First published: May 2015 in High Notes Magazine.
Last updated: June 20, 2020
Bluegrass Revolution
Mythology of Truegrass

By Dale McCurry
Photos by Teri Metallo of NightEagle Photography

Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas
L to R: Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas

… there was Bill Monroe. And Bill, finding himself lonely, created bluegrass.

Well, it wasn’t  quite that linear – truth is, it is still being created through an old-timey process called evolution.

The first thing bluegrass mandolin player and vocalist Tim O’Brien told High Notes about bluegrass music was that “most agree it crystalized in 1945 when Monroe hired Earl Scruggs.” ‘Crystalized.’ I love that. It was the first hint of the magic and mythology that envelopes this unique slice of Americana pie.

It also was the last sign of anything upon which we can all agree. Jerry Douglas echoed O’Brien when he told me flatly: “There was no bluegrass before Earl.” After that, the agreeing gets fuzzy.

I can hear the keypads rattling like crusaders’ swords. The same bluegrass fundamentalists who write hate mail to Paul Hoffman of Greensky Bluegrass and Trampled by Turtles’ Erik Berry for not playing their mandolins “right,” are already ready to take me on for, say, going straight from Monroe (eyes dip) to Scruggs to O’Brien and Douglas. “Where the heck is Lester Flatt? The Stanley Brothers?!?”

Or some other transgression a bluegrass blue blood would not make.

I know. I get it. But the thing is … the real story – the search for Truegrass – is as elusive as the Holy Grail. This is my telling. Based on folks to whom I have talked and seen perform – filtered, largely, through the mythology of Telluride.

Feel free to send your version and/or hate (or love) mail via NoteWorthyMusic.org.

Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan, Bryan Sutton
L to R: Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan, Bryan Sutton

Another point of widespread agreement is that, though he was not the first to fiddle about with Monroe’s sacred licks, Sam Bush became the face of a contingency of folks who were to take those riffs and harmonies and set them free (or bastardize them, based on one’s perspective) via breaks that freely break into lengthy and complex jams.

Our one-on-one exposure to the likes of O’Brien and Bush and their peers – as well as concentrated exposure to the spectrum of interpretations of Father Bill’s music from various string-bands and their players – takes place largely at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival – a perfect venue to begin the discussion.

The first Telluride Bluegrass Festival (TBF) was little more than a locals’ 4th of July party. The second year, Bush and his hippie string-band of merrymakers and pot stirrers called New Grass Revival was booked into TBF by iconic roots-music agent, Keith Case. The course was then set for the venue to become known as a place where music that pays homage to its father and creator, nevertheless, jams its way into a sound that stands six-degrees-of-separation from anything Monroe ever played. Make no mistake, these players all can deliver traditional bluegrass music and often do. But string-instrument-jams churn in their guts and spill effortlessly into dizzying performances. Since the early 70s, a period of social revolution, bluegrass-based, often impromptu, jam bands gather each summer in a grand box canyon in the western Rockies and go about the work of revolutionizing a still young genre.

There was no bluegrass before Earl. Jerry Douglas

In a lengthy one-on-one interview at the 2014 RockyGrass, in Lyons, Colorado – one of Telluride’s sister festivals, Bush offered great detail about the years since Revival was formed. He excitedly recalled a moment in the infancy of newgrass when his band took a traditional tune and began to experiment on the fly. “I think that song grew to be about 25-minutes in early shows,” he added with a laugh. 

I asked how as a young man he stood up to the criticism that surely existed when his band of longhairs had its way with traditional instruments and familiar harmonies.

“I’ll tell you how we got through it,” he said with a sly grin. “We were set-in-our-ways Kentucky boys with gardens, fishing poles and deer rifles who were by-God going to play what we wanted to play. We were gonna get by whether you liked our music or not. People ask if we set out to change the sound of bluegrass. The answer is No; we weren’t trying to change anything. We were just doing the classic thing of playing it the way we felt it.

“We were playing under all kinds of influences; I mean it was 1971. I grew up listening to Nashville radio stations and going to shows, and I feel very fortunate about that. I got to see the Osborne Brothers and Bill Monroe and Reno and Smiley and the Dillards on The Andy Griffith Show.

But I played rock guitar in the school band, and I had the advantage of watching the Ed Sullivan Show and live performances by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and the Doors and Jefferson Airplane. So I was fortunate to have all of these influences going on at a time that there was a great deal of experimentation.

Bush is quick to say that bluegrass players before New Grass paved the diverging path toward an evolving sound – core members of the genre who began blurring the edges of it as soon as it was born. “We were influenced by people who had already made a new kind of bluegrass – progressive kind of bluegrass with modern day subjects. Jim and Jesse [McReynolds] and the Osborne Brothers were getting hits on country radio. You always knew you were hearing Jim and Jesse and the Osbornes, yet they were being played on country radio. And that is what New Grass Revival managed to do later in the 80s. But they paved the way for us – them and The Country Gentlemen and The Greenbriar boys and others

“Early on, I saw a thing on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour where John Hartford was playing the banjo with Campbell and they played a version of ‘Great Balls of Fire’ bluegrass style and that was so great. I mean it was on then. It is no accident that our first New Grass album contained a cut of “Great Balls.”

Peter Rowan and Tim O'Brien

Peter Rowan and Tim O’Brien

With Bush before them and the Osbornes before Sam, why did Erik Berry and Paul Hoffman each tell us on separate occasions that they get hate mail and verbal attacks for “not playing it right” (fingers aloft making air quotation marks). Hoffman, who sums up his band’s style as “honoring the genre while breaking the rules,” answered, “Who knows?” when asked to define the color the Greensky’s grass. “Aren’t we all in this together?”

Nolan Lawrence, mandolin player and vocalist for the Ozarks-based Hillbenders, whose bluegrass release of Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry is receiving high fives from everyone from Rolling Stone to Billboard, describes what they do as “bending ancient tones from the hills into something unique, but still ultimately roots-based.”

Trampled by Turtles friends, neighbors and collaborators, Pert Near Sandstone, formed during “a series of whiskey-fueled jam sessions” and featuring an animated clogger for a percussion section, call themselves a “modern American string band” and say they don‘t really fit anywhere and “actually couldn’t care less.”

“I would like to think the New Grass Revival had a hand in raising the bar on musical proficiency.”  Sam Bush

In a story in The Bluegrass Situation called “Nine Punk Rock Players that are Reshaping Roots Music” by Britney McKenna, she places string-band superstar, Chris Thile, firmly on the list. “Known for his work in a number of genres – from the progressive acoustics of Punch Brothers to his meticulous, faithful interpretations of Bach sonatas and partitas – his connections to punk and rock music are numerous.”

Berry says a ground floor goal during the formation of Trampled by Turtles was a band without drums, adding: “That had as much to do with Hank Williams as it did Bill Monroe.” Berry seems mostly baffled by the legions of hardcore traditionalist bluegrass fans. “Can you imagine what you would think if a bunch of teenagers started playing music that sounded just like Buddy Holly?” Exhaling into a bluebird sky above Telluride: “You’d say: ‘Why do they do that?’ But there are people who want us to do a version of that. I went through a couple of years of trying to be a traditional mandolin player, and I finally had to realize that it just didn’t sit well with me. It’s not who I am. I have had people post about a song of mine: ‘This song ain’t no part of nothing.’ And I know what they’re doing: they’re quoting Bill Monroe to attack my work. That hurts my feelings.”

 “Well,” one might say, “those guys are just young rockers who shred traditional instruments in nontraditional ways. Of course they are going to be criticized.”
Hmmm.

Enter Ricky Skaggs, child prodigy who appeared with Monroe several times – beginning at age six – who played with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on their TV show at 7 and became a Clinch Mountain Boy full-time with the Stanley Brothers as a teenager. Skaggs, who in one sentence called “Mr. Monroe” a “close friend,” is now a 61-year-old veteran of both traditional bluegrass and popular country music. Regarding his collaborations with pop star Bruce Hornsby, Skaggs said: “You know, the bluegrass community was never open to this project. And it was all because it had a piano in it. But good music is good music, and we promote bluegrass in ways no other act in bluegrass does.”

Skaggs doesn’t claim to be the only genre icon to be dissed at some point by those in the field. “The same with Rhonda Vincent,” he said. “She has brought so much to the music and has championed a traditional sound, and then she gets criticized when she cuts a country album. … And she’s good at it, so why shouldn’t she do it. Her work makes it easier for us all in bluegrass to make a living.”

He also gives credit to Alison Krauss’ role in putting pickers to work. “Before Alison, and her brand of bluegrass, I had the biggest selling bluegrass album of all time. She changed that – dwarfed previous numbers. She has made it possible for all of us to make a living with this music.”
Which leaves me wondering: Where does Krauss and her classical violin training fit on the spectrum of what Rowan calls “the various slashgrasses”?

Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs

Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs

“Well, it’s interesting,” Bush says, “because I always felt like Monroe wanted us to do our own music. I mean, I think he really enjoyed it when people played his music, but I saw a good friend of mine play a tune he had written for Monroe and he had it down pat – it sounded like a Bill Monroe song. So he played it for him and it struck a chord with me when Mon said: ‘Well, that’s real good, son; now what can you do on your own?’

“By the time he died he damn-well knew I respected his music,” Bush says, his voice dropping a key, casting a note of from-the-core reverence. “He didn’t like New Grass Revival or our long hair or hippie ways, but he always gave us credit for playing.”

“Music is to be celebrated and played, not argued over.” – Ricky Skaggs.

Peter Rowan, who played with Monroe as a Blue Grass Boy back in the day, told High Notes: “I think he saw me as someone who would want to go off in another direction. And he was fine with that.”

I asked Del McCoury — who also played with Monroe as a BGB as well as playing with Phish in front of 70,000 fans at Bonnaroo — about the grief young acoustic-instrument-shredders receive: “Well, Dale, I see it like this: It’s all just music. All Bill and Earl did was play music the way they felt it. Why shouldn’t we do the same?”

“And now we go along and it’s a new generation and you have new, young pickers. I would like to think the New Grass Revival had a hand in raising the bar on musical proficiency,” Bush says with palpable pride. “Because there are just so many great young players. Bela [Fleck] reinvented the banjo – uh-gain – and Jerry Douglas is totally responsible for revamping the dobro for all these young players that are so good now. And we are in the fortunate position that we get to play with all of them. Quite a few of the young bands were still quite young when I was with New Grass Revival and they used to watch us play. It’s very humbling.”

“That’s terrible; I love those young bands,” says Jerry Douglas when told about the hate mail Berry and Hoffman receive. We were aboard his bus on Mulberry Mountain, near Ozark, Arkansas, the morning after Trampled had delivered a signature scorching set to a rousing crowd at the 2014 Yonder Mountain Harvest Festival. “I love Greensky’s dobro player. I want to go to him and ask him to whip out some of the stuff he’s playing through, because I want to do it. Am I going to get hate mail? I don’t care,” he adds with a grin.

“And now,” says Bush, “I get to play with [Leftover] Salmon and String Cheese [Incident] and the Stringdusters and so many more.

“I get to jam with these amazing young players,” he adds, “and see the amazing musicianship going down. And let me tell you the bar has never been set higher than it is today.”

“Music is to be celebrated and played, not argued over.” – Ricky Skaggs.

Dale McCurry

Dale McCurry

Writer and Editor

Following years as a reporter and editor of a handful of weekly newspapers, Dale McCurry was co-founder and publisher, writer and managing editor of High Notes Magazine on the Western Slope of Colorado and The Wires and the Wood in his native Ozarks. Today, he wears all of those hats for NoteWorthy Music as well.
Contact: Dale@NoteWorthyMusic.org.

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