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
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
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
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
Pickin’ und grinnin’, no doubt.