Monthly Archives: February 2015

Relationships, Bluegrass, and the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band


This passed Wednesday it was a great honor to have John Lawless provide our class with commentary about his lifelong journey with bluegrass. Lawless conveyed many exuberant stories of his friends in the industry. One topic he spoke on that interested me was the strain on relationships that attempting to play music professionally puts on a couple. My curiosity next led me to the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band, a married couple that Fred Bartenstein lists under the 4th generation. In Bartenstein’s eyes the 4th generation encompassed musicians that were born between 1963-1976 and started recording in 1976 and still continue today.  This generation unlike the 3rd generation returned back to the classics of bluegrass that Bill Monroe had made popular a few decades prior.

To better under the story of Kenny and Amanda Smith it helps to understand where their story started. Kenny was born in Nine Mile, Indiana, and Amanda was born in Davisville, West Virginia. Not surprisingly, the love of music is the roots of this relationship. The future couple met at the Milton Opry House in Milton, West Virginia as Kenny was playing with the Lonesome River Band. By the time the couple met in the late 1990s Kenny had already established himself for his flatpicking-style guitarists, winning IBMA guitarist of the year during his spell with the Lonesome River Band. On the other hand, Amanda had been more sheltered, singing in choirs and continuing to sing more locally. It is hard to believe that just a few years later after meeting in a small opry house, the couple released their first album together entitled Slowly but Surely. This album was noted for the intimate setting that Kenny and Amanda created. The album also showed the couples strong faith in their Christian beliefs. Shortly after, in 2003, the Smith’s band received the award for IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year. The band’s next two albums continued to solidify them as serious musicians in bluegrass. Finally, in 2007 the band did something that they had been aspiring to do since their formation, an album dedicated completely to gospel music (as seen below).

kenny and amanda smith

Connecting the music to their relationship, Kenny and Amanda both acknowledge that their faith has kept them together. This faith is what many people note as what makes their music so true and powerful. The death of Kenny’s Father really told the Smiths that it was time to record this gospel album. Looking back, both Kenny and Amanda speak much about how this album not only brought them closer to each other; it brought them closer to the Lord. When you hear the couple sing you cannot only see and hear a relationship with each other, you see a strong relationship with their faith. This is seen in the video below:

Going on about the relationship of Kenny and Amanda Smith, they both mention their trust in each other frequently. Starting out they realized financially it would not be easy; however, they trusted in themselves to produce good music and that they were doing the Lord’s work. Both Kenny and Amanda do admit it was tough getting their start with producers wanting past work with the two, but their persistence has stayed true. They are so grateful to be able to continue to do what they love as their “job.”

Today, the couple is still producing music. Overall they have now had eight albums together, have been nominated for a Grammy and received a couple of IBMA awards. Before conducting research on this group, I embarrassingly, was unaware of their existence. Now, I agree with many of their reviews. Amanda has unmatched vocals that almost compete with Allison Krauss and Kenny can play his guitar remarkably well. His two Guitarists of the Year from the IBMA are well deserved.




Sam Bush: Father of Newgrass

Sam Bush

Sam Bush was born in 1952 in Bowling Green, Kentucky and is noted today for his remarkable ability to play the mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and guitar. He also is renowned for his beautiful vocals. According to Fred Bartenstein’s Generations Chart, Bush is a 3rd generation bluegrass musician. The 3rd generation is noted for broad geographic regions, careers in several genres, fewer fiddles and taking bluegrass to new directions and audiences. Much like many other musicians we have studied, Bush’s family played an imperative role in early childhood musical development. Bush’s grandfather played the banjo and fiddle while his father just played the fiddle, respectively. Since there was such a great deal of music around the house, Bush started playing the mandolin at the age of 11 and called it his first love. Likewise, he began playing the fiddle around the age of 13 or 14. Hearing a record of The Dilliards pushed Bush’s interest in Texas fiddling. This instrumentation won Bush multiple contests during his youth. Relevant to the material at hand, Bush attended the inaugural Roanoke Bluegrass Festival in 1965. Looking into historical times, around this period rock n roll was becoming popular. Bush was interested in fusing bluegrass and rock n roll.

Sam Bush started gaining his fame in the late 1960s. By 1970 he had played in a couple of bands such as the New Deal String Band and Bluegrass Alliance. Although the Bluegrass Alliance broke up, a few members added a couple new members and formed the New Grass Revival. When Bartenstein mentions that the 3rd generation started taking bluegrass into new directions, New Grass Revival personified this description. Their sound, heard below, planted roots for progressive bluegrass:


Unfortunately, New Grass Revival broke up in 1989, but not before releasing three albums. Also in 1989, Bush joined Strength in Numbers, another newgrass band. Strength in Numbers produced one album and was noted for incorporating more jazz styles characteristic into their music. Since 1989, Bush has recorded some solo. He also released a DVD of a live concert. Most notably, he performed on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. Today, he is considered the “Father of Newgrass” and some even joke that he is the “Mother of Bluegrass.” This comparison of being the “Mother of Bluegrass” is an honor to Bush as idolized Bill Monroe. Throughout the years he has been awarded 3 Grammys. Below is my favorite Sam Bush song:

The Bluegrass Reader entry on Sam Bush does a great job hitting on his open mind when it comes to music. The article really shows that Bush was a free spirit who had a passion for music. This passion expanded into his life as well, he is a two-time cancer treatment survivor. Bush is still touring today, and will be performing at FloydFest 2015. He is active on Twitter and has a very informative website:


Radio, Place, Future

In Robert Cantwell’s article, Hillbilly Music, he goes into great detail about the beginning of Bill Monroe’s career along with how the radio influenced cultural identities. Cantwell is not shy to admit that he believes the way people listened to their music in the early 20th century did put a “dust” over the pureness of the sound. He credits this dust to ideas that quickly became associated with bluegrass and old-time music.

Throughout reading this article I continually questioned the idea of stereotypes associated with music. I pondered about the recent Grammy winning songs and what makes them gain their level of popularity in today’s world. To me, I use music to take me back to my childhood or bring back memories of my home; however, when listening to today’s “popular” music it is simply the same overused topics. I, unlike most, do not consider certain stereotypes to be negative. For example, many people characterize bluegrass music as hick or rural; yet, to me this just states that this genre has a sense of identity. This music is easily identifiable to some. While listening to Sam Smith’s music that has gained him much fame I cannot help to feel disconnected. He is a homosexual man from England who has been trained vocally for years, my life and his do not share many of the same roads. I would much rather listen to songs about my region that provoke conversation amongst my family and I about history or outlooks on life. Below is a song that I recently came across that is about a place about 20 minutes from my home in Bluefield, WV. I find much enjoyment listening to this song as it reminds of family as well as past and current hardships people are facing.

Also while reading Cantwell’s article I could not help to question the future of bluegrass music. As noted in his article and throughout much of our course, many bluegrass musicians also served as advertisements for certain products during the genre’s infancy. Then, the larger acts seemingly started touring and playing at the Grande Ole Opry in about the mid 20th century. Fast forwarding a bit, today it seems that bluegrass often plays second fiddle (pun intended) to country music on the radio. Where does bluegrass music belong today? In my opinion, bluegrass fits well outside the mainstream. Bluegrass flourishes in smaller communities throughout Appalachia whether it be at jams, festivals or competitions. This background personality gives the genre its substance. Helping bluegrass in this current world is technology. This has helped the genre that Bill Monroe start grow into a worldwide community. Defining the future for bluegrass is challenging, but it is my hope that the music continues to keep up with technology. It is my belief that if the genre keeps up with technology it will be able to continue and grow. The idea of keeping up with technology is seen through the websites listed below, these websites allow people worldwide to be informed about festivals:



Tommy Jarrell: The North Carolina Fiddle King

tommy jarrell

To begin my research on Tommy Jarrell I thought it would be appropriate to see his most popular song on iTunes. I was shocked to find that his most sold song is “Cotton Eyed Joe,” however his version has much more instrumental works along with expanded lyrics from what is heard today. Lucky for me, Les Blank created a short documentary in 1983 about the life of Tommy Jarrell. While this is not a typical documentary that has a deep voice over, begins at the start of a person’s life and concludes with the death, Blank creates a more personal feeling for the viewer. During this documentary, Blank and Jarrell talk one-on-one, it is at these points that Jarrell reminisces and the viewer learns of his past. Also the film shows Jarrell playing his fiddle. He gained much fame for how quick he could play the fiddle and was notorious for singing and playing at the same time. This unique style is shown below:

While he is remembered mostly for his fiddle playing, Jarrell also played the banjo. Jarrell talks of how he was a farmer until it got too expensive. A recurring theme throughout the documentary is alcohol. It is mentioned that Jarrell would make moonshine during his young adult years, as it was more profitable than farming. Jarrell also talks how he and his family would go to other family’s houses and jam around a bottle of whiskey until the wee hours of the night. These jams may start as a corn shucking or some other type of farming game but would eventually end in a jam. It is also noticeable throughout the film how much family meant to Jarrell. Interestingly, Blank brings in Jarrell’s sisters to speak about him, but also speak about their lives during the in the early 20th century. While alcohol is prevalent throughout the film, Blank also shows that Jarrell was religious. To conclude the film, Blank follows Jarrell to a festival where he is a celebrity.

While Les Blank’s film was entertaining and put a voice and sound to a face, afterward I desired more factual information about Tommy Jarrell’s life. My search then led me to the Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame website to an article written by Thomas Reavis Lyons. The author was very interested in Jarrell so he traveled to his hometown of Mount Airy, North Carolina to interview surviving family members about Jarrell’s life and legacy. He found that Jarrell was born in 1901 and passed away in 1985. During his childhood Jarrell would often work in the fields with his parents where they would sing songs and tell stories. Jarrell bought his first fiddle when he was 14 for $10, that fiddle now resides in the Smithsonian Museum. Pertinent to Blacksburg, Jarrell married his wife Nina in Hillsville, Virginia. Jarrell recorded seven albums and was even selected for the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship. It is also noteworthy that he was an amateur fiddle player; he worked 41 years for the Department of Transportation. Today, Tommy Jarrell is buried beside his late wife in Mount Airy. To keep his tradition alive, there is a Tommy Jarrell Festival each year in Mount Airy that last a couple of days and has events ranging from a youth competition to workshops and has numerous concerts. The website for this festival is shown below: