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2012 Home of the Legends Contemporary Thumbpicking Champion

This past weekend (Sept. 29, 2012) my wife and I travelled down to Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, for the Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Weekend. We had a wonderful trip seeing some beautiful scenery, meeting great people (inlcuding some fellow Canucks who had come down from Toronto) and hearing some fine guitar music. I also entered the thumbpicking competition that was part of the festivities and had the good fortune to place 1st in the Contemporary category and 3rd in the Traditional category.

The start to the weekend

I first heard about this event back in 2000 and ever since I have had it on my to-do list. But you know how entwined to-do lists and the passage of years are. Suddenly twelve years had slipped by. So this summer I decided it was finally time to buckle down and take in the event.

“Muhlenberg County?”, I hear you muse, “Didn’t John Prine sing a song about that?”. Indeed he did, a song about the region’s coal mining activity destroying his childhood memories of the area.

But the area is also well-known for it’s music and a style of guitar playing known as thumbpicking, or sometimes West Kentucky choke-style, which is strongly identified with the region. Merle Travis is the most well known and influential of a number of guitarists from the area that also include Mose Rager, Ike Everly, Kennedy Jones amongst others. This weekend honours their legacy, as well as promoting the current practiioners of this particular guitar style.

Bob competing in Muhlenberg County, KY

In the heat of the battle … competing in Muhlenberg County, KY

The Home of the Legends Thumbpicking Weekend is held each year during the last weekend of September in Powderly, Kentucky. Housed in the Merle Travis Music Centre (a very nice concert facility) it comprises a ceremony and concert on Friday night to add new inductees to the National Thumbpicking Hall of Fame, several thumb picking guitar competitions through the day on Saturday and a Saturday night concert featuring a number of fine fingerstyle guitarists. Sunday features an outdoor picking party next door in Paradise Park, which also houses several historic buildings including Merle Travis’ childhood house.

In the competitions Scott Taylor won the Traditional category, and as previously mentioned, I placed 1st in the Contemporary category. In the tradition of the competition, the winners of these two categories face off in a sudden death round for the Grand Champion title. You’ll notice I didn’t mention “Grand Champion” in my opening paragraph – so you’ve probably already guessed Scott won that round, including the gorgeous Grestch Country Gentleman that went with the title. Scott played great.

Scott Taylor and Bob Evans

Hanging with Scott Taylor

These competitions are always nerve wracking, but also exhilarating. The coolest thing about the ones I have entered is the backstage camaraderie amongst the competitors and the “bonding” that comes from sharing such a nerve wracking experience. I wasn’t disappointed at the Home of the Legends. I got to meet another roomful of great pickers – some of them as old as myself (athough I’m finding myself rapidly becoming the oldest in the room, Gack!), but also about half of the group being … uh … let me do the math … yeah .. half my age (and they weren’t teenagers – ouch!), which doesn’t bode well for me but is a great thing for carrying the style forward.

Mose Rager monument in Drakesboro, KY – one of the pioneers of Kentucky thumb picking.

On Sunday we made our way down the road to Drakesboro, home of Mose Rager. We also tried to find our way to Ebenezer to see Merle Travis’ monument, but somehow got lost – yes, people from the area will scratch their heads – but we were tourists – come on, cut us some slack.

Drakseboro streets are peppered with the names of thumb pickin’ guitarists

As an aside from the music, we wrapped up the weekend taking in Mammoth Cave National Park, located about and hour and a half east of Powderly. No musical comments, but a fascinating site featuring the world’s longest known cave. Being three hundred feet underground is a great place to be when it’s raining outside. 🙂

Bottom line. A terrific weekend of guitar music, with great hospitality. Check out this event sometime if you get the chance.

Lord Randal


Transcription available

Level: Intermediate     Tuning: Drop D

Lord Randal is one of the most well-known of the English murder ballads. It is the story of a young man who has lunch with either his girlfriend or, in the version I sing, his stepmother. He returns home not feeling well and through a series of probing questions from his mother realizes he has been poisoned. It’s sort of like CSI 1700’s style.

My arrangement is an adaptation of Martin Carthy’s version from his 1972 album Shearwater. Carthy was one of my guitar idols in the early ’70s. I loved both his unique guitar style and his approach to interpreting traditional songs. On Lord Randal he used a dulcimer as the main accompaniment instrument and I was drawn to how it drove the story along. While note trying to emulate a dulicmer, I did try to capture the energy of that accompaniment part in my guitar arrangement arranged.

Originally, back in 1973, I arranged and played this using Carthy’s tuning of DADEAE. However, these days I don’t use open tunings that often. So I have adjusted the guitar part to be played out of Drop D tuning.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Transcription available

Level: Int/Adv     Tuning: Standard


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Yikes! We’re already half way through December. I figure I better get this out before I slide right through the holiday season into the new year.

Lyrically, Santa Claus is Coming to Town has to be one of the creepiest tunes in the Christmas song catalogue. Sung to a beguilingly cheerful tune, the lyrics are an Orwellian view of Christmas, where Santa is a punitive Big Brother. He monitors everything you do and judges you accordingly. He knows all about you: when you’re happy, sad, good, bad, awake, asleep … everything! He is watching YOU.

Phew! Listen to this song a couple of times and it won’t be the anticipation of presents on Christmas morning that makes it difficult for you to get to sleep at night.

Fortunately, this is an instrumental version of the song. You don’t have to be worried about a seasonally induced dose of paranoia while listening to this arrangment.

Silent Night – Be vewy, vewy quiet

Transcription available

Level: Intermediate     Tuning: Standard


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If ever there was a Christmas carol that should be played on the guitar, it would be Silent Night. After all, according to numerous recountings of the songs humble origin, it was first performed at the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, 1818, with the musical accompaniment coming not from the church’s organ, per standard operating procedure, but from Fr. Mohr’s guitar. In the almost 200 years since its creation, it has become a central piece in the Christmas canon.

Stories abound about the reason the organ wasn’t functioning: mice had chewed the bellows, the organ had broken down and there was no organ technician who lived close by to repair it, and so on. But the role of the guitar in its composition and first performance remains consistent.


Gruber’s original autographed manuscript of the song with guitar accompaniment appears to the right.

This is my humble arrangement of the tune. You’ll find it is a relatively straightforward arrangement, although it does shift positions up and down the neck.

CAAS 2010 and Artisan Guitars Chet Atkins Tribute Show

The 2010 Chet Atkins Appreciation Society (CAAS) Convention has come and gone for another year. This was my tenth year to have had the good fortune to perform at it. Ten years? Yikes, where does the time go?

Kicking the week off on the night before CAAS began, Tuesday (July 6), Artisan Guitars held their annual Chet Atkins Tribute evening in Franklin, TN. Over the past five years this show has developed in to a pre-convention tradition. I was honoured to be asked once again to perform as part of that evening, sharing the stage with Muriel Anderson, John Knowles, Thom Bresh, Tommy Emmanuel, Sean Weaver, Andy Walberg and Earl Klugh. Whew! That’s an evening of pretty heady company.

There are so many great players every year at CAAS that you can’t possibly take them all in in one year. So every year I’m making “new” discoveries of players I’m hearing for the first time, even though they may have been there before. The highlights of the “new guys” for me year would include Adam Palma from Poland via Britain playing some terrific fingerstyle funk; the duo of Loren Barrigar and Mark Mazengarb played some stunningly great guitar duets; and Bobby Cochran who displayed a most tasteful and discrete use of a looper pedal to play some fine rockin’ guitar.

If you’re a lover of the guitar, be sure to put CAAS on your list of to-dos. Four days of great guitar music and company. It’s held each July in Nashville. Full details can be found at the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society website