Monday, October 25, 2010

Heresy - An Essay

The following essay is a lightly edited version of an essay of mine that ran a week or so ago on the Welcome page of CBA OntheWeb, the on line presence of the California Bluegrass Association.

For a few days in mid-October we visited in one of the birthplace regions of old time, bluegrass, and country music.  As a kid in high school, I heard and read about the poverty and coal dust of Appalachia.  Pete Seeger sang union songs that I learned and sang.  John F. Kennedy went to West Virginia to argue he was not a pawn of the Pope and got himself elected President.  The civil rights movement spread through the south, and I watched much of it on television.  But a place and a culture don't come alive until you get a chance to visit it, talk with some of the people who live there, sample the air.  The United Mine Workers are a weakened and ineffective organization, and twenty-nine people were killed in a mine explosion in West Virginia last year.  Every day in this corner where western Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky come together at Cumberland Gap, the coal trains still run up spur lines, get filled with coal coming from both strip and deep mines, and return to power plants where our electricity is produced. Local politicians, as we head for the election, argue about whether cap-and-trade will help or hurt the region.  And here, some of the best and most evocative music at the core of our American character was born and thrived in the last century.  The list is too long to compile, but here's a link to a list of Appalachian, bluegrass, and old-time musicians that would keep any afficianado clicking for weeks. 

Our visit to The Crooked Road included an evening at the Carter Fold where we saw Adam Steffey's new band, The Boxcars, perform while dozens of cloggers filled the floor in front of the stage with joyful (and noisy) dancing.  We drove up The Crooked Road to Clintwood, VA where the Ralph Stanley Museum has been established and then followed up by driving further north and west to The Breaks Interstate Park overlooking a thousand foot deep gorge cut by the Russell Forks River and now called The Grand Canyon of the South.  We also journeyed west through the mountains to Cumberland Gap, pioneered by Daniel Boone, to visit Steve Gulley and then through a mile-long tunnel to Pineville, where we spent some time with Dale Ann Bradley in her home town where she and Gulley are putting together The Cumberland River Academy of Bluegrass and Appalachian Music in a town that was underwater and nearly destroyed by a flood in 1977.  From this rich environment musicians like Ralph Stanley, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, The Carter Family, The Osborne Brothers, Chet Atkins, Uncle Dave Macon, and too many more to name were born and nurtured.  Like so many people from rural areas, they had to move to places where music was produced and people lived to thrive, but the country never left their souls or their music.

When I was a child and on into my teens and young adulthood, I wasn't nurtured on this music.  I grew up listening to classical music, Gilbert & Sullivan, the now almost forgotten Alamanac Singers (Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampell), Josh White, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and so many more.  I found Pete Seeger and the Weavers in college. Add to these people the smoother versions of folk music like The Kingston Trio, The Chad Mitchel Trio, and the Limelighters, and you have a sense of how my own taste developed.  Somehow, most of roots music and bluegrass passed me by until about eight years ago.  That means that the music we follow, listen to, photograph, and write about is a relatively recent addition to my awareness.  I've grown to love much contemporary bluegrass and to admire and revere the founders.

So here comes the heresy.  I'm not a huge fan of listening to the founders in the original versions and often find the many local and regional clones who describe themselves as “hard-driving” bluegrass bands, but which are truly cover bands of material done better by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne's, Jimmy Martin and others, to be nothing more than tiresome.  My personal taste runs much more towards bands such as The Gibson Brothers, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Balsam Range, The Sam Bush Band, The New Grass Revival, IIIrd Tyme Out, The Country Gentlemen, Grasstowne, and The Seldom Scene as well as many others who are performing their own original music or contemporary interpretations of older music. Contemporary bands with a traditional sound like Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, and Danny Paisley & Southern Grass have made new contributions to traditional sounds.  On the other hand, my respect for the contributions of the founding generation of bluegrass musicians knows no bounds.  I believe we would lose significant elements in our musical culture if we allowed the work of these pioneers to die, as contemporary country music has done with its pioneers.  The divisions within country music make me sad.  Of course everything I hear isn't to my taste, but I try to listen to what's played and take away what I can from approaches and sounds which are new to me.  My taste changes gradually, but some bands, because of their originality, unique sound, lyrical power, outstanding musicianship and some factor I've called “It” in my writing have penetrated me consciousness and made an enduring impact on it.

I learned about traditional bluegrass by moving backwards from Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas.  Many others will learn, too, if exposed to the full range of acoustic music often called Americana, but in my mind they are  all forms of bluegrass.  Sam Bush never fails to acknowledge his debt to Bill Monroe.  Other bands often include a few numbers from the first generation in their performance.  This is as it should be.  We can't know where the music is headed, and only time will tell.  Meanwhile, each generation of musician and fan coming along should be encouraged to follow the muse that led to the music they're making and listening to.  Some will live on and time will tell which and whose. Meanwhile, it's worth taking time to understand and embrace your own musical history as well as remain open to what it is becoming as new musical influences penetrate it.