Late-Blooming Bluegrass

It's not just for hillbillies anymore

| July/August 1998

In hip circles of the culture world, there's no better way to show you don't belong than to betray a fondness for bluegrass music. With its hillbilly associations and rampant 'howdy' chatter, bluegrass is sometimes seen as the music of the truly backward. But the genre appears to be shedding its image as the ugly Cousin Cletus of the music scene as it gains new adherents and even a bit of hard-won respect.

The death last year of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, triggered a spate of tributes from critics and musicians; even Rolling Stone published a lengthy piece on Monroe's legacy. High-profile country stars Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill have been proudly proclaiming their bluegrass influences. And many bluegrass events are becoming big business. June's Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, the biggest and broadest-ranging of them all, sold out its 10,000-ticket-a-day limit way back in April.

Listenership tallies tell more of the story. Bluegrass sales figures are not individually tracked, but the International Bluegrass Music Association points to two strong indicators of audience growth: An April study by Simmons Market Research showed that 6.4 million U.S. adults purchased at least one bluegrass album in the previous year, compared to 4.5 million in 1996. And a Census Bureau arts report revealed that between 1985 and 1992, the number of people who said they enjoy bluegrass grew from 40 million to 55 million -- the largest growth of any music genre mentioned.

In a pop-dominated landscape where faddish subgenres such as lo-fi, lounge, and electronica command extensive media coverage, bluegrass stands out as a low-key but time-tested style that's here for the long haul. And it has, despite its old-fashioned image, evolved with the times.

The hallmarks of traditional bluegrass are instantly recognizable: acoustic guitars, fiddles, mandolins, and Dobros (steel guitars) intertwining in rapid-fire ensemble playing that musicologist Alan Lomax once called 'folk music in overdrive.' It features tight two-, three-, or four-part harmonies, sung (at least by men) in artificially high voices -- a device that imbues it with an eerie tension that fits with its lyrical themes of rural landscapes haunted by God, ghosts, and infernal lonesomeness. Instrumental prowess is prized, and players step out for solos and compete with each other on fast, flashy 'breakdowns.'

To the novice ear, it can sound like little more than a speeded-up twangfest -- 33 1/3 Nashville played at 78 rpm. But spend some time with bluegrass, and nuances emerge like the grain of a fine hardwood. A perfect primer for dabblers is the new compilation by Hip-O Records, Bluegrass Essentials, that covers several generations of players and numerous styles. Bill Monroe, appropriately, appears with the bluegrass classic 'Blue Moon of Kentucky,' and Del McCoury showcases his echo-laden wail on 'Rain and Snow.' Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs demonstrate their legendary picking prowess on 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown,' while the gospel strain is represented with 'Jesus I'll Never Forget' by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and 'I'm Using My Bible for a Roadmap' by Reno & Smiley. Alison Krauss and Claire Lynch soften the edges of the male-dominated genre with ballads, and Skaggs and Gill are given the chance to fly their bluegrass flags.

To delve further into this rich musical tradition, check out the recent releases Y'All Come: The Essential Jim & Jesse and 'Tis Sweet to Be Remembered: The Essential Flatt & Scruggs, two Sony Legacy releases that complement 1991's The Essential Bill Monroe. These giants of the genre will show you where the music has been. As for where it's headed, well, that's just as interesting. Ever since the bluegrass boomlet of the early '70s, when hybrid 'newgrass' took root and Flatt and Scruggs broke up because Scruggs wanted to play 'hippie' music, purists have argued about what's really bluegrass. Smart listeners ignore the contentiousness and simply enjoy the results of all this cross-breeding and experimentation. Think of bluegrass as a musical family in which the cousins all look a little different, and you'll get along just fine.

12/26/2013 5:16:47 AM

Ideally, has to be able to do it livelier.

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