Bluegrass Music

Norman Blake and Peter Rowan

The 2022 IBMA Hall of Fame inductees this year include three well-deserved champions of the music format. The awards will be presented to radio broadcast pioneer Paul “Moon” Mullins, multi-instrumentalist Norman Blake, and vocalist/guitarist Peter Rowan. Allow me to speak a bit on Blake and Rowan.

For Norman Blake, this award should have been presented long ago. His history with Americana music is legendary. After service in the US Army, he moved to Nashville to become a sought-after studio musician. His early career in Music City included a long-time stint with Johnny Cash, appearing on a number of his albums and the much-heralded television show. His friendship with Johnny and June Carter lasted long after that tenure, as he appeared on June’s final album, released just after her death in 2003. He also appeared on Bob Dylan’s classic Nashville Skyline album.

What he is probably best known for is his guitar work on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? film. His style fit perfectly with the time period of the film, and I do believe that no other guitarist could have captured those period sounds. He also toured with many of the other artists for the Down From the Mountain world tour. He and his wife Nancy have always been an institution in acoustic music performance, switching between guitars, violins, mandolins, and cellos to create one of the most beautiful acoustic musical atmospheres. I still remember an incident years ago at the Wheatland Music Festival near Mount Pleasant, Michigan. At a smaller stage, a local artist failed to show up, and the two of them took it upon themselves to get up on stage and entertain the crowd. It was a beautiful moment in musical time.

Musically, what I value most about him is the work that he did with Tony Rice. The two Blake & Rice albums are amazing to listen to. Both men are geniuses on the six-strings, and complement each other with their unique styles. Both of these albums continue to remain on my “often played” list, and I implore anyone out there reading this to buy one or both of these classic acoustic guitar albums. In many articles that I have read regarding Blake, either as a direct interview or a third-party observance, he has never really considered himself a bluegrass guitarist. However, just one listen to any of his classic songs, such as “Whiskey for Breakfast,” “Ginseng Sullivan,” or “Church Street Blues,” there is no denying that his style of guitar playing has influenced a number of today’s bluegrass pickers. Search him out on YouTube, or check out some of his performance and instructional videos on .

Peter Rowan came to recognition as one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys back in the mid-1960s. While his time in the band was not long, it was enough for bluegrass fans and critics to see how powerful of a singer this kid from Massachusetts really was. During his time there, he co-wrote with Monroe one of bluegrass’ most popular standard songs, “Walls of Time.” As the 60s progressed, Rowan left the Blue Grass Boys and looked for alternative means to express himself. He worked with David Grisman in Earth Opera, then formed Seatrain with fellow ex-Blue Grass Boy Richard Greene along with former members of The Blues Project.

By the early 1970s, his bluegrass roots came calling back, first in the progressive bluegrass project Muleskinner with Greene, Grisman and guitarist Clarence White, then with the jam-session-turned-legend Old & In The Way with Grisman, Vassar Clemens and Jerry Garcia.. Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Rowan would perform in various folk, bluegrass, and reggae projects, including working with his brothers in The Rowans, as well as his daughter Amanda. His most popular project during this time was the country/Western swing band The Mexican Air Force.

During the early 2000s, he recorded two phenomenal albums with guitarist Tony Rice as the Rowan & Rice Quartet. During a tour to support the second album Quartet is when I got to see what a charming and personable man Rowan is. I was finishing writing an article on the band’s mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist, and was backstage at the show in Ann Arbor talking to Gilchrist, Rice and Rowan, who had a dozen people around him like he was some sort of prophet or preacher. He looked a bit tired, but you could see that he truly enjoyed talking about his personal history as well as anything musically related. He never took advantage of his status in the bluegrass music field, instead enjoying listening to others who had stories as well.

Rowan’s catalogue is massive. However, I do recommend checking out the Old & In The Way albums as well as the Muleskinner CD/DVD recording of a television show that the band did, replacing Bill Monroe due to the bus breaking down on the way to the studio. Songs like “Midmight Moonlight,” Panama Red,” and “Knocking On Your Door” showcase a beautiful voice that will stand the test of time in bluegrass.

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.

Bluegrass Music

O Brother, Where Art Thou? at 20

Well, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is now 20 years old, and where is the state of bluegrass now? Has it influenced enough people over the years to take an interest in the format in the long run, or was it a fluke?

Since I was around and involved with the roots-music business 20 years ago as well as now, I think that I have a good perspective of what has happened. I was at an Americana Music Association conference in Nashville when there was initial fanfare about the film. Those of us there thought that it would have a small impact on the entertainment industry, primarily due to George Clooney starring in the film. The concert that would eventually become the Down From the Mountain documentary had just been performed a few months earlier. The film had some success, but not anything spectacular at the box office. However, I don’t think any of us would have guessed the soundtrack would become so popular.

We watched as for two to three years afterward, the recording industry was swamped with bluegrass and roots-music releases. Ralph Stanley got a Grammy for his vocal performance, which meant that people were re-discovering Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs recordings. Bluegrass artists such as Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs were being highlighted on mainstream television programs. Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch became go-to references in the industry.

By 2005, it seemed that the spotlight had faded for the most part. Flavor-of-the-day fans moved on to the next musical craze. However, there was a strong, albeit small, contingent of fans that continued to listen and love bluegrass music. It wasn’t as powerful as, say, the grunge music fandom, but it did keep bluegrass within reach of curious parties.

From that point, we did see a gain in young musicians who took more than a passing interest in the format and strived to become successful. Krauss’ Union Station band became a supergroup in bluegrass, and kids looked up to them the same way aspiring young rock musicians would look up to My Chemical Romance, Green Day, or The White Stripes. I can still remember seeing an 11-year-old Sierra Hull playing mandolin like it was a natural extension of her body. And of course, Nickel Creek probably did more for young people to take an interest in acoustic music than any other band at the time

There were some great young bluegrass bands to come out during this time period. The Steep Canyon Rangers, The SteelDrivers, King Wilkie, Cherryholmes, and The Grascals are the more recognizable names. Then there was the swarm of acoustic bands that had a small foot in bluegrass but were much more experimental. These included The Punch Brothers, Crooked Still, Mumford & Sons, and Trampled by Turtles to name a few. During the past decade, comedian Steve Martin has taken a big interest in bluegrass music, particularly with the banjo’s influence. His solo music work and work with the Steep Canyon Rangers has pushed bluegrass back into the popular music interest for some short spurts. Add to that his annual award to banjo players along with his connections to late-night talk shows gets bluegrass some quick exposure.

Bluegrass has changed. While bands still perform standards (just as local rock bands still perform Chuck Berry, Beatles, and old Rolling Stones songs), but the young performers want to go further. Sierra Hull, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle can still play those old-time fiddle songs, but they also want to have their own acoustic sound. Same with two of my favorite bands out now: Mile Twelve and Hawktail. What OBWAT has done is pigeonholed a lot of these young artists. Because there is not electric guitars or drums, the passing music listeners tend to list them as bluegrass.

So does that mean that bluegrass as a format has expanded out to where it is hardly recognizable? Has it gone the route that rock-n-roll led to just “rock” music? One thing that I do know is that there are a lot of young bluegrass players out there, both traditional and progressive, that were not even born when the film and soundtrack came out, yet use them as tools to learn about the format.

I leave you with some videos of young bluegrass performers. The band is the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys. They first appeared on the David Letterman show about 10 years ago, and the second being what they are like today.

Chew on it and comment.