Pickin’ on Nashville 

Bluegrass further consolidates its place on the country mainstream

Bluegrass further consolidates its place on the country mainstream

You could say 2003 was another great year for bluegrass and leave it at that. It certainly would be true commercially, what with Del McCoury’s induction into the Opry and inroads with the jam band set, the success of Alison Krauss & Union Station’s Live (an album containing straight-ahead bluegrass along with stylistically more ambiguous material), as well as ongoing exposure on PBS and CMT. To be sure, there were no blockbusters like O Brother to seize the masses’ fancy—and the Chicks’ Home came out in 2002. But if anything, bluegrass’ influence on mainstream country music was more pervasive than ever this year.

Shania’s collaborations with Alison Krauss might not have passed muster with Bill Monroe, but they reflected a conviction that acoustic instruments and bluegrass rhythms and harmonies could serve not just as “color,” but also as a musical foundation for a radio-ready artist. Patty Loveless’ On Your Way Home drew on bluegrass as well, while the skittering Dobro that fueled Dierks Bentley’s “What Was I Thinkin’?” similarly owed an unconcealed debt to bluegrass. As, for that matter, did Bentley himself; a former (and still occasional) denizen of The Station Inn, he hired bluegrass singer Terry Eldredge and fiddler Shad Cobb to play on his debut and closed the record with backing from the McCourys on a full-on bluegrass number.

Perhaps the greatest measure of bluegrass’s influence on commercial country music could be found in the mainstream’s adoption of the genre’s most emblematic, problematic instrument: the banjo. Reba McEntire’s “I’m Gonna Move That Mountain” rooted its inspirational force in David Talbot’s ringing banjo, while the appointment book of Krauss’ banjo player Ron Block filled up with sessions for the likes of Brad Paisley. Small victories, maybe, but notable ones, especially when they rested upon a much larger bed of bluegrass sounds and influences like those heard on the Grammy-nominated Louvin Brothers tribute, Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’.

Indeed, if a theme bound together the year’s bluegrass developments, it was this: The cachet attached to this most virtuosic form of country music is no evanescent thing. When the country video channels and even mainstream country radio offer a platform for the banjoist’s “minner dipper,” it’s news.

—Jon Weisberger

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