Bluegrass. It’s a music native to North America, yet formed out of sounds and rhythms and ideas and stories and through instruments that people carried with them from Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, the west of Africa and the islands of the Caribbean, a music that grew in remote mountain homes and along roads and trails and boundaries, a music that met up with commercial country music, jazz, and swing, and held its own while joining hands with these styles and others at times. Bluegrass: it is still today a traveling music and a music for travelers, an ever evolving story that holds a hint of those mountain homes and those farther shores as it travels on to big cities and wide open spaces. Bluegrass: it’s a music where past and present meet, where traveler’s road comes up on home place, and that rarely sounds the way you expect it to.
So it’s fitting enough, I suppose, that I start off this commentary on recent bluegrass albums with a recording called The Old School by a man whose own past and present show the diversity of the style. Peter Rowan, heading into his seventies now, was in the band of Bill Monroe, the man who is known as the father of bluegrass. On his owns, Rowan has written about dust bowl children, told stories encounters of explorers and natives as Europeans were first landing in the new world, and collaborated with bluegrass musicians from Czechoslovakia along bluegrass routes. For Old School. he’s invited along bluegrass legends and rising stars to sit in with him on ten original songs and one cover. The guests include Del McCoury, Stuart Duncan, and Bryan Sutton. Among the songs are the straight ahead bluegrass of Keepin’ Between the Lines, a thoughtful tribute to another Americana great, Doc Watson Morning, a gospel song with a different turn on My Savior’s Callin’ Me, and that cover song, the civil rights anthem O Freedom.
Guitarist Bryan Sutton lends his hand to another collaboration, too, one called Green Grass Blue Grass. When the four members of the Brock McGuire Band, who hail from counties Galway, Clare, and Tipperary in Ireland, came to Nashville for a visit they got together with Sutton, Ricky Skaggs, and several other top bluegrassers in the town for a program that features music of both traditions and draws on the connections among them. Tunes — there are fifteen of them on the album, some of which are sets — include Moving Cloud, American Polka, Darling Girl from Clare paired in a set with Turkey in the Straw, and the Chase Me Charlie set.
Ron Block is a top notch guitarist and banjo player. He’s that for two decades now as part of Alison Krauss + Union Station. His co writer for his latest album Walking Song came to him in an unexpected way, however. Block is a man who speaks of his faith, which comes out in his songs, and in his writings online about theological topics. Poet and teacher Rebecca Reynolds often commented on these articles, which led to Block suggesting maybe they’d like to try writing a song together. Reynolds, not knowing about Block’s background of Grammy, Bluegrass Association and Dove awards with Union Station or that his music has been recorded by his band mates there as well as top artists including Rhonda Vincent, April Verch, and Michael W. Smith, agreed — and was quite startled when she decided to look up her newfound writing partner on the internet one day. Their collaboration, carried out in twenty first century fashion across the internet, produced a range of songs that could have come from earlier times along bluegrass routes. Among them are Nickel Tree Line, Jordan Carry Me, and The Fields of Aidlewinn. Musical friends who added their talents include Krauss, Kate Rusby, and John Joe Kelly.
Claire Lynch came by the spark for the title track of her recording Dear Sister
along a rather more traditional bluegrass route: fellow musician Louisa Branscomb showed Lynch a book of letters from her ancestors who’d fought in the Civil War. The two used the ideas these soldiers expressed to form a thoughtful song on loss change, uncertainty and resolve, which, though framed clearly in detail of those earlier lives, yet connects to present day as well. Lynch is
grounded in bluegrass, but as she herself jokes, she’ll never be a good ole boy. She’s used that distinction, her silvery soprano, and her ear for just the right song and idea to create and choose music which brings in the variety of ways that bluegrass routes may wind. On Dear Sister these include the stone country of Once the Teardrops Start to Fall, the clear picture of home place in bluegrass terms on Buttermilk Road, the faith tinged That Kind of Love, and the gentle song of hope and resilience Patch of Blue.
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