Discussion with John Lawless

This week in class we were lucky enough to meet with John Lawless, main editor and author for Bluegrass Today, one of bluegrass’s top websites for news and information. He has been writing and reporting on bluegrass for over ten years, as well as being a talented banjo player. He discussed several topics with us, including his start in bluegrass and folk music, how he came to be a writer and the origins of Bluegrass Today, and how people define “bluegrass”.

Bluegrass can be looked at as a very defined and rigid genre with strict guidelines for what makes it bluegrass, but it can also be viewed as a very experimental and progressive form of music as well. Defining what is and isn’t bluegrass is a heated topic that people from all places discuss, with a wide range of results. Some as Mr. Lawless mentioned, find that the banjo must be present, and must be played in the Scruggs style, to be considered bluegrass. Others hold that Bill Monroe was and is the only person to have played actual “bluegrass” music. On the other end of the spectrum, bluegrass could be considered anything that includes certain instruments such as the banjo or mandolin, or the type of vocals.

This issue of defining bluegrass was further explored in our readings, Thomas Adler’s “Festival People and Lore” and Chris Pandolfi’s “Bluegrass Manifesto”.  Both authors discussed the same topic and how different crowds approach the bluegrass genre. From family-oriented shows, to the introduction of the hippie and folk culture of the 60’s and 70’s. At the end of the day though, bluegrass is a genre that is continuously changing and evolving, just as blues, rock and jazz are constantly updating their sound. How one defines their idea of bluegrass is certainly defined by their personal tastes, but should also keep an open mind to current music trends.

Origin of the Five String Banjo

The 5-string banjo is considered one of bluegrass’s most important and historical instruments, and is one of the most easily recognized instruments in the world. The banjo itself can be traced back to Africa, where they were made using animal skins and gourds as the base. A  stick was used as the neck, with no frets or fingerboards, just acting as a holding element for the strings over the skin. Unfortunately, the banjo was spread around the world as a by-product of the slave trade. As African slaves were moved around the world, they brought their music with them, and it blended and evolved as they encountered new things. Exposure to European instruments like the lute and Spanish guitar led to a fretboard being added to the neck of the banjo in the Caribbean islands. The banjo later became a regular part of slave life on plantations and farms in the U.S., and drew the attention of white performers.

One of these performers was Joel Sweeney from Appomattox, Virginia. An early black-face performer, Sweeney was one of the first minstrels to use a banjo as a regular instrument on stage in recurring shows. He is also credited with creating the drum-like resonator seen on modern banjos. Another major addition to the banjo was the addition of the fifth string. The banjo’s fifth string is different in that it starts at the fifth fret and is tuned to a higher open pitch then the other four strings. This is a key part of the playing style of the banjo, relying on rolls and re-entrant tuning to create its distinctive sound.

After the popularity of bluegrass and old time music, the banjo continued to evolve in several different variations. The tenor banjo, which features a shorter neck and higher pitched tuning, allows a banjo player to simulate the sounds of a mandolin or fiddle. Large scale versions of the banjo were also created, such as the cello and bass banjos, even including a stand up bass banjo.

1930's Gibson bass banjo ad.jpg

Finally, the banjo has also advanced into the electronic instrument market, with electric banjos making their way into modern electric bands and alternative bluegrass music.

2nd & 3rd Generation Musicians: Tony Rice

One of the most influential bluegrass musicians of the 20th & 21st centuries, as well as one of the top guitarists of our time, Tony Rice has left an enormous impact on modern bluegrass music. As said by Alison Krauss, “There’s no way it can ever go back to what it was before him”. A member of the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame, Tony has influenced not only bluegrass, but folk, jazz, and helped pave the way for progressive and modern bluegrass musicians.

Born June 8th, 1951, Tony and his family soon left his infant home of Danville, Virginia to live in Los Angeles, California. There, Tony and his brother Wyatt learned how to play bluegrass and country music from their father, Herb. They would polish their skills listening and mimicking the local musicians of L.A. such as Clarence White, Ry Cooder and Chris Hillman. In the early 1970’s, Tony had moved to Louisville, Kentucky and played with several musicians until joining J.D. Crowe’s The New South. With the later addition of Ricky Skaggs, The New South became one of the most popular bands in the bluegrass/country circuit.

In the late 70’s, Tony met up with David Grisman and formed the David Grisman Quintet, who are considered one of the greatest acoustic string bands to have ever performed. Starting in the 80’s, Rice moved on to form the Bluegrass Album Band, which included his old bandmate J.D. Crowe, as well as Doyle Lawson, Bobby Hicks and Todd Phillips. He played with them as well as doing solo work and recording with David Grisman and Jerry Garcia, all the way through the 80’s, until the early 90’s when he developed a condition in his vocal chords, making it extremely difficult to sing. Since then, Tony has struggled with his failing vocal chords, arthritis, and a life of touring on the road. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2013, and has won the I.B.M.A’s Guitarist of the Year Award six times, despite a dwindling album number and having had to cancel the majority of his performances due to health issues.

One of Tony’s most important aspects is his instrument, a 1935 D-28 Martin guitar, the instrument of his former bandmate and friend Clarence White. The deep, rich sound Tony has been able to produce with this instrument has led many to call it the “Holy Grail of Guitars”.




Classroom Discussion Questions

This week some of our readings consisted of Robert Cantwell’s “Hillbilly Music” and select chapters of Thomas Goldsmith’s ‘The  Bluegrass Reader”. After reading them several questions rose to mind. Chiefly among them were two issues I’ve been considering regarding bluegrass music:

1. Much of bluegrass’s success can be credited to the widespread of radio in the early 20th century. If there hadn’t been radio stations and shows like the Old Opry, would bluegrass have still risen to popularity? Like Jazz and Blues before it, could the mountain music have spread simply by traveling musicians and word of mouth?

2. One of the most prominent and most respected musicians today, Ralph Stanley has a history of over 70+ years of making bluegrass music. What is it about the Stanley Brothers (and later just Ralph’s) singing that draws so many people? How does it differ from Bill Monroe’s “high lonesome” sound, or the high energy drive of the Osborne Brothers?

To show why Ralph Stanley is such a talented vocalist and musician, here is an earlier version of “Oh Death”, as recorded with his brother Carter and the Clinch Mountain Boys. This song would later bring worldwide recognition for Ralph’s solo performance featured in the film Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

Old Time & Folk Musician: Clarence Ashley

Clarence “Tom” Ashley was born on Sept. 29, 1895  in Bristol, Tennessee. The Ashley family were Irish Immigrants, who had settled in Eastern Virginia and had a passion for the ballads and folk songs that blended the tunes of their ancestral home with the rhythm of American folk music. Clarence’s mother Rose-Belle Ashley, was known as an excellent singer, and his father George McCurry, was a fiddle player. However, his father was run out of town after it was found he was an adulterer, having “married” four or five different women. After that Clarence and his mother moved in with her parents, and Clarence chose to take their family name of Ashley.

When he was twelve, His mother and grandmother taught him what they knew on the guitar, and Clarence picked up to it well. He also worked on memorizing the songs and dance tunes of his community. Whenever there was a barn-raisin or community get together, there was almost always some music, and Clarence was a regular in the band get togethers. Clarence, or as everyone knew him “Tom”, was an intelligent and sharp young man, but he decided to drop out of school in fifth grade, to help earn money. When he was sixteen, a traveling medicine show passed through and played a couple songs for the townsfolk. When the medicine show headed out again, Tom was with them, and this started his musical career.

After a few early recording sessions in the late 20’s, the nation was hit with the Great Depression, and Clarence had to earn a living doing odd jobs, working as a coal miner in West Virginia for some time. It wasn’t until the folk revival of the 50’s and 60’s that Clarence could make a living off his music. While he did well on the festival circuit, his biggest influence was his knowledge of folk songs. Along with others like Doc Watson and Clint Howard, Clarence recorded many of the old ballads and tunes that had been passed down but never recorded. He is also credited with the first recording of “The House of the Rising Sun”, which he learned from his grandmother.

A classic example of Appalachian Folk Music, here is Clarence Ashley’s “Little Sadie”: