Inside Berklee Bluegrass
Located in Boston, Massachusetts — that bastion of Northeastern probity, where the “the Cabots speak only to Lodges, and the Lodges speak only to God” — Berklee College of Music is a hotbed of musical revolution and change more reminiscent of the American Revolution than of the Boston Brahmins. In fact, Berklee is the largest college of music in the world, noted for its emphasis on contemporary American music. As of this year, former Berklee students have won 266 Grammy Awards. Those of us in the small, sometimes isolated world of bluegrass have become increasingly aware of the college’s influence lately, for a few reasons.
In his 2008 keynote address to IBMA, Berklee President Roger Brown said, “We have made banjo and mandolin principal instruments. We presented honorary doctorates to Earl Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs. Our alumni are making their mark in bluegrass and related musics: Casey Driessen, Rushad Eggleston, Natalie Maines, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, Andy Hall, Chris Pandolfi, Bryn Davies, Japanese banjo player Hiro Arita, and some newly minted alumni like Nate Leath, Ashleigh Caudill, Joe Walsh, and Charlie Worsham.” Bands like Crooked Still, the Infamous Stringdusters, and the Lonely Heartstring Band had their genesis wholly, or at least in part, in the halls and classrooms of Berklee.
The Lonely Heartstring Band developed when a young couple who were about to get married asked Berklee whether the college could supply a Beatles cover band for the wedding. Five musicians — four of them from Berklee — looked askance at the request, thought about it, and developed a set. They’ve recently signed with Rounder Records, on which they’ve released a new album, and can be seen and heard at events around the country.
Matt Glaser, Director of the American Roots Music Program at Berklee, told me that the college defines roots music as “all rural music that ever happened in America and all [American] music prior to 1950, including blues, bluegrass, Cajun, classic country, early gospel, early jazz, folk, old-time, polka, spirituals, Tex-Mex, and Western swing, among others.” Bluegrass is firmly embedded within this category, and advisors to the roots program include Darol Anger, Fletcher Bright, Stuart Duncan, Béla Fleck, David Grisman, John Lawless, Don Rigsby, Ricky Skaggs, and many more. Glaser emphasized that, after students leave Berklee, most will no longer have the luxury of engaging in intense study and contemplation about music, so the college provides an environment where serious thought and scholarship take place alongside an environment of intense musical creativity and growth. A distinguishing characteristic, in my mind, is that when students have what might seem to be a quirky idea, Berklee faculty’s response is often, “Let’s give it a try.”
David Hollender, a banjoist who took up the bass and jazz while a student at Berklee, joined the faculty teaching jazz ensemble in 1987. In that questing environment that characterizes the school, Hollender was encouraged to provide ensemble work for those seeking to express themselves in bluegrass. He commented, “I’ve always appreciated the fact that Berklee accepts students with high potential and the right attitude, not just who’s the hottest player. Five-string banjo was my first instrument, but when I decided to apply to Berklee as a student, they didn’t teach it, so I had to play another instrument. I had recently started playing bass, and it felt like going back to square one as a player, but I was motivated and determined. My teachers recognized that and helped me to make fast progress. Now, as a teacher, I enjoy working with students who share those qualities.”
Students enrolling in ensemble classes are encouraged to form small bands to learn ensemble play. Bands who have come out of this program include Chasing Blue and the emerging band Twisted Pine.
Sierra Hull was already an established bluegrass star when whe arrived at Berklee — the first bluegrass artist to receive a presidential scholarship there. “Berklee was such an inspiring environment for a musician like me,” she says. “Though I grew up playing bluegrass, I’ve always loved all different styles of music and wanted to be in a situation where I could explore that a little more. Berklee, being so diverse in both music and culture, was the perfect opportunity for that. I think the life experience alone of moving to Boston and being surrounded by so many driven, creative young people was good for me.”
It’s also difficult to assess whether Hull’s current explorations and development in music have been driven more by her Berklee experience or her insistent drive toward her own excellence. “It’s truly hard to put an exact finger on how [Berklee] has influenced me,” she adds. “But I know it did, in a positive way. Most importantly, it pulled me out of my comfort zone as a musician. I’m always excited to see all the cool things the school continues to bring to the music world, and I’m proud to have had the opportunity to be a student there.”
Berklee offers a five-week summer performance program for students aged 15 and over who are wishing to get an immersion program in music while exploring with other students from over 70 countries the opportunities Berklee offers. They can sample college life and learn in an intensive environment.
Interestingly, our classically trained pianist grandson has decided to enroll at Berklee after participating in this program.
It’s difficult to estimate the breadth of influence Berklee College of Music has had on the current bluegrass and roots music scene. Spend some time on the college’s website to get a further idea of what they offer.
Meanwhile, if you attend festivals of almost any size or genre of American music this summer, you’re bound to run across individual musicians or entire bands whose members trained at Berklee or who first came together in the ensemble program.