Americana weekend in Urbana

Americana weekend in Urbana

This past weekend had a strong Americana flavor for my mother and me.

On Friday evening we took in The Whitfords house concert at the Urbana home of Dannie Otto and Barbara Shenk. The Whitfords — the husband and wife team of Eldon and Ann Whitford— perform vintage country music, covering a wide range of American rural styles and artists such as Gillian Welch, Johnny Cash and Maybelle Carter.

For the past five years they’ve annually performed at the Otto-Shenk house, stopping there on their way back to their home in Michigan from Big Bend, Tex., where they perform six nights a week at their favorite winter haunt, the Hallie Stillwell Hall of Fame at the Stillwell Store and RV Park just outside of Big Bend National Park.

At the house concert, Eldon played Gibson acoustic guitars and Ann played rhythm guitar and the upright bass, one that is bigger than she is.

Eldon is a most excellent guitarist; versatile with a nice dynamic range.

Last year he indirectly made the news when first lady Michelle Obama gave France’s first lady, former model Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a Gibson "Legends" J-45 acoustic guitar. At the time Bruni-Sarkozy was recording her fourth album.

The Gibson plant in Bozeman, Mont., had painstakingly reconstructed the J-45 after Eldon Whitford loaned the company his, a 1942 J-45 in mint condition.

Before Gibson built the new J-45s, they put Eldon’s under intense scrutiny: X-rays and cat scans and chemical analysis of the glue used.

According to the website Guitar Collecting:

"The Gibson J-45 is one of the most played and cherished acoustic guitars in history...Hand crafted by Gibson luthiers using techniques from the J-45 guitar’s heyday, the Legend J-45 boasts an Adirondack spruce top and solid mahogany back and sides to produce unmatched mellow, full-bodied tone."

A luthier himself, Eldon has collected vintage musical instruments for 40 years. According to the Whitfords’ website, he is considered one of the foremost authorities on vintage American acoustic instruments.

He co-researched and co-authored the illustrated book, "Gibson’s Fabulous Flat-Top Guitars," considered the definitive study.

In Urbana, Eldon told his audience that he and his wife had seen, the night before, the musical "Always Patsy Cline" at the Station Theatre.

He said of all the Cline tributes he’d heard, Kathy Harden’s voice had come closest to sounding like that of Cline, who of course, is a country legend despite her brief career.

Harden, of course, portrays Cline in the musical. Joi Hoffsommer portrays her friend, Louise Seger.

My mom and I saw the musical on Saturday night. It’s a real crowd-pleaser and clocks in at just two hours, with intermission, even though Harden sings 27 Cline songs.

The packed house gave Harden and Hoffsommer a standing ovation.

I overheard other audience members say how "great" Harden is and how Hoffsommer captured her character, a slightly ditzy Houston housewife, even though she’s not at all like that.

"Always Patsy Cline," to be presented through May 8, is sold out on Wednesday and April 28 and 30. If you want to see it, call 384-4000.

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