The bluegrass world endures largely self-sufficient outside the popular music mainstream, with magazines, blogs, charts, festivals and a robust and dedicated audience all to itself. But people — especially those outside that world — can have pretty different ideas in mind when they invoke "bluegrass" as a musical descriptor.
There's a tendency to call any band that could, theoretically, make it through a performance sans amplification a bluegrass band. The term has even been thrown out there a time or two in conjunction with the acoustic indie-rock supergroup Monsters of Folk. On the other hand, it's not uncommon at all to encounter the notion that bluegrass straddles an absolute dichotomy — that it's either hardcore traditional (just like Bill Monroe did it) or ultra progressive (laced with jazz and rock). But not all of this necessarily jibes with the real-life 21st-century bluegrass spectrum on display this week while the genre's big players and fans convene at the IBMA World of Bluegrass conference, Awards Show and Fan Fest.
Just to put things in perspective, as much time has passed since newgrassers started putting progressive spins on bluegrass as went by between Bill Monroe's developing the bluegrass sound and the young guns customizing it. Mandolin master Sam Bush was one of those youngsters — now, he's a newgrassy veteran of stature, nominated in several IBMA Award categories. Members of a new newgrass-influenced generation — the Infamous Stringdusters — are up for Instrumental Group of the Year alongside him. They've released three increasingly intricate albums since early 2007 — when they won Emerging Artist and Album of the Year — and they play as many rock clubs these days as bluegrass venues. They were one of a few just-out-of-college bluegrass bands who got rolling over the course of the last decade. Some others were the Steep Canyon Rangers (named Emerging Artist of the Year in 2006), King Wilkie (2004's Emerging Artist of the Year), Chatham County Line and Cadillac Sky.
All three have since migrated away from bluegrass — the style and the scene. Where once they might've taken the late '40s and early '50s as their guides — especially King Wilkie and Chatham County Line — they're now in more of a late-'60s and early-'70s folk-rock headspace, complete with piano and drums. Cadillac Sky enlisted the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach as producer and came up with some nervy unplugged indie rock. So what makes the difference in a young band's trajectory? Why does a group like the Stringdusters get a little more experimental yet stay plugged in to bluegrass, while some of their peers headed elsewhere?
Jon Weisberger, songwriter, bass player and astute chronicler of bluegrass, says, "[T]he guys in the 'Dusters — not all but most — had what you could call almost a classic bluegrass pedigree. They had played with older artists and learned stuff from them and kind of became acculturated, part of the bluegrass culture, so that everybody — including much more traditional folks — knows them and knows who they are and therefore can see what they're doing as an extension of what they came up doing.
"As opposed to guys like King Wilkie," Weisberger continues, "who, even when they were doing very traditional-minded music — and I don't mean this as a negative thing, but I think it's the right term — they were more outsiders. Even when they won the award, nobody could point to them and say, 'Oh man, I knew him when he was playing with so-and-so, and I've been listening to this guy play the fiddle for 10 years and it's good to see him go out on his own.' "
Before the Stringdusters existed, guys in the band had played with pioneer and latter-day bluegrassers like Earl Scruggs, Bobby Osborne, Ronnie Bowman, Mike Snider and Alecia Nugent. Says the group's fiddler and singer Jeremy Garrett, who had a bluegrass band with his dad growing up, "Every single one of us, we have a huge amount of respect for the people that we played with and attribute a lot of the things that we learned, musically speaking, [to] them."
And in a genre that's as propelled by a sense of community as any genre on earth, respect on one side is bound to make a difference on the other: "I mean, we can walk through the IBMA hallway and pretty much all of us could know everybody that's in the hall that comes to that thing. And that's a pretty good representation of bluegrass people out in the field. So we've definitely all been around in the scene for quite sometime. And we try to be good guys, you know, so I think that sort of [works] for us. We're not really too much into mischief — maybe a little."
It stands to reason that things would be more straightforward on the traditional end of the bluegrass continuum — that musicians would either be traditional or not, simple as that. But that's not necessarily so. There's variety within the ranks. Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper (up for Entertainer of the Year), Danny Paisley & The Southern Grass and Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice (both in the running for Emerging Artist of the Year) make hard-edged, fleet-fingered, emphatically rustic music in the spirit of the standard-setting first generation bluegrass. Then there's a band like the Gibson Brothers — up for Vocal Group and Album of the Year — who've got a similar edge to their brotherly harmonies, but also work quality Americana singer-songwriter fare into their repertoire.
Sisk, for one, grew up on the Stanley Brothers lonesome mountain sound, and after contributing songs and vocals to other groups has earned rightful notice singing lead in his own with his reedy, straight-and-true Virginia twang. Sisk is far from an old-timer, but he's already planted himself right where he plans to stay
"Any entertainer that can feel what he's singing, it gets across better than a lot of the country acts that are up there shakin' their butt," Sisk says good-naturedly. "[They're] making their money — a whole lot more money — but it's not the field for me. I mean, I gotta feel a song before I can sing it, and that's pretty much the way all the rest of the guys are too. So many bands are going in different directions now that I figure that there's still a place for hardcore traditional music, and that's what I wanna do. ... When nobody wants to hear that anymore, I'll just get out of it."
A great many bluegrass acts out there are traditional-minded, but also highly polished — the hills of Kentucky come to town. Weisberger calls them "contemporary" or "Nashville traditional" bluegrass. "It's not newgrass," he says, "but it's not traditional either."
The "Nashville" part of the descriptor denotes similarities between some bluegrass tracks—vocal-driven ballads in particular—and certain other kinds of music made in these parts. Says Weisberger, "If [country radio] programmers dared decide they wanted to go look not very far outside the box sonically speaking, they could find stuff on a Rhonda Vincent album or a Grascals album or a Dailey & Vincent album."
As a duo, Dailey & Vincent are still fairly new bluegrass stars, but they've been around a while. Before they joined forces in 2008 — a year they netted Entertainer and Emerging Artist of the Year awards and won three more categories besides —Dailey served nine years with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Vincent (kid brother of Rhonda) spent a full decade with Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. Over the course of two albums' worth of originals, a Statler Brothers tribute and an a cappella gospel set, they've worked in Gillian Welch and David Rawlings covers, string-backed ballads and country-pop quartet numbers among the more traditional bluegrass songs and given them all burnished, harmony-rich treatments. Their mixture has clearly found an audience.
Says Vincent, "The cool thing is we could take all this, the folk music of Gillian Welch and even the polished gospel or the country stuff and the quartets, [and] if you take our voices, we are bluegrass traditionalists in our hearts and our voices. So we try to find the songs that speak to us and speak to our audience and we sing it and try to make them Dailey & Vincent material, and people have really loved that."
And if bluegrass people love it, then it must be bluegrass.
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