David Bromberg on The High & Wides and a Brand New Bluegrass Sound
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sam Guthridge from The High & Wides, a four-piece stringband based on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, has been acquainted with David Bromberg for a while, first from a jam Bromberg used to host in Wilmington, Delaware, and then through High & Wides fiddle player, Nate Grower, who also plays with Bromberg. Sam sent Bromberg a copy of The High & Wides’ new album, Lifted, in hopes that Bromberg might enjoy it and maybe even provide a quote the band could use on its website. A couple months later, Bromberg surprised the band with a full review, and his blessing to find a place to publish it. We’re happy to be that place.
In the late ’50s through much of the ’60s and into the ’70s, aside from the recordings from the original giants of bluegrass, the music didn’t change much. The exception to this rule was the Osborne Brothers, who sang dramatic harmonies with the lead on the top, and experimented with non-traditional instruments such as pedal steel and drums. Although their music was popular, their influence on other bluegrass players seems to be limited. First of all, you need someone who can sing like Bobby Osborne, and I think there’s only one of those. In fact, aside from the Osbornes, the music almost seemed to ossify. The young players concentrated on playing the classics as close to the records as they could. Of course, there were exceptions, such as Bill Keith’s invention of Keith picking, which later had a large impact on banjo playing, but the exceptions were few and far between. In the early ’70s John Hartford released an LP that was enormously different. It used the quartet of John on banjo, Norman Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on dobro, and Randy Scruggs on bass. The New Grass Revival and David Grisman’s “Dawg Music” surfaced around the same time, and some corners of the bluegrass universe became filled with long complex virtuoso solos and a rejection of “Bill never did it like that.” The New Grass Revival inspired quite a few musicians and quite a few bands, and for a while two styles of bluegrass seemed to exist side by side.
Then came Alison Krauss, and the scene changed. I can’t explain the difference in Alison Krauss’s music and the music she inspired, but it was different; fresher. Bluegrass was on the radio dial in a quantity that had never been heard before. The number of young bluegrass players in recorded bands simply exploded. It should be mentioned that for the first time a number of the bands were built around great female singers and players. The virtuosity of the musicians in today’s bluegrass bands would be difficult to overstate.
The High & Wides’ first CD, Lifted, is quietly revolutionary. I say “quietly” revolutionary because the band doesn’t make a big thing of their different approaches. Nowhere do they sound as though they’re going out of their way to be different, but the music does sound different almost immediately. The band is a quartet, and all of the players seem to have the requisite virtuosity on their instruments that is demanded in today’s bluegrass. However, to me the biggest difference in the overall sound is in the type of guitar and guitar playing on the LP. Marc Dykeman is the guitar player and one of the vocalists in the band. He plays an arch-top guitar rather than the flattop seen in the hands of every other bluegrass band I’ve heard save one. The only other arch-top guitar used in bluegrass that I’m aware of was used on some of Bill Monroe’s earliest recordings. I suppose it’s debatable if Monroe’s music was really bluegrass before the entrance of Earl Scruggs.
The arch-top guitar was invented by Lloyd Loar at roughly the same time as he invented the ff hole mandolins such as the F-5 model used by almost all of today’s mandolin players. Sam Guthridge, the banjo player and vocalist in The High & Wides, does play a little mandolin on the record, but mostly the guitar takes over the mandolin’s function of setting the groove by defining the back beat. This has at least two results that set the band’s sound apart from other bluegrass — no, any other sort of — band. The guitar takes many of the rhythmic grooves to another place entirely, not on every cut, but on many. I don’t know how to characterize the grooves, but they are worlds away from the grooves I’ve heard played by bluegrass bands. One can’t forget bluegrass is definitely the place where the band must have first come together as Guthridge’s personal blend of Scruggs- and Keith-styled playing weaves through every track. And it works above the unique grooves beautifully. The other difference the arch top makes in the overall sound is that without the strum of the flattop, the absence of a ringing chord creates much more space. In bluegrass, the mandolin playing rhythm functions as a snare drum, hitting and accenting the back beat. It’s a percussive sound and propels the band. In The High & Wides, the guitar similarly becomes a percussion instrument. On some tracks it hits the back beat, but on other tracks is syncopates for almost a jazz groove. Almost. This music comes out of bluegrass.
Many of today’s bluegrass bands have players that have listened to music other than bluegrass, but these influences show themselves in the tunes being converted to bluegrass tunes. The High & Wides weave their influences directly into the fabric of the music. There are phrases played by the fiddle of Nate Grower in unison with the banjo. It’s a great effect, and reminded me of Irish traditional music where harmonies are rarely played. The vocals are frequently harmonized bluegrass style, but sometimes show an older influence. The singing sometimes reminds me of the dissonant harmonies of some of Bill Monroe’s spookier tracks and the singing on Larry Richardson and Red Barker’s version of “More Pretty Girls Than One.” Sometimes, however, I think of the Decemberists, an electric band from the Northeast. I wonder if the band heard them or arrived at those moments coincidentally. You can see the variety of influences by reading the track titles. “The Ballad of Caulk’s Field” sounds as though it’s a Scotch-Irish or English song, but it was written by Marc Dykeman and Sam Guthridge. “Rake out the Nails” uses imagery that any bluegrass writer would be proud of, but “Caesar Went off to Gaul” reminds me of the off the wall titles we’d put on instrumentals in New York City when I was learning to play professionally.
Mike Buccino plays the bass on the LP and wrote three of the fine songs on the recording. Nate Grower’s fiddling is consistently brilliant and surprising. I think he’s listened to almost everything. Marc Dykeman plays the unique rhythm guitar, sings, wrote, and co-wrote songs on the album and engineered and mixed the tracks. I can’t imagine how he did all that. Sam Guthridge’s banjo shows great technique and originality and weaves through the entire recording, binding it together.
The most important thing I can try to impress on anyone is that the music is a pleasure to listen to. Put it in your player or download it and enjoy yourself.