Sunday, May 14, 2006

High Lonesome

Mother's Day, of course, & part of the "celebration" consisted of driving down to Hollywood Beach to take in, of all things, a bluegrass festival. The high lonesome sound is not the single most popular musical genre in South Florida – in fact, I'd rank it somewhere near the very bottom of the music scene down here, along with Celtic, polka, German oompah band, and traditional "classical." A far cry from when I lived in Northern Virginia / suburban DC, where one of the best public radio stations programmed about five hours of bluegrass/old-timey every weekday and it was a rare weekend when there wasn't a "roots" music festival within easy driving distance or an excellent band appearing at the Birchmere in Alexandria.

Bluegrass in South Florida was a weird thing. All of these pasty-white, slightly tubby folks with the accents of my childhood, playing in front of a (smallish) crowd distinguished largely by their leathery tans, tasteful tattoos, & bemused expressions. I didn't have high hopes for the show, either, since the first ensemble we heard (a local group, I gather) had lots of enthusiasm but a paucity of chops, especially in the vocal department. Bluegrass, like bebop or contemporary metal, is a genre that puts a great premium on virtuosity, and a bluegrass band that can't quite keep up with their own beat is a spectacle about as leaden & embarassing as a violinist playing a Bach partita with shaky intonation.

So we opted out of the last bit of that set & the whole of the second set in order to get dinner – which, with the kids, is an undertaking that ought only to be entrusted to NASA or some other highly organized group. But we got back in time for the headliners, the Lonesome River Band, a group that I'd heard a bit of back in the day but whom I'd largely forgotten. They reminded me a just how exhilarating well-played bluegrass can be, with one driving, rattling tune following hard on the heels of another – the percussive sound of an overdriven banjo, the piercing whine of a Southern tenor, joined by his bandmates on the choruses in a sound that put me back into the Church of Christ pew of my early days.

Of course – at the risk of alienating some diehard fans – bluegrass can be the most boring music on earth, as any genre that trades on the same tempos and chord progressions can begin to seem pretty samey after a while: how many Telemann pieces can you listen to in a row? One dear friend of my grad school days used to call it "sewing machine music" on account of the degree to which bluegrass solos rely on running lightning-fast scales, over and over – first the banjo, then the guitar, then the mandolin: repeat in a different order on the next song, etc. She played old-timey guitar, old-time music being essentially the "roots" version of bluegrass, with a greater emphasis on archival tunes and songs, a deĆ«mphasis of virtuosity, and a concomitant valorization of "feel." Sort of John Clare to bluegrass's Crabbe, but good stuff on the whole.

(For my money, the "house band" of Ithaca during my time there was the very wonderful Horseflies, an old-timey band with a bent sense of humor and a strong propensity to turn post-punk. They wrote the ultimate anthem to Ithaca, New York: "I Live Where It's Grey." During my time there, they signed with MCI and had a short-lived "pop" career, before drifting back to Ithaca and soldiering on. Check 'em out.)

Lately I've been watching from a distance & with some amusement the rise of Old Crow Medicine Show, a group of young old-timers who seem to have grown up listening to Nirvana and Public Enemy. They've become regulars on "Prairie Home Companion," without losing their ragged edges. I saw them once, when J. & I – probably a half-dozen years ago – were visiting Nashville & went to a huge bluegrass festival on the grounds of the Grand Ole Opry. There was a phalanx of bluegrass stars playing that festival (Doc Watson, most notably, still in fine voice), but what struck us most about the whole thing was the chaotic energy of five none-too-well-washed, extremely young, extremely scruffy skinny guys whaling away at various old-timey tunes, busker-style, in the interstices between the big stages. I wondered whether security was going to come & cart them away, fiddle, banjo, double bass and all, at any minute. And that was Old Crow Medicine Show.


Amy said...

In San Francisco there was a surprisingly vibrant bluegrass "scene," but the music was mostly weak. A friend of ours used to KILL on the dobro with his band, but he pretty much carried the whole act. The cream from what I've seen was (of course) in the Ozarks. When we lived in Fayetteville AR we used to get pretty regular visits from a hillbilly band from Springfield MO called BIG SMITH, who I just love. They're a bunch of relatives, and the real deal: gen-u-ine hill folk from Christian County MO. If you've never heard, and would like, I could get you some copies, but if you like hill music, there's no risk in just buying a CD or two. There are some songs you can listen to on the website. :-)

Brian said...

I commpletely concur, and I'll do you one better if you like--I'll burn you a copy of a cd if you like. What do you want/ Original music combined with old timey stuff or straight gospel music? We've got both.

Did I ever mention my personal connection to traditional country music? My uncle has been Willie Nelson's bassist for as long as I've been alive. If you're interested, I'm sure I can get tickets to see him next time he's in the area. You will need a babysitter (I recommend my daughter).