Concert Review: The Secret Sisters at the Ryman

“If your music doesn’t make you feel bad then you’re not listening to country music.”
~ Laura Rogers, The Secret Sisters

Secret Sisters 1

As much as I enjoyed the Nickel Creek concert at the Ryman on Saturday (read my review), it wasn’t only the headliners I wanted to hear. The Secret Sisters were slated to open the show. I’ve wanted to see the harmony duo for a couple of years now. Its hard to imagine if you could put together a more solid opening and headlining act than the Secret Sisters and Nickel Creek.

Like Nickel Creek, the Secret Sisters have released a new album to coincide with the summer tour. Their show opening set were all songs from that just released album, “Put Your Needle Down.” It was a home run set–about 35 minutes of harmony goodness–and I have no doubt they made plenty of new fans.

Highlights performed off the new album included the power charged “Rattle My Bones,” Everly Brothers tinged “Black and Blue,” and girl-power anthem “The Pocket Knife.” The murder ballad “Iuka,” inspired by their grandparents’ young marriage in the Mississippi town, tells the tale of young lovers who meet a tragic end.

What would have made their warm-up perfect for me? An encore performance of “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder,” their tear-jerker written in response to the 2011 Alabama tornado outbreak. The song was featured on The Hunger Games soundtrack. Alas, the Secret Sisters did not return for an encore Saturday night.

Laura and Lydia Rogers grew up singing a cappella harmony in churches of Christ around their native–and legendary–Muscle Shoals. The obvious comparison is to the Everly Brothers, but a more apt comparison might be to Alabama’s Louvin Brothers. Certainly the Louvins’ album title “Tragic Songs of Life” coincides with the Rogers’ stated philosophy that country music ought to make you feel bad.

Picture courtesy of Beth Pontal of Love You Muches

Picture courtesy of Beth Pontal of Love You Muches

But the Secret Sisters aren’t simply channeling the 1940s like a harmony version of Gillian Welch (that’s no knock on Gillian). Songs like “Rattle My Bones” make you want to turn the volume all the way up to eleven. They clearly feel as comfortable with a single acoustic guitar as with having Jack White (or The Punch Brothers) back them up on “Big River.”

I have to admit that one of the reasons I feel an affinity for the Secret Sisters is the guitar they play. On the Ryman Saturday night they used a D-28 style acoustic made by Athens, Alabama’s Jim Hays. Jim is a good friend, and has been quietly making some of the best guitars out there. After the show when I mentioned Jim Hays to the Rogers girls they brightened up and began raving about him and his guitar. For me, it makes their music even more special.

Whether with Nickel Creek or on their own, run, don’t walk, to hear the Secret Sisters perform live. You won’t be sorry. These gals are doing country music the right way, and they showcased that at the Ryman on Saturday night.


Concert Review: Nickel Creek at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium

Nickel Creek group

[Spoiler Alert: Details of the night’s set lists are discussed below. If you don’t want to know, don’t read it.]

I’ve never been to a concert that opened with a standing ovation, that is until Saturday night at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium. Before Nickel Creek played a note, the sold out crowd of over 2,300 took to its feet and welcomed the trio back from their over six year hiatus. It was an expression of joy and relief from dedicated fans who feared such a day might never come.

Nickel Creek HatchComprised of siblings Sara Watkins on fiddle and Sean Watkins on guitar plus mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, Nickel Creek was a juggernaut of New Grass, a blend of Bluegrass instrumentation and more pop sensibilities. The group split up over six years ago to pursue other projects. But now on the band’s twenty fifth anniversary—amazing considering the oldest member is only 37 years old—the trio released a new album, “A Dotted Line,” and announced a run of shows for the spring and summer. This was only their fourth show in the tour.

In expected Nickel Creek fashion, the concert was a high energy blend of new songs and old favorites backed up by Bluegrass bass legend Mark Schatz. Highlights from the new album included the Sara Watkins vehicle “Destination,” and the Sean Watkins song “21st of May”, a humorous—and catchy—take on the Harold Camping failed rapture from three years ago.

One of the fun new songs featured was “Hayloft,” a cover of a song by Canadian pop group Mother Mother. “Hayloft” demonstrates Nickel Creek’s great skill at playing pop-rock with acoustic instrumentation, a talent demonstrated on the last tour with their tongue-in-cheek version of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.”

NC - Anthony 2(Nickel Creek performs “Anthony.” Picture courtesy of my friend Beth Pontal of Love You Muches.)

A favorite for my wife and me was Sara’s song “Anthony,” which is remembered by us as the only song that would stop our then-infant Claire from crying in the car. We’ve heard it hundreds of times, surely, and still love its catchy humor.

A question going into the concert was how—or whether—Thile would treat early flagship songs like “The Lighthouse’s Tale.” He had publicly distanced himself from “Lighthouse,” and was no longer playing it at all. “The Fox” also became a signature live piece for Thile as he incorporated Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” into it along with increasingly complicated instrumental sampling in a jam band style. Like “Lighthouse,” the song clearly became more of a burden than a pleasure for him.

One advantage of being away from the Nickel Creek spotlight for a few years is the ability to hit the reset button, and that’s exactly what a more mature Thile was able to do. He poked some fun at “Lighthouse,” but then played and sang a beautiful version. Likewise with “The Fox,” Thile embraced the original album version during the encore, with no Dylan or Mario Brothers theme to be found. Fans appreciated both.

And this marks the real change in Nickel Creek. Age has, unsurprisingly, matured them. The time with other projects has exercised musical muscles that might have been left to sag with Nickel Creek alone. Sarah Watkins is a stronger singer, and I think they’re less interested as a group in pushing to impress.

Twenty five years of Nickel Creek has brought us the best of all possible worlds: a better Nickel Creek than ever while its members are just hitting their musical prime, poised for another twenty five years. If you get a chance to catch them live this summer don’t miss the opportunity.

NC - Schatz clogging

NC group 2

[Later this week, a look at Nickel Creek’s opening act The Secret Sisters.]

Lexington BBQ: Blue Door Smokehouse

Blue Door frontAlways on the hunt for good barbecue, I was game when my lunch appointment suggested a newer place in Lexington called Blue Door Smokehouse. Now “smokehouse” makes a positive assertion that I appreciate. A growing number of places are using gas on their meat, and it’s just not the same. I commend Blue Door for putting the smoke on display.

Blue Door Smoke

Central Kentucky is a tough place for barbecue. There hasn’t been a strong barbecue culture here, a fact confirmed by signs like “Texas BBQ” in the window. One wouldn’t go to a place in Memphis that said “Kansas City BBQ.” I recognize the marketing aspect (many places do this), but I suppose my gripe is that if you’re going to do barbecue, take a stand that it’s your barbecue.

Blue Door is a friendly place, with patient, but prompt, service. They have a nice offering of meats and sides. I chose brisket and baby back pork ribs. I added sides of ranch beans and potato salad.

The meat at Blue Door is good, well cooked and flavorful. It has a nice crust, but isn’t tough. I liked the brisket a little better than the ribs. I would be glad to have either again.

Blue Door plate

I have to admit I was disappointed with my side choices. I was warned the ranch beans wouldn’t be sweet like standard baked beans, which I was fine with. My beau ideal barbecue shack Oklahoma Joe’s serves a version of ranch beans, in fact. I found these just a little too harsh, however.

The potato salad just wasn’t to my taste at all. While I found the beans too harsh, the potato salad was bland. It needed some flavor kick. My friend let me try her collard greens, and they were quite tasty. I would recommend trying those. I almost ordered the vinegar slaw, and wish I had. I think it would have been more to my liking. If worse comes to worse, they do have Grippo’s chips.

Blue Door offers three sauces on the table: sweet, spicy, and tangy. I always try the meat first without sauce, but then I like to test out whatever they have. It wasn’t long before I found that my sauce of choice was the tangy, which is a vinegar based sauce of the same style as Alabama’s Dreamland Bar-B-Que. Blue Door’s tangy doesn’t have quite the flavor depth as Dreamland, but it’s quite good if you like a vinegar based sauce. The other sauces were also good, but I mostly stuck with tangy after I found it.

Blue Door sauces

So as my Lexington barbecue adventure begins, Blue Door Smokehouse was a good start. It’s solid barbecue, that doesn’t reach the level of greatness. Still, I hope to return and recommend you stop by.

Blue Door BBQ
226 Walton Avenue
Lexington, KY 40502
Monday-Thursday 11 am – 3 pm
Friday-Saturday 11 am – 9 pm
Closed Sunday


Art Fawcett Makes a Borsalino Alessandria Fedora New Again

Hat stackWhen Art Fawcett sends me a message I pay attention (I also often pay in other ways). A Borsalino fedora I sent Art for refurbishment was ready. I can’t deny I was excited.

While America has Stetson–the greatest name in hats–Italy has Borsalino. Founded in 1857, Borsalino is eight years older than its American rival.

One of the iconic Borsalino styles is the Alessandria, named after the Italian home of the Borsalino factory. The Alessandria is the Borsalino equivalent of the old Stetson Stratoliner. Other hat makers had their own versions such as JC Penny’s Marathon. Johnny Depp, known for his fedoras, often wears Borsalino, including the Alessandria model.

Depp looks almost as good in a Borsalino as I do.

Depp looks almost as good in a Borsalino as I do.

While the other models have faded away, the Alessandria has endured. One of the very first quality hats I purchased a number of years ago was a gray Alessandria that likely dates from the 1950s. I wanted a Stratoliner to go with it, but vintage prices skyrocketed in my larger size.

I bought a couple of used/vintage Borsalinos a few years ago. The lot included an Alessandria. Structurally it was fine, but the hat was soiled and the felt misshapen. It needed to be cleaned and blocked. Blocking is the process of reforming a hat over a wooded block to give it the appropriate shape.

(Borsalino before)
Borsalino beforeBorsalino sweatband 1 Borsalino sweatband 2

Art Fawcett, proprietor of Vintage Silhouettes, is one of the premier custom hat makers in the world. Art has made both felt and straw hats for me over the years. And while he no longer takes on refurbishment work regularly, he will work in some jobs as he can for his customers. One of the bonuses of having Art refurbish my hat is that he has my measured my head size and shape for the custom hats he has made. It’s like having a custom Borsalino.

I sent along my “new” Alessandria to Art with the understanding that he would get to it when he got to it. I wasn’t in a hurry as, well, I have many more hats than heads to put them on.

So Art’s message was the end of a long wait. I figure he finally got tired of having it in the way.

Knowing that modern Borsalinos are often knocked for being of lower quality than their revered forefathers, I asked Art about the quality of the felt. He said, “in a word, ‘horrid.’” Art typically works with beaver felt hat bodies of the highest quality. Borsalino uses rabbit, which can also be quite good. But this felt started to shrink on him during the reblocking process, a sign of inferior felt. Art said he did the best he could. Considering the prices of modern Borsalinos using felt like that is really inexcusable.

I wasn’t worried, though, because I knew that Art’s standards are such that if he was willing to send the hat to me at all I would be happy. I was right. The hat is fantastic.

Art rebuilt the hat from the ground up. He stripped it down to the felt, cleaned it, and reblocked the hat body, sizing it to the measurements he has on file for me. He sewed in a new leather sweatband, then he added a new ribbon and bow made from his stock of vintage milliner quality ribbon. Remaining from the original hat was the felt body, the Borsalino logo liner, and the style. Quite frankly, it’s a far better hat now than it was when it was new.

Borsalino refurb side

Borsalino ribbon detail

Borsalino refurb interior

And, I must confess, I do like the lower, more modern profile. Some vintage hats can seem a bit overwhelming, although one should not resort to the tiny hats with super stingy brims that often pass for fedoras these days.

Art again proved he is an absolute magician with felt and ribbon. If you’re interested in getting the best, give Art a call.

Vintage Alessandria (l), reburbished Alessandria (r)

Vintage Alessandria (l), reburbished Alessandria (r)


Finding Your Grail at No Man Walks Alone

Hermes sterling knots

The good folks over at No Man Walks Alone have just published a post of mine on “The Search For a Grail.”

“Grail” has become synonymous with an object that is highly prized, rare, and acquired only after a great quest. Many of us have spent long hours searching for a clothing grail item. The original legend gives us some guidance on what a true Grail is.

First, it must be rare, or even unique. The Grail cannot simply be another item on the shopping list. A pair of captoes to complement your suede wingtips doesn’t count. Vintage spade soles or bespoke Vass Budapesters might.

Also, there should be a quest involved.

Visit No Man Walks Alone to read the rest.

You can also read my earlier posts on “The Birth and Rebirth of the A-1 Flight Jacket” and “About Those Shoe Trees.”

Billy Reid & Florence, Once More

BR shop wall

My time in Alabama short, I had the chance to visit one more Billy Reid Warehouse Sale in Florence a few weeks ago. I’ve enjoyed the trips, and the sales have been good to me (as has the nearby Salvation Army).

This sale was around the corner from the main shop, the third location they’ve had for the sale during the short time I’ve been going. Prices were better than last time but selection was more limited.

BR sale 1 BR sale 2

Ties and t-shirts were plentiful, but as it was a warehouse sale available sizes could tend toward the extremes (XS or XXL). I was sad the Alabama Shakes t-shirt wasn’t in my size. I grabbed a Billy Reid bow tie, which I think are some of the best around.

BR t-shirts BR tub o ties

The new spring merchandise was out in the main store, which is always fun to visit.

BR shop belt BR shop bows BR shop monks BR shop shirts BR shop tote

My co-conspirator Sean and I were excited to try a new restaurant a couple of doors down called The Pie Factory. Despite our (very real) disappointment that it was actually a pizza place we went anyway and tried the Boss Hog special. If you need pizza in Florence, it’s worth a stop.

Pie Factory

Pie Factory pie

My visit complete, I bid farewell to Florence and its native son W.C. Handy, who had the good taste to wear a bow tie.

WC Handy

Nickel Creek Back in Business On the Tonight Show

After a seven year hiatus Nickel Creek is back with a (great) new album, a new tour, and last night, an appearance on Jimmy Fallon performing ‘Destination’:

Nickel Creek performs ‘Destination’ ~ Jimmy… by HumanSlinky

I’ve seen Nickel Creek far and wide, and am excited have tickets to see them at the Ryman later this month. Stay tuned.

Some of Huntsville’s Best: New Market BBQ

New Market JeffersonOne of the barbecue spots in my sights has been the north of Huntsville joint, New Market BBQ. I was set to go a few months ago but discovered its limited hours, only open each week Friday-Sunday. With my time remaining in Alabama short, I put a trip to the small village of New Market high on my list of things to do before I left. My friend Sean, who had been once before, was a willing accomplice. New Market white church The trip to New Market is a pleasant one, and the town has more than its share of interest. There are lovely churches and old homes. The Presbyterians and Methodists have done well in maintaining their historic buildings. (And it looks like New Market architecture is well prepared if Thomas Jefferson ever comes to visit.) The very small downtown row is ripe for renovation. Perhaps New Market BBQ will help lead to a renaissance there. New Market woodArriving at New Market BBQ, wood was piled high outside, always an encouraging sign. The fire inside confirmed real wood smoke is used at New Market. Accept no substitutes for your barbecue. New Market fire

New Market menu board

The menu options are wide, but I opted for a standard sampler for me, ribs and chicken with beans. Brunswick stew is a common offering locally, and with a chill in the air I was happy to try it as my second side. Both turned out to be reliable choices. New Market chow

The smoked meat was very good, the ribs were flavorful and meaty, tender, but firm enough to stay on the bone. Likewise, the chicken was spot on, not dry, which can often happen. I always try the meat without any sauce. It’s only then you really know what you’re getting.

New Market offers three sauces, a vinegar sauce, a thicker red sauce, and Alabama white sauce (for chicken). I rank their sauces highly, although a notch below my Alabama favorites (Dreamland for vinegar, Saw’s for red, and Big Bob Gibson for white). This is by no means a knock. Across the board New Market is doing barbecue the right way, the best I’ve had in Madison County.

New Market meat New Market pb pieIt was hard to resist the dessert offerings at New Market. Most places will offer banana pudding, and it’s usually very good. New Market BBQ clearly prides itself in going above and beyond with a rotating offering of different pies. I opted for a slice of the day’s peanut butter pie, and was surprised to find a very light pie rather than the often dense and heavy peanut butter pie one frequently encounters. And it was good, clearly homemade, a satisfying ending to a rewarding visit.

This weekend if you find yourself hungry, and with a little time for a drive, head on up to New Market BBQ. Drive around town a little to see the sites. You’ll enjoy the barbecue. New Market home

New Market BBQ
5601 Winchester Rd
New Market, AL 35761
Hours: Friday-Saturday, 11 AM – 7 PM; Sunday 11 AM – 4 PM

British Exploration: Collecting Books the (Very) Right Way

via Sotheby's

via Sotheby’s

There is a vast difference between collecting books and merely accumulating books. Accumulation is the enemy of the collection. The accumulator merely grabs what strikes his fancy at the moment, perhaps with an emphasis in certain areas. The book collector has a very narrow focus. He rejects more than he buys. His commitment to the exactly right volume is paramount.

The ever interesting Prufrock email newsletter edited by Micah Mattix (you should subscribe) linked a Telegraph article about an upcoming Sotheby’s auction of what has been dubbed the finest exploration library assembled in a century. It is a true collection in the purest sense.

Built volume by volume over five decades by Franklin Brooke-Hitching, the parameters were set very specifically: “each book had to be about a British explorer, and it had to be in mint condition: ‘God’s copy,’ in his words. So, most are centuries old, but their covers gleam.” He buys nothing published after 1939 because exploring had simply become travel.

He became so devoted to his self-appointed task, Brooke-Hitching quit his job with an investment firm and became a rare book dealer. Now he is selling his 1,400 volume collection at Sotheby’s. It’s is expected to realize over £5 million. You can view his collection on the Sotheby’s website.

As an aside, I was in full agreement with this from the Telegraph article: “he does not want them to end up in museums, which he fears would not keep them in good condition.” I think this is on the whole, correct. This is particularly dangerous if one has rare books that you donate to a library. They are likely to end up in a fundraising book sale, scattered to the wind for pennies. I write this as one who has purchased some of those donated books over the years. Before you donate to an institution make very sure they really want what you have.

As someone who both collects and accumulates books, the discipline shown by Brooke-Hitching is impressive. I am curious what other books he owns. Does he ever accumulate rather than collect?

For many who are serious about books at least some part of what you buy becomes a collection. A particular topic or author interests you, and you may start with hardcovers, then perhaps first printings. Soon one becomes aware of condition, and the prices increase. The danger is trying to buy too widely. You simply cannot do it. There is too much. Success as a book collector begins with as narrow a focus as possible.

Do you collect or accumulate?

Douglas Southall Freeman & Lost TIME

BSB stickerMy friend Michael Courtney at Lexington’s Black Swan Books has been touting his new promotional stickers, and recognizing it’s a rare day indeed when you can get something free from Michael, I figured I had to acquire a couple.

You also never know what you’ll find setting on Michael’s counter. There amidst the old volumes and miscellaneous papers was an old TIME magazine from October 18, 1948. The cover caught my eye,. It featured revered Southern historian Douglas Southall Freeman. Freeman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his multi-volume biographies of George Washington and Robert E. Lee (don’t miss Dr. Sean Busick’s thought’s on Freeman’s Lee). Freeman also wrote a multi-volume companion series to the Lee biography, Lee’s Lieutenants, a set of which I picked up years ago for a pittance at a library sale. It’s the rare historian who makes the cover of TIME magazine, and the rarer historian who ought to. If any historian should ever be on the cover, Freeman was the man.

Freeman Lee's LieutenantsOld magazines are paper time capsules. Not only are the articles valuable to the historian, but the advertisements often give an even clearer window into the society that would produce such a magazine. The cars, the movies, the clothes, even the shoes, speak of a far different level of taste and manners. If I could drive an Austin car, wear old American made Florsheims, dress in a Timely coat, and go to the theater to watch Jimmy Stewart in Rope, then I would be well equipped, indeed.

I tried to get Michael to sell me the magazine to no avail, but I did leave with some stickers. While he was talking I snapped some shaky pictures. Enjoy the time capsule.

Freeman cover

British Walkers ad


Hanan Shoes


Timely Clothes


Austin of England