Blurring Lines • Ron Block of AKUS
I don’t look at bluegrass as a religion. I have never been out to “spread the gospel of bluegrass.” It is a great American music form. There are others which are great as well. I get people to listen to bluegrass. But I also played Bonnie Raitt for Sierra Hull on a road trip.
Just yesterday I was talking to a young banjo player who listened to me and other contemporary banjoists and I told him he need to do some serious listening to Flatt & Scruggs, the Jimmy Martin banjoists, J.D. Crowe and the New South, etc to develop the right hand and form a concept of the passionate sound that forms the basis of traditional bluegrass banjo (I say, “Traditional,” but in the 1940s Earl Scruggs was actually “Radically Innovative, Newfangled, Supercharged, Notey Banjo”).
So – I don’t have a bluegrass ideology, where I am fighting against the world to preserve A, B, and C. I simply love bluegrass (when I listen, I’m usually listening to the old stuff or live recordings), and other music as well, and those influences come out in the music I play.
On “blurring lines” of What Bluegrass Is: I don’t have “a line” to blur in the first place. I’m a free agent and if I felt like dropping the banjo and playing rock guitar I could do that. I could become the owner of a cheeseburger museum, or even choose to hate bluegrass. I am neither trying to “CHANGE THE DEFINITION OF BLUEGRASS!!!! (add cussing here)” or keep the definition of bluegrass. “What Is Bluegrass?” is to me a very simple thing. Make the umbrella wide enough, but not too wide. The things outside “What Bluegrass Is” can be termed bluegrass-influenced music. But of course that is all for people who care about what things are called. I just like the things themselves. I don’t care if Flatt and Scruggs called their music bluegrass. I like the music itself and to me it can be called “Music With Banjo, Guitar, Dobro, Bass, Fiddle, a little Mandolin, Singing, and Sometimes Drums and Occasionally Harmonica and Sometimes No Banjo.” A little clunky but whatever works.
There will always be people who love to play the old stuff, and folks who want to do it differently, and a whole raft of folks in between. If atheism is true, though, eventually the universe is going to become a mass of solid material at a uniform temperature anyway, and none of this will matter.
I do think even among traditionalists that there would be some argument about exact lines of “What Is Bluegrass” when they got right down to brass tacks. Some would say “No banjo, no bluegrass” which would put the old-style gospel quartets out of the picture, along with “You Are My Flower” and about a million other tunes. When people are angry, and proud, and trying to protect something out of fear, eventually the unity splits into a million pieces.
With any emotionally-charged issue we should ask ourselves, “Is this really worth making moral judgments on people and name calling, putting others down? What, exactly, am I angry about? Will these issues really matter when, to quote an old hymn by the Stanley Brothers, “Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming”?
About The Author:
For nearly twenty years Ron Block has been a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station, contributing sterling musicianship on banjo, guitar and vocals. Block’s first solo album, Faraway Land (Rounder, 2001), was met with great critical acclaim and raised the bar for Block as an artist for his Rounder Records follow-up, DoorWay. Boasting an all-star lineup featuring Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglas, Barry Bales, Adam Steffey, Stuart Duncan, Viktor Krauss, Suzanne and Sidney Cox, Andy Hubbard (Little Big Town) and Homer, Lisa, and Lori Forbes, among others, DoorWay is a set of intensely moving and personal songs that Block self-produced and wrote…a beautiful and rewarding glimpse inside the human heart.
Alison Krauss and Union Station have recorded 10 of Block’s songs since 1992, including the beautiful “In the Palm of Your Hand” from the Alison Krauss and the Cox Family album, I Know Who Holds Tomorrow and “A Living Prayer” from Lonely Runs Both Ways, which received a 2006 Gospel Music Association Dove award for Bluegrass Song of the Year. Block has also recorded with Susan Ashton, Vince Gill, the Cox Family, Clint Black, Bill Frisell, Fernando Ortega, Billy Dean, Michael Johnson, Dolly Parton, and most recently Brad Paisley. In addition to his production of DoorWay, Block produced Secrets, the first recording on Rounder by young mandolin wizard Sierra Hull. His songs have also been recorded and performed by Rhonda Vincent (“You’re In My Heart”), Randy Travis (“Which Way Will You Choose”), Dan Tyminski (“Be Assured”), Michael W. Smith, the Cox Family and the Forbes Family, whose Block-produced In the Shadow of Your Wings is a classic of contemporary bluegrass gospel.
Ron Block FaceBook • www.tinyurl.com/rb-facebp
Ron Block WebSite • www.ronblock.com
Alison Krauss WebSite • www.alisonkrauss.com
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