The American Way 

Old traditions are lifted by new voices.

click to enlarge Junior Sisk and Ramblers' Choice
  • Junior Sisk and Ramblers' Choice

"We got too far away from Carter and Ralph, and the love of a sweet mountain girl," Junior Sisk sings plaintively. "We're way down below that high lonesome sound, and a far cry from Lester and Earl."

Two weeks ago the International Bluegrass Music Association named "A Far Cry from Lester and Earl" as its song of the year. To acclaimed Virginia musician Sisk, it's more than a song — it's a rallying cry.

"We like all types of bluegrass music, but our heart and soul is in traditional bluegrass music," Sisk says from his home in Southwest Virginia. He grew up following Carter Stanley, who with Ralph formed the Stanley Brothers and "lived a lot of what he sang about," Sisk says.

Sisk and band Rambler's Choice will bring some "hard-driving bluegrass music" to Richmond this weekend: "I can step out there and bring them back to the old style." You may hear a song or two from the group's upcoming album, "The Story of the Day I Died." Don't take the title literally, Sisk makes clear. "I'm not dying," he says, "and I don't plan to anytime soon."

Nor does bluegrass. Expect more traditional Virginia music from The Stage Hogs, a Blue Ridge trio that plays the ferocious, string-burning styles of Galax and Mount Airy. Fiddle fans can follow up with a performance from the Liz Carroll Trio, one of the world's best Irish fiddlers; she's joined by special guest Troy MacGillivray, a Nova Scotian fiddler, pianist and step dancer. Plus there's Paul Dahlin and the Äkta Spelmän, a Minnesotan fiddle ensemble, which plays Swedish folk music better than the Swedes themselves.

Moving south and slowing down, the Masters of the Piedmont Blues play mournful music from the hilly, rural region that stretches from Maryland to Georgia. John Dee Holeman picks the guitar, Phil Wiggins, best known for his work with John Cephas, wails on the harmonica, and Willette "Willie" Hinton demonstrates Appalachian freestyle buck dancing.

click to enlarge Michael White
  • Michael White

Jazz isn't merely a style. It's "the New Orleans language," says Michael White, the noted music scholar and clarinetist. That language — with its collective improvisation, distinctive rhythms and individual tonality — is the native tongue of White and his five-member Original Liberty Jazz Band.

The music of White and his band arises from "our own feelings, emotions and life experiences, spoken through the langage of New Orleans jazz," he explains. His 2008 album, "Blue Crescent," was a poignant hymn to the reality of life after Hurricane Katrina. The storm stole White's prized collection of rare recordings, sheet music and instruments. Yet White's music isn't melancholy, he says, but a "realization and recognition of the joyous and undying spirit of our culture."

The same could be said of the art of Hula Halau 'o Keikiali'I, a San Francisco-based group that performs the ancient dancing, chanting and storytelling of hula. At the urging of Christian missionaries, hula was banned in Hawaii from approximately 1820 through 1880, group leader Kawika Alfiche says by email. Sixty years of the ban "is equivalent to two generations," he says, "so what we have left today is a fraction of what we had once."

Expect ukeleles and guitars, energetic dancing and handmade costumes — but no coconut brassieres. "Most people are very familiar with the Waikiki hula era (1920s-'60s), the songs that are sung in English with Hawaiian themes," Alfiche says. "We plan to present a mixture of prayers, chants and dances the community in Richmond may not be familiar with."

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