The sound of taut strings plucked against a wooden frame – sometimes slowly and mournfully, sometimes at galloping speed – makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. In the rhythmic rise and fall of vocal harmonies, each bluegrass song is a story told in local bars on weekend nights and around festival campfires on summer evenings. Its traditions deeply rooted in the hills of Kentucky and Southern Indiana, bluegrass music is flourishing here and across the country. And you won’t find a plug in sight.
Sherri Hacker says it’s the “high lonesome” sound that’s the soul of bluegrass music and the reason it remains so popular today. She grew up in Kentucky and learned to play flat-top guitar with her parents and her grandfather. Now 50, she serves as president of the Indiana Friends of Bluegrass. “It’s pure music,” she says. “For me there’s no other way to explain it. When they have those harmonies perfect, it’s a sound that is unbelievable. It makes you feel like you’re home.”
September 13, 2011, marks the centennial of the birth of Bill Monroe, the undisputed father of bluegrass music and the man who founded the longest continuous bluegrass festival in the world in Bean Blossom. More than 40,000 people are expected to flock to the tiny Brown County town in June for the 45th Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival. With more than 50 performers, the festival features some of bluegrass’ biggest names, like The Grascals, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out and the Lonesome River Band.
Bill Monroe’s festival is the biggest bluegrass event this summer, but definitely not the only one. The bluegrass calendar is packed full of jams, shows and festivals that stretch into fall. So whether you’d just like a listen or you want to dust off your guitar and jam with a band, 812 tells you how to enjoy the hard-driving, toe-tapping, high-lonesome sound of Southern Indiana bluegrass.
Jammin’ with Reel Tyme
It’s 6 p.m. on a Thursday and the door to the maintenance facility at Brown County’s Camp Rancho Framasa is wide open. Chris Bryan and Dan Harden, founders of the Reel Tyme String Band, greet me on the gravel parking lot with a warm hello.
Inside, the tools and cleaning products have been stashed away to make room for four blue chairs and a bar stool in a semi circle. Chris’ iPod is playing a soothing tune that’s difficult to identify over the chatting voices. The other band members arrive and set up for the evening’s practice. They catch up on the news of their lives. Nineteen-year-old Brandon just sold half of his hair, which is flaming orange, and now one side hangs shorter than the other. This inspires several minutes of jokes, before Chris, sitting on the bar stool, turns to Brandon.
“Hit it,” he says. “Play something.”
The Reel Tyme String Band is one of dozens of bluegrass bands that play to regular audiences at pubs, wineries and community centers across Southern Indiana. Tonight they’re getting ready for a gig at the Bushman Brewhouse near Nashville.
Brandon picks out a melody and the others join in. Dressed in tight electric-blue jeans, a blue t-shirt and blue tennis shoes, Brandon represents a younger generation getting caught up in bluegrass. The older band members wear comfy blue jeans and loose-fitting tops. Brandon is also the only band member without a moustache – not counting Loretta, of course, their bass player and vocalist who is sick today. But he does have a silver stud in his lip.
They move on to a song called “Wait a Minute.” Guitarist Rick Hedrick looks up through his sunglasses and stops them. Chris says Rick is a stickler for openings and closes. “Loretta calls him old-man rhythm,” Chris says. “Bill Monroe himself asked Rick to play guitar for him when he was 18,” he adds, a tone of respect in his voice.
They turn Chris’ iPod back on to listen and hear where they’re going wrong. They don’t use sheet music, which banjo player Dan Harden says is common for bluegrass bands. “Its funny, a lot of bluegrass musicians often can’t read a note of music,” he says. “You just play from the heart.”
The band sometimes rolls from one tune into the next. Sometimes they spend a few minutes joking in between. They play a track called “Someday Soon,” but Chris’ voice soon breaks into laughter. “It’s a love song to a guy,” he laughs, “ I just can’t get my head around it.”
They try to continue, but after Chris sings, “Just out of the service, he’s lookin’ for his fun,” their focus is gone.
“That sucked,” Chris said.
Dobro player Tom Harris tells him not to worry. “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while,” he says.
Dan asks if I would like to sing instead. I decline.
“Can you do a ‘whooo’ at the end to give us some encouragement?” Chris asks. “The whooo chicks, that’s our wives’ jobs usually.”
The band released their first album, “Lonesome Town,” in August 2010, and they’re working on some new material now. As dusk approaches, they close the door so they won’t distract a children’s group outside. Chris turns to the white folder in front of him, which he refers to as his memory, to pick another track.
I lean back against the wooden work bench and listen to the driving rhythm and tight harmonies that makes their sound so essentially bluegrass.
Bill Monroe: The father of bluegrass
Rarely does one person define a new style of music as distinctly as Bill Monroe defined bluegrass.
Born on Friday the 13th in September of 1911, in Rosine, Kentucky, Bill was the youngest of eight children. Music was a part of family life from the beginning, and Monroe began to play with brothers Charlie and Birch. They claimed the fiddle and guitar, so Bill took up the mandolin, which he learned to play from the family’s farmhand. Later, Monroe joked that his brothers would only let him use four strings on the mandolin, rather than the usual eight, to make sure he wasn’t too loud.
At 16, following the deaths of his parents, Monroe moved to Northern Indiana to work at an oil refinery with his brothers. Performing at barn dances, the brothers landed a sponsorship from a laxative maker and their own radio show. Bill and Charlie began travelling and performing as the Monroe Brothers.
In 1938, Bill formed The Blue Grass Boys and launched a new era of music. Their distinctive style earned them a regular spot at the Grand Ole Opry. Their most popular song “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” was covered by Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney and Patsy Cline.
Travelling between Kentucky and Northern Indiana to see his brothers, Monroe often passed through Brown County. In October 1951, he performed at the Brown County Jamboree in Bean Blossom, fell in love with the area and purchased the property. Natalie Sumpter, manager at the Bean Blossom Music Park today, believes the area reminded Monroe of his home in Rosine. “When he bought it, the ground here was just exactly that. It wasn’t developed at all,” Sumpter says. “He didn’t really live anywhere in particular. He was always on the road, but he spent a lot of time here.”
In1967, Bill Monroe hosted the first Bean Blossom bluegrass festival. It has since become the oldest continuous bluegrass festival in the world, attracting people from as far as Japan and New Zealand. Southern Indiana singer and songwriter Will Devitt remembers his first time at the Bean Blossom festival in the 1970s. “When I got to the gate, Bill Monroe himself was standing there selling tickets,” Devitt says. “I bought my ticket from him, and then 30 minutes later I was watching him perform on the stage.”
Monroe was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Nashville songwriter’s hall of fame in 1971. The only other artists to achieve that recognition are Jimmie Rogers, Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Cash.
Monroe suffered a stroke in April 1996 and died later that year, just four days before his 85th birthday. The following year, guitarist Ricky Skaggs broke down in tears as he inducted Monroe into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, calling Monroe his musical father.
While Monroe sometimes dismissed himself as “a farmer with a mandolin and a high tenor voice,” he almost single-handedly defined bluegrass as we know it today. In his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame biography, he’s quoted as saying: “It’s plain music that tells a story. It’s played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you.”
Bluegrass has always been popular in Southern Indiana, but recently it’s been picking up more fans of all ages, says Hedrick, guitar player for the Reel Tyme String Band. “There are lots of young people into it now,” he says. “I’m not sure it was that way a few years ago.”
Hacker, from the Indiana Friends of Bluegrass, says the movie “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” introduced a new generation to the rootsy music. More young people are showing up at her group’s jams and events, she says. Devitt, who teaches guitar, mandolin and banjo lessons in addition to performing around the state, says players are attracted to the acoustic instruments. “It’s a movement away from the computer and synthesized music,” he says. “They like the experience of putting their fingers on the instrument and having the immediate response of sound.”
But young adults aren’t the only ones discovering bluegrass. Baby boomer parents are dusting off their guitars as their children leave the nest. “It’s a hobby now that their children are raised,” Devitt says. “Often it’s something they’ve always wanted to do, but they haven’t had time before.”
Music teacher Ray Major of Ferdinand, says the best way to learn bluegrass is to play with the experts. “Bluegrass is learned a lot from imitating others,” he says. “Go to as many festivals and jam sessions as you can and there you can listen to it and imitate what you hear.”
Wait. Surely experienced players won’t have time for a total beginner?
“Actually if you find people who play bluegrass, most of them would be more than happy to help you learn.” Major says. “The hardest thing is for new people to put aside their misgivings about whether or not they are good enough.”
Dan Billger, member of The White Lightning Boys, a bluegrass band from Nashville, Indiana, agrees. “Go to festivals,” he says. “Most of them have a large focus on bringing new people into bluegrass and they have workshops that people can go to.”
Billger also says the great picking done around festival campfires is another way to learn from experienced players. But if jumping in with the veterans sounds too daunting, there are books and videos to give you a head start. “Companies like Oak Publications, Homespun Records and even YouTube have lots of videos,” Major says. “How good they are depends on what the student brings to them.”
Many music stores offer lessons to sharpen your skills, like the Weed Patch Music Company in Nashville, Stafford Music Academy and Melody Music Shop in Bloomington and This Old Guitar in Seymour and Columbus. They’ll also post lists of local jams to get you started. Once you build up your confidence, you can give jammin’ a go, which Major insists is the best way to learn bluegrass.
“You have to take your life into your hands, go and make mistakes until you get past your nervousness of playing with other people” he says.
Bill Monroe coined the name bluegrass, yet the music’s roots go deeper. Old-time music comes from traditional Scottish, Irish and English ballads and dance tunes brought to America by immigrants who settled in the Appalachian region. Music teacher Major says these immigrants came down the Ohio River or up from Tennessee and Kentucky, and brought their musical traditions with them.
There are many similarities between bluegrass and old-time string music, like the vocal harmonies and rhythmic pulse of the bass and guitar. But it’s the banjo, whose design came from African slaves, that sets the two styles apart. In old-time music, the banjo was the accompaniment to the fiddle, which played the melody. In bluegrass, the melody passes from instrument to instrument.
“All bluegrass bands have a banjo, but not every band has a fiddle,” he said. “So that’s why many people now think of the banjo as the main instrument.”
It’s NOT country
Bluegrass and country are often thought of as similar styles of music. Yet according to Southern Indiana’s bluegrass players, it isn’t necessarily so. “They share a history and that’s about it,” Major says.
The distinction between country and bluegrass came in the late 1940s, as the electric guitar and drums began to creep their way from rock and roll into traditional country music. Bluegrass players, however, chose to stick to the acoustic style of Bill Monroe.
Musician Billger says bluegrass takes country music back to its roots. “What you hear on the radio isn’t real country, it’s more rock and roll or pop music.” He says. “Bluegrass is like the original country music. It takes country back to its foundations, which is acoustic music.”
Ten years ago, bluegrass artist Larry Cordle, documented the loss of country music to rock and roll in his Country Music Song of the Year, “Murder on Music Row.” “The steel guitars no longer cry, and you can’t hear fiddles play,” he wrote. “Someone killed country music” by cutting “out its heart and soul.”
Hacker says bluegrass is “roots” music. “It’s acoustic and there’s no amplification. What you hear is what you get. And it’s stayed true to its roots.”
Making that bluegrass sound
Wondering how the bluegrass sound comes together? 812 takes a look at the essential instruments.
The Mandolin: The mandolin helps set the rhythm with the bass player. It was Bill Monroe’s signature instrument, as he became famous for his choppy rhythms and bluesy sound. The mandolin can fill between vocals and add tremolo on slower songs.
The Banjo: The banjo design was bought to America by African slaves. An essential instrument to any bluegrass band, it drives the tempo and the melody and fills vocal holes.
The Fiddle: The fiddle is a violin played in bluegrass style. According to banjo-player Harden from Reel Tyme String Band, bluegrass fiddlers are often offended when called violinists.
The Guitar: Widely popular across a range of music genres, the guitar is the first instrument many bluegrass artists learn before moving on to others.
The Bass: The bass provides the rhythmic pulse of the music. Its sound allows bluegrass to swing, connecting it to jazz.
The Dobro: Otherwise known as a resophonic guitar, the dobro is newer to bluegrass. It is played horizontally and gives the music a soulful sound.
Reel Tyme String Band’s Must-Hear Artists
The Reel Tyme String Band recommends some of their favorite bluegrass artists. Check them out on YouTube.
1. Tony Rice: Considered one of the best players of the acoustic flat-picked guitar, Rice has won numerous awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association, as well as a Grammy. Listen to The Bluegrass Album, a six-volume set.
2. Sam Bush: The “father of newgrass,” a progressive branch of bluegrass music, Bush is best known for his mandolin playing with the Newgrass Revival band. The group performed songs by the Beatles and Bob Marley and moved away from Monroe’s traditional style. Their song “Callin’ Baton Rouge” reached No. 37 on the Billboard country music chart.
3. Lester Flatt: A guitar player from Tennessee, Flatt was one of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys before forming The Foggy Mountain Boys with Earl Scruggs. They played “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
4. Jerry Douglas: A renowned dobro player, Douglas has won 12 Grammys and been named “musician of the year” three times by the Country Music Association. He’s featured on more than 2,000 recordings.
5. Steve Martin: Yes, this is the same Steve Martin of movie and TV fame. Away from his life as an actor, comedian and writer, Martin is a virtuoso banjo player. His latest album, “Rare Bird Alert,” hit the #1 spot on the Billboard bluegrass chart earlier this year.
Bluegrass Festivals in 812: Your essential guide
1-4th: John Hartford Memorial Festival, Bean Blossom
11-18th: 45th Annual Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, Bean Blossom
7-9th: Cedar Valley Bluegrass Festivals, Derby
4-6th: 13th Annual Bean Blossom Gospel Jubilee, Bean Blossom
25-27th: Bean Blossom Blues, Brew and BBQ, Bean Blossom
27th: Old Settler’s Festival, Bowling Green
2-3rd: Brown County Old Settlers Reunion, Bean Blossom
3-5th: Bluegrass for Billy, Saline City
21-24th: 37th Annual Bill Monroe Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Uncle Pen Days, Bean Blossom
29-1st: WM Bentley Hillbilly Wagon Train Jam, Morgantown