The vast majority of bluegrass bands are local ones. Most of the national bands with shiny big buses wrapped in graphics displaying the band’s name have sprung from the primordial soup of local and regional bands that are found, to the surprise of many, across the country, but are concentrated in regions populated by emigrants from Appalachia and the South. When mountain and farm people began moving to the mills in the South and New England for jobs and security, they began a huge mass migration. World War II served to accelerate that movement to factories and ship-building yards from Baltimore to San Diego. These workers brought their work ethic and strong backs to auto plants converted to airplane factories and shipyards gearing up to supply transportation for American troops and weapons to the war. They also brought their music.
For instance, Buzz Busby (Bernarr Graham Busbice), who became known as the father of Washington, DC, bluegrass, was born in Eros, Louisiana. He moved to Washington when he was recruited by the FBI because he had been the valedictorian of his high school class. He later distinguished himself as the leader of a band that provided part-time employment and mentoring for countless others in the Washington area. Here’s a sample of his music, a song called “Fly Birdie Fly,” from 1992.
The core of bluegrass music wherever it’s played remains the jam, music stores selling acoustic instruments, local bars and restaurants willing to offer live music, and small festivals. Headlining most of those festivals are national bands, whose members make a full-time living from making music. These bands tour incessantly across the country. Their work week runs from Wednesday evening when they board the bus through Sunday as they head for home. It includes one or two major festivals over the weekend, referred to as “anchor gigs,” as well as a house concert or a local venue where they make enough to help pay for gas and supplement the more substantial check coming from the festivals. These major national bands include, just to name a few, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, The Del McCoury Band, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, and the Gibson Brothers. Here’s the Del McCoury Band performing “The Streets of Baltimore” in a video prepared by FreshGrass, a prestigious festival held each year in North Adams, Massachusetts (and owned by the same nonprofit that publishes No Depression).
But a few headliners won’t fill up an entire festival, whose performance schedules often run from noon until 10 or 11 at night. The schedule is shored up by two or three local or regional bands, who often perform twice a day. These musicians usually stay close to home, supplementing their performing income by teaching their instrument, working in music stores, or following other full-time vocations. Many people are often surprised to hear that bands are led or populated with people who, in their other lives, are active or even prominent professionals. The late Fletcher Bright, for instance, was the leader of a band called the Dismembered Tennesseans, who performed mostly in the mid-South on weekends. Many fans would have been surprised to know that Bright was a real-estate mogul based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he owned shopping malls and office buildings. Bright was recently recognized by IBMA with a Distinguished Achievement Award. Here he plays fiddle with his band, performing the Tennessee Waltz.
Newcomers to bluegrass festivals are often surprised to find a sea of empty seats during the day, while performances continue from the stage. Most of the empty seats belong to people who are back at their campers jamming or sleeping in after last night’s jam that ran into the wee hours of the morning. The groups in the campground often are composed of people who play as often as weekly in someone’s house, at a local bar, or in a music store holding a regular jam. They attend festivals together, sometimes becoming the regional attractions performing from the stage, and stay at the festival all weekend to enjoy the scene and each other. While they record and perform as frequently as possible, they rarely give up their full time jobs for the risk of regular touring.
One such band is Bear Tracks, a regional New York band that has journeyed as far as Colorado to play at High Mountain Hay Fever. Brother and sister Tom and Julie Venne have worked full-time through most of the band’s history. Tom is a recently retired US Customs agent, while Julie continues as a full-time teacher. Here they perform at The Upper Hudson Bluegrass Festival, a small local festival in upstate New York.
The members of Swinging Bridge all come from Florida’s Gulf Coast, where they have long performed as a band. As is often the case, this band is composed of members from diverse backgrounds, brought together by their love of the music. They’re a well known and popular band that almost never leaves its home state. After stage appearances, the band’s members can often be found jamming at their camping rigs, where they welcome local pickers to jam with them late into the night. Often there are liquid libations flowing, too.
After years of working together as a band, playing weekly gigs around Melbourne, Florida, Penny Creek has achieved sufficient quality and notice to become regulars at a couple of major Florida venues, including the Palatka Bluegrass Festival and Jekyll Island Bluegrass Festival, two of nine festivals up and down the east coast promoted by Norman Adams. In addition, they will be featured on a bluegrass cruise this winter. Meanwhile, their weekly gigs at Meemaw’s Barbecue and Marsh Landing help sustain their bluegrass habit. Here Penny Creek performs band member Chris Paganoni’s song written to seek to describe the experience of military service.
The value of jamming and local/regional bands is one of the unique qualities that sets bluegrass apart from what one might consider to be the traditional routes to success in the music industry. These bands, and their tradition of performing onstage and off, stand at the heart and soul of bluegrass music.