Bluegrass Music

Why I Respect Billy Strings

I don’t buy too many CDs any more. Mainly because I don’t get around to seeing/hearing who is out there. However, I do try to keep my ear to the ground when it comes to bluegrass. And I have been pretty vocal in my previous blogs about my admiration of Billy Strings.

A few days ago, I went out and purchased a copy of Me/And/Dad, Billy’s latest release that he recorded with his stepfather Terry Barber. Terry was the man that got Billy into playing guitar. Granted, there were some demons in both men’s lives over the years, namely addictions, that have had an impact on their lives’ direction. As for Billy, growing up in a drug-infused part of Western Michigan didn’t help, but his love for music helped him overcome much of those demons along with an understanding patriarch.

We all know how Billy has become a rising star, not only in the bluegrass community but in the live music spectrum, drawing humongous crowds from traditionalists to Deadheads. One of the things that I admire about him so much is that, to paraphrase Lester Flatt, he never got above his raisin’. His humility has always shown through, and this album is just a sample of that. He recorded a number of bluegrass and old-time country standards with Terry, and share vocal duties throughout. The album has a stellar cast of backup musicians, including Ronnie and Robbie McCoury, Michael Cleveland, Mike Bub, Jason Carter, and Jerry Douglas.

You can feel the family warmth throughout the song selection. It truly feels like Billy and Terry jamming with some friends in the living room on a Friday night. With all of the flash that Billy can have on stage at one of his sold-out shows, one can tell that this is where he is most comfortable.

I talked briefly a few weeks ago that Billy was at SPBGMA in Nashville last month (and how I missed it). You can take it for granted that he drew an amazing crowd. However, what I failed to mention is that he went there with a 13-year-old mandolin player named Wyatt Ellis. Billy knows that people come to see him play his chops, but he is very giving in wanting to showcase other talent, especially young kids coming up in the bluegrass community. Perhaps he is serving as a big brother/mentor to Wyatt, and hopefully he can keep Wyatt on the right track in life as well.

Cheers to you, Billy, it is an attitude such as yours that helps keep bluegrass going!

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music Lutherie Songwriting

Back to Work!

Well, we laid my mother to rest yesterday, and I feel that I should get back to busy-ing myself in order to keep my mind alert and my slightly arthritic hands working.

Yes, I missed SPBGMA, but I am glad to see that it was a success. Lots of jamming, and plenty of surprises. I am committed to being there next year!

I will still be moving back into my mom’s house and selling my house, so the clean up will continue, along with cleaning out some of my mom’s stuff from her house. As for me, more selling off of music equipment, especially amplifiers and other electric guitar-related stuff that I never use any more. I’ll be also selling some jackets that don’t fit or never fit in the first place but I was too lazy to get rid of. My advice is, if you are in the Detroit area, keep checking Craigslist and look for “Dearborn/Hamtramck” as a location.

I will be trying to hit more shows as well. Not much offered during February and March, but I will keep checking and hope to find a few major bluegrass shows that I can have guitarists try out the 2208! I will definitely try to hit a bluegrass festival as well, but with Milan and Blissfield both cancelled, it will be either Charlotte or something on the west side of Michigan.

And back to practicing gutiar and fiddle, as well as songwriting. Taking care of mom took a lot out of practicing, and I was not motivated to do any songwriting, Hopefully, I can get inspired. I plan to attend more Songwriters Anonymous meetings, as they have always had supportive people.

And finally, lutherie. I definitely want to get back to maintenance and repairs of guitars. I plan to start simple, like setting up that $47.01 bass guitar that I got a few months back ( I still have a few Yamaha acoustics that I want to set up, one that needs some repairs, and a lot of other minor jobs. I really enjoy working on guitars, and I want to accomplish a few things before the Demon Arthritis takes over.

Next week, I should have a blog full of rants and raves. Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

I’m Going to SPBGMA/Billy Strings

I apologize for being late on this blog, and I am keeping this one short.

Well, I sent in my registration for SPBGMA 2023 in Nashville in January! I really need this vacation, as I haven’t been on any getaway for over three years. Someone hit-and-run my car last week, so I was considering not going due to the cost of repairs. However, if I don’t get away for a few days, and use these next few months to look forward to the vacation, I will probably snap! The AMA AmericanaFest and the IBMA World of Bluegrass conferences used to be my regular trips, but since both organizations have become so political, I’ve passed on them for over two years now, and I don’t miss going (although I do miss seeing some of my friends there).

Although it is not as big as AMA or IBMA, SPBGMA shows itself to be non-political, just there for the love of the music. That is good enough for me, as I just want to listen, jam, and maybe shop some of my songs around. Watching some of the videos from the last SPBGMA conference, I am sure that I will have a blast! I hope to see some old bluegrass friends, make some new connections, jam in the hallways, get some artists to be interested in my songs, and talk to some fiddlers about articles for Fiddler Magazine.

Here’s another cool thing that Billy Strings does. In addition to his charity work of donating guitars to underprivileged kids, he loves to give people a free taste of what his live shows are like. In cooperation with, Strings will broadcast the first 15 minutes of his current show live on YouTube for free, and for anyone interested in seeing the entire show, that person can pay to have the show streamed. Trust me, those first few minutes of a Billy Strings show are powerful, and even if you don’t purchase the streaming service, you will be amazed at his talent for free! Yeah, the first three or four minutes of the free broadcast are loaded with advertisements, but it is worth the wait.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Lost in the Pop Music World

This past week, the talented teenage bluegrass performer Carson Peters was eliminated from competition on the music-reality show The Voice. Sad, but what can you expect? The judges, even country star Blake Shelton, are all expecting the next Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding to come on stage looking like a cute white kid.

A few years back, bluegrass band Mountain Faith competed on another entertainment-reality show, America’s Got Talent. The judges were impressed, even the arrogant a-hole Howard Stern (sorry, I just do not like that man). Of course, the band did not make it to the finals.

So why do I bring these situations up? For two reason. First, we bluegrassers need to accept that the rest of the music listeners will always look at bluegrass as a novelty genre. Like polka, tejano, and other culture-centric forms of music, the mainstream music industry looks down on these formats. The possible exception to this is Celtic, with the popularity of Lord of the Dance and other Broadway-type shows highlighting this music. However, in those cases, much of the raw tradition was watered down and reworked with pop-music ingredients (pop arrangements, physically attractive performers, etc.) to make them accessible to the mass audience.

Last week, Billy Strings and his band appeared on The Jimmy Kimmel Show. They sounded great, but they were dressed totally out of the norm. I am used to seeing the band in their usual laid-back jeans and t-shirts. This time, they were wearing Western-style suits and big ol’ cowboy hats. Yes, the song “Red Daisy” that they performed was a lot more traditional bluegrass than their usual fare (and they killed it!), but the look was too hokey! It seemed like they were forced by the show’s producers to wear the suits. They looked a bit uncomfortable, but they got through it. Who knows? Maybe they will start wearing them on stage more often.

This leads to my second reason. Should bluegrass bands and artists succumb to the whims of pop music standards just to get noticed? Did Peters or Mountain Faith really need to go on those reality shows? Knowing how the judges are, and how America’s taste in lousy music is, even Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs in their prime would have never made it past the semi-finals.

The real good and successful bluegrass acts know who their fan base is, and who got them the success that they have. They also know that they are happy and successful with the success that they have achieved. Rhonda Vincent, Dailey & Vincent, and Del McCoury have all been loyal to the bluegrass fold. If someone from outside of the bluegrass audience takes notice, all the better! However, these acts have no intention of changing their style just to attempt to appease the pop music audience or executives.

Acts such as Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless have had pop success in the country music field, but they (Skaggs especially) have learned to not get above their raisin’. They have come back to an arms-wide-open bluegrass audience and seem totally satisfied.

Yes, Alison Krauss has achieved pop music success like no one else in the industry. And while her bluegrass side of music is limited with Union Station, it still exists. Some from the bluegrass fold may consider her no longer bluegrass. She is still a bluegrasser in my eyes and thousands of others. She did not attempt to get her foot in the pop music field – her talent and voice were so good that it was the pop music execs that came after her! Moreover, at the beginning of her peak of success in the music industry, rather than continuing to work the pop music end, she instead served a big part in the traditional music movie soundtrack O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Let’s talk a bit about that album. OBWAT was successful, indeed! At the time, it was receiving no airplay, yet sold over 6 million copies. The radio execs were saying that it was a fluke, despite many listeners calling in requests. Twenty years later, where is bluegrass? It seems that it really was a fluke in the pop music industry. However, this was not the fault of anyone but the radio execs. They pushed that “one-hit-wonder” status on the album so much that listeners tended to believe it, and turned away from bluegrass and the other roots music formats. You don’t hear much about it or any bluegrass music on country radio these days.

In short, bluegrass artists should not water down or surrender to pop music whims just to get noticed. Be happy with the loyal audience that you have. If your talent is really that great, others will notice, just like Billy Strings.

Tonight, I go to see a great traditional bluegrass band that didn’t get above its raisin’, Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers.

Chew on it and comment.

Americana Music Bluegrass Music Music Industry

Billy Strings & The Grammys / Tom Stevens RIP

The Grammys were last week, and guitarist Billy Strings won the Best Bluegrass Album Category for his recording Home. I don’t watch the Grammys, but I congratulate him winning the award. He totally deserves the recognition.

So as expected, there would be those that claim an amount of unfairness. When the news was posted on the Bluegrass Today website (, there were a few that stated that, not only was Billy Strings NOT bluegrass, but neither were the other nominees. That list included:
Man On Fire – Danny Barnes
To Live In Two Worlds, Vol 1 – Thomm Jutz
North Carolina Songbook – Steep Canyon Rangers
Home – Billy Strings
The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Vol 1 – Various Artists

The complaint was that there were no “real” bluegrass artists in the list. Of course, the debate began, with about an even amount of Billy Strings is/isn’t bluegrass. I sided with the “is” party, mostly because I feel that I have a bigger acceptance of what the format entails. There will always be the debate of what instruments can or cannot be included in a bluegrass ensemble. Some feel that if there is no banjo, or if there is an electric bass, or if there is any type of percussion or keyboard, then it is not bluegrass.

I look at bluegrass not as a structure, but as a feeling. It doesn’t matter what kind of bass is playing in the background, or if there is a banjo on the song. A bluegrass song moves me in a different way that a rock song, or a blues song, or a jazz song moves me. Doc Watson played guitar either solo or with his son Merle. What Doc kicked out may not be bluegrass to some, but it sure was to me.

My problem with what one person said on the discussion was that others knew nothing about bluegrass, including calling out another participant who has won numerous awards for his bluegrass songwriting and journalism work. This person continued to state certain ideas, then a few entries later would say that he never said that. He continued to post statements that only a few people know what bluegrass is, and that others just follow bad examples.

Bluegrass music, in fact, all music, is not mathematics. There is no definite answer to what is good or bad. There is no definite answer to what bluegrass music is. As I stated in that discussion, no one person, no small group of people, not even organizations such as the IBMA or SPGBMA, can truly define bluegrass music. It is up to the listener. There can “perhaps” be some directional suggestions, such as “may have a three-finger banjo picking” or “lack of drums,” but those should only be suggestions. The Steep Canyon Rangers have a percussionist, yet their songs have a groove that is definitely more bluegrass than any other format. The Lonesome River Band often uses an electric bass. I haven’t heard a single LRB album that cannot be considered bluegrass.

Maybe what Billy Strings is playing, or Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Mile Twelve, or Hawktail isn’t nuance for nuance a Bill Monroe version of a song, but I would hate for that to be so. Do not clip the wings of the young.

I just learned today while writing this that Tom Stevens, bassist for the Long Ryders (one of the best and most underrated bands of the 1980s), passed away in late January. I don’t keep in touch much with my connections in the old days of cowpunk/Paisley Underground, so I am disappointed in myself that I am just learning the news.

If you never heard of the Long Ryders, you should have, especially if you are a fan of the Americana music format. The band was keeping alive that country-rock/electric folk sound in between the days of the Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers/Gram Parsons and the early stages of Americana/alt-country of Uncle Tupelo/Jayhawks. They had their fan base in California where they headquartered (although members were form different parts of the country), had cult followings around most of the rest of the US, but were highly revered in Europe. There were a few bassists that passed through the ranks, but Tom was the one that remained closest. He wrote many of the band’s songs as well as shared lead vocals with guitarists Sid Griffin and Stephen McCarthy. His bass playing was totally in the pocket. Tom left the band in 1988, and the band broke up shortly thereafter. They reunited in 2004 and 2019, put out another album, and toured the US and Europe. I stayed in touch with Tom for a while in the 80s and 90s, but as with most relationships in the business, they sometimes drift apart.

Unfortunately, I was not able to see the reunion show here in Detroit two years ago, as I was out of town at a music conference. I am still kicking myself for that. I was able to talk s friend into going to the show, and he was totally floored by the band. They were not flashy, but were straight-ahead rock-n-roll. The band also had a great sense of humor. I was a member of the Long Ryders Fan Club, and upon the breakup, the band sent their fans a cassette called Metallic B.O. (tip of the hat to Iggy Pop), which contained a number of their outtakes, demos, and banter that is just hilarious. I still have that cassette, and I cherish it.

Tom did some solo recordings as well as appeared on other artists’ albums (a lot of his stuff is available on YouTube and other sites). He moved back to his home state of Indiana, got a computer degree and job, raised a family, and became a regular guy for the most part. I do hope that he knows how much his art and talent was appreciated by those who listened. You will be dearly missed, Tom.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

Where is the Next Bluegrass Generation?

This weekend I attended a meeting for the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association ( While discussing elections of new board members, we talked about the age relevance of the membership. Of those attending, I was one of the youngest at the meeting, and I’m 55 years old!

Why aren’t younger music fans attracted to bluegrass? There are a lot of negative factors, I suppose. It is not like there are not enough young bluegrass players making names for themselves. Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings and Sierra Hull are three of many that come to mind. However, it also matters how the older crowd reacts to them as well as how they are promoted within the community. The three above can easily perform any bluegrass standard asked of them, but they also look outside of the box, performing more progressive forms of bluegrass, which traditionalists tend to shun. A tree that is not allowed to grow will eventually die.

I have mentioned the Junior Appalachian Musician program ( in an earlier blog, and I must say, this program has its ear to the ground! Right now, JAM has satellite programs throughout the Tennessee/Virginia/South Carolina/North Carolina area. However, programs like this need to be in other areas of the country where bluegrass is popular (Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, Northeast, California). Young students would truly appreciate people who take the time to teach them music as well as encourage them to learn about their culture.

It could be that bluegrass still has that stigma of being “old folks music.” The stigma is heightened usually by these older people turning a cold shoulder to the younger crowd. I used to see it a lot when I attended a monthly jam session in Flint, Michigan years ago. I haven’t been there in years, and hopefully the attitude has changed. But in all honesty, I don’t see much of that “transfer of knowledge” from older generations to the next. I am always reminded of that scene from Fahrenheit 451 in which an older man on his deathbed is reciting the book that he memorized to a child so that the child can continue the book’s importance.

How many older bluegrass musicians are actually sitting down with a youngster to show him/her the beauty of the bluegrass sound on a guitar, banjo, or mandolin? Does apathy live in the senior, the youngster, or both? One can learn to play an instrument from hundreds of videos, either purchased or on YouTube. There are thousands of teachers at music stores. Of course, that costs money, and are you getting a bluegrass guitar teacher or one that teaches rock, jazz, blues, classical and other genres? Whatever happened to the joy of seeing a student successfully learn and play an old folk or bluegrass song and that serving as payment received?

With the Coronavirus pandemic still hanging above our heads, festivals that include workshops are pretty much cancelled for the summer and into the fall. Social distancing is another thorn in the side as far as teaching music. We cannot let these evils kill any enthusiasm that may come from an interested youngster with bluegrass music. We need to do what we can to encourage the younger generation that appreciates bluegrass music. It could be free basic lessons, free performances, showing them a bluegrass documentary and helping with references, setting up jam sessions just for kids, but mainly, showing how great the music really is.

It is rare that these youngsters will actively search out bluegrass mentors. They have that comfort zone of sitting in a basement and playing video games when not in school. We as the mentors have to be the active ones! Make yourself available, look for ways to get their attention (flyers posted at music stores or strip mall bulletin boards), reward those kids that DO show an interest and improve on themselves. These kids will decide the future of bluegrass music.

With that said, I want you to see this video of my friend Brittany Haas, along with Lauren Rioux, showcasing a young fiddler named Claire.

Chew on it and comment.