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For Missy Raines, What’s Hip Now Is Old School Bluegrass

Stacie Huckeba
Missy Raines, center, leads the band Allegheny, featuring Tristan Scroggins (mandolin), Ellie Hakonen (fiddle), Ben Garnett (guitar), and Eli Gilbert (banjo).

Funny to say it, but Missy Raines, one of America’s most awarded and admired bluegrass musicians, has done basically everything one can do in her field - except lead her own bluegrass band. That is, until now.

After more than a decade helming her progressive acoustic band The New Hip, Raines has reconfigured and turned back to the music she was raised on and the genre for which she’s been named Bass Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association ten times, most recently in 2021. Her new band is called Allegheny, and her new album Highlander finds her singing about the lonesome wind, fast-moving trains, and more weighty and contemporary subjects in the old school style.

“Bluegrass is so personal for me,” Raines says in the audio interview posted here. “The New Hip was personal, as obviously it came from me and my head and my heart. But bluegrass is how I identify. And even when I was exploring my boundaries, I never left bluegrass. Because you can't leave something that comes from within you. It's just always there. So this is the most personal thing that I've done to reach out to people from the stage.”

Allegheny is a nod to the low-rolling and ancient stretch of the Appalachians where Missy Raines grew up in the 1960s and 70s, specifically the town of Short Gap, WV. “This is going to sort of tell my age a little bit, but the roads were much better going east towards Washington, DC than they were going further into the state of West Virginia,” she says. “There was no interstate in West Virginia, and when I was a kid, Charleston, the capital, was like an eight hour drive. Today, it's a four hour drive. So the accessibility that my family had (was) to parts East, which included Northern Virginia, southern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, all of those places. And the reason I bring that up is because that allowed me access to see this entire bluegrass scene that was happening in that area.”

Delightful evidence of that upbringing can be seen by any fan in the remarkable documentary Bluegrass Country Soul, Albert Ihde’s film about one of America’s earliest bluegrass festivals, held in Camp Springs, NC in 1971. In the film, Missy is captured in the crowd with her family, at about nine years old and wearing a purple dress and pigtails, as Sam Bush and Tony Rice pick on stage. And this was just one of many festivals and shows Missy grew up around, so when she joined her first full-time band after high school, she knew she was driven toward a life in music “with no Plan B,” as she’s said.

Her first wide touring would be with the banjo player and bluegrass iconoclast Eddie Adcock, starting in 1985. With him, Raines got to play with some of the music’s titans, including Mac Wiseman, Josh Graves and Kenny Baker. Then in the 90s, Raines joined The Brother Boys, a band based in East Tennessee featuring roots music polymath Ed Snodderly. After that, she joined Claire Lynch, one of the pioneer women of the genre, giving her the platform she needed to start winning IBMA Bass Player of the Year awards. She became the first woman to win in 1998. In that band was hotshot guitar player Jim Hurst, and they formed a breakaway duo that packed a lot of music into a compact instrumental/vocal outfit over two albums and numerous tours.

In 2008, Raines realized a long-standing dream of starting her own band. Celebrating some recent joint replacement surgery she called the ensemble The New Hip, and hip it was - mixing bluegrass with jazz, adding a drummer, and foregrounding Missy’s skills as a singer, songwriter and song catcher. She also garnered a reputation as a recruiter and cultivator of young string band talent, something that carries over into Allegheny.

“I was taking some stock of what it was I wanted to do next. And when I thought about what brought me the most joy, then the idea was just to play bluegrass,” she says. “As early as the end of 2018, I started imagining how that would look and how I was going to get there. And what that meant was going from a three piece band to a five piece band, because the big change was going to be adding a banjo player.”

That job went to Eli Gilbert, a native of Maine, a graduate of the traditional music program at East Tennessee State University, and a devotee of the foundational players like Earl Scruggs and J.D. Crowe. But he was actually the final piece of the Allegheny puzzle. First came acoustic guitarist Ben Garnett, a holdover from the New Hip, who actually has evolved his expertise from jazz and progressive acoustic to deep bluegrass. Singing keening harmonies and playing fiddle is Ellie Hakanson, an Oregon native who played on the road for years with Jeff Scroggins and his band Colorado. She’ll have history therefore with Allegheny’s mandolin player, Tristan Scroggins, Jeff’s son and also a veteran of that band. As with Missy’s versions of the New Hip, it’s a youth brigade working with a leader who’s been in the business for four decades.

“I wanted to find like-minded players who could speak that (old bluegrass) vocabulary,” Raines tells me. “I didn't want to have to be like no, no, do this. I don't have to with this great band. Because they have studied and they've listened and they know the feel and the drive that we're going for.”

And speaking of that quality bluegrassers call drive, it’s everybody’s job, but perhaps none more so than the bass player, who lays down foundational notes on the down beats and plays, generally, simple harmonic expressions of the chord. In that spirit, I ask Missy if playing bluegrass bass is more boring than playing “New Hip” bass. And that got her riled up.

“Oh, my God, no!,” she says. “It is so hard to play bluegrass bass. There are fewer notes. But that's actually worse, because that space in between the notes is the scary part. Because you have to know when to put down that note again. And I've spent my entire life trying to make sure I put it down in the right place.”

Her full answer is well worth hearing, as is this entire conversation with a veteran who is living that oft-deployed phrase of returning to her roots.

Correction: The sequence of Missy Raines's stints with Eddie Adcock and The Brother Boys has been corrected after appearing out of order in the original post.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org