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Country Grammar

Maverick Artists Are Adding Different Accents to Bluegrass

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/5/2003

Del McCoury Band, Marty Raybon and Don Rigsby

It's Just the Night, Full Circle and The Midnight Call

Bluegrass is often romanticized as an ancient folk music that barely changes as it's handed down from father to son in the hollers of East Kentucky. In fact, it was a radical innovation of the early 1940s, Bill Monroe's attempt to streamline and punch up mountain string-band music so it could compete with such Grand Ole Opry stars as Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb. In other words, bluegrass began as a subgenre of commercial country music, and so it remains today. And it is going through an identity crisis almost exactly like the one afflicting Nashville's Music Row.

The bluegrass audience has changed and fragmented just as the broader country audience has. The original audience of rural, blue-collar fans has shrunk to a minority, and their attempts to preserve the old, raw harmonies and unvarnished lyrics are increasingly in vain. The majority audience is now middle-class suburbanites and small-towners who want the nostalgic trappings of country and bluegrass wrapped around country-rock rhythms, country-pop melodies, and well-varnished lyrics. Carping from the sidelines are the alternative-country, newgrass, and jamgrass factions who long to supplement the old style with jazzy chord changes, noisy amplifiers, and ironic lyrics.

No act illustrates bluegrass music's current crisis of identity better than the Lonesome River Band, which appears at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills Nov. 6. When Tim Austin founded the group in 1982, he and his bandmates had all been born after Elvis Presley's appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. They never had the chance to play with Monroe or the Stanley Brothers; they had grown up in middle-class homes with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin on the stereo. Inevitably, their bluegrass would sound different.

It wouldn't, however, sound like the newgrass of the Seldom Scene (appearing at the Funk Box Nov. 21) or the New Grass Revival. Those musicians were urban hipsters; the guys in the LRB were from small towns in Virginia and Kentucky. They weren't going to sing or imitate Bob Dylan and Paul Simon songs; they wanted to sing bluegrass with the kick of Southern rock and the gloss of modern country.

By the time of their breakthrough album, 1991's Carrying the Tradition, the LRB featured Austin, Dan Tyminski, Ronnie Bowman, and Sammy Shelor. The songs were old-fashioned, but the rhythm was revolutionary. Shelor's banjo played just in front of the beat, while Tyminski's mandolin played right on the beat--much like Charlie Watts' snare and Keith Richards' guitar--and the resulting tension was unlike anything bluegrass had heard before.

It was Bowman who pushed the band in the direction of contemporary country. An electric bassist whose smooth tenor and rugged good looks recall Clint Black, Bowman favored the sort of bouncy feel-good tunes and sentimental ballads you might expect from Nashville's hat acts. While Tyminski and his 1995 replacement, Don Rigsby, favored the nasal harmonies and rawer feelings of traditional bluegrass, Bowman was appealing to bluegrass's growing suburban audience.

The tug of war between Bowman's approach and Rigsby's fueled the three albums they made with Shelor and Tony Rice-like guitarist Kenny Smith: 1996's One Step Forward, 1998's Finding the Way, and 2000's Talkin' to Myself. Though the two singers are friends (and continue to sing on each other's solo discs), their sounds couldn't be contained within the same group. Bowman, Rigsby, Smith, and fiddler Rickie Simpkins all left the LRB at the end of 2001.

Shelor retained the band name and restocked the lineup with guitarist Brandon Rickman, mandolinist Jeff Parker, bassist Irl Hees, and fiddler Mike Hartgrove. The new lineup's first album, last year's Window of Time, was a deliberate effort to get back to the sound of Carrying the Tradition. It worked, but the songwriting bore the mark of modern country music--strong melodies and unthreatening lyrics.

That tendency was more pronounced on Bowman's post-split solo album, Starting Over. The lead vocals were pushed out front as on a country album; the songs featured the soap-opera tales of country radio, and the sound was polished to a sheen, whether the tracks were produced by Bowman himself or by Don Cook, Brooks and Dunn's producer. The result was a commercially savvy but artistically underwhelming project.

Nearly everyone in the bluegrass world gathers in Louisville, Ky., every October for the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual Trade Show and Fan Fair. It takes place in the Galt House, a downtown hotel "on the banks of the Ohio," as the song goes, and built in a wedding-cake design to resemble a steamboat. There are big concerts in the ballrooms, intimate showcases in hotel rooms, and impromptu picking sessions in all the hallways.

Wandering through the hotel this year, it was clear that Bowman's crossover tendencies had attracted a host of imitators. You could hear a similar "smoothgrass" sound from Mountain Heart, IIIrd Tyme Out, the Chris Jones Coalition, the Gibson Brothers, and especially Marty Raybon. Raybon, the former leader of the superstar country group Shenandoah, was crossing over in the opposite direction, but the songwriting on his new solo bluegrass release, Full Circle, is every bit as fluffy as on the Shenandoah records. It was as if he were trying to prove that the Garth Brooks/Faith Hill revolution in country could also work in bluegrass.

Fortunately, there was an opposing tendency, an effort to put the blues back into bluegrass. After all, Monroe drew a large part of his inspiration from an African-American songster named Arnold Schultz, and it was the rhythmic drive and moaning vocals of the blues that separated Monroe's invention from his old-time string-band predecessors. At the bluegrass trade show, two newcomers (True Blue and the Steep Canyon Rangers) and several veterans (David Parmley, J.D. Crow, and Larry Cordle) reminded you how powerful bluegrass could be when the blues resurface.

The International Bluegrass Music Association gave its biggest award, Entertainer of the Year, to Del McCoury, who was winning for the eighth time in 10 years. As well he should, for the Del McCoury Band--which performs at Towson's Recher Theatre Nov. 8--represents bluegrass at its bluesy, punchy best. It's an instrumental powerhouse; Jason Carter and Mike Bub were voted the association's Fiddler and Bassist of the year respectively, and Ronnie McCoury has been Mandolinist of the Year eight times before. But it's Del's command of the blues--in both his raw, dissatisfied vocals and his push-the-beat guitar rhythm--that scrapes the nostalgia off the music and makes it hair-raisingly immediate.

Del's two sons--Ronnie and banjoist Rob--have an adventurous taste in songwriters, and the quintet's new album, It's Just the Night, features contributions from British folk rocker Richard Thompson, Guy Clark's sidekicks Verlon Thompson and Shawn Camp, and Texas bluesman Delbert McClinton. But these tunes are marinated in the bluegrass tradition as thoroughly as the old Don Reno hymn "I Can Hear the Angels Singing." The band drives the rhythm relentlessly forward, and Del's wiry tenor rides that momentum with the desperation of someone trying to outrun fickle women. "Let an old racehorse run," he cries on one number, and when he gallops into the backstretch it seems like nothing could ever catch him.

As good as It's Just the Night is, even better is the new solo album from Don Rigsby, The Midnight Call. If McCoury is the bluegrass equivalent of Alan Jackson, Rigsby is the bluegrass Buddy Miller, a maverick traditionalist who fishes in the music's deepest currents. Rigsby may not have Bowman's good looks or sweet tenor, but the big man's nasal wailing cleans out our emotional wounds rather than merely slapping Band-Aids on them.

For his first post-LRB solo album, Rigsby has collected 13 terrific songs that don't pull punches as they describe phone calls from dead mothers, murder confessions, town-destroying floods, morgue identifications, divorce hearings, and drunken binges. The singer doesn't sensationalize the material, nor does he impose happy endings. In both his sharp-edged singing and his tension-filled string-band arrangements, he accords these human crises the respect they deserve and forces us to confront their irreducible dilemmas. That's what the best bluegrass has always done.

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