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That Key West Music Vibe

First of all, thanks to everyone for reading and promoting yesterday’s blog post.  I don’t think I’ve ever had anything get more visits in the first 24 hours than that one! 

Now, about Friday night.  Despite some technical issues with the house drum kit which has been worked a bit too hard by successive bands, and some problems tuning Danny’s Rickenbacker guitar (due in part to the humid weather), the band played great before by far the largest crowd of the week.  Based on the feedback and merchandise sales, most of them really enjoyed the music.    But sometimes it takes one bad apple to appreciate how good the crowds and the people of Key West – the locals and yes, even the vast majority of the tourists – really are.1 Sept 2016 key west 004

Near the end of the first set, a woman walked across the dance floor and more or less threw a hand-written note in the direction of Tim that landed on the merch table.  I didn’t pay much attention to it, as I was not focused on her demeanor, but rather  on dancing and enjoying the songs.  (Local musician Dani Hoy was an especially great dance partner last night, but I digress.) 

After the set was over, Tim asked me to hand him the note, which read “I didn’t come to Key West to hear bluegrass music.”  Or something.  (I couldn’t bring myself to read it.) 

Well, where should I start?  Clearly, Ma’am, lots of other people did – or were open to it and then had a great time when the Carter Brothers played it.  But why not just go to another venue quietly – there are so many here, playing such a wide variety of music – and avoid the obnoxious note?  I recall a time in my life where I would have fled a venue playing bluegrass (due to my ignorance), but hopefully in a polite way.  Key West -- and this must be said, the Carter Brothers Band -- helped me appreciate and later love the genre.  This woman's approach went so against the live and let live, experiment with new things, open your eyes to novel ways of doing old things culture that is so at the core of Key West and its vibrant and funky music scene.

1 Sept 2016 key west 003So the pictures in this post are dedicated to the great fans of Key West live music and the Carter Brothers.

Anyway, good riddance to that woman and her sense of entitlement, and a hearty thanks to everyone who got into the Key West spirit last night, and every night here.

It was great to see my wife Emily hit town last night and enjoy the music, and also to have long-time friend of the band Nancy Mayhew come out.  Danny called out songs he knew both of them loved – “Where I Belong” for Emily and of course, “Carolina Backroads” (making its debut on this trip) for Nancy.  Both enjoyed the songs (and were far from alone in doing so) and in Nancy’s case, she broadcast it on Facebook Live. It was nice to have her join the after-party at the Tattoos and Scars Saloon. 

It was also great to see bass guitar legend Tom Conger come by, following an appearance of Ericson Holt a few nights earlier. (Tom is pictured above with Nancy, probably watching the video she had just shot.)  It’s always interesting to see where the musicians go to listen to music when they aren’t playing, and the Hog’s Breath when the Carter Brothers are in town is a likely place for sightings.  Speaking of videos of the band, there are quite a few on YouTube, including this one, which is my personal favorite. 

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Tonight the Carter Brothers perform for the sixth night in a row.  It’s Saturday night, so there’s no telling what might happen.  A bunch of us are going to Grunts before their show to hear the Bubba System and a very special reunion taking place tonight, 7:30pm-11:30pm.  Sunday night Dani Hoy and her band will play at Grunts, so expect to see some Carter Brothers groupies show up there for the first set before our heroes take the stage for their final performance of this incredible week of music.  

Expecting the Unexpected w/ the Carter Bros

The Carter Brothers continued their seven-night run at the world famous Hog’s Breath Saloon last night, playing to the largest crowd so this trip as the holiday weekend approaches.  One thing you learn in Key West is to expect the unexpected, and that was certainly true last night.  Aug Sept 2016 key west 005 crop

Earlier in the day the band and their assorted friends and groupies fanned out across the city to enjoy and support other performers.   According to Ralph de Palma’s great book The Soul of Key West on this small town’s incredible music tradition, there are as many as 50 venues featuring top performers each day – so there is no shortage of things to choose from.  For my part, my friend Gail Hardy and I spent a few hours listening to Joel Nelson play the day shift at the Hog’s Breath – where he sings original songs as well as James Taylor tunes better than JT himself ! – and then I caught the Shanty Hounds featuring Bob Tucker on bass and vocals at Grunts

As someone who often is close enough to the Carter Brothers when they are on stage to hear their conversations between songs, you realize that they have no set list, just dozens upon dozens of tunes that they know how to play.  When they gear up to perform their first song, everyone looks to Danny to call something out.  He assesses the mood of the audience and the band and without fail chooses a great tune, and then they are off on a three-hour journey that is never exactly the same – which I can confirm as I have seen them play hundreds of times over the last decade. 

Aug Sept 2016 key west 014 cropOftentimes, Danny will call out one obscure song each night that even their most devoted fans, such as myself, may have never heard them play, or not in many years.  I guess he does it just to keep everyone on their toes!  It makes for lots of exciting and certainly never dull evenings with them and their fusion of blues, bluegrass, southern rock and more. 

Last night they started with Radio Girl, based on a request I posted on the Carter Brothers Fan Club Facebook page that Danny graciously honored.  It is truly one of my favorite songs he has ever written.  Then he played a version of The Waiting by Tom Petty where his vocals soared.  Next was Yellow Moon, at which time Gail came by and we started dancing non-stop for the next few hours -- what fun!  She wrecked me but it hurts so good....

Around this time a wedding party in outrageous costumes showed up, and Danny and the band showed their versatility by playing a bunch of upbeat songs – originals and cover tunes – that got the group on the dance floor and having a great time.  These included Woman at the Well, Road to Roosky, Child of the Wild Blue Yonder, Fatback, Copperhead Road and Shelby Street.  Everyone was drenched in sweat, but no one seemed to care. 

One of the nice things about a relatively quiet week like this one (at least until last night) has been the Aug Sept 2016 key west 010 cropopportunity to catch up with the band members over breaks and the occasional chance encounter during the day.  In the tradition of great southern story-tellers, Mark Vernon can entertain anyone for hours about any subject – such as when an earlier incarnation of the band used to play Sloppy Joe’s in the early 1990s.  I caught up with Dann Sherrill over pizza on Wednesday night after the performance and a learned a ton about music, as I always do when talking to him.    

It’s been great to hear Tim tell us about his tours of Europe this year with the band Hayseed Dixie, playing at festivals with up to 30,000 people.  Also, Tim was selected for super-prestigious showcase at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass event in Raleigh later this month, and he has taken no chances in terms of maximizing this opportunity for a big breakthrough for his music.  Among other things, he is reassembling most of his “Bang Bang” touring band from the summer of 2013, including Tim May on guitar and Barbara (Babs) Lamb on fiddle.  As a proud IBMA member and a fan and friend of Tim’s, I will be there for two of his three showcase performances, with my mother and step-father along for the ride as they also love Tim’s music. 

It is moments like these when I can get a bit nostalgic about the last 9 ½ years since I met the Carter Brothers and their people who play music with them and their many fans and friends.  It all began here, during my 40th birthday celebration, when I wandered into the Hog’s Breath and was mesmerized by their music.  Well, this January, they are returning to Key West to play seven nights at the Hog’s Breath starting January 23, 2017, and lots of my friends and family will join dozens of their fans from around the country for an exciting week.  Carter Brothers Nation, come join the festivities if you can!

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  We have three more nights of music here, and then the band comes back together to play the fourth MusicFest at Blue Bear Mountain next weekend near Boone, NC.  And as I said, being with this unpredictable band in this irreverent city, everyone should expect the unexpected, and you certainly won’t be disappointed! 

For those of you who couldn’t make this trip, keep tuning in via the HogCam and send us messages – we love getting them !

-- Alex Counts, President, Carter Brothers Fan Club 

Carter Bros & Fans in Key West in Photos (Jan. 2016)

I often conclude the series of blogs on the band's trips to Key West with some previously unpublished photos and a little text in between.  So here goes.  

I really like this one of Danny and Dann playing.


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Carter Bros music inspires each person in a different way!  Here is one of guy who came multiple nights and played harmonica along with the band, with great energy and seriousness, from the parking lot.  

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Selfies with the band!


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Super fans Nancy Mayhew and Joan Robbins (in from San Diego once again).  I once called Joan a "huge fan" and that didn't go over too well......  These two are as good friends and fans as a band could ever have or want.  And the band played some of their favorite songs, like "Carolina Backroads" for Nancy. jan 2016 2 001 crop


Of course there were those great fans from Michigan, Randy and Christine West!


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Diane Jackman and her husband Don are terrific friends of the band from Maine and come down every January for a big friends of the Carter Bros reunion of sorts.  Here they are with another great fan, Gail Hardy, our resident (though retired) nurse.

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Last but not least, here is Steve, the Hog's Breath employee who played covers between sets on the last night that kept everyone dancing and ensured a big crowd for the Carter Brothers final set of the week.  

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OK, that's it y'all.   Thanks for taking part in the week whether in person or via the Internet.  The band and I appreciate everyone who helped make it a successful and enjoyable week.  Post your own pictures (as  many have already done) on the Fan Club Facebook page.   

Prepared by Alex Counts, President, Carter Brothers Fan Club

Going to a Different & Better Place

The Carter Brothers Band delivered its most complete, satisfying and energetic set so far this week on Wednesday night -- to the delight of new and long-time fans in this mostly deserted tropical paradise.  But more on that in a moment. 

In recent years Key West has become a truly year-round tourist destination, in part due to the world-class live music scene, but this year sensationalistic weather forecasters around the country scared a lot of people off due to inaccurate, dated and exaggerated reports of tropical storms that never materialized.  But for those who live here, or came down to see our heroes perform, its turning out to a great week – rather hot and humid, and an occasional (and often refreshing) storm that dissipates quickly. Erica pic

Like many people, being in Key West and listening to the Carter Brothers sends me and my soul to different and very enjoyable place.  The sometimes unpleasant and in any case demanding realities of modern life melt away.  My Key West routine, honed over a decade of following the band, goes something like this (as it did yesterday): wake up around 8am, exercise, hang out with local friends who put me up in their home, have lunch and go see musicians I know who play the day shift (such as Joel Nelson at the Hog’s Breath Saloon), take a late afternoon nap, and then see 2-3 other musicians in the evening before the Carter Brothers start at 10pm.  Oftentimes I’ll sneak in a seafood dinner or perhaps Italian food at La Trattoria or its attached music venue, Virgilios (appetizer portions of the pastas being entirely sufficient, which can be ordered at the bar in either place). 

deb hudson picYesterday, In addition to seeing Joel play in the afternoon after a brunch with Danny, Tim and super-fans Bill and Jan Wang, I listened to Ericson Holt at Two Friends Patio, Erica Sunshine Lee at the Hog’s Breath, and Deb Hudson at the Little Jazz Room.  I have only met Erica this week, though I learned that she has written songs with Lacy Green, the daughter of Carter Brothers Band alumni Johnny Green who (like her father) has a fantastic singing voice.  Eric and Deb are friends and fantastic musicians who were in fine form.  Deb was supported by a terrific Senegalese guitar player named Yvan Agbo – quite a duo!

All of this whetted my appetite for a great set by the Carter Brothers filled with original songs such as Fatback and Road to Roosky, and covers that they have put their stamp on over the years.  When Jan Wang told me over brunch that she was putting her dancing shoes on that night, I knew that not only the music would be energetic, but the dance floor would be as well.  Many music-loving tourists who had never heard the band before sat around, mesmerized.  It’s great to see the band, which had not played together since January, hitting its stride as the holiday weekend approaches. Aug 2016 Key West 012 crop

A short third set featured Bob Tucker sitting in on bass, and playing two of Danny’s all-time great songs – Shelby Street and Green River.  Then the band and some fans who stayed around the break down and put away the gear went over to Tattoos and Scars for some drinks before turning in, and getting ready for another day in music paradise.  

Filling an Empty Bar on the Last Night

Sunday nights when the Carter Brothers play in Key West can often be low-key, relaxed affairs.  Danny suggested as much on Facebook when he said that the evening might end early, which would certainly help the band given their need to hit the road at 7:30am the next morning.  And it seemed that this was the destiny for the evening when I walked in at 9:30pm and the bar seemed as empty as it often is at 2am.  And then, something happened.

The Hog’s Breath filled up over the next 45 minutes and remained full until the band played their last song at 1:30am.  Our heroes know how to hold onto a crowd, that’s for sure.  And they were aided by an employee of the Hog’s Breath named Steve who offered to play guitar and sing a bunch of cover tunes during the break, and ended up filling the dance floor and keeping everyone happy and eager for the Carter Brothers last set during this magnificent week. 

For me, I had a throwback night, dancing primarily with my pal Joan Robbins.  I met Joan, a self-described “hippie chick” who just happens to have served 28 years in the San Diego Fire Department in a very demanding operational (i.e., fire-fighting) role, and is a skilled electrician to boot.  In the early 2010s, Joan and I used to dance to basically every song the Carter Brothers played during the 3-4 weeks per year they came down here.  She became a dear friend of mine and my wife Emily, one of many amazing and (let’s be honest) quirky people I met through the band, even though she stopped coming to Key West as often (though she did come to my wife’s 50th birthday bash here in September, which was a blast, but I digress yet again……).

On Sunday night, the band played two energetic and nearly flawless sets.  As has become customary, when the Hog’s Breath staff indicated that they should play one final song, Tim invited me to make a request for their last tune on their final night.  Well, I looked to Joan, who looked back at me, and chanelling the moment as best I could, I called for something they had not played all week but that I love.  The song?  You guessed it.  “Jerusalem Moan.”  And they killed it.  The dance floor filled up one more time with Joan, my buddy Gail and her friend Bob Tucker (a terrific bass player and singer whom you can catch at Grunts on Friday and Saturday nights as part of the band The Bubba System), and two other couples who just wandered in that night, as my wife and I did 8 years ago. 

Well, now we are at the point where I summarize my top ten memories of the week here in Key West with our heroes.  Here goes:

  1. The late night bull sessions with the band and their fans at Tattoos and Scars and the two pizza joints we frequent these days after their performances.
  2. The cookout hosted by John and Gay, and Vern’s amazing stories and jokes that afternoon.  Nothing beats a good southern story-teller!
  3. Seeing Elisabeth and Darrin roll into town in time for some Carter Brothers shows as they geared up for their wedding (!) next week!
  4. Seeing a male musician get out of the dance floor and actually enjoy himself  -- great job, Bob Tucker!  See you at Grunts this Friday night for sure.
  5. Woman At The Well.  Enough said.
  6. Hearing from Shelly, Cindy and others who were watching/listening via the HogCam and sending messages.
  7. Seeing one Joan Robbins ripping up the dance floor and pulling “toe tappers” who wanted to dance but couldn’t quite venture out to do so.
  8. Tim’s new cover of Bob Dylan’s “Man Gave Names to the All the Animals” and how he and the band mastered it over the course of the week.
  9. The fan club lunch at the Smokin Tuna on Saturday.  It was amazing to see everyone together before 10pm!
  10. Seeing so many other great musicians in town during the week, including Joel Nelson, Caffeine Carl, Scott Kirby, Ericson Holt, and the Bubba System (Bob Tucker’s band).

In a few days I will post a final blog of previously unpublished photos from the week and encourage people to send me theirs so I can include.  Also, thanks to everyone who helped the band in so many big and small ways, especially those of you who store their stuff down here, drive them around, take them out for meals, dance to their songs, tip them, clap for them, and much more.  It’s a team effort to make these weeks such a win for the band, the fans, and the Hog’s Breath and I tip my hat  to the entire team.

Stay tuned for dates when our heroes will return to Key West later in 2016.  

Carter Brothers Back in Key West

The Carter Brothers and some of their fans from around the country ignored reports of tropical storms in South Florida and made it to Key West with plenty of time to spare before their 10pm performance at the Hog’s Breath Saloon last night.  Prior to that, there was lots of good music on the island, even though it is a bit quieter than, say, March or even June.  A few of the fans took in the last set of Erica Sunshine Lee, bringing her take on Country/Southern rock to the Hog’s Breath stage up to 9:30pm.  She told a classic Key West story, of having had her guitar stolen in Orlando the night before but being lent one by a local musician so she could play. 

Our heroes got going a few minutes after 10pm, and began with my favorite song from their latest album: “Woman at the Well.”  They followed that up with “Radio Girl,” which I had requested via their Facebook page, which sounded great after being off the set list for a long time and also filled the dance floor.  That was followed with a number of other original songs, such as Danny’s “Shacktown Road” (with Cindy Walker dancing in her living room in Virginia as she tuned in via the Hog Cam), and Tim’s “Fatback” and “Waltz for Earl.”  The long first set concluded with “What Did the Deep Sea Say” and finally a rousing version of “Midnight Train.”  

In the crowd was Bob Tucker, the bass player for the local band The Bubba System who sat in with the Carter Brothers in June when they played a seven nights of acoustic performances.  Other local fans in attendance included Steve Mellette and Gail Hardy. 

The highlight of the second set was Tim’s “Where I Belong,” sung to an intimate crowd of music-lovers.  The after-party took place at Paradise Pizza and then the band and its fans dispersed, but not before Bob went to the band house to try to fix the cable TV at 1:15am.

Professionals At Work, and Accessible

“I think we need to chunk it up more on the downbeat,” one member of the Carter Brothers Band said to another on Thursday night at 3am. 

“And play it more loosely,” the other responded, eliciting a nod between bites of a pepperoni slice.jan 2016 2 004 crop

I was sharing a piece of late night pizza when my two musician friends were talking about one of the newer songs in their repertoire that they have been playing this week.  I found it incredible that at such an advanced hour they were still brainstorming about how to make the arrangements perfect for their fans down here.  But that’s what it means to be a professional musician, I suppose.    

It was also enjoyable, for someone like me who knows far, far less about music than the Carter Brothers and their band members, to listen in on a conversation that I barely understood.  Despite most of it going over my head, it felt like one more chance to learn through osmosis from professionals in a field that I love but in which I am barely an amateur.  It kind of reminded me of hours spent in 1989 when I was learning a foreign language in a foreign country and listening in on free-wheeling conversations that I could understand virtually nothing of but would nonetheless help lay the foundation for me one day becoming fluent.  But I digress…..

I suppose the larger point is how accessible and unpretentious the Carter Brothers are with their fans and friends who are not musicians.  For example, on another night this week I was talking to Carter Brothers drummer extraordinaire Dann Sherrill about Chester Thompson, a famous musician he introduced me to in Nashville a few years ago (yes, I totally geeked out when he did).  He went on to mention some other monster players that I had never heard of.  Instead of rolling his eyes at my ignorance, he patiently told me about all these great artists as we slowly had one final beer at Tattoos and Scars, the go-to bar for the Carter Brothers and their fans’ after-parties. 

jan 2016 2 014 cropWhich reminds me of yet another story, if you will indulge me, since I have been looking for an excuse to write about it for a while.  The last time I was here with the Carter Brothers full band, a local fan came by and started playing a percussion instrument in the middle of one of the band’s songs.  Knowing how most musicians hate it when amateurs come uninvited and start adding to and usually detracting from their music, I almost walked over and stopped her, but thought better of it.  I asked Tim what I should do if that happened the following night, and he shrugged his shoulders, frowned a bit, and looked at Dann, who said, “It’s OK, she was in time [with the music].”  It is hard to think of a more generous response from a professional musician to what most would consider an invasion of their performance.

Which reminds me of yet another story from last night.  Late in the second of two long and terrific sets, I asked for “Woman at the Well” which is one of my favorite songs to listen to and dance to.  Tim had to change instruments to play it, but he did.  I have invented my own dance to this song and had enough room to go full out, which was fun.  Later that night, at Tattoos and Scars, Tim, Mark Vernon and a few fans were gently teasing me about my dancing, as it is a bit “out there” especially to “Woman at the Well.”  Mark Vernon, sipping his Budweiser, rose to my defense, saying, “And with all those limbs flying around, you were in time” with the music.  He didn’t have to notice or say that, but this is the type of people the Carter Brothers Band, and their fans, are. 

We had our most recent Friends of the Carter Brothers luncheon at The Smokin’ Tuna Saloon and around 30 people came including the entire band.  For years we have organized a picnic on the beach on the Saturday afternoon of the week when the full band is here, except for January where lower temperatures lead us to have a restaurant lunch together.  This allows us to celebrate the birthdays of three of our members: Joan, Sally and Cindy.  What a great tradition!jan 2016 luncheon

Friday night was one of my favorite nights ever with the Carter Brothers in Key West.  They played perhaps the longest set I have ever heard them play at one stretch – about 100 minutes – and followed it up with another strong set that went until 1:30am.  They played a few songs they hadn’t done in a while, like Panama Red, and killed Big Red Tractor, which has made a much-appreciated reappearance this week after being in hiatus for a while. 

But what was most memorable for me was having almost all my favorite dancing partners there in one place and getting to dance with each of them, and occasionally, all of them at the same time.  I’m talking about Joan R., Gail Hardy, Diane Jackman, Alicia Renner, Deb Hudson, Gay Dougherty, Sally Galbraith and Donna Nelson.  This after having had the pleasure of dancing with Candace Estep and Christine West earlier in the week.  The only great dance partners missing, besides my wife Emily of course, were Karen O’Malley, Brookley Spanbauer, Cindy Carter and Cindy Walker. 

Truth be told, sometime in my 30s I reverted to my early teen years and became, like many adult men in America, self-conscious about my dancing, so I rarely ventured out, fearful of embarrassing myself.  The ladies named above all helped bring me out of my shell, and then some (!), by coaxing me to dance to the Carter Brothers fabulous music.  Now, I am happy to grab a partner and to be the first and only couple on the dance floor at the Hog’s Breath or in a New York nightclub.  I owe all of you my thanks for helping me enjoy music in a very physical/aerobic way that I love.  And how appropriate that one of the first dancers on the floor last night was my Mother, down here for the second time with my Stepfather.  Something about apples and trees?  Anyway….

jan 2016 2 009 cropIt’s been great to see Danny playing so well and so many of his classic songs, often four of five in a row, and drawing energy from the crowd which has been responding with long ovations and lots of business at the merchandise table.  The entire band seems to be having a great time, even as they focus in on learning a complex new Bob Dylan song, “Man Gave Names to All the Animals.” 

One more night to go!  It has been an amazing week with hardly any technical mishaps or drunken fools drawing attention to themselves at the expense of the music and the fun of it all.  Let’s hope this magical week concludes tonight in the same vein.  


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