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Event: Amber Collins and Branch House Pavilion

On Saturday, April 25, 2015, bluegrass trio Amber Collins and Branch House Pavilion performed at the Floyd Country Store, one of the major venues on the Crooked Road. I was familiar with the group because the guitarist, Scott Patrick, spoke to our class the month before, but had never been to the famous venue. The sound of the group was unlike most others we studied this year, since the guitar and the mandolin, played by Abe Goorskey, were the only instruments. Amber Collins dominated the vocals with her piercing yet smooth voice, and I couldn’t help but think of Rhonda Vincent and the class discussions we had about gender in bluegrass. Amber was very clearly the star of the show, no doubt about it. The instrumentalists didn’t try to overshadow her or even match her volume like we noticed in Vincent’s “Drivin’ Nails.” But there were some interactions in between songs between Amber and the band members and her husband (who was in the audience) about her being “difficult” and “high maintenance” that recalled some our class discussions. Most of the audience chuckled, but I remember thinking that it really wasn’t funny, nor would it ever have happened to a male lead singer.

Other than that, the audience-band interactions were my favorite part. It showed a sense of humility that many performers (like, you guessed it, T-Pain) don’t show. The trio was as important to the experience as the audience, and that made the show much more personal. That seems to be the trend with many bluegrass bands—it’s a symbiotic relationship between performer and spectator. Both give and both receive. Amber Collins and Branch House Pavilion were a great first show at the Country Store, hopefully the first of many.


Event: Rising Appalachia

On Thursday, April 23, 2015, sister-duo Rising Appalachia performed at Radford University. I purposefully didn’t listen to their music before the show, so I would be surprised by whatever I heard when the concert started. Oddly enough, the music was the least surprising part of the whole experience. Chloe and Leah Smith performed songs with beautiful harmonies and instruments from all over the world (they were much less bluegrass and much more indie-folk) and they interacted a lot with the audience, which was nice. They were proponents of many things, including train travel, environmental consciousness, and fixing the American prison system, and they spoke and sang on all these subjects. My favorite of their songs, “You Don’t Miss Your Water Till Your Well Runs Dry,” which featured only a single acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies, has been played at environmental rallies and protests. Chloe played fiddle but held the bow near the middle and Leah brought out a banjo for a few songs but strummed it like a guitar. They were definitely unorthodox, but very pleasant to listen to.

Now back to the other surprises. First of all, the auditorium in Preston Hall had 1,500 seats. There were no more than 150 people at this concert. That raised a lot of questions about Rising Appalachia and Radford but I did my best not to reason. It made for an intimate show, but I felt for Leah and Chloe, who I’m sure didn’t like looking into a sea of empty chairs. The people that did buy tickets, though, turned out to be big fans. Most people ended up congregating in the front, just below the stage, and danced like the rhythms were flowing through them. They didn’t just dance, but they danced around. Everybody acted like they knew everyone, dancing from one side of the auditorium to the other to say hi to someone. They danced over to watch the live painting that was happening on the floor (someone was painting a picture on an easel before and during the show. It is unclear whether or not they were affiliated with the band). They danced with the expressionless photographer who dressed in all black and carried about four cameras. The show seemed to be a release for a lot of people, who must’ve had a lot of bad energy built up inside and needed to dance it out. A lot of the peculiarities I noticed at this show were probably in large part due to the fact that the night before was T-Pain’s concert. And the differences were monumental. Overall, Rising Appalachia was much less Appalachian than their name indicated. But their music was beautiful and meaningful and called for change. I wish more people had shown up to hear and support them. They certainly gained at least one fan (me).


Event: T-Pain vs. Old Crow Medicine Show

On Wednesday, April 22, 2015, Florida hip-hop artist and rapper T-Pain came to Burruss Hall to perform seventy-minutes of his greatest hits. The event almost filled the 3,000-seat Burruss, which spoke to T-Pain’s relevance despite his not releasing an album since 2011. He was the fifth rapper to come to Virginia Tech this school year, after Sage the Gemini, Juicy J, Chance the Rapper, and Trinidad James, but the first one I actually went to see. My only other concert experience in this venue was Old Crow Medicine Show, and I noticed lots of differences and similarities between the two shows.

The most noticeable difference was the presence of instruments for Old Crow and the absence for T-Pain. Old Crow had at least twice as many instruments as they did band members, constantly switching during breaks and sometimes mid-song. But T-Pain had a DJ with a turntable (possibly just a computer), another rapper, and himself. In a way, this allowed T-Pain to focus the show on his lyrics and beats and dancing—which was surprisingly impressive, whereas OCMS spent a lot of time showcasing the breadth of their musical talents. But both seemed appropriate for their specific audiences, who, with few exceptions (like myself), were also very different.

The audience for Old Crow deliberately went to see the show. Generally speaking, they bought their tickets far in advance, showed up early, waited in line, found their seats, and were ready for a good time. The age range was vast; I saw young parents with young children as well as a few elderly couples, and every age in between. I can’t quite remember why I know this, because Old Crow was way back in November, but there were a lot of townspeople in attendance (i.e. non-VT community members). Appalachian people coming to an Appalachian show— recalls many class discussions of place. The majority of OCMS songs relate to Appalachia (“Carry Me Back to Virginia,” “Tennessee Pusher,” “James River Blues,” “New Virginia Creeper”), and Appalachian people identify with that. For T-Pain, however, I saw a specific age range (VT and Radford students ages 18-25) and saw first-hand that the show was not a priority. Many of my friends decided last minute whether or not to go, and many people rolled in late. Some students were under the influence and clearly had no intention of remembering the show. I tried not to compare it to OCMS, but two concerts in the same auditorium are destined to be contrasted. Old Crow seemed to make people much happier than T-Pain did, since the audience could relate to the band members and their Appalachian heritage. T-Pain, being from Florida and being much more obscene, was more difficult to relate to. And that’s the difference between a memorable concert and a non-memorable one. While very exciting and fun to dance to, T-Pain paled in comparison to OCMS in terms of audience- and area-relatability.


Old Crow video

Old Crow at Burruss Hall, November 2014


T-Pain video

T-Pain at Burruss Hall, April 2015

The Grasscutters



Cecil Creasey Sr. and Mary Creasey, January 1958

Sierra Exif JPEG



First vinyl album cover, “Mowin’ on Down the Line”




Band members:

Cecil Creasey (fiddle and vocals)

Bill Parrish (guitar and vocals)

Mel Hughes (mandolin and vocals)

Warren Rodgers (bass and vocals)

Eugene Roberts (banjo and vocals)



“I’m Walking”

“Orange Blossom Special” (fiddle player’s national anthem)



Creasey Lodge 1997


If time: square-dancing and Melody Makers


Generation 3 Artist Bio: Jerry Douglas

One of the best-known Bluegrass musicians, and possibly the best-known Dobro/lap steel guitar player, Jerry Douglas has had an incredible career. With 13 Grammys and 3 “Musician of the Year” Country Music Awards under his belt, Douglas has set a remarkably high bar for Bluegrass musicians. He’s worked on more than 2,000 albums, recording with the likes of Mumford and Sons, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Phish, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, and Dolly Parton. He was born on May 28, 1956, in Warren, Ohio. Today he resides in Nashville with his family–but where did he come from?

Douglas began playing Dobro in Ohio at age 8, after his father took him to an Flatt and Scruggs concert. He saw and heard their Dobroist, Josh Graves, and fell in love. He soon after began playing with his father’s group, then The Country Gentlemen, followed by J.D. Crowe and the New South, all the while dabbling as a solo artist. He was quite inspired by some still-relevant artists, like Graves, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, and James Taylor.

In 2012, he released his 14th solo album, Traveler. It went to #1 on the US Bluegrass chart, and #168 in the US of all music. He also worked on the O Brother soundtrack. Jerry has done a great deal to bring Bluegrass into the spotlight. Below is one of my favorite Simon & Garfunkel songs, “The Boxer,” as performed by Douglas, Mumford and Sons, and Paul Simon himself. Listen for the Dobro break at 2:04:

Here he is with Alison Krauss, performing one of James Taylor’s biggest hits:

Jerry Douglas seems to fit the bill of a Bluegrass musician perfectly–he was the son of a music-loving steelworker, he learned to play young, and he had many inspirations from the previous generations of Bluegrass and other genres alike. He has already achieved an illustrious career, and he’s still going! Apparently, work on a 15th solo album has commenced…keep your eyes peeled.

Rodney Dillard: A Brief Biography

Rodney Dillard, acclaimed Missourian guitar and dobro player, fell in love with Bluegrass on his family’s farm. Music was all he knew. He and his brother Doug (banjo), friend Dean (mandolin), and friend Mitch (bass) started playing together in the late 50’s as “The Dillards.” They went to Hollywood, and within two weeks, landed a recording contract–something surprising to a part of the country that wasn’t familiar with Bluegrass yet. Though they had already produced several albums, they became very well known after their portrayal of the musical Darling Family on The Andy Griffith Show. This was huge for the Dillards, and for Bluegrass, since many Americans had never heard or been introduced to the genre. And in a time when television was new and exciting to everyone, and the easiest way to spread ideas, Bluegrass became much more popular.

The Dillards still play today, though only Rodney of the original band members remains. He is very proud of his Missouri farm heritage, and he has returned to live there. The following clip shows a little bit of Rodney’s current life.

And here is a clip of the Dillards as the Darlings, on Griffith:

Cantwell’s “Hillbilly Music”

The piece of Cantwell’s chapter on “Hillbilly Music” that struck me the most was his (Cantwell’s) description of Monroe’s sound. Cantwell says he “scrapes” (p.50) the strings of his mandolin as opposed to, I assume, strumming them. Monroe is portrayed as a very aggressive and overbearing artist, demanding the attention of the audience. His rough and grainy sound was signature, and he picked somewhat like a blues guitarist. You can see in the attached video what Cantwell was talking about. While I was reading this section, I couldn’t help but think of Alison Krauss, who can play and sing the most peaceful, almost lullaby-esque Bluegrass songs. Bluegrass music seems to expand with every reading.

Discussion Questions:

Is Bluegrass relevant in the media today? Did O Brother bring Bluegrass into the spotlight permanently, or just for a year or two?

Were the Monroe Brothers smart to try to pursue radio instead of phonograph recordings?

Bluegrass: A Definition

Bluegrass is so much more than just a genre of music. As outlined in the Introductions and in “High Lonesome,” Bluegrass music is the voice of an entire region. Unlike today, when music preferences vary greatly between generations and genders and religions and races, Bluegrass in the 40’s and 50’s was the music. Parents, children, grandparents, neighbors, everyone listened to Bluegrass–and many people played. It was (and perhaps still is) the unifying characteristic of Appalachia. The distinct combination of banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass, dobro, & fiddle made for a new and unusual sound in the 40’s, one only fitting for such an unique region. The genre was soon incorporated into Christianity with Bluegrass Gospel music. This music defined the people of Appalachia and their lives, unlike any music in today’s world. It described their pastimes, hardships, daily life, faith, family, and region. Bluegrass is not a genre of music; it is a culture.


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