Considering Radical, Progressive, and Traditional Bluegrass Players
Memory is a strange and wonderful artifact.
When I was a teacher, students who were seniors referred to school habits as traditions, though much of what they referred to this way had just been initiated when they were in middle school. Family traditions surrounding the way we celebrated holidays when we were children become sacred events that we feel we must follow scrupulously in our adult lives.
American traditions are particularly dependent on time and place. Traditional holiday meals in New England contain significantly different dishes than those served in the South.
Further, many of the traditions we cling to were created nearly whole-cloth just a few decades ago. For me, Christmas includes a memory of Tiny Tim and Scrooge, but I suspect that, for many, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the Grinch. I well remember when, in 1949, Gene Autry’s rendition of “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” became a number one hit. What child today doesn’t associate this ninth reindeer with Christmas, or could imagine the sleigh without this cute, almost mawkish critter leading the dignified older pros?
We’ve just spent three wonderful days attending the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, held annually on the Salem County Fairgrounds, just across the Delaware Memorial Bridge from Wilmington, Delaware. Owned and operated by the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music, Delaware Valley celebrates the antecedents of contemporary bluegrass and its ancestry in old-time stringband music. Founded by Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley in 1972, the festival has, since its inception, featured the best and brightest stars of bluegrass. Monroe, who was also the founder of what is today called bluegrass, heard a new sound in his head and strove to realize it for years before the historic day in 1945 when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined his band, turning it into the Blue Grass Boys.
Despite some of the mythology around the music he helped create, Monroe was a radical visionary who heard and realized a new music that has lasted much longer than many genres.
The post-World War II period in America was a time of change. GIs returning from the war entered college under the GI Bill. Women, who had flooded the workforce during the war, turned those industrial jobs back over to returning veterans, who had left to fight the war on two fronts. A period similar to the roaring 1920s (which followed World War I) ensued, with exploding creativity in movies, theater, technology, business, and, of course, music.
The Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and others established a template and a sound in which each band experimented and developed unique sounds. The music of the mountains — of square dances and cracker barrel jam sessions in general stores and country school houses — began to disappear as better and cheaper records, radio, and, soon, television changed the landscape of entertainment. America’s population became increasingly urban.
Old-time and traditional music was represented this year at Delaware Valley by a band of young entertainers called Charm City Junction who played old-time and Celtic tunes.
There were also two duos who toured nationally in the ’60s and ’70s with what was then cutting-edge music, and it is well-remembered by much of the demographic who attends this festival. Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, associated with bands like the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Desert Rose Band, sang music from their back catalogs. Their West Coast country-rock struck nostalgic notes in most of the audience. Meanwhile, Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur recalled times in New England with material from their days together in the Jug Band. Younger people were introduced to this now-traditional music while other, more seasoned fans gloried in the memories of songs that helped stimulate their own musical imaginations.
I have long believed that many bluegrass fans who call themselves “traditionalists” are not fans of the original bluegrass bands. Rather, they were drawn to bluegrass music by bands seeking to re-create the sounds and feelings represented by the founders. Prominent among these were two important leaders, the Bluegrass Album Band and the Johnson Mountain Boys.
The Bluegrass Album Band never intended to become a touring band. It showcased J.D. Crowe on banjo and Tony Rice on guitar. Interestingly, Crowe is now recognized as one of the banjo’s great innovators, through many licks and approaches that moved the banjo forward, while Rice is seen as the greatest flat-picking innovator in a music style where, until he came along, the guitar was primarily a rhythm instrument.
Lester Flatt was one of the finest of all early rhythm guitar players in bluegrass history. Tony Rice is the guitarist most young flat-pickers today choose as the example they wish to follow. Dudley Connell, lead singer and guitarist for The Seldom Scene, said last weekend that the Johnson Mountain Boys, of which he was a founder, never intended to become an example for others, but were, rather, a hard-working, touring band seeking to make a living.
The Country Gentlemen, founded in 1957, and the Seldom Scene (1971) were both recognized early on as groundbreaking, even radical bands. Their appearance challenged tradition and moved the music into different realms. The Country Gentlemen’s music incorporated elements from country music, pop, and even rock into bluegrass, while the Seldom Scene’s catalog used much of the same source material, presenting it in a smoother, more soothing manner. Both relied on transmogrifying popular music from other genres into bluegrass. Both bands were innovative and originally considered radical, became merely progressive, and are now referred to as “traditional.”
In a sense, the current version of the Seldom Scene has become a captive of its very popular catalog, because their “traditional” sound is the one a generation of today’s bluegrass fans grew up on.
Several musicians are associated with both bands: John Duffey, Tom Gray, and Mike Auldridge among them. Dudley Connell joined the Scene more than 20 years ago.
That brings me to the Steep Canyon Rangers. Coming out of Western North Carolina and, mostly, the University of North Carolina, this group has gone in the opposite direction. They began their career as a pretty traditional bluegrass band. They’ve continued to develop their sound and their brand, though, and they’re now forging into cutting-edge stage performance, finding new audiences for bluegrass music. Their more recent songs fit into an ever-changing and developing pattern. Here they are playing their currently charting song “Radio” at Delaware Valley.