bluegrass

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.

Ed Rode

The string band and jamgrass movement, a slow-burning, three-decade roots music revolution, has hallmarks of an exclusive society. Longstanding leaders of the scene, including Greensky Bluegrass, Yonder Mountain String Band and the Infamous Stringdusters, tend to headline over and over. Newcomers can generally expect a long period of knocking on the door with uncertain prospects of hitting the biggest stages. Unless somebody comes along like Billy Strings. 

Author

The sentiment that the future of bluegrass is in good hands is as perennial as, well, grass. It's music that does indeed grow its new generations from the ground up with a formal and informal support system for youth musicians in training and emerging artists in the professional realm. Last week's World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, NC proved that once again.

 

Joe Mullins is a banjo player and vocalist acclaimed for his old school manner and classic-sounding bluegrass, as well as 2016's IBMA Broadcaster of the Year. Now he and his band the Radio Ramblers are Entertainers of the Year. The group is no stranger to IBMA awards, having won Emerging Artist in 2012 and last year's album prize, but now the traditional-leaning, Ohio-based ensemble has the top prize in the industry.

Balsam Range of North Carolina and Nashville's Earls of Leicester find themselves positioned to possibly extend their dynastic dominance of the International Bluegrass Music Awards with nominations for Entertainer of the Year and then some. The suite of nominees was announced Wednesday morning by radio host Kyle Cantrell. Balsam Range and the Earls have traded top honors at the awards since 2014. Also nominated in the category are nine-time winners The Del McCoury Band, the Sam Bush Band and Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers.

Craig Havighurst

Fiddle player Byron Berline has had a wide-ranging career, from Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys to the country rock movement to the recording studios of Los Angeles, where he played sessions for The Rolling Stones, The Eagles and Elton John. Since closing that chapter in the mid 1990s, Berline has owned and operated the Double Stop Fiddle Shop in Guthrie, OK, a fine instrument dealer, performance venue and community hub. In February, a fire tore through the 1901 building, destroying a lifetime’s collection of artifacts.

It’s been one of the most unusual yet entirely rational career trajectories in the history of popular music. Most artists do one thing, get hot for a while, crest and then resign themselves to nostalgia tours of their heyday. Ricky Skaggs rode bluegrass to one tier of fame, country to another and then returned to the music that launched him - music that allows him to stay fully alive and relevant.

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Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle have propelled the bluegrass guitar style known as flatpicking back to the forefront of roots and jam band music, evoking a time when Doc Watson and Tony Rice were folk stars with significant mainstream fame. But both Billy and Molly would acknowledge a debt to a Nashville guitarist from the generation in between, the jovial, innovative and remarkable David Grier.

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On a sunny late afternoon last September, the band Nefesh Mountain prepared to take a stage in front of the North Carolina state capitol. They could see a half mile down Fayetteville Street, where tens of thousands of people mingled and moved among eight different stages at Raleigh’s Wide Open Bluegrass festival. A good crowd was left over from the prior act. It seemed like an ideal setting, but singer Doni Zasloff suddenly got uncharacteristically anxious.

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Mac Wiseman came to a fork in the road of history where country music and bluegrass parted ways, and he took both. The singer known as “The Voice With A Heart” died Sunday at age 93, leaving a wide-ranging body of acclaimed recorded work and a legacy in the business as well, having been a co-founder of both the Country Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association. He sang with Bill Monroe, but he also landed on the country charts between 1959 and 1979. He joined the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 1993 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2014.

Grand Ole Opry

Backstage at the Grand Ole Opry is a convivial commotion of rehearsing and visiting, a friends-and-family ethos that infuses the show on stage with heart, even if the audience can’t see it directly. On February 13, that energy and affection was focused on a single performer, a gentleman with a beatific smile and a signature silver pompadour who slipped easily from conversation to the stage for multiple collaborations. A double-take birthday cake in the coffee lounge told the story.

We’ve now been to the movie and we know how it ends. Two powerful women of country music, snubbed in recent years by the radio format their heroines helped build into America’s largest, showed the music industry – on that imperfect but necessary stage that is the Grammy Awards - that they are the voices and songwriters of now.  

Upbeat and enthusiastic bluegrass star Sam Bush has long been an open book to his fans and colleagues. A newly available documentary illustrates for a wider public just how much respect and admiration he commands among his fellow musicians.

 

After thirteen bluegrass albums and two International Bluegrass Entertainer of the Year Awards, The Gibson Brothers were ready for something different. The new album Mockingbird, released Nov. 9, exhibits a duo liberated and enthused by the experience of co-writing and recording in Nashville with veteran producer/engineer Dave Ferguson and Black Keys rock star Dan Auerbach.

A New Shrine For Bluegrass Shines On The Banks Of The Ohio

Oct 23, 2018
Havighurst

A freak autumn wind storm didn’t blow out the fire of the fans and artists who gathered Saturday along the banks of the Ohio River to cap off a three-day grand opening of the new Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro KY.

C Havighurst

While their musical terrain overlaps, there’s a foundational difference between the recently concluded AmericanaFest in Nashville and World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, NC, and that’s the picking. Picking is what ensues when musicians, professional or amateur, friends or strangers, encounter each other, hang out and jam on tunes they share as a common language. Americana people come to Nashville as either performers or listeners. They do not pick amongst themselves. Bluegrass people pick ubiquitously in a liminal overlap of performer and audience.

Bethany Carson

One of the dominant conversations in bluegrass in the past few years has been about inclusion and diversity. Banjo player Justin Hiltner has taken a leadership position as an openly gay banjo player and an organizer of a movement variously called Shout & Shine and Bluegrass Pride. Hiltner’s new duo album with songwriter and bass player Jon Weisberger, released this month and entitled Watch It Burn, became a chance to live that ethic at many levels.

Tyler Hughes

 

There are two meanings behind the title Shout and Shine, the debut album of the trio Fink, Marxer and Gleaves. The title track captures the spirit of the diversity and inclusion movement sweeping through bluegrass, as covered here last Fall. The other, expressed in the original "Moonshine" by Sam Gleaves, is literally about spirits. As a child and student of Appalachia, he knows whereof he sings.

 

While nominations for this year’s major annual awards continued to recycle longstanding industry stars, much of the energy at Wednesday’s International Bluegrass Music Association Awards nominations event was generated by a raft of bluegrass hall of fame inductees. Besides a bigger than usual class, IBMA spotlighted a new place to enshrine them, a new Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum opening this October in Owensboro, KY.

Covers of pop songs have been commonplace in bluegrass music since the late 1960s, when The Dillards, Flatt & Scruggs, The Country Gentlemen and others adapted songs by The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Lovin’ Spoonful. For Charlottesville, VA band Love Canon, it’s a way of life, a “mission statement” according to my conversation last week with lead singer and guitarist Jesse Harper.

 

Billy Strings and his band had played their last song. The Ryman Auditorium audience was on its feet emitting every manner of happy exultation at explosive volume. The quartet had taken a group bow and put their instruments to rest. Then emcee Eddie Stubbs, from his podium, suggested Billy Strings do one more song - a rare encore for an opening act.

In the winter of 1978, a quartet called Hot Rize, newly formed in Boulder, CO, played its first gig. The name was deftly plucked from the annals of bluegrass and the slogan of Grand Ole Opry sponsor Martha White Self Rising Flour. Within a few months, a permanent lineup had taken shape: Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Peter Wernick on banjo, Nick Forster on bass and Charles Sawtelle on guitar. They began their own yeasty leavening into one of the most influential and beloved bluegrass bands of the modern era.

  John Hartford died seventeen years ago today, but his influence on today’s bluegrass and acoustic scene remains as strong and direct as any other founding figure in the music, including Bill Monroe himself. That’s because Hartford, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, showman and historian, was a ground breaking pioneer of progressive, individualistic string band music from the 1960s until his untimely death from Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Julian Lage, Standing Astride Jazz and Roots

Mar 11, 2018

The world of roots music has been made wider and deeper through the contributions of some key instrumentalists who’ve drawn heavily on jazz to create a new American acoustic music we might call string band fusion. Among them: Béla Fleck, Sam Bush and David Grisman. Those names all came up prominently in my recent conversation with guitarist Julian Lage.

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