Day five, concluding the inaugural Sidetracks And Detours Bluegrass Music in text Festival 2022, offering
SIGNPOSTS TO NEW BLUEGRASS STARS
Norman Warwick is told of the future
Bluegrass is a dynamic genre, as explained in a wonderful essay by Chris Pandolfi of The Infamous Stringdusters, detailing the history behind the two diverging sects of the genre: old-school traditionalists and those of the inventive “newgrass” mindset.
Chris Pandolfi (left) is a full-time musician, producer, and podcaster who started his career as the first ever banjo principal at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and has been forging his own unique path ever since.
The grandchild of professional opera musicians, Chris was raised with deep musical roots. Ultimately finding his voice on the banjo, he spent two years at Berklee before moving to Nashville, TN to start The Infamous Stringdusters, now an established force in the acoustic music world. In 2007, the Stringdusters took home awards for Emerging Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year (for their debut album, Fork in the Road), at the annual International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) annual awards show. And in 2018, the Stringdusters won a GRAMMY for Best Bluegrass Album for their 2017 release, Laws of Gravity.
As the Stringdusters established themselves among the pioneers of the unprecedented growth of modern Bluegrass, Chris became a powerful voice behind the movement. In 2011 he self-published a piece on his blog entitled ‘The Bluegrass Manifesto,’ that challenged the Bluegrass world to embrace the drastic evolution of the music that many perceived as a threat to the established tradition. The article had a big impact, and later that year Chris gave the keynote address at the International Bluegrass Music Association Business conference (IBMA). He currently sits on the IBMA Board of Directors.
In more creative realms, Chris has produced a number of albums for other artists (including The Kitchen Dwellers, Trout Steak Revival, Meadow Mountain), as well as several innovative titles of his own. His latest solo record, Trance Banjo, sees him taking the next step under his Trad Plus moniker. The album is a unique combination of modern banjo compositions, along with lush, symphonic vinyl samples, beats, futuristic software instruments, strings, synths and more. Chris produced, wrote, performed, engineered and mixed almost every aspect of the album at his studio in Colorado.
“I’ve always tried to push the envelope, with music, business, bluegrass, and everything in between,” shared Chris. “For years it was all about the banjo, but eventually I started to drift heavily into the world of creative production, first with what I was listening to and ultimately with music I wanted to make. ‘Trance Banjo’ is definitely a big chapter of that journey, bringing together unique sounds that haven’t appeared together before, namely the modern banjo writing with the old, rich sounds of the classical vinyl samples.
Outside of writing and performing banjo, Chris hosts the podcast, ‘Inside the Musician’s Brain (ITMB).’ Now inits second season, ITMB is a deep dive into everything that goes into a life in music, featuring lengthy interviews with a host of prominent contemporary musicians. The show also draws back the curtain onthe Stringdusters world, as well as Chris’ experiences as a producer, writer, engineer, business leader and human being.
That Mr Pandolfi´s opinion and validation is often sought out is evidenced by his writing of a foreword to a prestigious new book published recently.
Pandolfi says Big thanks to Nick Hutchinson for asking me to write the foreword for his new book ‘High on a Mountain: An Oral History of Jamgrass in Colorado.’ The book consists of a bunch of excellent interviews that tell the story of the evolution and growth of bluegrass, and the advent of its more modern relative: ‘jamgrass.’ Interview subjects include Sam Bush, Drew Emmitt, Béla Fleck, Tim O’brien, Peter Rowan, Paul Hoffman, Nick Forster, yours truly and many more!
Over the last twenty-five years, bluegrass has been swept into a vibrant vortex of evolution and growth, opening the door to an array of new influences, and reaching new ears in every corner of the globe. Once a niche genre of lightning-fast picking, suits, high-harmonies, tight arrangements and Southern soul, its most popular modern purveyors have traded the ties for tie-dyes and charted a new course toward the masses. A rich new lineage of artists is pushing the envelope, bending the formal structure of the music while still utilizing many of the striking attributes that put bluegrass on the map in the mid-1940s. It’s the same music, just for different times. It’s bluegrass that jams, setting in motion a magical interplay of energetic audiences, amplified instruments, and futuristic production. This popular new strain of the music is known to most as “jamgrass.”
To understand today’s bluegrass, first we have to go back in time. Since its inception, bluegrass has been home to a long list of hyper-talented, colorful characters, who were supreme innovators at their core. Bill Monroe, widely regarded as the father of bluegrass, formulated his own musical vision, bringing together blues, country music, Scottish fiddle traditions, and a bold new style of mandolin playing that crackled with energy. Earl Scruggs did something similar with the banjo, innovating a totally new way of playing the instrument with three finger picks that remains the gold standard of banjo playing to this day. These two were larger-than-life, and when they joined forces in 1945 it was the “big bang” of bluegrass. A rich new style was born, capturing people’s attention and spawning new acts of the same sound in every direction. From those storied first notes on the Grand Ole Opry in 1945, this music has always had serious mojo.
Old school bluegrass (aka “traditional bluegrass”) is a stark lesson in raw musical power, combining virtuosic musicianship with a volcanic eruption of soul and emotion. Those early influential artists played and sang with an unmistakable and striking level of commitment. They lived the music, writing countless beautiful songs that told stories of that era, all brought to life with organic, acoustic tones that speak an emotional language all their own. Bluegrass moves people—always has, always will. But while the music more than stood on its own, it never got that popular. Despite passing through the hands of endless luminary musicians along the way, earlier iterations of bluegrass were never a good fit for the mainstream. It was hard to amplify, lacked a modern sound, and didn’t win the favor of tastemakers who towered over the music industry at that time. The fanbase was small but incredibly loyal. There were glimpses of success along the way, during the folk boom of the 1960s and then again in the 1970s when musical titan Jerry Garcia brought together Old & In the Way and exposed legions of new fans to the crackling sound of the banjo and the potent draw of bluegrass. But still, no real widespread popularity. It’s hard to say if Garcia’s influence on the evolution of bluegrass is more centered around his brief time actually playing in that style in the early 1970s, or his larger influence on the music world as a whole through his time with the Grateful Dead. The Dead changed everything—the music, the business, the show, the fan culture, and more. They opened up a world of possibilities, and by the 1990s that influence caught up with bluegrass music, planting the seeds for all the vibrant growth and evolution we see today.
Leftover Salmon, The String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band were among the first to answer the call, synthesizing these different influences into an exciting new iteration of bluegrass. They were visionary bands that brought together modern production and original songs, extended group improvisation, and the haunting sounds and raw energy of acoustic bluegrass. They stuck together, built huge fanbases, and in turn started their own tidal wave of influence that seems to be cresting right now with no end in sight. They are the forefathers of jamgrass. What led up to that moment in time and that wave of evolution is another book entirely.
There are countless boundary-pushing artists and bands that brought new elements to the bluegrass sound. Bands like New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, the David Grisman Quintet, and Tony Rice (left) are just a few that raised the bar significantly and showed us that there was uncharted territory up ahead. Salmon, Cheese and Yonder set a course, set sail and never looked back. They took us somewhere new, where the music had a profound sense of freedom, for artists and fans alike.
Alongside all this musical evolution came new visions of where live bluegrass could exist, as well as how it could look and sound. A new track was cut for acoustic bands to follow, from rock clubs to Red Rocks and everywhere in between. What followed is a musical movement that could just be getting started. There are more quality bands, events, festivals and fans than ever before. Every aspect of the music continues to grow, from songwriting and playing, to band dynamics, the integration of new instruments and influences, and of course the extended, participatory group improvisations — aka, the “jams.”
So, what is a jam anyway? We get that question a lot — how does it work and how do we know where we’re going? Most of the time we don’t, and that’s the fun part! It’s a journey, and to me it’s much bigger than the band or any conventions of musical form. It’s not just some framework for extended improvisation. It’s a state-of-mind that focuses on the present moment, and the endless possibilities of that moment when you open it up to everyone involved — players, listeners, creators and fans, all riding the momentum of the music together to somewhere exciting and new where a rejuvenating light shines for all to see. It’s the highpoint of the show, felt as much as heard, and these days it’s a huge part of what bluegrass music has become.
Pandolfi writes, “Bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, the Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, Punch Brothers, and Railroad Earth (right) are now all prominent members of the thriving progressive music world. These groups have origins in bluegrass, but our metric for success has little to do with how authentically ‘bluegrass’ we are. . . . In 2016, progressive bands are hitting that stride and changing people’s idea of what’s possible. Right behind us is a long line of quality young acts, all with their own original acoustic sound, eager to be a part of a growing bluegrass-rooted scene. From this side of the divide, bluegrass has never looked healthier.”
We have to agree with the infamous stringduster. We love the new acts that are being born out of the genre and rising the ranks, and we’re constantly excited by the innovation that young players are bringing to the table. The competition was fierce and this list is by no means complete, but make sure to keep an eye on these newer names on the bluegrass circuit, as we expect you’ll be hearing a lot more about them in the future. We love these acts for their ability to tap into bluegrass’s roots while simultaneously using music as an expression of themselves and captivating and converting contemporary audiences. We think you’ll love them too.
Wisconsin’s Horseshoes & Hand Grenades (left) formed in 2010, and since then have been grinding away, slowly building a name for themselves with their exceptional songwriting, stellar picking, and near-constant touring schedule. Having shared the stage with Merle Haggard, the Del McCoury Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Trampled By Turtles, Yonder Mountain String Band, and more, it’s clear that other bluegrass musicians are also feeling the group’s high-energy and progressive twist on the basic elements of old-time and bluegrass.
The group consists of David C. Lynch (harmonica, accordion), Russell Pedersen (banjo, fiddle), Adam Greuel (guitar, dobro), Sam Odin (bass), Collin Mettelka (fiddle, mandolin), who consistently woo fans with the undeniable fun-lovin’ and foot-stompin’ spirit they bring to their frequent live performances. You can check out Horseshoes & Hand Grenades when they hit the American Beauty in New York City this Friday (tickets available here) before continuing on their tour that runs from now through the end of August (see, we told you they tour a lot!). Watch one of their live performances below to see what we mean about their high-octane bluegrass stylin’s, and check out their website here for more information and additional tour dates!
Last week, they released their latest album, Ghost In The Bottle, produced by Andy Thorne of Leftover Salmon and featuring members of Greensky Bluegrass, Railroad Earth, Twiddle, and Little Feat, with a giant two-day 4/20 blowout across Colorado’s front range. With the success of their album release parties, the band is riding high as they look to their summer tour, dates for which can be found here. Check out a live performance from the Kitchen Dwellers below, and make sure to keep your eyes peeled for these boys when they hit a town near you.
Born in 2009 in Michigan, Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys (right) have taken wing because their intelligent and dynamic blend of Americana, roots, jazz, and bluegrass has allowed them to rise the ranks and gain notoriety within the scene. Even their name speaks to their cross-generational bluegrass appeal, having earned the title after a fellow musician announced “It’s good to see you Flatbellys out here pickin’ with us Greybeards” late-night during a bluegrass festival. Lindsay Lou’s voice is soulful and cuts straight to the heart, while Joshua Rilko (mandolin), PJ George (bass), and Mark Lavengood (guitar) are responsible for weaving the gorgeous and delicate instrumentation of the band.Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys seem to be primarily interested in honoring their own musical vision, which is clearly working considering the steadily rising numbers in their fan base. You rarely find them breaking out into frenetic bluegrass pickings like others in the list, but it’s all for the better, as the talented musicians are honing in on a truly unique sound rooted in bluegrass tradition.
You can mosey over to their website for more information. Also, friends hitting The Aiken Bluegrass Festival should make sure to see Lindsay Lou & The Ladies, a special set featuring all the ladies of the festival, including Allie Kral (Yonder Mountain String Band), Mimi Naja (Fruition), Jenny Keel (Larry Keel Experience), and Mackenzie Page (Gipsy Moon).
The guitarist Billy Strings (left) is young, but he’s good. He’s stupid good. The Kentucky-born Michigan-transplant is only now rounding into his mid-20’s, and he leaves those who see him play with their jaws on the floor. He’s cut his teeth playing bluegrass since a young age, and it shows with his raw and energized playing while sharing the stage with the likes of Don Julin and Greensky Bluegrass. He can pick with the best of them, though the guitarist imbues his playing and stage presence with a distinctly rock ‘n’ roll style, a sensibility that enraptures eager audiences and can get a room amped up and energized in record speed. You can check out a video of a full performance of his with the Billy Strings Band below, as well as hit up his website here for upcoming dates for his aggressive touring schedule this summer.
Snagging the last spot and rounding out our not-very-extensive list is Kind Country (right) , the Minneapolis-based jamgrass band, Kind Country, forged in 2012. Originally started as a four-piece string band, the band expanded into six-member ensemble featuring Mitch Johnson (guitar), Brandon Johnson (guitar), Max Graham (mandolin), Joe Sheehan (bass), Chris Forsberg (violin), and Chris Wittrock (drums). These guys have some thing special going on, with the addition of drums allowing the group to go deeper in exploring how bluegrass can morph and intersect with other genres and giving them the freedom to create a sound that is truly their own. However, they still stay true to their string-band origins and bluegrass roots, with their energetic playing and the talent among the six players more-or-less guaranteeing a foot-stompin’ good time.
The prime sources for this article was a piece written by Ming Lee Necombe, for All Form Music as well as other on-line writngs by Chris Pandolfi of The Infamous Stringdusters.
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