Sunday, March 21, 2010

That High, Lonesome Sound

The Country Gentlemen--"Fox On The Run" (mp3)
Old And In The Way--"Panama Red" (mp3)
Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band--"Long, Lonesome Highway Blues" (mp3)
Yonder Mountain String Band--"Crazy Train (live)" (mp3)

There is probably no genre of music that is praised and disparaged with equal fervor like bluegrass.

To the non-initiated, it "all sounds the same"--whiny songs from the mountains with a sound and sensibility better suited to the Great Depression than to the 21st century.

To the devotee, it has roots and authenticity that its in-bred cousin, country music, can only (but doesn't) aspire to. The charm of those high, nasal harmonies matched with fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and, especially banjo breaks offers musical pleasure with a depth and soul of generations of musicians who have crossed oceans and cultures, who found a way to capture the pain of living not through the slow blues of their African-American counterparts, but with songs that brought instruments and melodies from Ireland and Scotland, along with themes of love, murder, and mayhem that would mutate in the New World, adding trains and travel and the great expanse of land that went with it.

I have my own, fairly-lengthy history with the genre, spanning some 35 years. With the influence of a high school friend who became pretty good at guitar and who studied tradtional, old-time, fingerpicking, and bluegrass styles, a number of us were initiated during those crucial teenage years into a love affair with the "high, lonesome sound."

When I got my first guitar at 18 and my friend started to teach me songs, he would challenge me with fiddle tunes like "Billy in the Lowground" or "Arkansas Traveler," songs where I learned both the flatpicked lead parts and the rhythm parts with their C or G runs, with the picked bass and strum patterns.

When we all turned 21 in Pittsburgh and went out to a bar to have a beer, we invariably chose a place called the Press Room (I think) up in Oakland, where they had a bluegrass band on Saturday nights. By then we were fledgling aficionados and would call out for "Fox On The Run" or "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" while we drank pitchers and ate beer nuts. Despite being located in an industrial Northern city, the place was packed every weekend.

There were several events that led to the acceptance of bluegrass among the rockers of my generation--when Clarence White left the world of bluegrass as a member of The Kentucky Colonels and joined the Byrds, when Jerry Garcia's side project with David Grisman, called Old and in the Way, became yet another way to bring "roots" music to Deadheads, and, probably as much as anything, when the co-mingling of rock and bluegrass in bands from the Flying Burrito Brothers to the Eagles led to the inevitable trading of guitar licks and the mutual admiration society that resulted exposed the country's hot flatpickers--the above-mentioned Clarence White, Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Norman Blake--to the rock audience.

Much of my disdain for modern country music comes from the simple fact that I had listened to so much bluegrass that I couldn't stomach the packaged sentiments of a genre that pretended to reflect places in America that had never existed in the first place.

Consider the following lyrics from the bluegrass classic "Fox On The Run:"

She walks through the corn leading down to the river,
Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun.
She took all the love that a poor boy could give her,
And left me to die like a fox on the run.

Like Bill Monroe's "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms" or Old and In The Way's cover of "Pig in a Pen," the simple language, the organic mention of place, the natural imagery establish universal truths in the songs. In Monroe's song, the narrator is going "lay around the shack/till the mail train comes back" and roll in his lover's arms. You wouldn't expect a song called "Pig in a Pen" to be a lament for lost love, but the protagonist has a pig, a pen, and corn to feed him, and all he "needs is a pretty little girl/To feed him when I'm gone." Simple. Real.

While I might have expected my move south 27 years ago to lead me to a great bluegrass city, I was mostly wrong (yes, I know about the Mtn. Opry, but I hoped for something more mainstream).

Years ago, decades ago now, there was a place called J.B. and Friends (which became Durty Nelly's, which is now Taco Mamasita) that featured bluegrass on the weekends. I took my wife there a few times when we were newly-married, attempting to create the feeling I had back in Pittsburgh when drinking beer and listening to bluegrass felt like the center of the universe.

No such luck at J.B.'s. On a variety of cocktail napkins, I sent up song requests. I was on a train kick that night, trains being central to so many bluegrass songs, and I requested "Old Train" by the Seldom Scene, "The Wabash Cannonball"(my dad's favorite), "New River Train" by the Kentucky Colonels, all without success. They didn't know the songs. Feeling both exasperated and arrogant, I finally sent up the request which must tell a bluegrass band that there's an asshole in the house. "Any train song," it read.

Now, there is a fair amount of music that passes as bluegrass, everything from the Avett Brothers and Allison Kraus to the experimentations of Bela Fleck and the hipster use of bluegrass settings in bands like Yonder Mountain String Band. And everyone has discovered what special touches its instruments can give to their songs, especially the surprising banjo, like on R.E.M.'s "Wendell Gee" or the mandolin that seems to be everywhere. Certainly, I'm no purist. I like most of the permutations and combinations, and even what I think is classic is far too rock-influenced for a purist. But if you can hear some of the old stuff, or some of legitimate updating, like Steve Earle's work with Del McCoury before they parted ways because Steve swears too much for bluegrass, maybe you'll agree that the sound is lonesome because it is so real. There isn't much company for that.

Though not featured above, the one bluegrass cd I would own if I could only own one would be The Seldom Scene Live At The Cellar Door. Amazingly, one of the members of the band is an alum of this school. I just learned that last year.


Wolfgang said...

Who says Avett Bros are bluegrass?? Are they the ones who call John Williams soundtracks "classical music"?

Thom Anon said...

Not to mention after a solid run of inspired albums, Steve Earle has lately begun to suck.

What does a poor country boy do who moves to the Upper West Side and can't get him no sustenance for his soul? Records a half-assed Townes Van Zandt covers record of course.


Bob said...

Wolfgang, my students think that the Avetts are bluegrass. Not the new cd necessarily, but the earlier stuff.

Thom Anon, that Townes cd is the first Steve Earle record that I did not buy, starting all the way back to Guitar Town. He's too good a songwriter for me to be interested in his covers of someone else, especially Townes, whose original versions are just fine.

jed said...

Earle is in freefall. last good album - "Jerusalem." Sweet pic of Tony Rice and Ricky Scaggs.