Friday, May 13, 2005

New Bluegrass

I have long felt that bluegrass music has long suffered from an identity crisis. So many artists have tried to make the music "relevant" in some kind of way. Let me go into this by giving my brief history of bluegrass:

Bill Monroe created bluegrass in the early 1940s out of a combination of several musical elements--country, mountain music, jazz, swing. One friend of mine even maintains that border music influenced Monroe, making the case that he was influenced by Mexican rhythms listening to border stations while working in the Midwest as a young man. Bluegrass was never a traditional music and has been and should be always open to change. Monroe soon made it to the Grand Ole Opry where he had significant success but was always seen as a novelty act. His popularity was soon surpassed by his former sidemen Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs who made bluegrass nationally known by writing the Beverly Hillbillies theme but by doing so also played a role in making bluegrass music seen as backward mountain music that had little place in postwar American society. Some bluegrass musicians embraced the mountain side of bluegrass, most notably the Stanley Brothers. But it was difficult to make money playing bluegrass because it was seen as a regional, niche music and although popular in Appalachia and among folkies by the early 1960s, you weren't going to make a lot of money playing high schools in Kentucky and West Virginia while hoping that you would get invited to the Newport Folk Festival. Although the music continued to attract young players from the Appalachian states, many of these musicians found the traditionalism in the music, something perpetuated by Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt particularly, stifling and also wanted to make some money playing. This was the late 1960s and early 1970s and these younger musicians were also listening to the Grateful Dead and other more popular bands of the period. So they decided to branch out and produce rock-bluegrass fusion music that strayed farther and farther away from its traditions. Musicians such as David Grisman and Sam Bush found they could actually make money doing this. Other, more southern-oriented musicians such as Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley turned away from bluegrass entirely and became very popular country musicians.

While I love musical experimentation, there was one problem. Most of this music wasn't really very good. While much of the experimental music is still popular, I have a real hard time getting into a 25 minute Grisman/Tony Rice instrumental. What's the point of this exactly? How is this not basically musical masturbation? The country stuff of Skaggs and Whitley isn't terrible but it's not very memorable either at this point and eventually their avenue was cut off by the rise of the dogshit country of the 1990s.

I think what a lot of these musicians forgot was that the real greatness of bluegrass music came from the lyrics of the songs. The music is wonderful too but I find the really long solos limiting. It got to the point that by the late 1970s, it was big news for a band to actually play bluegrass rooted in traditional instrumentation and without trying to be something else. The Bluegrass Album Band took everyone by surprise in the late 70s by doing this very thing.

Over the last 10 years, bluegrass music has had a significant comeback, largely because of the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack. I feel a bit torn about this. Part of it is great. It's now possible for musicians to make a living playing bluegrass. Bands can more realistically do national tours. It's being playing by musicians from across the nation. And much of the music is quite good, which I'll get to in a minute. From Del McCoury who remains relevant by playing in a traditional style while mixing in contemporary songs, including a large number of Richard Thompson covers to Dolly Parton who as always knows how to make money and thus has produced 3 fine bluegrass albums since the late 1990s, we now have a large amount of quality bluegrass music being made these days.

On the other hand, I find a lot of the casual fans who maybe bought the O Brother soundtrack very condescending toward the music and the people who play it. These are people who stupidly whoop and holler at shows. I think part of its renaissance, and I think this is true for the rise in Irish music and other forms of world music as well, it's people's desire to grab a piece of authenticity. They perhaps feel alienated from traditional ways of living and think that owning a piece of music that supposedly represents a more traditional way of life brings them a little bit closer to something they think modern society has lost. Other examples of this are the rise of New Age spirituality and sometimes the owning of second homes outside of the city. I'm hardly the first person to write about the connections between authenticity and consumption, but nonetheless it's an important point to make about the kinds of music that have gained a new audience recently. I mean, how many people who saw O Brother and bought the soundtrack think that the movie is a realistic portrayal of southern life? More than one, I can assure you.

That being said, the positives outweigh the negatives in the recent popularity of bluegrass music. I want to highlight some of the fine bands that have produced superb albums in the last 10 years, in part because the market is there for more bands to put out more albums.

1. The Gibson Brothers. I really love the Gibson Brothers album Bona Fide. Wonderful songs about both the past and the present, a great gospel number to close the album, and a song about deforestation. Most importantly they have great brotherly harmonies. Brother groups were very common in the early years of bluegrass but before the Gibsons, I don't know when the last time I heard one was. Like many of the excellent newer groups, they are not from South; in this case, from upstate New York near the Canadian border. What's particularly interesting about their case is that they really want to be a country band but right now the market is not there for a lot of people wanting to play traditional country music. They had an easier time marketing a bluegrass record. In any case, buy Bona Fide and then buy the other albums.

2. The Freighthoppers. This group actually broke up about 5 years ago because their amazing fiddle player needed a heart transplant and from what I understand the other founder of the group is a real asshole and so people kept leaving the group. Nevermind that they're no longer together. The fiddle player, David Bass, made it through the transplant and I understand is putting together a new album, the female singer, Cary Fridley, has at least one album out of her own, and the male singer whose name I can't remember now also has new music out. What's amazing about this group is that they took a rock and roll mentality to old-time music. It's played in the traditional way but with amazing heart and musicianship and speed and attitude. Check out their album Waiting on the Gravy Train for some of the finest old-time music you'll ever hear. They also do a great job of singing the insane old-time songs from the 20s and 30s. You think singing about drugs and violence are a new thing? No, no. Lunatics like Dick ("I'm simply wild about my good cocaine") were doing this 75 years ago. The Freighthoppers also put on one of the best shows I've ever seen. That fiddle player would play at 100 miles an hour and do a sort of mountain tapdance at the same time. One of the damndest things I've ever seen.

3. The Steep Canyon Rangers. Another new band, made up of people in their 20s and 30s, looks like a bunch of hippie kids. But they play some mean bluegrass with a lot of soul and a lot of fun. Excellent lyrics, excellent playing. Good song about Dale Earnhardt too. Highly recommended music.

4. Don Rigsby. Rigsby is a little older than these other bands. But he sings some of the creepiest and saddest songs you'll ever hear. Rigsby is a good example of how you can be a great bluegrass singer without having the classic high lonesome voice. With excellent music and choosing the right songs (Rigsby doesn't write a lot of his own stuff) he has become one of our finest bluegrass musicians. All need to especially check out The Midnight Call, which has songs about things like a man's mother telling him in a dream that she is dying and then he gets a call saying that's what's happened, a song about the 2001 West Virginia floods, which I happened to get married in, a classic about a daughter getting killed by a drunk driver right before her high school graduation, and other fun ones. It sounds dire, but it's freaking amazing.

5. Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show. Shiflett's been around a long time too and has been able to take advantage of the music's resurgence to make some albums. Shiflett's recent adventures say a lot about bluegrass fans. He had the audacity to put a snare drum on his last album. This literally almost caused a revolt among his fans and he had to get rid of the guy very quickly. The fans said that it wasn't "traditional" and "the way things are done." Well, first of all a snare drum was popular in early 50s bluegrass. And second, if it works, who cares? The album is good. So what's the problem? This gets back to what I was saying earlier about the search for authenticity by music fans. With a snare drum, all of a sudden Shiflett wasn't authentic anymore. Ridiculous. In any case, he puts out good albums and also put on a hell of a good show when I saw in 2000 in Knoxville, TN. I wish he'd make it out this way.