I love surprises. On New Year’s Eve this year, one of our sons got married to a wonderful young woman who has enriched his life. The reception ended at midnight on one of the coldest nights of the year with the bride and groom outside watching the surprise her folks had arranged: a fireworks show that was a magnificent punctuation to the entire event as they looked toward their future together.
The first time I heard Flatt & Scruggs was back in the early '60s, I should think, when a friend of my mother’s gave her a reel-to-reel tape of the famous 1962 Carnegie Hall concert. I had bought a cheap, used, open-back five-string banjo and Pete Seeger’s book How to Play the Five String Banjo in what I believe was probably a first print edition of the booklet and record released by Smithsonian Folkways. I remember not really liking the concert, finding the banjo a mystery, and, much to my regret 60 years later, dropping both.
But ... a few years ago at IBMA, I walked into a ballroom where the Earls of Leicester were playing a showcase. The room was filled, and, of course, the musicians were superb. For me, the moment was transformative. I was bowled over by the physical and musical impact of this band playing Flatt & Scruggs historic bluegrass. Suddenly I realized how revolutionary the sound must have been in 1946 with Bill Monroe, and later, after Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt formed their own band, in the context of the whole sound and feel of country music. Here’s a look at the two bands, and a suggestion that the Earls of Leicester are not simply a cover band.
Flatt & Scruggs - " 'Til the End of the World Rolls Round"
Earls of Leicester - " ‘Til the End of the World Rolls Round"
Franz Joseph Haydn’s "Surprise Symphony" (No. 94) premiered in London in 1792, while Haydn was on the first of his several visits there. Listen for the “surprise” — a loud chord punctuating the melodic instrumental opening of the movement. Musicians have jokes, too. And, for good listeners, the puns, references, and quotations found in songs provide lots of fun.
As our 2018 bluegrass season begins, my wife and I find ourselves in southern Florida for the YeeHaw Music Fest, the descendant of the YeeHaw Junction Bluegrass Festival once held in an open field about 30 miles north of here. While we’re cutting back, we still go to lots of events and travel a great deal to hear the music and be a part of the community. We treasure hearing old favorites, bands that, for us, go back to our introduction to bluegrass, which in bluegrass terms is relatively recent. But for me, it’s often the surprise band, the new way of expressing bluegrass, that counts. The music came from the hills of Appalachia and the factories of the South, expressing the sense of dispossession the families who moved to the wealthier industrial areas in the South, the Midwest, New England, and California were feeling as they contemplated the differences between the Old Home Place and Here, wherever that was.
The Kruger Brothers moved to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, from Switzerland about 30 years ago because they had fallen in love with the music of Doc Watson. They brought their European background and experience with them, integrating it into their love for mountain and bluegrass music. Jens Kruger quickly became recognized as one of the world’s great bluegrass banjo players, going on to receive the Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Bluegrass & Banjo, which carries an award of $50,000, in 2013. The Kruger Brothers travel the world playing with classical chamber quartets and orchestras while never forsaking their adopted roots in Appalachia. They also still play bluegrass festivals and community events in Wilkes County, where they host a festival called Carolina in the Fall.
Here are the Kruger Brothers with the Kontras Quartet at IBMA 2015:
The Kruger Brothers – Carolina in the Fall
The Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival is one of the oldest and most distinguished bluegrass festivals in the country. Founded by Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, it will celebrate its 47th anniversary on Labor Day weekend in South Jersey, at the Salem County Fairgrounds. Owned and operated by the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music, its charter calls for it to celebrate old-time and traditional bluegrass music in its lineup and spirit. By highlighting old-time and traditional bands from differing backgrounds (mountain music, dixieland, western swing) with the best in contemporary bands (Mile Twelve, The Gibson Brothers, Flatt Lonesome) the festival emphasizes the connections between old and new while often creating pleasant surprises. Here are a couple of examples:
Tuba Skinny – Untrue Blues
Mile Twelve – Rocket Man
YeeHaw Music Festival, the one we’re here in Okeechobee for this week, also seeks to provide surprises while simultaneously reaching out to new audiences who aren’t, necessarily, the traditional bluegrass fans. By including older country music stars from a generation ago, promoters Ernie Evans and Debi Evans, winners of the 2017 IBMA Momentum Award for Industry Involvement, seek to provide a change of pace while broadening their base to a wider, more diverse audience. Featured at this year's festival is T. Graham Brown, a country star at his height in the 1980's, and one of America’s most well-recognized folksinger/storytellers, Michael Reno Harrell.
T. Graham Brown – Hell & High Water (#1 Hit in 1986)
Michael Reno Harrell – Living in the Country
Presenting surprises and changes of pace along with old favorites and bands the audience is familiar with provides a sense of nostalgia for audiences. Promoters can grow their attendance while fans get a variety of music and an opportunity to broaden their tastes. It’s a win-win situation for the music, the promoters, and, most of all, the fans.