One early Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, Irene and I found ourselves driving north through Florida’s midlands, heading from a bluegrass festival to a state park near Orlando where we enjoy the quiet, the terrain, and the change of pace. At noon, we heard the familiar sounds of the sign-in music for A Prairie Home Companion, which I’ve enjoyed listening to since I first heard Garrison Keillor’s voice and unusual take on the world. He announced that Chris Thile, who will be replacing him as the program’s host within the next year or so, would be his guest co-host.
Thile has been astounding and confounding the bluegrass world since emerging from a California bluegrass family band and forming ground-breaking band Nickel Creek. Pete Wernick recruited him for a “1993 Bluegrass Youth All-Stars” band which performed at IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Awards Show in the 1993. That group was comprised of Josh Williams on banjo, Cody Kilby on Guitar, Chris Thile on mandolin, Michael Cleveland on fiddle, and Brady Stogdill on bass, all of whom continue to be active in music.
As Irene and I drove along, Keillor continued to deliver his skits and monologues, including the hoary, endless story of Lake Wobegon, beloved by many people of my generation who have been listening to PHC since 1974. I’d guess I started listening to the show, intermittently, in the early ’80s. But mass tastes change over time. My generation is beginning to age out, and even die, and National Public Radio is in an existential crisis as it seeks to attract the ever-spending 26-54 demographic. But Thile, to me, sounded without focus or melody as he moaned about I don’t know what. Of course, that doesn’t really matter, because I’m not NPR’s desired demographic. Nor do I need to like everything an artist I admire creates.
Thile is a MacArthur Fellow. People chosen to receive this award, called the “Genius Grant” by many, receive $625,000 spread over five years with “no strings attached.” The grantees have ranged in age from 18 to 92, and their areas of interest are spread across almost any endeavor imaginable. Think how such an investment frees creative people to find their own way.
Genius follows its own path in every area of endeavor. Free a musician from having to please others — to write hits, encouraged to develop regardless of the dictates of taste — and you know not what will emerge. It will sometimes be heavenly, and other times will be an abject artistic and popular failure. Still other times, it will perhaps be useful, but there’s no predicting. However, Thile has been provided a platform that may lead him to new places, or help to influence new tastes in the future.
This all makes me think about banjoist Béla Fleck. In 2008, Fleck appeared at Merlefest with Abigail Washburn, Casey Driessen, and Ben Sollee as the Sparrow Quartet. They had just returned from China, where Washburn had spent many years. I wrote, to my everlasting regret, that the quartet “played a too-long set of discordant modern music, much of it in Chinese, that legitimately belongs in the Felt Auditorium of Lincoln Center.” While that may have been true, why should the Merlefest audience be deprived of music which might serve to stretch us beyond our accustomed limits?
Fleck first heard Earl Scruggs playing the banjo as a teenager in New York City. He received his first banjo as a gift when he was 15, and later attended the famed New York High School of Music and Art. During this time, he studied under Tony Trischka. Soon he was in Boston playing with Jack Tottle in a band called Tasty Licks. Here’s a clip from that era, collected and put on YouTube by South Carolina collector Steve Treadaway.
It wasn’t long before Fleck mastered the repertoire of the bluegrass banjo and began to expand its possibilities. The next step found him with the New Grass Revival, where he played with other pioneers of the genre, infusing classic bluegrass with the spirit of rock and roll and other contemporary music. Many songs from that period have become standard covers for up-and-coming bluegrass bands hoping to represent a fuller range of possibilities.
From there, Fleck formed the fusion jazz/rock band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, with whom he won several Grammy awards. Here’s an example of the kind of music that developed from this well-loved and respected group:
Fleck has consistently explored and extended the range of the banjo with his questing spirit and musical courage. He followed the banjo as far back as it could go, taking a trip to Africa to discover the precursors of the banjo — gourd instruments that are still being played there. He jammed with the locals.
He and his wife, Washburn, took a trip to China where they played with local bands and instrumentalists, creating cross-cultural musical wonders in another documentary film.
He’s recorded Bach, Beethoven, and Prokofiev from the classical repertoire. He’s taken the banjo where no one else has gone. He’s a member of the selection committee for the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, which also includes at least three other potential winners, probably providing the reason he hasn’t won that important and lucrative award.
Many bluegrass lovers and fans reflect feelings and attitudes suggesting that Thile and Fleck have abandoned them. Yet both of these artists return to bluegrass in musical references in their performance.
Fleck has appeared recently on the stage of Wide Open Bluegrass in Raleigh jamming with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Del McCoury, among others, grinning from ear to ear as he plays classic bluegrass. Both men have built huge musical careers on foundations forged and developed in bluegrass music.
The list of artists now finding audiences in the larger world of music is filled to the brim with people who cut their musical teeth on bluegrass and country music. Bluegrass aficionados should feel confirmed, not dissed by these artists. After all, artists need to explore and discover, no matter where the path leads, even as their music challenges our ears and minds as much as it does their skills and imaginations. We need to listen and allow this growth to open new musical worlds to all of us.