Bluegrass Music Appreciation

article image
PHOTO: BRENT THORGREN
Down-home musician Marc Bristol sings and strums a tune at a local Bluegrass music festival.

Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?

That’s what this column is about. Homegrown music… and sometimes homemade musical instruments to play it on.


Bluegrass Music: The Bright
Experiment

Back in the 60’s I became really excited by the theme music
for the (otherwise somewhat moronic) television program
The Beverly Hillbillies. The bright, new sound
that caught my ear came from the banjo of bluegrasser Earl
Scruggs. His picking style impressed many other people,
too, and by the time Earl had done the theme music for the
movie Bonnie and Clyde (in 1967), nearly
everyone had heard of bluegrass and knew that it
was uptempo, acoustic country music featuring a lot of
sparkling banjo and fiddle work.

The roots of this invigorating style go all the way back to
old-time string band music. However, it was Kentuckian Bill
Monroe (born in 1911) who developed and defined the special
sound of bluegrass, and gave the music its name.

Bill started his career by playing backup guitar at local
dances with his uncle, fiddler Pen Vandever (later to be
immortalized in some of Bill’s best-known songs), who
exerted a strong influence on the young man’s style. Then,
in the 30’s, when Bill and his brother Charlie landed a
radio job as a singing duo (with Charlie on guitar and Bill
on mandolin), they evolved the vocal style that’s the soul
of bluegrass.

After the brothers drifted apart, Monroe put together a
group he called the Bluegrass Boys, and began to fine-tune
his distinctive sound. It wasn’t until the late 40’s,
however, when he hired Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, that
the banjo assumed its position of importance in the genre.
Earl’s driving, three-finger picking technique was new and
exciting, and his banjo style soon became the instrumental
trademark of bluegrass music.

Lester and Earl eventually got tired of being on the road
with Bill and broke off to form their own act, the Foggy
Mountain Boys, but by then the bluegrass sound had been
defined. To this day, the banjo players in Bill’s band pick
in a style similar to the one Earl created.

Nowadays, Scruggs and his sons, as the Earl Scruggs Revue,
are playing country rock. Many purists are outraged by this
change, but it’s perfectly all right with me! It was, after
all, experimentation that gave birth to bluegrass in the
first place, and a denial of the right to explore new
frontiers is contrary to the whole spirit of American
music.

Performers to Look For

There have been many musicians in the past 40 years
who’ve learned much from their association with Bill
Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, and several have gone on to make
names for themselves. One such performer is Jimmy
Martin–lead vocalist and guitarist with Bill in the late
40’s and early 50’s–who later formed his own group, the
Sunny Mountain Boys. Although he’s been ostracized by some
bluegrass fans for using drums in his band, Martin is one
of my favorites.

I first heard Jimmy on the album Willthe Circle Be
Unbroken? …
put together by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The idea behind the record was to introduce two
groups of performers who were interested in different
aspects of the same branch of music. (Needless to say, the
album’s promoters were equally interested in consolidating
the two audiences, in hopes of achieving wider sales.) The
Dirt Band had been playing bluegrass primarily for young
people, so their manager decided to bring them together
with several older stars from the traditional country music
scene. He rounded up Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Doc
Watson, Earl Scruggs, Pete “Brother Oswald” Kirby, Jimmy
Martin, Merle Travis, Vassar Clements, and others and
took them to a studio in Nashville for a series of
sessions. The result was a classic: a three-record
production, cut “live” and mixed on the spot.

Half of the album is devoted to “breakdowns” (bluegrass
instrumentals), and the other half is full of wonderful
renditions of classic country tunes sung by the
above-mentioned luminaries, supported by the Dirt Band. If
you were to buy only one album of bluegrass/country music
for your collection, this would be a good choice.

On the other hand, if you want to collect a number
of records, be sure to look for “Uncle Josh” Graves, a fine
dobro player who has recorded with Bill Monroe and Flatt
& Scruggs as well as on his own …Mike Auldridge, also
on dobro, whom you may have heard in recordings by Emmylou
Harris and Linda Ronstadt …brothers Jim and Jesse
Reynolds, a vocal harmony duo specializing in that high,
lonesome sound …and Vassar Clements, the powerful
instrumentalist who played fiddle with Bill Monroe and then
moved on to incorporate more rock and jazz into his
individual style.

There are a number of older groups worthy of
mention, too, including the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne
Brothers, Don Reno and the Tennessee Cutups, Mac Wiseman,
and Buck White, among others. And, if you’re still hungry
for bluegrass after listening to those acts,
there’s a new generation of performers. Some favor a
traditional sound, others lean toward the experimental.
Among such players are Hot Rize, Larry McNeely, Jack
Skinner, Byron Berline, the New Cache Valley Drifters, the
Newgrass Revival, and Peter Rowan.

Bluegrass Festivals Galore

As this style of music has increased in popularity,
bluegrass festivals have become a more and more important
phenomenon in this country, with new events popping up each
year. Attending these shows is a good way to make contact
with the music and to hear some of the performers I’ve
spoken of …as well as up-and-coming local “grassers.”

If there’s no regular festival in your neck of the woods,
you might think about starting one. All it requires is a
suitable location (remember to have plenty of camping space
if the affair is going to last more than one day) plus
someone–or better yet, several someones–with a
lot of energy and organizational ability.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to encourage
all promoters of bluegrass events to keep open
minds. Variety is the spice of life, and it would be
stimulating to see some string swing bands, jug bands, solo
performers, musical saws, and other forms of acoustical
country music in addition to the traditional Monroe-style
fare. The broader scope of such a program might well
enlarge the audience for bluegrass, and could even help
encourage the birth of some new form of music as wonderful
as bluegrass itself.

One gathering with wide appeal is the National Folk
Festival, held each year at Wolf Trap Farm in Vienna,
Virginia. This event (it ran from August 7 to 9 this year)
is put on by the National Council for the Traditional Arts,
which occasionally publishes a large directory of annual
festivals. (I previously reported that this was a yearly
publication. Not so! And while the only issue now
available will not have fully up-to-date 1981 listings, the
addresses and other particulars of the regular
get-togethers that are included could be of great help to
those people planning vacations or hoping to tour the
festivals as performers. As of this past July, a copy of
the 1980 calendar could still be ordered at a discounted
price of $3.00 postpaid.) For more information, visit the National Council for the Traditional Arts.

Publications to Ponder

One of my ongoing aims in writing this column is to alert
you to specialty publications dealing with aspects of
homegrown music that I don’t have space to cover here. One
such publication I ran across recently is International
Banjo
($15 a year in the U.S., $20 elsewhere). This one
focuses on various banjo styles: bluegrass, tenor,
plectrum, and more.

Although I may have referred to it before, Bluegrass Unlimited certainly deserves a mention in any column
about Bill Monroe’s spiritual progeny. Festival listings
come out each spring in this publication.

Some people up in Michigan are printing a really nice
magazine called North Country Folk. I have the
second issue, and it contains a wide variety of articles on
different aspects of traditional culture …including–but
not limited to–music. There’s even a nice article on the
musical saw written by none other than Dan Wallace, the
owner of Mussehl & Westphal (the company that has been
making professional musical saws since 1921). The article
is fascinating, and so is the rest of the issue, which
features pieces on ethnic music, radio listening, morris
dancing, sugar maple culture, fishing, and folk art for
children. There are even plans for a treble version (called
a “twanger”) of the old washtub bass. It utilizes a small
coffee can, a foot-long strip of flexible wood, a tuner,
and an old guitar string. 

Another source for listings of bluegrass festivals–as well
as musical doings of every kind around the world–is the International Guide to Music Festivals by Douglas
Smith and Nancy Barton. In the guide you’ll find
sections–broken down by country–on folk, classical, and
jazz (as well as bluegrass) festivals.

Finally, my thanks go to Marjorie Bennett for turning me on
to Banjo International …and to Dan Wallace for
the copy of North Country Folk.


EDITOR’S NOTE: For a look at clogging the bluegrass dance
style-turn backtopage40!