Don Rigsby: 4th Generation

Don Rigsby is native to the remote, backwoods town of Isonville, Kentucky, an area rich with bluegrass tradition. He was raised in a family of talented Bluegrass and Old-Time musicians. It only made sense for him to pursue a career in the sounds and traditions he was brought up around.

As many bluegrass musicians of his generation, Rigsby grew up listening to the songs of Ralph Stanley. He also grew up around two of Stanley’s Clinch Mountain boys, Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs, who happens to be Rigsby’s cousin.

Don’s family influence taught him many of the traditional sounds of bluegrass, which he has carried with him throughout his career. He is known not only for his mandolin player, but also his powerful tenor.

At the age of 6, Rigsby attended a Ralph Stanley concert for his birthday. During the show, Keith Whitley came into the audience, grabbed Don, and brought him backstage to meet his idol, Ralph Stanley.

The influence of Ralph Stanley’s style has been evident in Rigsby’s music over the years. He has produced multiple critically acclaimed solo albums, while also playing as a member in the award-winning, Lonesome River Band.

Other noteable acts include the Bluegrass Cardinals, as well as collaboration with J.D. Crowe. He has also been involved with Longview, a group of top-ranked traditional bluegrass artists assembled by Rounder Records.

Don Rigsby is a two time Grammy nominee, two time Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America Male Vocalist of the Year, shared two IBMA awards while playing with Longview, and was also featured as a vocalist on John Fogerty’s Grammy winning album, Blue Moon Swamp.

In 2001, Rigsby returned to his Alma Mater and became the first full-time director of Morehead State University’s Kentucky Center for Traditional Music. Through this position, Rigsby aims to preserve traditional music and pass his heritage and experiences with the next generation.

In 2013, Rigsby recorded ‘Doctor’s Orders: A Tribute to Ralph Stanley.’ Just as he has throughout his long, rich career, Rigsby preserves the traditional bluegrass sound while tipping his hat at and even singing on the same track as his hero.


David Grisman: Dawg Music

David Grisman is widely considered as the most influential mandolin player in the 2nd generation of bluegrass. He is known and associated not just with bluegrass, but also for his jazz and folk influence. The meshing of these genres was often difficult to classify. When asked what style of music he played, Grisman would often refer to his style of mandolin as “dawg music.”

Although mandolin is the instrument Grisman is widely known for, he was versed in playing piano and saxophone by the time he was teenager. He attended college at New York University. In 1966, Grisman joined Red Allen and the Kentuckians as a mandolin picker. Eventually he joined the group Earth Opera, a dynamic rock group that blended folk, rock, country, and jazz.

After two albums with Earth Opera, Grisman  began collaborating with Grateful Dead member, Jerry Garcia. He recorded with the Grateful Dead on the album ‘American Beauty’ and continued to collaborate with Jerry Garcia on their well known project Old & In The Way. Later, with collaboration with others, the two formed the American String Band. Grisman’s time with the American String Band allowed him to develop his trademark style of energetic improvized breaks. Other members of the original band included notable contributions from Taj Mahal and Richard Greene.

The Great American String Band: 6-13-1974 Keystone, Berkeley, CA


Later on, Grisman formed a new group called the David Grisman Quintet, which recorded the breakthrough album ‘Hot Dawg.” It was at this time that he truly began to be recognized as a leader in the “newgrass” movement, as it incorporated elements of jazz, long improvizations, while maintaining so elements of traditional bluegrass.

The group recorded two albums, separating shortly after. Notable banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck then collaborated with Grisman for several recording sessions. Fleck has mentioned Grisman as a strong musical influence on his own work.

Grisman has recorded over 40 albums, and received 5 Grammy nominations. Throughout his career he is noted for playing many classic bluegrass songs like Bill Monroe’s ‘Moonlight Waltz’ and Django Reinhardt’s ‘Swing 42.’ He is one of the most sought after mandolin player to live and can truly be credited as one of the pioneers in the bluegrass genre.

The following includes a compilation and interview of Grisman tracks recorded throughout the expanse of his long and rich career:


Traditional Plus

When Merle and I started out we called our music ‘traditional plus,’ meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play.” – Doc Watson

Music seems to always be evolving, no matter what genre, what country, or what time period. Part of the beauty of creating music is the ability to make a sound your own. Every listener could be said to hear a song “their way,” or perceive their own message from the music being played. Naturally this translates into a vast array of renditions and takes on the preexisting songs and sounds of the time.

The rise of the radio, as mentioned in Robert Cantwell’s piece titled “Hillbilly Music,” set a certain standard for the style of traditional bluegrass as artists like Bill Monroe began to be broadcast nationwide. People as far away as Hawaii were even tuning in to hear the high lonesome sounds of bluegrass.

With the change of times and the wider, faster dissemination of information made possible by the radio, a certain homogenized society tends to form, while the rural isolated traditions seem to lose importance in the minds of the youth.

At the time of the rise of radio, rich the traditions of the backwoods were shared with the world. As these isolated cultures were shared with the masses, so too were the cultures of the masses shared with the backwoods.

In years since, these traditions, songs, stories, and general ways of life have intrigued and brought great joy to people all over the world. That being said, there also seems to be somewhat of a loss of certain primordial customs. Is it possible for a way of life once exposed to the public to avoid influence from outside of tradition? Can a culture truly remain authentic and unadulterated in modern times?

As Cantwell mentions, the old time bluegrass sound was followed by and influenced by Chicago style jazz. The improvisation and breaks seen in the jazz movement of the time were heard in music from groups like the Prairie Ramblers and Clayton McMichen and the Georgia Wildcats.

In the Prairie Ramblers’ “I’ll Never Say ‘Never Again’ Again” elements of the new jazz influence are evident.

Over the years the evolution has continued. The raw purity of the old time, backwoods sound may be nearly as difficult to hear in present day as it would have been living in an urban setting before radio. Collaborations of artists across genres and covers of pop songs in bluegrass style have been made from the beginning. Even for those who treasure old time bluegrass above all other styles cannot deny that often times the result can be both tasteful and eloquent.


Roscoe Holcomb: Mountain Wholesome

Roscoe Holcomb was born in 1912, just one year after Bill Monroe, in Daisy, Kentucky. He is said to have influenced artists such as Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton and was greatly admired by the Stanley Brothers.

Holcomb is credited as one of the founders of the “High and Lonesome” sound. His voice is echoes the troubles and joys of living the tough life of an Appalachian farmer and coal miner.

Although he was known to be a talented guitar and banjo player and a decent harmonica and fiddle player, some of Holcomb’s most notable songs were recorded acapella. The lack of instruments in some of Holcomb’s recordings reflects a strong influence and root in the Old Regular Baptist Church.

Roscoe is one of the true products of the raw American backwoods playing songs with titles like “Little Birdie” and “Hook and Line,” as seen below.



Although the heart in Holcomb’s music is apparent, he claims to only casually play about once a month. He dresses professionally, as many of the bluegrass musicians of the time did, but carries with him a sense of the dirt that filled his hands in farming, the coal dust that filled his lungs, and all the bumps and bruises that are necessary to receive in order to survive in the backwoods of Ol’ Kentucky.

He truly was one of the “good old boys,” living only several miles away from Hazard County, the setting for the hit TV show Dukes of Hazard.

“I thought there wasn’t nothing but work,” Holcomb says, in an Interview with Mike Seeger. He continues saying, “I’d give anything ever I seen if I could just get to where I could start back to work again.”


Holcomb never intended to become a star. Although he was recorded and even performed for audiences for a short period of time, he would have been just as happy playing to the open air of the mountains.

Appalachian Bluegrass: A Transplanted Tradition

The sounds and lyrics in bluegrass music often echo reminiscent feelings of lost loves, distant family, and the beauty of the landscape of Appalachia.

I have always felt a strong connection with these cries. They remind me of the Blue Ridge Mountains, my roots, and a sense of pride. They remind me of the rivers, lakes, and streams, that carved this land just as my family has shaped the land and tended to their crops.

Merriam-Webster gives two very different definitions of bluegrass. The first is as follows:

1: any of several grasses (genus Poa) of which some have bluish-green culms; especially : kentucky bluegrass

The first definition is the root and association that brings meaning to the second definition. Many do not know that bluegrass is not native to North America. Bluegrass, or Poa, is native to different parts of Europe. Just as the plant has found a home in North America, so too have European immigrants transplanted their roots of bluegrass music in the culture of Appalachia.

The International Bluegrass Music Association credit Irish, Scottish, English, as well as African immigrants with the development of the genre. I myself am descendent from an Irish bloodline. Nearly all of my family at some time has lived in Franklin County, the city of Roanoke, and Bedford County, Virginia

Although these areas are not technically considered part of Appalachia, much of the bluegrass tradition can be observed there, especially in Franklin County.

My mom comes from a relatively large family, consisting of seven children. Naturally, this has led to a huge extended family with a wide variety of personality. There are beach kids, city kids, and the hometown locals.

Family gatherings are always somewhat hectic, but somehow always seem to come together. Dinner is served buffet style and begins with the ringing of the dinner bell by the youngest member of the family. The line for food is loosely organized by age with the youngest eating first considering that their patience dissipates first.

When I was younger, my grandfather was the DeWitt family patriarch. He was born a surprise twin and was named after his father, Daniel John DeWitt. His brother was named just the opposite, John Daniel DeWitt.

Just as their names suggested, they were mirror images of each other, both in body and in mind. The rest of the family joked that they had developed their own language of grunts and mumbles in the womb. During family meetings, even after John went blind they would be found speaking their language and bursting out into laughter for reasons unknown to the rest of us.

Some mornings, grandpa would be sitting at the breakfast table singing old country songs without his teeth in, but being from a family from the Blue Ridge Mountains, we knew the songs he sang. Whether it was because the song contained his name or he just liked the way it sounded, “Danny Boy” was always his favorite to sing loud and the only way he knew how.

The family structure in many traditional Appalachian families is similar to mine, large and full of energy to work the farm. This brings me to the second definition of Bluegrass.

2: country music played on unamplified stringed instruments (as banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin) and characterized by free improvisation and close usually high-pitched harmony

Many bluegrass fans would also include the dobro in a traditional bluegrass arrangement.

The structure of bluegrass could be said to be very close to a traditional Appalachian family structure. All instruments included in a traditional arrangement are strings, suggesting roots in the same family. The free improvisation of the music allows each musicians personality and style to be displayed, none being quite like the other. Finally the harmony, which in a family can be seen as the grounding factor that when put together makes everything work.

Bluegrass is much more than just music. It is a culture that reflects family, history, landscape, and the unity of it all.

Derek Via