Categories
Bluegrass Music

Alison Krauss Inducted into Bluegrass HOF

The International Bluegrass Music Association has made its announcement for this year’s Hall of Fame induction. The three inductees are definitely worthy. The Stoneman Family should have been inducted years ago, given the fact that they had been playing bluegrass music for years, especially Pops Stoneman. Lynn Morris was at her peak of popularity in bluegrass when health concerns forced her to step away from the stage about a decade or so back.

Then there is Alison Krauss. For some music fans who dabble in bluegrass, she is the first thing that comes to their minds, even before the thought of Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs. She developed a style that put bluegrass music close to soft rock or easy-listening pop. Traditionalists frown upon her sound, but one has to admit, her music was extremely popular, and did bring a lot of interest into bluegrass as a whole.

Alison was a child fiddle prodigy, winning numerous contests before signing with Rounder Records at the age of 17. She was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry at 22, and has won 27 Grammy Awards during her career. Her voice is definitely not high lonesome, but that is what attracts many to her. It has carried her into many other music formats, including the award-winning work with legendary rock vocalist Robert Plant and country music star Brad Paisley.

Her band Union Station provides an amazing canvas for her, yet she does not look at them as backup musicians. Members have shared lead vocals with her, and have gone on to great recognition as well. The live shows of AKUS have always been powerful. One of my favorite live albums of all time is the band’s album from 2004. Every song is spot-on! It sounds as fresh today as it did 17 years ago.

Yes, the past 15 years or so has seen very little bluegrass output from Alison. But unlike s many others, she never let bluegrass be a barrier to her. That remarkable voice was meant to sing different genres. It is so recognizable that you can tell it is hers from the first note. Moreover, the role of the female in bluegrass today owes so much to Alison. Not only was her voice different, but she made it possible for a woman to lead a bluegrass band, play an instrument with amazing skill, and be taken seriously. Take a look at a list of today’s bluegrass bands, and one can see that at least 10 percent of them have a lineup that parallels what AKUS has been doing since the 1990s.

Alison’s work changed the face of bluegrass music. Not for better or worse, but for exposure. She helped keep it in the spotlight during her early years as well as was a major part of the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, especially her vocal performance of “Down to the River to Pray.” Through it all, she has kept up a humble and warm personality. People love her, and she is very appreciative of that. There is a reason that she received the National Medal of the Arts form President Trump in 2019!

So congratulations, Alison. I am happy for all of the success that you have had, and my one hope is that you put out another straight-ahead bluegrass fiddle album in the future.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Fiddle Bluegrass Music

Byron Berline RIP

Last week right after I posted my blog, I learned about the death of Byron Berline, one of my favorite fiddlers. Having the status of being a Blue Grass Boy is enough reward for any bluegrass musician, but Byron went so much further with and without the fiddle in his life, that he would become a hero to many.

Byron was from Kansas, but spent most of his life in Oklahoma, where he picked up a Texsas Swing style to his fiddle playing. He went to the University of Oklahoma to receive a teaching degree in Physical Education, but soon joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He co-wrote the jam standard “Gold Rush” with Monroe, but was then drafted into the Army in 1967. After his two-year stint in the military, he went all-out with his fiddle playing.

Besides being a member of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Stephen Stills’ Manassas for a short time, he also recorded the famous fiddle solo on the Rolling Stones’ “Country Honk” from the Let It Bleed album. Along with a number of fiddle contest wins, he also helped form the bands Sundance, Country Gazette, and California, working with such luminary musicians as Dan Crary, Alan Munde, and Vince Gill. He also worked with Emmylou Harris, The Eagles, Elton John and The Doobie Brothers among many others.

He appeared on a number of documentaries, as well as some commercial ventures. He was a musician in the film The Rose with Bette Midler, and had a minor role in one episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which he plays a member of the Enterprise that performs with an 18th century string quartet.

In 1995, Byron opened up a musical instrument store in Guthrie, Oklahoma called The Fiddle Stop, where popular jam sessions would happen constantly. While on vacation in Mexico in 2019, the shop was destroyed by fire, taking with it many of his prized violins. He would open a second shop across the street. However, on July 10 of this year, Byron passed away from complications of a stroke.

If one was to talk about the penultimate musician, Byron would be in that small group. He did everything that he wanted to do as a musician, all the time with that big grin on his face. He played traditional and progressive bluegrass music, but was not afraid to touch other genres such as country, rock, ragtime and Cajun. He performed with so many of the biggest names in the music industry. Add to that his getting to appear on a Star Trek episode, something every Trekkie dreams of.

Mostly, he was a legend with bluegrass fans. Not just for his amazing fiddle work, but Byron will be remembered for his continual pushing of the envelope with the format of bluegrass songs, while still holding the traditional structure close to his heart. Listening to his work, one can hear his one foot in the old-time style, while the other foot is splashing away in some psychedelic pond. A great example of this is his performance with California as they perform the newgrass composition “California Traveler.”

With Byron’s passing, I do hope that he realized how much of an impact he had on musicians, especially bluegrass fiddlers. Rest easy, sir.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Songwriting

Perfect Song #3: “Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa

I probably should have written this blog last week during the Fourth of July holiday, but better late than never.

There is a reason that John Philip Sousa is called “The March King.” Look at all of the great marches he composed: “Semper Fidelis,” “El Capitan,” “The Washington Post,” “The Liberty Bell,” and his most famous, “Stars and Stripes Forever.” I consider this last one to be a perfect song, especially for its intent.

Sousa spent most of his life conducting military bands. He enlisted into the US Marine Band as an apprentice at the age of 14, and would eventually serve as its conductor for 12 years starting in 1880. Afterward, he led his own marching band until his death in 1932. However, during World War I, he was commissioned a lieutenant commander to direct the US Naval Reserve Band in Illinois. Most of his composing was done after his time in the Marine Band, which included 130 marches along with 15 operettas and 11 suites.

Sousa wrote “Stars and Stripes Forever” returning to the US after a trip to Europe in 1896, and it was first performed in Philadelphia a year later. The structure of the march is typical Sousa fare. A four-bar introduction. Followed by the first strain two times, the second strain two times, a break strain, the third strain (recognizable by the piccolos), break strain, and the final third strain, this time with the second strain in the background.

What makes this song so powerful is that it totally describes the land that was the United States so perfectly without any words, although lyrics do exist for this composition. The introduction comes in bluntly, like a battleship cutting through the ocean waves. Next comes a strong first strain, a musical interpretation of the industrial strength found in the northeast part of the nation. The second strain gives off a feeling that one is in the agricultural and laid-back South. The break strain reminds the listener of the conflicts that the country has faced and triumphed over to keep the nation as one (the first break strain could represent the Revolutionary War, the second could represent the Civil War). The third strain represents, as Sousa once stated in an interview, the expansion toward the West, discovering new adventures across the land.

My only differing opinion is that third strain. To me, those piccolos represent the voice of the common man, the voice that has kept the US a wonderful democratic republic that is still the envy of the world, despite all of the internal conflicts going on. Sousa had a musical mind that was comparable to the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. He knew exactly what he wanted from all of the instruments in the band throughout the entire composition, This song, as well as most of his other marches, have amazing counter melodies working against the main melodies is a subtle but fulfilling way.

How can any American not be moved once those piccolos come into the mix? I can’t think of a time when I have heard the song performed in public and the audience doesn’t applaud for that moment. While most people think of brass horns when it comes to marches, Sousa had equal respect for woodwinds and percussion in his bands. All contribute to making this and his other marches ones that any army would be proud to march to. Just listen to that final strain! The song represents the US so well that, in 1987, Congress passed an act that declared it the official National March of the United States.

I give you some great examples of this work. First is the song performed by “The President’s Own” US Marine Band. This is followed by the Dallas Winds, which included 94 piccolos in the final strain. We follow that up with a touching rendition performed by The Band of the Grenadier Guards in Great Britain (when another nation is so moved by one of your country’s songs, you have to be proud). Finally, the day after the tragedy of the fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11/2001, Queen Elizabeth requested her regimental band to perform the song during the changing of the guard. As an added tribute, the band performed “The Star Spangled Banner.” I cannot lie, I was totally moved to tears the first time I saw that video.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Folk Music

The Fiddler of Beaver Island

Beaver Island is one of the few places in my home state of Michigan that I have not visited, When I was growing up, my next-door neighbor, who was born and raised on the island, would pack up his family and vacation there for two weeks in the summer.

Beaver Island has a unique history. It sits in the upper part of Lake Michigan, about 30 miles off the coast near Charlevoix. Initially inhabited by Irish immigrants, a Mormon group settled on the island in the 1850s, led by a man named James Strang. He ruled his congregation like a tyrant, and was eventually shot by men whom he flogged in public for adultery. He became a polygamist, claimed surrounding islands as part of his kingdom, and often forced his power onto other islanders not part of his congregation. He would eventually die from his gunshot wound, and his congregation soon after disappeared, mostly due to threats from other residents.

It was during the 20th century that Beaver Island gained its more positive and popular notoriety. Due to the rise of Irish and other European immigration, the island became a haven for fiddlers and old-time fiddle folk music. Dozens of fiddlers lived there, and my neighbor learned the fiddle and mandolin there as a child. I can still remember hearing him play the fiddle in the evenings.

The most popular fiddler from the island was a man named Patrick Bonner (1882-1973). He blended his Irish background with styles from other Michigan regions, such as the contra dances around Detroit and the Scandinavian lumberjacks and miners in the Upper Peninsula. He played dances on and off the island, and had a great reputation for unique interpretations of standard fiddle tunes. He came to prominence as a folk music icon during the 1930s through the research and promotion of Ivan Walton, a professor of English folklore at the University of Michigan. National musicologist and folklorist Alan Lomax, along with Walton, would go on to record a number of sessions with Bonner, which remain archived at the Library of Congress and Wayne State University in Detroit.

There were a number of other musicians from Beaver Island that Walton recorded as well. Add to that the multitude of hobbyist musicians (like my old neighbor) and you can imagine what Beaver Island was like. The air was filled with music constantly, and there was always a dance or concert going on in the evenings. I truly miss hearing my neighbor. I sometimes imagine him listening to me playing folk songs on the fiddle and guitar when I am at my mom/s house.

I had nearly forgotten about the island’s fiddle history until a few years ago when I came across the book An Island of Fiddlers: Fiddle Tunes of Patrick Bonner, Beaver Island, Michigan at Elderly Instruments in Lansing (www.elderly.com). Written and self-published by Glenn Hendrix, another fiddler from Michigan. Ringed-notebook in style, it contains a short biography and interview with Bonner done before his passing, as well as a number of tunes transcribed by Hendrix from old recordings of Bonner. Some tunes are variations of standards and public domain samples, while others seem to be semi-original compositions by Bonner. I felt that this was such as treasure of a book regarding the music of Beaver Island that I purchased a second copy and gave it to the daughter of my old neighbor. It turns out she gave his old fiddle to one of his grandchildren who now performs with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Nice ending.


Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Music

So Long, AMA!

Well, with a heavy heart but no regret, I have decided to not attend this year’s AmericanaFest, and I am not renewing my membership to the Americana Music Association. My decision is similar to why I left the International Bluegrass Music Association.

The AMA has decided to for a committee to find ways to promote musicians based on race, gender choice, and sexual preference. The IBMA launched a similar program a few years back. Both were supportive of the BLM movement (a Marxist organization that it fully admitted to on its website until recently when the co-founder was caught red-handed purchasing five homes around the country), yet when the BLM/Antifa riots reached Nashville last summer and vandalized the Bill Monroe statue outside of the Ryman Auditorium, neither organization did anything to either condemn the crime nor help support the clean-up.

I left the IBMA a few years back,, but I remained in the AMA primarily due to my friendship with other members, board members, and staff. However, I had been on the fence the past two years because of the organization’s political involvement. This recent decision by the AMA helped make my decision to bow out. I had been a member for over 20 years, and had served in a volunteer capacity for about 15 years. This included stage management, chauffeuring, showcase organization, and a dozen other jobs. I met a lot a good people along the way, including artists, managers, booking agents, and publicists. The networking was great, to say the least. However, the time had come where I had to decide between my beliefs and going with the flow.

Music organizations such as the AMA and the IBMA are there to promote music first and foremost. The color of one’s skin or the choice of one’s personal identity should not matter if the talent is there. Both organizations have reneged on their original philosophies and are now more interested in an artist’s identity instead of the talent. Political correctness has led to being woke.

With the AMA, one can see that it would eventually lead to that direction. Many of the artists come from a more liberal background. Being a member for over 20 years, I could see that it was an almost inevitable move. I highly doubt that my leaving will affect anything. I will miss going to Nashville and working the conference, seeing old friends and making new ones, but I have my standards as well.

In the case of the IBMA, I have gone over this before, but the direction it is taking may have different consequences. The bluegrass community is a wonderful melting pot. Liberals and conservatives, hippies and rednecks, traditionalists and progressives, all coming together for the enjoyment of acoustic music. Debates consist of musical matters (Percussion? Electric bass? No banjo?), not anything about the race, creed, sexual orientation, or political views. A few years back, the powers-that-be discreetly began implementing more woke philosophies and actions. Now, most of the IBMA membership only care about concerts and such, but are dumb to how the organization is spending membership dues. There were a few like me that left, including one or two A-list bluegrass performers. The IBMA marches on, but it will be interesting to see what it will be like in five or so years as the organization becomes more woke. I don’t see too much negativity happening with the AMA as it moves in that direction.

So I leave the AMA. The only national music organization that I am currently a member is the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, which has much smaller representation than the IBMA but is much more dedicated to the music. There are a few local groups that I belong to, such as the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association and the Michigan Fiddlers Association. For now, I will work harder with those groups to promote the music that I love.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music Bluegrass Music

YouTube Finds: Otis Gibbs, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush

First off, I will be making a big announcement (at least to me) in next week’s blog, as I haven’t completed my actions yet. The announcement will be shocking to some, expected by others, but it is something that I feel that I need to do in my heart.

Now, let’s get to some quick business. I briefly mentioned it in my last blog, but I implore you to check out the Otis Gibbs channel on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCYX2MTovE0vYjD8touqRH7Q)! I have been fortunate enough to hang out with Otis on occasion at previous AmericanaFests in Nashville. While a few of the videos are of his songs and performances, the truly enjoyable ones are of his interviews with people in the music industry. These people are not stars or business moguls. These are the roadies, back-up musicians, and technicians that have amazing stories about working with the big-time performers. They are filmed in a way that is less like a documentary and more like a barroom conversation. A great one is of bassist/producer Mark Fain talking about working with Tom Petty. Just about every one of the videos is a treasure, so you won’t be disappointed.

Another great YouTube channel is one by Marc O’Connor (https://www.youtube.com/user/markoconnor). Do I really need to tell you who Mark is? Besides being a phenomenon on the fiddle, he can put anyone to shame on mandolin and guitar as well. In fact, many of his recent videos showcase his guitar skills recorded for his Markology II album. There are also fiddle duets with his wife Maggie, some instructional tidbits based on his successful O’Connor Teaching Method, and some amazing live performances throughout the years. He also has some videos of classical violinists performing some of his compositions. Of course, you could never go wrong seeing Mark jamming with Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark Schatz.

Speaking of Sam Bush, he’s been loading up his YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxoxShg3clxxwKg9nKQeHNw) with a lot of great videos of him jamming in his living room with guests like Ronnie McCoury, Tim O’Brien, Bryan Sutton and Jeff Hanna. Plus, there are a few vids of him discussing his admiration of Jethro Burns while holding Burns’ mandolin. Sam is one of those guys that you wish was your next-door neighbor. Over the fence, you would be talking music, baseball, and the weather. Sam is a treasure, to be sure.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Jimmy Martin: Trouble Even After Death

There’s no doubt, Jimmy Martin was a character. His presence onstage, his banter, his love for hunting, and his being very vocal about not being invited to the Grand Ole Opry are well-known in the bluegrass community. Some say that his brittle attitude rubbed many in the music industry the wrong way, which caused him to not get the recognition he deserved. Whatever the case, there is no denying that his singing was powerful, his songs are timeless in bluegrass, and he was probably the best rhythm guitarist that the genre ever knew.

Jimmy died in 2005, yet he is still talked about by bluegrass fans and musicians alike. Everyone seems to have some crazy Jimmy Martin story. Not many people would have their tombstone made years before death, showing all of his accomplishments, but Jimmy did.

Unfortunately, it seem that even after being departed for 15 years, fate still wants to take a swing at Jimmy. A recent story on the Bluegrass Today website states that during a March storm in the Nashville area, a large tree feel on Jimmy’s old house near Hermitage, which led to the decision that the entire house would be demolished. Nothing is left except the chimney and a pile of bricks. Jimmy’s family sold the property in 2014, and fortunately, no one was home at the time of the storm. An update to the story states that the family didn’t know it was once Jimmy’s house, but later turned it into a daycare center named after his band, The Sunny Mountain Boys.

If you have never seen the documentary on Jimmy, The King of Bluegrass, by all means watch it! You will laugh and cry at the same time. Filmed just a few years before his death, the viewer sees how hurt he is about not being fully accepted by the country music industry, despite all of his success bridging bluegrass and country during the 1950s and 60s. This tragic ending to his house seems like it is just one more nail in Jimmy’s legacy coffin, as if some evil spirit did not want Jimmy to be continually recognized.

Americana singer/songwriter Otis Gibbs has a YouTube channel where he talks about unique and weird happenings in the history of country, folk, bluegrass and Americana music. One highly entertaining video is his interview with Mike Bub, bluegrass bass player who has worked with Del McCoury among many others. Mike tells some amazing stories about Jimmy that will make you smile.

Jimmy did a stint up here in Detroit with Sonny and Bobby Osborne right after he left Bill Monroe. Lord, if I could ever step back in time, I would love to have been able to tune in to WJR and hear them playing live on the radio back in the mid 1950s. Jimmy was a regular on many country music radio shows, including the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree. However, he was never asked to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry, despite performing at the Ryman dozens of time. If the powers-that-be at the Opry followed the same standards now that they followed back then, none of today’s country performers would ever be asked to perform the Opry, let alone become a member.

One could ask any of the number of musicians that worked with Jimmy, and they would probably all tell you the same thing. He was a hard man to work for, but in the end, you became a much better musician. There are tons of other stories about his drinking, creating havoc, and hunting that could fill plenty of music history books. Jimmy Martin should be in the same American Legends category as Davy Crockett, Johnny Appleseed, and Pecos Bill. Our society is much better off because he was once a part of it.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Music Industry

The Print Magazines That I Miss

I love writing for a music magazine! I currently am a regular contributor to Fiddler. I work with a great editor (Mary Larsen), I have learned to appreciate the violin more, so much so that I have gone from a disgruntled beginner to a disgruntled intermediate player, and most important, I have become friends with a number of musicians in the bluegrass, klezmer, folk, and Americana folds.

I have written for a number of other magazines over the years, but that has dropped off due to a number of reasons such as difficult editors/not getting paid, financial situations ceasing publication, or the decision to go strictly online (which results in lack of pay many times as well).
Hitting the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble is pathetic. The choice for music-related magazines is minimal, and what is there is more trendy/gossipy than intellectual or industry oriented (with a few exceptions like Guitar Player).

Yes, times change, and perhaps the current young generation is content with getting its information from the web instead of a hard-copy magazine. When I was a young and easily influenced beginning musician, I salivated over the numerous music magazines that were available, either as intelligent criticism of the current music trends or as helpful mentoring in becoming a better musician. One can get any lesson for any instrument on YouTube, as well as personal reviews of equipment. However, it just isn’t the same as relying on that monthly music ‘zine that either came to your door or was waiting for you at the bookstore to get valued information and advice.

I have been thinking lately of some of the print magazines that I miss getting my hands on over the years. Here are a few of them, and I hope that it may bring back some fond memories for you.

Blitz – As a teenager in the early 1980s, I was getting into the punk/new wave scene both as a listener and musician. When I discovered Blitz, I thought that I had found the Holy Grail! It hailed itself as “The Rock and Roll Magazine for Thinking People,” and it was. This was more than the local fanzine, even though it covered musicians primarily from California. However, those were the bands that I was into at that time. The Plimsouls, The Blasters, X, The Long Ryders, Green on Red, The Dream Syndicate, The Bangles, Blood on the Saddle, the list goes on. They also covered a lot of European bands that were making a name for themselves in the US, as well as bands from the 1960s that still had a cult following. I remember the first issue that I got. Josie Cotton was on the cover. The writing was not pretentious like Rolling Stone, more down to Earth without being moronic. There were three or four artist articles, then a ton of album reviews that I relied on heavily. It started in 1975, but was no longer being printed by the mid 1990s. There is a Facebook page run by the old staff, but I don’t do FB, so I pass.

Frets – This was (and still is, I believe) a sister publication to Guitar Player (which also had another sister called Keyboard for those interested in that instrument family). Started in 1979, this was a magazine for those interested in acoustic music, no matter what the genre. While most of it seemed to lean toward bluegrass artists, there was also ample coverage of jazz, international, acoustic pop, and folk. Also in variance were the musical instruments covered. Besides guitar, there were regular articles on players of mandolin, banjo, fiddle, even autoharp, sitar, and bouzuki. That may have been its weakness, as it is very hard to find a large readership that is into many acoustic instruments from many musical formats. By 1985, the content seemed to lean mostly with acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars, although there were some great stories on the New Grass Revival and Mark O’Connor. The original magazine folded in August 1989, but was brought back about a decade later covering almost only acoustic guitars, most likely to compete against Acoustic Guitar magazine and to keep that audience that wasn’t interested in electric guitars satisfied (like the original publication in 1979). I haven’t seen hide nor hair of this magazine in over a decade, and the website (www.fretsmag.com) has information dating from 2006.

Bluegrass Now – This was an alternative to Bluegrass Unlimited when it was alive. It was bi-monthly, so it was not as timely as BU. During its last few years in the early 2000s, I wrote a few articles for it. I got along great with the editorial staff, but there were some financial difficulties within the magazine. In 2003, it chose to go online-only, but could not garnish enough interest from the bluegrass community to survive (trust me, this community will always love its hard-copy reading). There were one or two other bluegrass-centric magazines that dropped by the wayside as well. BU was fortunate to partner with the Bluegrass Hall of Fame to ensure its continuance. BN was more in-depth with its interviews, a quality that BU seems to be moving toward. However, snagging an authorship in BU is nearly impossible, as it has its regular contributors. So I do wish that there were more bluegrass print publications out there, but I can understand the financial reasons why there are not.

These are just three of the many magazines that I miss. Getting information off of the internet is not the same. I enjoyed getting a different magazine each week and reading it cover-to-cover, keeping it with me so that I could read a little at school, at a restaurant, at home, waiting in the car, or a dozen other situations. Surfing on your phone is irritating.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Musical Instruments

The Pickle Lady and Electric Guitar Feedback

OK, so I was looking for something to blog about and surfing YouTube, when I came across this video:

I’m not sure why it came up as a recommendation. Yes, I love pickles, and yes, I listen to The Melvins. Actually, I don’t listen to them much, but they often play at a bar near my house when they tour, and you gotta love Buzz’s hair.

Her name is Sylvia Massey. She’s produced alt-rock bands like The Melvins and Tool. She even engineered the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin-produced album Unchained. However, this woman is wacky. Timothy Leary on brine instead of LSD. She takes this weird experiment too seriously, and The Melvins join in because they will do anything crazy. I can just imagine what’s going on inside their heads listening to this woman talk about her experiment. It is 11 minutes that you MUST watch, but will be sorry that it’s 11 minutes that you won’t get back.

I’m keeping this one short. This video exhausted me, mentally.

Chew on it and comment. Monday is Memorial Day. Put a flag on a veteran’s grave and show some respect.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

A Perfect Song #2: Flatt and Scruggs “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (1949 Version)

It is considered by many to be the National Anthem of Bluegrass. Every good bluegrass band keeps it in its repertoire because it knows that all music fans, bluegrass or not, love the song. Every budding banjo player MUST learn it along the way, most playing it nuance-for-nuance like Earl. Flatt and Scruggs re-recorded it in the 1960s for the movie Bonnie and Clyde. The song fit the film perfectly.

However, it is the original 1949 recording for Mercury Records that true bluegrass fans adhere to. While the duo recorded a similar song “Bluegrass Breakdown” with Bill Monroe, Earl wanted one that defined the Foggy Mountain Boys. A change in chord structure and more emphasis on the banjo work made this song more popular as well as a bluegrass standard.

The arrangement is perfect – banjo solos for a few breaks, fiddle solo changes it up, then back and forth one more time until we end with the banjo wrapping it up with a “shave and a haircut” outro. No bridges or changes in keys. The G to Em chord change (although the tuning on this recording makes it sound more like it is in the key of G#) catches the listener’s ear. In this particular recording, Earl truly sounds like he knows what he is doing, yet it sounds improvised in many ways. You don’t really “hear” the rest of the band, you FEEL them! Lester’s rhythm guitar is more like a brush on a snare drum and hi-hat, until the end of each verse when his trademark G-run can be made out. The upright bass is definitely felt more than heard, but if it weren’t there, there would be a lot less drive to the song. Also, Earl only does two counts of lone banjo intro before the band kicks in. Usual arrangements give the banjo a full four counts. It makes one think that the band was caught off-guard with his playing right away. However, it sounds fantastic! Two minutes and forty seconds of pure energy!

What makes it unique is that it was recorded the way all recordings were done back then — with one microphone and the band standing around it, all the while maneuvering back and forth to let the soloist get closest to the mic. You can close your eyes and literally see them dancing around each other to get to the mic. That is the charm of the recording – everyone knowing his job to get the best recording possible. Recording engineering was in its youth. Studio engineers were more scientists than music aficionados. The mic went into a very primitive mixer, which was then wired into the cutter, which cut the music directly onto a wax disc. Any big mistake meant having to do the whole thing over again. Minor mistakes were often ignored as long as the results were satisfactory.

I also prefer this version over the 1960s version because it is so raw and untouched. The later version adds harmonica and other studio tricks to make it sound professional. The original version is just the band doing what they do best – performing live!

Which leads to listening to this particular recording. With the chord changes from G to Em and back, sometimes the guitar and bass go four counts on the Em, sometimes six counts. Occasionally the guitar goes fout counts while the bass stays on the E for six. Because the banjo and fiddle are so up-front, it really isn’t noticeable to the casual listener. However, it does tell a lot about how wild it must have been to first record this great song and everyone being slightly in his own world for a few moments. Today, most bands are pretty much sticklers to the four counts of Em, but I have always loved the six-count, as it makes the sone a lot less “pop” and more “rock.”

Yes, one could say that this is a precursor to rock-and-roll music, especially the emphasis on instrumental solos having short breaks to mix the overall song up a bit. There were tons of recordings of instrumental songs prior to this, but most stuck with simple arrangements – the soloist sticking to mimicking either the vocals or the main instrument, usually the fiddle. Here, Earl goes off on his own, creating breakneck-speed solos that could not be easily duplicated. The banjo rolls were innovative to say the least. Bill Monroe knew this when he had Earl join the Blue Grass Boys in 1945, and Lester and Earl knew how to make it a power to be reckoned with by 1949.

I have always loved this recording, but really knew how important and great it was a few years back. Eddie Stubbs was DJ-ing one of his late-night shows on WSM, and on the anniversary of the song’s 1949 recording, he played it on the air, then followed up with the statement, “Are there any questions?”. That to me says it all.

Chew on it and comment.