Bluegrass Ballet

By Johnny Memphis

Let’s just say, right off the banjo, that there are a lot of shrill, piercing sounds in bluegrass. You just have to get used to it. Along with the incessant plucking of the banjos you’ve got the crazed scraping of the fiddles and the high-pitched chattering of the mandolins, not to mention the insanely nasal singing style that was handed down from the summit by the stern-faced godfather of the genre, Bill Monroe. Thank the lord, at least there’s a doghouse bass and an acoustic guitar to tether all that treble.

Take Del McCoury, for example, who I saw at the FreshGrass Festival on Sunday at Mass MoCA in North Adams, MA. Del is a bluegrass avatar. He is the man, not just because of his excellent music, but also because he is an elder statesman, the new Bill Monroe. Years ago he played in Monroe’s band as did Peter Rowan who also played at FreshGrass Sunday. At one point during the concert the charming, disarming Del was talking about Bill Monroe and he said, “I guess if Peter or I had stayed in the band we might have taken over the business.” In a way, he did take it over. Del eventually inherited the mantle from Monroe and he wears it well in his conservative suit singing those pinched vocals with Appalachian elan.

Del has an ace band that features his son Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo, the great Jason Carter on fiddle and bass player Alan Bartram who delivered a soaring “Kentucky Waltz” when he got a lead vocal turn. The white-haired Del, 75, was bubbly and chatty on stage, making a lot of self-deprecating remarks about his forgetfulness, but you could see his two sons smile wanly when Del forgot song lyrics or the name of a songwriter he introduced as “my great friend.” The two brothers already have a legacy band called the Traveling McCourys that hits the road when dad needs a rest.

My brother Dan was the reason I was at FreshGrass watching the McCourys. Now, I like bluegrass, but Dan is crazy about it. He is a certified bluegrass nut. He listens to bluegrass internet radio all day long and orders obscure bluegrass cds from websites, the older the recording the better. Dan owns a boatload of Del McCoury cds and has more coming in the mail. I think Dan reveres Del for his pure bluegrass style and perhaps because our family grew up in Harrisburg, PA, which is right next door to York, PA where Del was born and lived for fifty years until the McCoury family moved to Nashville in 1992. So even though brother Dan, 71, is on oxygen now and walks with a rollator (walker with wheels) we have made the pilgrimage to Mass MoCA. Gotta see Del.

We arrived at FreshGrass and set up camp up on the hill overlooking the main stage. It was a crisp and sunny, end-of-summer September afternoon in the low 70s, with a bright blue sky over the green Berkshire mountains and red brick factory buildings of Mass MoCA. On stage Peter Rowan was delivering a low-key Sunday afternoon set with just him on acoustic guitar and a discreet accompanist on hollow-bodied electric. As we settled in the music seemed quiet, too quiet at first. But then gradually Rowan started to weave his magic and you could see the wisdom in his approach. Just go with the mellow vibe of a 12:30 Sunday set on the third day of a three-day festival.

Peter Rowan is a crucial figure in bluegrass and he knows about mellow vibes. After performing in Bill Monroe’s band he was the lead singer for the rock bands Earth Opera (with David Grisman) and Seatrain. In 1973 and ’74 he and Grisman formed the bluegrass band Old and in the Way that included Jerry Garcia on banjo. Their debut live album came out in 1975 and Jerry’s banjo playing attracted rock and roll fans (like me) who discovered that they really liked this bluegrass thing. I would argue that album along with the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album (1972) and the soundtrack to Deliverance (1973) closed the generation and culture gap that separated the Boomers from bluegrass. After hearing the David Grisman quintet in 1977, I bought a mandolin.

Old and in the Way’s soundman was Owsley Stanley, the infamous LSD purveyor for the Grateful Dead and their friends. I interviewed Peter Rowan on WRSI radio one time and he told a great story about Owsley. “Owsley was well into it. I remember one night we were playing in a little club out there called the Keystone and we were having terrible sound problems, howling feedback. The sound control room was above the stage in the back of the hall. Garcia came over and nudged me and said, “Hey, man, look up there.” You could see Owsley in this green light from the sound equipment with all these cables in his teeth and around his neck and his eyes kind of dancing, full of creative power. Garcia said, “Hey man, look at that. Owsley really digs his job.”

Wearing a giant cowboy hat with a brim the size of a patio umbrella, Peter Rowan was doing a good job pulling the FreshGrass audience into his tales of buckaroo dharma. He somehow blended “Freight Train” with his famous “Panama Red” (popularized by the New Riders of the Purple Sage) and tagged his “Land of the Navaho” with some lovely sagebrush ululations. Rowan played “Midnight Moonlight” so tenderly I realized the song was actually about praying in the Alamo Mission, not having a late night party. At the end of his set Peter Rowan graciously invited some talented young players to join him on stage and while he was tuning up, chatting into the mike, Jerry Douglas off-stage said, “Keep tuning till it sounds expensive.”

Jerry Douglas is one of the greatest musicians I have ever heard. Douglas plays the dobro, a kind of slide guitar that you play parallel to the ground, slung around your neck like you were a cigarette girl in a nightclub. Douglas plays dobro like Charlie Parker played saxophone, or Jimi Hendrix played guitar. Really well. Beyond category. With boundless skill and creativity, taste and soul. Everyone in these bluegrass bands is a master instrumentalist, but Jerry Douglas is on a whole ‘nother level. Douglas has formed a super-group tribute band called the Earls of Leicester that celebrates the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. In their retro Kentucky ties and black suits the Earls of Leicester delivered a kick-butt, classic bluegrass set in the mid-afternoon sun at Freshgrass.

Passing the torch and remembering the elders is part of the bluegrass way. Walking around the FreshGrass campus between sets I kept seeing it. Willie Watson paying respect to the folk-singer tradition, Peter Rowan sitting in on a small stage with some up-and-coming players, a band of young kids on a little stage with no p.a. playing a sweet version of “Freight Train.” Even the way the musicians miked their music showed it. Except for the bass, the players in these classic bluegrass bands did not use pick-ups on their instruments. They played and sang into a few shared microphones that captured a wide radius of sound. In order to do that effectively the musicians moved in and out of proximity to the mikes depending on their centrality to that moment in the song. Some songs were like bluegrass ballet with pas de duets and vocal quartet pairings weaving in and out. There was something self-effacing about the performances even when they were virtuosic. It felt like they were stepping up to play that banjo lead on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” with the knowledge that someday when they went to bluegrass heaven there would be some other picker to do that part. They had their moment near the mike and then they stepped back into the mix.

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