A couple of weeks ago, I threw a birthday bash for my wife and after everybody left, I crawled into bed and aimlessly surfed the cable channels as is my nightly custom. When I got to PBS, I saw they were broadcasting a documentary about the history of Bluegrass music. Are you kidding me? I love Bluegrass music! I watched the show for about thirty-minutes until I started to fall asleep, but caught the entire thing via on-demand the next day. Great stuff! If you’re a fan of Blugrass, you’ll really enjoy this documentary:
Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music
Produced by Kentucky Educational Television
PBS premier, August 30th, 2019, Length: 1 hr 58 min
To view online see here.
So how does a person born and raised in Western New York become a fan of “hillbilly” Bluegrass music?
While I was growing up in the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y. in the 1960s, my older sisters always had their Beatles records blasting from the family phonograph. Having a mind of my own, I eventually adopted the Byrds* as my favorite band, but other musical forms piqued my interest as well. I can clearly remember hearing the opening theme music of “The Beverley Hillbillies” television comedy when it premiered in 1962 and being absolutely fascinated by the lightning-quick banjo picking of Earl Scruggs (accompanied by guitarist, Lester Flatt). Flatt and Scruggs caught my attention again, as well as the rest of the nation, when their Bluegrass tunes were featured in the 1968 film, “Bonnie and Clyde.” Then there was the popular “Dueling Banjos” song featured in the 1972 movie, “Deliverance.” No, I didn’t have any Bluegrass records yet, but I definitely liked the sound.
Chris Hillman started out very young as a Bluegrass mandolin player, but was drafted into rock and roll as the bassist for the Byrds in 1964. With Hillman on board, the Byrds did take some notable excursions into country music, but he quit the group in 1968 and attempted to combine rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and country music with his new band, the Flying Burrito Brothers. The experiment, documented by three studio albums, was artistically brave and noteworthy, but a commercial failure. Hillman and the FBBs ended their four-year run with the release of the live LP, “The Last of the Red Hot Burritos,” in 1972. The latter-day Burritos had begun including a Bluegrass set within their concerts and this album featured three Bluegrass performances, “Dixie Breakdown,” “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” and “Orange Blossom Special.” I loved it. I mean, really loved it. No, I didn’t run out and buy a bunch of Bluegrass albums, but I definitely had an affinity for the music. Hmm. Do I sense an album review coming up in the near-future?
Years passed by and as I was walking through Borders Book Store in 1995, a new CD was being played through the store’s sound system; “Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection,” a retrospective of the early recordings of Bluegrass artist, Alison Krauss. Wow! Great music! I bought that CD and eventually also bought Krauss’ five-album back catalog and stayed current with her new releases.
Over the years, I’ve gotten to know many of the artists and some of the history of the Bluegrass genre. Bill Monroe (1911-1996) is credited with taking various strains of Appalachian roots music and melding them into Bluegrass beginning in the 1930s. In Bluegrass, you’ll often hear songs with Gospel themes. Hillman has continued to feature Bluegrass on his solo albums. I generally don’t buy CDs anymore, but I will make an exception for a new Krauss album (although she’s sadly been crossing over into mainstream music more and more). Mandolinist, Sierra Hull, is pretty good, too.
So, that’s how a Yankee, born and raised, improbably became a fan of Bluegrass music.
*The lead guitarist of the Byrds, Roger McQuinn, came from a folk background. He didn’t know any better and multiple-finger picked his twelve-string Rickenbacker guitar like he had his banjo, creating a unique, “jingle-jangle” sound that became the band’s signature.