Saturday, May 1, 2010

Bluegrass By Morning

During the month of April and on through to the end of school, Nicholas has dedicated our mornings to celebrating Bluegrass music. He has been working through our collection that includes lots of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, older songs by Ralph and Carter Stanley, and Ricky Skaggs. Along with these great artists, we have heard Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Flatt and Scruggs, Marty Stuart, and compilation CDs containing a variety of artists and songs. Bluegrass music provides a strong surge for folks getting up and trying to get ready to face the day. The fast rhythms, the deep roots of the songs, and the accustic skills of the musicians give the morning just what is needed.

Bluegrass music is an amazing American phenomenon. Bill Monroe is acknowledged as the Father of the genre of music. It grew out of older forms of country music, gospel music as sung in country churches, and folk ballads reaching as far back as the Scotch-Irish people who settled the Appalachian frontier of America. The old fiddle tunes, the mournful ballads, the simple hymns (often lined out by the song leader, and the lyric poetry of poets who honed their craft with a copy of Robert Burns propped up on their plows formed the roots of Bluegrass music.

Amazingly, even though Bluegrass musicians have formed a unique community in American culture, there have been enough disputes in Bluegrass circles and among the major artist to rival a Presbyterian denomination. First of all, Bill Monroe, for all his creative genius and encouragement toward others furthering the music, set many artists against each other, or more particularly, against him.

Some people questioned whether Bluegrass music was a distinct kind of music. Bluegrass was, they suggested, simply older country music. Roy Acuff and the Smokey Mountain Boys played with a style similar to Monroe, but Acuff was never considered Bluegrass. The Stanley Brothers always preferred the term Mountain Music over Bluegrass Music. It is a more accurate term, for the bluegrass sections of Kentucky were historically the home of the planter class (complete with fine plantation houses and Thoroughbred horses), while the mountains were more the seedbed of the music.

For a time, Monroe was resentful of the Stanley Brothers. After all, they were playing many of his tunes. In time, they were able to convince Monroe that they were usuing his music because they respected him. Also, in time they were able to develop their own repertoire.

When two of Monroe's key musicians, guitarist and vocalist Lester Flatt and banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs, left to start their own band. For years, Monroe refused to speak to either Lester or Earl even when they passed by each other backstage at the Ryman Auditorium (which was the home of the Grand Ole Opry). After many years, and many outstanding works, Flatt and Scruggs split up. Flatt formed a new band called the Nashville Grass which focused on the traditional music that had swept Flatt and Scruggs to fame. Scruggs, joined by his young long-haired sons, turned more toward more modern, upbeat songs of the youth who were by this time going wild over accustic, folk, and Bluegrass music.

A few years before Lester Flatt died, he was invited to perform at the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in Indiana. Bean Blossom was not only one of the greatest yearly festivals, but it was also closely tied to Monroe. It was there that Monroe walked into Flatt's dressing room and stuck out his hand and reconciled with his old friend.
Sadly, Flatt and Scruggs also talked (in Lester Flatt's hospital room right before his death) of getting back together and doing an album. Flatt's untimely death prevented that.

I don't know whether Monroe and Jimmy Martin were ever reconciled. Martin was another of the guitarists and vocalists who went through the revolving door of being a Blue Grass Boy. Martin was often called "the King of Bluegrass Music." Surely that must have rankled the proud Monroe. For some reason, Monroe managed to block Martin from being asked to join the Grand Ole Opry. When I was a young teenager, my parents and I went to the Friday Night Opry (the poor man's chance to hear the Opry entertainers). Not only was Monroe there, but so were Flatt and Martin. I would never have guessed that they had any rivalries or conflicts.

Sonny and Bobby Osborne created a row when they added electrification to their already highly charged musical style. They wanted the upbeat driving force that could appeal to younger audiences, but they also just wanted to be heard.

All kinds of other conflicts have occurred within the big family of artists. Even the word Bluegrass is part of the controversy. Monroe's band name and spelling was Blue Grass, but the compound word Bluegrass has come to be more dominant.

Much of the music industry has been hostile or indifferent toward Bluegrass artists. Even when the predominantly Bluegrass collection and soundtrack for the movie "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" was the number one album, radio stations rarely if ever played their music. Ricky Skaggs, who was originally a bluegrass mandolin player who played in Flatt's band, was directed toward other kinds of country music for years before he returned to his Bluegrass roots.

But with all the controversies and challenges aside, Bluegrass music is alive and well. You can hear it often at our house and in our cars. Right now, you can hear it each morning.

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