How a Yankee New Yorker became a fan of Bluegrass Music

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 andCapture14 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 wasCapture15 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.

30 thoughts on “How a Yankee New Yorker became a fan of Bluegrass Music

  1. The first time I heard the name Alison Krauss was when I was reading the sleeve notes on a Susan Ashton CD in the late 90s. She said Alison had “the voice of an angel”.

    I then pursued music by Alison and discovered a band with whom she played/sang, Union Station. Beautiful music.

    Then the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” came out, with Alison and other great musicians on the soundtrack. I bought the CD, played it till it became scratched beyond use, bought another copy, got all my CDs stolen from me, and bought a third copy. I lost track after that. I may have lost and re-bought again.

    Although that movie is peppered with cussing, which I hate to hear, the dialogue, characters, and story in O Brother make up for it. It has been a favorite if mine since it was new.

    Another bluegrass musician I discovered through that movie was Gillian Welch. I love her voice, especially when she harmonizes with other great voices such as Alison Krauss.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Steeny! Yup, I’m aware of Gillian Welch, another very rootsy singer! Alison has a lovely singing style. I really enjoyed her Bluegrass music with Union Station but I’m not thrilled with her cro$$over into mainstream.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Going to have to check this out! I’m a West Coast guy that also likes blue grass; going back to your comment: Wow, you guys now do training through internet? Crazy how things have changed in terms of technology

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RE: working through internet

      I appreciate that I can work at home via the internet until I’m done. There’s a woman who worked next to me at the office. She started WFH one day a week which eventually turned into two then three, etc. She hasn’t been into work for THREE years. Our boss let her get away with it because he didn’t want to confront the situation. I figured they would both get fired but that didn’t happen. She just got laid off like I did.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, very rare is the employee who’s going to do the same amount of work with zero accountability. It was definitely the strangest scenario I ever saw in my 43 years at Kodak.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have a son that plays bluegrass! Played and recorded a few songs with a group he went to college with called The Kindred Sisters for Bourbonnais! He opened for Garth Brook’s daughter when she came to our small town!
    He plays ALL kinds of instruments! Truly a gift from God!! i don’t know if he realizes the depth of that!!
    He even plays the spoons and a washboard !!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s great that your son is a gifted musician and plays Bluegrass! I always wished that I could play guitar. I googled The Kindred Sisters and I see they called it quits in July 2017. Thanks for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. People can joke and belittle bluegrass all they want. It takes pure skill and talent to play a banjo!!

    Aside from that, it’s really awesome music! Something about it really tells a message. Some new stuff is crappy, but the old stuff and hymns are great!

    Liked by 1 person

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