Thursday, January 11, 2007

Bluegrass Fusion

There's more to Bluegrass today than banjos, mandolins, fiddles and guitars. More than whiny, nasal voiced-mountain boys hollering; and more than the traditional breakdowns, camp tunes and spirituals that characterized the genre for so many years.

I started listening to Bluegrass in the late 60s, when Richard Greene, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements and the late Clarence White were simply called: The Bluegrass Band. There was a number of popular folk clubs where I grew up in L.A. about that time: the Troubadour, The Ash Grove and the Ice House; the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach; and the Mecca in Buena Park. All booked bluegrass as well as folk and blues acts. In retrospect, Orange County's Nitty Gritty Dirt Band played a significant role in pushing traditional bluegrass into new directions. For a few months, early on, Jackson Brown played with the Dirt Band. And Clarence White played with the Byrds during one of their many iterations. The stew was starting to simmer with new flavors, even back then.

Toward the end of the folk-music revival of the 60s and early 70s, many alternative and acoustic musicians moved toward country-rock. That was the place to be at the time. Interest in bluegrass moved back from the mainstream to a small niche of aficionados, bands and festivals. The annual Strawberry Festival at the Hetch Hetchy just outside of Yosemite Park has certainly been a West Coast institution for decades. Musical purists like Del McCoury and Ricky Scaggs did their level best to keep the genre afloat and refreshed while the rest of popular culture was rocking-and-rolling.

Then came Alison Krauss, the Joan of Arc of Bluegrass music, just in the nick of time. And just like the super-heroine that she is, she saved the day, refreshed the page, and reinvigorated all things Bluegrass. The whole industry owes her and Union Station a vote of thanks. From that engine of rekindled interest has come a lot of great, new talent. And a lot of new directions.

First, the talent. Individuals like Bella Fleck, Johnny Staats (Wires & Wood) and Allison Brown are having tremendous influence within the genre. Groups like the New Grange, Seldom Scene, and of course, Nickel Creek, are creating new standards, while taking the genre in daring new directions. Adding Celtic flourishes, medieval ornamentation and even classical-sounding riffs to traditional sounding Bluegrass melodies. That's fusion.

Fusion can be defined as combining two nuclei into a third, heavier element with a simultaneous release of high energy. Like adding jazz licks to traditional Bluegrass to create a merged sound that knocks your socks off.

Nobody does that better than Bella Fleck and the Flecktones. How a musical genius like Bella Fleck ended up playing the banjo is still inscrutable to me. But after hearing him live on five occasions and having an opportunity to chat with him backstage at Southern Oregon's Britt Festival, I am convinced that he may be one of the most creative musicians alive. Who else has written a complex, multi-part band tune that is a palindrome? Who else plays Bach on the Banjo?

Bella started out playing Bluegrass. He and Sam Bush were hanging out playing tunes when the Flecktones were just a vague concept taking form in the ether. Now the group, and Bella's vision and love affair with the edge of the envelope, are a principal engine driving alternative Bluegrass.

Sam Bush is fond of straying in to Southern Rock from his Bluegrass roots. His "Memphis in the Mean Time" is a real hoot and puts his own musical point of view into clear focus. This guy likes to rock.

My personal favorite at the moment, as these things are fluid and change, is Tony Furtado. Furtado, an all-American boy, is part Italian and part Portuguese. He must have a little Gypsy in him as well. His tunes and personal performances are beyond what anybody else, except Bella and Nickel Creek, are doing. Known for his banjo, which is certainly daring - and also displays technical virtuosity, it is Furtado's slide guitar that most appeals to me. His tunes are engaging and his instrumental performance is minimalist, never an unnecessary note. Still, his licks are just about perfect. The kind of music that invites deeper involvement and appreciation. But hey, that's just my opinion. Check him out and see for yourself.

I'm going to write more about "fusion" later, as it is an interest of mine and a central theme of Pop Impulse. Some times fusing different elements works, and sometimes it doesn't (look for a future post titled: White Men Playing Didgeridoos). I like what I'm hearing in the Bluegrass world a lot, and am encouraged that this particular American institution has a long and productive life left to live in our popular culture.

1 comment: said...

Not sure how you take the artists that venture into other genre's to be bluegrass fusion. True bluegrass is banjo, mandolin, fiddles and other traditional musical instruments.