Bluegrass music often deals with sad, even tragic circumstances. The genre is not particularly known for its sense of humor. At every bluegrass show or festival you attend, you’re likely to hear songs dealing with loss, murder, love gone wrong, and deep nostalgia for a life left behind in the mountains or on the farm. Bluegrass is known best for being filled with pain.
But throughout its history, the form has indeed been leavened by humor and even wit. Just as popular entertainment has moved from the baggy pants comedy of vaudeville and burlesque to a more subtle and sophisticated plane, so has humor in bluegrass. As in other music, that humor can be found within the music itself or in the interludes between the songs.
Uncle Dave Macon (1870 – 1952) represents the movement of country music and banjo humor from the post-Civil War era of the 1890s, when he began to perform by entertaining passengers at stage coach roadhouses, through the development of Vaudeville and radio. He was a performer on the WSM Barn Dance in Nashville even before it was renamed the Grand Ole Opry, where he continued to perform into the middle of the 20th century. Here he is playing clawhammer banjo and singing in his fine voice.
Banjo player and baggy-pants comic David “Stringbean” Akeman (1915 – 1973) appeared with both Bill Monroe as a Blue Grass Boy and with Flatt & Scruggs. He lived long enough to become a featured player on the iconic TV program Hee Haw — still the highest rated television program in which bluegrass was prominent as a component of country music.
Akeman and his wife were tragically murdered in 1973. A song called “The Ballad of Stringbean & Estelle” by Sam Bush memorializes this event. Here’s an example of Stringbean in performance.
Leroy Troy is the direct musical descendant of Uncle Dave Macon, having studied his style while developing The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, incorporating much of Dave Macon’s banjo trickery into a crowd-pleasing show filled with novelty songs and onstage fun.
Jug Band music has its own history, belonging as much in the world of old-time as it does bluegrass, while providing a desirable change of pace at many bluegrass festivals.
Here’s a sample of Leroy Troy playing “Grandfather’s Clock,” accompanied by bandmate Mike Armistead:
The Lewis Family began performing in the early 1950s, with Pop and Mom Lewis, Little Roy, his three sisters, and late brother Wallace, becoming hugely popular on the gospel music circuit. They performed on a weekly television show that was broadcast from Augusta, Georgia, near their home in Lincolnton, as well as on the road at festivals and concerts.
The Lewises high energy and faith-filled bluegrass gospel music was leavened by the irrepressible baggy-pants humor of Little Roy Lewis, a moniker based on both being named after father Roy and his stature. The Lewis Family has retired, but, after more than 60 years, Little Roy continues to tour with protege Lizzy Long as the Little Roy and Lizzie Show.
In 1983 Mike Snider, the resident funny man at the Grand Old Opry, won the National Banjo Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. The list of top bluegrass pickers who have won this contest is long and distinguished, although many are better known as contest winners than as members of bands or performers. Nevertheless, such recognition confers a high level of credibility upon the winner. Snider, who doesn’t often travel far from his Nashville base, is best recognized as a comic voice within country and bluegrass music.
A number of groups come to my mind when I think of wit applied to bluegrass and related music. Wit, to me, means finding humor internally, organically within the music or the show, as opposed to joke-telling or clowning, which come from an older sensibility.
Nothin’ Fancy manages to find humorous topics to sing about and includes humor in what goes on between the songs. Singer-songwriter Mike Andes, the voice of the group, writes songs that can be considered novelty numbers, that tickle listeners’ funny bones.
Songs like “Grandpa’s Chasing Women at the Local Retirement Home” and “Grandma’s Bought a Hog” poke fun at senior sex and the motorcycle ethic. Conversely, Andes often treats lost love with sensitivity, longing, and care. The varying points of view fit organically within his wide sensibilities.
Meanwhile, within the band, members display varying characters who play against one another. Andes is often the adult in the group, banjo player Mitchell Davis the sneaky bad boy, fiddler Chris Sexton the classical violinist with a funny bone, bassist Tony Shorter the ladies man, and newcomer Caleb Cox the wet-behind-the-ears youngster. All their personalities work together to make their performances works of festival art.
Ron Thomason, the resident wit of Dry Branch Fire Squad, is a brilliant storyteller, using his stories to lead into old-time or gospel songs while skewering elements of political and social hypocrisy. He even sells a piece of merchandise called the Dry Branch Fire Squad Security System, which turns out to be a small pocket knife best suited for manicures or can opening. Other than attending a performance of this band, the best way to experience the strength of Thomason’s story-telling is in through the group’s two-CD, Rounder-released, live performance album, Live at the Newburyport Firehouse.
The Austin Lounge Lizards — not really a bluegrass band, though they sometimes sound and look like one — tread on the most dangerous ground of satire. In their songs, the Lizards find hypocrisy as they deflate elements of American society: politics, religion, and marriage, mostly from the left side of the political spectrum. Remember, if you choose to listen to this one, that satire by its very nature is intended to offend … somebody.
Bluegrass, it’s often said, is all about the music, but this empty assertion simply isn’t true. As with any form of entertainment, the entire show is what’s important. With bands, there need to be transitions between songs that smooth the performance into a coherent whole. Even bands which don’t work from a set list need to make such transitions enjoyable. Technology has freed musicians from tying themselves to the microphone, allowing them relative freedom of movement around the stage. Dialogue, patter, storytelling, well-chosen jokes, and just plain tomfoolery all help to create a uniform whole. Without such elements, there is always something missing.