Some of the top names in bluegrass music are coming to the Birchmere next week to celebrate and support a performer who doesn’t pluck a string or sing a note. Eileen Carson Schatz has always let her feet do the talking.
She co-founded the Fiddle Puppet Cloggers and runs their later incarnation, the Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble. For more than 40 years, Carson Schatz has found the rhythms in American music and pounded them onstage in carefully choreographed fashion.
Last year, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Next Tuesday’s fundraiser at the Birchmere in Alexandria will feature resonator guitarist Jerry Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan, banjo player Béla Fleck, mandolinist Sierra Hull, singer Danny Paisley and Carson Schatz’s multi-instrumentalist husband, Mark Schatz. The event is called “Bustin’ Loose for Eileen.”
It’s hard to overstate Carson Schatz’s role in bringing clogging from the hollows of Appalachia and putting it before a larger audience.
“She was one of the first people I met who was in a crack dance troupe that could come in and do a concert at a big festival and blow the audience away,” said Fleck, calling in from Interlochen, Mich., where he was on tour with the Flecktones.
The concerts Carson Schatz’s troupes have mounted often include Southern Appalachian clogging, Irish jigs, South African gumboot dancing and African American stepping and hambone (a type of body percussion). She choreographed a clogging segment in the original “Riverdance,” when the show was onstage in London, illustrating the common roots of percussive dance.
Carson Schatz and her husband live in Crownsville, Md. They met in 1989 at a bluegrass festival in Upstate New York.
“I was working with [guitarist] Tony Rice at the time,” Schatz said. “She was with the Fiddle Puppets. I saw her dancing. I sat down at a table in the performers area, and we just started chatting. There was a spark. It ignited.”
The name of that first troupe — Fiddle Puppet Cloggers — came when someone noticed the loose hairs hanging down from the bow of a fiddler who was sawing away on his instrument.
Said Schatz: “Looking through the hairs at the dancers, he said, ‘It’s almost as if you’re the puppets to the fiddle. These are the strings you’re dancing on.’
“It’s kind of a beautiful image.”
A beautiful one, but not an entirely accurate one. Carson Schatz is no one’s marionette. She was a National Endowment for the Arts choreography fellow and has long been active in arts education. It takes a lot of energy to run a dance company.
Said Schatz: “It’s an incredible feat — sorry for the pun. She’s a force of nature, really, with a very broad skill set and just a fire in the belly to do this. . . . She just loves the music and wanted to bring clogging respectability, show it as a beautiful American art form that’s a result of this incredible American melting pot.”
Washington has a rich bluegrass history. “The people coming are very special musicians,” Fleck said. “Danny is the real thing: a hardcore bluegrass singer. Sierra is just a phenomenal all-around singer and player. To see me and Jerry and Stuart in a straight-up bluegrass setting is rare. I’m hoping that people will be excited.”
And will there be dancing? “There’s nothing formal planned,” said Schatz. “I have no doubt that we will have some. How could we not?”
Tickets for the benefit concert are $100. For information, visit birchmere.com.
From one end of D.C.’s musical heritage to another: Congratulations to Paul Bishow, James June Schneider and Sam Lavine, whose long-awaited documentary “Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement” got its premiere last weekend at the AFI Silver and the Hirshhorn.
A decade in the making, the film covers the rise of punk rock in Washington, from the mid-1970s to 1983. (That’s the year Minor Threat broke up, an event akin to when Elvis was drafted: the end of something but the beginning of something else.)
We’re close to reaching peak music documentary in Washington. That’s not a bad thing, since each film has its own contributions to make. “Punk the Capital” has great footage of such bands as the Bad Brains playing at Madam’s Organ, the 18th Street NW commune/collective/gallery space that was an arts incubator.
In the movie, singer Henry Rollins points out a hallmark of punk in D.C.: We save stuff, stuff like Paul Bishow’s Madam’s Organ Super 8 films and the posters, fliers and fanzines that now help document a rich history.
After all, this is the city of the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.