Many have asked the question: “just what exactly is bluegrass music, and what are its limits?” The argument usually seems to go to the elusive idea of authenticity, which in turn leads to concepts beyond the immediate problem of figuring out if a CD with a piano on it is bluegrass or not. Some existentialist philosophers, with their concern for the experience of the true self in relation to community and culture, described authenticity as that which is created, or decided, out of one’s true self and core values or identity, without reference or concession to prevailing social or artistic norms.
Seen this way, the authentic artist is a trailblazer, often misunderstood in his or her time, but always the bearer of a personal aesthetic vision. On the other hand, the psychologist Erich Fromm had a more accessible notion of authenticity: an act or creation was authentic if it was done deliberately- that is, according to one’s chosen goals and values, wherever they come from. That is, one doesn’t always have to do or create something new or unique, you just have to be doing what you, as an individual, really want to do, and then it’s an authentic act.
Forgive my brief tangent here, but these are the things I think about when presented with two such radically different sorts of recordings as Dogwood Winter and Music in the Air. The first album is by two long time bluegrass veterans, Steve Gulley ((of Quicksilver and Mountain Heart (now with Grasstowne)) and Tim Stafford, long-time guitar player with Blue Highway and recent biographer of Tony Rice. Yet while some tracks, like “Deep End Man” and the title track are classic, banjo driven, bluesy modern bluegrass, others, like “Torches” and “Nebraska Sky” are more like acoustic soft-rock; think James Taylor backed up by Union Station with lounge piano. Please note: these are beautiful, well-crafted and catchy tunes, but to call them “bluegrass” requires the first, more individualistic notion of “authenticity” described above: since these cuts bear little relation to what Mac or Lester recorded, you can call them bluegrass by understanding that Gulley and Stafford have a different vision, one of acoustic music rooted in themes of home, memory, family and other familiar bluegrass themes.
Then again, “Sixteen Cents” could have rolled off any Norman Blake album, a simple story accompanied by just guitar – but guitar that is masterful in its ability to sound simple but astonish in its fullness. “How Did That Turn Into My Problem” is a new bluegrass classic: snarky lyrics and bluegrass attitude to spare. “Angel On Its Way” could be contemporary acoustic country music; I wouldn’t be surprised to hear it on the radio someday, given the full Nashville treatment.
That’s not something I’ll ever expect from the Sky Blue Boys, whose notion of authenticity is more like Fromm’s: they are proud revivalists, trying to evoke something from the past, something historical, but communicating clearly that this is their joy. There’s only one original on the whole record, a mandolin instrumental called “Summer Fantasy,” which is an odd tune, feeling at times like a mandolin orchestra melody from the 30’s but has an interlude in the middle which sounds like the soundtrack from a 50’s cowboy movie.
That’s the exception, however. The rest of the tunes are old string band or parlor tunes – and the ones that aren’t are made to sound like they are. The Amazing Rhythm Ace’s “Last Letter Home” is remade into something more melodramatic than it was meant to be, and Steve Earle’s “Ellis Unit One” is perhaps a bit too weighty and serious for the old-time revivalist treatment. It’s a devastating report from the front lines of the prison system, as their happy-sounding name implies, the Sky-Blue Boys just can’t quite pull it off with the same aplomb as they do with an old crowd-pleaser like “Are You From Dixie” or “Fools Fall in Love.”
Are the Sky Blue Boys bluegrass? Sort of. They are an acoustic band with banjo and mandolin at the core, but the high lonesome sound isn’t what they’re after. If you’re looking for some happy music which deliberately evokes an older and simpler time and place, without breaking any barriers or pretense to innovation, then you’d have a good time at their set at the festival.