It's not just for hillbillies anymore
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.
One of the most fascinating innovators is Jerry Douglas, a Dobro player who stretches the instrument's sound to his own artful ends on the new release Restless on the Farm (Sugar Hill). Douglas, who has melded bluegrass-style picking with Irish tunes and played last year with experimental jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, ignores any hard-and-fast rules as he renders originals and country classics such as 'Don't Take Your Guns to Town.' His fluid, resonant sound seems timeless, whatever you call it.
Numerous other players take similarly idiosyncratic approaches. Mandolinist David Grisman has, since the '60s, perpetuated a jazz-folk-bluegrass hybrid he calls 'dawg music.' Banjoist Bela Fleck has been mystifying traditionalists for years with his Flecktones band, in which the old instrument meets electric bass and computerized drums in an unclassifiable fusion. Kate MacKenzie, who sang for years in a 'straight' grass band called Stoney Lonesome, has gotten a Grammy nomination for music showcasing her voice in a more classic folk music style. And alternative bands such as the Bad Livers and the late Blood Oranges have injected punkish spirit into their amplified urban grass.
The bluegrass umbrella has clearly gotten a lot wider. Dan Hayes, director of the International Bluegrass Music Association, believes that bluegrass has retained its hard-core cadre of fans -- the ones who actually say 'pickin' and grinnin'' and know 'Turkey in the Straw' from 'Possum up a Gum Stump' -- but is now also attracting a growing number of dabblers who listen to many other musical genres.
Perhaps many have come to recognize bluegrass for what it is: a hardy, expressive roots music that made crucial contributions to country and rock as we know them. Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Garcia all loved this 'hillbilly' music.
The best indicator of bluegrass's universal appeal may be the profusion of bands far outside its birthplace in the American South. Fast-picking ensembles can be found in nearly every urban center in the country, and far beyond its borders. The band Eurograss brings together players from Austria, France, and Italy, while Helmut and the Hillbillies are playing Bluegrassmusik in southern Germany.
Pickin' und grinnin', no doubt.