis)
5. HE RODE ALL THE WAY TO TEXAS (by John Starling)
6. RAINY NIGHT IN TEXAS (by Karl Straub)
7. IF THAT’S THE WAY YOU FEEL (by P.S. Bland & Ralph Stanley)
8. BEEN AWHILE (by Joe Triplett)
9. LOVE WAS THE PRICE (by Alice Gerrard)
10. BOAT’S UP THE RIVER (by John Jackson)
Sitting at a table at the Birchmere back then, the fabled Alexandria, Virginia, nightclub on any Thursday night, you could drink a beer, and stare up at the crease in Mike Auldridge’s blue jeans, and at John Duffey’s bowling shirt, and at Ben Eldridge’s pretty banjo, and at John Starling and his Martin guitar. Oh, and at regal Tom Gray and his doghouse bass.
You had to get there early. Doors opened at seven. Show at 8:30. Line formed at six, and you could bide your time reading Pete Kuykendall's Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, or just listening to stories about John Duffey. You were waiting to see the Seldom Scene, and they were always worth the wait.
Every Thursday night they’d play the Birchmere. They’d play songs by Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Gram Parsons, J.J. Cale, Paul Craft, Herb Pedersen. And they’d play John Starling’s songs, too. They’d play one called “C&O Canal,” about the worth of an antique life.
Sometimes they’d bring Tony Rice on stage, the man who somehow managed to re-invent an acoustic instrument made with wood and wire. Sometimes Tony sang a song called “John Wilkes Booth,” written by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Everybody at the Birchmere adored Chapin. One night she had a song-swap there with a couple of unknowns: Shawn Colvin and Cheryl Wheeler. Brilliant stuff.
Chapin loves Emmylou Harris, because Chapin has ears. Emmylou wrote “Boulder to Birmingham” with Bill Danoff. Bill used to work the door at the Cellar Door when he wasn’t writing songs for his duo Fat City. He co-wrote “Country Roads” for John Denver. And he helped Emmylou write “Boulder to Birmingham” after the way-too-young death of her mentor and country conduit, Gram Parsons. Emmylou first sang with Gram in a D.C. restaurant called Clyde’s, in front of an audience of three. It was Emmylou’s regular gig, just a block off the C&O Canal.
As for Chapin, she led the open mic night at Gallagher’s on Connecticut Ave. for a good while, but once her debut came out on Columbia Records, she didn’t have to do that anymore. It was called Hometown Girl, and it she made it with a bunch of longtime supporters, led by producer John Jennings. One of those supporters was Jonathan Edwards, who sang harmony vocals and played harmonica on Hometown Girl. Edwards is the guy who wrote “Sunshine.” The Seldom Scene played that one on a lot of Thursdays. Edwards made an album with the Seldom Scene in 1985, called Blue Ridge. Gorgeous song, the title track. It was written by Bob Artis and Richard Malis.
If you look up the definition of a “starling,” you’ll find that it is a gregarious Old World songbird with a straight bill. Which is to say that John Starling is aptly named. Starling wrote “He Rode All the Way to Texas.” He sang it solo, and he sang it with the Scene. The Seldom Scene. You can hear it on their Live at the Cellar Door album. It’s about a man who knows freedom, written from the perspective of a man who didn’t.
Karl Straub was at the Birchmere most often as a listener, not as a performer, in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That’s because he was a young buck back then, and now grown up into musical truth-teller, a genius of quirk. He wrote “Rainy Night in Texas,” about a man who knows when he’s being lied to. He’s never recorded it, but we just did.
Hey, if you want to hear one of the worst mandolin solos in recorded history, check out the egg John Duffey lays, beginning at the 1:10 mark on the Scene’s otherwise pristine recording of “If That’s the Way You Feel.” It starts okay, but by the 1:22 mark, things go horribly awry. Duffey must have wanted to leave it on there just to annoy the fastidious “Mr. Clean,” Mike Auldridge. Anyway, it ain’t the song’s fault. Ralph Stanley wrote it, and the Stanley Brothers sang it, but it was also heard in the D.C. area during the sets of the Country Gentlemen, Charlie Waller’s band that brilliantly expanded Washington bluegrass in the ‘60s (joined by future Scene-sters Duffey and Gray).
What we’re saying is that Washington history is as rich with genius-level roots music as it is with tricky politics. And the Birchmere was, for young Eric Brace and Peter Cooper, as vibrant and important a center for cultural learning as the Smithsonian. There, you could hear DC’s 1970s country-rock kings, the Rosslyn Mountain Boys, doing Joe Triplett’s crowd favorite “Been Awhile.” Rosslyn, by the way, is a soulless urban village in Northern Virginia. No mountains there. That was the gag, see?
Alice Gerrard wasn’t much for gags, at least in the songs she wrote. She favors the mournful, and revels in marrow-deep sorrow. In the early 1960s, she started playing folk music parties around Baltimore and Washington, in a duo with Hazel Dickens. The records she made with Dickens were inspirations to many, including Emmylou Harris. Gerrard recorded “Love Was the Price” with another D.C. inspiration, Mike Seeger, in 1980. Such a sad song of broken love, sung by a married couple who would soon divorce.
The C&O Canal sometimes gets called the “Grand Ole Ditch.” It runs along the mighty Potomac River, a short drive from the Fairfax County cemeteries where John Jackson dug perfectly squared-off graves. When he wasn’t digging graves, he was making music, in a signature finger-picking style. He recorded “Boat’s Up the River” on a 1965 Arhoolie Records album called Blues and Country Dance Tunes From Virginia, and he played it under the stairs at a row house party in southwest Washington one night in the 1980s, ignored by most everyone there, but not by Eric Brace. Jackson played it at the Birchmere, too, on several Saturday nights. Then he rested on Sunday, and rose Monday morning in the blue-black Virginia dawn, to go dig permanent homes for impermanent souls.
Anyway, you could sit there and see him. And hear him. We did, like we saw the Seldom Scene, and Chapin, and a bunch more. And what we saw and heard changed us in ways that seem fortuitous and crucial.
We dedicate this album to all of what we saw and heard, and to the Birchmere, and the Red Fox Inn, and Gallagher’s, and the Cellar Door, and the Tiffany Tavern, and the house party stairwell, and Bluegrass Unlimited, and the kindness of strangers, and the brilliance of friends. And most of all, to John Duffey’s bowling shirt.
Eric Brace & Peter Cooper
East Nashville, TN