Years ago, while still ensconced in my former life as a music industry stooge (and proudly so), I was in a meeting with legendary polka bandleader Jimmy Sturr. Sturr’s got more Grammies than Whitney Houston and Madonna combined, by the way. Bluegrass music was cresting its post-O, Brother wave of popularity and interest, and there was some marketing-driven discussion about the differences and similarities between bluegrass and polka. Sturr quickly pointed out, “They are both underground music.”
The comment took me by surprise. I mean, being a post-punk baby, the word “underground” implies—to me at least—some sort of edge, some degree of rebellion. But years later, Sturr’s intent has become clear to me. I mean, what’s the difference between Scritti Politti pressing their first single themselves and selling ‘em at gigs and Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass doing the same thing? They both are born of a subculture, outside of the mainstream, with values opposed to (or at least distinct from) the current quo—musical, cultural, or otherwise.
But when it comes to defiance, bluegrass is especially tricky. It’s a music that cloaks itself in tradition, and yet it wasn’t born until Bill Monroe’s 1946 Columbia sessions—sessions marked by a great deal of innovation in terms of instrumental technique, choice of material, and vocal approach. So…a new traditional music rife with innovation. Sounds like another great American paradox…Small-label and self-released bluegrass and stringband LPs never fail to intrigue me…there was (and is) a self-contained bluegrass circuit, where artists can be stars and still not be household names to most Americans. Here are a few gems from that particular underground.
One of the first classic albums from the Massachusetts-born Rounder Records label (now a division of the Concord indie empire). DON STOVER was an inventive, individuall West Virginia banjo player and songwriter who helped midwife Boston bluegrass via his sets with the Lily Brothers at the Combat Zone’s Hillbilly Ranch club. He settled in Billerica, where he taught and performed until his last days. The cover depicts only six of his nine children!
Great-if-campy ‘60s pop art cover advertises an insightfully chosen anthology of three-finger banjo pickers, including Earl Scruggs’s rarely-recorded older brother JUNIE SCRUGGS and JOE STUART—the only man to play all five core bluegrass instruments (banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and bass) with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys (not at the same time, however!).
RON THOMASON is best known as the loquacious frontman and lynchpin of the Dry Branch Fire Squad, a bastion of classic, rugged, mountain-style bluegrass. His between-song monologues are nearly as well-regarded as his music—and that is no insult to either. While you don’t hear his voice too much on this largely instrumental platter, a densely worded 8-page insert—replete with charts and a quiz—more than compensates.
One of the two or three most influential bluegrass LPs three decades or so. Deft timining and traditionally styled performances mask modern material of great sophistication and make a few old warhorses sound entirely up to date. This is the original pressing, which was quickly replaced when it became clear that J.D. CROWE was flipping the bird in the cover photo. Look closely, far right.
Both DEL MCCOURY and
Rebel Records are reliable independent sources for raw bluegrass to this day. A longtime journeyman performer who first crept into the national spotlight as a banjo player then lead vocalist with Bill Monroe, Del had a tremendous resurgence in the '90s, via a string of cannily-curated and brilliantly executed new albums featuring his watertight Del McCoury Band and a collaborative album with Steve Earle. This hard-driving 1975 Rebel release is one of his earlier full-lengths, pre-dating his recent renaissance by twentysomething years. Oh, and it came with this swell insert advertising delightful bluegrass-themed iron-on t-shirt transfers:
Brad San Martin is a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter in the
Boston-based indie-pop trio One Happy Island, who will celebrate the
release of their new EP and songbook Unsummer on December
16 at Toad in Cambridge. His VinylSighting blog is a
welcome addition to On The Download, despite the shortcomings of not
being able to download a vinyl record.