David Royko Psy.D
Sunday, August 21, 1994
OH, THAT'S BLUEGRASS
This Haunting Sound is Entering a New Golden Age
By David Duckman [David Royko]
Special to the Tribune
After 50 years of existence, bluegrass music is still a relative stranger in its own land
Mention jazz, another American creation, to almost anyone, and they will have some idea of what the music sounds like. But the word "bluegrass" will more often elicit a blank stare, at least until very recently.
With country and rock megastars singing its praises, major record labels beginning to reissue treasures from the past, and the music's first feature-length documentary now available on videocassette, bluegrass is getting a type of attention it has only occasionally received in the past. What makes this acclaim so noteworthy is that this time, it is for the right reasons.The last time bluegrass got this kind of exposure, it was through the movie "Deliverance," and the single from that movie, "Dueling Banjos." Ten years earlier, it was "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." While those events brought the music to plenty of people, for every new fan recruited, there were probably 10 more who walked away with the idea that anyone who played this music was a toothless cretin who was related to a variety of his family members in a variety of ways.
These days, bluegrass appears to be entering a golden age of appreciation for the sophisticated yet straightforward art form it has always been. One major step toward this new-found respectability comes with the video release of filmmaker Rachel Liebling's powerful 1992 documentary, "High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music." In her film, Liebling, 32, chronicles the birth and maturation of bluegrass through interviews with still-living legends, concert clips and the ingenious use of vintage archival film footage depicting the rural mountain life common to the music's founding fathers. What comes across beautifully is that the music's creators are intelligent, articulate and passionate artists.
"I grew up watching `The Beverly Hillbillies,' " says Liebling, "and that stereotype I found so shallow, and so deceptive." Those stereotypes also contrasted sharply with her own reaction to hearing Bill Monroe for the first time.
"I was in a club to hear Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, and I was in the balcony looking down over the band," says Liebling. "All I could see were their cowboy hats, their instruments and the tips of their shoes. And then they started to play, and then sing, and that gospel harmony rose up to the rafters, and I was completely mesmerized by the sound. So I went downstairs to get a better view of what was going on, and I was completely captivated by Monroe's performance. It was obvious that so much of his own life experience was going into his music." It was that moment that led to "High Lonesome."
"I felt that if other people of my generation were able to see it and hear it the way that I had, that it would reach them the same way," Liebling says. What she found in the process of making the film was a music rich in history. It is music born in rural Kentucky and Appalachia, with roots in the British Isles.
The music's spiritual father is Bill Monroe, who mixed the string band music, duet singing and country blues of his Depression-era youth with his own personal vision, which included a deep love for church and family. What sprouted forth was a unique branch on the country music tree. With Monroe's brash and dynamic mandolin united with Earl Scruggs' aggressive and innovative banjo, bluegrass was soon recognized as country music's virtuoso cousin.
Boasting instrumentalists as skilled as those in jazz, the genres also share an emphasis on improvisation, while the term "High Lonesome" describes the haunting, searching sound of classic bluegrass vocalizing created by Monroe. Monroe's sound is showcased beautifully on a lavish new four-CD set issued by MCA, "The Music of Bill Monroe 1936-1994." The set surveys Monroe's entire career, at least so far, and includes a 96-page booklet that tells the tale of the birth of a musical form.
The ensemble of mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle and bass utilized by Monroe is still the blueprint followed by today's young players. That instrumentation is well suited to the typical speed, power, precision and drive that are synonymous with bluegrass, qualities that Liebling attributes to "the tempo of the world that the rural musicians found when they relocated to cities," as Monroe did during the Depression to find work in the oil refineries of East Chicago, Ind.
After bluegrass enjoyed some popularity in the 1940s and early 1950s, the coming of rock meant the going of bluegrass. Monroe and most of his colleagues fell on hard times, but Monroe's steel will and stubbornness in the face of adversity allowed him to stay the course and resist the temptation to change his music to fit the fashions of the day. This paid off during the folk boom in the 1960s, when Monroe was seen as a pure and unsullied purveyor of down-home musical truth.
Today, it is the popularity of country music, with its focus on acoustic and roots music, as well as rock's "unplugged" craze, that is making the bluegrass grow greener. In addition, bluegrass continues to draw young musicians who believe in the power of the tradition, but who are not afraid to bend the rules to keep the music relevant.
One of the most significant players on the expanding bluegrass field is Sam Bush, whose mandolin, fiddle and vocal brilliance makes him the driving force behind the Nash Ramblers, Emmylou Harris' acoustic backing group that in 1990 replaced her renowned, and electric, Hot Band. Bush made a splash in bluegrass early, when in 1969, at age 17, he recorded the influential bluegrass album "Poor Richard's Almanac." Then, for 17 years, he led the New Grass Revival, arguably the finest bluegrass band that was not really a bluegrass band, and one that laid some serious groundwork for the current resurgence of interest in bluegrass-based music.
"The Revival made a small dent in country radio," says Bush. "Bluegrass players would tell you we really weren't a bluegrass band, and we would agree with them." New Grass Revival fused a variety of styles, including jazz, blues, soul and rock, with bluegrass instruments.
"We never called ourselves a bluegrass band," says Bush, "but of all the major label acts that were making country records in the late 1980s, ours was the only one that featured a banjo (played by Bela Fleck) as part of our core, and our four bluegrass instruments were our main instruments."
Another player who got his start even younger than Bush is Marty Stuart, who, at age 13, was a member of the Nashville Grass, Lester Flatt's post-Flatt & Scruggs band. In the years since, Stuart, 35, has chased the country superstar dream, and is finally catching it. However, he has never turned his back on bluegrass.
"Back when I was a kid with Flatt, my peers were the same as his peers. The people I would talk and play poker with were Roy Acuff and Stringbean (David Akeman) and Earnest Tubb and Bill Monroe and Jimmy Dickens and Grandpa Jones," says Stuart. Later, after Flatt died, Stuart had some radical ideas for how to bring people to bluegrass, which meant alienating some old friends.
"I thought I could do more for bluegrass if I could get out there on the big (mainstream country) picture and shed some light on it," says Stuart. "And back in those days, there were heated comments. I heard the word `traitor' at one point. They thought that I was turning my back on the kind of music that had brought me to the dance. But it's always been really important to me to include bluegrass in part of everything that I do, because it's really a part of me. It lays as close to my soul as anything else."
Stuart and Bush are only two in a cluster of players bitten early by the bluegrass bug. Country star Ricky Skaggs was a boy of 7 when he appeared with Flatt & Scruggs on TV, while fiddle and vocal sensation Alison Krauss was 15 when she recorded her first bluegrass album, "Too Late to Cry."
The next in line appears to be 13-year-old bluegrass mandolin whiz Chris Thile, whose CD on Sugar Hill will be released this fall. As Monroe did in the 1940s, and as Bush, Skaggs, Stuart and Krauss have done since then, Thile enjoys adding new ingredients to the bluegrass pie to form his own identity, and keep the music evolving. "Jazz really helps me out musicianship-wise, and for improvising," says Thile.
"My favorite jazz performers are Stephane Grappelli and Joe Pass, and that bass player, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen. I'm trying to get some stuff on mandolin that wouldn't ordinarily be on mandolin, like taking Joe Pass licks and putting them on mandolin, which would be really cool."
Sadly, the prejudice and racism that relegated jazz musicians to the basement of respectability for much of the music's history are common to their bluegrass counterparts.
"You know," says Stuart, "I went to the bluegrass museum down in Kentucky (The International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro), and a photographer had a wonderful set of black-and-white photos of bluegrass musicians on exhibit. The photos were from the 1960s and 1970s.
"I took a look around the walls, and it hit me. I realized that working with these guys was just like being surrounded by all of the old blues cats, or old jazz cats. It's the same kind of player. Just from a different side of the mountain."
PHOTOS: Bill Monroe (above) is considered by most to be the spiritual father of bluegrass; Monroe (left) stands with his band, the Blue Grass Boys-Chubby Wise, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Birch Monroe.
PHOTO: Future bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin appears in archival footage in the 1992 documentary ``High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass.''