Once you’ve been playing bluegrass a while it is almost a given to be on every non-American’s bucket list to visit the US and play there. Just as certain, however, is answering questions about whether it’s a case of bringing sand to the beach.
With Bluegrass Parkway, we have made three band tours there. In 2005, 2009 and 2014 and all three trips left us with unforgettable experiences. We go there not in some misguided attempt to conquer, but to be inspired, soak up the culture and buy a cool instrument (or two).
‘Foreigners’ playing bluegrass is now nothing new. From the initial early 70’s shock and novelty of Japanese band Bluegrass 45 and the Hamilton County bluegrass band from New Zealand, Americans have become quite accustomed to outsiders playing their music and doing it very well (this condition might have been eased a decade earlier when the Rolling Stones took such a strong interest in the blues, and enlivened interest in it). To many of the locals, it is a justifiable source of pride that people from around the world love bluegrass and this tends to validate it for them.
At the spiritual home of bluegrass festivals, in Bean Blossom Indiana (started by Bill Monroe in 1967), there is a museum onsite. Here we were pleased to see an entire section dedicated to international bands and we were also delighted to see a photo here of our pioneering Hamilton County friends from 1971.
It was Bill Monroe himself who expanded his geographic boundaries in the early ’60s when he began hiring northerners and Californians to play in his band. To the bluegrass world at the time, this would have been considered quite surprising but it does show that what matters are the skills and talent of the performer – not the colour of their car registration plates or their passport.
We were very warmly received wherever we played in the US. What mattered to the audience was getting the music right and playing it with soul. We were particularly buoyed by the support from Jim Peva, long-time friend of Bill Monroe and Bean Blossom historian, who was particularly impressed with our show and presentation.
Some visitors get intimidated by the quality of the US performers. Of course the top end is terrific but there exists a huge number of beginner and intermediate musicians and it is not that hard to find your own ‘water level’.
Jamming can be great fun but almost all of the big name bands don’t jam with the punters anymore though. They slide in to festivals on behemoth buses, which then promptly pull out again once the last CD is sold and belt down an interstate to the next 45 min set. But the great Karl Shiflett and his band still hold the Bean Blossom culture high and these picking sessions were just brilliant. The great thing about a tightly defined genre such as bluegrass is that everybody learns a certain set of tunes/songs – a canon if you like – and with these skills you can make great music on the fly.
One thing that should be on everybody’s list is to visit the restored Monroe home place in Rosine KY. There is something almost spiritual about sitting on the Monroe steps, in the shadow of Jerusalem Ridge and play his music. This building is mercifully free of the usual country music hype and exploitation and is a very worthwhile side trip to take in.
The other great things are the music shops in the US. The good ones are places where bluegrass music is understood and the quality and quantity of instruments are astounding. Our favourite store by far was Carter Vintage Guitars in Nashville and here the number of guitars you would die for is incredible. For example, I played through a range of maybe 10 or so Martin D-18s from 1935 to 1960 – an amazing experience to evaluate each one and ponder the differences. While the top end are certainly expensive you couldn’t help but notice that you could fly to the US, stay for a week and get a killer guitar for less than the price of that same guitar alone in Australia! The same thing goes for fiddle shops. Here they understand what a bluegrass fiddle is supposed to sound like and they can discuss, with great knowledge, what the tonal proclivities of say, Benny Martin, Bobby Hicks and Stuart Duncan are and will help find you an instrument that can deliver whatever it is you are seeking. The Violin Shop in Nashville is just that, and with a giant photograph of Vassar Clements to greet you at the door, you know are in the right place. This is something that doesn’t remotely exist in Australia – and dare I say it many other places.
There are lots of things to get used to in the US and many articles have been written about these but in Kentucky, known as the Bluegrass state, bluegrassers will immediately notice the constant references to bluegrass throughout daily life that are not referring to the music. We tend to find these things funny though the locals don’t give them a second thought. Our clear favourite of these was this business we found in Lexington:
(I was going in to ask about the possibility of getting some Kenny Baker ears. Paul was looking for some Bill Monroe sideburns, Ian was after a Tony Rice nose, Mick wanted the J D Crowe ‘claw’ and Maria was enquiring about Dolly Parton … fingernails)