Digging the Back Bins: Bluegrass
One of the joys of record collecting is diving into a dusty bin and finding an unknown record for $5 that then becomes a favorite. You stand a better chance of having this experience in some genres because they are overrepresented in used record bins and underappreciated by buyers. We’ve talked about Jazz and Country music. This time, we sat down with Amy Reitnouer Jacobs, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Bluegrass Situation, to learn about bluegrass. With the recent launch of the podcast Toy Heart with Tom Power, it has never been a better time to find a way in.
So what is Bluegrass?
If you aren’t that familiar, a quick orientation: think banjos. Think of the O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack. Still nothing? Ok, if country music is a river, bluegrass is a fork, one that runs over in the direction of folk in parts. Bill Monroe, the inventor of bluegrass toured as a country act. The genre got its name from his band, the Blue Grass Boys, as more musicians started to imitate Monroe’s sound.
What makes it different from Country?
There are a few things. “To get technical,” says Jacobs, “it’s a combination of six main instruments [banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, dobro], with certain song structures, and a lot of times you have a vocal tone called the ‘high-lonesome’ sound.” Traditional bluegrass is also distinctive in its lightning-fast, picked-out instrumentation. You will hear banjo, mandolin, fiddle and guitar players race up and down their fret-boards, dancing out arpeggios all at the same time.
What’s so special about this Bluegrass anyway?
You could marvel at the technical chops. Or the beautiful cacophony of it. With so many melodies and countermelodies all going on at once, it should sound like a room of toddlers bashing toy pianos. Instead it sounds like the London Philharmonic, if you replaced their instruments with plywood and chicken wire. And maybe it’s us, but we think there are few genres that evoke a sense of place more strongly than bluegrass (we’d say a crisp blue fall day in wooded mountains, with fire smoke the air).
Not convinced? The barriers to entry here are low, so we think you should give it a shot. “You can find some really good vintage records for pretty cheap, because people just don’t know what they're looking for,” says Jacobs.
Ok, what should I be looking for?
We’re so glad you asked.
Folk -Tinged Bluegrass: The second generation of bluegrass players In the 1970s incorporated more folk into the sound. Artists like Tony Rice borrowed songs and styles from contemporary music, while Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard adopted a stripped-down sound a la the Anthology of American Folk Music. Look for records by JD Crowe, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss. (Krauss actually came up later -1989- than the others mentioned here. Skaggs can be confusing for those unfamiliar with bluegrass because, while he’s a bluegrass legend, he also spent the 1980s as a chart-topping mainstream country artist.)
Modern Bluegrass: Bluegrass is still a thriving genre with artists that are celebrating its traditions and expanding its boundaries. “You are seeing a lot of folks in the genre who are not falling into a stereotype and are exploring its true history,” says Jacobs. “Rhiannon Giddens is a great example. She started in the Carolina Chocolate Drops but has gone on to have her own career that has not been defined by genres, and can still do a record that pulls as much from Irish tradition or Middle Eastern tradition as it does from Appalachian banjo playing. It’s rewarding and innovative and it looks at an un-white-washed version of the history of this music.”
Che Apalache is another artist Jabobs points to as exemplifying the expansion and experimentation in Bluegrass. “[Fiddler/vocalist Joe Troop] writes stuff with an Appalachian bluegrass backbone that is put through the filter of Argintinian musicians, and then he will sing in Japanese. It is just incredible stuff.”
What if I want to dig deeper?
Did we mention there was a podcast? Toy Heart features in-depth interviews with some of the greats of the first and second generations of Bluegrass, like Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury. It is hosted by Tom Power, host of the CBC’s q. “It’s turned into such a beautiful series,” gushes Jacobs. “I’ve been doing this website for almost 9 years. You think you’ve heard all the stories. But multiple times in this series, Tom has gotten the response: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever told that story’ or ‘I don’t even think my kids know that story.’ It is just a testament to how great Tom is an interviewer.” New episodes will be dropping every other week through June 11. Check it out now.
The wider Bluegrass Situation is also a fantastic place to start. It features reviews, profiles, and interviews with people making things happen in Bluegrass. They recently launched a Podcast network which includes not just Toy Heart, but others like The Breakdown, and The Show on the Road. They have a Spotify channel with huge range of playlists, a YouTube channel packed with live performances, and a lot more.
Lastly, we’ll mention that BGS is launching a weekly webcast variety show, the Whisky Sour Happy Hour, to help us all pass the time while we are stuck indoors for the foreseeable future. Hosted by THE Ed Helms, it will feature music, interviews, and comedy. Many of the bluegrass artists we’ve already mentioned are set to appear, but also, Yola, who isn’t bluegrass, but is amazing. Definitely check her out. Proceeds will benefit the MusiCares Coivd-19 Relief Fund. The first episode airs Wednesday, April 22 at 8pm Eastern/ 7pm Central/ 5pm Pacific.
There you have it.
Bluegrass: another rich vein for vinyl enthusiasts to mine. Happy digging.
Flatt and Scruggs - Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall Banjoist Earl Scruggs and Guitarist Lester Flatt earned the undying enmity of their former boss Bill Monroe when they broke off from his Blue Grass Boys to become legends of Bluegrass in their own right. “It is a seminal record for the genre, and it really holds up,” says Jacobs. “And it sounds great on vinyl.
Doc Watson - Elementary Doctor Watson
Doc Watson “represents more of the old time and Appalachian tradition,” says Jacobs. “He really defined a certain guitar style that is really prevalent today, but nobody could pick like Doc. I see this one at record stores a lot.”
JD Crowe & The New South - JD Crowe & The New South (also known as 0044 after its Rounder Records catalogue number). This record is often cited (including by Tom Power in the Toy Heart episode with Ricky Skaggs) as an album that changed the sound and direction of Bluegrass. “We have a really deep cut oral history of this record on the [Bluegrass Situation] website,” notes Jacobs.
John Hartford - Aereo-Plain
“John Hartford was part of this new folk tradition in bluegrass,” says Jacobs. “He is an amazing all-around artist. Aereo-Plain for me is just one of the best.”
The Tony Rice Unit - Manzanita
Guitarist Tony Rice has played on many of the best Bluegrass albums, including his own. Jacobs: “Tony Rice is so revered in the community that it’s just hard not to include this one on any list.”
Strength in Numbers - The Telluride Sessions
This Bluegrass supergroup featured Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Edger Meyer, who were all bluegrass stars in their own right. “Man is this an incredible record!” gushes Jacobs. “Those guys all play the Telluride Bluegrass Festival every year. I think it is better than Christmas that week.”
Noam Pikelny - Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe
Jacobs:“Noam is just really funny, but also just one of the best banjo players in the world today. There’s a history to this one. Bill Monroe did a record, and this very famous fiddle player named Kenny Baker re-did the record and re-interpreted mandoline led songs as fiddle tunes. Noam then a couple of years ago re-interpreted it again. So you have these three generations of the genre re-interpreted multiple times over. And it’s just a beautiful record. And it’s got a great album cover.”
Nickel Creek - Why Should the Fire Die
Jacobs: “This is the first [bluegrass] band that I saw that really changed my life. They were the entry point for a lot of folks in my generation. And it was a big awakening of what traditional music could be. My personal favorite of theirs. You could listen to anything from their catalog, and they have each gone on to do amazing things, but I come back to this record a lot.”
Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile - The Goat Rodeo Sessions This is another supergroup featuring, yes that Yo-Yo Ma, as well as some of the top bluegrass tallents in Duncan, Meyer, and Thile. Jacobs: “I would put this in my top 10 records ever. It represents the pushing of the boundaries and the blurring of the lines. Chris Thile has really moved mandoline playing forward. He has moved mountain music into a really revered form. His collaborations have been wide ranging and have pushed the genre in different ways. This is, I think the best example of that. And it’s a beautiful record.” A second installment drops on May 1.
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