Today’s take on Bluegrass

This past week, my class was given an amazing opportunity to sit down and talk with John Lawless, Co-founder and chief editor of Bluegrass Today. Not only that, but we got to hear him play us a tune on his banjo.

john lawless

It really meant a lot to me personally to have someone as busy as he is to come and have a real conversation with us. It was nice to listen to someone who grew up in my own neck of the woods Norfolk, VA. What was so nice is that he and I share more than roots, but also views on bluegrass as a whole.

There was a point in the class when he said that as long as a band has a banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and a guitar, it is bluegrass music so long as he likes it… Now that point in and of its self makes a world of difference that never really occurred as a thought to me until he mentioned it.

If you do not like the sound, chances are you won’t like the band. True enough right? but how about if you do not like the context in which you listen to the music (say at a bad time in your day or the such)? No matter how good the band, chances are you won’t like the song or the band for that matter.

Now, this concept had me wondering if this could be a huge hindrance to the genre as a whole. When I say this, I mean the debates over what is bluegrass and what is not… This is something that can make or break a band, and more often than not it comes from people not jiving with the sound. Maybe it’s too far and gone from Bill Monroe’s style or maybe they use electric instruments. Whatever may be the case, it is a clear issue for many.

Something Mr. Lawless said really stuck out and surprised me, was along the lines of he really wished there was less to this issue and that people would either like the music or not like the music, but not fight over what is real or not. I can not really say that I oppose that stance either. The fact that this genre was self grown and self promoted should open up the idea, that if someone wants to add onto the gift of Mr. Monroe, then let that be their contribution to bluegrass. I mean, if they did not share an interest in the music that everyone else shares, then they probably would not try to call themselves a bluegrass band at all.

Does the instrumentation matter enough to call a band not real bluegrass, or does their message mean something a bit more? Is it the sound of a single mandolin or a banjo, or is it the sound of everyone coming together without any rests in the beat that keeps people slapping their hands in unison? At the end of the day, I personally agree in line with what Mr. Lawless said at the beginning of his visit. If it has the right kind of sound and I like it, and it makes me say, “that’s bluegrass,” then that is bluegrass to me. At the end of the day that’s all that matters, and that’s what will always keep the genre going past the old hollars and hills where it started.

On, Keith Whitley

Keith Whitley was a truly interesting gentleman. Born in Kentucky, he began his life in music at a very young age, winning contests by the age of five and getting on local radio stations at thirteen. While he was still in high school he started a bluegrass band with his friend Ricky Skaggs, they called Lonesome Mountain Boys. The duo played only bluegrass and quickly made a local impact as they rose in popularity.


The boys played songs mainly after the Stanley Brothers, and when Ralph Stanley was looking to put a band back together, asked Whitley and Skaggs because of how impressed he was with their music. They became known as the Clinch Mountain Boys.

The group put out some great hits that rose to popularity and finally, Keith left the group in 1973 to pursue a solo career. He did mostly country with a few different bands, but returned to his roots for another two years, putting out another five albums!

After another two years with the band, Keith decided to go solo again after signing with RCA records. He put out a few albums with little return, until his hit single released in 1986, “Miami, My Amy.”

Miami, My Amy http://

Whitley died at the age of 34 in 1989. He had severe alcoholism and on May 9, 1989, he passed due to alcohol poisoning. But even in death, his sound still went on. Just before he died he released an album “I wonder do you Think of Me” and it had a couple singles that rose to the top. Whitley continues to inspire both bluegrass and country performers alike, and in that, he is truly immortal.

At a Glance: Doc Watson

Born on March 3, 1923 from Deep Gap, North Carolina was Arthel Lane Watson, arguably one of the most influential old-time bluegrass artist. Mr. Watson was left blind after an eye infection  during infancy, but that did not hold him back in the slightest. Doc gives much of his credit for not allowing his handicap to get in the way, to his father, who would have Doc help in him in the shop, sawing wood and doing everything that a normal young man could do to pull his own weight.

doc watson

At the age of 12, Mr. Watson began to play the guitar, slowly developing the flat-picking style that would change the sound of bluegrass forever. Much of this credit Mr. Watson gives to Jimmie Rodgers, who heavily influenced the sound Watson was looking for since a very young age.

As Mr. Watson started out, he would play for tips and eventually started playing gigs, until he finally was played on the radio. He was given the name “Doc.” after coming on the air with an announcer that thought he needed a more catchy name. And it stuck with him all the way to his death at the age of 89.

Doc gained national recognition in the 1960s during the music revival. People, including myself, were very taken by his true old time sound, which carries with it all of the feelings of tradition and memory from days long past. Just listening to any one of Doc’s many blues driven songs will take you to the work fields or into a church revival. His quick picking still inspires the youth of aspiring artists today, making him a time transcending force, who will go on always keeping a blue spark burning for the beautiful mountain music he played so simply. So sweetly.

Bluegrass to Me

I have heard a lot about what makes up the components of Bluegrass music such as the type of instruments used (the banjo, the fiddle, and so on), however, when I was watching the film High Lonesome and reading up on the music, I found that my definition of Bluegrass is on of its character and purpose. This is a style of music originating in the hills by people who did not have much but made up for what they lacked in wealth by their good spirits and tradition carried through time by song. Bluegrass started around the family circle after the days labor was finished. When stories were being told and ideas were shared,  and that’s what comes through in the sound and lyrics. Religion plays so close to the sound and style, because that was held so dear by the families. Bluegrass even aided in teaching people how to read, which goes to show that you can not determine the true definition based solely on the instruments played or always by on whose playing it. Even in the film it was said that they would just play what they had sometimes. It is a beautiful compilation of sound expressing emotion of a wide range, heard still in every hollar of the hills where it came and now almost every nook of the world.