Read an Excerpt
Homegrown Music Discovering Bluegrass
By Stephanie P. Ledgin
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS Copyright © 2004 Stephanie P. Ledgin
All right reserved.
Chapter One Homegrown Music: What Is Bluegrass?
Fiddles and banjos, high-speed instrumental duels, three- and four-part harmonies rendered a cappella that send shivers up your spine-American music that can quicken your pulse or melt your heart with emotion. More pervasive and present in our everyday lives than it has ever been, bluegrass is all around us. From children's cartoons to car commercials, on the small screen and the big screen, bluegrass has been a colorful thread in American music since its infancy in the 1930s.
What is this homegrown music that has captured worldwide attention, this word bluegrass that newscasters are no longer avoiding and that television programs and movies are working into scripts? Is it new? Is it old? Where did it come from, has it been around long, and why do we seem to be hearing so much of it lately?
Academic or textbook definitions provided by folklorists and historians tend to agree in concept. Bluegrass is considered an outgrowth of early country, grounded in string band music and derived from Southern rural-both white and black-folk traditions. Its principal identifyingfeatures lie in its vocals, all-acoustic instrumentation, and instrumental virtuosity. Repertoire plays a large role in its characteristics; it also has changed the face of bluegrass, which will be discussed from a number of perspectives in later chapters.
Although often referred to as "folk" music, historically, bluegrass does not qualify, primarily because it is a modern-day form whose genesis can be pinpointed. Looking at a simplified meaning, as viewed in academia, bluegrass does not meet the criteria of folk music in that it is not "anonymously composed music usually learned through oral tradition" nor has it remained within a specific geographic community or ethnic population. Furthermore, bluegrass was pursued by its originator, Bill Monroe, as a means of earning a living, again, outside the realm of purist folk definition, where folk music is customarily performed by "nonprofessionals." And while Monroe, who is referred to as the "Father of Bluegrass," learned his craft by ear, these days players regularly, although not exclusively, learn by instruction. In academic parameters, folk artists typically have no formal training.
It can be argued that bluegrass exhibits signs of a new folk style. Legendary folklorist Alan Lomax, in a colorfully descriptive and much-referenced piece he wrote for Esquire in 1959, likened the bluegrass sound to "folk music in overdrive." He described and compared various features of bluegrass with jazz, and went on to give a concise historical perspective of its roots. Bringing the word bluegrass into mainstream view, this article was considered a turning point for recognition of the music by a wider, general, and, presumably, more sophisticated audience.
Bluegrass is, in fact, largely passed along via oral tradition-but also through modern aural means, that is recordings, audio-visual material, and, now, computer and satellite radio. Informal jam sessions engross the eyes and ears of novice pickers who bravely join in, learning on the fly. Participatory workshops are popular elements of festivals. Eager youngsters will approach bluegrass "stars" backstage and ask to be shown a lick or two. Instructional materials from the "masters" are plentiful, ranging from books to DVDs, with gaps left in the audio to permit the learner to play along with the teacher.
Although hundreds of bluegrass artists get paid (on extremely varying financial scales) for making music, there are, to date, relatively few groups who actually make enough money to sustain themselves and their families without relying on a second or day job. Although a growing minority of bluegrass musicians actively pursue income from bluegrass on a full-time basis, the remainder are essentially "in it for the love of the music."
This love of the music lends itself to a sense of bluegrass community. Once you are hooked on bluegrass, you are part of the family, no matter where you land to hear it-at a mountaintop festival in Colorado, in a valley outdoor concert in California wine country, or in a cozy, unadorned basement club in New York City's Greenwich Village. So, in a broad sense, bluegrass has become folk music with its own regionally diverse traditions, handed down at pickin' parties in peoples' living rooms, local community centers, festival parking lots, and via video and computer screens in homes across the United States-and around the globe.
THE BLUEGRASS RECIPE
In the traditionally accepted usage of the designation, bluegrass exhibits prominent lead tenor vocals, which often jump registers to reach sometimes ear-piercing falsetto. Such vocals, particularly imbued with a bluesy bent, are typically referred to as the high lonesome sound, a term that, over time, has become synonymous with bluegrass. Close harmony singing, in duet, trio, or quartet, is another prominent aspect. It is most evident in its bare form when observed in bluegrass gospel singing, often with spare or no backup instrumentation, that is, a cappella.
Five acoustic stringed instruments compose the core of the typical bluegrass band-mandolin, guitar, fiddle, five-string banjo, and upright bass. A sixth, the dobro, has come into popularity over the last quarter century as either replacement for fiddle or in addition to. It is important to note that, in contemporary bluegrass, electric bass can often be found. Furthermore, not every bluegrass group has the identical instrument makeup or number of individuals. Twin fiddles, for example, are often popular. There are duos (e.g., Eddie and Martha Adcock, Jim Hurst and Missy Raines) and configurations of up to six to ten musicians, such as Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder or the Lewis Family. Most often, bands include four to six members. Many musicians are multi-instrumentalists and switch instruments from song to song.
While often there is an obvious "leader" in a band (e.g., the Del McCoury Band or Alison Krauss + Union Station), every member is critical to the overall sound. This becomes quickly apparent as a song unfolds, when most, if not all, instrumentalists take a "break" between verses or chorus, playing several measures of a tune solo then giving way for the next musician to step up to the mic. The bottom line is interaction, and a successful bluegrass group demonstrates great teamwork.
Musicianship in bluegrass is not just the ability to take a break. Technical proficiency, precision, along with lightning-quick speed, such as in breakdowns (e.g., "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" also known as the theme from Bonnie and Clyde), are of prime importance. The degree of excellence required of bluegrass musicians is equal to that found in classical music or jazz, for example. How fast the musicians execute a tune becomes something of a competition within a band. The lead instrument on a particular number speeds up and steps ahead of the others momentarily, egging the others on to the finish line. This subtle acceleration is nearly imperceptible to the listener but almost certainly a crowd pleaser when it ends to rousing applause.
Speaking of jazz, bluegrass and jazz have a number of things in common. The genres are considered uniquely "American" music forms, created in the United States, albeit both derive from other traditions. The second commonality is that both bluegrass and jazz are improvisational. The previously mentioned instrumental breaks allow musicians the opportunity to show off their licks and let their individuality and creativity flow. Such improvisation can lay groundwork for instrumental challenges, such as those in the familiar "Dueling Banjos." Furthermore, improvisation is the mother of invention; contemporary bluegrass has taken many twists and turns, in part due to such explorations.
Suffice it to say for the moment that improvisation has expanded the definition of bluegrass over the years. Even early on, there were variations within the most traditional artist circles, in spite of Bill Monroe being recognized as the music's patriarch. Others were carrying essentially the same music to audiences but in subtly different styles. Brothers Carter and Ralph Stanley can be pointed to for their contribution of a less polished, more raw-edged presentation of bluegrass, or "mountain music," as Ralph Stanley describes it (see the following Stanley interview).
Another element that carries through to today is stage dress. Albeit not part of the "sound" of bluegrass, it is considered an aspect of the persona of traditional bluegrass. Approaching his pursuit of music as a professional means, that is, a business venture, Bill Monroe dressed the part. His was not a hillbilly or cowboy band; therefore, farm clothes and cowboy outfits from head to toe were not appropriate. After a number of years touring, Monroe and his supporting musicians settled on tasteful business suits topped off with Western hats, which has become an enduring, sophisticated image still followed by many traditional bluegrass bands. Other contemporary groups, at the very least, go with the "casual business" look, while what appears to be a minority of regularly touring bands dress to fit individualized tastes.
ADDING SPICE: BLUEGRASS CONTROVERSY
As bluegrass emerged from infancy and groups began to establish their own identities and "sounds," one particular change opened the door to questions and controversy, an issue that persists today. As might well be imagined, toting around an upright bass fiddle in a band can be cumbersome and inconvenient. In the pre-SUV era or even today, when flying to a performance, suffice it to say that transporting a double bass can present a challenge. Add to that younger musicians influenced by the relatively new electrified sounds of rock-and-roll, and bluegrass came head-to-head with the electric bass and, thus, the "what is bluegrass?" controversy began and never ended. It was further fueled when popular songs began to make their way into the repertoire, offering still another twist to this new "old" sound.
To a bluegrass newcomer, living in a world where music choices are as varied as cable channels, this might sound absurd, but to die-hard traditionalists it is serious business, likened to tampering with Mother Nature. But, then, bluegrass is not as simplistic as what is described in the preceding paragraphs. Outlined are the customary and usual features found and heard in bluegrass. The next three chapters will explore not only the origins of bluegrass but also its varied offshoots and altered states, some of which have evolved into what could be called subgenres of bluegrass; others are extensions of the music, forays into wholly other genres but performed primarily on instruments typically used in bluegrass. Repertoire, alluded to earlier, is an aspect that has grown tremendously over time. While the bluegrass catalog has not remained static, certainly scores, if not hundreds, of songs remain "standard" bluegrass fare.
What is more relevant is that controversy over whether a genre meets its proscribed criteria is not new. Jazz has many schools, from Gershwin to Django Reinhardt to Dixieland to Coltrane. The blues travel in both unplugged as well as electric circles, from the Mississippi Delta to the Piedmont region of the Eastern United States to Chicago and Memphis. Renaissance and Baroque preceded classical music, which has experienced over the centuries such movements as impressionism, expressionism, and serialism.
Rock-and-roll includes Bill Haley and the Comets, Sam Cooke, the Beatles, the Bee Gees, Sting, Aerosmith, Springsteen, Madonna, and the White Stripes. They don't all sound alike, but they all rock.
Elvis Presley, the "King of Rock-and-Roll," turned the music world upside down when he introduced a unique blend of country, gospel, blues-and bluegrass. In July 1954, he recorded and released "That's All Right," backed by Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," a beautiful, slow waltz rendered by Presley in an up-tempo, frenzied style, far different from the original creation. But, rather than controversy, the songs launched Presley's career and a new spin on music.
Monroe understood that music was not just creativity, it was a business. He shrewdly embraced Presley's rendition and returned to the studio to rerecord it himself, adopting a split style to his own song, utilizing his slow waltz tempo in the first half of the number and breaking into a lively gallop to conclude. In doing so, he seized the opportunity to expand the bluegrass audience, in effect, by "modernizing" his own material.
Bluegrass is music with a message, whether contained in lyrics or in a searing banjo tune or a soulful fiddle lament. It is from the heart and always compelling. Bluegrass was built on many sounds and styles. Its influences were, and continue to be, diverse and sometimes diluted, yet there is always something distinctive about it. It is an American music that, when examined more closely, reflects this country's landscape.
Bill Monroe was an innovator who interpreted and expanded on other preexisting forms of music, honing his new work of art into an American genre. To paraphrase what legendary guitarist Doc Watson is fond of saying, if it is good music, why categorize it? Yes, there are basic elements to bluegrass, but as you continue your journey of discovery, definitive and restrictive labels will peel away.
* * *
RALPH STANLEY: DOWN-TO-EARTH, MOUNTAIN-STYLE BLUEGRASS
SPL: Since its emergence as a genre, traditional bluegrass primarily developed along the lines of three distinct styles, that of Bill Monroe, another from Flatt and Scruggs, and then the powerful, raw sounds of the Stanley Brothers. In your own words, what do you see as the difference in your style of bluegrass from those of Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs?
RS: I think mine goes back a little bit farther in what I call a mountain style or traditional bluegrass. Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs were traditional bluegrass, but they were just a little bit slicker and a little bit more polished than what I do. I just do it straight from the heart, right out of the mountains. I like to call it old-time mountain music, or old-time country music, old-time bluegrass.
SPL: Why do you think the music from O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Down from the Mountain has captivated audiences everywhere and been so successful? Are you doing anything different than you were ten or twenty years ago?
RS: No, I don't think so. I'm playing and singing just like I did twenty years ago. It may have gotten a little better; I've tried my best to do a little better. But it's the same style.
SPL: Why do you think people are latching on to it now?
RS: The O Brother soundtrack, that T Bone Burnett produced, they spent money and put this out to millions of people that had never heard it. Where thousands heard it before-I've always done well with this music-but I've got so many new fans now, younger fans that are different. I've got my old fans and (now) a different audience. I think there are so many thousands, maybe millions, that heard it for the first time through the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
SPL: Technology, such as the Internet, has given the music a huge boost, that and the money and effort put into its marketing.
RS: Right, that's what I think.
SPL: This book is aimed at newcomers to bluegrass music. What would you want to say to them to encourage them to listen to more bluegrass, and what would you suggest for them to listen to?
RS: There's several different styles of what they call bluegrass now. I like the traditional, which I play, the traditional. There's very few today that play traditional. There's some they call progressive. I'd tell them to listen to the progressive and the traditional, and pick which one they like.
SPL: If you could play only one song for a group of people who had never before heard bluegrass, what song would you choose and why?
Excerpted from Homegrown Music by Stephanie P. Ledgin Copyright © 2004 by Stephanie P. Ledgin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.