So the 2020 International Bluegrass Music Association’s 31st Annual Awards nominees have been announced. I won’t go into them big here; you can take a look at them at https://bluegrasstoday.com/2020-ibma-award-nominees-announced/ . However, one thing that I do want to address is the Hall of Fame inductees, specifically two of the three that truly deserve more recognition than they have gotten from the bluegrass community.
First is New Grass Revival. Sam Bush started this band back in the early 1970s, and while there have been a number of great musicians that have served time in the group, its most famous lineup is of mandolinist Bush, bassist John Cowan, banjoist Bela Fleck, and guitarist Pat Flynn. During their tenure in the band, these guys made listeners from all different genres come to love bluegrass! They were amazing soloists, Cowan and Bush sang like their lives depended on it, and they could kick anyone’s ass when it came to live performances! Their audiences ranged from old traditionalists to mohawked punk rockers. Leon Russell took them on tour with him in 1980. Each album they put out reflected their approach with one foot in old school, the other foot aimed at the moon! What other band could cover Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar” and Bill Monroe’s “Wicked Path of Sin” and make it all sound like their own as well as showing respect to each original artist? They gave the progressive “newgrass” format a whole lotta class!
Unfortunately, they decided to call it quits in 1989, right when they finally achieved some chart success with “Callin’ Baton Rouge.” Garth Brooks respected them so much that he asked the band to regroup for his 1993 recording of the song.
Their 1986 self-titled album is still in heavy rotation on my CD player and is definitely one of my Top 20 of all time favorites. Their original albums are hard to come by, even in used bins. There are a few different “Best Of” compilations floating around, so be sure to grab one if you don’t have anything by NGR.
Second is the Johnson Mountain Boys. What NGR was to progressive bluegrass in the 1980s, the Johnson Mountain Boys was to neo-traditional bluegrass. While other bands were dressing casual in blue jeans on stage, the Boys dressed as if they stepped out of a time machine from the 1940s. They approached each of their songs, whether it was an original or a cover, with the same attitude that Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs would use. Formed in the mid-1970s by guitarist/vocalist Dudley Connell, other notable members included Eddie Stubbs on fiddle, Tom Adams on banjo, David McLaughlin on mandolin and Marshall Wilborn on bass. Like NGR, they had their big break about the time they decided to break up when their live album At the Old Schoolhouse was nominated for a Grammy in 1988. Fortunately, they re-formed a little while later and recorded another Grammy-nominated album Blue Diamond in 1993 before calling it quits for a second time.
After the 1996 final breakup, members secured various music jobs. Connell works with the Seldom Scene as well as worked for Folkway Records. Eddie Stubbs still handles the weekday evening hours DJ-ing on WSM in Nashville. The band was signed to Rounder Records, a label that respects all of its artists, so fortunately music of the Boys’ back catalog is still available. Anyone wanting to know how to effectively cover a bluegrass standard and not make it sound amateurish should listen to an album from the Johnson Mountain Boys.
Chew on it and comment. Have a good 4th of July!