Where Bluegrass, Newgrass, Old-Time, and Americana Meet
At a panel on representing Appalachia in Americana at the recent Americana Music Conference and Festival, West Virginia musician Kathy Mattea observed that “music is what led me back into the culture I lived in.” As she described the ways that the music of the hollers where she grew up imbued her life, she described the enduring power of old-time music: “If you sing a song that’s 50 years old, and sing it honestly, and people who are still living who sang that song and continue to sing that song, the song will do the work; you don’t have to pound a podium.”
Mattea’s latest album, Pretty Bird, embraces the power of old-time music, closing the album with Hazel Dickens’ “Pretty Bird,” as well as the entrancing beauty of modern country ballads such as Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” In 1985, Tim O’Brien, lighting up stages with the newgrass group Hot Rize, met Mattea, and they began to collaborate; she recorded his “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” and “Untold Stories,” and their duet on the Paul Overstreet-Don Schlitz-penned “Battle Hymn of Love” broke into the Billboard Hot Country chart. Because of the success of these records, O’Brien turned to writing and pitching songs to other artists in hopes of more cuts. “It gave me independence financially, but it broke up Hot Rize … I was ready.”
Craig Harris tells this story, as well as hundreds of others, as he traces the tangled and fascinating history — much of it already very well-known — of bluegrass, newgrass, and Americana music in his new book Bluegrass, Newgrass, Old-Time, and Americana Music (Pelican). As the title hints, there’s not much of a plot here, and the book lacks a clear direction. The introduction doesn’t help readers orient themselves to the purpose of the book or why they should take time to read it.
Yet, Harris’ crisp storytelling, his dynamic sketches and profiles of individual artists and groups, and his interviews with hundreds of artists tell a compelling story of the ways that old-time music, bluegrass, newgrass, and Americana music (though he seldom uses this phrase in the book and doesn’t define it as a genre or type of music) weave themselves loosely around each other into a warm blanket that covers as many facets of this music as possible.
Harris opens the book with Bill Monroe and tells the familiar story of Monroe’s rise to fame, as well as the stories of the many musicians who got their starts as Blue Grass Boys. Harris focuses on Monroe’s restless energy and creativity, and the Father of Bluegrass’ desire always to find the next idea and to develop its sound. Monroe once told Radio McGill, “I like the friendship of a man, but I don’t think I would have liked to have kept the same musicians for 27 years … because his ideas would run out.” Harris provides a list of some of the musicians who “graduated” from the Blue Grass Boys and went on to thriving careers of their own: Chubby Wise, Don Reno, Vassar Clements, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Byron Berline, and Roland White, among others.
Perhaps no other musician cannily plucked the notes of old-time music and discovered the ways that those lines and phrases could roll into bluegrass and country and roots music better than John Hartford. His genius for painting a picture with the fiddle or the banjo — or even in dance — came to the public eye when he appeared on Glen Campbell’s television show, but long before then he had a way of following his musical curiosity where it took him. He picked up a banjo in 1953 or 1954 and taught himself to play; he soon found himself in a band, the Missouri Ridge Runners. As Hartford’s daughter once said, “Everyone is familiar with Dad’s fun side, and his sense of humor, but not everyone realizes that he was well-educated, a deep thinker, and obsessed with information. … When he was interested in something, he researched it extensively, inside and out, taking notes and looking for connections to other things. His extensive book collection is evidence to that.” Bob Carlin told Harris: “He was musically curious and always looking for new ways to do things. He lived music. He studied, listened to, analyzed it. He was an experimenter but he was very rooted in tradition.”
The beauty and value of Bluegrass, Newgrass, Old-Time, and Americana Music lies in these stories. Harris follows the music up to the present, with profiles on Sierra Hull, Alison Brown, Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons, the Duhks, Steep Canyon Rangers, and Old Crow Medicine Show, among many others. Harris weaves lively storytelling with extensive interviews with artists to illustrate the emotional depth of bluegrass and old-time music, as well as the ever-evolving character of musical styles to preserve tradition while seeking innovation.