Wednesday, September 21, 2011


There's a slow sweeping curve in a small river on the lower Great Plains, near a medium sized town in the heart of the rural Middle West. Here, the years roll on in a constant path from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. Canadian blizzards take their turn with fierce,blazing summers; the Hard Red Turkey Wheat sits green through the long winters and becomes briefly a golden sea in June. Every year in late summer, through the gentle haze of this Idyll, we bring boxes of wood and wire, simple homes of fabric and metal, meals for both kings and peasants, and anything else that exists in our hearts to bring our lives to contentment. For that span of days or weeks, we exist as men and women are meant to exist - along the banks of a slow and thoughtful river, beneath a brilliant sky full of woodsmoke and wary raptors, in the ever-encircling arms and hearths of our own home fires. The primal spell of playing music until dawn starts many on a journey into the past, but soon becomes a promise for the future, a way to survive the brutal heat and the Arctic cold, an ever-present ritual to discover the joys of love and recover from the the pain of grief, to know, at last, the music of our true hearts.
Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee. This is my introduction to his book of photographs titled "Winfield", which is available at The rest of his extensive body of work can be found at

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Celebration of an Extraordinary Life: Stuart Mossman - A Modern Stradivari

A Film Directed and Produced by Barry Brown

In American culture Hollywood and Kansas seem about as far apart as you can get. The glamour of the red carpet and the serenity of pulsing wheat fields rarely intermingle. But culture is universal and it's only the superficial expressions that seem foreign. The crossovers can be as real and varied as life itself. Within the world of commercial film, one family stands out as representative of some of the values and traditions that we hold dear here in the Middle West. One family always seems to pop up whenever the silver screen and the roots of our culture meet - the brothers Carradine, sons of the immortal John. When the stories of John Steinbeck or Woody Guthrie needed to be told, or a tender love song needed to be sung, one Carradine or another seemed to show up. And if you looked closely, you'd notice that the guitar David Carradine, as Woody, plays atop that freight train and in the jungle camps in Bound For Glory is not a vintage pre-war Gibson, but a Mossman Winter Wheat straight from Strother Field in lovely Winfield, Kansas. And you might also notice that at the emotional center of Bob Altman’s classic film about American culture, Nashville, when Keith Carradine sings the ballad "I'm Easy", the guitar in his hands is also a Mossman. That treasured Winter Wheat was custom made for Keith, based on his own design. These are not random examples of early product placement, but expressions of love for a man and his passion. That man is Winfield son, Stuart Mossman, and that passion is the forming of wood, wire and lacquer into a thing of beauty and song.

The feature-length documentary, Stuart Mossman, a Modern Stradivari, the love child of self-taught New York filmmaker Barry Brown, begins and ends in a cemetery. The beginning is a visit to the grave of the great luthier, who died in 1999, by his wife Kendra and his daughters Rebecca, Laura and sister Martha. The ending is Robert Carradine playing the Winter Wheat he built at Stuart's side, at the grave of the man who portrayed Woody Guthrie so many years ago - his oldest brother David. In between is the story of the man who helped return guitar building from a mass-market factory model to a craft of love and devotion. That same man was at the center of the birth of an American music festival that rivals all others -- The Walnut Valley Festival -- four days (or fourteen, depending on your level of commitment) of community and acoustic music that happens around the third weekend in September every year. Sadly, when Mr. Brown and his dedicated crew, Scott Baxendale, Suzanne Camejo and Casey Couser, came to film the festival in 2008, the campgrounds were under water, so there are no classic shots of much of what the festival is really about - pickin' in the Pecan and Walnut groves. Still, they do their best to portray the vibrancy of those magical days along the Walnut River, and their portrait of the man, the festival, and the guitars is one that all Winfielders will want, and even need, to see.

As so often happens with greatness, word gets out. The elder Carradine, just going about his business of directing a film, overhears someone talking about a man building phenomenal guitars out of a garage in Kansas, and decides he needs to look into it. David Carradine wasn't the only one. John Denver got word. So did Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings and a host of others. David went to Kansas, and his brothers, all musicians and music lovers, followed. Their close friend, Barry, a man of many eclectic interests and a musician as well, also caught the message playing on a Kansas wind drifting over the state of California, not entirely unlike those dust bowl refugees from so many years ago. One by one they stepped into Mossman's humble shop and found themselves transformed by a piercing pair of sky-blue eyes and an enthusiasm as boundless as those Kansas prairies. And one by one they bought the guitars, spreading the word even wider. The Carradines brought Stuart into their world, as well, giving him minor roles in Barry's films, Cloud Dancer and The Long Riders -- the crews of which, predictably, ended up buying Mossman guitars.

Now, a decade after Stu's passing, those early supporters and enthusiasts have joined with a whole passel of musicians and luthiers to tell the remarkable story of Stuart Mossman, along with the troubled history of Mossman Guitars. Dan Crary, who played one of the pre-bluegrass folk festivals at Southwestern College in 1971, guitar wizard Beppe Gambetta, Oklahoma fiddler Byron Berline, and master Luthier Scott Baxendale all bring to life the wonder of these hand crafted guitars. They, along with a colorful lineup of Mossman's friends and family, also relate the wonders and passions of the man himself.

Kansans, especially, owe a debt of gratitude to the folks who have put this tribute together, but guitarists everywhere are continually blessed by the guitars Stuart left us. Also by the technicians, such as Scott Baxendale and Steve Mason, who learned their trade by his side. They are scattered across the country now, refretting guitars as fast as the hottest pickers can tear them up. There's also a final stage of this legacy in the new wave of small, high-quality luthiers who now ply their trade because Stu Mossman showed them it was possible to not only match, but to exceed the quality of even the best factory-born instruments. So when you pick up a Santa Cruz, or a Collings, or a Goodall, say a little thank you, under your breath, to Stuart.

This self-financed film is a labor of love for everyone involved in it's production. Anyone in Wichita the weekend of October 22 will be able to share that love, because Barry Brown will be joining the Tallgrass Film Festival for the premier Kansas screening of Stuart Mossman- a Modern Stradivari. Because of the inherent nightmare of film festival scheduling, exact times have not been set, but two screenings are likely. As well as a directors talk by Barry, the festival is scheduling a Winfield-style jam in the parking lot after the Saturday screening, and a gathering of unique and unusual Mossman guitars from across the country will be put on display at the Scottish Rites Temple beforehand. Exact times will soon be posted on the Tallgrass website, as well as the film's Facebook page. If you ever waiver in your perception of David Carradine's devotion to this story, all you have to do is remember that he named his daughter after the Mossman South Wind he owned, using the Kansa Tribe's word for it - he named her Kansas.

A Man of Honor and Dignity

We've all seen the inside, the outside, and the harsh realities of modern life. We can easily find ourselves disconnected from our work, from our families, even from the Earth itself. We have mostly lost the village community that has been our natural heritage ever since that first Sapien rose upright and threw that bone into outer space.

So, we spend our lives trying to counteract the dissolutions of the industrial revolution, the ravages of slavery, the insanity of fascism, the false promises and prophets of capitalism. The natural response is simply to build an extended family that fills the ancient needs, to create something of value that is not connected to a mass marketing strategy or a political agenda, to reach back for something that is already loaded into our souls, a golden thread that keeps our own from drifting into the easy darkness and ties us instead into a human whole that can grow and flourish as we are all meant to do. Any spark can ignite the tender of a community, any art form, any form of reverence, any shared passion can do the trick. For an ever-growing number of souls here in central Kansas, that spark has been any old thing with strings on it, any song, old or new, that tells the truth of our joys and sorrows. And the capitol of that state of bliss, the village square of that ancient town, the glowing hearth of that perfect home is a little pub on North Broadway in Wichita, Kansas with the incongruous name of a vegetable not served on the premises.

But we forgive these shortcomings among family members. We gaze instead into the heart of that hearth, and look around us to see what bits of wood we can bring to the fire.

The blaze will be flaring up from noon to midnight on Saturday, June 5, at the above mentioned iconic sandwich bar. The man behind the bar, as always, will be Patrick Audley. What started out to be a benefit to cover mounting medical expenses has turned out to be a celebration of a man who has put on dozens of benefits for others, who has carefully walked hundreds of troubled young men into adulthood, and who has unfailingly supported any folk musician that has ever made their way to his door. Any follower of this list knows that I occasionally suggest events of special interest, but today I must go beyond suggestion. I must frankly insist that anyone who has ever felt the encompassing glow of that simple room, has ever felt the power and passion of this simply human music, has ever relished a #8 and a "ruby red", is required by the rules of karma to give something back to someone who has given us so much.

How we connect to our passion unites us; how we build our community inspires us; how we support the ones we love defines us.

Bring the love. And your checkbook,

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Legend Of Stuart Mossman

- A Modern Stradivari

Guitar-building workshop, Walnut Valley Folk Festival, April 1967

Stuart Mossman loved to build guitars, and it shows in the people that gathered around him.

Stuart Mossman loved people and it shows in the guitars he made.

Stuart Mossman loved music and it shows in the faithful legions camping on the banks of the Walnut River every third week in September. The simple truth is: that music would not ring throughout that valley if not for the fact that Stuart Mossman loved to build guitars.

And superlative guitars they are, over six thousand of them out there getting mellower and richer day by day, year by year, as any great instrument should. Did he have huge setbacks that would have stopped other men? Yes, but he loved to build guitars. Did he train and inspire (and give jobs to) a whole generation of luthiers and technicians that we reap the benefits of every time we get a neck reset or a treasured instrument repaired? Yes, because Stuart loved to build guitars. Did he develop a bond with every person he ever handed a guitar to? Yes, because he not only loved to build, but he also loved to share guitars.

So time passes, the guitars gain strength from the varied and endless vibrations of the strings, the woods learn new tones from mountain air or sea breezes, and men and women too change with the winds and tensions needed to be able to coax the music from the air itself. For a world of reasons, the festival carried on without and beyond the man who simply knew where music came from. In it's forth decade, there is no mention on the website or in any of the Walnut Valley literature of the man whose passion made it all happen so many years ago. That may change with the upcoming release of the feature documentary produced and directed by Stu's friend, acclaimed film artist and Hollywood renegade Barry Brown: "The Legend of Stuart Mossman - A Modern Stradivari". Not that Mr. Brown's work had any intent beyond his own personal celebration of Stuart's amazing dedication to his craft, it just seems that the power of his portrait will open the floodgates of both memory and awareness among those legions whose lives revolve around those magical days in September. The film has been submitted to The Tallgrass Film Festival, and hopefully will receive it's premier Kansas screening in Wichita in October. You can easily follow the film's life from it's Facebook page, and certainly check the Tallgrass schedule from their website and from local media. All of us who love this music and cherish the community it has spawned owe a huge debt of gratitude to Barry Brown, Scott Baxendale, David Carradine, Stuart's family, and all the other wonderful musicians and artist who came together to put the Mossman story to film. Bless them all, and help them make sure the film reaches all of those whose lives are permanently enriched by six lengths of wire stretched over a finely hewn wooden box. And remember, and tell your friends, it all came about because Stuart Mossman loved to build guitars.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Right outside my North window is a giant Soapberry tree, left a brilliant yellow by the most vibrant autumn in recent memory. Of course, the sunlight itself never reaches that window, but as it arcs low in the sky over Sim Park, every leaf of that magnificent tree throws it's oblate reflection into every corner of my tiny world, turning everything I own, every book and broken vase, every poem, every animal, every molecule of air we breathe into a shining, living gold. I swim in gold, I feast with ochre, I dream in a language spoken only by yellow. I rest my bones upon the trinity of the sun's crystal crimson, the sky's electric blue, and the soul of this tree. I sleep within the living death of every leaf. I take summer beneath my winter blanket and hold her close. I awake to the saffron songs of night birds who sing only in memory. I rise within a shadow as golden as the sun itself. I hold fast to that living sun and take it, burning holes in every pocket I own, with me wherever I go. It is then, and only then, that I am ready for whatever winter has in store.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Goodnight, Little Arlo, Goodnight

I discovered Woody Guthrie in 1967 from a two inch column in my hometown newspaper, the Daily Oklahoman, announcing his death in a Brooklyn hospital. "Folk Singer Dies' was the headline, and I barely knew what a folk singer was, although I was already on the way to becoming one. I found a copy of his autobiography, Bound For Glory, and in that one book learned more about my home state and about the world in general than I had learned in all the books I had read or classes I had taken in my short fifteen years. A couple of years later I went to my first folk concert, a Woody Guthrie birthday celebration in Oklahoma City featuring Jimmie Driftwood, and a host of others that I can't recall. It was attended by Marjorie, Arlo and Nora Guthrie, and I remember the pride on their faces as each performer gave tribute to their husband and father. It was forty years later, as I was researching the history of the Walnut Valley Festival, that I discovered that the concert I had seen had been originally planned for Okemah, Woody's hometown, but the city of Okemah, still immersed in Woody's reputation as a radical and a communist, would not grant them a permit for the show. I couldn't help but think about that show tonight, as I watched "Little Arlo" on the stage of the Orpheum Theater, and how strange it must have been to have a father that was revered by much of the known world but roundly despised by the folks in his hometown, and I realized how that pride I saw on the Guthrie family faces had been tempered by forces that I was many years away from understanding.

Of course, Okemah now hosts a festival every year on Woody's birthday, a decidedly communistic affair with no admission and where all the performers play for free. Maybe they're just trying to make up for past wrongs. I'm sure I'll attend that festival someday, but having Arlo right here in town is certainly the next best thing. For all the "Woody" imitators out there, Arlo was certainly never one of them. His songs have always been carefree and easy, songs about riding motorcycles, passenger trains and "big airliners", his humor a more subtle but still substantial take on his dad's biting social criticisms. Still, he helped keep Woody's songs alive, recording songs like The 1913 Massacre and The Ludlow Massacre when no one else would. He was right on target tonight with "Pretty Boy Floyd" - what could be more timely than the lines "as through this life you travel/you'll meet some funny men/some'll rob you with a six gun/ and some with a fountain pen"? Also, "This Land Is Your Land" is not a song that normally brings tears to my eyes, but in Arlo's hands, on that stage in my chosen hometown, flooded by the memories of so long ago and of singing that song so many times and in so many places across this land, a good cry in the dark seemed most appropriate.

With his son, Abe, on keyboards, a very tight rhythm section, and the Burns Sisters on back-up vocals, Arlo Guthrie kept the Orpheum stage hoppin'- at least between stories. Backing up a natural-born storyteller must be challenging for a musician, but they all showed well-honed patience. My personal favorite was the story describing unwritten songs as fish swimming by, and instead of grabbing a line and a pole, you just grab a pencil and a piece of paper and see if you can catch one. I missed the actual punch line but it had something to do with staying downstream of Dylan, because he might throw some smaller ones back. I also loved his story about his very first memory when he was two years old, of simply standing next to Huddie Ledbetter, and how, almost sixty years later, his band took a day off searching for Leadbelly's grave in Louisiana. We heard how he made Steve Goodman buy him beers before he would listen to his songs, and we heard a retelling of a biblical story that turned out to just be a praise for the common man. The master definitely still has the touch.

Arlo closed his show with one of his dad's poems that he had put to music, a task still ahead for over three thousand songs. It was a song about peace, not the big peace that you see in the posters and slogans, but the small peace that lives inside one person, a peace that becomes the one true gift that one person can give to another. Arlo, you gave Wichita a great gift tonight. Thanks. And goodnight.