Robert Fraker: A Remembrance

On a particularly frigid evening a few years ago, Robert and Lillian Fraker came here to my house in Amherst for our usual festive dinner and a few hours of music making.  Robert came through the door, eyes beaming. As we were sharing our first pour of red wine, he practically purred as he spoke of the glory of a deep cold night, the stars clear above and the snow glistening below.

Ah, memories. Where do we keep them? How many do we have? Thankfully, when I think of Robert, I know I’ll have quite a few of them. Perhaps more importantly, all the ones that rush to me, like that very first one above, leave me with the same warm feeling. This is, of course, exactly what Robert wanted to leave to us, his friends and family. A more erudite gentleman and compassionate soul you will never meet.

There’s no mistaking that Robert shared a few qualities with my dad, though their personalities certainly differed considerably. Robert, like my dad, was driven by a curious nature; and reading books was as satisfying and necessary as food. I grew up in a house where the house inside overflowed with bookcases, and my dad lined one wall of the garage with more bookcases, floor to ceiling. I learned early on that people who read, and read a lot, know things I want to know about. I tend to gravitate to folks like this, and they are often older than me.

Robert and Lillian are in the book and manuscript business. The first time I ventured out to their office with Robert one day, he couldn’t wait to show me several special manuscripts they had collected. These were things that would eventually end up in special collections or university libraries. A letter from a Lincoln contemporary, treatises on early American agricultural practices and poetry from lesser-known New England writers were all in his purview. His excitement was palpable and, with the green, lush countryside surrounding the house, you felt like Winnie Pooh was showing you his honey pots.

People don’t realize it, but this is the stuff of greatness. I can hear Lillian cackle at that, but it’s true. Like Robert’s old mandolin, the old songs he sang and the old tunes he played, all this history stuff matters. It just takes the right people to care about it enough to not let it slip away.

Which brings me to his passion that brought us together in the first place: music. As you might expect, Robert had a broad appreciation of music with respect to genres. But he was a devoted listener and practitioner of old-time and bluegrass music. I mean the real stuff, lonesome or hard-driving, danceable, gritty, raw and daring. And he loved to sing. He wrote songs and tunes, and some very good ones. I recorded one of his tunes, Louisville Suite. (As we like to say, “it’s a mighty fine number.”) I was honored that he liked some of my songs. It wasn’t long after I first met Robert and Lillian that we started to get together for informal music sessions. I was surprised to find they had learned the lyrics and parts to a number of my songs and were ready to sing them! That’s another example of joy that money can’t buy.

Robert loved the island of Crete, and he and Lillian traveled numerous times over the years. My own experience living in and traveling periodically to Italy and Betsy’s own work as an anthropologist in Italy was always of interest to Robert. When we would get together, there was generally a lot of talk, debriefing on our latest travels and current projects– and our experiences of having a deep connection with people and places outside our own country. It is clear to me that the gentle and engaging Robert that we all knew here at home was the same one known to his friends in Crete.

When I received word that Robert had passed away, I looked outside my window and saw the wind stirring the tree limbs and rustling the early buds now on display. Being around Robert Fraker was always reaffirmation that the best things in life are right in front of you, to nurture and be nurtured by and to be forever grateful for.

I’m heartbroken but ever so thankful to have had Robert in my life.


Holidays 2016

As we enter the holiday season, I’m happy to announce some exciting things that will help start the new year. Or, maybe, will help ease the pain given the fraught political climate.

First, I’m very excited with the release of the Piedmont Melody Makers CD, Wonderful World Outside. Along with Alice Gerrard, Jim Watson and Cliff Hale, this CD has 16 great tracks of old-time country and bluegrass music. That’s right, I’m bragging about it because I love it. Check it out and get yourself a copy if you haven’t already.

In early February of 2017 you can expect the release of Songs for the Southwest, a CD collaboration with Todd Phillips and Peter McLaughlin. This is a recording of all original songs about the Southwest and the Colorado Plateau and was the culmination of a song writing residency provided by the Museum of Northern Arizona. Again, some very beautiful music here, carefully produced and arranged by Todd Phillips. I can’t wait to hold this one in my hands.

Finally, I’m looking forward to performing as part of a special concert on January 18, 2017 at the Academy of Music in Northampton, MA. This concert, In It Together, is sponsored by the Watermelon Wednesdays concert series and will also be a fund raiser for some regional organizations working on social justice issues.

Check the tour/home page for all performance information.

Peace and love everyone. Keep sowing the seeds and fertilize it with the music too.


Post election 2016- Ruminations

As we watched the results come in on election night, 2016, the sinking feeling started early and bottomed out in what was, for me, a sleepless night. God– all of those creepy scenes from apocalyptic movies, roaming armed bandits, fascists, and the general disintegration of civil society– somehow now seemed as plausible as a Trump presidency. That kind of mind racing wore me out pretty fast, and, I knew, was not going to help me anyway. Like most everyone, I had to get up in the morning. The hounds are barking, but they aren’t at the door.

In less than ninety days, though, they will be. Not for me, but quite possibly for hundreds of thousands of young people currently protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) enacted by President Obama in 2012. This represents one of the many real problems that the Republicans (re= fascists) in control now face if they try to enact what they say they will do. They will soon discover a very unruly country to govern.

Hillary Clinton was a disaster for the Democratic Party. I saw it coming, though I did not predict she would lose to Donald Trump. I make no claims to clairvoyance. Hillary was the unfortunate albatross for a party that has abandoned the working class for at least a generation. The Democratic Party had been the go-to place for progressives, women, and minorities because it advocated for them– enough anyway– on civil rights issues affecting them. But in the world of neoliberal economics, money comes first. So unions faded into the background or disappeared entirely, and Right-To-Work states began to pop up all over the map. New jobs began to mean low-wage jobs. And where was the Democratic Party?

The Democratic Party is in ashes. Bernie is already scrambling to set up a new house. I do think there is hope there, because the economic message is there. And, for all of its faults, the Democratic Party embraces diversity and looks like the America that actually exists.

There are so many critiques of this election, my head is spinning with them. A lot of them are very nuanced and smart, and I like reading them. We still don’t know exactly how things will play out. I ran into my neighbors next door who were on their daily walk. We stood there and kind of shook our heads in dismay over the election. Bruce said, “Well, we’ll just take care of each other.” I loved that, because that’s what it’s all about.

Resist, organize and take care of each other.


Ranch Hands- Chapter 2

The Story of Fiddlin’ Doc and his Red Gate Ranch Hands- Chapter 2

When The Golden Leaves Begin To Fall, that’s a good number, one of my favorites,” Doc said, seated at the bar. Alex scooted a beer into Doc’s hands.

Alex: “Well, Doc, you seem to have a song for every season and occasion,” the bartender chuckled. “I’m looking forward to hearing the Ranch Hands again. What’s it been? Seven months or so?””

Doc: “Yeah, I can’t get down here with them boys too much. Hard work in the summer and everyone goin’ which-a-way.”

Doc listened quietly to the murmur of conversations emanating from various tables and bar stools around the restaurant. He’d begun to feel more at home here at the Lumberyard, and he would come in from time to time. Cindy Nelson would almost always be there to greet him; he’d tip his Stetson hat to her and then stride over to the quiet corner of the bar. The light was just right, and there was usually some music playing in the background. The menu parchment was turned to the small plates. He had a particular craving for the crispy Brussel sprouts.

Alex strolled back to the end of the bar to check on the old cowboy.

Alex: “So, how are you feeling after the election?”

Doc leaned back, breathed in slowly, exhaled and rested up against the bar counter.

Doc: “I think that Trump feller is worth less than a spoiled ham. Looks like one too. Craziest election I’ve ever seen. Remember what Will Rogers said? ‘A fool and his money are soon elected.’ Will was arguably the smartest man to ever throw a lariat– and good at it too. Well, you know, it’s all put me of a mind to bring out a new song. But the Ranch Hands like to play the classics, you know.”

Alex: “Well, Doc, there’s no crime against doing your own song. At least, not yet. What’s it about?”

Doc: “Did you hear about them Bundys out in Oregon? Well, they may be ranchers, but I don’t see how that means they shouldn’t pay no taxes or have all that federal range land for themselves. I don’t abide by that. So I wrote a song about Cliven Bundy. Damn fool,” Doc snorted.

Alex: “Wow! I can’t wait to hear that one.”

Doc: “Well, I might try it once if the boys want to. It’ll swing and have a good beat to it, some good changes.”

Alex: “Fantastic!”

Doc: “I think we might do Don’t Fence Me In. That’s one of my favorites that the Sons of the Pioneers used to do. I always liked the message in that one.”

Alex: “Seems like that story really connected to you.”

Doc: “I’ve been raising livestock for a long time. I know what fences are for. But that land out there with no fences on it is where any cowboy leaves his heart. That is the country as it should be, and it belongs to everyone.”

“One more…” Doc continued, looking sadly through his tired, hazel eyes…. “that suggests itself to me.” Rubbing his chin pensively, in a slow, ruminating voice: “Somewhere Between…There’s a wall so high, it reaches the sky, somewhere between me and you. That’s a Merle song. And it seems to fit somehow. Right now. I think it is a song I need to sing.”

The bartender walked back over to the beer tap and carefully poured another glass of fall amber. He parked the glass in front of the Fiddlin’ Doc.

Alex: “Doc, this one is on the house.”

Fiddlin’ Doc and his Red Gate Ranch Hands


At the Lumberyard

Saturday, November 19, 7:00 p.m.

Review- The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, At The Ryman

I remember that vinyl record so well. The white cover with the Civil War figure in the middle, the studio photos of Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter, Vassar Clements and the Dirt Band members, and all the rest. In a lot of ways, the original Circle album had everything I needed as a young musician just beginning to explore the guitar, banjo and fiddle. I was not alone, as almost every musician I’ve ever known in the bluegrass world has a copy. Musician friends I know in the “triangle” area of North Carolina do an annual show, performing songs from the original recording. For many folks, it was the recording that introduced them to a few foundational musicians in roots country music. But it wasn’t just that. The music was alive; you could hear Earl Scruggs or Roy Acuff talking, and then they’d kick off a song.  Doc Watson said, “How does it go Vassar?” and Vassar Clements launches into Down Yonder. You felt like you were right there with them. The recording was made and released in 1972. That was an election year. Richard Nixon won in a landslide. Remember what happened to him? I do.

So, here we are in 2016, only days after a tumultuous Presidential election that has left many of us bewildered and uncertain about the days ahead. I’d say we need the Will The Circle Be Unbroken song– and the spirit of these recordings, past and present– now as much as ever.

On this fine collection recorded live at The Ryman Auditorium, current NGDB members Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, John McEuen and Bob Carpenter are joined by Jimmy Ibbotson, Vince Gill, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglass, Byron House, Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell and Jackson Browne. It is a relaxed and heart-felt performance that is a trip down memory lane. The NGDB, in many ways are a conduit band for what we now just call “Americana” music. They could embrace west-coast rock & roll and 70’s popular music with country, blues and bluegrass.

From Jackson Browne singing Truthful Parson Brown to Alison Krauss singing Keep On The Sunnyside, this celebration of 50 years of the NGDB is a winning combination of songs and musicians collaborating to make music that says where they came from– and, hopefully, continues to inspire musicians in the future. It still works for me.

Chris Brashear

Music Residency Interview

MNA hosts new musician’s residency, with an album on the way

In the woods off Fort Valley Road, a trio of musicians were running on all cylinders last week, molding tunes in the language of the Colorado Plateau.

Chris Brashear, Peter McLaughlin and Todd Phillips brought their extensive experience to the table as they participated in the first residency program for musicians at the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Colton House.

Created in partnership with MNA and Flagstaff Friends of Traditional Music, the participants aim to grow the program in the future, adding to the Southwest’s evolving history. “The Colton House Recordings” wrapped up the second phase — recording — and are set for a late summer CD release with a live concert from the performers following next year. Check in with ffotm.orgfor more.

Based across the country with Phillips in Nashville, Brashear in Massachusetts and McLaughlin residing in Tucson, the old friends crossed paths again at a museum show in 2013. Later that night, libations in hand, a spark ignited.

Relaxing in the same living room Harold and Marry-Russell Colton shared since relocating from Philadelphia in the late 1920s, FFOTM’s Julie Sullivan Brace, Brashear, Phillips and McLaughlin couldn’t shake the idea of how a recording made there would sound.

“The Coltons were huge advocates of the arts,” Sullivan said. “It seemed like they were always entertaining artists and musicians in this place, so there was already that incredible energy with the creativity in music here.”

The architecture of the Colton House is an element the musicians credit as not only aesthetically gorgeous, but conducive to recording.

“Shapes, too, like all those round logs in the ceiling,” Phillips said, pointing up to the thick ponderosa beams and slimmer pine trunks arranged in a chevron pattern. “All that creates the acoustics. Especially spacing a solid tile floor, this room could sound like a gymnasium if that ceiling didn’t break it all up.”

The musicians are not only well-versed in local lore, but steeped in tradition and no strangers to jamming together. McLaughlin is a national flatpicking champion. Phillips is a two-time Grammy-winning producer and acclaimed upright bassist. Brashear is a former Arizonan and sought-after fiddle, mandolin and guitar player.

The proper backdrop secured, and FFOTM acting as the project’s fiscal agent, each musician hopped all aboard for the Colton House a year ago. They lived together in the sprawling ranch for a week, sketching out what would become “The Colton House Recordings.”

With Brashear and McLaughlin handling the lyrics, Brashear said Phillips is the one to polish the product. In all aspects, this residency honors the Colorado Plateau in name, place and benefit as the released CD will benefit the museum, they said.

“It’s so rich in history and personalities and places, the landscape—there’s so much to write about,” McLaughlin said of the material’s inspiration. “One of our focuses is definitely rivers. It’s a chance to get inspired, clear your head and be in wild places. Being on the river, there’s nothing like it. It makes you want to write a song.”

Listeners are drawn in to the trio’s stories of life on the Colorado Plateau, the abandoned Silver Bell mine in Pima County and more topics explored on this record. Each new song mixed of traditional form and instrumentation contribute to the dialogue of contemporary Western music.

“I think this is a way to bring more story-song into Western music,” added Brashear. “I’m not trying to create a new kind of music, but I feel like we’re taking our set of tools and our experience living here and listening to music about the west and giving it our own voice.”

Each agreed to see this sapling of an idea come to life is something truly beautiful — especially in a society that is not known for supporting the arts, Brashear added.

“The resource is unique. I definitely think it should be looked at a project where institutions are supporting a creative art process, which just doesn’t happen that much,” he said, thanking MNA and FFOTM.

Continuing the process, Phillips will get to work back in Nashville, fine tuning the arrangements. He added, “I pull a few weeds and add a few ideas. I see it almost as a sculpture. Sometimes a little dimension, interlude or side trip adds to the story, instrumentally and musically.”

The story will close with a CD release party here in Flagstaff next year. They may live apart, but there’s always a way to play.

“If you live in the U.S., you live in the same place now,” Phillips added. “Southwest and 200 bucks, man we’re neighbors.”

A Lumberyard Tale/Story of Fiddlin’ Doc

The Story of Fiddlin’ Doc and his Red Gate Ranch Hands

In the quiet, old New England town of Amherst, MA, more known for its poets (Emmylou Dickerson) and Ph.D.s, there is an old ranch house at the top of Red Gate Lane. It’s the home of the Fiddlin’ Doc and his wife, Betsy. They run the ranch as best they can, along with a couple kids and, of course, the Ranch Hands.

Like most ranching folks, they don’t leave the ranch too often. Going into town is a special occasion. You have to dress up and look fine. On a rare visit into town, however, down a little ways and across the street from the Emmylou Dickerson home place, Doc did notice through the window some musicians playing at the Lumberyard Restaurant. And he thought they were all right.

Weeks passed (maybe even years), and it weighed on his mind. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer. He rode down to the Lumberyard one evening, pulled his self up to the bar and ordered a drink. Jazz was playing in the background.

Jeff the bartender: “Let me tell you our specials tonight. There’s a fresh North Sea flounder with a lemon and almond butter compote’; or the filet mignon with a vermouth, olive oil and chiltapin garnish.”

Fiddlin’ Doc: “Well, I don’t think I’ll have anything with compost. I’ll have the beef, medium rare. Thankee.”

Jeff: “Excellent choice!”

Doc didn’t really know too well the owners of the restaurant, Rolf and Cindy Nelson, but he’d heard tell of ‘em. He saw Cindy Nelson scurrying around the restaurant tables, talking and laughing with the folks, and he could see why they seemed to like her. She was cute as a Texas bluebonnet, but he knew she wasn’t from Texas. But– he thought to himself– by Gawd, they’d like her there too. He took another pull on his beer.

Pretty soon, Cindy Nelson dashed up beside Doc and introduced herself.

Cindy: “Is everything alright sir?”

Doc: “ Well, yes, ma’am, it’s just fine. Mighty fine.” He blushed a little bit.

Cindy: “Well, you just let me know if we can get anything for you.”

Doc: “Who do I talk to about the music here?”

Cindy: “Oh! You like music?”

Doc: “Well, ma’am, I pick the guitar and play the fiddle sometimes as long as my hands aren’t too chafed from workin’ cattle, especially when it’s cold outside.”

Cindy: “Let me go get Rolf, and you can talk to him.”

Doc tipped his hat, and Cindy went into the kitchen. Rolf soon came out, stood across the bar and stretched out his hand to introduce himself.

Rolf: “Your dinner should be out real soon.”

Doc thought that Rolf looked lean and healthy and could probably put in a good day’s work. He wondered if he liked livestock.

Rolf: “Cindy tells me you came in here to hear some music. “

Doc: “Well, I’ve seen some fellas playin’ in here before, some kind of Django outfit, whatever that means. They were pretty good boys. And I always like a band that’ll have a fiddle in it. I play a little fiddle. Those Django boys don’t do no singin’ at all, but the folks seem to enjoy themselves anyway. Up at the ranch house, I’ll do some singin’ and my boys set the toes a ‘ tappin. I don’t reckon you’d want that kind of caterwaul down here though. We’ll play the Maiden’s Prayer. You can count on that. The Red Gate Ranch Hands don’t go halfway on country music. We play all the good numbers.”

Rolf paused for a moment, looked around at some of the tables in the restaurant. There was the big table with the Amherst College faculty. There was another group of attractive women drinking wine and speaking intensely to each other. He thought he overheard something about Town Meeting. Does this make any sense at all, he thought? What would these people think of a country band? Am I out of my mind? But he was intrigued, and he believed in taking the occasional risk. Maybe he felt a little sorry for the old fiddlin’ Doc.

Rolf: “Don’t sell yourself short. I’ll tell you what, if you like my steak, then maybe you’ll bring the Ranch Hands down here for a night and play for us. I’ll provide dinner. Oh, here’s your dinner, by the way. Enjoy!”

Doc: “Thank you.”

Doc grabbed his fork and steak knife and looked at the plate in front of him. The aroma was enticing and the cut of steak seemed generous, even though he was used to a big ole’ T-bone on his own grill. He sliced off the first piece and savored the meat.

Doc: “Mmmm, that’s just fine, that’s just fine.”

When it came time to settle up, Rolf came back over to the bar to see what Doc thought of the meal.

Doc: “Mr. Nelson….”

Rolf: “Call me Rolf”

Doc: “OK then, Rolf, that was a meal to remember. If you want the Ranch Hands to come down here sometime, we’ll be glad to do it. Thankee kindly.”

Doc picked up his 6X Open Road Stetson Cowboy hat, put it on his head and went out the front door into the dark night. Rolf felt Cindy stride up beside him as they both watched the cowboy leave.

Cindy: “Do you think he’ll be back?”

Rolf: “Yes, he’ll be back.”

Cindy grabbed Rolf’s hand and squeezed it tightly.

Fiddlin’ Doc and his Red Gate Ranch Hands


At the Lumberyard

This Saturday, April 23, 8:00 p.m.

Election 2016

As I write my summary of this election season so far, Donald Trump has just said that his chief advisor on foreign policy issues is himself, President Obama’s nomination for the Supreme Court is being ignored by Senate Republicans, and one Florida precinct in the Tuesday primary election lied to Democratic voters by telling them they could not vote in the primary election and that they had no ballots. Upon inspection, the ballots were found hidden away in a closet.

Does any of the above seem inherently wrong to you? It should.

So, before I’m accused of just being a basher of Republicans, let’s address a basic question posed by this election cycle: What does the rise of Donald Trump say about America today? In my view, it represents the rise of fascism. Fascism is characterized by xenophobia, nativism and a distorted brand of “selective populism” that seeks to destroy democratic institutions in favor of dictatorial action, among other notable characteristics. Am I saying that Trump is Adolf Hitler? No, it’s a different country and a different time; but nobody who speaks like Donald Trump should ever be anywhere close to the Presidency of the United States. That is, if you believe in a democratic republic– and I do.

Granted, the Republican Party is a little worried. But look who’s next in line: Ted Cruz? A lot of Republicans can’t stand him, but he still has a following. This serves to demonstrate how far to the right of center the Republican Party has gone. To some extent, Ted Cruz appeals to the evangelical wing of the RP. This always gets to me. What kind of Christian do you claim to be if you espouse such things as carpet bombing Iraq and Syria? Have contemporary evangelicals read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a real Christian who stood up to fascism and died a martyr for his anti-xenophobic Christian faith? I don’t think so.

And let’s face it: I really don’t see anyone on the Republican side that cares much about anything that might really help people, e.g. expansion of health care, protection of Social Security, increased public funding for education or the elimination of poverty. They love millionaires, billionaires, unborn babies and they loathe government. In the current Republican universe everyone else can just go to hell.

The Democrats have their problems too. It is not Barack Obama, who has been arguably the most thoughtful and articulate President of my lifetime. As the first African-American President, he should have been treated with a profound sense of respect. Instead, he is treated like shit. He beat Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination in 2008. That should have told the DP something about a Hillary Clinton candidacy, but here she is.

Hillary Clinton has an appeal problem, some of which is deserved, some of which is purely misogynistic. She has everyone beat in terms of actual government experience. She was a Senator and a Secretary of State. She would be the first female President. She has proven leadership skills, and she is obviously well informed, intelligent and knows how to be a deal maker. She doesn’t live in a world where she is only listening to herself. She is not a fascist.

Bernie Sanders represents the expanding Democratic base that cares about addressing income inequality and shares the growing populist resentment to Wall Street. Bernie is defining the terms of the debate and, I believe, the more long-term direction within the Democratic Party itself. But he has a long way to go to actually become the nominee, and I think his prospects are pretty poor. When and if Bernie sees his candidacy as being unable to prevail, he will support a Hillary Clinton candidacy without reservation. Why? Because Bernie knows Washington, too. And he knows Hillary Clinton is not a fascist.

That’s what I think this election is about. It’s about standing up against fascism. All the signs are there, the violent mob atmosphere in the Trump campaign, the corporate media fueling his candidacy, and the growing simple-mindedness of Republican elected officials and many voters within the Republican rank and file. This is what moderate Republicans (what few remain) are worried about too, even if they don’t call it by name. So, whatever your political affiliation may be, this is the decision you are faced with. Voting Republican today is a vote for fascism. Don’t go there.

Chris Brashear, 3/20/2016

The Colton House Recordings


Music Inspired From Southwestern History and The Colorado Plateau

In February of 2016, Chris Brashear, Peter McLaughlin and Todd Phillips will be recording at the historic Colton House at the Museum of Northern Arizona. The Creative Writing Music Residency was conceived by Julie Sullivan, a musician and graphic designer who has contributed extensively to museum publications, as well as serving on the board of the Flagstaff Friends Of Traditional Music (FFOTM); and three musicians – Chris Brashear, Peter McLaughlin and Todd Phillips– who are dedicated to writing and conceptualizing new music that draws inspiration from the Colorado Plateau country. This project has received the generous support of Emeritus museum Director, Dr. Robert Breunig, and current museum Director and CEO, Carrie Heinonen, as well as many staff members at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Look for this CD to be available in the summer of 2016!