Everyone agrees that pop music is horrible, but no one does anything about it. There is no way to guarantee that Lady Gaga or Adam Levine will not offend our tympanums again, not with their contracts. But there is a simple solution. Drop all your preconceptions about hillbilly music, lose your pretentious rock sensibilities, and come on over to bluegrass.
It’s still summer, or warm enough that there are no blizzards or nor’easters on the horizon, and there are outdoor bluegrass festivals going on in every state, and have been since spring. There’s probably one not more than an hour or two from you, down a peaceful country lane lined with outhouses on skids that you’ll need your GPS to locate, if not a savvy mule. There you’ll find the sun is shining, the river is sweet, the grass is green if not blue, and the beat flat out rocks. Really, it does. Maybe not like AC/DC, but at least harder than Maroon 5 and “Bad Romance.”
Learning to enjoy bluegrass is easy, because there are essentially only two adjustments the listener must make. The first is to the instrumentation, particularly the banjo. Bluegrass novices, rockers and folk music lovers alike, have told me that they could listen to this music, in theory, but there’s something about the banjo they can’t go. They fear the pure twang of the instrument. I understand their apprehension.
There’s something about the cold, metallic notes that spring out of a banjo, amplified by a drumhead-like skin, that makes the uninitiated listener cringe as if the short hairs on his neck were being plucked out with ice-cold tweezers. Plus, those icy notes invariably conjure up the inbred mute in Deliverance, or the Clampetts gathered around the cement pond. They’re embarrassing, for heaven’s sake.
If it turns out you can’t do the banjo, you may comfort yourself with the fact that lots of bluegrass doesn’t contain a note of it. Keep telling yourself that and you won’t despair at the very outset.
By comparison to the banjo, the other bluegrass instruments are a piece of cake. These are usually a six-string acoustic guitar, a warm and roomy stand-up bass, also a fiddle, which is what mountain folk call a violin, and a mandolin. Nothing odd or offensive there, except one does wonder how a delicate medieval instrument like the Neapolitan mandolin can sound so good in the hands of rural Kentuckians and Virginians. You’d have thought they’d be handier with a jaw harp or a tin whistle. Who knew?
The other challenge for bluegrass novitiates is the singing. The best and most famous bluegrass singers have voices that are unlikely to front any other vocal format, even country. They are simply too downhome and honest, too evocative of coal mining and moonshining and backwater rapids. But they can be got used to.
The trick is to start with a band whose singer doesn’t sound like he or she is one big nose stuffed with coal dust. The angel-voiced Alison Krauss comes to mind, and her bandmate Dan Tyminski, who did the singing for George Clooney in the popular bluegrass-infused film O Brother Where Art Thou.
Tyminski has a fine, accurate baritone that makes a virtue of his southern inflections, while Alison has all but lost any regional accent (she’s from North Carolina) and easily performs mainstream stuff, sometimes with the British subject Robert Plant, who can also be got used to with patience. Start with these folks and then progress to the more rarified artists. Or stay and listen only to Alison Krauss and her topnotch band Union Station. It doesn’t get any better.
If you move on, though, take it in easy stages. Just because you can listen to Alison Krauss and George Clooney (Dan Tyminski), doesn’t mean you are ready for bluegrass stalwarts Ralph Stanley and Jimmy Martin, let alone those unique stylists who define the bluegrass sound for many, such as Screamin’ Del McCoury and Hazel Dickens. No, don’t ever think that after hearing angelic Alison warble “Down to the River to Pray” you can just run off and enjoy Screamin’ Del’s rendition of “High on a Mountaintop,” which parts the very clouds with sonic intensity, or the mournful Hazel Dickens wheezing out “Black Lung,” a tune that fills the air with carcinogenic dust. That’s not going to happen.
To be honest, I myself can’t listen to Jimmy Martin or Ms. Dickens for a note. Jimmy sounds like the irate cook at Jimmy’s Truck Stop in Corbin, Kentucky, who has been told his food must pass a health board inspection every year and starts keening like a wounded coyote. And Dickens is simply too authentic, having so much homespun veracity that I can’t stand the idea of her breathing. She sounds like a scorned woman in Chesapeake, West Virginia, standing on top of a hill dressed in black rags and wailing down into the Kanawha River Valley despite her advanced tuberculosis.
The late Ralph Stanley, though, is the great harmonizer in folk and country music. He can, or could, sing with anyone, and achieved fame back in the 1950s harmonizing with his brother Carter. After Carter passed on he performed duets with everyone from Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakum, the aforementioned Alison Krauss, to even Bob Dylan. He was that well regarded, and that good. He really was, even though solo he sounded like a coal-mining foreman whose voice can still puncture your eardrums after traveling through miles of twisting anthracite tunnels.
If you happen to become a fan of Ralph’s recordings, and again I recommend the ones where he harmonizes with all sorts of swell people on great and familiar songs, not all of them religious, you should take it as a sign. You may now move on to Screamin’ Del McCoury, whose followers are often hard-core in their devotion.
McCoury, who plays guitar and sings with a crack band largely composed of his sons, as did Ralph Stanley (that is, each played with his own sons, not the other man’s), has dozens of recordings out, and can still be found at many of those summer bluegrass festivals I mentioned. Known for his “high lonesome” tenor that can shear sheep, bake biscuits and dig coal all by itself, Screamin’ Del’s not my cup of grits, but I can listen to him now and then without shuddering. Not too much shuddering, anyway, and I always recover.
Let’s say that by some miracle you don’t shudder at Screamin’ Del, and you actually become a fan of the bluegrass genre, that you’re so fortunate. Next you’ll want this music served up live and outdoors, where the ambience of lawn chairs, portable toilets, and amateur pickers is so relaxed that even the bandana-sporting motorcycle gangs and their tattooed mamas are friendly. Plus, you can test your survival skills by lasting an entire weekend on soup beans and well water that you pump yourself, with an actual handle.
You may well become like the one-armed girl in a bikini I saw at a festival in Ohio, standing in a grassy field and smiling in the warm sunshine as she waved her sole arm to the beat. She had exited the rock arena and come to where the music is still good. She was having a blast.