The complete newbie’s guide to Bluegrass… the list of folks you should listen to and why.

A while ago a younger co-worker, who’d heard I played and listened to quite a bit of Bluegrass, asked me where he should start if he wanted to check out some REAL bluegrass. I was cleaning out my sent mail and found that email.

The following is what I sent him. with some updated notes of what to stay away from to spice things up a bit.

It depends on what you are looking for, there are in fact, a bunch of different sub-genres in the bluegrass realm. Primarily you have three groups — Old-School Traditional, Modern/Contemporary (but still fairly Traditional) and then Lunatic fringe Progressive Bluegrassers who branch out a bit  into other things (jazz-classical-fusion, that sort of thing)

Bill+Monroe+BillMonroe

The Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe

For the ORIGINAL Old School stuff you want the following:

Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys – For Monroe the mid 1940s-1950s is best era, but its all good, he is the Father of Bluegrass after all, listen and memorize — it’s the truth.

Flatt and Scruggs – Everything is good but the older the  better, in the 70s they got a little “comedic” – but Earl is the man.

Jimmy Martin – Again older the better, Sunny Side of the Mountain and Freeborn Man — amazing stuff.

The Osborne Brothers – 1970s got a bit country with the addition of drums, so older is better.

JD Crowe and the New South – Everything is good, all of it, original line up with Tony Rice and Picky Ricky Skaggs is gospel.

JD_Tony_ricky_Jerry

Original New South: JD,Tony, Ricky, Jerry

Modern Progressive (Contemporary)

Lonesome River Band – Older stuff from Sugar Hill Records era

Nashville Bluegrass Band – Any Album is fantastic (my ringtone is NBB, Garfield’s Black Berry Blossom)

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder – any recent album is top notch it’s called

Del McCoury Band – Del and the Boys by far his best album, classic version of RIchard Thompson’s 1952 vincent black lightning

Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver – Any album early stuff uses electric bass, look for stuff with Jamie Daily singing

The Bluegrass Album Band – it’s an all-star line-up playing it straight and traditional.

Sam Bush Band

Sam Bush Band

The Lunatic Fringe Progressive Bluegrass:

Sam Bush – Any Album, but most have drums and electric instruments so not strictly grass.

Tony Rice – Listen to as much Tony Rice as possible, nuff said.

Bela Fleck – the Bluegrass Sessions album is good (everything else is weird, and there’s a good chance not even close to bluegrass)

Jerry Douglas – Anything is great, but he wanders around into other stuff like jazz, just a warning.

Peter Rowan – his stuff with Tony Rice is the best, be prepared for some Native American hollerin’

Tim O’brien – He is all over the map but one of my favorites, really interesting blend of Irish and Bluegrass, very tasteful

*** Note: Ok so maybe calling the latter group lunatic fringe TODAY, is being conservative. There are quite a few NEW bands who are pushing the genre in a multitude of directions MUCH farther than the Mahavishnu Mountain Boys listed above, but you know, if you run into old folks at festivals, this is the way they think about this music. It’s still on the outside of the core of Bluegrass.

Things to stay away from as an early listener or participant (player/learner):

Old Crowe Medicine Show: It’s not Bluegrass, it’s an outgrowth of old time music and there’s too much irony in it. Hollerin and shouting and acting like a fool when you play fiddle may be entertaining in bar when everyone’s drunk, but in the REAL Bluegrass world it won’t engender much respect form the elders.

Mumford and Sons: Again not Bluegrass. It’s interesting music, but NEVER call it Bluegrass. Yes it has a Banjo but it ain’t Bluegrass.

Avett Brothers: Again Do not call it Bluegrass. My old band used to open for the Avett Brothers when they came through Columbus. They are REALLY nice guys and I like them a lot. Was very fortunate to have that brush with greatness. But don’t barge into a jam circle around a campfire at a festival and expect everyone to join in why you bang away on every song you’ve memorized of theirs. It’s not going to go over well.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings: Good songwriters, but not Bluergass. I love them! But don’t call it Bluergass.

The Civil Wars: Boring, and again, not Bluergass.

Punch Borthers: Yes Mr Thile is a freak of nature, his playing is off the charts amazing and so is this whole band’s. But don’t try to emulate this, it will spoil you into thinking that everything in Bluegrass is a fireworks show. Monroe always said, play the melody, and if you listen close to what the Punch Brohters play, they play the melody, it’s just hidden in mind-blowing amazing-ness. But don’t worry you can’t play like that, so don’t try, there is a good chance it will suck.

Yonder Mountain String Band: These guys have wandered off the reservation into uncharted jam band territory. It’s cool, but there ain’t much bluegrass in it anymore.

Yo-Yo Ma / Joshua Bell et al: I like this stuff, but don’t call it bluegrass. It’s good for whatever it is, but please don’t tell everyone at work how much you LOVE this new bluegrass album by Yo-Yo Ma. Seriously, it’s like telling people how much fun you had at the “Football” tournament, but you were actually attending Rugby games. You’ll sound like an idiot.

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3 thoughts on “The complete newbie’s guide to Bluegrass… the list of folks you should listen to and why.

  1. Very nice primer on the subject. I enjoy some OCMS, but would have to agree… it ain’t really bluegrass. When I lived in Knoxville, i remember a band/singer called Robinella & The C.C. String Band, who kinda reminded me of Alison Krauss & Union Station. Ever heard of her? I notice you mentioned Jerry Douglas, but any other thoughts on AK & the rest of Union Station?

    • I like Old Crowe too but I think as a gateway to the land of bluegrass it can leave folks with the wrong impression, ie way too much irony. And yes I like AKUS. They can be a little too, Lifetime network-ish for me at times, my firend used to call it whisper-grass. A little soft and fluffy for my taste. She is more like a shiraz, it takes a bit too much contemplation for me to enjoy for everyday purposes. Better in small doses on a rainy day. But she is immensely talented and has a a MAJOR glow effect on the world of acoustic music. Jerry D is still the man, he’s from Warren Ohio originally and as Ohioan and bluegrasser I’m required to remind folks of that whenever possible.

      • Thanks for the reply. I’ve been to one AKUS show and it was very…. “pretty.” They were great live, but I can totally understand your sentiment.

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