The Ingredients of Bluegrass
Bluegrass is wrongfully stereotyped as a traditional music with more than a little hayseed in its ears. Perhaps this stereotype grows out of its early emergence from its own source material, which was then emphasized by its use in television (Hee Haw) and movies (Deliverance, Bonnie & Clyde, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), or it may be through its use in obnoxious advertising like the current Pepto Bismol ad: https://youtu.be/GJZB8SCkGkE
Regardless, the music is more recognized for its deep country and rural roots than as the sophisticated, elastic, and diverse music that has both grown itself and contributed legions of highly skilled musicians to the musical worlds of country, rock, and progressive jazz music. Because bluegrass has always emphasized learning by ear and improvisation, it continues to intrigue budding musicians and to encourage their development. While almost killed during the ’60s and ’70s by rock and folk music, it continues as an ever-developing sound of its own in these days of decreasing emphasis on genre.
Bill Monroe, known as the “Father of Bluegrass Music” is the only person who belongs to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s also the only artist to have appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and the first multiday bluegrass festival in Fincastle,Virginia, over Labor Day weekend in 1965. Noted music scholar Phillip Wells estimates Monroe wrote over 180 copyrighted songs, but notes that he used many sources; the number of songs written by Monroe could exceed 200, but if you count adaptations and his own arrangements could reach a higher number. Among the songs he wrote is “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in 1946, which he recorded the next year. Here’s the song in its original form: https://youtu.be/JAVFpThoeb4
Then Elvis Presley got a-hold of it, recording it on Sam Phillips’ Sun records in 1954 as the B side of “That’s All Right.” The B side rapidly became the more popular song, as it soared in the regional charts, while the A side slipped off. Here’s Elvis’s version, sung at the Louisiana Hayride: https://youtu.be/-nzCKFzQLFc
While noted in later life for his eagerness to protect “his” music, to label variations as “no part of nothin,” Monroe responded to the Elvis version pretty quickly, with this version, which has become the standard way that bluegrass bands now play the song: https://youtu.be/37bLLhYkrL4
A commenter with the handle of starboydc remarked about this cut on YouTube. He wrote, “… not shot at the Ryman, but on a soundstage and is lip-sync’d. It was recorded previously with all these players EXCEPT Benny Williams (fiddle). Buddy Spicher was the original fiddler and Benny didn’t know what Spicher was playing so his ‘syncing’ is, in fact, way outta sync! – very noticeable in the beginning when the camera focuses on Benny & his fiddle. This cut was from the 1965 movie ‘Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar.’ Terrible movie, but great artists/musical performances. In this one, besides Bill Monroe & Benny Williams; Jimmy Elrod, gtr; Don Lineberger (left handed!) banjo & James Monroe, bass.”
While drawing back from the Elvis version, this video clearly shows his influence on Monroe’s song.
Bluegrass has never been a pure music. Rather, it combines musical forms made of a mixture of other forms like jazz, blues, gospel, and mountain music; bluegrass developed its own identity while maintaining elements of what contributed to it. It continues to change flavors, vision, color, and sounds as it responds to changes in its surroundings, much like a chameleon might. Throughout much of its now pretty long history, bluegrass has covered other popular musics, often rounding off the edges to appeal to a now aging audience, the bulk of whose members are ready for more listening than dancing, more sitting than standing. At rock events, huge crowds gather enthusiastically in front of the stage. At bluegrass events, rows of chairs dominate, while the younger members of the audience tend to surround the fringes, dancing, overseeing their children, and quietly consuming adult beverages. Meanwhile, rock and roll covers have increased in frequency and popularity.
The Hillbenders, a Missouri-based band with several members who studied under Allen Munde at South Plains College in Texas, have moved from their early performances as an interesting bluegrass band to a successful and much touted concept album in which they have reproduced The Who’s fabled rock opera, Tommy. Here they are in 2011, early in their career, at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in New York: https://youtu.be/NkKson9sdRs
For an idea of how they’ve approached covering The Who’s work, let’s first take a look at “Pinball Wizard” from a 1970 performance by the originators: https://youtu.be/-J03yCE15rg
Now, let’s see what the Hillbenders, with the band’s lead singer Nolan Lawrence on mandolin, have accomplished with a cover of the same song. https://youtu.be/qspHJSKbmt4
CMH records (Country.Music.Heritage), founded in 1975, is a large producer of country and bluegrass classic performances. Their Pickin’ On series contains dozens of recordings of tributes to iconic country and rock legends performed in bluegrass style by a collective of mostly anonymous Nashville side musicians whose work is well known to the cognoscenti. The performers on the bluegrass Pickin’ On albums include Bryan Sutton, Charlie Cushman (both IBMA instrumental performers of the year), Robby Turner, Dennis Crouch, Brent Truitt, and others. Here’s a performance of Don Maclean’s “American Pie” from CMH’s The Bluegrass Tribute to Classic Rock: https://youtu.be/uiOyPMwC1K4?list=PL9f-nuA0MVUHZ_5zWb_Fez0MvNp4QvmXH
The Gibson Brothers have specialized in writing and performing their own songs highlighting their distinctive brother harmonies, many strongly influenced by country and rock music. Their most recent offering, In the Ground, consists solely of their own compositions. But here they are performing a cover of Tom Petty’s “Cabin Down Below,” starting with Petty’s original followed by their interpretation: https://youtu.be/s-DKlA-0KFo
Finally, here’s one of the better bands you may never have heard of covering Grateful Dead’s “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo.” The Oak Grove String Band, from King’s Mountain and Shelby, NC, is composed of able musicians who have chosen to make music locally and regionally to stay close to home and earn a steadier income. This choice, widely made by bluegrass musicians since the music’s emergence, remains part of its great charm and the base of its persistence as a genre: https://youtu.be/Dq6KTNWigGQ