Thursday, October 28, 2004

Book Review--The Bluegrass Reader

Over the past several years, bluegrass music has had a revival in America, mostly based upon the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. Though I believe that this trend has reached its high point, as authenticity-seeking yuppies will move on to other forms of music (consider the Cuban music craze after Buena Vista Social Club as another example of this), it has reinvigorated the fan base of this very regional American phenomena. The University of Illinois, as part of their massive Music in American Life series (who knew we needed a biography of Louis Prima?) has recently published The Bluegrass Reader, edited by Thomas Goldsmith. This is a collection of short articles, album reviews, and liner notes about different bluegrass bands and trends.

Overall, it's a solid collection with pieces on the early legends of the form, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers, and Don Reno. Monroe basically invented the music in the early 40s out of Appalachian old-time music, jazz, and country and it quickly spread across the region. There are also many excellent articles on the different revivals of bluegrass, from the folk revival of the early 60s to the new grass people in the 70s to the recent revival. There are good pieces on bluegrass and sexism, a huge problem in this paternalistic musical form and good coverage of most of the major figures in bluegrass history.

I was annoyed at 3 pieces on Alison Krauss, one of the 5 or so most overrated musicians working in American music today. She's a fine fiddler and has a good voice but her albums are boring. I have no problem with people working outside of the bluegrass mainstream. There's nothing wrong with taking the basics of bluegrass and making more accessible music with it. However, why would anyone cover Michael McDonald songs? That is just senseless. With the thousands of wonderful songs in the world, why cover something by Michael freaking McDonald? (And what's with his comeback--seems like I can't turn on the TV without seeing his mug) It's one thing to try and sell albums and it's another to make boring cover of Michael McDonald songs.

There are only 2 real lapses in the book. A good piece on the North Carolina flatpicker and legend Doc Watson would have been very nice. And maybe something on Norman Blake too. And perhaps a better piece on John Hartford. The more substantial criticism is that several articles reference dark times in the music's history when albums didn't sell and (especially in the 70s) when the music lost touch with its roots. But there are no articles from those down periods discussing why things were going so badly. So overall, The Bluegrass Reader is a good, but slightly incomplete, history of this most wonderful of American music traditions.