Having a Coffee with ……………. Derek Halsey

This is the fifth in a fun new series in which we ask bluegrass music personalities, some famous, some not so well known, about some of their interests as well as about the music that they love. Our guest today is Derek Halsey, an award-winning journalist, editor, copy writer and interviewer/biographer. His work has been published in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine; The Mountain Times; the Herald Dispatch newspaper (Huntington, West Virginia); Cincinnati’s City Beat; and Gritz Music Magazine, which he helped to launch and served as Editor-At-Large; and Kudzoo magazine. 

Derek Halsey

What would you like to drink?

Ruby Red grapefruit juice with a splash of prosecco.

Do you want anything to eat as well?

A couple of slices of bacon would hit the spot, with a toasted egg and cheese sandwich and some ripe speckled plums on the side. Since last October, I have been living in the High Country mountains of North Carolina, and one of the local grocery stores sells cheap and delicious, sliced and smoked hawg jowls and they are almost as good as bacon, so that would work as well.

What is your favorite food?

My favorite meal is a salad, a cup of New England clam chowder, and a bowl of Ohio Ambrosia-breed sweet corn, followed by steak, lobster and baked potato.

What’s the nicest meal that you have ever had?

One time, for a friend back in Ohio, I made crab-stuffed chicken breasts with champagne cream sauce. I am a blatantly mediocre amateur gourmet cook, but I lucked out on this particular day and got it right. I was in a bookstore years ago and I saw a book, oddly enough, written by then First Lady Hillary Clinton called An Invitation to the White House – At Home with History. I say ‘oddly enough’ because the book was about entertaining and hosting guests, and since then Clinton has spent some high profile time as a Senator and as Secretary of State, so a lot has happened since then. But towards the back of the book, she did the right thing by asking the White House chefs to offer up 50 of their best recipes, and the recipe I mentioned above was in there. I sat down in the book store and copied that recipe by hand, as it stood out to me.

What drink would you have with that?

I enjoy iced water with a lemon wedge or diet soda while eating, and tend to wait until after the meal to drink some wine or a good, thick dark beer…..or just a High Life with a lime, or a gin drink of some sort.

Let’s talk bluegrass…..

Where/when did you first hear bluegrass music?

It is hard to say. I am a native born West Virginian who moved with my family to Cincinnati, Ohio, when I was about six years old. My parents were mostly into southern Gospel and old school country music like Eddie Arnold and others when I was a kid, as well as having records such as 101 Strings and the soundtrack from the movies Exodus and Born Free, and albums like that. There wasn’t much in the way of bluegrass music in the house, as far as the record collection goes, although that would change later on as we hit our teenage years. Even from an early age, I was drawn to all kinds of music, from the jazz, swing and blues music I would see on The Johnny Carson Show to the rock music of the day as well as the soul and funk music that I got hip to while (thankfully) living in the inter-racial neighborhood of Forest Park that we moved to in Ohio.

As for bluegrass music, I guess that would probably be hearing Roland and Clarence White and crew and The Dillards play on The Andy Griffith Show. Then, when the Bonnie and Clyde movie came out, Flatt and Scruggs were everywhere. Also, as a kid, I was fascinated by AM radio and would bring a transistor radio to bed when possible. I loved being able to pick up stations from a long way off, especially if it was a live show of some kind. And, that is when I would catch the Grand Ole Opry, as I would stop at 650-AM on the radio dial when I heard the live broadcast. Even in this age of satellite radio, MP3 players and cell phones, if I am driving at night, I still search the AM radio for stations far away.

What songs do you have a particular liking for?

I love both traditional bluegrass as well as more exploratory versions of the music. Roots and branches. I am of the Newgrass generation, so I enjoy strong instrumental skills slung with an open mind by cats like Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, David Grisman, Bela Fleck and the rest. But I also love the old school bluegrass with good lead singing and powerful harmony vocals with people like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and Doc Watson being heroes of mine. With the Jerry Douglas’ of the world, that is more of a deal where we both are close to the same age and I expected and hoped that musicians like him would represent the progressive nature of my generation, and man, they have done so big time. If there is a song that brings together both aspects of my view of bluegrass, it would be Old Home Place by JD Crowe and the New South on the Rounder 0044 album. I never tire of hearing it, and I just wrote an article about the album recently because of that reason (tinyurl.com/cq8c6v8). But I also love tunes like Whitewater and We Hide and Seek.

Which particular album do you like best and why?

I love this question and I hate this question. There are so many wonderful albums out there that deserve mention. I love the Legacy album by Doc Watson and David Holt. I love the Aereo Plain album by John Hartford. I love Manzanita by Tony Rice. Traveler by Tim O’Brien is another great album, with possibly the best opening first-three-songs on an album ever. I love the Working on a Road – Bluegrass-Style by Lillimae and the Dixie Gospel-Aires. I love the new album Aquatic Hitchhiker by Leftover Salmon.

I love Brandon Rickman’s Young Man, Old Soul album, which should have received a nomination or two a couple of years ago, and I love Monroe’s Jerusalem Ridge. Larry Sparks’ John Deere Tractor is great. I love Pam Gadd’s Benefit of Doubt album and I love the Infamous Stringdusters’ new Silver Sky project. Andy Thorn’s new solo effort Fire In The Sky, with John Garris and other friends, is a smoking album. As far as the branches of Bluegrass music goes, I think that Sarah Jarosz is the most important artist to appear in the last five years, in my opinion.

And, of course, Rounder 0044, mentioned above. I really do run the gamut from first generation traditional bluegrass to going all of the way out on the far reaches of the genre’s branches. I do not have a ‘desert island’ bluegrass album per se, but would instead put together a mix of the best songs from all of the above-mentioned projects and artists.

Do you play a musical instrument? If so, what?

I am a bit of a hack guitar player. I can improvise to just about anything, if your taste in music is tone deaf. If I woodshedded for a year and a half, I know I could cause some trouble. But I never had the desire to live the life of being in a band and tearing equipment down at 4am, so it is almost a mental block that I don’t learn rhythm guitar like I could and should. But that is a lame excuse. I have played onstage, though, as I can rip a little bit on electric blues guitar, which I have done as a guest with the Dallas Moore Band on occasion.

And, at the annual Clifftop Appalachian String Band Festival, I have, by sheer chance and luck, been a part of two pickup bands that made the finals of the very unique Friday night Non-Traditional Band Contest. But, that is only due to being surrounded by wonderful musicians who threw me a bone and gave me something simple to hold onto while they did their magic around me (tinyurl.com/c49povu).

As far as my licks go, I am like a stopped clock that is right twice a day. But, I do believe that my very brief time onstage helps me when writing about music, because at least I’ve experienced the nerves of having a bunch of people looking at you while trying to play an instrument. There will be a time when I do nothing but learn bluegrass and old time rhythm guitar, and I hope it is soon.


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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.