Wayne Bledsoe: Don Cassell has a lifetime of 'Music Pals' and more to come

My favorite Don Cassell story comes from when Don first moved to Knoxville more than 30 years ago.

Don, a multi-instrumentalist best known for mandolin, was playing in a bluegrass band, but he was also making a little extra cash as a pool shark. About two weeks after a particulalry profitable round of billiards, Don was onstage playing a gig at the scene of his victory when he spotted his very disgurntled former opponent enter the bar.

Don played the rest of the show with his back to the audience and keeping his profile low.

Anyone who knows Don knows that had to have been tough. Keeping Don contained would be like trying to play a pinball game during an earthquake.

He has so much energy and enthusiasm that he is never low profile.

And, chances are, if that defeated pool player were a musician, Don would have made friends with him and he'd be on Don's new album "Music Pals 2."

Over lunch with Don and his longtime buddy and "music pal" Nancy Brennan Strange at the Bistro, Don talks about the new album:

"Music forms a bond beyond friendship," says Don. "You get to create something new and fun."

That's a good description of "Music Pals 2."

It's a combination of bluegrass, old-time, folk and country and it includes a wide variety of players, including two of Don's bands (the Knoxville-based Tennessee Sheiks and the Chattanooga-based Dismembered Tennesseans), Maggie Longmire and Steve Horton of the Lonesome Coyotes, violinist Bethany Hankins, saxophonist Dirk Weddington, cellists Alexia Pantanizopoulos and Cecilia Blair Miller, guitarist Harold Nagge, bassist Vince Ilagan, tabla player Amudhan Venkateswaren and many others.

"There are a lot of muscians on this record — some people will know and some they won't," says Don.

"Davis Tracy has never been recorded. He's not a professional musician, but my relationship with him revovles around music."

Tracy, who recently retired as head of the counseling center at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, plays guitar on the Guy Clark song "South Coast of Texas." He and Don met when Don was taking an art class at the University of Tennessee taught by Tracy's wife.

"She said, 'My husband's a musician. You should meet each other," says Don.

Friend Jack O'Hanlon introduced Don to Nancy Brennan Strange not long after Don had come to town. The two formed the bands Past Times, Strange Company (which included guitar great Steve Kaufman) and, later, the Tennessee Sheiks.

Nancy performs Richard Thompson's ballad "Dimming of the Day," providing one of the disc's highlights.

"That's just a tune I love to hear Nancy sing, and I always wanted to record it with her," says Don.

"Then Maggie (Longmire) picked out the Bob Dylan tune and she just smoked it."

Vocals for Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" are handled by Carrie Nicely.

"She's my son's stepsister," says Don. "I've watched her grow up and I loved that tune, and I just thought one night she'd be the perfect person to sing it."

There are several Don Cassell originals.

"'Big D' was written in honor of my dad," says Don. "He was an engineer and a real straight dude, but he liked music that was a little crooked."

To that end, "Big D" has a few curves.

Don's rendition on the old standard "Wild Bill Jones" takes liberties with the chord structure and the lyrics. While changing folk songs is sort of what folk music is all about, one music pal told Don that if purists caught wind of the changes he'd made to the song his life might be in danger.

That's not something that worried Don too much.

"You go to Galax (a music festvial in Galax, Va.) in the bluegrass section it's a little more conservative. Then you go over with the old-time people and they're all drinking moonshine and smoking grass!"

It's no surprise to anyone who knows him that Don fits right in with both. He fits in almost anywhere.

"When I hang with the Carpetbag Theater guys it's different than with the Dismembered Tennesseans."

Music, he says, ties everyone together who loves it.

"Whoever it is, we'd have an immediate connection, but it's a totally different relationship because of mutual respect in music," says Don.

"The art and craft is there, but it's the love of something that takes you to a spiritual place."

Don is on the way to making even more music pals. The Dismembered Tennesseans recently performed a show with the Chattanooga Symphony and is planning a show with the Louisville Symphony.And, Don expects to make "Music Pals 3, 4 and 5."

"I've already got some tunes written for the third record, and I've already got musicians who are not on this record ready to play on it!"

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