Sierra Hull and the Steep Canyon Rangers: The Future of Bluegrass
Last weekend, we attended a well-established festival near Palatka, Florida, where we’ve been coming since 2006. It’s promoted by Norman Adams, who books and operates nine prominent and mostly traditional bluegrass festivals up and down the East Coast. He’s careful to include young, up-and-coming bands. Over the years, we’ve seen Mountain Heart, Kenny & Amanda Smith, the Lonesome River Band, and, this year, the Steep Canyon Rangers, all carriers of a more progressive sound. All of Adams’ festivals include popular bands that are guaranteed to generate increased audiences — among them are standard-bearers like Rhonda Vincent, Doyle Lawson, Dailey & Vincent, and the Gibson Brothers. He provides well-rounded bluegrass festivals leaning toward the conservative, traditional side.
One evening this weekend, I had a chance to chat with a dedicated supporter and advocate for bluegrass music who strongly supports programs that promote the teaching of traditional music in schools, with both advocacy and money. She leaned over and asked me whether I was concerned for the future of bluegrass. Her particular concern was focused on Sierra Hull, whose new recording is making waves and creating a new market for her work in Americana. The album, Weighted Mind, sees her moving toward a more free-form, contemporary style of playing and singing that bears little resemblance to the traditional style she grew up with in Tennessee, where she was strongly influenced by the work of mandolin great Adam Steffey.
My answer was that one could look at Hull’s choice as turning her back on bluegrass and forsaking those that had supported her as she grew and developed in her music, but that would be a mistake. Instead, I suggested that she was on a trip of expansive growth. Neither she nor her audience could safely predict the direction she was headed or the heights she would achieve. As she grows, Hull will discover new musical worlds. However, the journey on which she has embarked is one that demands great courage, which she seems to have. Growing and becoming one’s own person requires taking risks, and risk always implies the possibility of failure. Without failure, there can be no substantial achievements. My friend suggested that poor Hull may have come too much under the evil influence of musical Svengali Bela Fleck, who produced the album.
Several years ago, I interviewed Hull in Boston, where she had come to attend Berklee College of Music on a Presidential Scholarship. I asked her what she was finding difficult. She said the most difficult thing for her was to make up for what she didn’t know in terms of music theory and structure. She was filled with enthusiasm as she appeared for a Christmas show with her own band and with John Cowan. Now, four or five years later, this accomplished young woman is finding her own way, forsaking a traditional bluegrass band to perform with an accomplished jazz/classical bassist, with standby Justin Moses playing banjo and guitar on some songs. Not all the work appeals to everyone, but she’s exploring sounds no one would have imagined when she was beginning her career in traditional bluegrass.
A well-planted flower will sink deep roots while reaching for the sky. Such a performer is Sierra Hull.
The Steep Canyon Rangers, meanwhile, are another band that began as a traditional bluegrass outfit, playing standards and writing their own material well within the tradition. Founded when the original members were undergraduates at the University of North Carolina, Steep Canyon has gradually expanded its repertoire through nine albums, and they were tapped to be the bluegrass band backing actor, writer, comedian, and musician Steve Martin on tour, supporting his banjo play. They released a couple of albums playing mostly Martin’s music and toured as many as 50 cities at a time with him, while changing their look, dress, and, soon, their music, which has become increasingly free of many of the traditions of bluegrass while remaining song- and melody-oriented. Despite this wandering, they continue to play a couple of marvelous re-imaginations of Bill Monroe mandolin instrumentals, and to make frequent musical references to classic bluegrass. Of particular note is fiddler Nicky Sanders’ “Auden’s Train,” a train song reminiscent of “The Orange Blossom Special,” yet completely new.
The Steeps, as they are known to their fans, are risk-takers, too. Most recently, they have defied bluegrass conventions by adding the very tasteful, high quality musicianship of percussionist Michael Ashworth to their mix. They’ve also plugged in while keeping microphones on stage for singing. This allows them onstage movement, avoiding the static look many bluegrass bands still maintain. And each of these changes has involved risk.
As I sat in my chair at Palatka last weekend, I heard a woman sitting behind me say, “I never thought I’d see drums on the stage here. I can’t believe it.” Soon after the Steeps began their set, she and her husband got up and left, as did a portion of the audience.
However, the people who stayed to listen got a fine performance. Afterward, an elderly man, who walked with a cane, ambled back to tell lead singer and guitarist Woody Platt how much he enjoyed and supported their effort. He said he sees bands like the Steeps as the future of bluegrass. I saw the performance as a triumph for the majority of fans who stayed to the end, as the chill increased into the evening.
There are increasing numbers of younger fans who want to hear the music these risk-taking, bluegrass-rooted bands are taking — fans in the much-sought-after 18-54 demographic that spends real money to attend live music events.
We were sad to see the high numbers of people attending Palatka who relied on walkers, canes, and wheelchairs. Attendance seemed somewhat down, too. In the conversation I had with my acquaintance, I emphasized my conviction that at least some people who become interested in bluegrass-related and -derived music will seek out, listen to, and learn to play the traditional bluegrass music too.
The only thing bluegrass has to fear is being seen as curated rather the created. As long as it continues as a continually evolving entity, its history will live on too.