Thursday, September 04, 2014

SUMMER AND THE STEEL BLUE SEA: Excerpt from a novel in progress.

In August I completed the first draft of the second book in the Buck Hawkins mystery series. My plan was to spend the summer writing a summer book-- the kind of book I'd want to bring to the beach or hammock with me. The story unfolded and flowed  over the course of morning writing sessions and long hot summer runs on back roads and along rivers, and I had a great time keeping up with it
 Like the first book in the series, HIGHWAY IN THE BLOOD, this one is set in the 1970s.  Buck is, among other things, a country and western steel guitar player, and music figures prominently in his life.  Most of the action and mystery in SUMMER AND THE STEEL BLUE SEA take place along the New Hampshire coast, though the scene excerpted here finds Buck  back at home in Vermont for a contemplative and musical interlude.
The book is resting between drafts for now. I'll pull it out in November and get back to work-- the plan is to release it in time for summer reading in 2015. Please stay tuned, and hope you enjoy!

As usually happens, music lifted my mood—and not just a little. 
The band was gathered in the cool kitchen at Roy Bemis’ house. Roy was our lead singer and guitar man, and his pumpkin orange Gretsch Chet Atkins model was sounding mellow and twangy all at once tonight. Bass-fiddle man Big Jack Blythe, wearing a brand new fifteen-gallon Stetson-—chocolate brown-- had his big upright booming deep and resonant, and the new kid, a dark-haired, dark-eyed fiddler named Mike Miccelli, had a good lonesome sound with a touch of swing drive. The other new member was our drummer, Danny McRae,  a broad-shouldered  big-smiling man from up in the mountains around Moretown, who somehow made just a snare and cymbal sound like a whole set.
 Blythe and Roy and me had been together in the Maple Ranch Boys, had played early morning shows on the Waterbury radio station, led by the great fiddler Slim Donahue. But Slim had broken up the band when he’d retired to become a fishing guide in Florida.
 Now we were Buck and the Bison-tenniels, and we were focusing on the western swing aspects of country music even more than the Maple Ranch Boys had. I got the job of band leader only because I’d lived in Texas for a while; at least that was what Blythe said.
 The music wasn’t especially loud, but it filled up the kitchen, and all the sounds blended nicely in the wood-paneled room. Kitchen magic, I guess.
     Roy’s wife Molly had put a big plate of her homemade maple candy out on the big oak table, and now she was making sure we all got Cokes or Moxies or Genny Cream ales.   Perfect timing, I thought, smiling as I dug into a steel ride on the old Cindy Walker tune, “Bubbles in My Beer.” The bullet-shaped steel bar had been in the pocket of my jeans—-where I always kept it—and it had been hiding there for far too long lately. Tonight the smooth weight of it felt great in my hand. I made a couple of slants with the bar, angling it to get some lush and jazzy 9th chords that made me think for a second of Rosetta and her Bill Evans tapes.
 Yes, it had been too long.  When we swung into “Miss Molly”, another Cindy Walker song, and like “Bubbles in My Beer”, also made famous by the great Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys—-Molly was dancing around the kitchen, her green eyes smiling, curly hair bouncing. Other things bouncing, too.
  We were all smiling by now, actually, as Buck and the Bison-tenniels locked into a shuffling, driving groove, and Roy stepped out to sing a verse, his baritone voice smooth and sweet as maple syrup graded dark amber.

   Later that night, back at the house, I felt like the music was still flowing through me. It was like a brook in high water, and it just wasn’t within my own power to make it stop. So I pulled my dad’s 1929 Dobro guitar out of its ragged old case.  The mellow, dark wood and shiny steel resonator plate glowed prettily in the light of the kerosene lamp. I hefted and palmed my dad’s old Stevens steel bar. I sat at the edge of my bed, the Dobro across my lap. The Stevens bar was lighter than the one in my pocket; edges beveled instead of smooth and round, it was made less for gliding, more for hammer-ons and pull-offs, for getting around the strings quickly.  I strummed an open G chord—-as usual it was right in tune: I swear those old Dobros were built like Sherman tanks.
 I always began with “Wabash Cannonball”, pretty much the way dad played it, which was probably pretty much the way Brother Oswald Kirby had always played it with Roy Acuff on the radio, the Grand Ole Opry. The window was open, letting in the smell of cut grass and some kind of blossoms, the stone and water sounds of the brook, and crickets in the fields ringing like tiny bells in the night. Now I was remembering summer nights from when I was a kid,  the old battery radio in the kitchen tuned in to the drift and static of far away stations, beaming country and western music from the south and midwest…   
 I found those throaty, voice-like middle strings--the place where that lonesome Dobro sound lives. I stayed there   a while, and then slid “Wabash Cannonball” into “Wildwood Flower”, key of A.
 Playing this way, alone and quiet, sometimes feels to me like following a path in the woods. It’s a path that’s made of sound and music; but it’s also, I guess, made of the truth that’s in your heart right at the time you’re following it.
 I let my thoughts and hands roam along the Dobro strings, finding bits and pieces of songs and melodies. And then somehow I began to feel like I was not alone on the path I walked, that LC Cordell was walking there with me, her legs long and shoulders held strong,  a cool breeze riffling that long, morning- glory-blue summer dress she looked so good in.
  After a while I was singing along with the little journey my playing made, and what came out was that haunted Lefty Frizell song, full of ghosts and death and cheating lovers, night winds wailing: “Long Black Veil.”
   I’m no kind of singer, that’s for sure; but I swear, in my own head and heart that night, I sounded pretty good: as Texas-warm and smooth as Tommy Duncan; as Bakersfield-dusty and sun-baked as Merle Haggard. 
   Later, with the dark of night full and fallen, I sat by the open window with my mother’s hand-written book of poems and read by for a while by lamplight.
     Summer comes, brings light to flood
     The cardinal singing red as blood.

  And I took those words, along with all the music of that long day and evening, with me to sleep and dreaming.

   Excerpt from SUMMER AND THE STEEL BLUE SEA , By Kevin Macneil Brown, 2014.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

in the rain the sky is the cathedral the shore ( steel guitar improv)

A cool and rainy summer day yesterday,  and I felt the urge to take up steel guitar and effects, explore a mood in sound.- KMB

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

BOOKS OVER BREAKFAST: Television Interview

WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Last week I had the pleasure of appearing on WCAX- TV's morning news show, interviewed by morning anchor Ali Freeman. It ran live at 6:55 AM-- good thing I'm an early riser!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Summer Steel Guitar

In addition to the ambient/ textural steel guitar music I shared in my previous post, I have also been using my newly-discovered G6#11 six-string tuning to work out some more traditional steel guitar songs. This first piece is an original instrumental in the western swing style:

And here,  just in time, perhaps, for summer weather, is a version of the Hawaiian classic "Sand." :

Both of these songs will likely show up in new arrangements, with the western swing band I am part  of, Big Hat, No Cattle:

Big Hat, No Cattle.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Map of the Journey as Received in a Silver-Blue Dream ( new music for steel guitar)

After spending more than a year babysitting a Fender triple-neck steel guitar, I found myself going deep into a very physical sensation of playing steel guitar as a journey; that the necks and tunings were a landcape to explore: hills and valleys, lakes and rivers and shorelines -- summoned in clusters and shapes of tones, in the line of the bar moving over strings. When the triple-neck went home, I found myself missing that new found expansiveness, and, in an effort to recreate it on my single-neck steel, eventually discovered a G6#11 tuning that opened things up for me again. Here is my first textural/ambient composition made with the new tuning, recorded with live delay and reverb in one pass.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Chickering Bog Meditation ( watercolor painting)

Chickering Bog- painting by Kevin Macneil Brown, watercolor on paper, 2014.

I returned last week to the deep quiet of Chickering Bog. This place-- actually a fen, as it is fed by underground water-- was formed when ice age glaciers receded and left in the bedrock a hole full of water, to be enclosed over years upon years by vegetation in mats and layers.  A small patch of open water remains, rippling with wind, reflecting trees and sky. The place has the feel of deep and ancient quiet. The day we visited, turtles basked on the shore, a few spring peepers sang across the breeze,  and a broad-winged hawk came in for  a fast fly-by, calling a whistling pwee-pwee. The next day at home I found a patch of sunlight and began this painting, holding the quiet and  mystery of the bog in my memory, and then building the painting over the next few days with more layers of glaze than is usual for me.  -KMB

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Book Launch Event for SNOW-DARK CROSSING

I am excited to announce the official launch event for my latest mystorical novel, SNOW-DARK CROSSING, on May 1st at the beautiful Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, Vermont.

 Meanwhile, the book is available for purchase at amazon:

Would you like to start reading now? Here's a short excerpt:

                                                                Chapter One

            I do my best to believe, in the light and shadow of what I came to know about Elaine Bliss and her quest, that the sounds of March snow-melt trickling from slate hills, of red-winged blackbirds echoing their hollow and rattling arrival calls from the marshy thicket, were the last things she took notice of as she lay—cold, in shock, and bleeding out—on wet sedges. That as she took her final breaths, those sounds called her to remember only the true meaning of her life and work, and replaced all fear and all thoughts of the cruelty of what had been done to her.
            In my best moments I think these things and hold to them. Perhaps it’s because I have to.


            I was home for the evening when Vermont State Police Lieutenant Timothy Handler called.  It was Shawn who went for the phone, moving slowly toward the counter, her pregnant belly plowing through the warm and cozy kitchen air like a filled-up sail in front of her. We’d just had some of her slow-simmered chili for supper, and the beef and spice and hot pepper aromas were still strong, mixing with the fresh spring smells of mid-April mud and new green growth that came in through the open kitchen window.
             “Hello,” Shawn said into the receiver of my old black bakelite rotary phone. I caught her quick frown, a narrowing of her mocha-colored eyes as she listened to the caller.
             “Sure, he’s here,” she said, pushing dark curls away from her forehead, looking over at me. “It’s Handler…” The troubled look was still clouding her face as she passed the phone to me.
            Now I understood the reason for the frown. Handler calling our home was a reminder to both of us of some dark and difficult things, things that all too often came back to us, and sometimes stole a good night’s sleep. Of memories we hoped might somehow go away forever, but that we feared never would.
             “This is Liam,” I said.
            “Are you still teaching history at that prep school, Dutra?”
            Hearing Handler’s voice again, I could almost see his coiled energy and distracted manner, the tense light of his slate-colored eyes. I imagined I could see his relentless pen-clicking, the way he gulped hot coffee without seeming to taste it, to even know it existed.
            “Part time. Yes.”
            “Excellent. That means we can probably pay you. We’ll call it an expert consultant’s fee. Listen Dutra, what I’ve got is a research project for you. Nothing dangerous to you. It’s just that we have a possible homicide case that involves a University of Vermont history professor, and I’m thinking you might be able to give us some background, see if what she was working on, some of her research, might have any connection to her death.”
            “Okay,” I said, “I’m listening…”
            “It’s some stuff she seemed to be looking into, happened in the 1920s. Kind of things that you don’t necessarily think about when you think about Vermont, especially back then…”      I remembered now I had heard mention of her death on the news, with very few details given beyond her connection to the university, UVM. That there might be something Handler thought I could help dig up got my curiosity stirred, of course. And if anybody knew how much I could get stirred up by the power of things that had happened in the past, it would be Handler.
           And Shawn, too, who was seven months pregnant, and sipping herb tea now at the table beside me, listening in.
            Just a few days back we’d been talking about how peaceful and settled and steady our lives had become lately, and about how much we appreciated this feeling.
            Despite that, I found myself taking the bait that Handler put out. I wanted to know more about this strange story, whatever it might be… I pushed away the little waves of apprehension that I felt rising inside me. I told Handler he could come by my office at school after my late-morning class the next day.

            The next morning, all caffeinated up with dark roast coffee, and wearing shorts, fleece shirt, and running shoes, I left Shawn still snoring, and headed out the door.
            It’s a bit more than eleven miles from my house in Montpelier, Vermont to Granite Ledge, a boarding preparatory school where I teach American history to high school students. This spring I had taken to running the distance to work once a week, arranging for rides home with Shawn in the afternoons. A river fog hung blue-gray over the Winooski River, rising and engulfing my little white cape house and its neighbors as I loped down the hilly street. The maples lining the street were past bud-break now, I noticed. Their fresh, fragile green and russet, muted by the fog, had a slick, wet sheen.  At the bottom of the hill, my street met the main route into town. Here I ran easily, at warm-up pace, along the flat pavement for a while, beginning to sweat by the time I reached the old iron truss bridge that crossed the river and led to long Barre Street, with its neighborhood lined with railroad tracks. From the fog rose the rectangular bulks of the big old sheds that had once housed a busy industry cutting and carving local granite, much of it quarried from the hills around Barre, Montpelier’s twin city, six miles to the east. A few of the old sheds along the river had been renewed and renovated, converted to apartment and office buildings. But most of the long industrial buildings were battered and empty now, abandoned time-and-weather-worn hulks.

            I sometimes felt I could sense ghosts of the past here, especially on quiet mornings like this. I could almost hear the ring of hammers and whine of the big rock saw, the roar and rumble of trains that used to transport raw material and finished product, but now don't come through here anymore.   Fully warmed up now, picking up my pace, I reached the end of Barre Street and turned onto Montpelier’s Main Street. The wood and brick downtown buildings were quiet in the grayness, a few people out starting their day, carrying coffee mugs, briefcases, cell phones. Just outside of the downtown, I slipped between two quiet backyards on a residential street, headed up a switchback deer path that made a good shortcut, through second-growth thicket, to the steep climb of the dirt road headed north. I was feeling strong and fast this spring, a benefit gained from a winter of long snowshoe runs on hilly trails. Free of snowshoes and winter layers of clothing lately, I was feeling light-- unfettered and invincible—totally in the zone.   

( excerpt from SNOW-DARK CROSSING by Kevin Macneil Brown)