Leader of the Pack – Richard Carlyon

Richard Carlyon drowned his sorrow in an early morning beer.

What else was there to do after getting fired on your first day?

Traffic in Columbus Circle was a mess. When it finally got moving, he was already late. Carlyon’s boss stood in front of the time clock and turned him right around. It felt like the end of the world for a twentysomething kid in New York City.

That evening at his apartment, Carlyon watched the day’s gridlock on the news. He saw himself snarled in traffic, racing to save his job. Then he saw what caused the backup: an enormous dead whale on a flatbed truck.

In his rush, Carlyon was oblivious to the beached monster winding its way downtown.

But that was more than 50 years ago. Today, the 75-year-old Carlyon is a master at paying attention. Seeing things that other people don’t is what makes him a good artist. Getting others to do the same is what made him a great teacher.

“My tendency is to try to live in the present,” Carlyon said. “You try to be alive to what presents itself, especially in dumb, plain everyday circumstances.”

Dick Carlyon is a godfather of the Richmond arts community. He began teaching in 1955 at Richmond Professional Institute (it became Virginia Commonwealth University in 1968).

In the decades that followed, he encouraged thousands of young artists to paint, sculpt, draw and dance. He survived pop, postmodernism, conceptual and performance art.

Even today, as the 21st-century VCU arts program earns national accolades, professor emeritus Carlyon remains more than relevant.

Many argue that he’s always been a few steps ahead.

On Dec. 10, during winter commencement and a standing ovation, VCU President Eugene Trani awarded Carlyon the university’s highest honor, the Presidential Medallion. The award is given for extraordinary achievement in learning and commit- ment to the mission of VCU.

Carlyon’s 42 years on the art-school front lines more than qualified him.

“He was just an obvious choice,” said local choreographer Chris Burnside, a member of the selection committee and a longtime friend.

“No one else has impacted like him,” said Burnside. “Generation after generation would agree he was the most inspiring teacher they ever had.”

Bev Reynolds volunteered to curate an exhibit of Carlyon’s work at her gallery to coincide with the award.

“Richard Carlyon: Selected Paintings and Drawings 1981-2005” is on display upstairs at the Reynolds Gallery through Friday. The exhibit includes canvases from the ‘80s, videos from the ‘90s and ink drawings from 2004. The work is a mix of moods and media that reflect the artist’s versatility, enduring curiosity and fascinations for order and improvisation.

On the surface, Carlyon’s geometric paintings seem easy to digest: floating rectangles and fat lines. Each canvas is stark and immaculate, but a closer look rewards the viewer with subtle shifts of color.

In comparison, the framed drawings look like the scribbling of a madman. Simple illustrations and chopped sentences are piled on top of one another and smeared into gibberish. Each page looks mangled by a rogue copy machine.

But there’s a method to the apparent madness. Carlyon determined each drawing’s subject matter by chance. He organized a system that included 20 boxes of image clippings and grids on each page. Both were numbered. What went where depended on a roll of three dice.

“It takes forever to do,” he said. “I have no idea how it’s going to end up.”

The exhibit gives “Carlyon the artist” a chance to step out from the shadow of “Carlyon the professor.” Because most remember him as the man in black at the front of the class, a witty, white- mustached man who told tall tales about contemporary artists.

Carlyon became a rite of passage. Many would consider their arts education incomplete without at least one of his classes under their belt. “He’s a legend in the city,” said Reynolds.

When Reynolds moved from New York City in the mid-’70s, one of the first things she did was sign up for a contemporary art class at VCU. Carlyon taught the course.

“He was totally mesmerizing,” Reynolds said. “After taking his class, I felt that Richmond was going to be a good place to be.”

Carlyon’s lectures flowed like stand-up comedy. He didn’t believe in textbooks, and he didn’t drone over an endless carousel of slides. Empty seats were rare, and if you showed up late you sat on the floor.

“We had a freshman Intro to Arts class, and no one ever missed,” said Burnside. “No one wanted to miss what came out of his mouth.”

“He was a real star,” said former student Carol Sutton, who studied art at RPI in the mid-’60s. Today, she lives and works in Ontario, Canada.

“It was amazing,” she said. “His 8 a.m. art history class would be full. People were standing in the aisles.”

In 1993, Carlyon received the Distinguished Teaching of Art award from the College Art Association of America. In 1997, he retired from full-time teaching.

Life in retirement went smoothly until doctors discovered something that didn’t belong: a tumor on his bladder.

“I was told I could do nothing and in 10 months I would not be here,” said Carlyon. “Or I could do chemotherapy and probably have two years or more.”

The “or more” got his attention. Carlyon spent this past summer in the hospital undergoing surgery and chemotherapy treatments. Since returning home in August, he has spent most of his time immobile in a comfortable chair.

He was a thin man to start with, and the illness has put deeper shadows in his face. He has not abandoned his signature black, though his clothes fit more loosely. He’s even added some color with a red blanket and matching sweatshirt.

His dark glasses and sideways smile still make him the coolest guy in the room.

“The disconnect from people is very, very hard on me,” Carlyon said. “I can’t even watch television anymore. Because when you watch television, you see people doing dumb things or brilliant things … you see the world. And I’m not in it. I’m in this house.”

At times, he said, returning to studio practice seemed like a fantasy. But his energy has improved.

“I’ll never be well the way I was before – it’s impossible,” said Carlyon. “But I can be well in another way.”

He’s sick of nodding off in his recliner. He’s tired of getting opened up and put back together. In short, he’s fed up with this cancer business and ready to get back to work.

“I am more and more disposed to thinking about things I’d like to make,” he said.

Though chemotherapy has physically drained him, mentally he is restless. Creatively, he is boiling over.

Carlyon and his wife, Eleanor (who is also a painter), have lived in the same Fan house since 1969. He said they are converting an upstairs bedroom to a temporary studio where he can focus on smaller work.

But he’s most looking forward to rejoining the world.

“If I can become mobile again,” he said, “walk around the block, walk down to the fine arts building to see my friends or walk to my studio, I would be really happy.”

Right now, the stairs to his second-floor West Broad studio are too steep for him to climb. But he’s doing nightly exercises to strengthen his legs. And when he talks about returning to work, it’s not a matter of if but when.

Because for Richard Carlyon, making art is not just what he does, it’s who he is.

“People who don’t have art in their life feel like they are living a perfectly fine life. They’re not missing anything,” he said. “But those who have been touched by it in some way, whether it’s making things or thinking about things, or the way they interact with people, they’re forever changed.”

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 18, 2005

Richmond Lucha Libre

You don’t want your lips anywhere near this thing.

The “huge piece of junk held together with duct tape and bubble gum” has seen better days.

It’s a 16-foot square made of canvas, foam, wood and metal. The floor has a little bounce to it, but it’s not exactly like falling on a cloud.

It looks like a filthy old mattress, stained from dirt, sweat and more than a few bloody noses.

Imagine the bacteria.

But if you find yourself in a bad spot, with someone standing on your face and the ref pounding to three … germs are the least of your concerns.

Some guys knock white balls into holes in the grass. Others burp light beer and swear at quarterbacks on TV. But when Chris Hoyer and his pals want to unwind, they seek the comfort of a secondhand wrestling ring.

The 26-year-old Hoyer is a founding member of the Richmond Lucha Libre, a wrestling consortium of 20 buddies who beat each other up for kicks. Almost every week you’ll find them trading elbows to the face and knees to the groin.

Sunday practice is how they relax.

Each of the RLL’s featured players has trained with professional wrestling instructors in Virginia and North Carolina. Most of them have jobs or go to college. Some are married, some have kids. They fight in their spare time.

The Lucha boys are professional wrestlers, specifically classified as indie, or underground, wrestlers. In this case, “underground” is a fancy word for “unpaid.”

So far, nobody has seen a dime. Usually, it costs them money to wrestle in public. Even then, they get the chance only if they can find a venue willing to accept grown men in spandex shorts whacking each other with metal folding chairs.

Hoyer said that after the promotional expenses, venue fees and the stack of paperwork required by the state’s Department of Professional and Occupational Regulations (promoter’s license, event license, surety bond and insurance), most shows cost them around $2,000.

“It’s a losing proposition,” he said. “We’re happy to break even.”

So why do they do it?

“We all love it,” said Hoyer. “And it helps me to know that I’m not just another anonymous guy with tattoos.”

The loose translation of “Lucha Libre” means “free fighting.” Inspired by Mexican wrestlers who pioneered the style, the RLL blends classic wrestling moves with highflying aerial techniques, street brawling and slapstick comedy.

The Lucha’s closest competitor is the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), a Richmond-based “wrestling entertainment” company. Neither group cares much for the other.

While the NWA sticks to charity matches and community centers, the Lucha are proud to be the punk rock clown princes of the ring. They prefer being edgy, unorthodox and sloppy along the edges.

Each Lucha member creates his own persona, complete with signature moves and unique fashion statements.

In the ring, Hoyer is better known as “Horrorshow,” an imposing character in a black leather skull mask. With beefy tattooed arms, torn jeans and shiny black boots, Horrorshow stomps around like a horror movie psycho.

George Bullock wrestles as Jive Nyce, a smack-talking, hip-hop caricature.

“We just like to have fun,” said Bullock. “I just like making people happy. If I made one person smile, it was worth it.”

A Richmond Lucha match is more performance art than athletic competition — acrobatic silliness with a “South Park” sense of humor. But the consensus among Lucha wrestlers is that the audience comes first. A yawn from the front row hurts these guys worse than a gutwrench powerbomb.

“We’re entertainers is what it all boils down to,” said Dave DuFour, aka “That Guy Dave.”

“Who wants to watch fake fighting?” added Scott Seal.

Seal, now retired, enjoyed a five-year run as perpetual villain “Spok Holly.” Seal’s ring persona was an arrogant, glam rock bad boy. Holly, fond of sunglasses and pink feather boas, liked to wear a black T-shirt that read, “I Am God.”

“Wrestling is not fake,” said Hoyer. “It’s just rigged.”

Rigged or not, the choreography is impressive.

Spectators twist their faces like they’re chewing a ball of aluminum foil. They wince. They gasp. But they never look away.

When “Sucio” (Chris Osterfeld) climbs the ropes, sails through the air and lands on his back, there are no wires.

J.R. Giles (“Chatch”) doesn’t fake the bruises and hand-shaped welts.

And when James “Kamikaze Kid” Long leaps out of the ring, there is nothing to catch him but asphalt.

“You become superhuman,” said Long.

Hoyer’s Lucha days have taken a toll: stitches, a concussion or two, broken fingers and a bulging disc in his lower back.

No surprise, considering Hoyer “works stiff” (a fancy way of saying he prefers a real punch to those “Hollywood” swings).

“I like to make contact,” he said. “I like people to make contact with me. It adds that extra level, and I can take it.”

The Lucha began with spontaneous matches that erupted in the middle of parties, on hardwood floors.

It seemed like natural, rowdy behavior for a crew of boys raised on Hulk Hogan and loaded with testosterone and alcohol. But the group’s passion for roughhousing remained well past the morning after.

They took it to the next level when one of them moved into a building on Parkwood Avenue. The bouts migrated into the weedy chain- link cage that passed for a backyard.

For months they drew crowds by word-of-mouth. The backyard was standing room only and all was well for the masked grapplers … until someone passed the bucket.

Passing the bucket to collect donations was a no-no. Amateur exhibitions are exempt from state professional boxing and wrestling regulations, “provided the participants receive no money, compensation or reward.”

Fearing legal action and steep fines, Hoyer and the Lucha pulled the plug on Parkwood Avenue.

“The backyard stuff was fun,” said Hoyer, “but I didn’t want to be one of those guys.”

“Those guys” being the type of backyard wrestlers infamous for cheap, dangerous stunts like jumping off rooftops, breaking glass and setting things on fire.

By staging some well-attended shows in Shockoe Bottom venues, Hoyer and the Lucha distanced themselves from the “backyard” label.

“Going professional was something everyone involved wanted to do,” said Hoyer.

And though nobody has quit his day job, the Lucha boys remain optimistic.

This year they released a two-hour DVD compilation of their “Greatest Battles” (including a steel cage match with a cameo from the Richmond shock-rock band GWAR). Hoyer even talked about producing episodes of a Richmond Lucha TV show.

For now, he’ll work retail and lick his wounds between Sunday practices. Maybe he’ll paint and shoot some pictures. It doesn’t really matter.

He’s just killing time until he steps back into the ring and becomes a body-slamming monster who swings a chain saw, spits fake blood and kicks his friends when they’re down.

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on October 9, 2005

Renaissance Man – Wes Freed

 

In Wes Freed’s world, possums drink moonshine by the gallon.

 

Skeletons in coonskin caps play the fiddle, and backwoods Jezebels run around buck naked in the moonlight.

 

Think “Night of the Living Dead” meets “Hee Haw,” and you’re getting warm.

 

For years, the Richmond artist left his mark on album covers, concert posters and gallery walls. Tomorrow, Freed’s artwork debuts on a different kind of canvas: Dave Blaney’s No. 07 Chevrolet in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400.

 

It might be hard to spot going a hundred miles an hour at the Richmond International Raceway, but Blaney’s Monte Carlo will feature Freed’s art for the band Drive-By Truckers. The logo (along with decals for team sponsor Jack Daniel’s) is featured on the hood, the trunk and both side panels.

 

Besides his visual art, Freed is probably best known for his now- defunct bands Mudd Helmet, Dirtball and The Shiners. (You also may recognize Freed from his TV commercials for Chesterfield Auto Parts. He’s one of the slow-talking junkyard layabouts who encourage you to “bring a buck and a toolbox.”)

How did the big man in overalls go from singing “Hillbilly Soul” at Alley Katz to doodling on a multimillion-dollar stock car?

 

“It was just one of those times when all the stars aligned,” said the artist’s wife, Jyl.

 

Scott Munn, a former manager of the Drive-By Truckers, used his racing connections to broker the deal. It seemed a natural fit, since almost every Truckers song mentions (or was inspired by) whiskey.

And Mr. and Mrs. Freed are just nutty for NASCAR.

 

“It’s the best soap opera going,” said Wes.

 

A lifelong fan of racing, Freed said he didn’t became a devoted NASCAR man until his band The Shiners broke up in 2002.

 

“I had weekends off for the first time since I moved to Richmond [in 1983],” said Freed. “We didn’t have cable, and there wasn’t much else to do on a Sunday afternoon.”

 

The Freeds’ house is Martha Stewart’s nightmare, but that’s the way they like it. Both admit to being “insufferable pack rats.”

 

“Jyl collects telephone tables, and, apparently, I collect dust,” he said.

 

But what their Mechanicsville home lacks in glossy surfaces and feng shui, it makes up for with sheer eccentric charm. Once you enter – through the side porch, past the pile of gas cans and the torn screen door – you are clearly someplace else.

 

The walls are crowded with Freed’s paintings, drawings and sculptures. Magazines and records sit in dusty stacks. Cobwebs stretch across a mantel of knickknacks. A few fake human skulls complete the picture.

 

The house is frighteningly appropriate for the man who describes his art as “nostalgia for a place that never really was.”

 

Freed sat behind his drawing table in the corner, surrounded by brushes, paints and pens. Looking plucked from one of his own paintings, he is a big man in an unbuttoned work shirt. A woolly mutton chop buries each cheek. His dented and dirty cowboy hat looks like it survived the Alamo.

 

“I’ve known a lot of bands, but I’ve never seen anybody who’s worked as hard as the Drive-By Truckers to get where they’re at,” said Freed.

 

The Freeds first met the Truckers at the “Bubbapalooza” music festival in Atlanta. The pair were instantly impressed by the Athens, Ga., quintet.

 

“When the Truckers played, it was like a breath of fresh air,” Jyl said.

 

From then on, every time the Truckers played Richmond, they stayed at the Freed house. Even as the group gained national and international fame, it found time to play gigs in Richmond.

 

Before releasing their breakthrough album, 2002’s “Southern Rock Opera,” the Drive-By Truckers asked Freed to do the cover art. In addition to posters, T-shirts and stickers, he has provided the art for every album cover since.

 

“I’m just bragging on Wes,” Jyl said, “but we actually get letters that say people bought the record because the artwork caught their eye.”

 

Making the transition from center stage to behind the scenes suits Freed just fine.

 

“It’s a wonderful feeling as an artist and a musician,” he said. “For me it’s been better than playing music. I like traveling, but I found out that I’m more of a homebody.”

 

A regular face on the local scene, Freed doesn’t get out much anymore. These days, you’re more likely to find him hunkered over his drawing table than a bar.

 

Unfortunately, there’s a reason besides work that keeps the Freeds close to home. Several years ago, Jyl was diagnosed with lupus, a disease that causes the immune system to attack the body’s own tissues and organs. Most days, she struggles with extreme fatigue, pain and debilitating arthritis.

 

Freed feels lucky that he’s able to be there for his wife. Some days that means helping her move from room to room; other days, it’s just popping the top on her can of Diet Coke.

 

The Freeds plan to stay home tomorrow to watch the race on TV with some friends. They figure it’s the best chance to actually see his artwork, since from the stands it would be nothing but a blur.

 

“It’s strange,” Freed said about his art’s NASCAR premiere. “We always joked about how cool it would be. And now, to see it on a Jack Daniel’s car? That’s so cool.”

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on September 9, 2005.

Meade Skelton

Meade Skelton is a big boy.

 

Mostly because he’s a sucker for that rich, Southern comfort food you can smell a mile away: Lee’s Chicken, Bill’s Barbecue, Krispy Kreme.

 

But while his weakness for glazed doughnuts is typical, almost nothing else about the 26-year-old musician is.

 

In a local music scene better known for tattoos, monster riffs and cynical detachment, Skelton stands apart.

 

Honestly, he has no choice. In the city that spawned GWAR, Lamb of God and Avail, a husky piano player in a beige sports coat who uses words like “crummy” and “neat” doesn’t exactly blend in.

 

“I come across as campy, a little old-fashioned,” said Skelton, “but I always thought of myself as the Frank Sinatra type.”

 

Meade Skelton isn’t on the cover of any big-name music magazines. His latest album isn’t generating huge underground buzz, and his performances don’t pack the house. Skelton’s gigs are low-key, usually just him and his keyboard tucked into a coffeehouse, waiting in line at an open mike or singing for lunch patrons at the Farmers’ Market.

 

He isn’t even big in Japan.

 

So what’s the story?

 

The story is that in an age where everything from the car you drive to the gum you chew is supposed to define you, this guy says no thanks, I’ll do that myself.

 

The story is that a kid who was picked on in school for being fat and weird didn’t grow up, drop 40 pounds and fall in line with the crowd. He stayed strange, ate lots of spoon bread and then put on a hat and sang like the holy reincarnation of Hank Williams.

 

“There aren’t a lot of Meades around,” said Brooke Saunders, founder of the Floating Folk Festival. “He’s like Johnny Cash — a total original.”

 

Saunders met Skelton when the young musician handed him a demo tape. Saunders found the songs “rough but interesting” and invited Skelton to play with the musical collective in 2000.

 

“Two things he has going for him are an extraordinary voice and songwriting ability,” said Saunders. “It’s a rare combination.”

 

Skelton grew up the youngest of five children in rural Loudoun County. On the farm he listened to records by Marty Robbins and Patsy Cline and learned how to play music by ear.

 

“I never thought I had a lot of talent,” said Skelton. “I just like to be creative.”

 

His soft, lilting drawl sounds like Mister Rogers doing “Gone With the Wind.” He’s well-mannered, humble and endearingly optimistic.

 

“I play simple and sincere. I don’t know how to do it any other way,” said Skelton.

 

When pressed, he describes his style as “country-politan,” but not every composition calls for a cowboy hat.

 

Skelton shows range, switching from simple piano lounge love songs to more rollicking keyboard tunes that conjure Bruce Springsteen and Elton John. Every so often he slips in a spiritual.

 

But even though Skelton believes deeply in God, he isn’t out to convert anyone.

 

“I don’t like to force church on people,” said Skelton. “A lot of folks don’t even know I’m Christian.”

 

“Members just love him,” said Judy Fiske, minister of music and youth at Tabernacle Baptist Church. “He’s a very unique character.”

 

Tabernacle Baptist, on the corner of Meadow and Grove in the Fan, was one of the first stops for Skelton when his family moved to Richmond in 1998.

 

Just out of high school, he joined the choir. Soon after, he persuaded church members to let him play his own songs. Now, every few months, Skelton plays a mix of classical, gospel and country songs for the 11 a.m. Sunday congregation.

 

“If I don’t have him play, there is a list of people who tell me they want to see Meade,” said Fiske.

 

Since 2001, Skelton has self-released three albums. His debut, “Songs by Meade Skelton,” is a tribute to classic country crooners. The second, “They Can’t Keep Me Down,” is a mishmash of country-pop ditties and catchy personal anthems.

 

Skelton said that after rough days at school, he’d come straight home and sing karaoke in his garage.

One has to imagine that those moments spawned brutally honest tunes like “Proud to Be Square,” “They Called Me a Porker” and “What’s So Great About Rock and Roll?” Skelton’s simple songs capture teen angst just as well as any noisy grind from Linkin Park or System of a Down.

 

His latest, “Songs of Love,” is a sappy but sincere collection of covers and standards. One of the album’s two original cuts is “Nicole, Will You Marry Me?”, a modest musical proposal to actress Nicole Kidman. (She’s been his muse since he saw “Batman Forever.”)

 

On the off chance she says yes, the happy couple will have to move. There just isn’t enough space for a Hollywood entourage in Skelton’s Fan duplex.

 

He lives with his father, a retired accountant, on Floyd Avenue.

 

Skelton opened the door a crack and said, “Let me take the dog upstairs.”

 

When he came back down, we walked to the “music room,” a spare, almost empty, former dining room. A modest Baldwin piano sat tucked in the corner. Family photos crowded the fireplace mantel.

Skelton’s mother passed away 15 years ago, but her face is everywhere. The old black and whites keep her young, a vision with good bones and immaculate complexion.

 

Skelton pulled out the piano bench and sat down. He stretched his fingers and walked them across the keys.

 

Rocking back and forth, he eased out short melodies. He apologized for not singing.

 

“Allergies,” he said.

 

Above him, a gold-framed Jesus portrait hung on the wall. The top of the piano was bare, save for the small trophy Skelton won for his original classical piano composition, “Victory.” He was 10 years old.

Success for Meade Skelton means a song in the Top 20. And even though he knows what he wants, he’s in no hurry to get there.

 

“I realize that in Nashville I’d just be another wannabe,” he said. “So I’m trying to work out my flaws while I’m still here.”

 

For now, Skelton is content to shop his songs to small record labels and play all the local and regional gigs he can get.

 

“I don’t try too hard with my image,” he said, “I never try to be something I’m not.”

 

And even though Skelton said he’s given up Krispy Kreme . . . he’s not letting go of the coat.

 

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on August 7, 2005

Musical Roots

You can’t change the past.

 

What’s done is done and there’s no way to undo it.

 

But don’t tell that to Rhiannon Giddens.

 

The 28-year-old musician has become an enthusiastic champion for reintroducing the banjo into the black community.

 

The truth is that black culture and the banjo go way back. It’s just that along the way, things went awry. For nearly a century, banjos were the musical mainstay of blackface minstrel shows. Their distinct “plinka-plunk” was the soundtrack to racist musical revues and bigoted novelty songs.

 

Today, Giddens and a small group of dedicated musicians are working to reacquaint the African-American community with a musical instrument that is more theirs than they realize.

 

It might seem an unusual cause for a classically trained soprano from a folk-music family in North Carolina. But then again, nothing Giddens does is typical.

 

She grew up in Greensboro, the daughter of a black mother and a white father who were both part American Indian. Her dad played folk at local clubs; Giddens sang at Indian gatherings. At home, Giddens sang with her sister and absorbed the sounds of Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and The Police.

 

She earned a master’s degree in opera from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and pursued a passion for the traditional music of the British Isles. Giddens learned flatfooting and the fiddle. She joined Gaelwynd, a Celtic band from North Carolina. And she became an avid contra dancer and folk-dance caller.

 

As a black woman adrift in a sea of Scottish dancers, opera singers, Celtic musicians and Appalachian folk enthusiasts, Giddens was used to standing out.

 

“I’m exotic. The token, the mascot, whatever,” she said. “I can accept that.”

 

Aside from the inevitable “Funny, you don’t look Irish,” she fit in nicely. But then along came the banjo.

She was first exposed to the five-string twang at folk dances, where many of the backing bands played old-time music.

 

“I really liked it, but I always thought only white people played it,” Giddens said.

 

But an “aha” moment came after she read “African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia,” by Cecelia Conway, a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. In the book, Conway traced the origins of the banjo back to Africa, where early versions were made with gourds and animal skins.

 

In the 1700s, African slaves who were transported to Latin America and the Caribbean brought the instruments with them. Thomas Jefferson noted that the “banjer” was a popular diversion among slaves at Monticello.

 

“There is such a negative connotation to the banjo,” Giddens said, “but it is truly an African-American instrument.”

 

In January, the North Carolina native moved to Richmond to teach music and drama to first- and second-graders through SPARC (School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community). When the job didn’t pan out, she focused on being a full-time musician.

 

Giddens found local gigs and made frequent trips to North Carolina. But she struggled. Even though Virginia, and her home state, were incredibly rich with black musical heritage and accomplished artists, she still felt out of her element.

 

“I dreamt of being in an all-black string band, but I didn’t feel like part of a community,” she said. “I felt like I was forcing my way into this all-white club.”

 

One day, she found salvation on the Internet.

 

She discovered Black Banjo: Then & Now, a small online community of black banjo enthusiasts formed in March 2004. The group was also very interested in setting the record straight about the instrument’s heritage.

 

From the start, the banjoists had their work cut out for them. Even in their own group, they were an anomaly. Out of more than 200 members, only about 30 were African-American.

 

But 30 was enough for Giddens. She jumped in with both feet (likely bare, since she can’t play banjo with shoes on).

 

She contacted the group’s founder, Tony Thomas, a 57-year-old black folk musician from Miami. And she helped organize the Black Banjo: Then & Now Gathering, a four-day coming-together of members that took place at Appalachian State last month.

 

“Tony pictured 10 of us hanging out, eating barbecue and playing banjo,” Giddens said.

 

But attendance far exceeded their expectations, as did the energy level. The crowd included musicians, historians, fans and notables such as banjoist Bela Fleck. Inspired performances by artists including Mike Seeger, Joe Thompson, The Ebony Hillbillies and Don Vappie led to riotous jam sessions. The atmosphere was electric and the experience, pivotal, Giddens said.

 

“I happen to be a very spiritual person; I feel like we were being watched over,” she said. “It changed my life. I feel like it’s what I’ve been waiting for my whole life and I didn’t even know it.”

 

Joan Dickerson, a 61-year-old classic banjoist from Pittsburgh, was inspired by the new generation and heartened by the camaraderie.

 

“Each of us had some issues,” Dickerson said, “as to the acceptance of the banjo in the black community. But now we won’t be performing alone; we’ll be performing knowing this is a celebration of history and ancestry.”

 

For Dickerson, the most important thing is to move the music forward.

 

“The banjo has always adapted to whatever music was popular at the time,” Dickerson said. “We have to get some modern music kids to grab a banjo. If we don’t, it will die out with people who play old music.”

 

That urgency likely inspired Dickerson to hand over a gift that left Giddens speechless. The new banjo was far superior to the Deering Goodtime that cost Giddens two months of hostessing at Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

 

“She just gave it to me,” Giddens said. “That’s what the gathering was about, helping each other out, keeping it alive.”

 

After returning to Richmond, Giddens said she went through withdrawal. She needed a way to continue what began in Boone. She needed a band.

 

Giddens called on a pair of Gathering alumni, veteran percussionist Sule Greg Wilson and rising banjoist Dom Flemmons. All three agreed that the show must go on and, despite the logistical hurdles (Wilson and Flemmons live in Phoenix), formed the San Kofa Strings. Giddens will visit Arizona in June and has already started lining up dates for a short tour.

 

A “San Kofa” is a West African glyph that means “go back and get it,” or, as Wilson put it, “As you move forward, bring the things you need with you from the past.”

 

Wilson, an author, musician and educator, hopes that the San Kofa Strings will inspire young people to make their own music.

 

“All black kids see is music that is processed,” Wilson said. “There is this whole world of music out there. Black people are not BET [Black Entertainment Television]. We are much more than that. We have always been much more than that.”

 

Giddens can’t wait to get started, to play and let the banjo speak for itself. For her, every song will be a red line through revisionist history. Every performance will shake loose more demons.

 

“I want to jump on it right now,” she said. “I think the time is right.”

 

You can’t change the past. But every time Rhiannon Giddens slips on her banjo strap and slides off her shoes, she turns bad memories into a bright future.

 

Originally published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on May 9, 2005

The Boy Who Cried Pie

I was the kind of late that bordered on rude. Humming through intersections on Robinson Street, tapping out a beat to the lyrics of ‘shit, shit, shit’ in my head, I saw Clay McLeod Chapman standing outside and talking on his cell phone. Cutting a hard right into the gravel alley I mouthed an apology as he thanked the person on the line for telling him I had already gone. He told me that he’d just arrived himself and then just like that, neither of us felt bad for the rest of the afternoon.

I know a lot of people who like this Clay McLeod Chapman. They say he’s brilliant and smart and explosive in that manically smart and brilliantly explosive way. Myself, I’ve never seen him on stage. I’ve met him a couple of ties, we’ve shared a few friendly emails, but there was always some binding obligation or sudden fit of sociopathy that kept me from the theater. I enjoyed Rest Stop, his first collection of short stories published by Hyperion last year. As far as the dynamic performer who commands a room by channeling the atomic energy of his nuclear prose… I take people’s word for it. Amazing, they say. Perhaps insane, I’ve heard. From my perspective the pictures look convincing enough, still shots of contorted gestures, pained expressions and that skewed, motion blur effect that portrays the artist in most every instance as about to fall headfirst into something.

It must be made clear at some point that the Pumpkin Pie Show is so named for a story about young men who fornicate with gourds. Boys on the brink of manhood are often overcome with the urge to copulate, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your tastes), in the world of Chapman, it’s with vegetables. This edgy approach to sex, death and the struggle of the human being to find his place in the world is part of what makes Clay’s repertoire so appealing (or unappealing, depending on your tastes). He has a finger on the pulse of the soft, slimy underbelly of the subconscious. A shared affinity for the darker, less travelled boroughs that he shares with cultural misfits and anyone who ever considered David Lynch a deity.

It’s obvious that Clay hasn’t been home in a long time. He’s been back for a week or two here and there, but it’s obvious he hasn’t lived in Richmond for a while. I listen to him use names like Twister’s, The Mosque, The Flood Zone and The Metro and I haven’t got the heart to tell him everything’s changed. It’s different, it’s all different and the city is nothing like it was when he left those years ago for the promise and new bohemia of Brooklyn. But he returns when he can, because Richmond will always be his hometown. He will always bring a new show to Richmond first, along with cohorts and collaborators like fellow Richmond expatriates, One Ring Zero (aka Michael Hearst and Joshua Camp). True to its reputation as a commercial test market, Richmond is Clay’s favorite place to try out new material. The home field advantage is appealing of course, but so is the honesty that comes from debuting virgin material in front of longtime friends and original fans.

The book contract went something like this: okay mister pumpkin man, we’ll publish your little book of sicko stories, but you owe us one novel right after. Something we can sell, because it’s novels booby, people love the novels. The writing of Miss Corpus was an experiment in terror. Panic and fear became Clay’s constant companions. The deadline sat like a red-assed monkey in the window sill, looming and leering and stinking up the place with the worry of impending disaster. When the bell rang, Clay delivered a 500 page monster that the editors looked at with the curiosity of something that washed ashore. They poked it with a stick a couple of times and told him to cut it in half. So he did. And he’s still scared, sort of, but coming to terms and learning acceptance of this thing he created. This thing he’s never done before, now he’s thinking maybe it’s not so bad after all, while in the same breath worrying that it’s really not and then finally coming to rest with the comfortable logic of fuck it, it’s done, too late to change anything now.

Clay is comfortable with the simmer. He’s rubbed up against the survivors of the white hot brilliance of literary superstardom. He’s conversed with last year’s wunderkind, David Eggers and performed in his McSweeney’s store. The Pumpkin Pie Show rolls on and gets tighter and has no plans for Broadway just yet. If anything, the travelling troupe of musicians and performers hope to maintain a crowd that can still see the sweat on their brows and remain just a bit unsettled during the raucousness of Chapman’s regurgitations. If anything, Clay envys the way musicians have earned themselves a sort of brand loyalty, a devoted fan base that will buy first and ask questions later. And after all, is an ever-expanding, profoundly devoted cult following too much to ask for?

There was a man once who wanted to make Clay’s show into a movie. The man sent Clay a copy of another movie he’d been involved with and the movie was somewhat less than great. Clay didn’t know whether to blow smoke up the man’s ass or tell the truth. He ended up dispensing a combination of both. He never heard from the man again.

When he sits still, his hair seems to be moving. Clay is quiet and reserved, but I kept searching for that glint in his eyes, that slightest twinge of rogue gamma radiation to reveal itself as the catalyst for the transformation that happens on stage. The catalyst that suffocates the well-mannered guy in the white button-up short sleeve and expands the lungs of a hundred manic characters. I wonder where that fire starts and how he puts it out every night.

Clay wonders about his stories and the life they have in the minds of children. Or rather, the way adults perceive how they affect the minds of children and whether he’s as radical or dangerous as some adult and near-adult reactions seem to imply. His work is nothing worse than American Pie, he says, nothing worse than what teenagers discuss among themselves. But perhaps what frightens people is the actual six-foot man talking about screwing pumpkins versus the 16-foot projection of an actor humping a pastry.

Clay is accountable. His lips form the words. He becomes a messenger in a world that loves to shoot messengers. But there is also the worry that his work is much deeper than silly soft-core porn, that it is more than shock value and titillation. Dare we say his work has levels of meaning, degrees of thought and hints of illumination. It could be the depth that scares people the most. When I was a kid, there always seemed to be more room at the deep end.

Originally published in Punchline on September 12, 2002