Bluegrass has changed mightily since 1970, when Bill Monroe—the music's inventor and a bandleader as immersed in his Southern cultural milieu as was jazz maestro Duke Ellington in his hip, uptown scene—talked about it in idealistic terms. "There's a lot of mechanical music being played today," Monroe told writer James Rooney. "And bluegrass is strictly not mechanical. It's strictly heartfelt music; it's gotta be. You gotta like it to play it because moneywise there's no living to be made for no sideman out of it." As this year's International Bluegrass Music Association conference demonstrates, bluegrass is both big business and a tenacious, flexible art whose practitioners are adept genre-benders, even if the form remains rooted in Monroe's precepts.
Started in 1985, the IBMA held its first trade show the following year and moved from Louisville, Ky., to Nashville in 2003. In the wake of the acclaimed soundtrack to 2000's O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the organization has kept pace with the music's growth. Attendance at IBMA's annual business conference, showcases and award show has been increasing. (IBMA executive director Dan Hays says he expects around 20,000 visitors this year.) Bluegrass musicians such as Dan Tyminski and Alison Krauss are stars, and their music epitomizes the sort of heartfelt crossover that looks easy but comes from hard work and devotion to craft.
Along with the usual names up for awards—Krauss, The Del McCoury Band, banjoist J.D. Crowe—the conference hosts newcomers such as Cadillac Sky, a Texas quintet with a bracingly experimental take on bluegrass, and singer-songwriter Jan Bell, who grew up in Yorkshire, England, and moved to Brooklyn 20 years ago. Bell's music isn't strictly bluegrass, but her reworking of old-time country and jug-band blues is remarkably nuanced. It embodies the wide-open spirit of what has become an antic, hybrid genre.
"I was studying English literature and theater in England and had a view on building a career in community theater," Bell says. What she calls a "student-exchange scheme" got her to New York state, where she taught theater in a summer camp for children. Growing up in coal-mining country, she learned about music on a strictly local level and witnessed the kind of labor unrest familiar to residents of eastern Kentucky.
"I was born in a little coal-mining village, and in my teens there was a lot of political struggle," Bell says. "They were closing all the coal mines, and my grandfather and uncles were going on picket lines. So I started to see music and hear music in those places, for working-class people that didn't have musical ambitions but played just to keep themselves going. When I first came to this country and was traveling through Kentucky and Virginia, I thought I was hearing broad Yorkshire."
Along with her early experiences with working-class music, Bell cites the post-punk ferment of early '80s British music as an influence. "Back then, one of the first times I ever saw somebody singing with a guitar, I thought, wow—that was Billy Bragg," she remembers. "Billy Bragg was playing in this burnt-out building and getting people to vote for Neil Kennock, the Labour Party leader at the time. I thought playing an acoustic guitar was pretty cool. You can pack a punch with it."
Substitute mandolin or banjo for acoustic guitar, and make the abandoned building an American club or festival stage, and Bell's story rings true for any number of musicians. Still, Bell says she came to America with a limited notion of bluegrass. "I knew who Dolly Parton was, and Loretta Lynn. Bill Monroe, I had never heard of him before I came to America. This was before O Brother came out, and now I think people in Britain and Europe know much more about old-time country and Americana."
After honing her skills and smarts as a street musician in New Orleans, Bell joined with bassist Melissa Carper to start The Maybelles. Recently the group has added violinist Katy Rose Cox, whose wild, rhythmically charged solos and accompaniment make her the bluegrass equivalent of Flying Burrito Brothers' steel-guitar wizard "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow. On last year's Leavin' Town Cox powers their version of Gillian Welch's tale of rape and murder, "Caleb Meyer," and her instrumental showcase, "Devil's Gap," races along like an out-of-control moonshine Cadillac down a series of hogback roads.
Leavin' Town is a brilliant record, with Bell's breathy and slightly reticent voice contrasting with her sharp phrasing. As do many modern bluegrass artists, Bell takes the music out of the country and into another place. For her, it's New York City. "Cowgirl Blues" contains the lines, "I see the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan too / I see the East River flowing, baby, down to you." Carper's "Been Probed" stands with The Byrds' 1966 "Mr. Spaceman" as droll science-fiction bluegrass: "I'm prayin' for my sins / And I let 'em take me into that gospel mothership in the sky," they sing.
Meanwhile, Cadillac Sky's delirious Gravity's Our Enemy combines ace songwriting with restless arrangements. Singer and mandolinist Bryan Simpson writes songs about battered women and the downside of stardom, and displays a real feel for paranoia on "Inside Joke." They're nominated for an IBMA award for Emerging Artist and are clearly an ambitious group.
"We've tried to assert ourselves as an instrumental band as much as a vocal band," Simpson says. After a stint playing fiddle in Sara Evans' touring band, Simpson went back home to Fort Worth, where he started Cadillac Sky in 2002. "What we're trying to do is use bluegrass instrumentation and create a sound of our own," he continues. "We try to not let any barriers come into what we're doing, and try to be true to each song we write."
Gravity's Our Enemy is a rich record that displays an almost obsessive ear for detail. The complex backing vocals highlight the narratives, which play off country-music conventions without falling into cliché. In love with its own prowess, Gravity occasionally misfires—"Thank You Esteban" is as tricky and empty as some deservedly forgotten fusion-jazz instrumental by the likes of Jean-Luc Ponty—but it's a high-concept collection that repays repeated listening.
For straight-down-the-line bluegrass, Dailey & Vincent's self-titled debut recalls past glories but sounds freshly minted—appropriate for a couple of veterans striking out on their own. (Jamie Dailey gained notice singing with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, while Darrin Vincent honed his chops as harmony vocalist with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder.) "Cumberland River" and "More Than a Name on a Wall" might sound a little sentimental, but you can be a committed secularist and still get off on the sprightly "Place on Calvary," which features an irresistible chord progression and first-rate interplay between Dailey's lead tenor and Vincent's harmonizing baritone.
Nominated for 10 IBMA awards, Dailey & Vincent are riding high, and they ascribe at least part of their success to their ability to run the band like a business. "I had watched Doyle [Lawson] for years do his business dealings, and I learned a lot from that," Dailey says. "And somebody else I've learned a lot from, the way they did business, was The Statler Brothers. Everything that came in, they paid close attention to with detail."
Vincent agrees. "Proverbs says, if you're gonna go into battle, then you need the best advisers around you possible." (Vincent is likely referring to Proverbs 24:6 and its advice: "For by wise guidance you can wage your war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.") It sounds like the music business, sure enough.
For all that, what keeps this particular roots music vital is its combination of traditionalism, newfangled ambition and greed. There's money to be made even for sidemen these days, so it's likely Bill Monroe would be pleased. As IBMA's Dan Hays says, "I think Bill Monroe would want today's bluegrass musicians to play in the mold he created. But I think he'd be happy to see what they've done with his music."
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