I don’t know how I got interested in bluegrass music, a sub-genre of country music. I remember one year driving up to the town of Darrington in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, where they have a Bluegrass Festival in the summer, and not being too impressed because the majority of bands were local and I’d already heard them (yeah, me jaded in my youth!). Now that I think about it, maybe I went to hear some local group in a Seattle tavern, with my first husband in the 1980s. Anyway, it was long in the past and I don’t really remember how I first found bluegrass.
Bluegrass started in Appalachia, a backwoods area of America populated heavily by Scotch-Irish descendants of early American immigrants. They brought with them their musical traditions, including playing mostly acoustic stringed instruments. The 1940s and 1950s saw the flowering of bluegrass music, with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers spreading the musical form around the country.
In 1984, I re-started playing the violin, after not playing for 25 years. I took lessons, and gradually got back to playing fairly well. I thought I might get into some kind of group, and I did play in a string quartet and a piano trio. But I could never play bluegrass, since my bow-arm simply can’t go that fast! I did buy a “Fiddler’s Fakebook” of country melodies, so I can play through some of the songs I hear.
A few years ago, I bought and read Ralph Stanley’s autobiography, “Man of Constant Sorrow”, and was enchanted. He tells the tale of his upbringing in southwest Virginia, where he first sang in church. His story is just wonderful, filled with his homespun wisdom, gathered over 80 years. If you’ve seen the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou”, you have heard Ralph’s distinctive voice in “O Death”. Here is an old video of the Stanley Brothers singing “Rank Stranger”. Carter does the lead vocals here, as on most of their records. Carter Stanley died in 1966 from complications of alcoholism, and that story is the best argument I’ve ever heard against heavy drinking.
After Carter’s death, Ralph Stanley carried on, with his band the Clinch Mountain Boys. Music was his life.
In 2008, I bought a new car, and it had XM Satellite Radio installed (now Sirius-XM). When I got the channel guide, I noticed that they have a number of country-music channels, including one called “Bluegrass Junction”, which I immediately made a preset. Through listening in the car, I grew to like many performers and bands that I didn’t know about before. And the hosts of the various shows on Bluegrass Junction are musicians themselves, and they always have stories of other musicians they have played and sung with over the years.
Once a week, Bluegrass Junction has a one-hour program called “Hand-picked with Del McCoury”, and I learned to love Mr. McCoury and all the great bluegrass tunes he chooses to play. Last year, he added his two sons, Rob and Ronnie, to the program, and now on Saturday afternoons the three of them play their favorite songs by their own favorite groups, including themselves! Del has his own band, and the two sons have their own “Traveling McCourys” band. Here are a couple of videos of the McCourys and their bands.
Both the sons and Daddy on this one.
And the Traveling’ McCourys:
One of my favorite bluegrass singers is Claire Lynch. This is the first song I heard her sing on the radio.
On Sundays, host Ned Luberecki has a program he calls “More Banjo Sunday”, where he plays (in both senses of the word-he brings his banjo!) has favorite banjo tunes, and gives short lessons on banjo technique. This video is not from the radio, but Ned gives banjo tips for players.
Here’s one of my favorite songs, by Alecia Nugent. Hillbilly Goddess.
Chris Jones is another Sirius-XM Bluegrass host, whose weekly program is called “Truegrass”, which is old and original bluegrass songs from the earlier days of the genre. He also has his own band, and I found this really cool jam session, with his band and a couple of additions.
Of course, what’s a post on Bluegrass without some fiddle-players? My right arm cramps up just listening to some of this music.
Mark O’Connor grew up right here in Western Washington.
And to finish, gotta have Orange Blossom Special!
I hope I’ve kindled a love of Bluegrass in my readers. This is only a very tiny sampling of the wonderful musical world of bluegrass. Try it, you’ll love it!