Bluegrass Isn’t Just a Kentucky Thing
We just spent the weekend at a small bluegrass festival on a field near Oakboro, North Carolina. Big Lick is the first outdoor festival in the long North Carolina season, which runs from now until the middle of October, although it’s becoming clear that there really no longer is a bluegrass season. After all, bluegrass musicians appear year-round in arts centers, theaters, and indoor festivals, as well as bars, restaurants, clubs, and pubs. Nevertheless, bluegrass people are a pretty hardy bunch who treasure the chance to gather outdoors to listen to their favorite music. They’ll bring their campers to a festival, even if it’s only 15 or 20 miles from home. Once there, they build a fire, gather around to chat, visit, and, always, play and share music.
Often at festivals, the open mic can turn into a dreary series of short sets from pick-up bands — old friends who come to the festival together or local bands looking for an opportunity to sharpen their performance skills and maybe earn a paying gig some time in the future. Like many small festivals, Big Lick opened with an open mic session on Thursday evening. With a chill north wind ripping across the field, we knew the temperature would soon start to dive. Nevertheless, we came out to hear a few of the bands and stay as long as our winter duds would keep us comfortable. The three local bands we heard were mostly better than average, featuring good tempos, three part harmony, and solid musicianship. Each moved through its set list with dispatch, while allowing a degree of personality and animation to show through. Similarly, the three paid bands from North Carolina were all outstanding.
The Wood Family Tradition, now entering its third generation as a family band, playing bluegrass gospel music and a mixture of traditional and more recent bluegrass, delivered their set with professional energy and sound. They can be heard at festivals, in churches, and at BBQ places around the central part of the state.
A Deeper Shade of Blue has been together as a band for about a dozen years. They come from the bluegrass hotbed of Monroe, North Carolina, which is home of banjo master Terry Baucom, among others.
Sideline, begun as a side project for five bluegrassers from around the Raleigh area, has morphed into a national touring band. The group displays energy and skill in presenting hard-driving, traditional bluegrass in a highly entertaining fashion.
Several years ago, Roger H. Brown, the President of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, delivered the IBMA keynote address. In his speech, he pointed out that if one were to draw a circle around Charlotte with a 50 mile radius, it would include much of the important history and many of the key musicians, radio stations, and promoters who have helped turn bluegrass into a unique and vibrant form of country music.
While Ralph Peer is justly recognized for his important recording sessions in Bristol Tennessee/Virginia in 1927, he also recorded extensively in Charlotte and Atlanta, Georgia. Early bluegrass bands like Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, and the Stanley Brothers, among dozens of others, would often appear on two of three local and regional radio stations in a day. Those stations would make 15-minute live broadcasts to promote local performances in school auditoriums, churches, and out in the open air. It was on such slender threads that bluegrass and early country music’s popularity was spread in the mid and deep South.
North Carolina was uniquely situated to participate in and contribute to the development and spread of bluegrass music. Simple musicianship and deep faith were particularly well-represented in the mountains of North Carolina, as well as southwestern Virginia, east Tennessee, and Kentucky. But it took the development of mills and factories for the music to become refined into modern country and bluegrass music. The mill villages in Gastonia, Hickory, Lenoir, and many other Piedmont towns provided the transitional environment that allowed music-loving people to create music with modern, factory-made instruments. There, they could hear Tin Pan Alley popular music on the radios of the day, and allow the music, once much more isolated, to coalesce as the people moved to town and into a cash economy.
The Lilly Brothers, from West Virginia, migrated to New England after World War II to work in the industrial Northeast, bringing their music with them. They influenced people like Blue Grass Boy Peter Rowan. Along with the great banjo player Don Stover, they performed at Boston’s Hillbilly Ranch from 1950 until 1970. Similarly, the Paisley Family migrated from Ashe County, North Carolina, to southeastern Pennsylvania’s Chester County, near Wilmington, Delaware, to work in the rubber industry. Bob Paisley and his band Southern Grass toured nationally. On his passing about a decade ago, his son Danny continued the band. Ryan Paisley, the third generation in this family band, is a rising young mandolin wizard and has added social media to support the efforts of this fine band. In a performance at the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival near Salem, New Jersey, Ryan joined Marty Stuart on the stage where Stuart had been introduced by Lester Flatt 40 years before.
The stories of how cities like Baltimore, Washington, New York, and Boston — as well as a few on the West Coast — have taken hold of the mountain bluegrass that came to metropolitan areas to make a living have allowed the music to metamorphose into contemporary, progressive, forms that some won’t even admit is bluegrass. But that story remains to be told another day, or days.
Mountain music moved to the mills and factories and became a music synthesized from a range of influences, which continues to enrich American culture. Much of it still originates in small, conservative towns, in rural areas. It has a proud and vibrant culture, to which its adherents are fiercely loyal. Because of its capacity to include a wide range of musical influences, bluegrass has exhibited a range of flexibility that has made it last while still being recognizable.
Bluegrass will continue to morph and change, while celebrating its historical antecedents and the shoulders on which it stands. That’s part of what makes it fun. The other part is that it makes you smile and tap your feet … or even dance.