Bluegrass on the Blue Ridge: How North Carolina Inherited Bill Monroe’s Music
Once upon a time, around the middle of the 20th century, there was music in the mountains that run from Georgia up through the Carolinas, into Kentucky and beyond – a high and lonesome sound that reflected the lives of hard-working people who had to be strong to survive. It was a unique sound, a blend of country, blues, folk, and gospel delivered on acoustic instruments, specifically the banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and bass. It gradually spread down from the hills like a low-lying fog, creeping into nearby villages at first, then moving relentlessly on to the big cities, then spreading out over the world, evolving through every stop along the way.
By the time that sound found its way onto the radio, some thought it was like the story of Moses, with Bill Monroe in the title role, handing down the Ten Commandments, carved in stone, never to be questioned or altered. It wasn’t the musicians who felt that way; it was the fans.
So, when Sam Bush – a long-haired mandolinist with an affinity for testing boundaries – first came on the scene in the late 1960s and early ’70s, his musical attitude and looks were hazardous to his health in some places. Bush first showed up in North Carolina in 1969 at a tiny campground festival near Camp Springs run by promoter Carlton Haney. He returned year after year, as a member of Bluegrass Alliance. In 1972, he brought his band New Grass Revival. “I remember ’72 was the great day of the Muleskinner News Awards,” Bush says. “I think the Revival might have gotten most promising band, perhaps. And I got the promising part of that, meaning that I promised to play better in the future.”
While some in the industry recognized Bush’s talent and approved of his musical direction, some closer to the ground weren’t ready for change, in the music or in the appearance of those representing it. Packs of traditionalists roamed the grounds muttering about showing some of those “long-haired sonsofbitches a thing or two,” Bush recalls, concerning the consequences of “polluting bluegrass music with rock and roll and such trash.”
Bush says he doesn’t remember any such tensions at Camp Springs in particular, but he does recall a run-in with naysayers elsewhere. “It was ’72,” he says, “and I was sort of threatened by a band of … guys, shall we call them, and I really did think I was fixing to get whipped. And all of a sudden it was like the gates of heaven opened, and Mac Wiseman walked around the tent and goes, ‘Hi Sam!’ And I think he could see what was going on. He said, ‘Everything okay?’ And I said, ‘It is now!’ The sea parted, and Mac and I walked away together. We always got along well with the musicians, and Mac Wiseman was always one of the nicest guys to us there was.”
Haney was also a forward-looking promoter, whom Bush credits with first using the word “newgrass” for his festival in 1973. But as forward-thinking as he was, Haney still had reservations about giving the long-haired newcomers prime-time access. “Sometimes the more traditional audience could be vocal about what they did and didn’t like,” Bush remembers. “That’s why Carlton always put us on at midnight. I asked him once, ‘Carlton, couldn’t we play a little earlier in the day?’ And he said, ‘But boaz, that’s when yooah people are up!”
Bush wasn’t the only one changing up bluegrass at the time. “There were a lot of progressive things going on back then,” he says. “The Osborne Brothers played by the rules of looking spiffy onstage and dressing alike, but they were so progressive. The Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse, and The Country Gentlemen – everybody was playing more progressively then. We were just the ones that looked a little different.”
He says he never meant any disrespect to the music or its founders. “Some people called it irreverent.” he explains. “We weren’t trying to be [irreverent]; we were just having a great time onstage, and playing it the way we felt it.”
Bush recalls standing next to Bill Monroe when a guy played Monroe a tune he wrote that sounded just like a Monroe tune. “Bill said, ‘That’s real good. What can you do on your own?’ I really think Monroe wanted all of us to get our own voice. I’m sure he liked that we liked his music and looked up to him, and we do, but he got his own music and he thought [everyone else] ought to as well.”
Bush also mentions an influential mandolin player that a lot of people think of more for his comedy than his instrumental prowess. “My two favorite mandolin players are Jethro [Burns] and Bill Monroe,” Bush says. “They’re nothing alike, and of course in the world of bluegrass, Jethro never tried to play bluegrass, he was just so good that, if he wanted to go sit in with a bluegrass band, he of course could play any tune they wanted to play. But he very much was his own person on the instrument and he is quietly one of the most influential who ever played it.”
Mixing up the tradition of bluegrass even more, Burns and pardner/guitarist Henry “Homer” Haynes were influenced by gypsy jazz greats Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, as well as father of jazz guitar Eddie Lang and pioneer jazz violinist Joe Venuti. Bush says Burns “brought a whole new thing to the acoustic world that has definitely transferred into bluegrass phrasing for the young fingers.”
A Change of Scene
Diversity and youthful ideas were instrumental in helping bluegrass grow and expand its boundaries, but it also got help from a union of sorts – a collaboration of fans, musicians, and industry pros who got together in 1985 and formed the International Bluegrass Music Association in Owensboro, Kentucky. Its first World of Bluegrass gathering was held there in 1990, moving to Louisville in ’97 before Nashville took over as host city from 2005 to 2012. But as the music progressed, some of the enthusiasm for celebrating it in that way seemed to wane.
But with World of Bluegrass’s shift to North Carolina – home state of Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, to name just two – the change of scenery has breathed new life into the organization and the music. The relocation has been a game-changer for the formerly red ink-soaked IBMA. The first year’s event in Raleigh, in 2013, brought nearly 10 million dollars into the local economy from an estimated 154,000 attendees. The revenues from 2014 were even greater and attendance figures higher.
For two years so far in late September/early October, North Carolina’s capital city has spread wide its arms and rolled out the red carpet for a weeklong, city-wide celebration of high and lonesome. A good chunk of Raleigh’s downtown real estate becomes dedicated to the festival. The Raleigh Convention Center is the hub, with tentacles spread out through downtown streets, ensnaring hotels, clubs, an amphitheater, and most every street corner in a bluegrass embrace.
Raleigh was chosen for a variety of reasons. Jerry Douglas, co-host with Lee Ann Womack of the 2014 IBMA Awards show, sees an organic approach. “There’s something in the water down there in North Carolina,” Douglas said by phone from his home in Nashville. “It made the best banjo players in the world. Earl Scruggs and every other great bluegrass musician I can remember from the ’40s [and] ’50s, they came from there, so it makes a lot of sense.”
But it’s not just the legacy of the genre’s forefathers that made Raleigh a favorite destination for Douglas. “When [I’ve been] to Raleigh, it was like ‘Gee-whiz, these people really like us,’” he said. “As long as I’ve been on the road playing, being a professional musician, the audiences in North Carolina, they got it faster.” What’s more, bombarded with legions of pickers clamoring to be heard, Music City has been overexposed, Douglas believes. “Nashville is a town where these things happen a lot, and it’s kinda jaded. So many country music things and anything related to that, Americana … everything – it’s here. It’s nice to have [bluegrass] separated, have its own homeland. Makes perfect sense to me. Why didn’t we have it [in Raleigh] all along?”
Sam Bush is a bit more cautious about dissing his adopted hometown. “I must admit, as a person who lives in Nashville, I loved it when it was here and I could just drive downtown every day and I got to go home at night,” he says. “But, that being said, I think the city of Raleigh did a great job … they really went all out to make downtown a wonderful place to hang and hear music. Raleigh made as big a deal out of bluegrass as the CMA does out of country music in Nashville.”
Of course, these days it has high-profile bands like Steep Canyon Rangers and beloved groups with heavy cult followings like Chatham County Line and Town Mountain, but that’s no new development. North Carolina has always been a home and a showcase for bluegrass. As mentioned above, Carlton Haney’s Camp Springs festivals near Reidsville in the early 1970s introduced radical upstarts like New Grass Revival and Breakfast Special, who had saxophones in the band, for gawd’s sake, and long-haired radicals like Sam Bush and John Cowan to shake up the genre. But long before that, the Old Time Fiddlers Convention, started in Union Grove in 1924, was a big draw. Bluegrass was added to the program in the ’70s and the festival is still going strong today. Just down the road in Union Grove proper, Mal and Pal Ireland at the Cook Shack serve up a hearty breakfast and a free jam featuring talented family members as well as bluegrass and newgrass luminaries who wander in and out.
For 40 years, The Drexel Barber shop, near Hickory, has hosted Saturday morning bluegrass jams in the back room that bring in world class players from all over. In Carthage, Clyde Maness’ Pottery Barn has hosted a weekly bluegrass showcase for the last 30 years, featuring local, regional, and national bands along with a potluck supper, all for a voluntary donation.
But until World of Bluegrass came to Raleigh year before last, Wilkesboro’s Merlefest was still the bluegrass biggie, mixing styles and genres like no other event. In the spirit of the music that both Bush and Douglas can embrace, Loretta Lynn, Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, and Dolly Parton have been stirred into the Merlefest mix, next to bluegrass giants like Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and festival founder Doc Watson.
Former Jefferson Airplane rockers Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady have shown up repeatedly, as have vintage blues troupe Hot Tuna. Ruthie Foster has brought her gospel-blues magnificence to the show, as did Levon Helm with his stunning 2008 resurrection show after throat cancer surgery. The Carolina Chocolate Drops put up a career-changing show in 2007, presenting black stringband music to the mostly white audience in a way that had people running to the tiny corner Cabin Stage to see what the commotion was about. Indeed, as evidenced by its lightning-fast picking solos, it’s safe to say bluegrassers – both traditionalists and long-haired newcomers – have a thing for commotion.
Welcome to the Circus
When it opens, World of Bluegrass feels like the circus has come to town, the big top overflowing with entertainment for all ages. There’s so much to do that it can make first-time attendees feel like Jethro in the big city, standing in the Convention Center lobby gaping at all the choices available to them in that building alone. There’s something going on simultaneously from top to bottom.
Multitasking is an art form here. You’ll see people with a briefcase in one hand and a banjo, guitar, or fiddle in the other. If you’ve spent your morning in the business conference – in seminars or workshops learning how to negotiate contracts and riders, mastering stage presence, pitching to agents, exploring licensing, demos, and royalties – you can just step outside and get down to some hands-on networking, listening, or jamming.
Much like at MerleFest – indeed, this is true of bluegrass events in general – if you don’t already have an agenda mapped out or an instrument handy, you can just let the music pull you along. Follow your ears to the plunks, clucks, and chops wafting from the lower level of the center. Pickin’ sessions are going in in every corner, three or four bluegrassers gathered around in tight knots, blazing through classics and traditional tunes. Some of the pickers you’ll recognize from prominent and rising bluegrass bands, but some are complete unknowns who pick like pros.
Jamming has always been a big part of the bluegrass scene, a comfortable environment where players of all levels can get together to hone their skills or just howl high and lonesome all night long in the parking lot, around campfires or, during World of Bluegrass, on street corners, in hotel rooms, or any nook or cranny big enough to accommodate them.
“One of the distinctive characteristics about us [bluegrassers] is people like to jam,” IBMA board chairman Jon Weisberger says. “That’s a bond kind of thing.”
Of course, that’s not just an abstract concept to Weisberger. He’s a musician as well – bassist for Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, winner of IBMA’s first Songwriter of the Year award in 2012, and writer of songs that have been recorded by the Infamous Stringdusters, Del McCoury, and many more. He’s a former contributor to No Depression on the bluegrass beat, and was producer, most recently, for Missy Werner’s Turn This Heart Around.
“[Jamming] is tremendously helpful in creating an atmosphere where people who are engaged in the business of bluegrass want to be there,” he says. “This has been one of the big successes in Raleigh, something that … we kind of lost when we moved to Nashville, for a variety of reasons. But it was really important to get back. Last year and this year, as word gets out, the atmosphere is revived [and] more friendly to jamming and informal socializing.”
That’s evident. At four in the afternoon one day last fall, some good ol’ boys were hard at it on the convention center steps, wailing away on the Dillards’ “The Old Home Place.” Underscoring the diversity of the bluegrass diaspora, the banjo player had a strong West Virginia accent, but his drawl was nothing compared to mandolin player Paddy Montgomery’s. “You’re not from around here,” somebody says. “No, I’m Australian,” he answers. ”Just got here today.”
Montgomery is in the band Mustered Courage, and had made a daunting trip to Raleigh that wore out three vans along the way. His band was slated for ten shows during the week, the culmination of a 43-state trek of nearly 20,000 miles in three months. “We’re gonna take him back home with us,” the banjo player says, throwing an arm ’round Montgomery’s shoulders after the two have ripped off a sizzling rendition of the Dillards’ tune.
People drifted in and out of the makeshift group, most introducing themselves with just a first name and a handshake, picking a tune and then moving on. There was another jam going on a few feet away, and as you made your way down the street to the first of the evening’s showcases at a nearby bar, there were jammers of all ages and abilities going at it on nearly every corner.
The Next Generation
That mixing of old and young, traditional and trailblazing, is at the heart of World of Bluegrass. The Moore Brothers Band, from Hickory, NC, look like babies but play like vets. Sixteen-year-old Jacob Moore plays mandolin, banjo, and fiddle; 20-year-old bassist Daniel is the group’s frontman; and 11-year-old Isaac plays guitar. They aptly tackled The Band’s “The Weight,” with Dan on lead vocals and Jacob harmonizing like a fallen angel, the instrumentation smooth and celestial. The band turned things up a notch with a ferocious version of “Lay My Burden Down” that featured a blazing mandolin solo from Jacob. For the finale, Jacob switched to a custom-made Mando-Strat, a gift from Fender, for Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride,” his hybrid axe howling psychedelically for one verse before finishing off the tune bluegrass style.
Youth programs and showcases are a big deal for the IBMA and bluegrass in general. IBMA has its own Youth Council, headed by 21-year-old chairman Andy Rigney. The festival features a Youth Room in the convention center where national bluegrass bands drop by to jam with the kids. Last year’s interactive drop-ins were Lonesome River Band, IIIrd Tyme Out, and Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper. The youth program also chose ten young bands to play on the Youth Council Stage, and a partner program called Kids on Bluegrass that boasts Sarah Jarosz and Sierra Hull among its alums picked 27 up-and-coming young artists aged 9 to 17 for showcases.
There’s a lot of young blood in the bluegrass world, and it’s easy to imagine that’s part of what keeps the genre thrusting forward. Today’s innovative bluegrass elders were once young envelope-pushers themselves, so they can appreciate the creative imaginations of the newer pickers. Jerry Douglas, who played World of Bluegrass 2014 with his group The Earls of Leicester and in a headlining jam with Bush, Bela Fleck, Bryan Sutton, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan, has been responsible for bringing a lot of outside influences into bluegrass that have had an impact on the younger generation.
Ironically, Douglas has never considered himself a bluegrass musician. Flux is his nickname, given for his fluid style. “There’s no real name for [what I do],” he explains. “That gives the people in the record stores a big headache, because they don’t know where to put this guy. It’s just music, man.”
When pressed, Douglas will offer up a description of his music that’s somewhere in the ballpark: “I still think what I’m doing is country music in some way,” he says. “See, that’s where the lines are so blurred now. It’s hard to figure out whether I’m a bluegrass musician or a jazz musician, [and] country is right there in the middle somewhere. I do understand what I am, but it doesn’t translate into a specific record bin.”
With Alison Krauss and Union Station since 1998, the 13-time Grammy winner has taken time off to do some side projects, including The Earls of Leicester, Douglas’s tribute to Flatt and Scruggs. While Douglas was working out of character representing the traditional side of bluegrass at one of his IBMA appearances last year, one of the younger bands was breaking new ground by introducing a new genre to bluegrass. Siler City, NC’s Nu-Blu brought soul into grass with Sam Moore singing on the band’s “Jesus and Jones.”
“Jesus and Jones” has a tickly bluegrass banjo and a weepy fiddle surrounding frontwoman Carolyn Routh’s high and lonesome vocal intro. But when Moore, the surviving half of the great soul duo Sam and Dave (“Hold On, I’m Coming,” “I’m a Soul Man”), drops in, he takes it to church, drenching it with gospel soul. “I [was] thinkin’, this is a mentor situation,” Routh says of the session. “And … he would sing something and say, ‘Is that okay? Do you like that?’ And I’m like, ‘I love whatever you do. I’m here to learn from you.’ And he’d say, ‘No, this is your song. You make the calls on this.’ I wasn’t expecting that. I really wasn’t, because I was looking at it totally from the opposite. Yeah, we brought the song to the table, but he’s just larger than life.”
Thanks in part to that cut, Nu-Blu’s latest, All The Way, spent three consecutive weeks in the top ten on the Billboard Bluegrass Album chart. In spite of its innovations, the group still considers itself a bluegrass band. “We’re not abandoning our roots, by any means,” Routh insists, “or the appreciation or the love that we have for bluegrass. We like to be us, we like to do it our way, and go all the way.”
To hear Nu-Blu, Bush, and Douglas tell it, as much as this and much of the work pouring from the bluegrass world these days might sound like a departure, bluegrass was always a fluid musical form, sweeping up styles and patterns from jazz, blues, and folk as it flowed down from the mountains. To that end, Nu-Blu’s musical vision is broad. “I like that my music can reach into other genres and touch other people,” Routh says, “and break outside of what in some people’s minds is the stereotypical bluegrass image. I like to be able to knock down those boundaries. I want to be diverse.”
Sam Bush loves the way the World of Bluegrass, MerleFest, and other North Carolina bluegrass showcases are inclusive and supportive of young musicians as well as older stalwarts like Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury. “One of the most important things is giving a forum to the young musicians to be heard and for those young musicians to hear some of the originators of style within the music,” he says, though he does caution players about calling McCoury an elder statesman. “He kicks me hard,” Bush says, laughing. “He’s not an elder statesman. We have a duet show we play occasionally and, man, you’ve gotta keep up when you play with Del.”
As Bush continues, his remarks serve as a mission statement, a recruiting pitch, and a warm welcome for fans and players alike to keep coming to the World of Bluegrass for the foreseeable future, even as it has left music city for North Carolina’s at-once richly diverse, boldly progressive, and deeply rooted bluegrass landscape. “The IBMA has raised the awareness of bluegrass as much or more than the original festivals and promoters like Haney and Bill Monroe,” Bush says. “[They’ve] helped it grow from something where you literally had to go sleep in your car and have a tent to now we can go stay in a hotel in Raleigh and hear some incredible music without wading through a sea of mud. It’s great for the pickers and great for the listeners, too.”
As for MerleFest, more of that same diversity will continue this year, as well: Paul Thorn’s quirky blues rock; Dwight Yoakam’s big-time Bakersfield twang; Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys’ Western swing, rockabilly, and doo-wop; the Marshall Tucker Band’s Southern rock; and the North Mississippi Allstars’ hill country blues will share performance space with Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, The Sam Bush Band, Jerry Douglas’s Earls of Leicester, and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Lee Ann Womack’s traditional country will brush up against Celtic rockers Scythian and the punk/folk/whatever jangle of the Avett Brothers. The Raleigh-based outfit Chatham County Line and the stunning virtuosity and blinding speed of Wilkes County’s own Kruger Brothers will be on display as well.
As usual, the late April festival is a stunning array of talent, a glittering roster that ought to hold most fans till the World of Bluegrass comes back in the fall to light up North Carolina once again with the glorious sounds of high and lonesome.