Believe it or not, the Tennessee Teens Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp aren't the only safe havens for young aspiring musicians in these parts. This very week, in fact, a group of tweens and teens have received coaching on their chosen instruments from players who really know their stuff. Soon these kids will be given their chance to show off in front of a lot more people than just their peers and parents. Welcome to the world of bluegrass, literally. The International Bluegrass Music Association's annual business conference, awards show and music festival — the official World of Bluegrass — culminates in the three-day Fan Fest, whose lineup devotes two separate spots to the fresh-faced bands in the Kids on Bluegrass program.
No matter how aggressively those kids attack their fiddle solos or chop the backbeat on their mandolins, their playing won't be taken as a sign of youthful alienation, angst or anything remotely like rebellion. In their performances, the adults will hear continuity — an encouraging display of the desire to follow in the footsteps of pickers who've come before.
Says Nancy Cardwell, the IBMA's new executive director, "I think because we aren't in the mainstream that people are just thrilled when someone younger shows an interest and wants to play the music and plays it well. They will go out of their way to show them a new lick or how to play a certain song, because we do want to pass it on."
Some of the most intense instruction happens when they first land in working bands. The early gigs in players' careers are often looked at as apprenticeships they serve before going off to do their own things. There's an analog in the in-the-trenches route people take to, say, mastering the art of tattooing, but it isn't a career trajectory you're likely to see much in any other commercial genre of music. It's been that way since Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys drafted the blueprints for bluegrass in 1946. In the midst of roughly a decade of formative sideman work, Bluegrass Hall of Famer Del McCoury spent 1963 as one of the Blue Grass Boys.
Though McCoury started on banjo, he says Monroe wanted him to play guitar. "He said, 'Now, you need to try that, because you'll like that better.' ... But you know what? I grew to like it because it was a challenge to play with 'em, play rhythm with 'em and sing with 'em. And I did. I grew to like it. Never seriously went back to playing banjo."
By 1967, McCoury was leading his own band, Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals, whose first opportunity to make an album came through Monroe, his former boss. The lineup changed several times before McCoury's sons Ronnie and Rob joined up in the mid-'80s. Kin or not, McCoury was experienced enough in the sideman life cycle not to bet on his progeny sticking with him forever.
"I told my wife, I said, 'These boys, when they get a little bit older and they get ideas of their own, they may be gone,' " says McCoury. "Because they started getting good on their instruments, and I thought they might get their own ideas about how to sing and play. That's a natural thing, really."
As this point, they've been with him more than a quarter-century. The music they make together is squarely in a traditional vein — McCoury has one of the world's most cutting, lonesome tenors — but the sons have also influenced their dad. It no doubt helps in the longevity department that Rob and Ronnie have their own side band, The Travelin' McCourys, as an outlet for their jammier impulses.
McCoury says Ronnie took up mandolin after sharing a memorable moment with Monroe, and a similar scene plays out in the YouTube video of young Jenni Lyn Gardner trying to keep up with Monroe's picking at an early '90s festival. Gardner is now the mandolin player in Della Mae, a buzzed-about all-female quintet nominated for IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year. She started in a family band in South Carolina before moving to Nashville and putting in time with Cages Bend and first-rate bluegrass singer Bradley Walker.
"I'd gotten sort of restless playing in the sideman situation," Gardner says. "When the opportunity came along for Della Mae, I immediately saw within it something that I would be able to have a creative voice, and that's kind of what the goal has been all along."
Half a century ago, the folk revival sparked an epidemic of college kids playing acoustic guitar, and some inevitably caught the bluegrass bug. It wasn't so different for The Steep Canyon Rangers at the close of the far-less-folk-friendly '90s. Three of them were attending the University of North Carolina when they took a blind leap into bluegrass.
"Lots of bands come together because they're all good at what they do on their instruments," says Woody Platt, the Rangers' lead singer and guitarist. "They go on to be successful because their talents have brought them together. Ours was just we were roommates and we were college buddies. Graham [Sharp], our banjo player, got interested in the banjo, and Charles [Humphrey], our bass player, was renting a bass from the music department. I just kind of was an innocent bystander." He'd never have guessed the Rangers would go on to land one of the most visible bluegrass backing gigs ever: with Steve Martin.
There's a video that shows Kids on Bluegrass predecessors the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars — which included a pre-peach-fuzz Chris Thile, Michael Cleveland, Josh Williams and Cody Kilby — performing during the IBMA Awards. (The festivities were held in Owensboro, Ky., back then, and they're moving to Raleigh, N.C., next year.) For players who shared a starting point, those four have made their marks on acoustic music in strikingly different ways. Cleveland's the fiddle-playing leader of a hardcore traditional band, and Thile pushes bluegrass to its illogical conclusions with The Punch Brothers' Radiohead-caliber elaborateness. But Thile can also make his way home from those exotic musical environs any time he wants, as he does in his trad duo with Michael Daves.
It makes a difference that bluegrass grows in a generational pattern. You won't hear of many bluegrass one-hit wonders, nor will you see bluegrass fans respond to the music in the lukewarm, noncommittal way that audiences often greet mainstream fare. Bluegrass is a niche for sure, but a robust one, and it exerts a strong pull. Musicians feel a deep sense of investment in the stuff they've played all their lives, and fans feel an attachment to the players they've seen grow up before their eyes. So rapt is the attention paid to pickers' careers that bluegrass trading cards — should anyone ever decide to make them — could really go over with the fans.
"It's kind of like ballplayers," says the IBMA's Cardwell. "They know every team that player has played with before."
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