Apr 03, 2023, 05:57AM

Bluegrass as the Opposite of AI

Great traditionalist albums by Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, Starlett and Big John, and Jackson Hollow.

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It’s common to lament the polarization of the American electorate between the deniers and the groomers. People speculate that we’re headed to a partition or a new Civil War. Terrifying as this result would be, it’s not as bitter and destructive as the long-standing struggle between fans of "traditional" and fans of "progressive" bluegrass, raging since the 1970s. The traditionalists declared their allegiance to Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley and Don Reno, even if they no longer dressed in little matching suits by '75. Progressive bluegrass came partly from younger players in those men's bands who’d perhaps tired of the style and repertoire originated by Monroe in the 1940s.

To "the external world," the basis of the division might seem obscure, the differences minor. But bluegrass is the most strictly-defined form of popular music, and any departure is immediately audible. All bluegrass music is played on acoustic instruments, and only a few of those: more or less every band includes a mandolin, a fiddle, a guitar (usually played by the lead singer), an upright bass, and possibly a dobro or resonator guitar. No drums allowed, for example; the rhythm is driven by the mandolin's "chop chords," invented by Monroe. Even journeyman bluegrass players had better be virtuosic. The vocal style often features tight harmonies, and one gets in and out of a song in about three minutes, sometimes playing faster than seems possible, sometimes relaxing into a gorgeous beauty. The last cut of every album is a gospel song, as every Monroe gig included "hymn time."

In the 1970s, groups like the Seldom Scene and J.D. Crowe and the New South messed about with the formula, though they sounded pretty traditional in retrospect, particularly in the vocal styles. But the New South used an electric bass. The Seldom Scene covered songs by James Taylor and the Grateful Dead, and stretched out some numbers (“I Know You Rider,” for example), like a jam band. The Seldom Scene's audience in the early-70s was DC hippies, who were also treating bluegrass festivals as mini-Woodstocks, much to the dismay of their Monroe-worshiping forebears.

I was one of those little hippies, sitting there at the Galax Fiddlers Convention blowing a harmonica, smoking bad Mexican pot and drinking Boone's Farm Apple Wine with hippie chicks. I admired Monroe and Scruggs, but really just tolerated the old men so I could see wild-haired young fiddlers like Richard Greene. Now, as an ancient cisgender white man, I've become ever-more of a traditionalist. I used to regard bluegrass music as a source of simple enjoyment, but now I think it represents a bulwark against the apocalyptic forces of IT. For real, no autotune anywhere. It's not produced by Jack Antonoff. It has less social media presence than any contemporary musical form. It's good music emerging from non-artificial intelligence. It's still coming right out of eastern Kentucky and southern Virginia.

It's kind of amazing that traditional bluegrass is still a viable form, in which people are writing new songs and putting out debut albums. It has to mean something different than it meant in 1950. The swing music of the 1940s, say, is a lovely old thing. But bluegrass is a continuing old thing. Here are three albums from early-2023 that show that extremely well, by giving us many new songs in a classical vein.

Perhaps the most fundamental traditionalist bands working now are Junior Sisk and Rambler's Choice and Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers. (Sisk and Mullins have worked together too.) I seem to top ten Sisk every year, but I may have neglected Mullins. So traditional is this banjo picker and singer from Ohio and erstwhile member of the supergroup Longview that his first band was called "Traditional Grass." No one right now is making more perfect or paradigmatic traditional bluegrass, unless it's Sisk.

But the Radio Ramblers, so-called for the so-traditional reason that they take to the road to promote Mullins' Xenia, Ohio radio station, emphasize harmonies and virtuoso instrumental breakdowns even more than Sisk's bands. Mullins is a Scruggs-style killer, and Let Time Ride is a jewel-like album that could’ve been recorded any time in the last half century. You'll have to deal with the throwback reactionary nostalgia. But you'll also get beautiful playing and singing.

Jackson Hollow, whose debut album Roses is a stunner, come straight out of British Columbia: surprisingly respectable given Canada's distinguished country music history. But this is the best new traditionalist group I've heard in awhile. The fiddler/mandolinist Mike Sanyshyn is particularly excellent, but what we'll all be remembering is the Tianna Lefebvre's singing. Bluegrass was absurdly male-dominated up until the accession of Alison Krauss in the early-1990s. Lefebvre's singing has Krauss on board, and Rhonda Vincent, Dale Ann Bradley and the other women of bluegrass. But she has her own power too, and she sounds to me like the next phase of the tradition.

I might’ve liked Starlett and Big John (Starlett Boswell Austinand John Talley) just for their name and look: big people making traditional bluegrass music. One can't really imagine a more traditional act than this duo out of Courtland, VA, recording for Rebel Records. ("In downtown Courtland," sings Big John, "I was working at the Holiday Inn.") Starlett is a strong singer, similar in some ways to Lefebvre, and the pair construct the whole around their loose and lovely harmonies: it's gentle but powerful, and extremely affecting ("Deepening Snow" is Living in the South's final gospel, just after "Safely in the Arms of Jesus.")

It surprises me that in 2023 traditional bluegrass is as vital as these three albums show it to be. And progressive bluegrass chops along as well; I recommend the Harrisburg, PA group Colebrook Road in that vein. Meanwhile the festival season is about to begin. I'll be there blowing harp and smoking dope in the parking lot! Well, maybe not, but I might be sitting there in a lawn chair sipping filtered water, smiling, and twitching to that traditional chop.

Meanwhile, the fact that traditionalist and progressive acts tend to co-exist on the same festival line-ups can bring hope to a polarized nation. Now if only we could get those progressive bluegrass fans to stop issuing their disinformation, or put them on trial for their shenanigans, we could bring peace to this great land. There must be accountability.

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell


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