Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Things I like: Bluegrass music

My musical upbringing was all over the place. An Iowa-born father and west coast mother brought the music of those two arenas together in our household. Charlie Rich, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard intermixed with The Fifth Dimension, The Mamas and The Papas and Elvis. Growing up in small town Iowa, I was sheltered from more rebellious art forms like punk, so instead was exposed to a heavy dose of Kasey Casem Top 40 on my little transistor radio. Teen years ... New Wave, Duran Duran, The Police. In college, I finally got outside of the confines of programmed radio. Ministry, Skinny Puppy, Prong, Front Line Assembly and the real coming out party for college radio: REM, U2, The Smiths, Joy Division, The Pogues. Just as I was graduating ... Nirvana, Pearl Jam.

As I've gotten older, I still listen to most of those things but have developed a real appreciation for the most original of those American musical art forms: Jazz, Folk, and Bluegrass. Once you start listening to the older music, you understand that most of the later music that you like was greatly influenced by what came before. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were just giving their interpretations of American blues music. Country music largely derived from bluegrass, gospel, folk and blues. Now, I can't really stand what is now called country music, save for those few acts that seem to understand where it all came from.

I'm by no means a historian, but I know what I like listening to and my recent fascination with bluegrass music spawned from a singular angelic voice, that of Alison Krauss. Those elements of bluegrass that I most like and that comprise most bluegrass is the vocal harmonies, and the great instrumentation of the banjo and the fiddle. And you get that in spades with Alison Krauss and Union Station.



I understand the real progenitors of bluegrass were players like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and I have listened to them, but they're probably a little too old school for even me. I prefer Ricky Skaggs and Vince Gill, the music of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the college age groups like The Punch Brothers:



The Punch Brothers are unique in that they are ostensibly playing bluegrass but their song structure are more classical. Mandolinist Chris Thile's earlier band, Nickel Creek, is also very good.

Bluegrass is not for everyone, but I dig it. It may seem like hillbilly music, and to a large extent it is, but to write it off as such would be selling it short. There's a lot of history of our country in those sounds and many other places that originally influenced it, including Africa, the UK and Ireland.

Next up, tomorrow: Philosophy

11 comments:

wunelle said...

This is another one where I'm with you, though in my case this genre is far afield from my normal fare. But I've always contended that anything becomes interesting if the degree of accomplishment gets high enough. The folks of Union Station are all so stellar that I find them mesmerizing even if the tone is unfamiliar. Ron Block seems quite distasteful personally to me, but I could listen to him play (guitar and banjo both, but especially the latter) til the cows come home.

Punch Brothers are new to me: I'm off to explore!

wunelle said...

I might add that my first love in music is harmony--I think this is where my love for the organ, a harmony machine, comes from--and I have a secondary fetish about absolute precision in execution. In both of these AKUS is about off the charts.

dbackdad said...

I agree on the harmony and precision. I know your love of classical. You might get a kick out of the Punch Brothers playing the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3:

http://youtu.be/p1NNBf7uVQ4

You should be able to find them playing Mozart as well on Youtube.

wunelle said...

Fantastic! I bought their latest album, Antifogmatic, and am just delving into now. Very different stuff from Union Station, which I'm intrigued by.

Sadie Lou said...

Alison Krauss and the Union Station is playing up here in Tahoe this summer like an hour away from me. I'm thinking of surprising my hubby with tickets.

The Bluegrass Festival is at our fairgrounds right now, always a treat.

You have excellent taste in music.

Sadie Lou said...

PS thank you both (Lance, Wunelle) for your graciousness.
((hugs))
~S

dbackdad said...

Krauss is going to be here in the next few days. I'd love to go, but we're trying to conserve money a bit as we're going out to Cali for a long weekend next weekend. I have some friends that are at the big bluegrass festival near Telluride this week.

Sadie said, " ... You have excellent taste in music." -- Thank you and you obviously do as well. I'm always pleased with what I hear when I visit your blog.

I just bought Chris Thile and Michael Daves Sleep With One Eye Open today on Amazon. I'm looking forward to listening to it as I have heard good things. Thile seems to be fairly prolific and has a bunch of different projects.

And, BTW, it's easy to be gracious to someone of such obvious grace.

shrimplate said...

The Punch Bros. are pretty far out. Bela Fleck has been way out there for some time now too. The style is approaching a level of sophistication that rivals the jazz of the '60's and '70's.

Rock music presently seems to be only sporadically creative. Jazz is limping along wondering how it will differentiate itself from its traditions; same goes for the classical genres. Country music is completely Disneyfied. Reggae never got over the death of Marley.

You have to peer deep intoi the recessed corners of most every musical discipline these days in order to find things of interest.

wunelle said...

My wife (who has horrid taste in everything but men ;-) listens to contemporary pop-rock and I'm always struck by how DEAD it is. So much of what is popular is so openly imitative of the imitations that have come before that it doesn't even try to find its own path or even spice. I listen to old things, but at least they were innovative when they were new!

The Punch Brothers are a bit of a puzzlement to me: quite accomplished technically and with a sound that I'm unfamiliar with, but I'm still trying to decide if the innovation actually has its teeth in something or is just working to avoid the cliche. It's fun. (As Shrimplate says, it does remind me of some of the Bela Fleck I've heard.) Thanks for the recommend!

dbackdad said...

Shrimplate said, " ... You have to peer deep into the recessed corners of most every musical discipline these days in order to find things of interest." -- Very true. The only reason I had heard about Punch Brothers was through a friend that had heard of my love of Alison Krauss. I'd also agree about the state of innovation in rock music. For every Radiohead and System of a Down, there are a million Nickelback's.

Wunelle said, " ... My wife (who has horrid taste in everything but men" -- Oh my god. You don't realize how funny and true that is. Not your wife, mind you. I couldn't really say there. But, those words could be uttered by me about my wife. I love her dearly, and despite her many strengths, she has a penchant for romance novels and bad 80's music.

wunelle said...

Luckily, I never get very far with my smugness before someone like Shrimplate comes along whose tastes and knowledge are much broader than my own. I know what I know, but there's so, so much that I'm quite clueless about.

I guess that's why we love these things: life is a continuous lesson!