Wednesday, October 30, 2013

My Grass is Blue

She loves rock 'n roll ...
and so do I!
As you may have ascertained by now... like Joan Jett, I love me some rock and roll. I have since I was maybe 12 years old and realized that there was more to music than the Osmonds. But far into my life, my husband turned me on to bluegrass – and I was delighted to find that it pushes my buttons too, in very different ways. So here we have...

10 Reasons I Love Bluegrass:

1. It's twangy! Like vinegary easter NC barbecue sauce or Greek yogurt! Tasty and good for you. The banjos, the mandolins, the high lonesome vocals… Some people find it irritating, I know, but it plucks my strings. It's artful, soulful, and shiver-inducing.

Nathan Stanley has been playing with 
his "Papaw" since he was yea big.
2. I love harmony singing. While Gregorian chants and solo singing have much to recommend them, I truly get off on a harmonic blend of complementary tones. I'm not a great singer, but I can never resist trying out my own variations on songs at church on or on the radio. It's a shame that I can't harmonize with myself! (I actually used to know a guy who could hum and whistle at the same time, and harmonize with himself!)

3. The skills. There are plenty of extremely talented musicians performing rock and roll… but BLUEGRASS? You pretty much HAVE to know your stuff. You can't fake it with three power chords and an anthemic chorus. 

I was a townie, but my dad grew up here.
4. It's a family affair. The Louvin Brothers. The Osborne Brothers. The Stanley Brothers. The Carter Family. Doc and Merle Watson. This particular brand of music is populated with bands who are related to each other. I saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys the other night and who was with him? His son AND his grandson. Sibling rivalry was intense in some of these groups, but in the case of the Stanleys last night… I saw nothing but love.

Guys in suits!
5. It resonates with my country soul. Yes, my dad was a dentist, my SAH mom a former art teacher. We lived in town and wore preppy clothes… belonged to the local country club, and even went to private school for a while. But you know what? My mother's father came from Virginia peanut farmers, and my dad came directly from a tobacco farm in Granville County. So I was a townie, through and through… even though I would occasionally, as small child, spend time at my grandparents' farm in the summers. They lived out on a dirt road, and I have vague memories of my grandmother cooking huge mid-day meals on her big iron stove for the farm workers. 

Guys in Nudie suits!
That is all to say that them there's my real roots. And though my experience is indirect at best, the music of the rural South rings a bell deep in my soul. A couple of weeks ago, Tom, Bill and I went to the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual convention and I encountered people from all over the world who love this homey, musical art. It's not hard to imagine how it might speak to someone from, say, the British Isles. I mean, that's where it came from to begin with, right? But I had to wonder… what does bluegrass mean to someone from, say, Japan? or Sweden? I don't know.

Does that sound weirdly racist? I hope not! I just know that when I hear it, I feel like am hearing the lives of my people. What do they hear? The lives of hardworking rural people everywhere? (As an aside, when I hear a song that narrates a story, I always picture it playing it out in black and white - enacted by people who look like they could be the members of the cast of The Andy Griffith Show... or maybe the people in my parents' old photos.)

Del McCoury and his
perfect pompadour
6. The clothes. OMG. Guys in suits! Sure some of the whippersnappers like Sam Bush act like every day is casual day, but a lot of those guys wear SUITS. It's classy. Or if they're a bit flash, they might don a Nudie suit, like Jim Lauderdale, or something sparkly like Nathan Stanley wears. It's ALL good.

7. The hair. Don't get me started about the hair, man. Del McCoury, Ralph Stanley and his grandson Nathan… These guys really know how to bouf it up, a la Conway Twitty. It's nostalgic… it's retro… or it's just how they've been styling their hair since they first got it!

8. The humility. Now, I've heard tall tales about Ricky Skaggs being kind of a jerk, but I have no way to confirm that. Maybe it's just malicious gossip… and Ralph Stanley? Well, he can be a bit of a grouch at times. But he's allowed, because he's ancient. In general I've found bluegrass musicians – of the old guard, anyway, to be gracious, humble, sweet… and pretty dang accessible. The manners their mommas taught them are on display for all to see. The other night the Clinch Mountain boys and also Ralph Jr. practically begged us to like them. Of course there was no need for that – we already did! 
This photo of Dewey Brown
of the Clinch Mountain Boys
and me illustrates points 8 AND 9!

And how many rock concerts have you attended that were followed by a meet-and-greet that wasn't part of a fancy expensive "deluxe" ticket package? This is NOT how bluegrass works, my friend. No, you'll find these guys lined up after the show with Sharpies at the ready. Of course they'd love you to buy something, but they'll sign anything you hand them… with gentlemanly charm.

9. It makes me feel young and pretty. Yes, there are young, attractive bluegrass musicians. And, yes, I like looking at young, attractive guys. On the other hand, I also have the sick tendency to look at young, attractive people and think, "Dang, I'm a lumpy old lady." But your average bluegrass musicians? Well they mostly likely just look like regular folks in their Sunday best – maybe with a flashy hat. And I like that. It's a comfortable perspective from which to view the world.
Hooch is definitely a
suitable topic for
bluegrass songs...

10. Saturday Night/Sunday morning. Yeah, bluegrass might be a family affair, but sometimes it's not exactly family fare. You see, the subject matter, well… it doesn't shy away from the underbelly of rural life – dark murders, cheating hearts, jail time and the production and consumption of whiskey... Those topics are not off limits in this genre, and I find them particularly fascinating. Though my people were mostly mild mannered Baptists, I can't help but think I've been granted a peek into their culture – the culture of the rural South. are church, Jesus, heavenly shores, 
and dearly departed mamas.
And speaking of Baptists… A large segment of bluegrass music is devoted to songs about Jesus and heaven and stuff like that – you know, the stuff I love. Seeing a good old country boy in a suit singing heartfelt songs about His Savior is a powerful soul stirrer for me. I always picture people who have worked incredibly hard all their lives and are yearning for the rest of heaven... And as a 51-year-old mom, I can completely dig that.

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