Friday, October 22, 2010

Trains and Tunes

There've been lots of stories in the news lately about unused boxcars being parked on latent railroad tracks all over the country. There's just such a set of parallel tracks about two hundred yards from my house. For the past half year there's been a succession of boxcars parked on that track. They are occasionally moved around to access either the ink plant or the R.R.Donnely's plant. Mostly, they just sit there.

Dar and I were walking Breeze and Ariel along those tracks the other day. The gravel road that runs along those tracks also leads to the County Athletic Complex (softball diamonds and soccer fields). On the far side of the Athletic park is the greenway. The greenway then leads home. So we can make a big four mile walk or run of that route.

Anyway, as we were walking along that 1/4 - 1/2 mile of unused boxcars, one of us remarked at the skill and imagination demonstrated by the graffiti that decorated most of those boxcars.

One thing that we couldn't help but notice -- there was almost no obscenity in the graffiti. Neither the images nor the language was offensive.

Oh, I'm sure there's the possibility of some gang code or something that I didn't understand. But at least to this casual observer, there was nothing but some very pleasing, well rendered artwork.

It actually added a bit of interest to the walk. Like an outdoor art gallery.

But the thing that REALLY caught my eye...

Most of the way down that long row of boxcars something out of the ordinary happened to catch my eye. I couldn't believe it. There's sure enough a story in there somewhere, and I think I'd like to know what it was, because there in red paint on a deeper, rustier red box car was the lyric...

It takes a worried man
To sing a worried song

The historian, the novel reader, and the romantic in me is dying to know more about that bit of lyric spraypainted on a boxcar in the year 2010. There's a story there.

For enjoyable few hours, here's an interesting gallery on the same subject called "THE BOXCAR PROJECT"

Thursday, October 14, 2010

RR 8 Box 99 (a fiction)

Even when I’m not turning into the drive, I always slow down when I drive by the mailbox. I slow down to just admire it. And it usually causes me to reminisce at least a bit.

It’s made mostly of sheet metal – copper, stainless, brass. We had ‘em all at hand that evening. The weightier parts – concrete base, heavy angle iron cross-piece skeleton through the middle – were added by Jim. Jim’s also the one who decided to make it so you could actually strum the thing like a real guitar. Put real tuners on it and fashioned some stainless bridge pins outta some machine screws too. The weight, the tuners – all that stuff was added after Jim decided it would be a mailbox.

The mailbox is a replica of a Martin D18. My Martin D18.

Jim and I grew up playing in our dads’ sorta bluegrass band. That’s what people’d call it today. "Bluegrass". We didn’t so much think of it that way. We thought we were playing songs. You know? … like Lula Bell and Scotty or the young Hank Williams or maybe even the Sons of the Pioneers. At least, we allowed ourselves to think that when we were at the top of our game.

But we played a bunch of fiddle tunes too. Mostly I guess ‘cause Jim’s dad was a fiddler and my dad clawhammered a banjo. ‘Least he did ‘til he heard Earl Scruggs and learned to finger roll the thing. Well, nowadays when folks hear fiddle tunes they just suppose a bluegrass band. So that’s what we were. A bluegrass band.

Jim was (I think) 10 when he joined his and my dad in the band. Jim was what my mom called “precocious” on mandolin and I’m just guessing here, but I’ll bet Jim hadn’t played for two years when he was already the best player in the band. I was also 10 when I got to join ‘em. Beings as I was a year and a half younger than Jim, that meant that I and Jim were playing dances and stuff when we were darn young – 10 and 11 – if my figuring is right.

My dad owned a sheet metal shop back then. Well, actually, he still owns it and runs it. Does a heck of a business too. Even with most folks and heating companies and the like able to go to the local Home Depot and get ready-fashioned duct work and all, there’s still just no end to the custom pieces, flashing, decorative copper work….stuff like that that keeps dad busy.

Anyways, the band always practiced in dad’s sheet metal shop. It was sorta central to Jim and his dad, and Charlie who played upright, and even to the occasional other we might have join and leave for a time. The shop was in town. And the shop had the room for all us and Charlie’s bass too. Acoustics were pretty cool too, in their own echo-y way. There wasn’t hardly a strip of fabric in the whole place that could damper down our sound. It just rang through the place like all get out.

So, anyway, getting back to the mailbox…

One evening at the shop, while the band was taking a break, I laid my Martin on a work table that was mostly covered by a sheet of 20-24 gauge copper. It wasn’t like anyone planned it or anything. It’s just one of those things you just do without a whole lotta thought – and in this case, without a whole lotta words either.

Jim picked up a grease pencil that was laying next to his coke bottle and started to trace the outline of my D18 right onto the copper sheet beneath it. Well, I picked up the Martin and me and Jim stood there for a second or two admiring the outline. So next thing I do -- like I said, without any real plan -- I took some side cutters outta one of dad’s rolling tool boxes and started to work on cutting that outline out of the copper. I don’t know exactly what I was thinking. Maybe a silhouette to hang on the wall or something. I don’t know. We were a music family and we were a craftsman's family. And I just suppose that the craft idea just makes you do stuff like cut stuff out and start creating.

Pretty soon dad’s looking over my shoulder and watching what I’m doing. Seems he got the next idea, ‘cause next thing I knew, dad walked over to the stock bins. After leafing through a few sheets, he pulled out a sheet of brass that was just about the same gauge as the copper we’d just cut out. It came out of the bin with its top edge wobbling and its trailing edge dragging the cement floor. Dad always said that that wobbling, sometimes crashing sound that sheet metal makes when it bends and pops against nothing is the sound that thunder makes when it’s born. Now that I think about it, dad says a lot of things like that. I wonder how I’ll ever know when senility has set in.

Dad laid that brass sheet on the worktable and had me trace the already cutout copper guitar silhouette onto it so I could cut the same shape out of the brass. While I did that, dad got a brazing rod out of the galvanize bucket where he always kept a handy handful of them. Next thing he did was measured my Martin’s soundhole, got the radius, took the brazing rod over to his bending tool and dialed in the proper circumference so he could bend the brazing rod into a perfect circle that was nearly the exact size of the Martin’s soundhole.

By then I was done cutting out the sheet of brass. With some careful measuring, dad figured out the exact placement for the brazing rod ring and hard-soldered it in place. Then he cut out the interior of that ring and peened the sheet brass around the rod. Without really explaining what he was doing, I and Jim kinda figured it out.

Dad had already turned a corner on the project. In his mind – and now me and Jim’s – the project quickly went from making a useless copper guitar silhouette to making a probably just as useless metal Martin guitar. I’m glad “useful” isn’t the final word in value. But we figured out that, first of all, Dad had picked brass because brass would make a top that looked a little more spruce-like to the more mahogany-colored copper back and sides. And second of all, the reason dad went to the trouble with the rod, the soldering, and the peening, was ‘cause the sheet brass wouldn’t be thick enough to really look like a wooden top when you looked into that soundhole. Peened around the rod it did.

Dad set Jim to work with a piece of paper and pencil – having him run the pencil over the paper over the pickguard to get a tracing of its outline – kinda like you take rubbings from a gravestone. And just like you don’t have to see through the paper to get the letters off of a stone – the pencil rubbed over paper laid over the stone picks up all that detail – Jim was easily able to get a perfect outline of the pickguard. Once he did thatdad set him to work cutting a pickguard out of some stock that was much thinner than the more structural gauge sheeting of the guitar, but not quite copper foil. Dad generally used the stuff for a better flashing on small copper roofs – like the kind he might fabricate for a cupola or over a bay window.

Jim ended up cutting out three of those copper pickguards ‘cause each time he tried to use the crimper to create a little beveled edge and some dimension to the pickguard, he’d run the crimper’s sharp edge and roller right over the pointier end of the pickguard -- the part of the pickguard that’s up by the fretboard -- and ruin it. On his third go-‘round he finally crimped all but that point with the crimper and then took the pickguard over to dad’s bench and finished the point with a hammer and the horn of dad’s anvil.

In order to finally make this decidedly flimsy pickguard have some strength, a small plate of heavier gauge copper was soldered to the inside – the side that ended up against the guitar. This way both the crimped edge of the pickguard and this ‘filler’ plate would be in contact with the top, making the whole thing sturdier, and giving more surface with which to fasten the two.

The pickguard all shaped and fabricated, dad set Jim to work with a torch, showing him that by lifting and dodging and moving the torch around on the copper, he could create a random pattern that might look just a bit like the tortoise shell pickguard.

When I look at that pickguard today, much of the pattern from that night is still in the copper, despite the years of weather and oxidation. I asked Jim about that and found out that he comes out and sprays automotive lacquer on the guitar top every year or so. I guess I shoulda figured.

Anyways, while Jim was busily making the pickguard – and it must have taken him the better part of a couple hours – dad and me started working on the sides. This kind of metal bending was done around dad’s shop nearly every day, but it still required a bit of planning ahead. For instance, to make the distinctive D18 look, dad decided that you wouldn’t just fasten the top to the side and be done with it. If you did that, it’d not look like it had binding or that black/white/black decorative binding that surrounds the top. So, while dad took the measured length of side and folded a fake binding into the topline and bottom of them, I went to work stamping four lengths of 24 gauge stainless, each the length of the top’s circumference and about a ¼ inch wide. I then did two more of those in copper, but the last one I left with an “L” folded into it.

By the time I got all that steel and copper cut, dad had the sides fabricated with the outside appearance of binding rolled into them. Together we rolled the curves into the sides. And with the bender set to those curves, we took that stainless and copper I cut and bent them to the same curves. They would become the b/w/b/w of the top binding, once all of it was joined to the side and then to the top. Having that black line of fake binding right alongside the top not only made the overall look more convincing as a guitar, but it also covered some of the ills of having cut the top – in a relatively crude manner – with side cutters.

Metal’s an interesting material. You can sorta stretch it to make compound bends, but there’s a trade-off in doing a lotta that kinda bending. To make metal sorta stretch two ways at once, it sorta fatigues the metal and you don’t often get the strength and result you thought you might in the end. And you also end up with the need to re-cut surfaces you intended to join to something else because you don’t know exactly where in the sheet that stretch is going to be taken out of, or where stretching might lengthen pre-cut ends.

So when dad started working on the neck of the guitar...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Outstanding Standings

Outstanding standings.

Heh. I kill me.

I have again pilfered the hapless John Bauman's blog to spread the news. I and the most excellent Ariel just got our copy of ALASKAN MALAMUTE -- the Alaskan Malamute Club of America's newsletter. The AMCA is, like, the Malamute branch of the American Kennel Club.

Anyways, in the newsletter are the published results of the year's agility standings and stuff. I and Ariel got us some "ink". Heh.

You may note who is at the #1 position. In the nation. Heh. Yes, it is I because, unbeknownst to those who don't know me and stuff, my official name is "SnoShire's Winsome Wind". Mom and Dad called me "Breeze" though, because they said, "You can't say 'Breeze' without smiling."

I always smile back.

I'm outta here!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Steel Wheels In Goshen -- Sunday

It was a typical hot July evening as I made my way up to Goshen to see Steel Wheels in concert. For several weeks I'd been pushing HARD to get ready for the big Ann Arbor Art Festival. That finally over, I needed a night to push back. There are few places on this Earth where one can relax so completely as in Goshen, Indiana.

I'd noticed (via facebook) that
Steel Wheels was going to be doing a house concert and (for once) I was free enough that evening to make the 20 mile trip north to take it in.

Steel Wheels is (mostly) Jay Lapp and Trent Wagler, but the group on that July night included Brian Dickel on bass and vocals. Additionally, it quite often includes fiddler Eric Brubaker as well.

Jay's dad, Jerry, has a B&B called the "Red Bridge Retreat" in Goshen and the outdoor concert was held on Jerry's lawn right alongside the mill race. I parked and walked across a small park, along the mill race bike path, and finally over an old steel bridge that leads right to Jerry's B&B.

Goshen concerts are a world unto themselves. Whether at the Red Bridge, or at
LVD's in the Old Bag Factory, there's a sense of community, commitment, and participation. It's evident in the warm, friendly atmosphere, but also in the fact that there's almost always a carry-in dinner involved with Goshen concerts.

As I made my way over the steel bridge, I could already smell the grills cooking the tons of food people had brought to share. Norm Mast, host of the longest running folk music program in the country --
The Back Porch (WVPE) -- was manning one of the grills. Everyone pitches in.

I've got to admit it...I was shocked. The trio was as tight and musical as any band I've ever heard. I don't think I'm exaggerating. And I'm not "grading on a curve". I've seen some really great bands -- Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, The Duhks, The Steeldrivers, just to name a few.

I guess I was shocked because....and now I'm going to sound like a crusty old man....I've heard about Goshen local, Jay, since he was young. And I suppose it's that "A prophet is without honor in his own land" thing showing itself in my thinking, but (sad for me to have to admit) I didn't expect so much from a local.

I shot the video above at the July Red Bridge Retreat concert

Jay has always been a great musical talent. I've even had the pleasure of playing with him on a few rare occasions when he made it to local jams, or I've run into him at Wooden Music. He's a humble, kind, and friendly gentleman as well. I think that spirit -- that nature -- shines through in his music, making it even more winsome.

But now I've watched as he has grown further into a tremendous mandolin player and an even better musician. The band played with such maturity. I can't recall hearing a band that utilized dynamics as well as they do -- often playing quietly and demanding your attention quite successfully.

Jay intuits -- as well as anyone I've ever heard -- how much the slightest bit of mando can add to an arrangement. Oh, he can burn it up too. But I've seen mandolin players who can do that. Lots of them. To his musical credit, Jay plays to the song -- and your enjoyment -- instead.

And his tone on that mandolin is incredible. Clean, articulate, round.

The trio had everything required to be entertaining -- especially great vocals. They did a few a capella numbers that brought down the house. Generally, quite often as skilled as those fellas were on mandolin, guitar, and bass, the instruments were often more utilized in service to those great vocals.

What prompted this post about Steel Wheels?

They're going to be playing in Goshen again this Sunday night, October 10 as part of the LVD's music series -- though this time around the concert will be at the Goshen Theater. If you are reading this post and you are anywhere near northern Indiana -- Fort Wayne to Chicago, Grand Rapids to Indianapolis, I highly recommend the concert. You won't be disappointed.

Steel Wheel Duo Spokesongs Tour from Joel Landis on Vimeo.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Watching The Week In Review

When I last posted, I included a photo of some of my gourds in their glazed-but-not-yet-fired state...

Well, Thursday morning at about 4:30 (or, as a good Hoosier would redund....."at 4:30 ayem in the morning") I pulled those gourds out of the kiln. I was pleased. Very pleased...

(gourds by the light of the single 100 watt bulb that hangs near my kiln)

I've been using a new wax resist that allows me not only tight control of very thin lines, but the fluidity to brush those lines as well.

The reason for the early morning kiln opening was the need to get on the road to Louisville by noon. With pots to grind and tag, boxes to pack, and a trailer to load, time was wastin' and I had to be gone by noon.

We made it to Louisville in time for set-up, and the art fair was fabulous. St James Court Art Show is perhaps one of the biggest art fairs in the country. At a time when attendance is dropping precipitously at once-huge shows such as The Ann Arbor Art Fair, the St James crowds are still going strong, with more than 300,000 attending.

But that's only part of what makes St James such an event. It's put on by a neighborhood association (as a fund-raiser), and that neighborhood takes great pride in being one of the most beautiful, immaculately maintained historic neighborhoods in the country. And it takes even greater pride in its hospitality.

Almost every night one neighborhood house or another hosted a party -- a mixer with artists and residents. Wonderful food, drinks, laughter and conversation were had throughout the whole weekend. And this interaction happened straight through from set-up night (One of the residents -- Keith, who happens to be a trained gourmet, fixed stuffed pasta for the row of five artists setting up around me), to the closing hours, when one could see resident, Judy, helping my friend Stephanie fold her canopy, while Karen (who lives behind my booth space) was helping us round up our last odds and ends in the fast-approaching dark.

* * * * * * * * * * *

I had a little extra fun at the show.

Mid-day on Sunday I noticed a familiar face in the crowd. Well, not exactly in the crowd. Rather, she was standing alone right in front of my booth.

I did a double-take.

Gwen Ifill?

But what was so odd was that, at the time I first spotted her, not only was she alone, but it seemed that nobody else in the crowd of thousands had yet spotted or recognized her.

So I must be wrong, right? I mean, surely if it was really Gwen Ifill, not only would she have been recognized by then (my booth is at the very center of the art fair), but she also surely would not be attending the art fair alone, would she?

Well, I summoned the courage to approach her and ask if I might photographer her in my booth -- finally about 80% sure that it was, indeed, her. But even as I then approached her, I finally noticed that she was holding a microphone. And as I was coming up behind her, her crew (photographer and stenographer) had, at that very moment, caught up to her.

I kinda shyly told her that I watched her every week, and I'd be honored if she'd let me photograph her in my booth. She smiled up at me and said that she'd be glad to if I'd return the favor and allow her to interview me about the upcoming Kentucky senatorial race between Paul and Conway.

After I apologized and explained that I wouldn't be good for the interview -- being, as I am, from Indiana, she said she'd still be happy to let me photograph her. In fact, her photographer even said, "hey, let me take the picture so you can be in it with Gwen."


So, after conducting interviews in front of my booth for about a 1/2 hour, she stepped up into my booth...

We got safely home....but not without incident.

While we were hurriedly packing up (remember I mentioned the early morning rush to get out the door to head south?) Dar observed upon walking by the rental trailer, "That tire sure looks bald, doesn't it?"

I agreed and told her that I'd noticed it too, but it was the only trailer on the lot.

It was bald. Very. It blew out at 9:30 PM on Interstate 65, smack dab between Louisville and Indianapolis.

Thank heaven for cell phones. I was on the phone to the U-Haul roadside assistance line within minutes. Unfortunately, between it being the middle of the night on a Sunday, and my van being situated in the middle of nowhere on I-65, it took a tire service with the proper tire and rim 4 1/2 hours to get to us and change out the wheel.

So we sat. And sat. And sat.

We tried to catch some sleep, but being, as we were, on the shoulder of an interstate highway, every single semi-tractor-trailer rocked our stationary van as it blew past us going 70 mph. Sometimes rocking can lull one to sleep. Other times, not really so much.

We finally got home at 6 ayem-in-the-morning. Tired, happy with a great show and with having made lots of new friends, and grateful that the blow-out happened with an empty trailer on the way home, rather than the full trailer on our hurried way south. Plus, it wasn't raining, and those 70mph trucks managed to stay in their lane for 4 1/2 hours!