What Happens When Boundaries Bend
Bluegrass traditionalists are wont to place the stringband music that’s now been a recognizable genre for over 70 years in a category all its own, deciding to excommunicate those who vary from what’s sometimes called the “template” created by Bill Monroe and refined by Flatt & Scruggs. Songs written by Monroe or first adopted by some of the other greats are still prominent in stage shows as well as in jams. But jams also suggest the directions bluegrass is moving, as new songs become beloved enough to find their way into jam sessions where avid bluegrass adherents begin to play them. Meanwhile, other musicians follow their muse, using the plasticity of the music to adapt new songs to fit within the template or to forego the template altogether as they continue to demonstrate the qualities making bluegrass such a long-lasting phenomenon – instrumental virtuosity, vocal harmony singing, and, often, blinding speed.
The operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan became the musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein, the Dixieland of Louis Armstrong became the progressive jazz of Miles Davis, and mountain and folk songs joined together to become bluegrass and then … who knows? Music will keep on growing and changing. We should celebrate bluegrass, which grew from Monroe’s inspiration to bring together seemingly unrelated strands of mountain music, country and western, folk, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley pop. At first, generations of musicians sought to leave the tyranny of the mountain and mills to earn a living making music and imitated what Monroe brought forth. But as these people played their music, many of them expanded beyond it to follow their inspiration. Bluegrass became a mother of musical diversity.
Béla Fleck, who is easily acknowledged as among the very finest banjo players in the world, found his instrument as a teenager in New York when he first heard Earl Scruggs play the banjo. He studied under the great Tony Trischka and emerged with the New Grass Revival in the 1970s. He has toured in China, India, and Africa seeking the routes and roots of the banjo’s sound and development. In the delightful film Throw Down Your Heart, Fleck travels to Africa on a journey to the banjo’s homeland. Here’s the entire film. If you have the time to watch it, do. Otherwise, at least sample it to capture a sense of Fleck’s wonder at his discories. Who would deny him his musical journey with, “That’s not bluegrass!”
In an album called Tabula Rasa, translated as “blank slate,” Fleck recorded with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, a Grammy-winning Hindustani musician, and Jie-Bing Chen, a Chinese musician who plays the erhu, a two string fiddle. The music, when I first heard it, seemed distant, incomprehensible. However, after listening a little further, I found it hauntingly beautiful.
Fleck also often tours with his wife, Abigail Washburn, who has had a lifelong love affair with China, where she spent significant time, planning on becoming a lawyer to enhance US-Chinese relations. Together, Fleck and Washburn took a trip to China, where they explored ways of combining her clawhammer style banjo and his five-string with traditional Chinese instruments and songs. Here they perform with the Sparrow Quartet, including fiddler Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Sollee, live on the Great Wall of China.
And here Fleck plays in an all-star jam recorded in 1988 at Opryland in Nashville with some of bluegrass’s greatest all-time musicians on two traditional fiddle tunes, “Big Sandy River” and “Salt Creek.”
Tim O’Brien has chosen to remain more accessible to the folk/country/bluegrass audience but explores his own musical world as broadly as Fleck does. Born in West Virginia and early on influenced by the rich lode of country and bluegrass music available there, O’Brien has been a fixture in exploring the depth and breadth of music. Here’s he sings about his own questing musical intelligence:
O’Brien has collaborated with singer/songwriter Darrell Scott for several years, producing albums and much applauded live performances at major events. Here they sing Scott’s “Long Time Gone.” Listen for the improvisational riffs of a kind more associated with jazz than with either folk or country music. The two musicians play off each other in this wonderful version.
O’Brien also is a founding member of Hot Rize, the Colorado-based bluegrass band founded in 1978, which had a successful run of recordings and highly acclaimed performances at festivals and concerts. The particular innovation they brought to bluegrass was the band Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, a country-western band that was said to travel in the back of Hot Rize’s bus, appearing on stage to give Hot Rize a break. Below are Hot Rize singing a Tim O’Brien song “Nellie Kane” and a small taste of Red Knuckles.
O’Brien toured early in his career with his sister Mollie O’Brien, and they continue to appear together from time to time as well as to record. The love and melancholy emerging from the recording “Your Long Journey,” below, captures some of their appeal. O’Brien continues to explore his range of musical ideas through family, friends, and professional associations wherever they may take him as well as incorporating satirical commentaries on contemporary life in songs like “Running Out of Memory For You.”
Some artists in their growth and development within music stay more accessible to fans of the music they originally made, while others find themselves reaching into musical places they never knew they would plumb, finding within themselves insight and inspiration that takes them into expressions that baffle people who became fans of the original music. Their willingness to follow their muse, to engage their own imagination to see where it leads, requires courage and fortitude. Often, however, it is met with disdain or criticism, mostly from those who prefer what they already know. Nevertheless, such change often challenges both the creator and the listener. These artists, for artists they truly are, challenge us to step up to what is the best in ourselves as we seek to encounter their voyage of discovery.