Bluegrass: Always Changing, Always the Same
Just about 70 years ago today, December 8, 1945, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs first stepped on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, and a storm erupted.
For years, Bill Monroe had been seeking to put together precisely the string band sound he heard inside his head. He had traveled far from his home in Rosine, Kentucky, and was 34 years old, a member of the Opry. Scruggs was 21 and Flatt 31. They joined Chubby Wise on fiddle and Howard Watts on bass, to debut the band that changed country music, creating a style of music that thrives today.
There at the Ryman, the crowd went wild, according to all sources reporting on the moment, as Scruggs’ syncopated three-finger style of banjo play had never been heard before. Flatt’s singing and rhythm guitar rounded out the sound, that, taking its name from Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, soon became known as bluegrass. Flatt and Scruggs only stayed with Monroe for three years before leaving to create the Foggy Mountain Boys. They toured together for the next 20 years. But on that day in 1945, bluegrass music was born. It wconsidered to be one of the most important moments in American music — was born. Many of its adherents believe it hasn’t changed much since, and that it shouldn’t change at all.
Twenty years later, on a small horse farm near Fincastle, Virginia, Carleton Haney held the first multi-day bluegrass festival. He didn’t advertise it much, and no one knows precisely how many people found there way there, but Fincastle became a seminal event for many people still well known within the bluegrass world to this day.
Bluegrass historian and scholar Fred Bartenstein, who was then 15 years old, wrote movingly about Fincastle in the first bluegrass magazine, The Muleskinner, which he founded and edited. Pete Wernick — also known as Dr. Banjo, a founding member of Hot Rize — was a 19-year-old college student and emerging banjo player at the time. He claims his life was changed by the experience.
Thirteen-year-old Sam Bush met David Grisman at Fincastle, and this meeting would, over time, thoroughly shake up the bluegrass world. Phil Zimmerman, who continues as a regional mandolin player as well as the author of a remarkable bluegrass photo book called Bluegrass Time, recalls Fincastle with awe as he chats about it. The fact that all these players — and countless others — came together for a weekend, to hear and sharing bluegrass music, in other words, had an earth shaking effect on a number of people still active in the music and precipitated a movement that has prolonged and enriched the life of this music.
During the hour or so before my first bluegrass concert, we wandered around, listening to small groups who were mostly standing in circles, playing this happy, jouncy, syncopated acoustic music on guitar, banjo, mandolin, and bass. There were some very fine players there, who all had a broad range of skill and experience. I remembered my folk music days, but this was not a music where spectators sang along. The players and singers were all in the bands.
For us, my wife Irene and me, bluegrass music appeared relatively late after a lifetime of listening to, and sometimes making, music. As a youngster, I had studied violin and played in a youth orchestra in Westport, CT. Irene had played flute and piccolo in her high school marching band and sung in choir and barbershop quartet. I played a little folk guitar, singing off key, and eventually teaching her enough chords to play herself. But somehow life intervened – graduate school, jobs, kids, sports and, always there, but usually in the background, music. We bought lots of recordings and went to a few concerts, but mostly we listened. And then, now retired and spending the winter in an RV in Myrtle Beach, we heard that the Rivertown Bluegrass Society in nearby Conway, SC was having its monthly jam and show, with Alan Bibey and Blueridge the featured band. We came, saw, and bluegrass conquered.
That spring we attended our first festival. We thought MerleFest was a bluegrass festival, so we looked on this huge, multi-genre festival, labeled by founder Doc Watson as “Traditional +” as bluegrass. It was only later that we learned our error. Nevertheless, we loved our time there — the folks sitting near us became our friends and we heard the best of bluegrass, bluegrass-related, bluegrass-derived, great music there during the ten years we continued to return.
My first writing about bluegrass, about Merlefest 2003, can be found in a previous website I maintained for a few years. In the ensuing dozen years, we’ve learned a lot as we’ve traveled from festival to festival. We’ve also attended concerts, gone to tiny rural venues, and learned to pick bluegarss ourselves.
One remarkable strength of bluegrass has been its ability to incorporate into its basic framework many of the changes which have occurred in music. Seventy years is a long time in music history.
While the phonograph record was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, it became effective for recording music in the 1920’s, only to be supplanted by CDs in the early 1980s, a period of about 60 years that included huge changes in quality and format.
Bluegrass has remained in a recognizable form longer than the record did. But, despite the wishes of an important and influential group of hard-core traditionalists, it has changed and evolved, and will continue to do so. Part of the fun is watching and appreciating the change, while continuing to enjoy, listen to, and play the original, in all its variety — a distinctive a valuable element of bluegrass’s continuing appeal.