Track Three: How Shared Space Makes Great Music Possible

The following is the third of nine tracks on an annotated mix-tape exploring the Bluegrass Scene of my home, San Diego County. Click the link and read along.

“Shady Grove”

-The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (1963)

            Of the many talented and successful San Diego bluegrass musicians to arise, Chris Hillman stands as one of the most influential outside of the region itself. Following his sister’s return from the musically rich Berkeley area, Hillman was introduced to the world of folk and country music. At the age of 15, he began his musical studies on the guitar, before switching to his signature instrument, the mandolin, after listening to bluegrass recordings by Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. After an influential meeting with The Kentucky Colonels, a popular Los Angeles based bluegrass group, Hillman found himself on a train to Berkeley, where the group’s mandolinist, Scott Hambly, agreed to teach him.

Scottsville squirrel barkers

(The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, early 1960’s. )

Back in San Diego, Hillman found himself in the company of the Blue Guitar, an important venue in San Diego’s musical history. Started as an alternative to meeting at Frank Emig’s Furniture, the place downtown to buy imported Mexican guitars, the Blue Guitar quickly became the hangout of choice for young musicians in the area. Founders Yuris Zeltins, Ed Douglas, and Larry Murray opened their doors in 1961, and created the opportunity for musicians of all genres to congregate and jam.

By 1962, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers had formed. Named after Douglas’ hometown of Scottsville, Kentucky, the line up consisted of Ed Douglas (bass), Larry Murray (Dobro), Kenny Wertz (guitar), Gary Carr (banjo), and a 16-year-old Chris Hillman (mandolin). Before long, the Squirrel Barkers became the official house band of the Blue Guitar and soon began playing gigs across Southern California. When the group felt ready, they headed to Los Angeles to record their first album, a 10 track, 18-minute gem called Blue Grass Favorites that sold well in local grocery stores and shops. After a too-brief lifespan of two years, the group split up. Though the group initially had little impact outside of San Diego, it served as a starting point for many careers, with members going on to found bands like The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and The Eagles.

What makes The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers the quintessential San Diegan bluegrass group has a lot to do with their origins. Their story illustrates the critical roles of common space and transplants in the development of the San Diego bluegrass scene. Hillman, a third generation Californian, group up on a ranch in Encinitas. Wertz arrived in San Diego from Maryland when his father relocated with the US Navy. Murray also arrived in San Diego through the military, though only after serving there for a while. Douglas, an ex-police officer, hailed from Kentucky. Gary Carr was a San Diego native, associated with the Air Force base in Miramar. Through their shared musical interest and the space offered by the Blue Guitar, these five men brought the high lonesome to San Diego.


For more on the Scotsville Squirrel Barkers, check out Mike Fleming’s fantastic write up over at the North Georgia Bluegrass Chronicle.

Track Two: Radio and Migration

 The following is the second of nine tracks on an annotated mix-tape exploring the Bluegrass Scene of my home, San Diego County. Click the link and read along.

“Just When I Needed You”

-Maddox Brothers and Rose (Late 1940’s)

This recording, made just across the border at XERB radio station in Rosarito Beach, Baja, marks an interesting point in the career of the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Since 1937, the siblings (Cal, Cliff, Don, and their sister Rose) had been flooding the airways with their genre blending radio shows. By the time of this recording, the group had found a regular recording gig with the already infamous 4-Star Records in Los Angeles. It was through 4-Star that the group found themselves broadcasting on the AM border blaster throughout the entire western half of the United States.

maddox brothers and rose

( )

Their high energy performances and distinctive style earned them the titles of “California’s Best Hillbilly Band” and “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” from the 30’s through the 50’s. The latter name can be attributed either to the group’s colorful wardrobe designed by Hollywood designer Nathan Turk (think Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry) or to their raucous stage shows that often featured lewd jokes, suggestive lyrics, and plenty of dancing. It was this last element that prompted a somewhat bitter, up and coming Patsy Cline to remark after Rose was asked to follow Cline’s performance in Oceanside:


“If I got up and shook like she does, why I’d be as popular as she is!”

-Patsy Cline


But their energy paid off in a big way. It was precisely their “color,” along with their unique proto-rockabilly (Fred Maddox is often credited with originating the slap bass technique back in 1937) that has since sparked some interesting comparisons with Elvis Presley and other early rock musicians.

This style may have worked for the band out west, but it clashed uncomfortably with many eastern audiences, notably the Grand Ole Opry, which was shocked by Rose’s exposed midriff in their first performance in 1949. After a brief stint in Nashville, the group ultimately felt unwelcome. They left the Opry and were never asked to return.

But what does any of this have to do with San Diego? The Maddox Brothers and Rose, like many Californian families, are not “originally” from California. Rose and her family hitchhiked from Boaz, Alabama (part of Appalachia according to the ARC!) to Los Angeles, California to escape a life of sharecropping. After a few years of working odd jobs and following the crops up and down the Great Central Valley from Sacramento to Yuma, 18-year-old brother Fred Maddox arranged for the siblings to play a daily hour-long radio slot out of Modesto. San Diego Troubadour writer Lyle Duplessie tells it best:


“As the story goes, he went into Rice’s Furniture Store looking for a prospective sponsor. The owner, Jim Rice, was willing to give the band a chance, but only if they had a girl singer and if Fred did all the ads. Fast-talking Fred assured him that they had the best girl singer around, while withholding the fact that this girl singer was none other than 11-year-old sister Rose… Not one to quit while ahead, Fred made a deal to purchase a new bass fiddle from Mr. Rice at $10 down and $10 a month that very same morning. Apparently it didn’t seem odd to Mr. Rice that at least one of the band members didn’t own his own instrument.”

-Lyle Duplessie


The rest is history.

Theirs was the sound San Diego was bathed in during the 40’s and 50’s, the soundtrack to a gradually urbanizing series of beach towns between Tijuana and Camp Pendleton. Rose Maddox and her brothers rode the airways and toured the state, entertaining audiences and inspiring the next generation of musicians throughout the west.

Their story serves as a fine example of the classic California musician. Leaving home in search of a better life, geographically fluid, full of energy and clashing with the status quo, The Maddox Brothers and Rose represent a particular type commonly found in San Diego: the migrant musician. Whether it was the Dust Bowl, the military, or educational opportunities, San Diego has long been rife with people “from” somewhere else. This melting pot of traditions and backgrounds would lead to the creation of the bluegrass scene in the region as we know it today.



For more on the fascinating story of Rose Maddox, check out Lyle Duplessie’s three-part masterpiece, “Queen of Hillbilly Swing: Rose Maddox”, which served as the inspiration for this piece.

For more on this track, and many, MANY more, check out the Lou Curtiss Sound Library project, or follow Curtiss on Facebook.

Track One: Proto-grass and Encinitas

The following is the first of nine tracks on an annotated mix-tape exploring the Bluegrass Scene of my home, San Diego County. Click the link and read along.

“Yes Sir”

-Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies (1936)

A few years ago, I stumbled across a fascinating photo while perusing the photos of the City of Encinitas Facebook page. While looking through their collection of old photos from the San Dieguito Heritage Museum (the organization that preserves and celebrates the local history of my home town) a photo of what appeared to be a seven-member string band in full cowboy garb (I’m talking Stetsons and lambskin chaps) happened to catch my eye. Under the photo, the caption read:

“Back in the 1930s, all the young folk in Encinitas would spend their summer nights at a carnival near the beach. Local ranch hands, including these photographed, would keep the party going.”

Fascinated, I saved the picture in my own collection of local historical photographs, and promptly forgot about it.

encinitas ranch hands

(The Encinitas Ranch Hands. Now where have I seen that before…?)

Fast forward to 2015, and I found myself in the first class on Bluegrass music to run in the history of Virginia Tech. Discussions of geographically rooted music sparked memories of my own experiences back in San Diego County, and that photograph became suddenly relevant. At a second viewing, with the defining characteristics of bluegrass fresh in my mind, I realized that the instrumentation featured in the photograph almost perfectly matched that of a traditional bluegrass group (minus the mandolin). But that couldn’t be right, because the caption listed the photo as being from the 30’s, the decade before bluegrass as we know it came to be. Something was wrong and I was bound and determined to figure out what it was.

So I did some digging. Thanks to an insightful source from a 2006 San Diego Union Tribune article, I was able to recognize the group not as some “local ranch hands” as the caption described, but as The Encinitas Ranch Hands, a collection of musicians with an instrumentation more complicated than I first thought. In addition to the more traditional fiddle, banjo, guitar, and upright bass first identified in the photograph, the band included the husband-and-wife duo of D.M. and Gertie MacFarland, who played saxophone and piano respectively. Further defining their own unique sound, the Encinitas Ranch Hands rounded off their group with the musical saw of Scottish immigrant and carpenter, Charles “Snuffy” Brass. Brass, who arrived in the area at the onset of the great depression, joined the group in performances at all kinds of local events, including weddings, festivals, and weekly dances organized by the community.

In many ways, The Encinitas Ranch Hands were part western swing and part jug band, incorporating the performativity and style of a Bob Wills with the eclectic sound of thrown-together family groups. With members bringing his or her own form of musical instrumentation, their performance must have been like nothing you can hear today. As you might imagine, I’ve had some difficulty tracking this sound down.

In the absence of any actual recordings by the group, this track by the Texas-based Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, a pioneering western swing band from the 1930’s, features similar instrumentation and dance musicality as the Encinitas Ranch Hands. Though I have many reservations including a non-San Diegan band on this mix (as the first track, no less!) I’ve decided this recording is the best available approximation for what I am trying to convey. Important similarities to note are the use of piano, the call-and-answer vocals, and the use of musical breaks. Though not represented in this song, “westernized” versions of jazz standards, such as the 1919 hit, “Somebody Stole My Gal,” were performed for the audience right next to more “traditional” western songs, like “Home On the Range,” perhaps representing the more varied audiences found in the coastal cities.

As we move forward in this exploration of San Diego County Bluegrass, keep in mind the Encinitas Ranch Hands, the story of seven community members of different backgrounds arriving in the west to put together a sound of their own. Keep in mind the role of venues, their shared passion for music, and the local successes they shared together. Their story might just help us understand why there is a bluegrass scene in San Diego.

For more on the Encinitas Ranch Hands, check out the Union Tribune article here.

Musical Source:

SD Bluegrass: The Annotated Mix-Tape

The following presentation is an overview of the upcoming Annotated Mix-Tape that I have been working on as part of my final project. I am proud to present: San Diego Bluegrass. Enjoy!

Track One: Proto-Grass and Encinitas

“Yes Sir”

-Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies (1936)

  • Who were The Encinitas Ranch Hands?
  • What did they play?
  • Where did they play?
  • Where were they from?


Track Two: Migratory Music

“Just When I Needed You”

-Maddox Brothers and Rose (Late 1940’s)

rose and family

(Recording courtesy of the Lou Curtiss Sound Library)

  •  The Maddox Brothers and Rose (Boaz) arrive in California
  • Slap Bass, and other “color”
  • Their role in San Diego (and everywhere else out West)
  • Their sound as an example


Track Three: Bluegrass Erupts

“Shady Grove”

-The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (1963)

scottsville squirrel barkers

  • Chris Hillman (Los Angeles) and The Blue Guitar
  • The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers:
    • Kentucky, Minnesota, etc
  • “Blue Grass Favorites” and beyond
  • How does shared space make great music possible?


Track Four: The Role of Venues

“You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”

-Jim Ringer & Sweet Mills String Band (1970)

tom waits at the heritage

(Recording courtesy of the Lou Curtiss Sound Library)

  • The Sign of the Sun (1960-late 1960’s)
  • The Blue Guitar (1961-today)
  • The Heritage (1963-1972)
  • Folk Arts Rare Records (1967-today)
  • The Old Time Cafe (1979-1988)
  • Java Joe’s (1991-today)
  • Adam’s Avenue (more on that later)


Track Five: Lou Curtiss and the Collegiate Scene

“Coal Black Choo Choo”

-Alice Gerrard and Mike Seeger (1970)

san diego folk festival

(Recording and image courtesy of the Lou Curtiss Sound Library)

  • “Folk Music” in San Diego
  • San Diego State: A new kind of musical migrant
  • Sam Hinton (Tulsa) and the San Diego Folk Song Society
  • Lou Curtiss (Seattle) and Folk Arts Rare Records


Track Six: Geographically Rooted Music

“North County Breakdown”

-Squatter’s Last Rights (1977)

  • “North County Breakdown” and the Homegrown Albums (1973-1983)
  • What’s in a name?
    • The Encinitas Ranch Hands
    • Pacificly Bluegrass
    • San Diego Grass and Electric
    • Box Canyon
    • Hwy 52
    • Lighthouse
    • Old Town Road
    • Palomar Pickers
    • Faultline
  • Back to The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and The Golden State Boys
  • San Diego as the “Home Place”
  • Outside Bluegrass: Tom Waits, J.J. Cale, Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh


Track Seven: Local Organizations and Institutions

“Highway 52”

-Hwy 52 (1998)

highway 52

  • A funny story (not quite 20 miles)
  • The San Diego Troubadour (since 2001)
    • Four friends and a crazy idea
    • local writers, local music
    • 16 neighborhoods, 170+ locations
  • San Diego Bluegrass Society (Rick Kirby of Pacificly Bluegrass)
  • North County Bluegrass and Folk Society (Summergrass, Jams and more)


Track Eight: The Nickel Creek Story

“Reasons Why”

-Nickel Creek (2000)

  • Beginnings: That Pizza Place
    • What’s with Bluegrass and Pizza?
  • Idyllwild
  • Local Success
  • Big Success
  • Alison Krauss
    • Reasons Why
  • Chris Thile and co. Today
    • Fiction Family
  • Lifestyle Diversity in San Diego


Track Nine: Adam's Avenue and Lou Curtis Today

“Prisoner’s Song”

-The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (2004)

  • Adam’s Avenue
    • Street Music and Festivals
  • Lou Curtiss Today
    • San Diego Troubadour
    • Folk Arts Rare Records
    • The Lou Curtiss Sound Library


Track Ten: From Gospel to the Galapagos

“On the Road to Julian”

-Lighthouse (2007)

  • Wayne Rice (San Diego)
    • Brush Arbor
    • Lighthouse
    • Bluegrass Special (since 1977)
  • The Galapagos Mountain Boys and “Scientific Gospel”
    • Dr. Stephen Baird (Oklahoma)
    • Hallelujah! Evolution!
    • Water on Mars
    • Darwin, Darn It!


Bonus Track: Bluegrass and Me

“Backyard Jam”

-San Diego Bluegrass Society (2012)

  • My Bluegrass Story:
  • Country Radio
  • The Star of India
  • Summer Camp
  • Eli Turner
  • Contra Dancing
  • Today’s Pizza


Coming Soon!

San Diego Bluegrass:

The Annotated Mix-Tape


Soon, Soon…

As the semester draws to a close, so too must this blog…

But my adventures in Bluegrass are just beginning! No longer will this space serve as a catalog of my thoughts and experiences in the first ever “Bluegrass: Appalachian Roots and Influences” class to run at Virginia Tech, but, perhaps, it doesn’t have to go away entirely. Exciting opportunities await in the musical scene of my home, including festivals,  lots of Contra Dancing, and learning to play the Mandolin. Not to mention the rumors going around about a new folk and bluegrass music club bringing local (and otherwise) talent to campus in the coming years!

But I digress…

The true purpose of this post is to announce the fruit of my labors: the much awaited “Annotated Mix-Tape” that I’ve been researching off and on for two months.

It’s coming. Soon.

Each day leading up to May 6th (when this whole thing has to be done by) I’m going to post a single audio track along with a detailed analysis of  said track and it’s connection to my topic of Bluegrass Music in San Diego County. All together, it is my hope to create new knowledge about Bluegrass and what it means to have a musical “scene” by putting together research in a new, exciting way!

But before I begin posting the tracks, I actually have to use this blog in a presentation on my research. So though it will totally kill the anticipation and suspense, what follows (in my next post) is a complete track listing and a bit about what will later be discussed in longer, more detailed, blog posts.





The Dept. of Religion and Culture’s Undergraduate Research Day

Undergraduate Research Day

(Sam Winter, Paul Wotring, Chris Youngs, Molly Hilt, and our fearless leader, Jordan Laney)


This weekend, four students from our class had the privilege of presenting our research at the Virginia Tech’s Department of Religion and Culture Undergraduate Research Day! With food, speakers, and excellent presentations all around (check out the lineup below), the event was a great opportunity to share our work and get feedback on our research from the community.

Undergraduate Research Day Schedule

(Wow, I feel so official!)

After the keynote and a brief break, Ms. Laney introduced us and we were off! Four quick presentations (Chris, Paul, and Molly knocked it out of the park!) followed by a Q&A session that covered everything from authenticity and bluegrass in other languages to geographically rooted music and the desire to claim ownership of a sound.

Below is my presentation (A.K.A. a brief overview of the reason I haven’t posted anything on this blog for several weeks). Enjoy, and look out for the first few sections of my Annotated Mix-tape in the following days!


Thanks, Chris. Hello, I’m Sam, and thank you all for coming out here today.

Traditionally speaking, to become a bluegrass musician, you need inspiration and influences. A big part of bluegrass culture is this idea of roots and the acknowledgement of one’s musical lineage. Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, had Arnold Shultz and, of course, his Uncle Pen in the dance hall circuit of rural Kentucky. Earl Scruggs, pioneer of the now standard Scruggs-style banjo technique, had Bill Monroe, and the music-loving community of Flint-Hill where he grew up. So sure, you need musicians and mentors to emulate and learn from, but there also has to be a surrounding culture that exists to nurture and support musicians as they grow into their musical maturity. To make it big as a musician, there has to be an audience, and when you are starting off, that audience often takes the form of your hometown.

Arnold Shultz

(The bold text represents slide transitions. I’ll include some pictures and captions here. This one is the only known photo of Arnold Shultz, Bill Monroe’s mentor and friend.)


So when I started looking into a path of research within bluegrass music, I immediately went back to my own roots, back to my hometown, which, fortunately for me, has an incredibly rich and diverse bluegrass history. I’m speaking, of course, of Southern California. More specifically, San Diego County.

San Diego Map

(I was going for the shock value here. “Just LOOK how far away San Diego is from Kentucky!”)


Yep, San Diego. With it’s white beaches and surfer culture, its yoga studios and urban sprawl, it’s about as far away from the rural hills of Appalachia, the locale most commonly associated with bluegrass music, as you can get.

And yet…

swami's beach

(My hometown: Encinitas, CA. “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”)


What’s great about the studies conducted in the department of religion and culture, is that they encourage the mapping of commonly held conceptions and stereotypes before turning right around and tearing them down to get a little closer to the real story. Here, in the first bluegrass class to run in the history of Virginia Tech, we do this sort of thing everyday. So far, I’ve learned that bluegrass music started outside the boundaries of the Appalachian Mountains, that it has more in common with contemporary jazz than it does with contemporary country, and that the “High Lonesome Sound,” the primeval music of the Scotch-Irish settlers, is in fact younger than Mick Jagger.

commercial bluegreass

(Roy Acuff, Grand Ole Opry, 1939. Bluegrass was commercial from the start.)



(I may have made some enemies with this Florida Georgia Line jab, but it was worth it !  >:D  )


So what does San Diego have to offer in terms of bluegrass? Well for starters, it’s had a thriving bluegrass community since the late 1950’s (right around the time people started using the word bluegrass to describe the sound), and been home to a broad range of country and folk venues as well as festivals. It has not one, but two bluegrass associations in the county, and has giving rise to the likes of bluegrass legend and pioneer of the country rock genre Chris Hillman, and more recently, the members of the Grammy Award winning Nickel Creek. The fact that so many bluegrass artists have come out of San Diego and the surrounding areas is testament that such a culture exists.

Scottsville squirrel barkers

(Chris Hillman and the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, San Diego, CA)


This semester, I’ve researched this culture to put together an annotated mixtape that explores the key components that made a bluegrass scene possible. Briefly (because you’ll soon be able to read and listen to the whole mixtape on my section of the class blog), those components involve a steady stream of immigrants (Okies, Navy families, college students, etc), the existence of public musical spaces, and the success of local musicians.

encinitas ranch hands

(The Encinitas Ranch Hands, 1930. Photo Courtesy of the San Dieguito Heritage Museum)


So what do you gain when you look for bluegrass, and find it, in a place you’d least expect? Well when you start looking at a place, when you really start digging, it’s amazing what begins to emerge. What you find is a more complicated and nuanced picture of what that place really is. I found such a picture coming here to the mountains of Southwest Virginia, through this class, through Appalachian Studies, and through my own experiences in the region. Out west, I found a story of displaced people that all wound up in California for one reason or another. It’s story of people connecting over a music that brings them closer to home, dipping into feelings of longing and nostalgia, loss and loneliness. I found stories of underground scenes and hole-in-the-wall venues that played host to a wealth of local artists and even the likes of Bill Monroe himself. Talented musicians and festival organizers, basement newsletter publicists, record store owners and folk record collectors. All these people, and more, working to build a community around a music that somehow manages to find an audience no matter where it travels.

 pizza jam

(NCBFC Today’s Pizza Jam, Encinitas, California)


I would like to leave you all with a quote by San Diego Troubadour columnist, Dwight Worden:

“If bluegrass grows on your heart, then this is a great time to be in San Diego. In my humble opinion, we are living in the “golden age of bluegrass” right here in San Diego.”

Thank you.

“It’s a boy!” (or how we gender instruments here on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston)

This week, I had the pleasure of reading Murphy Henry’s (founder of the Women in Bluegrass magazine) keynote address from the 1998 IBMA Trade Show. In the process of describing the successes achieved and the remaining obstacles faced by women in the genre, she touched upon the idea of gendered instruments, something I’d never really thought about in the context of bluegrass.


(I’m not going to say  I’ve NEVER thought about an instrument as inherently feminine…)

In her talk, she expresses her frustration with the author of the liner notes for The Essential Bill Monroe boxed collection over his unnecessary and unfair gendering of a bluegrass origin story involving the mandolin.

“You know that Bill Monroe was the youngest of his family, so when Birch took the fiddle, and Charlie took the guitar, Bill Monroe was left with the mandolin. Well, there’s nothing gender-related about that story. But this author chooses to inject gender into this little story. He points out that if we look at family band photos from that era, that the mandolin is usually being played by a kid of girl. And the way this guy has written this up, it’s like nothing could be worse— the mandolin is a girl’s instrument— isn’t that awful?” -Murphy Henry

Henry goes on to describe how this particular author describes the creation of bluegrass as Bill Monroe’s attempt to create a masculine music on an inherently feminine instrument. Needless to say, Henry (and I) had to disagree with that particular interpretation of events, but it got me thinking about instruments and gender.

(That is NOT what I meant! Though it would make an interesting study in performativity…)

So what’s the most feminine instrument? With the help of some hall mates from the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall, I brainstormed a list:

  • Flute
  • Violin
  • Tambourine
  • Harp
  • Clarinet
  • French horn

This list is in no particular order (except for the order I wrote them down in), but I’ll tell you that when I asked what the most feminine instrument was, the answer was overwhelmingly harp. When I asked what the most feminine bluegrass instrument was, the answer was a resounding “violin” (not fiddle, interestingly enough). Though I’m not sure this is exactly what they meant, Lindsey Sterling certainly does make a strong case:

(Fun fact: Did you know that “fiddle” and “violin” have separate Wikipedia pages?)

I kept bothering my friends and produced the following gender assignments for a traditional bluegrass lineup:

  • Fiddle- Feminine
  • Upright Bass- Masculine
  • Mandolin- Non-gendered (or “asexual,” as one person put it. Maybe Thomas Adler was on to something…)
  • Banjo- Masculine
  • Acoustic Guitar- Masculine

From my very small sample size, I noticed a few interesting breaks from what I would have expected. The fiddle, the “devil’s box,” long associated with dancing and other sinful behavior, is now considered the most feminine of bluegrass instruments! (at least here on the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston)

Satan and his fiddle

(Note to self: Blog post exploring the fiddle’s long association with Satan and Co. ?)

Another interesting point to note is that the upright bass, an instrument often associated with women in bluegrass (thanks largely to Bluegrass Boy Bessie Lee Mauldin) was denoted as a masculine instrument, and the supposedly feminine mandolin was deemed non-gendered.

(Food for thought: is a non gendered entity perceived as more feminine in a male-dominated culture?)

But the more I think of it, the more I realize that the mandolin is pretty evenly split in the bluegrass scene (as even as it can be in the bluegrass scene).

So here is a montage of some fantastic female mandolin players:

(Sierra Hull! Can we forgive her amplification? Yes, yes we can.)

(Ashley Lewis picks pretty good…for a HUMAN BEING)

(Even the New Queen of Bluegrass plays the mandolin!)

And here is a montage of fantastic male mandolin players:

(Yeah, he went to my high school. No big deal.)

(What’s with San Diego and mandolin prodigies named Chris?)

(Does this song give anyone else the chills?)

But the mandolin isn’t the only bluegrass instrument being played by women. Not by a long shot.

(Insert literally any Della Mae clip here)

As a final thought, I’d like to address Rosenberg’s claim that the banjo is “the only instrument in American tradition which has not been feminized.” Despite the long list of women in and outside of bluegrass playing the instrument, I think he might be right (no, not because Della Mae leaves it out of their lineup!).

Unfortunately, I suspect this stereotype (and it is a stereotype, like all gendering of inanimate musical objects) comes from a more deeply held image: that of the banjo as the instrument of the poor, white, uneducated hillbilly.

(My point is, there’s a REASON Kermit’s playing a banjo, not a guitar or a mandolin)

But that’s a topic for another post.


I have a confession to make.

Every time I hear someone bring up Mumford and Sons as a bluegrass band, I cringe.

I know, I know. I’m judgmental, and narrow minded, and old fashioned, but I do have my reasons!

Before I make any more enemies, I’d like to give you a little bit more background about my relationship with their music. In all honesty, I’ve never seriously listened to much of it. What little I was exposed to entered my life right around the time I decided to boycott my local radio station for betraying their roots and overplaying the top 40. (I’m looking at you, Little Lion Man.)

(As a side note, how many bluegrass bands can you name that swear in their lyrics?)

^No, actually, I don’t this is bluegrass.^

I want to be clear: I don’t dislike their music. I find their style, their lyrics, and their energy not only inspiring, but also incredibly fun.

But that’s not enough to make it Bluegrass. Not by a long shot.

Personal tastes aside, I’d like to try and break down some of the key characteristics that separate Mumford and Sons from what I would consider bluegrass.

The big one, of course, is instrumentation. Though Mumford and Sons spotlight the banjo (it’s part of their sound most praised by pop audiences) and feature many of the same instruments associated with bluegrass (Banjo, Guitar, Upright Bass, etc.) the use of these instruments is distinctly different from bluegrass. The biggest difference is the substitution of drums for mandolin to keep time and play rhythm, but the use of horns and piano (which create a free, joyful sound that somehow always reminds me of the music-under-the-sky sound of Edward Sharp) helps create further distinction.

mumford and sons
I’m sorry, did you drop something?  A MANDOLIN perhaps?
(Photo by Larry Busacca)

Though I don’t want to get into the electric/acoustic debate, and I don’t typically put much value on the distinction myself, their latest release doesn’t exactly help their case.

^I really miss that mandolin, but the drums create a whole new kind of sound.^

The second distinction I’d like to make involves repertoire and song content. The typical bluegrass repertoire features a mix of original music and genre standards. Though I’ve never seen Mumford and Sons live, I have never found any performances of theirs that feature genre standards, suggesting the group doesn’t go out of their way to establish themselves in the lineage that many groups make it a point to be part of.

^So maybe this is more of an old time standard, but hey, OCMS is more of an old time band!^

The content and structure of their music further separates them from the norm, with many of their songs featuring a more complicated structure than is typically found in roots music. The group makes little attempt to emulate the typical content (where are the trains, mountains, and Uncle Penn?) of bluegrass and old time songs, but their stage presence and marketing certainly suggests a link to such a sound.

^Got to love this song and video, though. Note the bluegrass link through Helms and others.^

Though I have a hard time classifying their sound as bluegrass (and I don’t think they consider themselves bluegrass, either), the members of Mumford and Sons have just as much right to embrace the bluegrass community as anyone. They even came into the music in what many would call a “traditional way,” learning from the popular musicians of their generation. Emmylou Harris, among others, had a big part to play in the group’s history:

“Harris, 65, was among the gateway artists who helped Mumford and bandmates Ben Lovett, Ted Dwane and Winston Marshall discover their love for American roots music. It started with the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack…That eventually led them to the Old Crow Medicine Show and then deep immersion in old-timey sounds from America’s long-neglected past”

(USA Today).


Which leads me to my final thought.

Musicians can play across genre. Albums can play across genre. Even individual songs can play across genre. So maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t really matter how we classify Mumford and Sons?

^Have I mentioned how much I love these guys yet?^


Take, for instance, Mumford and Sons performance of Where Is My Heart?, from the Telluride Bluegrass festival, an excellent example of the bluegrass genre, down to the comic elements (and notice how much that mandolin stands out!). Take a listen and tell me you can’t see why songs like Where Is My Heart are clearly bluegrass while songs like The Cave really aren’t.

^ This is bluegrass.^


^This isn’t bluegrass. I’m sorry.^

Two songs, two distinct styles, one artist.

I think Chris Thile has it right: genres are made for hopping.

Special thanks to my dear friend Tacy for inspiring this post!

this side of jordan cover

What’s On This Side of Jordan?

I first heard the singer-songwriter duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz in a collaboration video with Peter Rowan and Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo at last year’s Merlefest. (Their performance of Rowan’s I’m Calling You still remains as my favorite example of the “High Lonesome Sound” in music today.) This Side of Jordan is their latest release (until the upcoming Such Jubilee, expected May of 2015), and the North Carolina groups first on the Yep Roc Record label.

Opening with House of Stone, the album begins like a new day, with Frantz’s slow fiddle stretching into Marlin’s first line of vocals. Frantz joins in on the second verse, establishing a subtle, yet powerful vocal pattern of two-part harmony that continues throughout the rest of the album. With the harmony comes further texturing, as the rest of the instruments (bass, soft drums, slide guitar) seem to wake up and join in. Together, the instrumentation and vocals emphasize the repetition of the verse structure, a hallmark of Marlin’s songwriting style.

Also introduced from the get-go is Marlin’s unique blend of spiritual and secular, with a heavy dose of Christian imagery applied to all sorts of non-religious (but very spiritual!) topics and themes. House of Stone alludes to the peace of earthly dwellings over the “mansion of gold” of life after next. This is a theme that pervades This Side of Jordan. It is, in fact, partially what the album’s title refers to, the earthly side of river separating this life from the next.

With this in mind, it’s not too surprising that a close brush with death had its part to play in the album’s creation; many of the songs on the album were written following Marlin’s fall from a 10-foot dam in 2001 (Wallen). The tracks on This Side of Jordan are a product of Marlin’s recovery, delving into topics of life, death, and (the inevitable bluegrass staple) the passage of time, with a surprising degree of hope and optimism. From an interview with Paul Wallen of Engine 145:

“It’s easy to see the dark side of life and that’s real easy to write about,” says Marlin. “I think that’s why so many amazing songs are really sad. But sometimes you have to find your way through the dark matter.”

Paralleling this physical recovery is a spiritual recovery. Evident in the album’s theme is a sense of coming to terms with the inevitability of death while finding fulfillment in the joys of life. A few of the songs reflect specifically on the passing of Marlin’s parents, including the album’s final track, Until the Last Light Fades, and Turtle Dove and The Crow.

“We shared a line etched in stone between two years

and I aim to pack my grave someday and go see her”

Turtle Dove and The Crow describes a man’s journey to visit his wife in heaven, crossing the River Jordan and ascending Jacob’s ladder to paradise, and stands as another example of Marlin’s spiritual-yet-nonreligious songwriting. As the singer makes his way to visit his lost lover, he reflects on the paradise that was the mysterious love they shared rather than the death of his wife.

Frantz’s vocals that seem to whisper just over Marlin’s lead in combination with the lyrics themselves, bring to mind the story of Orpheus and his journey over the Styx and back to retrieve his lost love. Unlike the doomed lyre player, Mandolin Orange is undeniably optimistic, with Frantz’s playful fiddle, and the soft, driving drums vaguely reminiscent of a train ride or a sunny road trip out west.

The titular river Jordan winds through the tightly woven soundscape of human trials and tribulations, stringing each song together by the theme of salvation in a difficult world. The many references to rivers, Calvary, and the unrelenting flow of time tie this album together, making it so much more than just a collection of songs.

Take the pairing of track seven (The Doorman, my personal favorite) and track eight (Morphine Girl). Frantz’s haunting vocals blend the character of the doorman (or ferryman) to heaven with a friend’s experience with drug addiction (Wallen). The haunting vocals and scuttling mandolin really make the song, with Frantz’s delivery drawing you in before leaving you to hang on each word (Listen at 2:00 and 3:40 as she just refuses to finish the word “remember”).

“Oh where are my friends
The Doorman cried
I held out my hand
That’s all I remember…”

Here, the river also represents the lines we are dared to cross and the price of actually crossing them. This crossing leads to another song about addiction, Morphine Girl, and ties nicely one song to the next.

Though the instrumentation is far from what one might consider “traditional” (drums and organ, and electric guitar, oh my!) it is hard to disown the group from their musical heritage of bluegrass and roots music. The artful use of drums and electric instrumentation on This Side of Jordan does not leave one with a sense of departure from tradition, but rather an embrace of folk and acoustic ideals.

Morphine Girl is perhaps the best example of this nontraditionally traditional sound on the entire album. With more of the clever imagery and word play characteristic of Mandolin Orange (are they singing about drugs or music when they sing “we are the ones that hang by the needle/Stuck in a groove cut by your hand?”), Marlin and Frantz seamlessly incorporate the electric guitar, organ, and rolling drums into their deceptively acoustic sound.

Continuing the motif of Christian imagery, Hey Adam tackles the political and religious opponents of gay marriage in North Carolina and elsewhere through use of the story of Adam and Eve.

“Hey Adam
Our secret’s safe
But I hope the world will learn
Go tend to Eve in the garden, crying,
But pay attention to these words:
Our Father loves you all ways”

The joyful fiddle refrain makes clear the powerful message of love and acceptance while reminding us this shouldn’t have to be seen as a politically pointed song.

One of Marlin’s songwriting strengths is his ability to take classic country and folk subjects and give them a new spin. With his clever take on the classic topics of unrequited love and heartbreak Mandolin Orange is able to steer clear of the clichés that many roots musicians fall prey to. Songs like There was a Time and Black Widow remain true to the genre, while exploring new perspectives. Far from gimmicky, Marlin’s lyrics and Frantz’s strong accompaniment showcase powerful depth of emotion (Black Widow made me tear up while waiting for my plane at LAX).

“I remember it well, the night we fell

She was looking back and I went running after

What a time it was, speaking of, where does time go?

It’s tangled up in her ways”

Through tightly woven thematic threads, powerful vocals, and thoughtful instrumentation, This Side of Jordan showcases the depth of Mandolin Orange’s skill and maturity. Like many of the lyrics say on this album, I too find This Side of Jordan to be its own sort of paradise. I look forward to the release of their next album in May.



Check out this fantastic interview with Mandolin Orange on Engine 145:

Wallen, Paul. “Mandolin Orange Finds Their Way This Side of Jordan.” Engine 145. N.p., 2 Dec. 2013. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.



Did you catch all the links?

I tried to showcase a few different versions of each song.

Some of the live tracks are real gems!

Bluegrass with a Stance

So maybe this isn’t politics, per se, but in the absence of a long blog this week (time just got away from me) here is a fantastic song by Mandolin Orange addressing an issue that’s been in the news a lot lately:

A poignant story of a love deemed sinful , Hey Adam explores the drawn out pain of a closeted gay relationship and the hateful treatment such a relationship often brings about.


“Hey Adam, our secret’s safe, but I hope the world will learn…”


Me too, Mandolin Orange, me too…

Through biblical imagery and a piece of lyrical ambiguity, the song delivers a pretty important dual message to those who have been pushed out of their religious communities for their sexual orientation:


“Our Father loves you all ways”


which can also be heard as:


“Our Father loves you always”


Either way, a powerful message from a powerful group of musicians.

See you after the break.