Curtis McPeake’s name is spoken with something very much like reverence in the nationwide banjo community. —Bluegrass Unlimited
Throughout a career spanning 70 years in the music business, Curtis McPeake has played stints with some of the biggest names in the history of bluegrass music. Not only was he one of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Grass Boys,” recording 18 classic cuts with Monroe in the early ‘60’s, he was a stand-in for Earl Scruggs in Flatt & Scruggs on many occasions, and he toured with Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass. McPeake was also part of the Opry staff band for eight years and a Nashville session player, appearing on hundreds of recordings.
Guitarist, vocalist, and producer on this project, Andy May started performing seriously in his teens, immersed in and part of the ‘60s’ folk and old-time music revival in New York’s Greenwich Village. During that time, he performed at Carnegie Hall and made a name for himself as an up-and-coming musician and songwriter. Moving to New England in 1970, and subsequently to Colorado and then to Nashville, May’s reputation has grown to include his extensive work as a producer and an educator. His credentials include a Grand Championship on guitar from Union Grove, NC, (1967) and an IBMA Award (2008) garnered by Swift River Music, the record label and production company that he started, owns, and runs.
This album grew out of twenty-plus years of playing music together and discovering songs and arrangements we both love. On this project, Curtis plays “Betsy,” his iconic ca. 1939 Gibson RB75 banjo, and I back him up on the 1949 Martin D-28 guitar that I learned to play this style of music on as a kid. I had sold that guitar in 1984 – out of necessity. When it unexpectedly found its way back to me several years ago, it instantly became my go-to guitar for backing up Curtis and Betsy. We recorded these tracks in August, 2017, two months before Curtis’ 90th birthday. – Andy May
Curtis Mc Peake – 5-string banjo, harmony vocals – baritone
Andy May – Guitar, lead vocals
Aubrey Haynie – Fiddle
Tim Dishman – Bass, harmony vocals – tenor
Produced by Andy May, Swift River Music
Recorded at Mainframe Recording Studio, Nashville, TN
Engineered by Nathan Smith
- *The Good Things (Outweigh the Bad) (Josh Graves and Jake Lambert) One of Curtis’ favorites, this song was co-written by his friend, Jake Lambert, and recorded by Flatt & Scruggs. Curtis first heard this song back when he worked with Lester Flat, filling in for Earl Scruggs in Flatt & Scruggs. The sparse arrangement here pays homage to Flatt and Scruggs but is decidedly McPeake & May, who worked it up specifically for this recording. Especially meaningful to Curtis, it was a shoe-in for the title track of this collection of well-loved songs.
- *My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains (Trad.) is a traditional classic and has been recorded many times by many people over the years. Always a lot of fun to play and sing, it is a staple in the McPeake & May repertoire, and they never tire of it. Adding Aubrey’s tuneful fiddling and Tim’s rock-solid bass and bright tenor vocals takes it to another level.
- Salley Gardens (Lyrics: William Butler Yeats/Music: Trad.) True to the folk process, Andy and Curtis merged two ballads to come up with this arrangement. It all started when Curtis played his instrumental arrangement of the old murder ballad, Willow Garden, for Andy. Andy loved it, but though he used to render this song with great feeling as a youngster, he hadn’t sung it in a long time. Preferring to avoid such dark lyrics these days, Andy sought out alternate words that would work with the tune and do justice to Curtis’ arrangement. He chose Down by the Salley Gardens, a poem by William Butler Yeats which is often set to the traditional Irish air, The Maids of Mourne Shore. Yeats himself wrote the poem based on a fragment of an Irish ballad he had heard, possibly The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, a song which may, in fact, be related to Willow Garden in its origins. To our knowledge, however, this is the first time Yeats’ words have been sung to the Willow Garden
- Reuben’s Train (Trad.) Curtis’ soulful banjo arrangement of this tune draws a soulful vocal from Andy. A very old song with unlimited verses, Andy sings a few of his favorites here.
- *Home in the Rock (Trad.) Andy had learned this song from Wade Mainer recording when he was a kid. When he and Curtis first started picking together, Andy was inspired to start singing it again, and they worked up this arrangement over years of playing it together.
- Sweet Sunny South (WL Bloomfield) This bare-bones arrangement, set up by Aubrey’s plaintive fiddle solo – lets the song tell the story. Curtis reminded Andy of this song, which Andy had learned as a kid from the singing of Mike Seeger and Charlie Poole. Originally a song about a bittersweet homecoming after the Civil War, there are several quite sad verses to Sweet Sunny South that Andy chose not include here, aiming for nostalgic rather than heart-rending. The song was published in 1853, with the title Take Me Home and the composer given as WL Bloomfield. (See sheet music.)
- Grampa’s Mule (Lauren LeCroy May, Andy May) is the only song on the album that isn’t a bona-fide chestnut. Andy’s wife, Lauren, wrote this lyric about her Alabama grandfather’s infamous mule, Betsy, and Andy set it to music, putting a bit of the old fiddle tune Flop–Eared Mule in it just for fun. Curtis, who grew up working mules in west Tennessee, has many a mule story to relate, himself. When Andy first played this song for him, Curtis laughed and said, “I know that mule!” Curtis and Andy decided to present Grampa’s Mule as they would a tune for a country dance: Straight ahead, no frills. Curtis’ banjo breaks are legendary, but he’s also well-known for his wonderful backup style, which you’ll hear on this track.
- *Steel Drivin’ Man (Trad.) is based on Curtis’ arrangement of John Henry, which is based in turn on Uncle Dave Macon’s version. Andy chose these verses from among the multitude in existence to tell the classic man-versus-machine folk legend. Curtis thought it would be fun to arrange it with a trio on top for this recording to embellish the theme a little bit.
- *The Unclouded Day (Rev. J.K. Alwood) This wonderful old hymn is a tune Curtis loves to play and Andy has sung since he was a kid. Curtis’ playing on this cut is sparse and to the point, setting up the lovely interplay between his banjo and Aubrey’s fiddle and giving the old song a fresh feel.
- Leather Britches (Trad.) Curtis wanted to end the album with an old-time fiddle and banjo duet. This cut features Curtis and Aubrey, with Andy and Tim joining in towards in the end.
*Vocal trio: Andy – lead, Curtis – baritone, and Tim – tenor.