Column

Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

Bluegrass Rambles

Everything you need to know about bluegrass, whatever that is

Ted is an IBMA-nominated music writer who travels to bluegrass festivals with his wife and picks guitar in as many jams as he can.

The Danger of Genius: Bill Monroe and Tony Rice

This is one of those both/and things that many want to be an either/or. There is an art to taking a form and honing and crafting it without breaking its essence. Some of those who do that (and, yes, Sam Bush jumps to mind) are geniuses in their own right. You can, however, only do something the first time once. That moment and the process that led to it often involves genius as well. None of this is, as stated in your article, is done in a vacuum and no one is creating the elements of these things, just combining and changing the shape of already extisting things. Monroe was in tune with a lot of things and brought a lot of experience into what would be bluegrass, but once it gelled into a specific shape, there was no question it was something unique. Rice did the same thing in his time and remains the most influential guitarist to this point in bluegrass. Thanks for a wonderful article, Ted!

Thanks for your coment, too. I've been continuing to read in the Weiner book and come across some material about the importance of limits in the creative process, which have got me thinking. Apparently, having a structure to work within helps to fuel creativity. He quotes Robert Frost as having said, "Writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net." Gotta think some about that. 

I'm a huge Tony Rice fan but you greatly downplay the importance of Doc and Clarence. They did more than "push the envelope," and they were Tony's heroes. Doc originally developed his flatpicking playing rock and roll on an electric guitar. That said, Tony was definitely the next link but you don't even mention what pushed him there, i.e., his work with the David Grisman Quintet. Tony told me in a 1978 Guitar Player interview that he was playing with Bluegrass Alliance, one of the early more progressive bluegrass bands, when Grisman played him a couple of tunes that would eventually appear on his landmark David Grisman Quintet album. He said it was a kind of music that he had been hearing in his head for some time but couldn't put a form to it. Within a month, he quit BA and moved to California where he slept on Dawg's couch for a year while they rehearsed, without even playing a gig, for the album that changed the acoustic music world. When he returned to Bluegrass a few years later, he brought that mentality with him.

 

 

 

Thanks, for putting that in. It's interesting to me, because of what he appears to have told Tim Shelton and Carolyn Wright in their bio of him. He says (1) that he never practiced, and (2) that he was deeply disappointed in the work he did with Grisman. Generally speaking, I don't think Tony Rice is a reliable narrator of his own life. 

I agree with that assessment about him making his own narration. But I was very much around when that was happening, and there's no way he could have played Dawg music without practicing. They rehearsed almost every day for a year before even playing a gig. That's practicing. I don't believe the albums he produced after leaving Grisman, particularly "Acoustics" and "Mar West", would have happened without that experience. But this is no slight on Tony's magnificent and hugely influential playing. I'm just sorry that he lost his voice, which was as great as any in Bluegrass.

Tony Rice is definitely not a reliable narrator of his own life. He lost his voice from years of cigarettes and drugs and the book you mention attributes it to him singing in too high a register for his natural voice. Which is a crock. I was dissapointed by that biography as it seemed to be a sanitized version of his life. It was also written in a very confusing style. Seemed like the authors just published their notes rather than taking the time to synthesize everything and craft it into a coherant story. 

Note that my avatar his Tony Rice which is how much I respect his playing. By many accounts however, he is a difficult person. 

I've been reading a good deal, recently, about genius. I don't think anyone would disagree with the statement that Tony Rice is a genius on the guitar. The costs of genius, whether its in music, fine art, writing fiction, physics, or math are significant. Geniuses aren't often comfortable in their skins, they may be lonely in their heads, or separated from others in many ways. That often leads to behavior that may work to help deaden strong and unwelcome feelings. It would not be an exageration to suggest that genius and internal discomfort are often closely related. I think Tony Rice fits within that pattern.

  This is a great article, Ted knows Bluegrass, He covers the best here, The Monroe brothers , Flatt and Scruggs, Nashville Bluegrass Band and the man, Tony Rice.  Personally I don't consider any of this newgrass, it is a bit different, but still traditional imo. Great montage of writing and videos.

 

Nice article, Ted.

I would agree with your observation that Tony, like many musicians, is not a reliable source for information about himself. Having worked at bluegrass festivals and seen different reactions (e.g. a lot of the crowd leaving when David Grisman Quintent played at Wintergrass a decade because it wasn't "bluegrass"), folks reacting to electric instruments, pickups, etc, it fascinates me how orthodoxy develops.

I recently got the "Pizza Tapes Extra Large," a 3 CD set of a two day session with Grisman, Tony, and Herry Garcia. Grisam, or his engineer (or both) wisely let the tape run so we are given a glimpse into the workings of these three amazing string players as they explore various pieces of the American songbook. 

I love it when musicians take on other genres and make them their own, although there is a trend in the "jamgrass" community towards "bluegrassifying" (sic) pop music (or hard rock, etc) that gets old on *me* really quickly. That Said, I am interested in seeing where the trend will go. Remember that there was an uptick in interest in all of this because of a George Clooney movie 15 or so years ago...

Thanks again for a thoughtful take...

 

The only way I can imagine that Tony didn't "practice" would be that he enjoyed it so much it didn't feel like work. I, too, am intrigued by the jamgrass world, and I also think that broadening the range of music available at festivals can serve to draw people in. I'm convinced that wherever you start, most people will be drawn to the founders and eager to see where it leads, especially if that perspective is encouraged. 

Thanks for the provocative article, Ted. As I read it I was thinking of an article about Bill Keith (another genius) in the new Banjo Newsletter. It may have been the excerpt of Bob Carlin's forthcoming bio about Keith. Anyway, Keith talked about Monroe's resentment of others appropriating "his" music, or the sound he discovered, or forged, or however you want to describe it. Eventually Monroe was persuaded that this copying was, in fact, a tribute to him and helped establish his standing and reputation. It's not easy being a genius! (That's my assumption. No firsthand knowledge...)

I like a story Sam Bush tells about Monroe listening to him, or someone else, and saying something like, "Well, that's pretty good if you want to sound like me, but you need to find a style (sound) that's yours." The only problem is, developing an individual style's not easy. That's the subject of next week's piece on the Gibson Brothers. 

Orin Friesen wrote me with some very interesting information about the Bluegrass Album Band's IBMA performance in 1990. The following is re-posted with his permission: The video of the Bluegrass Album Band blew me away. I co-produced that first IBMA Awards Show but had never seen that video. I did note some mistakes in the article. This was in 1990, not 1991 as the article says. Also, this was the first IBMA Awards Show but not the first IBMA Convention. The fact that both Bobby Hicks and Vassar Clements are on stage is due to a quick decision I had to make. I think this is the only time in the history of the IBMA Awards that there was an encore performance. That call was made by awards show hosts, Vince Gill and John McEuen. In retrospect, they made the right decision but I was pulling my hair out at the time. It's also obvious that the band wasn't prepared for that either, though they sure pulled it off.....Here's a little more about the reason both Vassar and Bobby were playing. Bobby Hicks was the original fiddler in the BAB but by 1990, Vassar had taken his place. However, both fiddlers were in attendance at the IBMA in 1990. As I recall, Doyle Lawson pointed that out to me. Since Vassar was the current member of the Bluegrass supergroup, I had planned for him to be on the show. But Doyle felt that we shouldn't leave out Bobby, and I agreed. So that's why there were twin fiddles in that group for the first time. I don't know if they ever had both fiddlers together anytime after that.  

The link below is to an article from American Songwriter about Tony Rice's influence. It relies heavily on an interview with Chris Eldridge of the Punch Brothers as well as some other people interviewed. I like it because of the emphasis on Rice's passion for a wide variety of sources, his belief that music is music seems to be untrammeled by concerns about specific genre. Fine work by Lynne Margolis.

http://americansongwriter.com/2016/01/tony-rice-deep-truths/

  When Tony Rice says that he didn't practice during the Grisman sessions, there are a variety of things he could mean.  He may mean that they were constantly rehearsing and recording, and worked out parts, or sketches of parts during rehearsals.  This is a common way of  jazz players getting a project together.  He also may mean that he didn't practice the Grisman material, but he may have practiced other things, like scales or other music. 

 

My reading of that comment in the Stafford/Wright bio was that he never really practiced. Since he's the master, I assumed he was saying that it all came naturally, which we all know isn't true, of anyone. Maybe I missed something...it happens.

As “the roots music authority,” No Depression has a responsibility to be...authoritative. Perhaps Ted Lehman can be authoritative about some form(s) of roots music—progressive bluegrass, maybe—but based on much of what he says here, I find his view of traditional bluegrass, or in any case Bill Monroe’s music, facile, simplistic, reductionist, and ill-informed.

To begin with, in using a Transcendentalist author’s idea as his thesis statement Lehman sets a high tone but doesn’t follow through with it in the article’s text. If he’s saying Bill Monroe's genius contained the seeds of its own destruction and that it destroyed itself, he doesn’t explain. I’m not aware of any such destruction. What or who was destroyed? If he means something else, what is it?

Looking at some underlying details in his contentions:

He (Bill Monroe) experimented throughout his sojourn in the industrial necklace around the Great Lakes with combinations of instruments, tempos, and musical structures, restlessly seeking something he couldn’t quite find.

There’s no indication Bill did any musical experimentation of this sort when he was living in that area. Charlie, Birch, and Bill Monroe were professional dancers on the WLS Barn Dance. While I’m sure they played music in informal and other settings then, Bill’s various instrumental experiments happened later on, in the 1940s and 1950s, long after his and Charlie’s acclaimed partnership.

He and his brother Charlie toured, played together, fought, and finally separated.

The chronology is off: First they grew up playing together, and then they toured. As for fighting—can we find many brothers who didn’t or don’t?

Monroe knew he had found “it,” and bluegrass music was born.

The sentence is simplistic, reducing a long historical process into a tiny piece of instant pop-journalism. It puts an idea into the head of somebody who had his own ideas. Undoubtedly Bill knew the 1946 quintet worked very well—he heavily featured everybody in it—and it was the “it” of its time. But during Bill’s career there were many “it” moments. The band with Jimmy Martin was an “it” band. The band with Edd Mayfield was an “it” band." The Keith-McCoury band was an “it” band. Bill had many of them.

...the brief and exciting folk music craze and the longer and broader roots and branches of rock and roll. As these two strands grew in popularity, Monroe’s career plunged, only to be revived when Elvis Presley recorded his “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in a new way....

Bill’s career was not revived by Elvis’s reworking of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” The recording brought him composer’s royalties, but what revived Bill’s career was Ralph Rinzler’s work on his behalf during the ’60s Folk Revival. 

More important than any of these details, I take issue with the idea that Bill was “restlessly seeking something he couldn't quite find.” I think he was happy with the early editions of the Blue Grass Boys and satisfied with the sounds they put together in the early ’40s. I’d never dispute the obvious fact that Earl’s banjo in combination with Lester’s guitar, Chubby’s fiddle, Howard’s bass, and their vocals in “the 1946 band” transformed and supercharged Bill's music and that in the retrospective light of bluegrass history it was his most influential band. But I don’t think Bill was necessarily “seeking something” when this occurred. It’s an assumption that allows us to tie things up in a neat package, but real life isn’t usually like that. Things proceed, and events unfold, often with less intentionality than we suppose. I more subscribe to the “happy accident” theory of bluegrass. If there was anything intentional, it could’ve been Jim Shumate’s mind’s ear sensing what Earl’s driving banjo would do for the existing sound.

 

 

 

 

I think you're being slightly unfair here. This is a short article for the crowd sourced online section of a print publication. I'm sure Ted would have expounded on all points had he been writing a full length book.

The excellent Bill Monroe biography details Bill's fights with Charlie over their sound and direction, so it's fair to say they fought. Also Bill's personality was destructive. He held a grudge like no other and drove many people away. No one is perfect, but again it's fair to say that Bill could be caustic and destructive to his own goals.

    I feel as though Sandy Rothman got a bit carried away in terms of his pomposity in attributing the "gospel" to No Depression. I never met Monroe, but from all accounts he was a difficult taskmaster, and not especially generous to his hired hands.  It's a bit reminiscent of Rick Hall in Muscle Shoals.   Put a great band together, don't pay them very well and watch them drift off variously to Memphis and Nashville.  It's difficult to say what Monroe's bands would have been like if he had forged decent enough relationships with his side musicians that they didn't feel compelled to leave.  So maybe that's the element in the article that partially explains the self-destructive genius notion.   

   I also disagree about Ralph Rinzler's saving Monroe's career.  It's true that he helped introduce Monroe and his music to the northern urban folk revivalists, but compare his management to Louise Scrugg's handling of Earl and Lester's band.  Ralph was a dedicated traditionalist, but hardly a brilliant business manager.  Of course we can also attribute part of this to Monroe's not wanting to take a whole lot of direction.  

  Finally we should definitely cite Monroe's role as a sort of band camp manager, which is eloquently described in Jim Rooney's book Bossmen, where he describes Monroe and Waters' bands as a kind of music school for younger musicians.  

Dick Weissman

 

j

I didn’t attribute anything to No Depression and there is no “pomposity” at work here, nor am I resorting to invective in responding to Dick Weissman. I merely referred to its own subtitle, an authority, in the sense that this author (Lehman) is no authority in terms of Bill Monroe or his music. People who didn’t know Bill, including an author who wrote a “tell-all” for which he interviewed Monroe exactly once, are attempting to shape a mythical figure based on this extremely flawed source, evidently including Dick Weissman. For example:

I never met Monroe, but from all accounts he was a difficult taskmaster, and not especially generous to his hired hands.  

By “all” accounts? Not at all true—but perhaps it refers to what he read in the hearsay book. When you actually talk to many of the people who played for Bill, you get a very different picture and a much more rounded understanding of the individual.

It’s difficult to say what Monroe’s bands would have been like if he had forged decent enough relationships with his side musicians that they didn’t feel compelled to leave.

He forged many “decent enough” relationships and had many lifelong friends among musicians, including some who’d left the band at different times. Again, this is coming from somebody who didn’t know the individual and seems to believe an extremely flawed print source.

I also disagree about Ralph Rinzler’s saving Monroe’s career.  It’s true that he helped introduce Monroe and his music to the northern urban folk revivalists, but compare his management to Louise Scrugg’s handling of Earl and Lester’s band.  Ralph was a dedicated traditionalist, but hardly a brilliant business manager.

I don’t think Ralph was a brilliant business manager. But he did nearly single-handedly (with help from Mike Seeger, Alice Gerrard, and others) introduce Bill, personally and his music, to the urban audience. I don’t and wouldn’t unfairly compare him to Louise Scruggs or any savvy music industry career manager.

Enjoyed this very much. Here are some of the thoughts I had while reading it.

I feel that bluegrass, much like ("classical music" and jazz) has gone through several formative changes - Early (South Carolina Broadcasters, Benny & Vallie), Classic (Monroe/Flatt/Scruggs, Martin, ...), New Grass (Seldom Scene, NGR, ...) and ??? (I don't have a good name for this - music with bluegrass instruments). Of course, there are many groups with their feet in one or more of these. One of the differences between bluegrass and classic (and even jazz) is the rapidity of those changes: the classical phases took 600 years or so to the same spot, bluegrass barely 50. We have technology to thank for that.

Music is greatly shaped by the culture in which the musicians grew up. So, it is not a big surprise that the music would evolve, and the current music would be different than that of the bluegrass founders. We are fortunate that the various forms of bluegrass are all alive and well at the same time (classical music almost forgot Baroque).

For myself, I think a classical metaphor works. I am living in the age of Mozart/Hadyn and longing for Bach and Teleman (substitute Steeldrivers and Red Allen).

WIBA? Both Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs (they should know) stated that "Bluegrass is when you have a Guitar, Mandolin, Banjo, Bass and Fiddle. It doesn't matter what song it is". Bluegrass in it's infancy drew from many genres including, Folk, Country, Blues, Jazz, Celtic and Popular tunes of the day as well as writing new tunes that have become standards. Consider Monroe performing Jimmie Rodgers' Blue Yodel # 8 (Mule Skinner Blues) or Scruggs doing the jazz classic Farewell... Blues and tin pan alley tune Dear Old Dixie. Both of them penned Bluegrass Breakdown inspiring Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Add in a British parlour tune like Home Sweet Home, some Carter Family classics and Traditional fiddle tunes and this is how the rich and varied bluegrass repertoire developed.

As much as I love them, please do not limit bluegrass to songs about blue eyed gals in cabins. The old joke goes, "If you heard one bluegrass song, you have heard both of them". Is this really what we want bluegrass to become when traditionally it started out as much more?

So true and thanks. 

You are hitting your stride, Ted, and this is your best article yet. My own point of view is that bluegrass was blooming in the 70s, and now it has gone into a period of regression. That may not be a popular opinion, but, hey that era when geniuses from different generations collided created some memorable music.

Thanks. This piece has had greater readership than anything else I've ever written. I'm not sure I agree that bluegrass is in a dip, especially with the new release of the Gibson Brothers, In the Ground. The immediate explosion in productivity spawned lots of growth in a relatively narrow range. Now the influence is being widely felt in what's more broadly called Americana. Simply looking at liner notes and web pages would indicate that a huge number of contemporary musicians have been "bluegrass influenced." They carry bluegrass within their conscious and unconscious creativity. Meanwhile, as in every other genre, the field is littered with mediocrity. But, a look at Mozart would suggest that his mediocre imitators far outnumber his quality followers, and no-one ever surpassed him at what he did. Nevertheless, there were a whole bunch of great composers whose work reflect the innovations he had spawned.