This column is the first of a series about bluegrass music. My goal here is to talk a bit about the history of the music and some of the people who helped make bluegrass what it is today. One can enjoy the music without knowing much about it but a little background can often enhance enjoyment and understanding.
In today’s column I want to introduce myself, let you know what to expect here, and mention a few books for those interested in a deeper look at the subject matter.
Just a few words about my musical background: I have been playing, studying, and listening seriously to bluegrass for about 40 years, although I first heard recorded bluegrass much earlier, as a small child in the early 1960’s during what is now called the “folk revival.” I play primarily mandolin and resonator guitar (commonly called Dobro, which is a brand name), and I also play some banjo and guitar. I have been a member of several bands in the Hudson Valley region since the 1980’s.
In the coming weeks I will focus on aspects of bluegrass history and its often colorful personalities that I believe are both interesting and helpful in showing how we got from the roots to today. But I don’t promise a strictly chronological historical narrative. My approach will be more impressionistic and I will probably jump around a bit. The bluegrass I like best is traditional, and it’s what I know most about, so that’s where my focus will be.
For those wanting to learn about bluegrass music in a lot more depth, I recommend Bluegrass A History, by Neil V. Rosenberg (Illinois 1985); Bill Monroe The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man, by Tom Ewing (Illinois 2018); Traveling The High Way Home Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music, by John Wright (Illinois 1993); Bluegrass Breakdown The Making of the Old Southern Sound, by Robert Cantwell (Illinois 1984); and Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown The Making of an American Classic, by Thomas Goldsmith (Illinois 2019). There is also an excellent chapter on bluegrass in Bill Malone’s comprehensive study of country music, Country Music USA (Malone and Laird, 50th Anniv. ed., Texas 2018). Finally, there is insightful critical commentary on many top bluegrass recordings through the early 1980’s in The Best of Country Music, by John Morthland (Doubleday 1984). There are many other worthwhile books about bluegrass and the leading musicians.
Finally, a caveat–I don’t purport to be the last word on these subjects. I am not trained as a folklorist, historian, or musicologist and my perspective is that of a dedicated musician, student, and most importantly, fan of bluegrass. But I have been at it a long time and I have given a lot of thought to the music. I hope that some of you may find that some of what I have to say makes you want to learn more about the music that we love, or better yet, makes you want to go listen to it or pick up an instrument and sing and play it. I welcome any feedback, comments, criticism, corrections, etc., through the HVBA Newsletter. Bluegrass is by definition a group activity-please let me know what you think. See you next week.