Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Taste Variation: Bluegrass

I love music from many genres. They are vast and varied. Today I would like to explain my attachment to bluegrass/banjo-based folk music.

There is something distinctly American about bluegrass music. It manages to weave the memory of folk songs with a balance of syncopated rhythms, appealing yet unpredictable melodies and expressive, particular voices. There is always an air of warning in a bluegrass song, a love that's wary of its own truth or a commitment that knows it won't last. It's also very rooted in immigration and the identity of a culture, another very American theme. It's hard to hear a bluegrass song and not hear the irish "jig" influence.

Bluegrass is simple. It came out of a tradition of community music. It had to be understandable by everyone. The lyrics are straightforward, but that doesn't mean boring. They're often witty or reveal deeper irony. This much is true: no song's story can be understood unless you wait until the last stanza.

The musical structure is very simple, with basic song construction (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, ornamented verse, etc.). But within that structure is the chance for unlimited variation. Bluegrass musicians are like jazz musicians. They understand their craft so well that they are able to reach around it, through it, and within it in order to vary the emotion experience by the listener. It is the true musicians who create the best music (Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck, Alison Krauss). It's the people who know what they're doing that make it look so simple. Someone once described jazz music as "extreme creativity within extreme discipline." I think that's pretty true for bluegrass.

I also like it because my dad does, and it reminds me of him. What can I say, the man has taste.

Representative (and Darn Good) Songs:
Anything by Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet
"Notes from the Banjo Underground" Old Man Luekecke
"Oh, Agamemnon" Crooked Still
"Half Acre" Hem
Alison Krauss (preferably nothing done with Robert Plant) I appreciate the genre bending, but this was not so great.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Hey, that won a Grammy, ok? I haven't listened to it much myself... but you've gotta respect a Grammy, know what I mean?

    Well, unless it's the Dixie Chicks in 2007 or Celine Dion in 1997. Other than that, you've gotta respect a Grammy.