Like many others, I have a problem. I think mine is benign, but when I look at my wife’s face when I show her my latest catch, I get some pretty intense looks. I’m sure she’s thinking intervention. My justifications that “Hey, it’s cheaper than golf, and I don’t spend hours on the course. It’s also cheaper than skiing. Or car collecting” are countered with, “Yeah, but now we have more stuff we don’t need.” “Well,” I tell her, “Mine is in the name of research and history.” Fortunately, she doesn’t counter with the fact that as far as research goes, this is pretty pointless… But, it is fun, and what I’m researching is when all that Old-Time, Bluegrass, and Celtic music coalesced into the new alternative-strings music.
One helpful aspect is that most all the important players are not only still alive, but very much active. All this will end up in a book I’m writing, that I’ll probably end up having to self-publish, and have me praying that at least three living relatives buy. And maybe one friend, out of mercy. But that’s ok, pointless endeavors are my speciality. As Dr. Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid once said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” That’s just not me.
Back to the pointless. I search for early vinyl, stuff that never made it to cd or digital, that belongs in that strange era of things going strange. It all happens around the time of the hippies, when the “Jewgrass” (it’s actually called that, don’t get mad at me) exodus happened. New York city boys went south in search of Tommy Jarrell, Ed Haley, and Benton Flippen. It’s the same thing that happened on college campuses all over the country at that time, where old bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt finally got the chance to tour and be exposed to a wider audience. Roots music became hot. So did the “Great Folk Scare” unfortunately, but that seems to exist now only on PBS fundraisers, so we’re all safe.
A funny thing happens when young people get to meddle with old music. While some try to stay perfectly true to the old guys (like John Specker, who as a founding member of the Correctones, was partially responsible for introducing Bruce Molsky to the fiddle) many go off the reservation. The Horseflies, for example, took old-time, and turned it into what they call “bug music.” It’s trance music, outdoor festival music, where a fusion of banjos and Japanese drums set a beat that the fiddle performs strange sonic loops over, all set to old time classics.
Then there’s Brad Leftwich’s early band, the Plank Road String Band.
I nominate this as the most underrated-incredibly important band ever. I mean EVER. Yeah, they played old-time funky, but the addition of one guy, Michael James Kott, on cello, opened up new doors. It’s not like a cello is unique to old time, as seen in this old illustration:
But Mr. Kott went wild with pizzicato, odd backing lines, deep swampy sound effects. He was a huge hero to one Rushad Eggleston, who with Darol Anger and Crooked Still, went on to revolutionize the way the cello can be played. One would say that that’s a pretty limited influence, but I’d say otherwise. We took our youth symphony up to the New England Conservatory a few years back on a weekend trip. In the halls, I ran into a friend who was studying there and during the course of our conversation, she said, “Everyone wants to be like Rushad.” That same sentiment was felt all over the country. It’s at the point now where the cello is not only common in young bands, but everyone has to have mastered all the techniques Rushad developed in order to be taken seriously. In many ways, the music you here today started with Michael James Kott.
Or did it start with Darol Anger?
There’s not a young fiddle player under 30 who directly or indirectly hasn’t been influenced by Darol’s work. Violin teachers the world over use videos of Darol’s right wrist as the epitome of perfect technique and flexibility. Pre-Darol, fiddlers would wind up, make some theatrical steps forward, and let you know they were playing as fast as possible. Darol brought super-clean classical virtuosity to the music, where he’d so casually toss of lines of such speed and complexity, you didn’t know they happened until halfway through the next part of the tune. He’ll go from a pure vibrato-less tone, then swerve into a super-wide vibrato, sliding up a step or two. One note becomes an infinite tonal palette. This was released in 1979, and it also features Mike Marshall, a precursor to the groundbreaking “Duo” recording a few years later.
Then again, where does Richard Greene fit into this?
This was in 1977, and Richard was playing in Bill Monroe’s band when he invented the chop for the fiddle. So, here we have the inventor of one of the most significant techniques for the violin, now used by, well, everyone. Darol may have made it popular, and developed some pretty cool mutations for the chop, but here’s the guy who invented it. And, in this album, he’s not playing bluegrass, it’s a mix of jazz, blues and strangeness. His main duet partner to his fiddle is an electric piano.
Or, was it David Grisman, who founded his quintet in 1975, bringing Darol Anger, Mike Marshall and others together to form a band that went from bluegrass to Gypsy jazz, and in combining the sounds of Bill Monroe and Django Reinhardt created his own brand of music, Dawg Music.
Vassar Clements? Those weird, sliding chords, and his love of sliding from Bluegrass to country jazz, swing and rock (yup, played with the Grateful Dead) certainly opened many eyes to the possibilities. And predating some of the guys above, he played on some of the odd John Hartford recording in the early 70’s.
And how about John Hartford himself?
Absolutely impossible to label. While not a great fiddler himself, his compositions and conceptual arrangements broke every mold imaginable. He formed the Dobrolic Pectoral Society, perhaps the best name ever. And, with Vassar Clements, recorded Aereo-Plain, in 1971. This album pretty much invented “Newgrass” as a category, soon inhabited by the Tony Rices and Jerry Douglas’s of the world.
Before that, things get pretty genre-specific. Amazing players like Eddy South, the Black Gypsy or Stuff Smith were firmly in the jazz camp. The Tommy Jarrell’s were old-time. Bob Wills and Tiny Moore; Western Swing. Life was easy, you knew what you were listening to. Now? Sheesh…kids these days.