This was supposed to be regional music, rural music. Then bluegrass spread way beyond that.
“Big Family” — the new PBS film on Friday, Aug. 30 — starts by quoting Bill Monroe, a pioneer of the sound: “Bluegrass has brought more people together and made more friends than any other music in the world.”
Then it shows that impact. We hear Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on his own 1947 record .. and on the flip side of Elvis Presley’s first record in 1954 … and from a modern Japanese group.
Yes, Japan likes bluegrass. “They treated us like the Beatles,” says Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band.
(Two quick notes here: First, all the quotes are from the documentary, which is at 9 p.m. Friday on most PBS stations. And yes, this is the same story I previously put under “quick news and comments.” I had it there, to make room for three stories about shows starting Aug. 25; now that they’ve opened, I’m moving this over to its rightful spot.)
This is a sound that grew in the hills and hollers, but its stars now come from all over. Alison Brown isa Harvard grad with a UCLA MBA; Laurie Lewis and Alison Krauss are from college towns (Berkeley, Cal.; and Champagne, Ill.). “I fell in love with bluegrass music when I was a teen-ager,” Lewis says.
Chris Thile, who hosts the “Prairie Home Companion” spin-off, is from the San Diego area. Bela Fleck (shown here with Abigail Washburn), the banjo master, is from New York City; his first impression of bluegrass vocals: “It sounded like cats being slaughtered,” he says. “That probably wasn’t a smart thing for a Yankee to say.”
The music was sort of meant to sound like that. This was dubbed “the high, lonesome sound.”
It started with immigrants from Scotland, Ireland and beyond. They had brought portable instruments and, Ricky Skaggs says, “their broken hearts from leaving their families.”
So the mournful sound – in vocals, fiddles and more – was logical. Soon, texture was added.
Near Monroe’s Kentucky home, the film says, the best musician was a black blues guitarist, Arnold Shultz. In a time and place that rarely saw the races together, music was an exception. Schultz is “widely credited with putting the blues in bluegrass,” says Rex Ellis of the Smithsonian Institution.
More influences came when Monroe moved north. He was 10 when his mother died, 17 when his father died; the next year, be began working in a steel mill near Chicago and sampled the city’s music. “That’s where Bill really came across hillbilly music,” says historian Neil Rosenberg.
After a couple other bands, he formed the Bluegrass Boys in 1938 and reached WSM’s “Grand Ol’ Opry” the next year. It was a perfect fit; he even joked that WSM stood for William Smith Monroe.
(Oddly, it was named for the slogan of the insurance company that owned it, “We Shield Millions.”)
The name “Bluegrass Boys” was simply a nod to Monroe’s home state. But as others began to copy the sound, “bluegrass” became a genre.
There were plenty of spin-offs. Over the decades, more than 150 people were Bluegrass Boys; some – including Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs – became greats on their own.
And there were copies. At first, Ralph Stanley replicated the style so meticulously that Monroe refused to be on the same record label.
But bluegrass kept making key additions, including:
— New instruments, especially the “dobro” resonator guitar. “There’s a dobro player in practically every big band we see,” said Douglas, the instrumentls biggest star. “And they’re so good. It’s amazing.”
— Women. Brown, a banjo whiz, remembers being a teen star in the late ’70s. “People would say. ‘You pick good for a girl.’” Now there are plenty of female stars and all-woman bands.
— New generations. Now bluegrass is taught in colleges and played by hip-looking youths. By comparison, Monroe was a gracious host to The New South during a festival, the film says … but the next year he told his people not to book any long-haired bands.
— Faster tempo. Monroe started that trend with his mandolin-playing, but others keep accelerating.
— Added layers. Darroll Anger, who teaches bluegrass at Berklee, seems to invoke the “wall of sound” rock sound of Phil Spector. He describe “a huge, powerful sound” and “this incredible wash of sound.”
Bluegrass keeps growing; Thile describes an “explosive creativity.”
Adds Jim Lauderdale: “The level of musicianship these days is mindblowing …. The future of bluegrass is in good hands.”