Sunday, January 27, 2002

Down From The Mountain

mountainsMy love of bluegrass music began when I was a kid. My father would bring his musician buddies to the house and leisurely bend the strings in our small suburban living room. He played the bass. Banjos and guitars were known to happen.

Bluegrass was not a popular form so there were few opportunities to indulge. Over the years there would be the occasional Bonnie and Clyde soundtrack or the Dillards on The Andy Griffith Show (as the Darling Boys). "You got time to breathe, you got time for music." And there was the groundbreaking double LP Will The Circle Be Unbroken. All in all, few and far between.

But it was really the 1980 Emmylou Harris vinyl LP Roses in the Snow and the live bluegrass at Paul's Saloon in San Francisco that solidified my love of the genre--and the people who played it. From Emmylou's album I took notice of the names Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs and followed where those names led. And they led to JD Crowe, David Grisman and Jerry Douglas and many, many others. Paul's Saloon brought before me the names John Reischman, Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis.

Over the years I steadily added to my collection of recordings by these artists and the artists they played with and I felt that there was a sort of Renaissance of musical collaboration taking place. I honestly felt that the talent that had imbued the 1960s with an unprecedented creative outpouring had somehow transferred to the fine acoustic ensembles in the burgeoning bluegrass and old-time music circles.

I saw some defections. I saw mando-virtuoso Ricky Skaggs move his heart and soul to mainstream Country. I saw banjoman extraordinaire Bela Fleck move off into Grammy-winning experimental jazzgrass. And I saw song-bird mandolinists Rhonda Vincent courting the Country scene too. Although Roses In The Snow received the CMA Album of the Year Award, Nashville defected too; increasingly becoming an uninspiring twang-pop tune-mill.

But then like birds coming home in Spring I saw each of them return to the fold and strengthen the genre that had spawned them. Ricky Skaggs came back to bluegrass with Kentucky Thunder and four powerhouse straight-ahead bluegrass recordings. Skaggs, I'm sure, brought some of his Country fans with him too and he is on top of the charts. Rhonda Vincent gave up trying to please the critics and recorded Back Home Again and is now on top of the charts (she is IBMA Entertainer of the Year and her faces graces packages of Martha White Blueberry Mix). Eclectic Alison Brown has recently been seen heading for Fair Weather in her new highly-acclaimed release. Bela Fleck brought down the barn with Drive and Acoustic Planet. John Rieschman recently returned from his jazzy excursions to give us this charming number:

listen Bluegrass Signal from 'Up In The Woods', 1999 [Real Audio]

Then something strange and unexpected began to happen. Established mainstream artists began making a break. Dolly Parton recorded not one but two fully bluegrass recordings and New Country diva Patty Loveless recorded a rootsy Mountain Soul. Add to this the growing popularity of the three- and four-day bluegrass and acoustic music festivals now being held in every State.

And then the mother of all strangeness: O Brother Where Art Thou. O Joel and Ethan Coen, what hath ye wrought? T-Bone Burnett unleashed.

The film was great but the simple and authentic Americana soundtrack shot to number one on the Country charts and gladly stayed there for the longest time ("Over 4 Million Sold"). And just recently, this soundtrack returned to the number one spot and at no time was any of it played on any mainstream Country music stations. Hmmm. Yes, even after winning a Country Music Award and being nominated for several Grammy's. (Nice but less surprising was the IBMA top award secured.)

David Rawlings, Emmylou Harris, Gillian WelchWell, now comes Down From The Mountain. This is the live performance of the soundtrack music by the original recording artists padded out with other similar tunes to provide sold-out venues across the country with a mountain of fabulous music and an array of talent and big hearts that is a joy to behold.

Who would have thought that this marginal genre and the earnest players devoted to it would have gained nationwide headliner notoriety and the ability to actually make money playing the stuff previously performed mainly on backdoor stoops and largely unnoticed vinyl. They're even saying nice things about Jerry Douglas in New York City.

I would not have thought. But last night I sat in a far seat with my father at the Atlanta Civic Center and felt a mixture of overwhelming joy and awe, with a dash of pride, as star after star (in my eyes) sauntered humbly on stage to wow the packed and tune-humming crowd with mostly material from a standard repertoire developed from decades of back porches, outdoor festivals and little-known ensemble recordings.

(I would not have thought I would see Emmylou Harris chasing a runaway dog clear across the stage behind The Whites singing a Kitty Wells standard while dobro king Jerry Douglas guffaws along with a pleasantly surprised audience.)

I would not have thought that I would shuffle into a key venue in a major city and join with the throng in a standing ovation inviting an encore from a cross section of the oft-neglected string-band performers that I had loved and admired for over two decades.

A lot of things have changed since I was a kid. But the steady thump of a smooth-climbing doghouse bass run remains as vivid in my atmosphere as the day those meaty strings were first pulled at the ends of my father's fingers.

O Brother and the Bluegrass Boom. By Craig Havighurst, Acoustic Guitar Magazine, September 2002. Meanwhile, the record sold and sold and sold, racking up four million copies by the end of 2001 and nearly another two million since. More than two years after the Ryman show, where the buzz started, O Brother has swelled into a phenomenon. It has spun off a major concert tour and helped all roots and bluegrass music achieve a level of visibility, respect, and commercial success that rivals anything in its history.