Bluegrass music spent about four decades doing its best to try to establish a unique genre fully separated from country music. The origin came, as this column has often pointed out, on Dec. 8, 1945, with the addition of Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt to Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys at the Grand Ole Opry. For those who were there, or who heard it on the 50,000-watt voice of Nashville's WSM beamed across the entire middle of the United States, it became the transcendent birth moment of a new musical voice.
But nothing is simple, and this story certainly isn't either. World War II was just over, and country boys were coming home from Europe and Asia, many of them still carrying the guitars they had taken along with them to war. They were looking for a way to leave the hard work and drudgery of the farm, the mill, and the mine just as America was ripe to be entertained after years of sending men to die and making sacrifices on the homefront. The list of emerging stars who created new vibes in music aimed largely at rural white people who had spread across the nation to industrial regions on the West Coast, New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, and the heavy industry areas ringing the Great Lakes is long and distinguished. Country music allowed and encouraged people to maintain a sense of where they had come from and who they were.
All along, this music, now called "classic" country (really a radio genre developed to capture audiences in an increasingly segmented musical world), represented an era, and developing sounds by the likes of Porter Wagoner, Webb Pierce, Jim Reeves, George Jones, The Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, and dozens more framed both the traditions people wished to remain associated with and the encroaching sounds of folk music and rock and roll. Change was always inevitable, as was the desire to cling to the familiar well-loved sound called “country.”
These changes in musical taste spread, fueled both by competition and the commercial need to keep people interested, coming to live performance, and, most important, buying records. Bluegrass separated itself from country music, distinguished by the unique sound of the banjo while its own internal percussion was provided by acoustic instruments. Country music, with its drums and pedal steel sounds, was deemed more “commercial” by traditionalists. Many country fans, discovering that it was difficult to find their preferred country sounds, began to migrate to bluegrass, where they found a home both as listeners and as participants due to the greater availability of the artists for direct communication with fans through the structure of festivals.
As the 21st century dawned, streaming audio, the computer, satellite radio, world music and more could be heard. Pop and hip-hop dominated, and fans mourned that country music was dead, rap was crap, there was no country in country. In other words, tastes had changed, tribalism increased, and people sought out a musical home where they would be comfortable.
I've estimated that approximately 40% - 60% of those who attend bluegrass festivals are refugees from country music who've found bluegrass as the best approximation of the music they believe has left them. This belief is perhaps best represented by Larry Cordle's epic award winning song Murder on Music Row. This attitude emerges with the audience's response to the question, often heard coming from the stage, “Who'd like to hear a country song?” Then the familiar songs of Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzel, Dolly Parton, or a cluster of other well-remembered and loved artists emerge. Into this world of people who love bluegrass and yearn for the country music they remember has come The Malpass Brothers.
Stepping onto the stage at a bluegrass festival, brothers Christopher and Taylor (Tater Bug) Malpass look like throwbacks to the 1950s, with their high waves of hair, long sideburns, and spangled jackets. They quickly set up the traditional country instrumentation of pedal steel, electric bass, plugged-in guitars, and a mandolin, and — the bluegrass no-no — a drum kit. When they were new to audiences, only a very few years ago, people would look at each other, as if to ask, “What's happening to bluegrass?” Some, particularly those with deep objections to electric instruments appearing on a bluegrass stage, would close their chairs, pick them up, and head back to the campsite or the truck. Until recently the only electric instrument found in most bluegrass bands was the bass, while drums are still instruments banned from most bluegrass festivals, though some more progressive or country-influenced bands have reintroduced them. Today, the Malpass Brothers receive warm welcomes and standing ovations. Here they are with a medley of songs by Faron Young and Marty Robbins, followed by couple Johnny Cash songs.
It would be easy, and too glib, to categorize this band as a country cover band. Perhaps “tribute” band would be a better call, but it raises the question, “Tribute to what?” Rather than imitate country artists of the mid- to late-20th century, they recreate the sound and vibe of a musical era that a large proportion of the bluegrass audience remembers with nostalgia and warmth. They're perhaps most associated with Merle Haggard, who they opened for on tour for seven years and at whose funeral they were invited to sing. They write new songs that sound like old country and tributes to musicians. Here's Christopher's tribute to his time with Merle.
The Malpass Brothers have an engaging manner and a clean, never-edgy sound that quickly endears them to audiences. They cover songs from nearly the past hundred years. They've become, probably, the best change-of-pace band currently appearing at bluegrass festivals ranging from small, traditional country events to mega-festivals like MerleFest. In this last video, they journey back to Jimmie Rodgers, called the father of country music, first recorded in the 1927 Bristol Sessions. If you get a chance to see this band, do so. Just settle into their re-creation of an age and vibe that's difficult to find these days, and still much appreciated.