On The String: The Bluegrass Episode

Nov 6, 2019

I first got into bluegrass in the mid 1980s by way of a compilation tape, a sampler of recent releases from Rounder Records that included tracks by Don Stover, Del McCoury, Hazel &Alice, David Grisman and more. This variety pack helped me hear range and diversity in what I'd perceived as a narrow, sound-alike genre. That, or a festival, is a great way to access the tradition. This week's String, taped in September at World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, NC, is a kind of mix tape too.

As I browsed the event, I caught up with four artists who make for a pretty good cross section of bluegrass music circa 2019: an iconic band celebrating its 25th anniversary, a veteran songwriter who's on top of the charts as an artist, a new super-group with a cultural mission and a young band of Canadian folk rockers who represent the adventuresome edge of bluegrass music. The podcast has conversations that were edited for time. Here are sketches of the guests and the full interviews to stream.

Tim Stafford, interviewed here, is second from right.
Credit Sherri George

Blue Highway

One day in the late 1980s, East Tennessee singer/guitar player Tim Stafford opened a box of demo tapes his very new bluegrass band had made up to solicit gigs and label interest. And he realized they'd completely blown it with the band name. "We'd decided to call the band Hurricane Rain," he says. "And it was on the tape. I said, 'We can't do this.' So I asked the guys...and took a Sharpie and marked out Hurricane Rain and put in Blue Highway."

We'll never know how far Hurricane Rain would have gone, but Blue Highway became one of the most successful and influential bands of modern bluegrass. The group's 14th studio album, Somewhere Far Away, came out this summer and marked the quintet's 25th anniversary. A few bands have survived that long, but almost none with its original lineup substantially intact. In this case, only dobro player Rob Ickes departed (after 21 years of service), eventually replaced by Gary Hultman. But Stafford, mandolinist Shawn Lane, banjo player Jason Burleson and bass player Wayne Taylor have been a tight, game-changing unit through two decades of bluegrass growth and change.

Their influence has manifested through their near-exclusive emphasis on recording band-written songs, through the vocal blend of four distinctive lead and harmony singers and through instrumental skills that are deep but restrained. They’ve chalked up 28 IBMA Awards over the years, but more importantly, they’ve shown that innovation and originality doesn’t have to mean coloring outside of the traditional bluegrass lines.

Irene Kelley

Nashville music is full of local secrets - artists and writers who are much beloved by the musician and critical community here but whose names don't reach the outside world as much as they should. I'm speaking of folks like David Olney, Pat McLaughlin and bluegrass singer/songwriter Irene Kelley. Country music super-journalist Robert K. Oermann for example, has championed Kelley for years as a writer who "shines with a luster that few of her peers can match."

It's true, as evidenced by cuts over the years by Alan Jackson, Trisha Yearwood and many bluegrass stars, while her records (and performances) have an effortless musicality, an easy-on-the ears uplift, even when she's driving the tempo, as on her hit single "Something About A Train Sound." That and three other singles from her latest album Benny's TV Repair have all gone No. 1 on the respected Bluegrass Today singles chart (a truly rare feat). Meanwhile the record itself is No. 1 on the Bluegrass Unlimited album chart for the second month in a row. It's Kelley's first chart-topping album.

The title track, featured in The String, is about her dad, who took a home correspondence course and set himself up in business out of the family basement. "While he's working he's playing the radio and I'm listening to country music, and it's permeating through the floor and my consciousness and that converted me into a country music fan and later into a singer and songwriter," Kelley says. "He was a fix-it guy. He could fix anything and he wanted to fix everything. It was the real deal in that basement."

Also head-turning on the album in the name Steve Cropper. The STAX Records icon accepted an invitation to co-write, and the song "Anything To Help You Say Goodbye" emerged. Kelley says Cropper was a fountain of good lyrical ideas, and he plays his signature Telecaster guitar support on the track.

Appalachian Road Show

You'll commonly hear people say that bluegrass music came from the Appalachian Mountains, but that's not exactly true. The string band mountain sound is more properly referred to as old-time music. And this age-old tradition was one key ingredient in the founding of bluegrass, which is really more an urban music, forged in Nashville and promulgated in factory towns with radio stations around the South. The harder-swinging, harder-driving bluegrass feel certainly earned a deep fan base and appreciation in the mountains though. And Appalachian Road Show seems well positioned to tell that story of birth and returning.

It's a new quintet made of acclaimed veterans, a down-home supergroup. Fiddler Jim VanCleve and banjo player Barry Abernathy were long-time stalwarts of Mountain Heart. Darrell Webb was a busy multi-instrumentalist sideman before leading his own band for a decade. Young star guitarist Zeb Snyder and industry favorite bass player Todd Phillips round out the group. They draw heavily on the bluesy swing of Jimmie Rodgers and the lonesome vocal style of the early bluegrass bands. Yet they're taking a proactive approach to explaining their context and appreciation for Appalachian culture.

"My grandmother made her last garden at 86 years old. People still do that where we live," says Abernathy. "I can my own jelly. Raise green beans and can them and all that. A lot of people still live that way. The music side of it was passed down from generation to generation. This is our take on it. We want to capture the spirit of that and still be who we are."

The String interviews Nate Hilts and Colton Crawford, far right.

The Dead South

The bluegrass scene is, for many fans, as much about the fringy edges of the music as the core tradition, and one of this year's more buzzed about boundary acts was The Dead South. They're a four-piece from Regina, Saskatchewan whose rousing beer-hall stomp and shades of noir remind some of the Avett Brothers and they've been tagged Mumford and Sons' evil twins by some wags.

At one of their IBMA showcases, the band made a bold presentation in black and white Deadwood-era western wear. The low end came from a cello, not a bass, and banjo player Colton Crawford had a bass drum at the ready to send already propulsive tunes into overdrive. I'm not sure they played a song in anything but minor keys for an hour. They even had some fun little bits like cracking beers in time with the music and some understated dance moves. But then the show's the thing with these guys, as Crawford says, "The records are great, but the true Dead South experience is the live show." And that's carried them all over Europe numerous times, including the mighty Glastonbury Festival.

Though South is in their name, only through their work as a band were they able to see the cradle of roots music for the first time, says lead singer Nate Hilts: "Louisiana in particular was a place I always wanted to visit, because I get into supernatural stuff and they have the voodoo and horror theme. But also history. Those places in my mind were just full of stories. And Alabama, we'd never been until we went to Muscle Shoals to record our album. We have an idea of it in our head when you haven't been, and then you show up, and we just couldn't stop writing."

The album, Sugar & Joy was made by Jimmy Nutt at his converted bank studio the Nutt House, where the Steeldrivers made a Grammy-winning album. I told them they sound like a rock and roll band who got issued acoustic instruments by accident, and they didn't disagree.