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Bluegrass Music

We Need a New or Updated Bluegrass History Book

I’m big on updates. Every time I read a book or watch a documentary that overviews a subject and I see that the copyright date being over a decade old, I’m griping that there needs to be an update. Call me a curmudgeon.

My latest update concern is a book on bluegrass music, especially its history and current situation. There really has not been an authoritative book on bluegrass in decades (there have been some book published within the past few years, which I will discuss later). The two bluegrass bibles that most people look to as far as history, artist profiles, and essential recordings are Bluegrass: A History by Neil Rosenberg and America’s Music – Bluegrass: A History of Bluegrass Music in the Worlds of Its Pioneers by Barry Willis. There are other books, but none covered the bluegrass scene like these two. Unfortunately, they were both published in the 1980s, and have not seen any updating (Rosenberg’s book was given a new preface on its 20th anniversary reprint, and Willis’ book saw a second edition in 1992).

I lent out my copy of the Rosenberg book years ago and haven’t seen it since. I still have my copy of Willis’ book, which I picked up for $4.99 when Border’s was going out of business. To give you an idea how much these texts are still valued, a web search shows that a used copy of the Willis book goes for $50.00 and up. The Rosenberg book can still be had for a reasonable price used (around $15.00).

Reading the Willis book is incredibly enjoyable. There are lots of direct quotes from first- and second-generation pickers, which give it that down-home family feel. However, the first generation is all but gone, and second-generation bluegrass musicians are disappearing quickly as well. The scene has changed, and we need to have colloquial conversations with the newer players.

This is not to say that nothing good has been published since the 1990s. In 2004, two great books on bluegrass were put out: The Bluegrass Reader, edited by Thomas Goldsmith, and Homegrown Music: Discovering Bluegrass by Stephanie Ledgin. Both books take a good look at the music format, with Goldsmith compiling a number of insightful interviews with bluegrass personalities, and Ledgin giving a brief overview of styles, instruments and performers, as well as extensive appendices of resources.

However, both of these books are now 16 years old, and a lot has happened in bluegrass since the. Ledgin spotlights an 11-year-old Sierra Hull, who is now 28 years old, a graduate of Berklee, and has a number of albums and awards under her belt. There is a need for some coverage of the most recent generation of bluegrass artists such as Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, and Sarah Jarosz to name a few. Nickel Creek was getting some notice back then, but now all three members have tons of achievements on their resumes.

I think about all of the bands that have had an impact in the past decade and a half. Some have come and gone, while others still carry on. Bands like Della Mae, Mile Twelve, Flatt Lonesome, Sideline, and the Becky Buller Band are the tip of the iceberg. While Ledgin has a large list of resources in the appendices, many of these publications and companies listed are no longer in business.

Yes, an updated almanac on bluegrass music is needed in order to keep the attention of the younger generation interested in the genre while still holding on to the older fans. While the music continues to move forward, it also needs to have excellent representation with its history and archival notes.

Short note: Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, fiddler for the bluegrass band Mile Twelve, has recently put out a solo album entitled Fiddler’s Pastime. This is one of the best fiddle albums that I have heard in a while. It goes beyond bluegrass. If you want to hear some tasteful fiddling, consider picking up this disc.

Chew on it and comment.