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Hillbilly Jazz: From the Blue Ridge to Blue Note

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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How often do we have a complete recorded history of an entire genre by the innovator himself (besides Elvis' Jumpsuit Opera period)?
If you were to take the entire purview of American music, trace each form back to its roots, and compare those roots side-by-side, you would notice several very interesting things. For one, just how easy it is to manipulate you into undertaking a detailed, time-consuming activity with just a single sentence. You'd also notice that virtually all American music can trace their roots to Dixie. The blues, arguably the primer for the lion's share of our collective music, sprang from the fields of the agrarian South. From that source sprang jazz, R&B, rock-and-roll, and that song from that beer commercial that I really like.

Meanwhile, in the Appalachian mountains of the South, the common balladry of the Scotch-Irish settlers who had been settling the region since the early seventeenth century had been undergoing a slow process of assimilation and was developing into a distinctive form unto its own. Known as mountain, or country music, the form was primarily vocal and strings but did not yet closely resemble its modern form because canned beer, mobile homes and pickup trucks were yet to be invented.

With the advent of recording technology at the beginning of the twentieth century, traditional country music expanded beyond its established boundaries and found an audience all over the country wherever blue collars and red necks were allowed to roam free. Early pioneers of the recorded form included Virginia's legendary Carter family who rose from the hardscrabble coalfields to become internationally renowned thanks mostly to the talents and determination of Mother Maybelle Carter, one of the first strong female figures in music. It might be said that she was the Madonna of her age, except without the media whoredom, the crackpot views, and (thankfully) no book of featuring Mother Maybelle posing in erotic situations with Sidney Bechet and Hattie McDaniel.

At the same time traditional country music was finding its audience, a new form was taking shape at the hands of Kentuckian Bill Monroe. After experimenting with several different lineups, at one point having the great Rogers Hornsby bat as low as seventh in the order, Monroe settled upon the now-standard instrumentation of guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle and mandolin. Since he hailed from the Bluegrass State, he decided to call his group the Blue Grass Boys. Hence, the new form they created was called Bluegrass. Fortunately for all posterity that Monroe wasn't from South Carolina, because Palmetto music just wouldn't have been taken as seriously.

Be that as it may.

Though the new music made its proper debut on the stage of the iconic Grand Ole Opry in 1939, many feel that bluegrass didn't truly coalesce until 1945 with the addition of 21 year-old banjo wizard Earl Scruggs. It was his innovative, dynamic playing that gave the music the spark it needed to become a genre unto itself. Scruggs' addition to bluegrass was so profound that even now the banjo is its signature voice, and is one of two people who influenced my year-long moratorium on derisive banjo jokes (the other being Bela Fleck).

Scruggs went on to become one of the true legends of bluegrass, both with partner Lester Flatt and as a solo artist. Crossover hits, such as "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" from the movie Bonnie and Clyde, and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" from The Beverly Hillbillies, brought the music to the popular ear in the 1960's. Thus began a renaissance of hillbilly culture that reached its high water mark at the cut-off edge of Catherine Bach's Daisy Dukes.

Like Art Blakey did with jazz, Monroe was himself an ambassador and used his band as an incubator for the furtherance of the music he loved. Over 150 different musicians learned their craft in the Blue Grass Boys (not at the same time, of course. Just getting all the mandolins tuned up would have taken weeks), with some of the biggest names in bluegrass passing under Monroe's tutelage before going on to their own solo careers. Sonny Osborne, Del McCoury, Carter Stanley, David "Stringbean" Akeman, Mac Wiseman and Randall Franks ("Beans and Franks" jokes 3 for $10, with loyalty card) were all Blue Grass Boys at some point.

Like jazz, bluegrass first found its voice at the edges of society. Before the advent of satellite TV and the Internet, hillbillies lacked fundamental access to mainstream culture. Thus unbound by the narrow confines of the musical orthodoxy, both jazz and bluegrass expounded upon the possible rather than the acceptable. As a result, both forms encouraged exploration and improvisation. Unlike jazz, though, bluegrass also encouraged flat-footing and excessive consumption of buttermilk.


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