Every Song’s a Bluegrass Song that Doesn’t Know it … Yet
Many people think of bluegrass music and hillbilly music in the same breath. Old-time, a description often applied to string band music as it developed in the first third of the 20th century in the mountains, hills, and hollers of Appalachia, was mostly described as dance music that was played at community get-togethers. It was played by roughly the same instruments as the classic bluegrass group of mandolin, guitar, and bass, including one or more fiddles and a banjo, often open-backed, a quieter and less versatile older cousin of today’s five-string. When Ralph Peer first recorded the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and others in 1927, it led, perhaps inevitably, to the ongoing development of bluegrass and country music, each affected and ultimately changed by other music popular through ensuing decades and, now, generations.
Bill Monroe, working for an oil company in Hammond, Indiana, toured and recorded with his brother Charlie in the Upper Midwest, a configuration that ultimately broke up as Bill searched for a way to bring his constantly evolving vision to fruition. When he joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, he received a degree of recognition that let him know he was on the right track. But it wasn’t until 1945, when Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt joined his band, that his vision, in a flurry of fast-paced banjo virtuosity, achieved what he was seeking. The audience was blown away, and people began to refer to the music he was playing as “blue grass music” after his band, The Blue Grass Boys, soon to be conflated into bluegrass.
The classic case of the journey of a song can be found in Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” first recorded as a plaintive love song. Elvis Presley then recorded it as a rockabilly song. Finally, Monroe took it back, played a verse with his original intent, paused and then drove it through using Presley’s tempo with his own band’s style. That’s the way it usually is played at festivals today.
“Blue Moon of Kentucky” – Elvis Presley:
“Blue Moon of Kentucky” – Bill Monroe:
But after World War II, society was changing. Barriers began to fall as people came to know and often depend upon each other in new ways. Many rural people who didn’t go to war moved from rural areas to where the factories and jobs were, in cities, throughout the South and into the industrial North. Music reflected this change, as blues — and soon after rock and roll, R&B, and much other music — reflected and sometimes anticipated the social changes that were occurring.
Early country and bluegrass music was intended by the record companies to appeal to a niche audience of white, rural, working-class people. Blues was marketed as “race” music, aimed at African-American consumers who, as the economy recovered at the end of the Great Depression, could begin to afford record players and records. The two communities were viewed by record companies and performers as quite separate, conforming to the strict segregation of the era. Bluegrass, as it developed, filed the edges off a variety of musical styles, altering them while making the changes more acceptable to their intended audience. Here’s Ralph Stanley singing the old-time mountain song “Shady Grove”:
Blues singer Taj Mahal adapted the song to his audience and placed into his own unique context in this nine-minute clip. Notice that he is going back to Harlem, while Ralph Stanley is on his way to Harlan, Kentucky, where the song originally took its singer to find the girl.
Meanwhile, bands from the sixties and seventies, forced by first the folk craze and then the increasing popularity of rock and roll found themselves struggling to stay alive. Bands like The Country Gentlemen and The Seldom Scene emerged in the Washington, DC-Baltimore axis and thrived on adapting folk, rock, R&B, and rockabilly to bluegrass. Bluegrass would emerge as one of the most adaptable of all genres, and it didn’t hurt that its use of acoustic instruments made it relatively inexpensive to produce and take on the road.
During this period, Chuck Berry was refining rhythm and blues into early rock and roll, crossing racial lines as well as musical ones. Here he is with his classic “Nadine”:
And here’s the Seldom Scene with their bluegrassed version of the same song, which has been a staple of theirs for at least three decades:
Bluegrass keeps on creating new music within its more conventional leanings, while reaching outside the genre for great songs that fit into its flexible template. The Hillbenders, a bluegrass band from Missouri with several members who studied under the great banjo innovator Alan Munde at South Plains College in Texas, have taken Nolan Lawrence’s fine baritone voice along with their characteristic fine instrumental work and adapted the Who’s Tommy into a bluegrass re-imagination of that great rock opera. Here they sing “Pinball Wizard,” bluegrass style:
Another fine, young band, The Lonely Heartstring Band, comes from the Boston area, where they began their musical life together as students at Berklee who were asked if they could put together a Beatles set in bluegrass style for a wedding. They’ve successfully covered the Beatles and Paul Simon’s Graceland while writing their own bluegrass originals and covering bluegrass standards to extremely positive responses and increasing acclaim. Here’s a version of Pete Seeger and Lee Hays’ protest folk song “If I Had a Hammer” made into a huge hit by the Weavers, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Trini Lopez. Lonely Heartstring performed this tribute at a house concert a couple of days after Pete’s death.
Which brings us to Jimbo Whaley & Greenbrier, a local band from Sevierville, Tennessee. Whaley contributed the title to this column, that every song’s a bluegrass song. He’s recently released a CD of bluegrass covers of rock songs called “We’ve Got That Covered.” Here’s his band covering Taylor Swift, once reviled by many, but now emerging as a pop genius, with her song “Mean.” Give it a look.