Thursday, September 13, 2012

Blue Highway's Endurance Test by Second Cousin Curly - Guest Blog

Curly Merzbacher is a media producer and educator based in Boston. In addition to running the bluegrass website secondcousincurly.com, he plays mandolin in Best Ever Chicken, a bluegrass band that is almost ready for its close-up. He blogs at: http://www.secondcousincurly.com/

A Winning Team

Bluegrass bands can sometimes seem like baseball teams: they go out to play for a season, then they come back home and “rebuild”, firing or trading a few team members. Come spring, they take to the field again, trying to sell the public on a new line-up. This has emphatically not been the game plan of Blue Highway, one of the most enduring acts in bluegrass. The same members have been playing together now for over seventeen years. Small wonder then that their sound is so burnished and their stage presence so relaxed and assured. Have a listen to the title cut from their recent album Sounds of Home (this video is from their performance at last winter’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:




To the outside observer at least, Blue Highway seems like a confederation of equals. On stage, several members sing lead and solos are evenly distributed. Behind the scenes, songwriting duties are again shared. Finally, each member seems to have a robust life apart from the band. They record solo projects, work as sidemen and even write books.

It’s easy to imagine how these very characteristics could be the ingredients for infighting and rivalry, but in Blue Highway’s case they seem to have fostered a sense of mutual respect and stability.

The Recombinant Theory of Bluegrass

The longevity of Blue Highway does make you wonder about the tenuous nature of so many other bluegrass unions. Without straining my feeble brain, I can think of a handful of acts that have broken up or had line-up changes over just the past couple of months. Why is professional bluegrass like an orgy without the sex— folks pairing up or parting company on an hourly basis?*

I think there are two unrelated reasons for the mix-and-match nature of the bluegrass scene. First, the music lends itself to quickly forged partnerships. At the outset, bluegrass was grounded in simple and oft repeated patterns. Any biography or memoir of the founders of the genre features a bewildering cavalcade of pickers. Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys was just the best known of many outfits that operated like a revolving door. Because they shared the same musical language and a common canon of tunes, the performers could start making music together right out of the gate.

Tim Stafford of Blue Highway

It’s interesting to note that, even though the music has evolved considerably over the years, the top bluegrass musicians retain this ability to jump right in. Over the summer, I heard the fiddler Mike Barnett sit in with David Grisman and Sierra Hull. Barnett, whose home base is the Boston band The Deadly Gentlemen, was able to hang tough with Grisman and Hull even though their compositions often diverged from the roster of Officially Sanctioned Bluegrass Chords. As others have pointed out before me, the development of bluegrass parallels that of jazz. These days, adept young pickers seem to be able to navigate their way through complex chord progressions in much the same way that a jazz player can breeze through a chart. In any case, the protean talents of bluegrass pros are certainly a reason that their musical careers can often resemble speed dating.

Then there are purely practical considerations. Even at the highest level, profit margins in bluegrass are mighty slim. There are plenty of times when musicians have to part company simply to keep a roof over their heads or to feed a family. Again, check out those bluegrass biographies and memoirs: you’ll often come across passages that go something like, “After we finished the tour of Japan, Eddie went back to work in his family’s furniture moving business.”

There’s a corollary to this problem as well, which is that there aren’t enough bucks to be made in bluegrass to entice most dysfunctional partnerships to suck it up and keep rolling along, despite their differences.
Viewed against this long history of musical promiscuity, Blue Highway’s enduring partnership is all the more remarkable.
Yer Pal— Curly
* Please God, let me be right about the “without the sex” part.