It is not so much that I wish to contemplate the future of bluegrass, though it seems rather less assured that it did in the heady days following O Brother. (But, then, everything seems less assured than it did ten years ago.)

But even in bluegrass, which venerates its elders as if Shinto were somehow an Appalachian religion -- the temptation lurks -- the impulse remains to find the next big thing. Or, at least, the next voice to carry the tradition, bluegrass being at best a medium-sized thing. (It's not a question of who's gonna wear their shoes; it's who's gonna wear their suits. Anyway...)

The tradition.

For a few long months toward the end of the 1940s, Bill Monroe and a gifted band of sidemen solidified the sound he’d spent the decade hunting for. Perhaps it is arguable, but it is an argument without point, for Bill Monroe (and, yes, of course, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Cedric Rainwater and the rest) invented bluegrass. You know all this, of course.

We are come to the point where even the men who played with Monroe are contemplating their curtain calls. Del McCoury is, after all, 71 years old, and he was one of the young guns. Ralph Stanley is 83. Jesse McReynolds just turned 81. Sonny Osborne is about to turn 73. And Earl Scruggs is 86.

All those men could sing with a feral intensity that is hard to match, as if the devil were stomping on their tail as god sought to lift them hard into heaven, their guts laid open for the singing. This is why I have liked the music since I was a small boy, since before punk rock.

They sang from hunger. They made art because it made a better living, no matter how difficult, than they might otherwise made. They did it because they could, and because they had to.

It’s not that I have a need to anoint. Nor that I could. But John Duffy is long gone; Ricky Skaggs and Rhonda Vincent mean well enough, I think -- I hope -- but learned too much during their years on Music Row.

There is a gloss on bluegrass. I am tempted to blame it on IIIrd Tyme Out, partly because their name always bugged me, but mostly because it is their name I associate with the gloss. It’s a band some people revere, and I mean no ill by tarring with this feather, but they are not what I come to the music for.

There is a gloss over bluegrass, and it is the same gloss which plagues jazz, which may already have killed the blues. Both blues and jazz have so divorced themselves from their original cultural milieu that they have no place to survive but the academy, I suppose. Bluegrass has not done that, and has (to be fair) adapted to the changing culture which supports the music.

Still, my newly indolent listening habits remain dissatisfied, in the main, with the bluegrass I hear and do not already know. This is not simply a function of my age and withdrawal from the world. At least I think not.

It is now possible to learn to be a phenomenally adept bluegrass picker, though it remains (if the audio evidence available is accurate) surpassingly difficult to pull those pickers all together into something which sounds like a band. The best pickers, like Chris Thile and Mark O’Connor and the cello player who left Crooked Still, are tempted by broader horizons.

Tradition is not a concrete thing. It is a foundation, yes, but (even: like the Constitution) it is also a steadily evolving thing. So it is not my wish for bluegrass to stay put.

It IS my wish that it not lose its edge, that it not succumb to the stultifying mediocrity of the middle class, of the suburbs. That it not plow under its cornfields and cornpone in favor of building another Wal-Mart-friendly genre of music. No matter the rewards, nor the siren lure of Cracker Barrel.

Which somehow brings me to the new album offered up by Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice, titled Heartaches and Dreams. Let me be clear (and fair, all around): I do not mention Mr. Sisk because I believe he is the future of bluegrass. I mention him simply because I have found this record to be rewarding listening, his songs and ensemble having led me to think all the thoughts I wrote above, and then some.

The truth is that all those years listening as assiduously as I might, I don’t know Mr. Sisk’s previous work. If I have been recipient of his previous recordings, I did not keep them, and for years I kept almost everything that might even possibly be of interest down the road. (One reaps the whirlwind when moving, eh?)

Nor do I recognize his sidemen on this record, which is also somewhat unusual, as pickers tend to shift in and out of bands often enough that the good ones become familiar names. (They are rather like cats, always looking for a second home and the possibility of salmon.) They are, then, Billy Hawks (fiddle), Darrell Wilkerson (banjo), Jason Tomlin (mandolin, vocals), Junior Sisk (guitar, vocals), and Tim Massey (bass, vocals).

Hah! My ISP finally decided to work (temporarily; for some reason I can't italicize tonight, but I can change the bold codes...I think...), and so I’m able to conjure up Sisk’s website (can't link, and I actually tried), only to learn on the homepage that Hawks and Wilkerson have left the band. Sisk’s bio says he came up writing songs for the Lonesome River Band, sang with Wyatt Rice and Santa Cruz (not on my radar), struck out on his own with Ramblers Choice and took a side road or two with the Lost and Found and BlueRidge. He’s from the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. Fair enough.

I would commend this record for two particular virtues.

First, the songwriting throughout is exemplary (and Sisk co-wrote only one track of the twelve). These are country songs, the kinds of things Ricky Skaggs and his fellow New Traditionalists took to the charts in the 1980s, and which Nashville has largely eschewed since, unless someone like Brad Paisley wants to prove his cred. (Which is fine, by the way.)

The songs range across the bluegrass traditions, from Dottie Swan’s gospel “Let the Light Shine Down” and Pearlie Mullins’ “The Lowest Valley” to the gamblers’ honky-tonk morality tale of “Bullets Always Win (a Matt Jones composition), to the broken hearts of “Guns, Coins and Jewelry” (Tim Massey and Rick Pardue), “The Laugh’s On Me” (Clyde Pitts), or Working Hard Ain’t Hardly Working Anymore.” Not to mention a sparkling, beautifully written drinking song, “A Black Hearse Following Me,” from Bill Castle’s pen. It’s all good, none of it exactly the same.

Second, the musicianship is first-rate, but never not once showy. Somebody (maybe even Chris Thile) said to me long ago that his music was not about creating contexts for solos, but too much bluegrass is now, and too many solos are twelve bars when four would do. Ramblers Choice offer the virtuosity of ensemble playing (and it’s truly a pity to read that the ensemble is no longer playing together).

It’s not the best record I’ve ever heard. It may be the best bluegrass album I’ve heard this year, but it may also be the only new bluegrass I’ve played all the way through. But it’s really good, and that’s really enough. It’s a reminder of what glorious music bluegrass can be.

Junior Sisk isn’t the future. His voice is warm (and sometimes even reminds me of Skaggs in the ‘80s), but not spectacular, and never feral. But he’s the present, and it’s well wrapped.

The future? I dunno. Maybe y’all will have a go at that in the comments. Maybe not.

Views: 342

Tags: alden, bluegrass, junior, sisk

Comment by Daniel Conway on August 7, 2010 at 12:56pm
For a fresh take on traditional bluegrass have you checked out The Steep Canyon Ranger from Asheville, NC who are currently backing Steve Martin as well but on their own they deliver original, traditional tunes with a modern appeal. Also, a fascinating band out of Raleigh, NC, Chatham County Line is a highly original band using the string band format to bridge traditional rural music with its rock n roll stepchild. Finally, a great up and coming band from Asheville, Town Mountain, really delivers original new music in the genre mixing classic harmonies and ripping instrumentals.
Comment by Allan Sizemore on August 10, 2010 at 5:21am
Check out these bands if you want the raw bluegrass and mountain style.
the Wild Rumpus www.thewildrumpus.com
Johnson's Crossroad www.johnsonscrossroad.com
Appalachian Stompgrass at it's finest.
Comment by Dehlia Low on August 10, 2010 at 5:30am
I LOVE this article. While reading this I thought.... how can this guy be in my brain? We've never met! Being in a "bluegrass" but not bluegrass band (depends on who you talk to) we're constantly rotating through the scene. We prefer to be considered "respectful and versed in the tradition, but doing our own thing." Your description of early bluegrass singers is dead on. The future of bluegrass is a mystery. At the traditional festivals we play the median audience age is around 65, most 'bluegrass' bands of my generation are interested in respecting the tradition, but creating something new.... so who knows? Thanks for such a great morning read.
Comment by Art Menius on August 10, 2010 at 6:43am
Fantastic essay, Grant, and some mighty fine comments too. Folks have brought up most of the edge bands and you even received an excellent comment from the wonderful Dehlia Low. If the Meat Purveyors (who adapted the Velvet Underground for bluegrass) are still around they should be on the list too. Most of these cool acts, however, exists all too far from the bluegrass mainstream, so far that it is not a sign of health.
This topic is very personal to me, both because most of the creators of "glossgrass" are close friends and because it explains a lot about how I went from bluegrass being my entire life in the 1980s to very peripheral place today. My own term is "safe grass." I would trace it all the way back to 1979 and the then very edgy and quite innovative sound of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. By the late 1980s this had become the mainstream sound of bluegrass and it has stifled diversity.
The music quit being interesting to me and a lot of the reason, as Grant suggests, is that bluegrass started being played by artists who had other viable choices in life. For Earl Scruggs it was bluegrass or the cotton mill. For Kenny Baker it was bluegrass or the coal mines of Jenkins, KY. For Allen Shelton it was bluegrass or the tobacco farm.
Will the great recession produce great bluegrass?
Comment by Jeff Boudreau on August 10, 2010 at 6:56am
1. The phrase "and the cello player who left Crooked Still" is sloppy writing and sloppier editing for letting it reach the final version, Rushad Eggleston is a living, breathing human being deserving the respect due a look at "Hop High" liner notes or wiki inquiry or even an email to the Footprint Records (original label) or Signature Sounds (current label) office.


2. The O Brother film score paid homage more to old time music than it did to bluegrass.

3. Several bands immediately come to mind as "successors" to the traditional style. In order of
playing longevity:
Dry Branch Fire Squad
Buddy Merriman and Backroads
David Grisman Bluegrass Experience
Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver
Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper
The Gibson Brothers
Josh William Band
Comment by Rob Macgregor on August 10, 2010 at 6:57am
A topic much on my mind these days, so the article is timely. And I disagree that no one here will read 1800 words - at least some of us (if not many ) will.....

This relates to another debate - as to the authenticity of the music created by academically (conservatory) trained bluegrass players.

I'm actually encouraged by the fact that younger players are interested enough in this type of music to dedicate themselves to years of study. The love of the music has to be there first in order for these programs to attract students, and for instructors to find work. Along with the popularity of the "bluegrass academies" found at many of the festivals, these programs assure that new players capable of pushing the boundaries will come along, if not just through "traditional" channels. So many of these kids are better players by the age of fifteen than I will ever be.....

Nevertheless, as long as there is heartache and loss, social and economic dislocation,
as long as there are natural and man-made disasters and other forms of death and destruction, there will be inspiration for future generations of edgy bluegrass players.

Those playing with that edginess and sense of desperation will still be there, and the new technologies of internet and DIY recording should allow them to share their recordings more widely than ever before.

We will certainly mourn the passing of the last "first generation" players, but I think it premature to mourn the passing or "glossing" of the entire art form...
Comment by Grant Alden on August 10, 2010 at 8:18am
Ah, Jeff:
1. The phrase "and the cello player who left Crooked Still" is sloppy writing and sloppier editing for letting it reach the final version, Rushad Eggleston is a living, breathing human being deserving the respect due...>>
The other possibility is that I'm well acquainted with his name but chose to describe him in that way because that's how I felt like writing it, that's the phrasing which captured what I wanted to say, the rhythm of the words and all that old-fashioned foolishness. And blogs aren't edited (see a previous blog I posted here on copy-editing!). But I'd have left that, anyhow.
If bluegrass academies are going to do to bluegrass what the Marsallis brothers have done to jazz -- and I accept that they mean well, and have all the right credentials -- then my fascination with old music and forgetfulness about new music will continue.
There's a weird balance there.
The Waco Bros.' punk commentary on country was spot-on, and irrelevant to the industry of country music. I worry that the innovations in contemporary bluegrass (or whatever; modern string bands, if you prefer) will similarly be ignored. Crooked Still, plus or minus its first cello player, Abigail Washburn (in her various moods), and the other bands Peter profiled in our penultimate print edition all head in interesting directions. Chris Thile, let's not leave him out because his promise is unlimited, so long as he doesn't work himself into a cul de sac.
Comment by Saving Country Music on August 10, 2010 at 9:33am
@Art Menius

The Meat Purveyors are unfortunately no longer around.

I understand and appreciate that bluegrass has always been a pure sub-genre with strict guidelines. But you can't complain that the mainstream is too glossy and when you are presented with a dirty alternatives, say its no alternative because it doesn't meet 1 or 2 out of the dozen guidelines. The reason some of these bands work outside the traditional bluegrass mold is because mainstream bluegrass will not let them into the fold. I am as careful as anyone to not classify music in a genre unless it meets its guidelines, calling music "bluegrass-like" or whatever. I am glad there are people fighting against these terms being bastardized, but if you proclaim yourself a fan of bluegrass and have never heard the .357 string band, you are denying yourself of an enjoyable music experience, and that is unfortunate.
Comment by Allan Sizemore on August 10, 2010 at 9:43am
That is true! The mainstream bluegrass people forgot the roots of "bluegrass" a long time ago. We used to use a drummer, snare and high=hat, we were booked to play a Festival and showed up and the lady who ran it said "there's no drums in bluegrass, you can't use him". I told her to go back and listen to bluegrass again, ALL the old guys used drums at some point, even good ol' Bill had a snare on quite a few recordings, as did Jimmy Martin, Jim & Jesse, The Osborne Bros., Flatt & Scruggs etc, on & on. We played with him and were never asked back. The ULTIMATE rebel WAS BILL MONROE! He took old time and country in a new direction. They called it bluegrass. Jimmy Martin was another one. Geez, these people (the now "traditionalists") have taken something, bastardized it and then decided on the way THEY think bluegrass is. They have no clue usually what they are even talking about. It is pathetic.
Comment by Peter Feldmann on August 10, 2010 at 9:44am
"It is not so much that I wish to contemplate the future of bluegrass, though it seems rather less assured that it did in the heady days following O Brother. "

Thing is, the film "O Brother" (which I prefer to call "Big Brother") didn't have a lick o' bluegrass in it! I thought T-Bone did a good job on the music, which was basically 1930s hillbilly music, and hired some of my friends to appear, but bluegrass it weren't.

And that may be one of the problems with bluegrass music, it tends to confuse the music dilletantes just as jazz did when it evolved from a dance music to an intellectual exercise in the 1950s. Certainly, Monroe founded the style in the late 30s and 1940s, and it took hold of its audience in the mainly rural atmosphere of the high south. In the 40s and 50s, it was a part of the general country sound with hardly any leakage into the cities. As the advent of rock & roll devastated the more dance-based country singers and bands, forcing the country bands to adopt electric instruments and drums, Monroe (for the most part) resisted and kept to his own inspriations, much to his financial planner's dismay.

Bill band, and the first generation of musical followers all were country folk with shared experiences and backgrounds. Of that first generation, Monroe was the *only* band leader to ever hire musical talent from the city. He was the only one with the vision to look beyond his own mileau to "help the music as it goes along".

In more current times, the media have had two contradictory effects: one was to make the early music more accessible; the other was to put increasing pressure on new groups in the genre to fit into the "contemporary" mode. Allison Krauss/The New River Band, etc. set a mold for recording and performing that has had thousands of imitators, some sucessful. The music has become "delicate", with all-encompassing warbly vocals - all in the ame style, with virtuoso instrumental breaks played as if the artists were wearing white lab coats, gathering around the mic. There is little feeling, and absolutely no risk-taking.

Those first-generation bands could be identified within 2 bars of any song, each had their own sound. Now, we must rely on the FM radio DJ to read off the credits after a set of 6-10 identical-sounding, ultra-smooth and pablum-ish numbers. Such beautiful blending of 57 vocal tracks and wonderfuly subtle mastering! What's happening to bluegrass is exactly what's happening to most American culture - it's being rounded off and smoothed out to death. Music always reflects the culture from which it comes. It's our own culture and society that have changed. The future? Well, don't put your money on a music originated by farmers. Only the corporate combines are left.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.