By Christa T. for Accordion Americana There is no place in America that is more “about the music” than Louisiana. While it is true that New Orleans was the sweet spot for those responsible for the birth of several distinct genres of music, Louisiana, in its own right, has served as a fountain of inspiration for generations of musicians and songwriters. It is where “it” all comes together–where the dry meets the moist, where the crackling heat of the cotton field converges with the murky depths of the swamp. Where the crunch of gravel under the boot binds with the squish of mud between the toes. “It” can be heard and felt in the music of Louisiana. In one form or another, the accordion has been a part of the texture and grit of Louisiana, for a long time.
Singer/Songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and keyboardist Steve Conn has been a part of that, as well. Originally from Pineville, Louisiana, he is the son of a professional musician, southern and western swing fiddle player, “Peanut” Conn. Steve began to learn his craft early, and decided to pursue music and songwriting as a profession. He followed through at Louisiana State University, choosing a foundation of coursework in Literature. Since then, he has worked constantly as a writer and musician, moved from Louisiana to Colorado, and then on to Los Angeles. He finally settled just outside of Nashville, Tennessee in 1993, and it has been his home base ever since then.
He spent two years as musical director for E-Town, a weekly National Public Radio variety show based in Boulder, Colorado that has since become an Americana institution. Conn enlisted a roster of great artists, a tradition that continues today, that included James Taylor, Michelle Shocked, Shawn Colvin, David Wilcox, Maura O’Connell, Emmylou Harris and by now, hundreds of other musicians. He also continued to perform as a solo artist during that time, as well.
Steve has used the accordion as a session musician and front man, performing with the best in the business. He has performed on 9 Grammy nominated albums with a cadre of artists including Bonnie Raitt, Sonny Landreth, the Dixie Chicks, Nanci Griffith, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Mark Knopfler, Kenny Loggins, Albert King, Marshall Crenshaw and many others. Steve Conn received a Grammy nomination for his piano, harmonica and saxophone contributions with BeauSoleil, and another for his work on accordion with Arlo Guthrie.
With his old friend from Louisiana, the great slide guitarist Sonny Landreth, Steve collaborated on “Beautiful Dream”, from which the song “Let the Rain Fall Down” is drawn. He says. “I’m writing for people who have lost at love but know that love is still the greatest force of all….I’m writing for people who are trying to find the best in themselves and in the world, people who get up and try again, over and over, because they know on some deep and ancient level that it’s all just a beautiful dream even when it seems like a damn nightmare.” Only through music can one even begin to express such complexities of the human spirit.
By Christa T. for Accordion Americana As a performer, if you want to be noticed–play the accordion, but read this first. (Please note that I am not creating a list of ‘rules’, but, rather, ‘talking points’. Use what you can, but it’s expected that there may be some point that you don’t agree with, or have found that it works differently for you. This article is protected by copyright and can only be used with my permission.)
1) Safeguard your instrument.
- It is expensive and not a toy.
- It is your property so don’t allow anyone to touch it, put it on and try to play it without your permission.
- Set your boundaries and stick to them.
- Treat your accordion like it’s your best friend, your child, or your pet by not leaving it outside in the rain, in a hot car, or alone.
- On a gig, carry it with you when you take a break.
- Remember that you are responsible if anything happens to your instrument.
2) Stand up when you perform so that the audience can see you.
- You are more likely to interact with them, move more freely, play more expressively, make eye contact and be more entertaining. Seated accordionists have a tendency to look down and away from the audience, which makes the performer seem remote and aloof, and your audience could feel shut out. Your intention should be to ‘engage’ the audience in your performance and establish an emotional connection.
- If you are unable to stand, perhaps your piano accordion is too heavy for you. You could exercise to build strength or get a smaller or lighter accordion. Accordions built today with new age materials, weigh substantially less than in the past. A disproportionately large accordion can be distracting. It should fit your body, be comfortable and have enough bass keys for you.
- Perhaps getting more thickly padded shoulder straps for your instrument may help to distribute the weight and may also help If you have shoulder strap slippage.
- A back strap will keep straps from slipping off of your shoulders, but if you need assistance or must go through some gymnastics to secure it, then it may look like you are having a problem with it. Having someone help you with your back strap, backstage, will mean that you will be walking onto the stage with your accordion already on. You may not be able to see equipment and electrical lying around and could trip and fall. And that may be a problem.
- If you ask yourself, “What do other musicians do?”, the answer is: they walk confidently onto the stage, put their instrument on, perform while standing, then easily remove their instrument and leave the stage when finished. Just as any professional musician would do with any instrument, you should strive to do the same with your accordion, without any problem.
Jenny Conlee of The Decemberists
3) Practice with a purpose. There is much to be said about how to practice.
- Practice systematically every day for an hour.
- No matter what type of instrument you have, practice the bass section of your accordion. Other musicians don’t ignore half of their instrument! Knowing the bass is essential to give your music dimension and depth, so, know them and don’t be afraid to use them.
- Practice your bellows action so it is as smooth as possible. Work with your accordion teacher on phrasing, or when to inhale, and exhale (much like a singer does) with the bellows.
- Have a list of songs, about 6 at a time. Systematically play each, one after the other, every day for a week. At the end of the week, the best one drops off (assuming you know the piece well enough) and is put on a different list of songs that you already know. At some point, perhaps once per week you will revisit those songs and refresh your memory. Another song that you plan to learn is placed on your practice list, to replace the song that you removed from the list. This system will guarantee that you are always working on new songs, yet not forgetting the songs that you took time to learn. Or come up with your own system. It’s all about managing your time and effort, and you shouldn’t waste either.
- Work with a metronome to check that your speed and timing are consistent.
- Practice your performance by beginning with a quick introduction, getting into the piece quickly, taking your time with it to play it well, then end it smoothly. Why do you need an introduction? So you can settle into the song and draw the listener in. It gives you a chance to get the right tempo and reminds you if you are in the right key.
- The piece should be arranged and appropriate for the accordion, for you and for the setting.
- Do not just “wing it”. Put a great deal of thought and care into how you present yourself. Dress to fit the setting and for your performance. Strive to perform each piece from memory, not sheet music or an Ipad. As a musician, you are not just playing music, you are interpreting it and giving a performance.
- Time each piece so you know how long you will need for your performance. Really great performers spend copious amounts of time on preparation, so that it is second nature after awhile.
4) Choose music that is special. Song choice is important to your audience and affects their perception of you.
- Don’t feel you have to “play everything”, then perform passably or even badly; or comply with requests to “play a polka” if you are unwilling to learn to play them well–they are a very demanding genre.
- Choose a musical genre that you love, dedicate yourself to those songs, and get proficient at playing that type of music. Develop a clearly thought out vision with goals and objectives and decide what you are trying to accomplish, as a musician. Depending on that vision, selecting from multiple genres might be a good objective. Whatever you decide to do is up to you.
- If you can’t find any songs you care about, compose your own music. Take time to arrange and practice your songs so you can perform them well and subject them to the same care and high standards as you would had they been written by a well-known composer.
5) Be sensitive to how the accordion is presented to others.
- By not being well presented, any musical instrument can be annoying. Getting together with fifteen other accordionists (or fifteen of any one instrument, for that matter) is fine if you have a club and want to share ideas. But, please recognize that more than two at a time in public, especially in unison, is too intense for most audiences. To those maniacs that think it is fun, as a group, to use accordions to assault diners with obnoxious performances, I am sure that these events are counterproductive. This approach does not teach people to care about the accordion. In fact, it’s easy to predict that a negative impression of this instrument will be formed or reinforced by such shenanigans.
- Referring to it as a “squeezebox” is inaccurate because the accordion is a musical instrument, not a silly noisemaker.
- By using the accordion as a prop or as a lame joke, the image of the accordion is seriously diminished.
Substitute ‘guitar’ for ‘accordion’, and suddenly it’s not funny.
- This doesn’t imply you can’t strive to be humorous and entertaining. But, take the accordion or whatever instrument you play, seriously, and have some respect for your time and effort. Think of it this way: if you owned a business and produced a product for sale, it would be a bad business strategy to teach people that your product was a joke. People will not buy your product. If you are a musician/singer/songwriter, you want your audience to “buy” into your music, support you and respect you. They won’t if you treat yourself and your instrument as though it is a joke. If you are making fun of the accordion, you are not promoting it, effectively. Perception begins with you because you are the one in control at that moment. Reach higher, and set grander goals for yourself as an artist. Sell your audience on the concept that you are special and have something special to show them on an instrument that is special. But, before you can accomplish that objective, you have to believe it, yourself.
- Know who you are and who your audience will be. The more you understand, the better you can anticipate and plan your performance.
•By showing pride in yourself, your performance and your instrument of choice, your audience will respect you and recognize that you care about them.
Tink Lloyd of the Grand Slambovian’s Circus of Dreams
6) Try to mainstream the accordion by starting a band where the accordion isn’t the usual instrument and you are the only accordionist in the group.
- It can be an unexpected delight to both the audience and to the other musicians in the group.
- By treating the accordion as though it’s just like any other instrument, ironically, enhances how special and how cool it is. This, more than anything else, promotes the accordion.
- Here is an exquisite song, Silver Line by Americana Singer/Songwriter Ray Tarantino, accompanied, beautifully, by Joe First, Accordionist:
- To be a good accordionist, you don’t have to be the fastest or the loudest player, although that may be a part of what you do. But, keep in mind that music is not an athletic event, and musicians are artists.
- A good musician is one who is sensitive and knows when to alternate between using restraint and showmanship, when to blend in and when to stand out.
- A musician is always attempting to emotionally connect with the listener and also to make any artistic judgement as to what the music needs at that moment.
7) Find your voice!
- Sing with the accordion, and learn harmony. Singing with the accordion is seen more now than in the recent past. Sheryl Crow gave a fantastic performance accompanying herself with the accordion, when she sang her hit song, “Strong Enough”.
Although she does nothing with the bass section of her instrument, what I particularly love about Sheryl Crowe’s method of playing is that she is a ‘partner’ with her accordion, harmonizing with it and giving it equal time to be heard along with her voice. She could have simply left the accordion in the background, blandly structuring chords to support her voice. Instead, she chose to use a more dynamic approach, which gives her song fullness and warmth and it allows the accordion to have a real presence in her music.
Aaron Weiss of Mewithoutyou
8) Be visible.
- Leave your comfort zone and go out and busk! “Busking” is giving a live performance in a public place. You should check with your city about any ordinances that prohibit busking and where it is permitted. If you get out of your comfort zone you will become more comfortable, confident and perform better each time.
- Live performance is a great way to “test market” your sound, your songs, your image and your ability to relate to an audience. It gives you a chance to assess their reaction to you and what you do. It also helps you to get over your apprehension about appearing in front of others. After a very short while, you are “over it”. You realize that nothing bad will happen to you. People may laugh….but, guess what? You haven’t melted and run away.
- To those that try to heckle you with their demands because they think they can, just smile, and ignore them (or if they cross your boundaries, either call the police or call it a day.) Performing helps you “build a backbone”, develop patience and character and helps you to learn who you are as a creative individual. Joey Cook presented a totally different image for accordion players when she busked for quite some time. Then she tried out for American Idol in 2015, as a vocalist, and rose to be one the top seven finalists! Even after several years, people remember how noticeable she was. Good for you, Joey! Rock on!
- Look for opportunities to perform in front of others. Some hospitals and nursing facilities look for live performers to entertain their patients. Seniors at your local Senior Center may enjoy a performance from you.
- Join a musical “meet up” group where there are people who play a variety of musical instruments.
- Take advantage of “open mic” nights that are locally held at restaurants, coffee shops and theatres in your area.
- Listen to others as well as perform. Look for those who are positive, empowering and who enjoy being creative with their music and performance. Good people generate good energy and they can get everyone excited about being there.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out to others for inspiration or collaboration. Also, competition can be interesting. When two collaborate on a song, one can challenge the other to solo to see what you both can create, individually.
- If available, there is nothing better than an old-fashioned talent contest that will require one to focus and rise to the challenge.
- In addition to hiring an accordion teacher, take a class about performance to enhance your professionalism.
- Even if you don’t become a professional entertainer or musician, what you learn by being visible is “portable” and can be transferred to other pursuits in your life. It can make you a stronger person and less likely to feel intimidated by uncertainty or by others.
9) Never give up.
- If something does not work for you on the accordion, revisit and find out what or how it can work on this instrument. It may be the smallest of details that you haven’t considered that might be bogging you down.
- Ask your accordion teacher or other musicians for their opinion about your song choice and delivery and how you may improve on your instrument.
- Listen to others that are more experienced than you are.
- Model yourself after someone you admire. Your idol doesn’t need to be an accordion player. Art Van Damme, the great Jazz accordionist, admired Benny Goodman, the big band leader and clarinetist. Art successfully learned Goodman’s techniques and applied them to the accordion.
- Do not listen to anyone who recommends that you change to another instrument. They are not well-intended and do not have your interests at heart.
10) Pass on your knowledge to other people.
- Try to engage their interest by showing them a different kind of music than has been associated with this instrument. The accordion was removed from mainstream American music at a critical time in pop music history. Someone decided that the accordion should not be involved with American music , when it really could have been. As a result, it was left out of the music scene for decades.
- For performing accordionists that seek publicity, keep in mind that information control is everything. What is said or written about you and your efforts instantly forms an image and an opinion in the minds of the public. It can get people motivated to come out and hear you play. That’s the point of publicity. Or it can completely turn them off, so that they simply stay home. Don’t allow anyone to define you, your music, or your instrument of choice because they don’t know any better. Don’t allow them to tell the “same old, same old” story all over again, and reinforce stereotypes at your expense. So, to protect yourself, don’t make any reference to accordion humor, any mention of a certain big band leader who was an accordion player from long ago , the word “polka” unless they are your specialty, or anything that is detrimental. Move the article forward and away from the stupid accordion jokes, and the distant past of the accordion. All of these are a waste of your time and a ‘road to nowhere’ for you. Tell the writer what you expect them to say about you by providing a bio that outlines interesting points that will help them find an angle for your write up. Insist that they focus on your music and you as an artist. You deserve the best publicity that you can get, so be involved and be prepared to established the ground rules. If you aren’t sure, write your own promotional material.
If you are living in America, doesn’t it make sense to promote the music that is rooted in America, and not just play the music of the rest of the world? By the way, those folks perform their own music, brilliantly. Like us, their music represents who they are as a people and has evolved from their shared experience. It is their identity. They have lived it, and they own it. But, after four hundred years, America has developed its own identity, and surrounding us is music that reflects that fact.
People in the U.S. don’t seem to realize that the accordion is not new to American music. It has been a part of our pioneer experience and has been in America since the mid 1800’s. It has been played, not only in the mountains and the bayous, but by folks in the city and in the country, on the prairie and in the desert, for a long, long time. It was played solo and with orchestras, at weddings, dances and social gatherings for over 150 years. Because it was portable, the accordion was used when pianos and organs were too heavy or delicate to transport. Accordions continued to participate throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st, along with pianos and organs, fiddles and guitars. It was used in the early Blues, the Boogie Woogie, Gospel and every American genre of music. The accordion is a critical piece of our music history and we should be proud of that connection, celebrate it and hold the accordion in high regard because of it.
- But, the accordion must participate in current music to survive. So, please, take your accordion–whatever type you prefer– go and find your audience, and make the most out of any opportunity!
By Christa T. for Accordion Americana The late Country Music Scholar, Charles K. Wolfe wrote of Pee Wee King, “Pee Wee never picked cotton, never hopped a freight train, never worked as a song plugger in Nashville…unlike so many of his fellow members of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Pee Wee King was not known as a guitar player or even as a singer. His instrument was an ungainly one, the accordion, and he played it so well that he inspired dozens of country bands to add it to their acts in the 1940s and 1950s….he was also a bandleader par excellence whose work often pushed the envelope of older country music. He was a gifted songwriter….a creative promoter, a finder of new talent, an explorer of new media, and, best of all, a consummate professional. In his heyday, Pee Wee King took Country music uptown and didn’t ask whether or not it was ready to go.”
Pee Wee King was then, what we now refer to as a ‘Game Changer’. But even though King is credited as being one of the key people to formulate the sound and look of Modern Country music, even co-writing Nashville’s own state song, ” The Tennessee Waltz“, he and his instrument are still considered to be outsiders by Country music insiders.. His effort to “mainstream” Country music caused great resentment and is still a primary reason why Nashville is resistant to, and even disdainful of the accordion as a viable instrument in Country music.
Born in Abrams, Wisconsin, February 18, 1914, King grew up there and was known under his given name, Frank Kuczynski. He performed as an accordionist and as a fiddler with his father’s band from the time he was fifteen years old. Shortly after, taking the name of King while still in high school, he formed Frankie King and The King’s Jesters in 1930. Within three years, King had his own radio program in Milwaukee and he and his band performed at the local Badger State Barn Dance. It was there that he was discovered by the legendary Gene Autry, an emerging cowboy singer. Autry bestowed the honorary title, ‘Pee Wee’ on King, for his small stature. King and Autry, lifelong friends from then on, moved to Louisville, Kentucky where King backed up Autry on radio before “The Singing Cowboy” left for Hollywood to become a film star.
When Autry departed, King decided to stick with radio, stay in Louisville and remain as a member of Frankie More’s Log Cabin Boys. He already had a business relationship with Autry’s manager, and also was interested in the manager’s step-daughter, a singer on the Louisville radio station. So, in the middle of America’s Great Depression, Pee Wee King acquired both his wife, Lydia Frank, and as his manager, J. L. Frank. He would eventually legally change his surname to King.
In 1937, Pee Wee King formed The Golden West Cowboys and shortly after was asked to join the Grand Ole’ Opry on Nashville’s WSN radio. The ambitious King immediately seized the opportunity to move away from the Opry’s strict mandate to use only stringed instruments. He brought in musical instruments never before heard at the Opry, such as the accordion, an amplified electric guitar, horns and the pedal steel guitar. In addition, Pee Wee King did not make many friends at the Opry when he refused to change his band’s sound when asked to do so, or when, along with Bob Wills, he insisted on using drums on stage.
This new style of music was loud and lively, danceable and entertaining, and very much influenced by the Big Band sound that was popular all over the world in the 1930’s and 1940’s. This gave it new energy, a new sound and brought Country music into the mid- twentieth century. Perhaps, because he didn’t come from that exclusive community of musicians and songwriters that grew up in the hills and the ‘hollers’ of the South, King saw what was known then as “Hillbilly” music, in a broader geographic context. He recognized the new “Country” music as being the music that included the entire nation, from east coast to west coast, and not just the music from the Southeastern part of the United States. In his vision, the Country music genre shifted and stretched to include Texas, Arizona and Southern California, and with this, it acquired a new “western” sensibility. Singers and songwriters from those areas must have taken note, like Marty Robbins, Roy Orbison and Buck Owens and many others and may have felt a sense of inclusion and opportunity in the new Country and Western sound.
Because King saw himself as an entertainer, when America went to war in 1941, he envisioned that Country music should be a part of the war effort and entertainment scene of mainstream America. He knew that to accomplish this, Country music needed a bigger sound and a bolder image. King had a love for flashy, professional showmanship. He outfitted his band with fancy, custom made suits. This new take on Country music became enormously popular all over America and eventually became associated with Nashville. But, at first, such flamboyance was met with resentment in Nashville and there was a strong outcry against King by music traditionalists. King also “changed the game” when he insisted that his band members be required to read music. They were also among the first musicians in Nashville to join the musicians union. He wanted his band, not only to appear professional, but actually be the best musicians in the music business.
The new sound of Country music spoke to wartime America. People needed opportunities to go out and dance, have a good time and for a few short hours, forget that the war was asking for big changes and great sacrifices from them. Country music was American music, and an expression of the new pride and nationalism that the entire country was experiencing. Music served to unify everyone during wartime and to underscore that we were one nation in the fight against tyranny. This new “Western” side of Country music, in its own way, placed American music, defiantly and squarely in the face of fascism and ideologies of “the East”, looming large in Europe and Japan. The Country and Western sound had nothing to do with any European immigrant tradition, and the piano accordion, for the first time, was front and center. It was the soldiers during the war that brought the new sound of Country music to where they were stationed. This opened up the world to Country music and laid the groundwork for its influence on pop music.
In spite of controversy, Pee Wee King remained with the Opry for ten years, quite a long time in show business years. During that decade many performers passed through the training ground of The Golden West Cowboys on their way to fame and fortune. They included singers Eddy Arnold, Cowboy Copas, Milton Estes, Tommy Sosebee, and singer/yodeler Becky Barfield. Pee Wee King and The Golden West Cowboys recorded and toured as Minnie Pearl‘s backing band over 1941-1942, as well as for Ernest Tubb. They also entertained the troops during the War with the Camel Caravan Tours, crisscrossing the country.
In 1946 as the war ended, King composed “The Tennessee Waltz” along with Redd Stewart, vocalist for The Golden West Cowboys,. It was inspired by Bill Monroe‘s composition of “The Kentucky Waltz“, now a standard in Bluegrass music. “The Tennessee Waltz” became an enormous hit, not only for King, but for Patti Page, becoming one of the biggest cross-over hits, of all time. It went on to become a Country music standard and, later on, the state song of Tennessee.
Pee Wee and his family moved from Nashville to Louisville in 1948 when an opportunity surfaced for Pee Wee to work on WAVE radio and television. He explained years later, “The main reason (for moving) was that I wanted television.” The conservative Opry management saw no real future in TV and, again, their view was at odds with King’s vision. But Pee Wee King saw great commercial success as a pioneer in the new medium of television, with regional and national television shows, not only from Louisville, but Cincinnati, Cleveland and Chicago. King won multiple Cash Box and Billboard awards for his television shows and had a six year run on ABC Television with “The Pee Wee King Show“. Just as King had foreseen, television had become an indespensible method of packaging and promoting talent and hit songs in all genres of music in just a few short years.
Pee Wee King continued to perform and record throughout the 1950’s, reuniting with Minnie Pearl until 1963. In 1965, the state of Tennessee adopted “The Tennessee Waltz” as the official state song. Pee Wee was always interested in the history of the music he had helped redefine, and served on the board of directors for the Country Music Hall of Fame and also served as Director for The Country Music Foundation.
Pee Wee King appeared in four movies, always as a band leader, “Gold Mine in the Sky” with Gene Autry, “Flame in the West” with Johnny Mack Brown, “Riding the Outlaw Trail” and “The Rough, Tough West” with Charles Starrett. He also released his own movie production, “Country-Western Hoedown” in 1967. About disbanding The Golden West Cowboys in 1969, King said, “I wanted to find what I thought was the top of my career. When I believed I had found it, I stopped striving and searching and enjoyed it.”
In 1970, Pee Wee King was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. He composed or co-wrote more than 400 songs, including some of the most popular songs in American music including the enormously successful “The Tennessee Waltz“, “Slow Poke“, “Silver and Gold“, “Changing Partners“, “Bonaparte’s Retreat“, “You Belong to Me“, “Walk By the River“, “Busybody” and “Bimbo” among many others.
In October 1971 Kentucky Governor Louis B. Nunn declared an official Pee Wee King Day in the state.
In 1974, Pee Wee King was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His recording career included more than twenty albums, 157 singles with eleven of them becoming chart hits. “Slow Poke” reached the top of both the pop and country charts and held that position for three months. It became not only King’s biggest hit, but his biggest crossover hit. Pee Wee performed and recorded hundreds of sides, from fiddle tunes to pop ballads.
In 1996 Pee Wee King worked with writer Wade Hall to produce his authorized autobiography, “Hell Bent for Music“ (University of Kentucky Press). It was a first person account about his life and career, narrated by King.
Before his death, a boxed set of King’s RCA work was released by Bear Family and a collection of his 1950’s radio transcriptions was released by Bloodshot Records (Pee Wee King’s Country Hoedown)
Pee Wee King died on Tuesday, March 7, 2000 at age 86 while recuperating after suffering a massive heart attack the week before. He was survived by his wife and their four children. Pee Wee and Lydia King were married for sixty-four years. Mrs. King passed away in 2011.
Pee Wee King was fearless, creative, ambitious and successful. He thought big and accomplished great things for his family, for the music industry, for Nashville, and for American music. Pee Wee had a vision from a very young age and never hesitated to trust it and to follow it, through out his life. He fought hard for what he believed in, and withstood an incredible amount of criticism for it. Though I never met him, I believe that his life was the stuff of which movies are made. AND, he was an accordion player…..
By Christa T. for Accordion Americana It’s not a stretch to call the Petrojvic Blasting Company an Americana band. While strong inflections rich in Eastern European folk tradition are identifiable, their music possesses a ‘here and now’ sensibility, drawn from genres rooted in North America. It is music that is original in style, and combines a consistent jazz groove with an infectious exuberance that propels it forward, like a funeral band blasting through the streets of New Orleans returning from ‘setting the body free’. The effect that The Blasting Company has on their audience is evident. With an electricity rarely felt, even in live performance, it is the very definition of ‘good time music’ and it is entertainment at its best.
Josh Kaufman, along with his brother, Justin, grew up in the greater Nashville, Tennessee area and as teenagers, regularly busked on the city’s street corners. It was through this process that their live performance edge was honed. In the classroom of the street corner, the multi-instrumentalists earned their passing or failing grades and could always count on making some money at the same time. It was there that they formed their first band, Albania Mania, and after relocating to East Los Angeles, founded the California Feetwarmers Jazz Band. Although now involved with many other successful projects, The Blasting Company persists as a live act performing in diverse settings such as open air farmers markets, art walks as well as gigs at night spots throughout Los Angeles.
Since arriving in Los Angeles only a few years ago, the brothers have continuously worked to establish a group of musicians with similar musical sensibilities. Usually, the Blasting Company consists of Josh on the accordion, two trumpets, a trombone, played by Justin, drums and sousaphone. A kind of “super-drum” is played by Corey Beers, percussionist for the Blasting Company, to which he added pieces. In addition to the drum, it consists of a rope, a cowbell and a washboard giving their music a dramatic dimension.
The Petrojvic Blasting Company participated in a collaboration between the Library Foundation of Los Angles, the Los Angeles Public Library and University of Southern California Professor Josh Kun, called Songs in the Key of L. A. The intention of the ambitious effort was to repurpose sheet music pieces from the 1840’s through the 1950’s stored in the Library’s archives, known as the Southern California Sheet Music Collection. The goal of the project was not only to preserve the collection, but to bring it back to life and create “a singular portrait of Los Angeles history and culture rendered in music and visual art.” Along with other artists, The Petrojvic Blasting Company was invited to pick some sheet music, study it, and then interpret it in any style of their choosing. The finished products are available for free download from the website of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Josh, his brother Justin and The Blasting Company, composed the entire score and performed all of the music for Cartoon Network’s Over The Garden Wall. It is an American animated television miniseries created by Patrick McHale for the Cartoon Network that features two brothers who travel through a strange forest in order to find their way home. The show is based on McHale’s animated short film, Tome of the Unknown, which was produced as part of Cartoon Network Studios’ shorts development program. The miniseries, Over the Garden Wall was awarded an Emmy in 2015 for Outstanding Animated Program.
The Petrojvic Blasting Company also participated, along with its mastermind, Accordionist Jason Webley, in the Monsters of the Accordion Tour, a West Coast event.
Whatever musical direction the Petrojvic Blasting Company has taken since Josh and Justin busked on the streets of Nashville, the accordion has been present and central to their performance. Talented and savvy, they will, without a doubt, continue to create and find success in the strange land of music and film. But, these wandering brothers, like those in Over the Garden Wall, are forever seeking, trying to find their way home.
Professional accordionist and multi-instrumentalist, Jeff Taylor, grew up in Batavia, New York, and began playing accordion and keyboards in his dad’s band when he was 10. He studied classical piano at the Eastman School of Music and was leader of a small jazz/rock group when he was in the Air Force in Ohio. He has lived in Nashville since 1990. Taylor counts among his performing highlights his two years as bandleader at the Ryman auditorium for the musical production Always, Patsy Cline, hundreds of shows as bandleader at Opryland theme park and on the General Jackson showboat, The Skaggs Family Christmas Tour, and many appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, backing numerous artists. He has recorded with Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, Harry Connick Jr., Keith and Kristyn Getty, Amy Grant, George Strait, The Chieftains, Martina McBride, Buddy Greene, Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs. He was a featured artist on the Ricky Skagg’s and Kentucky Thunder Instrumentals CD that won a Grammy in 2007 for Best Bluegrass Album. Besides excelling on accordion and piano, he also shines on the concertina, penny whistle, mandolin and bouzouki.
Jeff Taylor performs as a member of The Time Jumpers, along with Vince Gill and also some of the best musicians in Nashville. The Time Jumpers are an award winning Western Swing band from Nashville, Tennessee, with two awards from the Association of Western Artists, one from the Western Music Association and two Grammy nominations! This group of Nashville’s studio elite has evolved from casual jam sessions at the Grand Ole Opry to performing on the main stage, and becoming THE Monday night destination in Nashville,.
Their individual recording and performing credits cover virtually the entire history of country music, ranging from Slim Whitman to Carrie Underwood, and their members have recorded extensively with artists in other genres as well, from Barbra Streisand to Megadeth. The Time Jumpers appear, regularily, at The Station Inn, Nashville, Tennessee.
Jeff Taylor, performs on the accordion, along with the great Vince Gill and The Time Jumpers
Jeff Taylor, Accordionist, with the late Dawn Sears at the Station Inn
Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester
By Christa T. for Accordion Americana She was born, Wilene Russell, in 1922. Her family called her Goldie Sue. Her classmates called her Billie. She performed as Sally Ann Forrester. Was the confusion created by having too many names the reason why Wilene Forrester is slow to be recognized as the “First Woman in Bluegrass”?
All humor aside, in 1943, Wilene was hired as an accordionist by Bill Monroe just as he coined the name for the music they played, called “Bluegrass”. She was compensated and performed as one of the Bluegrass Boys. As Ginger Rogers said of dance partner, Fred Astaire, Wilene did everything “The Boys” did, only “in high heels”. She was good enough to work as a musician with the band, tour and record with them. In 1945, Wilene, as an accordionist and as one of Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys, recorded eight great Bluegrass classics, “Rocky Road Blues”, “Kentucky Waltz”, “True Life Blues”, “Nobody Loves Me”, “Goodbye, Old Pal”, “Footprints in the Snow”, “Blue Grass Special”, and “Come Back to me in my Dreams”.
Was the lack of recognition based on the fact that she was a proficient accordionist, and not perceived as a ‘real’ Bluegrass musician? Did she lack the ‘chops’, the right ‘creds’, a good enough reputation, or not invest enough years of her life as a musician to be accepted? Is the Bluegrass establishment reluctant to acknowledge her contribution because she was from the Southwest, and not from the Southeastern side of the U.S.? Did she fail to show, at any time during her professional career, that her work ethic did not measure up to, or even exceed those of her fellow, male musicians? If these are seen as issues, they were not then, or when Wilene worked for years, before World War II, as an entertainer at barn dances, tent shows and on radio programs. Having studied voice, she sang beautifully, and often. As a teenaged professional entertainer, she moved easily between piano, guitar, and fiddle. By the time she met Bill Monroe, Wilene Forrester was a seasoned, capable and confident multi- instrumentalist and was very, very good.
But, if it was the post war determination to regroup and rebuild America that led Wilene to abruptly say goodbye to her dream, we will never know. She left the group, and along with husband, Howdy Forrester, started a family. She worked for the rest of her life as a civil servant, performing occasionally. Wilene Forrester passed away in Nashville from Alzheimer’s in 1999.
Even today, like many women artists and performers, Wilene is not given credit for her work, and not seen as standing alone,’glowing like a beacon in the night’. Instead, women have been presented as being only a mere reflection of light cast by men, who are promoted as the authentic sources of creative energy. Women have to prove that they are worthy of any acknowledgement by their associations with certain men. Critics are quick to discredit and second guess a woman’s accomplishments, qualifying and redefining how men actually made their accomplishments possible. Because men also have others through out their lives, helping them along the way, it’s clear that women are held to a different standard than men by having always to explain themselves and justify their accomplishments. Yes, if it hadn’t been for the loving Grandfather that taught her how to play the fiddle she likely wouldn’t have learned. Or, if not for Howdy Forrester, who recognized her talent and personality and wanted her by his side, as a musician and as a wife for 47 years, she may not have been there to take the next step (or maybe she could have and also would have remained in the music business awhile longer).
Bill Monroe also saw and utilized those attributes along with Wilene’s growing experience and professionalism, enlisting, “Sally Ann” (Monroe coined her name, as well) to perform with them from 1943 through 1946. He clearly saw her value and benefited from her talent and personality. It’s not an issue of whether she was paid, but rather that she has been made to seem that she was not really there, and simply “holding a place” for someone more valuable until he could return. We see her in photos and hear her on recordings, and because she was neither invisible nor silent, that should be enough to establish her presence in the band. What we are really lacking is her version of her own story. Wilene “Sally Ann” Forrester, either did not seize the opportunity to speak about herself, or any of her experiences, or was not offered an opportunity to do so. This is a sad loss for all musicians and for those interested in Bluegrass music.
The music industry should recognize and validate that, just as Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass “Boys” are given credit for “working through coming up with their sound”, Wilene was there, working through it, alongside them. It is her sound, too. Just as they own a part of that contribution, she owns a part of it, too. This is the legacy of Wilene Russell “Sally Ann” Forrester. She must be given credit, and not forgotten as “The First Woman in Bluegrass”.
Many thanks to Murphy Hicks Henry as my resource, for her insightful book about Wilene and other great women in Bluegrass: “Pretty Good for a Girl, Women in Bluegrass” (University of Illinois Press)and for her interviews on YouTube and in print.