Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Gold Rush

Bluegrass is the latest to emerge of the traditional American music styles. Informed by hundreds of years of culture from many parts of the world, its musical language is exceptionally diverse. The cre­ation of bluegrass as a recognized style is mostly credited to Bill Monroe of Kentucky. Born in 1911, Monroe was inspired by his “Uncle Pen” who played the Kentucky fiddle style in the family’s Scottish tradition. Young Bill wanted to fiddle but, being the youngest sibling, the instrument was already taken and the mandolin was the household instrument that remained. Monroe was intent on making the most of the situation however, and created a new way of playing the mandolin that emulated fiddle playing, even creating some of the most famous American fiddle tunes from the instrument.

Although he grew up with traditional Appalachian string-band music and the hymn-based music of the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers, Monroe was inspired by the blues and ragtime music being played by both blacks and whites in and around his native Rosine, KY – music that was influencing all of the string players at the time. Monroe learned music from a local black musician Arnold Schultz (a coal miner who played guitar) and by the African American Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet from Virginia with whom he and his brother Charlie had shared the stage often in the Carolinas.

Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys with Wise, Flatt
and Scruggs (‘47)
Hillbilly music in South Carolina was also being revolutionized during that time by fiddlers Joseph Emmet Mainer and his brother-in-law Roscoe Banks working under the group name J. E. Mariner’s Mountain­eers. It was when they added Snuffy Jenkins to the group, performing his 3-finger banjo rolls on his 5-string banjo influenced by the 3-finger style blues and ragtime guitar music from his native Piedmont region of North Carolina, that the characteristics of the modern bluegrass band were first heard. In 1936 they teamed up for an RCA recording of a music style that would become known as the bluegrass sound – a full two years before Bill Monroe’s own band, The Bluegrass Boys made their first appearance. After a short run in Ashville, North Carolina, Monroe’s innovative mandolin playing and the distinctive 4-part singing rehearsed extensively at Monroe’s direction for months - but without the inclusion of the banjo - took the Grand Ol’ Opry by storm in 1939 with Monroe’s virtuosic hillbilly singing on his own Mule Skinner Blues.

The musical influences on Bill Monroe and others during the 1930s and early 40s were crucial for the development of bluegrass music, however it wasn’t until 1945 that a seminal lineup of band members took place in Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, a lineup that cast an indelible mark on the music’s future. During WWII, a jazz fiddler from Florida named Chubby Wise heard that Monroe’s great fiddler Howdy Forrester was leaving the band for the service. Wise was accepted into the band on a trial basis and although he was not familiar with playing Monroe’s hillbilly style, he was talented and a fast learner. Together Monroe and Wise worked at creating a whole new role for the fiddle in a string band. Fiddles had traditionally played lead most of the time. Because Monroe wanted to feature trio and quartet singing and his own mandolin playing, Wise developed a rhythmic role for the fiddle taking on a “chop” function when the mandolin dropped its strong back-beats for a solo break. He also learned to back up the vocals with complimentary lines, double-stops and fills.

Byron Berline, Bill Monroe and O'Connor "Heroes"
recording session
Next to join the band was a young singer/rhythm guitar player from Tennessee named Lester Flatt, and in December of 1945, a 21-year old 3-finger style, 5-string banjo virtuoso named Earl Scruggs came into the lineup - a young man who in the coming two decades would become the greatest bluegrass banjo player-composer to ever come along. Howard Watts rounded out the super-star configuration of The Bluegrass Boys playing upright bass.

This new kind of country hillbilly music continued to develop into the 1960s with­out an official name. The distinguishing characteristics of this new genre were vocals featuring extremely high harmony parts, short improvised solos or “breaks” between verses by each instrument, a hard driving rhythmic groove and incredibly fast tempos. Even though much of the repertoire included old country songs, fiddle tunes, banjo breakdowns, gospel hymns, swing and boogie woogie, Monroe and other band members wrote many new songs and instrumentals to show off their incredible technique and new sound.

The term “hillbilly” has come to have negative connotations despite its noble origin. The early Ulster-Scottish settlers in the hill-country of Appalachia sang songs about William, Prince of Orange, who defeated the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 Ireland. Supporters of King William were known as Orangemen and Billy Boys and their North American counterparts were referred to as hill-billies. Monroe despised the stereotype of “backward mountain people” and insisted that The Bluegrass Boys wear suits and ties every time they performed. They certainly were the best-dressed musicians at the Grand ‘Ol Opry when they began in 1939!

The Bluegrass Boys would continue to perform with different personnel after the seminal band broke up and went their separate ways. Some of the greatest bluegrass fiddlers - Vassar Clements, Kenny Baker, Bobby Hicks - drifted in and out of Monroe’s bands. Many former “bluegrass boys” formed other groups or went on to solo careers. Fairly quickly Scruggs teamed up with Lester Flatt and Paul Warren to become The Foggy Mountain Boys gaining national fame with a Martha White Flour sponsorship on the Grand Ol’ Opry, a national television theme song and appearances on the Beverly Hillbillies and the soundtrack for the Hollywood blockbuster Bonnie and Clyde. Even though they became the most successful bluegrass band in the country, Flatt & Scruggs marketed themselves as folk music, not bluegrass.

O’Connor (age 12) and Bill Monroe
Ironically, Monroe did not fare as well commercially as many who had played with him for a short while. In 1965, a huge admirer of Monroe, Carlton Haney had an idea to put “bluegrass music” on the map for good. Patterning his concept after the many folk festivals that had sprung up around the country and had included acts like Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and the successful and prolific Stanley Brothers, Haney produced the very first weekend-long bluegrass festival in Fincastle (Roanoke), Vir­ginia. This “first” festival featured all of the first generation patriarchs of bluegrass: The Stanley Brothers, The Osborne Brothers, Don Reno, Red Smiley, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wisemen, Clyde Moody and Doc Watson. Notably absent, however, were Flatt & Scruggs. Naming the festival - and hence the music - “bluegrass” with its obvious connection to Bill Monroe’s band was a matter of some controversy. However, all agreed that for the purpose of distinguishing it from the country music of Nashville and the folk music festivals with Dylan, Baez and Seeger, it was a good idea.

It has come to light recently that the vast majority of the people on that “first” festival’s roster who had worked with Monroe – and perhaps Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs themselves – were Melungeons, a mulatto or mixed race people with part European, part Native American, part African American and perhaps Turkish and Mediterranean lineage. These Melungeons all came from a geographical area within a hundred mile radius bordering Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia – the center of that area being Bristol, TN where the Carter Family (also thought to be Melungeon) lived. Flatt and Scruggs took their band name from a famous Carter Family tune called Foggy Mountain Top. Through their own DNA and cultural heritage, most all of the patriarchs of bluegrass represented all of the places in the world from which the roots of bluegrass music can be traced. Bill Monroe’s hometown of Rosine, KY is not included in that geographical area however. His 100% Scottish heritage, his geographical home, his drive and skill as a bandleader and his strong personality all contributed to Bill Monroe’s being seen as a task master, the boss man and “wheel hoss.” Monroe provided opportunities for many musicians who would not otherwise have been able to play because of the racist atmosphere in the Jim Crow Era. Further, no one disputed Monroe’s genius as a musician, songwriter, bandleader and entrepreneur. His seniority and long-standing history with The Grand ‘Ol Opry counted for much among the musicians who had worked with him.

It was also in 1965 that a fantastic young fiddler named Byron Berline first met Monroe at the Newport Folk Festival. Berline had played with The Dillards who were regulars on The Andy Griffith Show and had won the National Old-Time Fiddler’s Contest. Berline was The Bluegrass Boys’ fiddler in 1967 when Monroe announced from the Grand ‘Ol Opry stage that from this point forward this music was to be known as “bluegrass music.” That same year Monroe established his own bluegrass festival at Bean Blossom. Berline played with Monroe for a scant 7 months before being drafted to serve in Vietnam. During those few months, however, the young fiddle great and Monroe penned one of the classic bluegrass fiddle tunes of all time – Gold Rush.

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