How the University of North Carolina Is Bringing Bluegrass Into the Classroom
The innocuous course description helps University of North Carolina students from a variety of liberal arts majors, including music, to meet distribution requirement in their general education program. Drifting through the catalog, a student might look at it, and say, “This sounds like fun. What is there to lose?”
About 20 students enrolled for the course under the direction of Russell Johnson, who has spent the past two decades as the leader of North Carolina bluegrass band the Grass Cats, a group that is mostly known by only hardcore bluegrass fans, since they choose to remain close to home, highlighting a decision faced by almost everyone in bluegrass music. Here they performing a song written by band member Chris Hill with Russ playing mandolin and singing lead:
Jocelyn Neal is a powerhouse scholar who cannot hide her passion for country, bluegrass, and American roots music behind the easy flow of institutional university language. Her bona fides are well spoken for by her name as co-author on the most current edition of Bill C. Malone’s classic history Country Music, U.S.A. as well as her own major textbook Country Music: A Cultural and Stylistic History and a list of professional publications nearly as long as her arm. She combines top-notch research into the cultural niche of country music with teaching courses from undergraduate surveys to graduate seminars in music theory and history. By bringing Russell Johnson to the University of North Carolina, Neal has opened a door to the real world of bluegrass music to students there. She quotes one of her students, who has played music since she was a child, as saying on her enrollment at Chapel Hill, “I didn’t bring my banjo.” Now this young woman can make her banjo a part of her own development as well as that of others on campus in a band setting.
On Tuesday, we arrived at the campus and were quickly overwhelmed by its size and beauty. Finding parking, Dr. Neal’s office, and negotiating our way to the Carolina Bluegrass Band’s final rehearsal before the recital, took us through a bewildering maze of buildings surrounded by green quadrangles featuring blooming azaleas and stately oak trees. We found the practice hall, bustling with students picking on the core instruments of a bluegrass band: banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass. The kids, busy, attractive, and welcoming worked through their songs. After each delivery, Russell gave constructive, helpful feedback along while teaching such elements as movement, microphone management, timing, and more. While we knew him to be somewhat uptight on the coming performance, the students responded well, strongly supportive of his efforts to help them improve.
Hill Hall is a deceptively large classroom building, sporting the name Andrew Carnegie on its walls, with the impressive Moeser Hall added to its rear. We arrive early for the Friday evening performance to find kids already nervously practicing. They had undergone a remarkable transition from informal college kids working on their songs to young men and women more spiffily dressed and eager for the show to begin. The room looked large, while Russ said it didn’t much matter where we set up our video camera, as he had no idea how many people might arrive. As show time approached, it was obvious that the attendance would far exceed his (and the performers’) expectations. The room rapidly filled with students, parents come to watch their offspring, and local bluegrass fans eager to see a show. All were royally rewarded, as each song was greeted by shouts from support groups and appreciative applause from the older, staider fans and families. Here are a two videos from Friday night’s performance.
Unlike many courses in the Department of Music at UNC, this ensemble course provides an opportunity for its students to learn about a musical style most of them have not experienced. While most are students in the music department, none are there primarily to play or study bluegrass. The style of play as well as the environment that produced bluegrass music is unfamiliar to most of these students, as is the world of farm and mill from which it grew. Nevertheless, Russell Johnson has introduced them to the rhythms, some of the repertoire, and the mode of performance characterizing more or less traditional bluegrass music.
The students have brought their own musical experience with them, enfolding bluegrass into it. Their recital shows that they have learned something real and useful about bluegrass music. The attendance at Friday’s show indicates that, perhaps, the word is getting out. Developing such a program on a university campus takes time, as this ensemble exists within a huge variety of music opportunities which constitute only a small part of all that occurs daily on campus. But a wedge has been inserted. A change in the way knowledge about bluegrass music is transmitted is also suggested by this approach, but more about that in another column.
The University of North Carolina has been the hatching place for at least two bands performing nationally in bluegrass music today. The Steep Canyon Rangers began there about a dozen years ago, emerging as a band of national importance when comedian Steve Martin chose them as his backing band for a number of national tours. Meanwhile, they continue to tour on their own, always forging into new musical areas. Mipso has emerged more recently presenting stringband, bluegrass, folk, and alt-country music, rapidly becoming a nationally recognized band. The goal of Music 212, however, is to provide exposure and musical experiences for students seeking to broaden their musical language, their palette. How bluegrass has affected these students, and how opportunities like this will affect the larger worlds of American music remain to be seen. The joy of their performance, however, was clear to anyone lucky enough to see it happen. In a semester, Russell Johnson turned a group of student musicians into a series of bluegrass bands. That’s an accomplishment.