If someone had told the teenage Donna Lynn Caskey that one day she would play banjo and perform original music in public, she would’ve thought they were joking. Born in the Tidewater region of the Virginia coast, the youngest of ten children in a family of music makers and music lovers, Donna Lynn came to believe early on she would have to make do in the “music lover” camp only.
Donna Lynn’s early experiences with formal music education left her feeling insecure. She felt dyslexic when it came to reading standard musical notation during piano lessons, so she doubted she could ever be a real musician. Nontheless, she continued in the role of music fan and appreciator by devouring eclectic public radio broadcasts, checking out stacks of recordings from the library, going to concerts, compulsively making mix tapes comprised of beloved songs and new musical finds and sharing them with friends. She eventually realized that some of her favorite songs and voices were often rough around more than just the edges, yet were tremendously affecting. She was also encouraged by stories of musicians who couldn’t read a note, but who could touch hearts with their gifts just the same. She began to think maybe she could make music, after all. It didn’t have to be pretty and perfect. Simple, homemade music could be powerful music.
Music also started to feel more within reach while Donna Lynn studied art at Hollins University in the Blue Ridge Mountains. College years were also the time when she discovered a deep love of the banjo. A regular attendee of the local Roanoke Fiddle & Banjo Club, she found herself weeping with joy more than once during banjo solos. On Saturday mornings, she would go listen to old-time and bluegrass jams at an acoustic music store inside Happy’s Flea Market. Before long, she had her eye on a lovely banjo hanging on the wall. As her college days waned and she was unsure what was next, she bought herself that banjo for graduation.
Donna Lynn proceeded to spend the next two years traveling, moving from job to job and place to place. The banjo gathered dust at her parents’ house, and she felt guilty letting that beautiful instrument go unplayed. She took it to a local music shop for consignment. The woman behind the counter convinced her not to, however, and Donna Lynn ended up paying to have the banjo set up and restrung instead.
Soon after, a friend was heading to Brasstown, North Carolina for an internship at the John C. Campbell Folk School. Donna Lynn looked at the course catalog, which listed a class called “Beginning Clawhammer Banjo by Ear” taught by Diane B. Jones. The catalog also indicated scholarships were available. The week before class was scheduled to start that summer of 2001, Donna Lynn was notified she was awarded a scholarship. Three days in to that week-long, intensive class, the basics of playing clicked.
The following week, Donna Lynn and her banjo moved to California by train. She was afraid she’d left the music community behind her in Virginia, but within days of arriving, she met a fiddler at the farmers’ market who invited her to a weekly old-time jam. Through the jam, she was connected to local music festivals, banjo workshops, lessons with master old-time musician Brad Leftwich while he lived in the area, and to her first paying gigs. She remains friends with members of that group to this day.
Within months of starting banjo, Donna Lynn also began writing songs and performing. Her debut album of original material, Nameless Heart, was released in 2014 to glowing reviews for innovative clawhammer-style playing and strong writing that simultaneously acknowledges life’s difficulties while offering a genuine message of hope. The Ventura, California based artist recently completed her second album, The Love Still Shows.
Recently, KC Cafe Radio Music Director Kathy Forste spoke with “Banjo Gal” Donna Lynn Caskey via Skype. They talk at length about Donna’s upbringing being surrounded by music, the significance of her challenges, and how those challenges shape the music she writes and performs today.
Listen to the interview here:
Download the interview here: Interview: Donna Lynn Caskey 9/27/2017
Music by Donna Lynn Caskey on KC Cafe Radio:
KC Cafe Radio concluded its live broadcast coverage from the 2017 Folk Alliance Region-West music conference in Bellevue Washington with live music featuring the Saturday night Official Showcase performances.
Here are the archived recordings of the performances
Dennis Warner, (Minnesota)
As a Folk/Americana artist, Dennis Warner has established a well-deserved reputation for captivating audiences with his smooth vocals, distinguished songs, enthusiastic personality and stellar playing, on both six and twelve string guitars. Playing in 100 cities every year, he cleverly blends ballads, up-tempo songs and humor. Dennis has a contagious energy and a collections of songs that ring true.
Listen to Dennis Warner’s performance here:
Download the performance here: Dennis Warner
Follow The Fox (Colorado)
The musical synergy from Sarah Cole and Dylan McCarthy is highlighted by spellbinding harmonies and creative arrangements. Their sound is distinctive and alluring. Soulful harmonies, captivating guitar, and mandolin leads give way to musical energy that will keep you listening from the very first note. From heartbreaking ballads to hard-hitting bluegrass, this Colorado-based duo has incredible musical chemistry.
Listen to Follow The Fox’s performance here:
Download the performance here: Follow The Fox
West My Friend (British Columbia, Canada)
Forged from a socially adventurous acoustic music scene on the west coast of Canada, the band play a key role in a new generation of grassroots folk music. The wealth of musical experience and classical training in the group creates an interesting backdrop for their songwriting, allowing for levels of detail, intricacy, and counterpoint balanced with moments of musical simplicity.
Listen to West My Friend’s performance here:
Download the performance here: West My Friend
Cary Morin (Colorado)
This talented troubadour is a Crow Tribal member who blends the great traditions of American music. His deft fingerstyle guitar and vocals convey an earthy melodic tone, combining bluegrass, blues and jazz in a unique and captivating style. His seemingly effortless guitar picking is nimble, yet soulful. Humility shines through his music, as he weaves a magical musical tapestry.
Listen to Cary Morin’s performance here:
Download the performance here: Cary Morin
Reggie Garrett (Washington)
Reggie Garrett performs mostly original songs mixed with pop covers and more traditional style folk ballads. He is the creative purveyor of a unique urban strain of mostly acoustic music, incorporating a number of diverse influences, including: Folk, Latin rhythms, Blues, Gospel, Celtic, Rock, Jazz and more. The result is a musical blend that has excited and touched audiences throughout the US and Canada.
Listen to Reggie Garrett’s performance here:
Download the performance here: Reggie Garrett
Radio Stranger (Oregon)
Americana artist Kelly Brightwell and folk-rocker Woody Moran have fused their talents, and the results are nothing short of amazing! They deliciously mix detailed observations of a world traveler with captivating storytelling, which brings emotional landscapes to life. They deliver harmonies that lock in rhythmically. Their unique talent is especially evident in a live setting.
Listen to Radio Stranger’s performance here:
Download the performance here: Radio Stranger
Here is the archived recording of the Best of the West awards ceremony, held during the 2017 Folk Alliance Region-West Music Conference in Bellevue, Washington.. This year’s honorees were ground-breaking songwriter and performer Alice Stuart, music educator Peter Langston and Janet Peterson with the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, and Sisters Folk Festival.
To receive Best of the West awards, an individual or organization must demonstrate excellence in one’s craft; an enduring presence in the geographic FAR-West folk community for at least a decade; embody or build upon folk values and traditions; and promote, nurture, foster and expand the audience and opportunities for folk music and musicians in the FAR-West geographic region.
Best of the West Performer Award: Alice Stuart
Ahead of her time, Alice Stuart blazed the trail for women in music as one of the only females in the country to write her own music, front a male band, and play lead guitar on national and international circuits. She blazed the trail in rock, blues and folk with equal skill and success. Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Dick Waterman, once remarked, “There would be no Bonnie Raitt without Alice Stuart.”
Alice spent the mid-60’s and 70’s, one of the most creative musical periods of the century, making music with some of the greatest artists of that time. She toured the US and Europe with her band Snake and as tour support for Van Morrison. The list of artists she played with in that period of time is an awesome one. They include Michael Bloomfield, Jerry Garcia, John Prine, Albert King, Asleep at the Wheel, Richard Greene, Elvin Bishop, Sonny Terry, Tower of Power & Commander Cody. During this period, Alice also appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, with George Carlin as guest host, and won rave reviews from Billboard, Guitar Player, and Rolling Stone magazines for her recordings and performances.
Alice began performing professionally in Seattle during the early 60’s. In 1964, Alice was introduced to California audiences at the Berkeley Folk Festival, then the biggest festival on the West Coast. There she met and subsequently toured and performed with many folk artists like Joan Baez, Doc Watson, Jack Elliott, Phil Ochs, Rosalie Sorrells & Mississippi John Hurt. In the next few years, she also played with blues greats Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jesse Fuller, Albert King and The Chambers Brothers. In 1965, Alice joined forces with Frank Zappa during the formation of the Mothers of Invention. Her LPs on Arhoolie (1964) and Fantasy Records (1970 and 1972) are landmark recordings. One of her songs, “I Ruined Your Life” from her 2002 Burnside release Can’t Find No Heaven was part of the soundtrack for the film “The Station Agent” (Miramax, 2003). Her songs have been recorded by many other artists, including Jackie DeShannon, Irma Thomas, Jimmy Rabbit and the late Kate Wolf as she continues to inspire players and audiences, young and old.
Best of the West Ambassador Award: Peter Langston and Janet Peterson / Puget Sound Guitar Workshop
Founded in 1974 by Larry Squire, Flip Breskin and David Auer, the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop has taken place at a camp/retreat each summer in the tall pines of Washington State. Peter Langston and Janet Peterson now serve as the coordinators of the Workshop.
Peter also directs the California Bluegrass Association’s Summer Music Camp at Grass Valley, CA. He grew up in the urban “folk scare” of the 50s and 60s and has played bluegrass and old-time music on a range of instruments for more than 50 years. Janet is a founding member of the band Motherlode in which she sings and plays cello and guitar, (but never the banjo). She is also Co-Director of the California Bluegrass Association’s Summer Music Camp at Grass Valley as well as being the on-site coordinator for the American Banjo Camp.
Puget Sound Guitar Workshop runs three independent, one-week-long Guitar Workshop sessions each year designed for adults ranging from bare-bones beginners to professional musicians and singers. Over the past 43 years, thousands of students and hundreds of teachers have participated. It is always full, with a large waiting list.
Puget Sound Guitar Workshop has been and continues to be a significant force in creating and nurturing artists and the audiences that listen to them. Each camp week is also an experience of fellowship and bonding that carries on throughout the year in various cities, especially the greater Seattle area.
Many of the top artists in the Northwest have taught there, some got their beginnings there as students. Among them, you will find many FAR-West members as well as talented folks from all around the country. The list includes FAR-West Official Showcase performers and Best of the West honorees. A few names from the long list of teachers include: Laurie Lewis, Nina Gerber, Terre Roche, Missy Raines, Faith Petric, Orville Johnson, Bill Keith, Mary Flower, Cathy Fink, Linda Waterfall, Roland White, Phil and Vivian Williams, Sally Van Meter, Cosy Sheridan.
Sisters Folk Festival Earns the Organizational Achievement Award
For the second year, FAR-West presented an Organizational Achievement Award. This year’s awardee was Sisters Folk Festival from Sisters, OR. Sisters Folk Festival, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, founded in 1995 to bring the finest in acoustic music to Sisters, Oregon. The Sisters Folk Festival is a three-day celebration of roots music from blues to bluegrass, held the weekend following Labor Day in beautiful Sisters, Oregon, where “all the town’s a stage.” The Festival hosts eleven stages, including a 900-seat venue at the Village Green in downtown Sisters, and 1,100 seats at Sisters Art Works, just six blocks away. Over time, it has developed into a year-round cultural-arts organization that supports local schools with extensive community engagement. Beyond producing the highly regarded three-day fall festival, it is responsible for the highly successful innovative music and arts education program, the Americana Project; the community-themed arts fundraiser My Own Two Hands; the intimate Americana Song Academy; and a successful Winter Concert Series. The organization brings over $1.2 million to this small community’s economy and has transformed the Central Oregon cultural landscape in a wide variety of ways.
Listen to part 1 of the ceremony here:
Download part 1 here: Best of the West awards ceremony (part 1)
Listen to part 2 of the ceremony here:
Download part 2 here: Best of the West awards ceremony (part 2)
KC Cafe Radio’s microphones were there for the kickoff concert at the 2017 Folk Alliance Region-West music conference in Bellevue, Washington, with the Venues Choice Concert. Five venues from around the FAR-West region, dedicated to presenting acoustic music, each presented an artists of their choice.
Here are the archived recordings of the performances:
The Triple Door Presents Lydia Ramsey
Her songs convey both the wildness and free nature of the great northwest and are steeped in the fingerpick-guitar rudiments of folk music. A multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, Lydia Ramsey has been praised for the almost vintage quality of her voice. Her songs feature ancient music making devices in unique arrangements to back up her beautiful voice.
Listen to Lydia’s performance here:
Download the performance here: The Triple Door Presents Lydia Ramsey
Sisters Folk Festival presents Jeffrey Martin
Jeffrey Martin‘s music is not widely known, which is a shame, because he might be the best songwriter in Portland. With lyrics that read like Raymond Carver stories and a voice that’s one breath away from breaking completely apart, Martin’s songs are beautiful, sparse, and utterly devastating. . . . If there is any justice in the world, Martin’s music will soon reach a wider audience and inflict devastation on a much larger scale.
Listen to Jeffrey’s performance here:
Download the performance here: Sisters Folk Festival Presents Jeffrey Martin
Mission Folk Festival Presents Early Spirit
This band is a hot example of Celtic music and jazz fused together by superb musicians. The group is centered around violinist Gabriel Dubeuil, a well-established session player, who has recorded on dozens of pop, jazz and rock albums and music videos with local and international bands.
Listen to Early Spirit’s performance here:
Download the performance here: Mission Folk Festival Presents Early Spirit
Olalla Community Club & Americana Festival Presents Leroy Bell
Sometimes a songwriter has to take the plunge and express what’s really on his mind. In these turbulent times the emotions of the moment can overwhelm you … and then we witness a natural cycle of renewal. Leroy Bell is a songwriter who brings the optimistic part of our humanity to the center stage.
Listen to Leroy’s performance here:
Download the performance here: Olalla Community Club & Americana Festival Presents Leroy Bell
The Royal Room Presents Led to Sea
Alex Guy (as Led to Sea) is one of those artists, like St. Vincent or Andrew Bird, who approaches pop music with the eye of a classical composer, breaking down and rebuilding pop tropes into something resembling fine art. It’s a constant balancing act, combining classical and pop. Her layered viola melodies coupled with an incredible voice are enough to hold any audience in thrall.
Listen to Led to Sea’s performance here:
Download the performance here: The Royal Room Presents Led To Sea