Gold Rush as Folk Opera in Brace and Straub’s ‘Hangtown Dancehall’

HNGTWN-EB-25326-14Red Beet Records Album Officially Out Today

The bright lights of Broadway are a long way from the near-mythic Red Beet Bunker – Americana nice guy Eric Brace’s home and label HQ in the cracked asphalt hollers of East Nashville.

But Brace isn’t ruling it out. “Who knows? Broadway? I don’t know,” says Brace, 53, as he sits in the aforementioned bunker sending out promo copies of the project that may, eventually, join Cats and Les Misérables on The Great White Way.

No, he’s not quite betting his bunker on it (although his personal and emotional investments surely are high). He’s not ruling it out, either.

Brace, 53, is a dreamer. Has been ever since he parlayed a love of the rootsier side of hometown D.C. music into a job as a nightlife reporter for the Washington Post.

It’s a long story, but basically, he went from waiting tables during lunch hour to support his own performing habit – “I always have written songs, when I’ve strummed a guitar, I’ve always strummed my own music. I like getting on stage and singing songs” – to going out to write about the music scene in America’s politically corrupt (another story) capital city. Well, there was one stop in between: He answered phones at the newspaper for awhile, all the while pestering the entertainment staff with his thoughts of what might be covered. Before long he was weighing the work of Samoan metal bands and the like for Ben Bradlee and the newspaper’s readers.

But this story isn’t really about that journalistic dream. It’s about the one that’s been growing in the back of his shiny head for a decade and a half.

The result, which on this day he and his wife Mary Ann and their Red Beet Bunker label manager Lindsay Hayes are shoveling into envelopes bound for the nation’s press and disc jockeys, is “Hangtown Dancehall.”

The songs Brace wrote with his longtime buddy – “a true musical genius,” he says – Karl Straub could best be described as a “folk opera.”

eb ksWhy “folk opera”? Well, it is a collection of songs that when played, front-to-back, tells a story. The easiest way to describe it, for Baby Boomers at least, is that when it first came out in 1969, The Who’s “Tommy” was proclaimed the world’s first “Rock Opera.” Many have followed, but nothing has been quite as compelling as that story of that deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure played a mean pinball.

No, there’s no Roger Daltrey singing “see me… feel me … touch me… heal meeeeeee….” here.

Instead, there’s Brace singing the tale of a “Pretty Girl in Missouri” that begins the musically linear journey right after a glowing instrumental version of “Sweet Betsy from Pike.”

Yep, the girl who went through the mountains with her lover Ike on the long trek to the California gold fields is the central character, the “pinball wizard,” so to speak, of this particular folk opera.

On the album, the instrumental intro scene-setter is played by Brace and Straub on guitars with longtime Johnny Cash sideman and Nashville treasure Dave Roe on bass. And that’s not even mentioning the presence of accordion-playing music professor and sometime Sheryl Crow accompanist Jen Gunderman. Brace and Straub also contribute vocals throughout the recording.

While Brace hasn’t referred to this as a “folk opera,” it fittingly describes this hourlong batch of songs, mostly original stuff played in the style of 1849 Gold Rush campfire singalongs, the kind of stuff everyone from Gene Autry to Woody Guthrie to Jerry Garcia would enjoy. This string of songs explores the sometimes sordid details of Sweet Betsy’s long affair with Ike as well as their contemporaries.

When presented onstage by a sprawling cast of musicians at Nashville nightspot Third & Lindsley in November, Brace used a narrator to move the story along. Enclosed in the album is the basic story, written by Brace, which he wrote as sort of a road atlas to make sure people could make the transitions and turns with the music.

But even without this sort of Cliff’s Notes album booklet, the musical trek through 22 tracks is cohesive storytelling, and without doing a track-by-track, it should be noted that many of Nashville’s and D.C.’s best, brightest (and sometimes nicest) are along for the musical ride.

In addition to the quartet listed above, the players include Brace mentor Mike Auldridge on resonator guitar. Auldridge, who died last year, was a kingpin in the D.C. folk and bluegrass scene in his solo performance and with legendary, genre-busting group The Seldom Scene.

“The good thing about being a musician is you can ask your heroes to play and they almost always will,” says Brace, by way of explanation when discussing not only Auldridge but the many others who have joined him, either in the studio or on the stage since Red Beet set up shop in Music City in the fifth year of this young century.

To read the list of performers in general on this folk opera is reason enough to want to listen to it.

In addition to the players already mentioned , singers, pickers and Brace cronies on this album include Jared Bartlett (backing vocals, guitar), Peter Cooper (Brace’s duo partner when he’s not working on the tale of Sweet Betsy, backing vocals), Kevin Cordt (trumpet), Casey Driessen (violin), David Henry (strings), Fats Kaplin (violin, mandolin, pedal-steel guitar), Pat McInerney (drums), Scott McKnight (banjo), Tim O’Brien (vocals, violin, banjo, mandolin), Andy Reiss (guitar), Jason Ringenberg (vocals), Darrell Scott (vocals), Buddy Spicher (violin), Wesley Stace (formerly “John Wesley Harding,” vocals), Kurt Storey (viola), Kelly Willis (vocals) and Andrea Zonn (vocals).

As for Gunderman, the accordion wizard mentioned earlier, she also contributes piano and pump organ to the album.

hangtown-34The birth of this folk opera, as this writer will dub it for now and ever, actually goes to Brace’s own roots. He was born in Hangtown (actually its name had been changed to Placerville, which likely still pleases the Chamber of Commerce). Placerville was at the epicenter of the Gold Rush.

So while the Gold Rush remained in his heritage, he didn’t start pondering a musical version until he had established himself as a club musician around D.C. and as band-leader of Last Train Home, a still-surviving outfit that dates back to the mid-1990s birth of what was then called “alt-country.”

His job as a journalist was what started him on this journey. “I had gone out to California in 1999 to write a story for the Post travel section on the 150th anniversary of the ‘49ers,” he says — speaking of those who led the Gold Rush, not the NFC club which took its name from them long before sloppy defensive play, one really horrible officiating call and the aggressive and self-deprecating “best corner in the league” sent the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl.

“I had been born out in the middle of Gold Rush Country. When I went back to do this story, I read a lot of these fantastic stories about the Gold Rush.

“I said ‘These stories would make great songs.’ And I had the idea of putting together a lot of songs about the Gold Rush, but I didn’t have an idea about a story to hang them on.”

“I did research on some music of the Gold Rush era and there’s some well-known songs, among them, like ‘My Darling Clementine,’ but the one that jumped out at me was ‘Sweet Betsy From Pike.’ I had known that song since I was a boy in California.”

But there was something missing. According to Brace, the story, with all of its verses – like so many folks songs, there are many, many verses – details the trek of Betsy and Ike, their dog, etc., out to the goldfields.

“The story ends when they get to Placerville,” he says. “They get in a fight and split up.”

That teased him into action. “I might have even said it aloud: ‘What happens next?’”

Answering that question became the framework around which Brace and his pal Straub – who had bought into this dream — built the folk opera.

“The story took a long time to be clear. I would make a little outline and ask myself questions: ‘Where does Betsy go when Ike storms off into the mountains?’ ‘What does Betsy do?’

“Slowly the story became clear in my head. There had to be some sort of classic story structure. The heroes split apart. They go through classic trauma. And they get back together happily.”

Brace and Straub worked together, tossing ideas back and forth, writing songs. “We would say, ‘Now we need a song here to explain why this happened….

“There was a lot of back and forth about it. You don’t want people asking questions when the song is done. We wanted to make it as seamless as possible …. There has to be some connectivity.”

Not that the songs don’t stand alone. In fact Brace has high hopes that Kelly Willis’ heart-searing turn on “Pike County Rose” will catch the ears of radio programmers.

In fact, it was Willis’ agreement to sign on for the role of Sweet Betsy that pretty well allowed Brace and Straub, who already had recorded a half-dozen perhaps aimless Gold Rush songs, to complete the story and turn dream to reality.

hangtown-49“The final piece in the puzzle came when Kelly Willis agreed to sing the part of Betsy in November 2012. I was so happy. I had been listening to her for years, since she was a teenager in D.C. in a rockabilly band called ‘The Fireballs,’ which quickly became Kelly & The Fireballs and launched her career. And we’d become friends over the years, with Last Train Home opening several shows for her. So in late 2012 and early 2013, we made the final push, finished up the recording.”

Of course then came the artwork and the rest of the pieces of the final package and now the album is out.

But it’s not really the end of the dream for Brace.

“I am so happy with it. I sort of breathe a big sigh and wonder what’s next? It’s such an unusual project. I’m not sure how music writers or deejays or bloggers are going to react….

“If it catches some people’s attention as we spread the word, that’s great. If it doesn’t, there’s definitely the really wonderful feeling of having captured this thing that I’ve been talking about for more than 10 years.

“If it doesn’t catch fire as a simple CD release, I’m not going to beat myself up about that.”

That’s because he’ll be busy taking this dream on one final and monumental journey.

“What I’m going to try to do is devote time to turning ‘Hangtown Dancehall’ into a stageable musical with dialogue and an acting cast.

“There’s a huge lead time in developing a musical: Rehearsing it, staging it. That process could take years to get it to a stageable place, but that’s what we really want to do: have it be a standalone musical that Karl and I have created….

“I’m also in the process of contacting some theatrical producers and directors and hoping that somebody sees something in the story and takes a liking to Betsy and takes a liking to Ike, even though he’s a bit of a jerk.”

It’s not really a laugh in his voice as much as it is pure delight when he repeats himself: “Who knows? Broadway?”

 

*Cover artwork by Julie Sola, with design by Bill Thompson, as well as photo of Eric Brace and Karl Straub by Michael Williamson and photos of Kelly Willis and Eric Brace as well as Tim O’Brien from the Hangtown Dancehall premiere by Stacie Huckeba courtesy Red Beet Records.

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About Tim Ghianni

Tim Ghianni is a lifelong journalist and author in Middle Tennessee. He was a nationally honored columnist and editor at The Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville for 14 years, at the Nashville Banner for its last 10 years of existence and then spent the final 10 years of his newspaper career at The Tennessean before being “bought out” in August of 2007. His newspaper years – which included encounters with murderers, mayors and movie stars, from James Earl Ray to O.J. Simpson and his friend Kris Kristofferson – are chronicled in his 2012 book "When Newspapers Mattered: The News Brothers & their Shades of Glory." When John Seigenthaler hosted Ghianni for a Word on Words show about that book, he called it “an obituary on newspapers …. but it’s funny” (or words to that effect. ) Ghianni continues to write for local and national publications and for his They Call Me Flapjacks blog; he is also Tennessee and Kentucky correspondent for Reuters. His recently published book, "Shoebox Full of Toads: Farewell to Mom," chronicles his hours spent at his mother’s deathbed, telling her how she affected his life. A heartwarming, occasionally funny book, it is available for $25 – including shipping and handling -- from Ghianni by writing him at 471 Rochelle Drive, Nashville, TN 37220. His latest, “Monkeys Don’t Wear SILVER SUITS: Kelly’s Little Green Men & the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse,” a “non-fiction novel” (co-authored with his “When Newspapers Mattered” partner Rob Dollar) chronicling the folklore and fact of a 1955 alien invasion in Southern Kentucky, just has been released. All three books are available at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

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