Bluegrass Music's Civil War: Why New and Heritage Acts Don't See String to String

Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and others weigh in on the never-ending musical argument in the bluegrass community

By
Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas
Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas pose backstage at the Stagecoach Music Festival Michael Buckner/Getty Images

As fans and musicians convene in Raleigh, North Carolina, this week for the annual World of Bluegrass gathering, they bring with them loads of talent, an unparalleled passion for the music and definite opinions on the ever evolving sound of bluegrass. A truly American artform, bluegrass music today encompasses everything from the jamgrass of Yonder Mountain String Band to the traditional sound of Del McCoury to the more eclectic flavor of Trampled by Turtles.

"We support all shades of bluegrass," says Nancy Cardwell, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Assn. (IBMA). "There's a lot of growth happening with old-time string bands like Old Crow Medicine Show and the Carolina Chocolate Drops…and there's a lot of jamgrass bands like Yonder Mountain String Band, the Infamous Stringdusters and Town Mountain doing original music. People are influenced by so many things today. It all comes out in their music. We are what we eat. Our music is what we hear. We have a 'big tent' approach to all of that. We feel like if we support all spectrums of the music, then that will help the industry grow. It will help get that music out to wider audiences."

Cardwell says it's not unusual for fans of one band to trace their lineage back to the founding fathers of the genre. "You never know who's going to hear Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers and end up tracing Chris's influences back to Bill Monroe," she says. "Or somebody who is going to go to the festival and hear Yonder Mountain String Band and they'll discover that one of their favorite bands is the Seldom Scene — one of our Hall of Fame inductees this year. It's all related. You can think of it as a tree with different roots and branches, but we're all organically part of the same family."

But as with any family, there's often disagreement. Purists decry the use of drums while progressive musicians continue to push the boundaries. "There are hardcore people that [think] if you even have a microphone you're way too far out," Del McCoury says with a laugh. "I exaggerate, but you have the hardcore folks. They can listen to whatever they want to but you need variety. You need to have that. You've got to have young people coming in all the time. That's what brings young people in, more progressive sound and variety. I just like variety in music. I think it's a good thing."

Most musicians are generally supportive of innovation in the format, but some fans have a more restrictive view. "There's some hardcore traditional fans out there who really think that the best bluegrass ever recorded was in the late Forties, early Fifties and that nobody can really improve on that," says Cardwell. "That's their favorite, and God bless them, they're entitled to that perspective. Part of the reason for these strong feelings is they treasure the music so much. It's more than just a casual interest, almost a passion, a religious fervor. People who just really love bluegrass music treasure it so much that they want to hold onto it very tightly and not let it change because they're afraid if we don’t keep it the same, then it'll disappear in a generation or two.

"I'm not so worried about that because the music is strong. It's not going anywhere," Cardwell continues. "We have these wonderful, legendary artists, some of them who started the music, that are still alive and still playing. That's one of the cool things about bluegrass. It's pretty young music. Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne, Mac Wiseman, and J.D. Crowe — these guys are still out there playing. But I think there's fear that it will be forgotten or it will change. They look to modern country music and how much that has changed, and think if we're not really careful, that's going to happen to bluegrass. I personally don't worry about that because I feel that the music is so strong and the skills are so strong. The artists who play this music are so talented. The repertoire is still out there. It's not going anywhere."

Veteran musician Tim O'Brien agrees. "It's grown exponentially in 25 years," says O'Brien, who recently reunited with Nick Forster, Pete Wernick and Bryan Sutton, members of the pioneering band Hot Rize. On September 30th, the band released When I'm Free, their first new album in 24 years, and they are hitting the road again this fall.

Steve Martin described Hot Rize as "the great modern bluegrass band. They're the connective tissue that links the great founders of bluegrass with the modern tradition."

It's a space O'Brien is happy to occupy and sees other acts doing the same. "There's a whole generation worth of young musicians coming up and fans coming in," he says. "When we were finishing up back in 1990, Nickel Creek was coming in and other stuff like Yonder Mountain String Band. And Leftover Salmon was really going wild with the jam crowd. You had stuff like the Punch Brothers emerging. The music itself is really evolving and diversifying. The traditional stuff is still strong with people like the Gibson Brothers. The audience is growing. Every time there's a young group coming along, a new group of young people get interested in it."

Though Hot Rize became one of the most successful acts in the genre before stepping aside in 1990, O'Brien says they weren't immediately accepted at first. "It was a little bit suspect. Our hair was a little too big. We wore suits and ties, but the ties were suspect. They weren't matching suits. We had loud ties," O'Brien recalls with a laugh. "We played bluegrass, but we mixed it up a little bit. It took a while for people to accept us. But at the time, public radio was really mushrooming and every little public station had a bluegrass hour or two a week. So we were able to take that and we kind of went around the establishment a little by plugging into radio. But you have to go back to the traditional fans. If you give them a little bit of traditional music then they are satisfied and you can stretch a little bit from there. We would always open our show with a Bill Monroe favorite to give them something to chaw on. That really helped."

When it comes to giving bluegrass fans a taste of tradition, acclaimed dobro player Jerry Douglas has teamed with some of the top musicians in the genre to form the Earls of Leicester, a tribute to bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The Earls feature O'Brien on mandolin, Shawn Camp on guitar, Johnny Warren on fiddle, Charlie Cushman on banjo and Barry Bales on bass. The Earls have a new album on Rounder Records and are touring this fall, even wearing the matching suits and string ties associated with that era of bluegrass.

"I've been in all kinds of bands, famous and not famous bands, done lots and lots of records around this town," says Douglas, a 13-time Grammy winner whose resume includes working with everyone from Alison Krauss to Ray Charles. (He also has a new album, Three Bells, a collaboration with the late Mike Auldridge and Rob Ickes.) "I just see that it's time to re-introduce that [Flatt & Scruggs] sound back into bluegrass music or bring it back into the consciousness of the general public. There's so many young bluegrass bands now that don't really know about Flatt and Scruggs. They know about Alison, Nickel Creek and Yonder Mountain, bands like that, but they don't hear where all of that stuff came from and the real impetus and inspiration for what we play, where it came from. I thought it was a good time to re-apply that coat of paint again. It's hard music to play right, but it' been a lot of fun."

Earl Scruggs (left) and Lester Flatt (right) perform with the Foggy Mountain Boys at the Grand Ole Opry, circa 1960. Michael Ochs Archives

When it comes to the debate between tradition and progression, Douglas seems to straddle the fence. "I am the next generation removed from Flatt and Scruggs. If there's guilt involved about advancing the music and trying to change it at all, I'm certainly guilty of that and bringing other influences from other genres of music into it," he confesses. Yet even in that musical rebellion he's followed in the footsteps of his beloved Flatt and Scruggs. "Those guys left Bill Monroe and formed their own kind of music and didn't really like being called a bluegrass band. They didn't like that label. They had country hits. They were hitting the popular music charts. They were up all over the place. They had TV shows. They had major roles in Bonnie & Clyde, The Beverly Hillbillies and things like that. They were going about it as a business more than this is just 'back porch' music. They were making money from it."

Douglas says Flatt & Scruggs pushed boundaries in many ways. "They had a woman manager. She was out there scaring the old boys to death and it was very cool because they had something going on that not a lot of the other bands had," Douglas says of Earl Scruggs' wife Louise managing the group. 'It was some pretty forward thinking. They were way ahead of their time. They had their own TV show. They had sponsors, had a big bus that had 'Martha White' written all over it. They were way ahead of their time in a lot of ways they thought, especially musically. They had a whole show. They had a comedy act in the show. They did gospel songs, but they had this other kind of music and no one could touch them. They had their secret weapon, Earl Scruggs, out there. He would blow trees down."

Like Douglas and O'Brien, Ricky Skaggs has long been known for both honoring bluegrass music's finest traditions and pushing its boundaries. "Why stifle any artist? Why stifle Sierra Hull or Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby?" asks Skaggs. "Why can't we bring elements into the music that make sense and makes great music and crosses boundary lines without being reprimanded for it? I don't understand it, but I believe musically it should be wide open.

"I'm thankful that I can look back in my history and say, 'I've done my part,'" Skaggs continues. "I've done my part to honor Mr. Monroe. I've done my part to keep the music pure, but also to expand it and take it out and tell people about him."

Though there are certain factions that advocate the strict tradition favored by purists, the bluegrass community seems more welcoming today than ever, as evidenced, in part, by the acceptance of artists like actor/banjo player Steve Martin, who took home the IBMA entertainer of the year honor with the Steep Canyon Rangers in 2011, and the number of new bands drawing enthusiastic response at this year's World of Bluegrass gathering.

"I think of bluegrass music as the town square," says Cardwell. "Some people want to live downtown at the intersection of Flatt and Scruggs or Bill Monroe Avenue. Other people want to live farther out in the suburbs or off on Yonder Mountain or some other place. But we're all kind of in the same neighborhood. It just depends on how close to downtown you want to live or if you want to come and visit town once a year. We want to welcome everyone to come and visit. It's some of the best music in the world."

x