The Bluegrass Reader
The Bluegrass Reader is the latest volume in the vast Music in American Life series from the University of Illinois Press. Edited by Thomas Goldsmith — a journalist, producer and musician with ties to Hazel Dickens, David Olney and Uncle Walt’s Band — this collection of articles, reviews, liner notes and academic papers seeks to answer the question: “What articles about bluegrass would you want to have with you on a desert island?”
These writings are arranged sequentially in three sections — 1939-59, 1960-79, 1980-present — and represent a broad range of sources, including music magazines (Bluegrass Unlimited, Rolling Stone, No Depression), books (Jim Rooney’s Bossmen: Bill Monroe And Muddy Waters, Mary Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann’s Finding Her Voice: The Saga Of Women In Country Music), newspapers (The Tennessean, The Washington Post, The New York Times), and other highbrow publications (Esquire, Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker).
Authors include artists (John Duffy, Tim Stafford, Marty Stuart), musicologists (Alan Lomax, Mike Seeger, Ralph Rinzler), and academics (Neil V. Rosenberg, Charles Wolfe, Robert Cantwell). Hunter S. Thompson even weighs in with his review of an early performance by the Greenbriar Boys — whom he labels “the fraudulent farmers” — at a Greenwich Village nightspot.
As evidenced by Thompson’s piece, the opinions shared in this collection are rather wide-ranging. There is the point/counterpoint of Murphy Henry and Pete Wernick assessing the current state of women in bluegrass music. (Henry faults the patriarchy; Wernick challenges female artists to “step forward and take themselves seriously.”) Thomas Adler waxes eloquent about “the generalized symbolic phallic use of bluegrass instruments” in his essay exploring the link between bluegrass music and sexuality. And the excerpt from Tom Piazza’s True Adventures With The King Of Bluegrass highlights a particularly nasty Jimmy Martin anecdote, of which there seems to be no shortage.
Ultimately, this collection serves not only as a history of bluegrass music, but also as a history of bluegrass music scholarship. Goldsmith has done his homework, collecting 64 pieces from dozens of sources. Still, nothing included was written prior to 1959, leaving open the question as to whether anything substantive was written about bluegrass before the folk revival. Only five of the authors represented here are female. And the majority of the writing comes from fan-oriented magazines. Nearly a third of the selections come from Bluegrass Unlimited, with Sing Out! well-represented throughout the 1960s and Muleskinner News during the ’70s.