The Byrds sent me down a byway to bluegrass music. It’s the world out of which Chris Hillman came. They drew on some of it for Sweetheart of the Rodeo. And then I happened on to one of the Saturday morning shows devoted to the music. I could hear America singing.
As a newcomer to the music, I found a world with its own storied history. I tried to catch up with a guide for beginners and with Neil V. Rosenberg’s Bluegrass: A History and Richard Smith’s Bluegrass: An Informal Guide. Smith is also the author of a good biography of Bill Monroe, the man who laid down the laws of bluegrass.
There is a shortage of memoirs by key figures. I recommend Charlie Louvin’s Satan Is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers (with Benjamin Whitmer), and not just for the cover.
Succeeding generations follow the laws of bluegrass as laid down by Mr. Monroe with an exception or two. The music is acoustic. The instruments are banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and bass. The emphasis is on the off-beat. Drums are generally not allowed.
Earl Scruggs perfected the three-finger picking style that is to be followed on banjo and popularized it as a member of the edition of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys that included Lester Flatt on guitar. Flatt, by the way, had been adverse to Monroe hiring Scruggs until he heard Scruggs play “Dear Old Dixie” at his audition.
I thought I would draw on the vast library of music available by video for another extended lockdown installment of this series. As always, it is limited by my taste and, in this case, by my lack of knowledge. We aren’t even skimming the surface of the library here. I can only point the way to a few favorite performers and songs that have stuck with me over the years. I hope I have the facts straight. Any are inadvertent and subject to correction.
The Stanley Brothers made a mark with “Rank Strangers.” In the video below Marty Stuart introduces Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys for a singalong version of the song. This is music for adults. I think we have the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? to thank for the late revival of Ralph’s career. I saw Ralph perform on two versions of the Down From the Mountain tour inspired by the movie.
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” provides a classic showcase for the display of instrumental prowess. Here it is performed by Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs, and Jerry Douglas on dobro.
Jerry Garcia started out in life as a crazed devotee of folk and bluegrass. He traveled to festivals across the country with his mandolinist buddy David Grisman. In 1973 they recorded the live Old & In the Way album with Garcia on banjo, Peter Rowan on guitar, John Kahn on bass and, oh, yeah, Vassar Clements on fiddle. They injected new life into the old form with songs like Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight.” The album was released in 1975.
If you want to catch up with the classic catalog of bluegrass, the Bluegrass Album Band is a good place to start. They covered the classics on six albums that are available on three compact discs. This was a supergroup that formed around Tony Rice on guitar. Other members included J.D. Crowe on banjo, Bobby Hicks and Todd Phllips on bass, and, oh, yeah, Vassar Clements on fiddle. Here they are on “Model Church” in 1981. Based on a nineteenth-century hymn, this is a legitimate Sunday morning song, but did it ever sound this good?
Here Today was gone gone tomorrow after their one self-titled album in 1982.
The group included Vince Gill, David Grisman, Herb Pedersen, Jim Buchanan, and Emory Gordy, Jr. “Lonesome River” is an old Osborne Brothers song that cuts deep with Gill’s vocal. I asked Vince about it just before one of his incredible performances at the Minnesota State Fair. “Now you’re taking me way back,” is all he would say. Let’s go way back.
Hot Rize also made it new again in songs like Tim O’Brien’s “Walk the Way the Wind Blows.” O’Brien was the groups multitalented mandolin player. Kathy Mattea had a hit with the song. In the version of the song below Jerry Douglas joins in on dobro. This was a great group with a country alter ego they called Red Knuckles and the Trail Blazers. They had a sense of humor too.
Let’s bring Hot Rize back for “Just Like You.” Pete Wernick is on banjo, Charles Sawtelle on guitar, and Nick Forster on bass. Jerry Douglas got in his licks again on dobro. Wernick wrote the song. As I say, this was a great group.
New Grass Revival was another group that made it new again in the ’70’s and 80’s. Bela Fleck on banjo, Sam Bush on mandolin, fiddle, and vocals, and John Cowan on guitar on vocals made an indelible impression. Here they are on “Hold To a Dream.” I include this one for inspirational purposes.
Off on his own, Sam Bush is one of my favorites. Here he is on Nashville songwriter Jeff Black’s “Same Ol’ River.” Jerry Douglas sits in with him on this live recording.
I first heard the Nashville Bluegrass Band on the local Saturday morning KBEM bluegrass show hosted by Phil Nusbaum. I could have sworn he called them the National Bluegrass Band. That’s the way they sounded to me — the official American bluegrass band. Here they are performing Gillian Welch’s “Tear My Stillhouse Down.” Stuart Duncan is the group’s incredibly inventive fiddle player. Like Jerry Douglas, he must be on roughly every record made in Nashville. The late Clarence White’s brother Roland is on mandolin.
Here they are on the title track to the Grammy-winning Waitin’ for the Hard Times To Go. The song was written by Dave Alvin. You can hear America singing.
Rounder Records has done much to keep this music alive. They started recording Alison Krauss when she was a teenage fiddle champion and then had the great idea of collecting her best numbers on a 1995 retrospective that made an impact far beyond the audience for bluegrass. The old Louvin Brothers song “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” was one of them. It shows off her approach to the music to great effect.
Alison has acknowledged her debt to Tony Rice many times over. She asked him to sit in with Union Station on their recording of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Shadows.”
Jerry Douglas joined Alison’s group and toured with her for several years. He’s with the group in the “Shadows” video above. We saw the group with him perform this instrumental composed by Douglas at St. Catherine University in St. Paul and it just blew us away.
According to Rosenberg’s history, Bill Monroe hired Del McCoury as a banjo player but converted him to guitar. McCoury himself is a class act. His group featuring his sons is an incredible outfit. Here they are on “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” by British folks master Richard Thompson. You may recall that Thompson led off my roundup last week.
There’s something about bluegrass. Dolly Parton enlisted Nashville’s best musicians to record two discs of music, bluegrass style. “Travelin Prayer” is the Billy Joel song off her Grammy-winning The Grass Is Blue. This one will wake you up. If you’ve been paying attention, you should be able to identify a few of the musicians accompanying Dolly. I rate this four wow!s.
Let us conclude with Dolly’s Sunday morning interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” from Halos and Horns.