Mar 15, 2013

Bluegrass: a Primer

Titling this blog Banjo52 might imply more knowledge of bluegrass and other roots  music than I actually have. On the other hand, I love a lot of it, and Karin at has just reminded me that there might be folks out there who could use an injection of mountain music but don’t know where to begin. So here’s my ounce of contribution toward a beginning dose of bluegrass. 

My list and links are tilted toward artists who are not so nasal or shrill that they’d put off the new or casual listener. If you google a few of these folks, you’ll also see and hear that bluegrass is a specific kind of country music. While there’s some overlap with Nashville, as well as blues and folk music (especially Scots-Irish), bluegrass is its own critter.

The traditional band includes acoustic guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle, and often mandolin and dobro.  Drums? Piano? Brass?  Never, as far as I know, but “Fusion” is one of the F-words of contemporary culture . . . .  Fusion is also the reason I haven't included Steve Martin or Bela Fleck; they are supremely talented banjoists, but their musical adventurism usually takes them beyond bluegrass, at least in my loosely defined terms. 

Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe go back to the 1940s or earlier, so they have some of that shrillness, but it’s still good stuff.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs began to make inroads into the folk music of the 1960s, and Alison Krause and Emmylou Harris have completed that trend.  Also try the inimitable Doc Watson. I can’t imagine his offending anyone, and newcomers might embrace his mellow voice and soft brilliance on guitar.  If someone objects to his lullaby (next to last in the following lists), keep it to yourself. 

The first three below are older artists, followed by a few notable younger performers (though only Chris Thile is anything like a kid—well, Gillian Welch might not have any gray hair yet). 

Mother Maybelle Carter  (or, the Carter Family)
June Carter Cash    (Maybelle’s daughter, Johnny Cash’s wife)
Jim and Jesse
Tony Rice
Gillian Welch
Iris DeMenthe
Chris Thile  
Black Diamond (West Virginia)
Tom Adams
Norman Blake
Leo Kottke

Too Much of a Good Thing? 

Also, you could google any of the names John Hartford mentions in this link in addition to hearing a somewhat homogenized version of a classic:

Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs:

Doc Watson and Chris Thile

June Carter Cash 

Doc Watson, a lullaby

Sleepy Man Banjo Boys (even kids do it): 

I hope this info, fundamental as it is, starts a stampede.  If you do some wandering on YouTube, please permit yourself some extra pleasure by looking entering “clog dancing” in the search bar. 


Ken Mac said...

You and Altadena Karin both in a bluegrass state of mind today!

Anonymous said...

Scratch a Michiganer and who knows what you'll find. Well, great links, for one thing.

Banjo52 said...

Yes. And yes, I hope.

Stickup Artist said...

Well my friend, I don't think I'm going to make it to any of those links anytime soon. Though I do like Johnny Cash and Patsy Kline, but I don't know if that counts as Bluegrass. What struck my about this post was all the Green in the photos. I was just thinking the other day about how much I miss seeing greenery...

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, you're gonna miss some fun! As for green, I wonder if it reflects my fatigue with the universal dung colors we'll have for another month. (And no, I didn't mean "dun," tho' that works too).

Rune Eide said...

In some ways I agree with Stickup Artist. I appreciate the influence of Bluegrass on other forms of music, but the I'm afraid the pure variety is too strong for me. However, I'm pretty fond of Irish and Scottish folk music (Dubliners etc). Maybe it is just me.

Re your question to me - Spring is my favourite time of the year - and it is green ...

Ken Mac said...

i came back for Earle

Banjo52 said...

RuneE, fair enough. "Too strong" is a good description for what I was trying to say, as well. But when it's not too strong, I often find it very nice.

Ken, I'm sure you mean Earl Scruggs, but your spelling reminds me of Steve Earle and his "Delta Momma Blues." Bluegrass instruments but very, very mellow, and to my ear just a great tune.

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Brenda's Arizona said...

Thanks for the lesson! And the great photos.
Have you found any changes (tone, style, etc.) as the sound is passed on down through generations?
(I always thought of Kottke and Hartford as ballad writers. Nice to know I have stepped into bluegrass!).
The stampede has started!

Ken Mac said...

What's next? Foggy Mountain? Satan is Real?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

interesting thing about music - that those boys could be so accomplished in playing an instrument. Music has to be like language which in turn is related to the mathematical side of thinking. No matter how many hucksters with their abstract wilding "child created" paintings - you will never find a skilled artist at a young age.

This line of thought reminds me of when I was studying at the local Junior College; the Cal Tech boys would take PE classes there among us lesser minds. Seems that the "dance by instruction" character of square dancing, was appealing to them.

I favored the June Cash link

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Hannah Stephenson said...

Fun fun fun!!!

My heart is in anything folksy...Andrew Bird (master whistler and violinist) has more recently been doing some bluegrass-y work:

He can do no wrong for me! This is lovely. I'm also a sucker for harmony and strings.

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, thank you!! I saw that Letterman show then let it slip out of my mind. They are just great. Two bits says I buy the CD, pending a few more YouTube clips.

Brenda, that folk-bluegrass line blurs pretty often, IMHO, even with Doc Watson. And yes, I hear huge changes; maybe since Flatt and Scruggs came on big, things have gotten somewhat mellower.

PA, interesting point about child talent in the arts. I suppose Mozart is the classic example in music.

Ken, thanks. And who knows? But I've driven on a foggy mountain, and I don't need to repeat that.

Lovers' Lane