That High Lonesome
February 28, 2010 8:21 PM   Subscribe

Bluegrass, it's said was invented by Bill Monroe,(yt) but where would bluegrass have been without the banjo style of Earl Scruggs?(yt) Together they created a sound that has become known as Bluegrass. In 1945 George Elam Scruggs joined up with Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, two years later Scruggs left to form a group with Lester Flatt(yt), but not before gifting Monroe with the amalgam that was and is Bluegrass. Other players like Chubby Wise born 1915, Lake City, Florida(yt), and bassist Howard Watts became known as the "Original Bluegrass Band". posted by nola (19 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
"It's got a hard drive to it. It's Scotch bagpipes and old
time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's
blues and jazz and it has a high lonesome sound. It's plain
music that tells a good story. It's played from my heart to
your heart, and it will touch you."-
Bill Monroe
posted by nola at 8:24 PM on February 28, 2010

Good stuff nola, thank you.
posted by peeedro at 8:48 PM on February 28, 2010

Bad Livers, Meat Purveyors.
posted by mwhybark at 9:17 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Winterhawk! This is great and thanks.
posted by herodotus at 9:21 PM on February 28, 2010

Cool. As someone whose "fangers" have done a few banjo rolls (anybody who has listened to the tape that came with the Earl Scruggs 5-string banjo book knows what I'm talking about), I like this post.
posted by smcameron at 9:36 PM on February 28, 2010

Hmm. I feel like sharing. When I was a kid, living in Florida, Gainesville area, to be precise, my dad played bluegrass fiddle, my uncle, bluegrass banjo, my other uncle, guitar and sang, another guy mandolin. Every other weekend or so, we'd all go out to a 20 acre "farm" that was owned by... er, someone in the family... and there'd be a campfire, and all these guys would sit around it and play and sing.

I thought this was normal. I thought this is how it was with everyone. I didn't think it was any big deal.

Now, looking back on it... holy crap. My parents were *so lucky* to have such a group to hang around with. I would *kill* to have people half as interesting and talented to hang out with.

For a bunch of hippy slackers, they were alright.
posted by smcameron at 9:47 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

First off: Yee Haw!

I'm a huge fan of Del McCoury and his boys, and I get out to see them whenever they roll around my parts. I highly recommend it if you haven't seen them live. Del is the classic Grand Ol' Opery gentleman, and his boys are some of the best musicians around.

I've also become a big fan of where bluegrass has evolved. There are New Grass / Jam Grass bands touring around that are absolutely fantastic. There's still the traditional instrumentation, but there's a lot of rock, jazz, and blues mixed in as well. Here's a small sample:

Emmitt - Nershi Band
are guys from String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon.

Yonder Mountain String Band younger group from Colorado.

Uncle Earl all female bluegrass band.

and here's Del's boys on their own.
The Travelin' McCourys
posted by doctoryes at 10:16 PM on February 28, 2010

Charles River Valley Boys, but I run hot and cold, strongly preferring earlier stuff. "Beatle Country" amuses and of course prefigures Hayseed Dixie, which I personally strongly prefer.

Some other folks, possibly not Googleable: Seattle's 78 RPM (Google proof for obvious reasons) and the Capitol Hillbilles (Googleproof as well, drum kit alert). Currently playing and more oldtimey, The Tallboys.

Nortwesterners may aslo be interested in just-ended Wintergrass and the I-am-quite-serious-its-been-running-nearly-35-years Darrington Bluegrass Festival, which is so, so worth the drive.

Pursuant to my laconic initial post, The Bad Livers are widely known. Based on my frustrated hunts for transcriptions of their brilliant originals, the Meat Purveyors are less recognized, but I have to tell you, it is the Meat Purveyors that run through my head fearlessly battling Ke$ha for supreme earworm status and often winning. If you like the High Lonesome and have a taste for the mordant, the foolish, and the selfless, you should check them out.

No disrespect to the founders, mind.
posted by mwhybark at 11:01 PM on February 28, 2010

smcameron, I was a similarly fortunate kid. When I was little in the mid 70's, my old man was something of a banjo picker, and every so often, we'd load up and go down to Knoxville to Buddy's Barbeque for Friday night bluegrass. It was nuts - I can vividly remember people dancing on the tables. I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8, but I knew it was freakin' awesome.
posted by lost_cause at 11:28 PM on February 28, 2010

[this is good]
posted by Afroblanco at 11:40 PM on February 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

fantastic post.

i'm just gonna leave these old crow medicine show links here, in case anyone wants them.

wagon wheel
tell it to me
next go 'round
down home girl
tear 'em down
posted by nadawi at 2:08 AM on March 1, 2010

Let's not forget Jimmy Martin, who put the high in high lonesome.
posted by sonascope at 4:13 AM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Three fingered banjo is a twisted path of influences. Be sure to check out Snuffy Jenkins and Pappy Sherill, without whom Earl Scruggs wouldn't have had any licks to steal...
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:25 AM on March 1, 2010

Just to throw down some names of the newer generation of bluegrassers:

Sam bush, Edgar meyer, Jerry douglas, mark O'Connor, Bela fleck, chris thile, Bryan sutton, David grisman, Tony rice, darol anger, Stuart Duncan, allson brown, Brittany haas,

I could go on. I'm relatively new to the music, and boy do I wish that I'd been exposed from when I was a kid, but in high school I let my musical tastes start to wander and after a few years they've ended up here. I think the best thing about bluegrass is most of the superstars can play at a level above lots of other pop or whatever genre musicians. There's sort of an inner circle of super 'pickers' who all started out with bluegrass as kids but couldn't sit still and keep themselves happy with the traditional. From Bach to brazillian choro tunes they sop up whatever might happen to spill on their kitchen table and proceed to wring out all kinds of tasty sounds.

But don't let my driveling fandom dissuade you. Just find the punch brothers, infamous stringdusters, strength in numbers, or any of the names above on youtbe and you're in for it.
posted by kjell at 7:40 AM on March 1, 2010

When you get deep into it, the genre names start to matter. People tend to use the term "bluegrass" to apply to a lot of music that isn't bluegrass. Old-time country music, for instance, isn't bluegrass. Old Crow Medicine Show is kind of a hybrid of old-time country, jug band, and bluegrass. Newgrass uses a lot of fusion sounds from pop and jazz. Bluegrass is a really specific style of arranging and playing songs that represented a new style, an innovation, which included a basic band composition (banjo, guitar, bass, fiddle), a brand new, visible role for the guitar (a previously second-tier instrument in country music), soloing, and multiple voices including voices singing in different arrangements than the lead (not just following along in harmony), more flatpicking and less frailing/fingerpicking, and a unique sound characterized by speed and by higher-than-usual vocal and instrumental pitches.

Not that that music isn't great, but as soon as I started getting into roots music I was schooled in this knowledge: bluegrass is something very specific.

Great post - thanks!
posted by Miko at 9:20 AM on March 1, 2010

I had to come back to share a few clips I found after staying up way too late listening to Bluegrass on the tubes. No mention of Bluegrass is complete, imho, without including the Stanley Brothers. For Newgrass, there's JD Crowe & the New South with a 1975 lineup that included Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs. And of course, John Hartford.

Miko's right, there are people who will seriously get their panties in a wad if you call something Bluegrass, and it doesn't feature a 5-string banjo played Scruggs style. I thought about posting some OCMS, but I'm reluctant to call it Bluegrass. Damn fine music, though. Hard not to like a band that sings "If you don't believe cocaine is good/You ask Karl Rove and Elijah Wood."

Thanks, nola, that's two nice posts in two days.
posted by lost_cause at 10:12 AM on March 1, 2010

Just wanted to add a little to Miko's comment that Uncle Earl are really more of an old-time band. Their fiddler Rayna even makes this careful point in an interview at Bonnaroo from a few years ago. As an old time player who sometimes dabbles in bluegrass, as Miko says, the genre distinctions are important. Old time is a beautiful tradition that often gets overlooked, and whoo boy, the divide between the two is something akin to the "crochet-knit" wars at times. Many thanks for the detailed post with some great music!
posted by Polyhymnia at 4:29 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, bluegrass purists can be pretty tiresome, and bluegrass banjo players are insane when it comes to their instruments and how they can make them sound more like Earl Scruggs' 1934 Gibson banjo (never mind that the banjo in question has had most of its parts replaced over the years.) They'll tone rings that have been dipped in liquid nitrogen to realign their molecules to make them sound "older". They'll have epic flamewars about whether it's OK to play the foggy mountain roll IMTI instead of IMTM.

I used to spend a fair amount of time lurking at The Banjo Hangout, and my impression is that for its hardcore fans and musicans, Bluegrass is almost as much of a worldview as it is a genre of music - being all down-home and folksy and wholesome and wearing matching western shirts and cowboy hats matters, dammit.

Like Miko & Polyhymnia said, the distinctions matter past a certain point, especially when you get into jam session etiquette. Bluegrass jams are all about going around the circle and trying to one-up each other playing fancy breaks. Old-time jams are (in my experience, anyway) all about just playing the tunes and having a good time... don't bring resonator banjo to an old-time session and start playing Foggy Mountain Banjo as fast as you can.

Oh, and although Earl Scruggs is generally acknowledged as the originator of the Bluegrass banjo style we've all come to know and love, Wade Mainer was doing some very similar things around the same time.
posted by usonian at 10:11 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, I'd never heard of Wade Mainer. And heck, not only is he neato, he's 102!
posted by Miko at 10:51 AM on March 2, 2010

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