Bluegrass. When the music people brought with them from England, Ireland, and Scotland met the music people carried along from many parts of Africa in the highlands of the Appalachian mountains, the music began. Bill Monroe took it forward and gave it the name which anchored it in musical history. From its beginnings, it’s been music which embraces structure and improvisation, tradition and innovation. As bluegrass month unfolds in the United States during September, take a listen to a band, a singer, and a composer whose work holds the ideas of tradition and change in balance.
The Grascals are a six person ensemble who play their bluegrass with just a tinge of blues, sometimes, in the solo and harmony vocals of singers Terry Eldrege, Terry Smith, and Jamie Johnson. Mandolin ace Danny Roberts, hot fiddle player Jeremy Abshire, and innovative banjo player Kristin Scott Benson anchor the instrumental side of things. Among them, they’ve past band and supporting credits with bluegrass and country greats including the Osborne Brothers, Gail Davies, Dale Ann Bradley, and Roland White. It’s when the six join forces, though, that the fire and spirit of contemporary bluegrass come to the fore. On their most recent album, The Famous Lefty Flynn’s, they apply that spirit and fire to create a bluegrass version of Last Train to Clarksville, once a pop hit for The Monkees, tell the vivid story of Satan and Grandma, and invite Hank Williams Junior along to sing on I’m Blue and I’m Lonesome, which Hank Senior wrote with Bill Monroe, and offer a fine instrumental on Blue Rock Slide.
Claire Lynch is a singer and songwriter based in bluegrass but not limited by it. She’s won bluegrass awards and been nominated for Grammys, and seen her songs recorded by top country artists. When she looked at her song selection on her latest album, Whatcha Gonna Do, she found a common thread: choice and consequence. The title track is a sort of bluegrass version meeting the devil at the crossroads, while Highway, which Lynch wrote with Irene Kelley, winds through landscapes and heartbreaks on a road to freedom. Lynch introduces characters who make choices, too, from the aged woman who chooses a life in The Woods of Sipsey to the woman choosing to celebrate the joys of the day in Great Day in the Mornin.’ An unexpected choice, and one which certainly resonates with the theme, is her duet with songwriter Jesse Winchester on his song That’s What Makes You Strong. Lynch has a strong and flexible soprano you will remember, and a storyteller’s knack for how to use it in service to the song.
Alison Brown plays the banjo. For her, it is the intersection of jazz, traditional bluegrass, and Celtic music that inspires her composing and playing. Her album The Company You Keep holds all those elements. sometimes in combination, sometimes with one taking the spotlight. Over Nine Waves, a tune Brown wrote with guitarist John Doyle, goes toward the Irish side of things, and there’s Mairtin O’Connor’s The Road West reimagined as a banjo tune, as well. Crazy ivan heads toward jazz, mostly, while Under the (Five) Wire lets bluegrass take a bit of spotlight. Jazz and bluegrass are both styles where players improvise around structure, and that’s often true in Celtic music as well, all aspects Brown knows well and puts to good use, as she plays with her quartet, which includes John R. Burr on piano, Joe Craven on mandolin and fiddle, and Garry West on bass.
The International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, which are the bluegrass equivalent of the Grammys, will be given out on 30 September at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.