One valuable source for my columns is the comments and discussions people write on the various hangouts and forums devoted to bluegrass and acoustic music that I subscribe to, including The Unofficial Martin Guitar Forum and the Mandolin Café. Those forums, and most I’m involved in, have plenty of room for different views and ideas, particularly those focused on a particular instrument rather than musical genre. One forum commenter named Bill wrote about my column last week:
New bluegrass sounds so polished and refined. I would rather listen to Roy Acuff. But music is personal expression and everybody's free to do what they want. If there's a market for it, it will move ahead and that's what seems to be the case.
As often happens, Bill’s response led me to think about musical authenticity and its constantly altering landscape. I wrote to Bill, “I think your description is pretty accurate. Bands like The Lonely Heartstring Band, Mile Twelve, and Molly Tuttle among relatively new bands, and including The Gibson Brothers, IIIrd Tyme Out, and others, lack the raw energy characteristic of Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and other pioneers. I think some of it comes from the artists themselves, their mountain or rural backgrounds, the country music of the period, and the available technology.”
To illustrate how music can morph, I’ve chosen five versions of "Mule Skinner Blues," written by Jimmie Rodgers and first recorded in 1930. Watch how versions of the song change through time.
Many would argue that Monroe's version, performed here live at the Grand Old Opry, represents the best version ever achieved. Many artists have honored Monroe by presenting the song with their own interpretation. Here’s Merle Haggard with a decidedly country take, which is also more polished and smooth than Monroe’s.
"Mule Skinner Blues" is also a signature song of Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, where it stands as an important reference point for Vincent's roots and her continued adherence to bluegrass amid her forays into country and even pop singing.
The Fendermen released a version of "Mule Skinner Blues" in 1960 that went to #32 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It was the solitary hit from this two-piece band, both players of Fender guitars, one a Telecaster and the other a Stratocaster, before they disappeared into the musical mists, probably for very good reasons.
So it can be seen that a particular song can have many manifestations for many reasons, ranging from paying homage to interpreting in a different genre to ridiculing, all of which can serve a legitimate purpose.
Cadillac Sky emerged from the Texas musical scene as a bluegrass band playing mostly traditional repertoire in 2002. They were met with excitement and enthusiasm, reflecting the vibe they communicated. I first saw them at Strawberry Park in Connecticut in 2003 or 2004, where they played to a full house for their nighttime set. A year later, I saw them at a small festival in Craig’s RV Resort in Arcadia, Florida, where Cadillac Sky was eagerly anticipated. They hit the stage with their newest and most progressive material, delivered at an ear-splitting level. The crowd practically tripped over one another in their hurry to leave the stage area. During their second set, very sparsely attended, the band played some Bill Monroe and other traditional material, showing they knew how, but it was too late. By 2010, after appearances at such prestige venues as MerleFest, they quietly disbanded. There are rumors afoot that Cadillac Sky is contemplating a reunion tour. Maybe its time for them to try again.
Sam Bush, featured above with his Sam Bush Band playing one of their jam songs, emerged into rock and roll from his early training in bluegrass, both on fiddle and mandolin. He learned bluegrass from relatives and friends and attended the first multiday bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Virginia, in 1965. He was influenced early on by progressive bluegrass bands of the late 1960s, and formed The New Grass Revival in 1971, changing the face of bluegrass forever. Along with Béla Fleck, John Cowan, and Pat Flynn, the band toured until 1989, before its members went their separate ways. At age 65, Sam continues with his own band, forging new approaches to modern bluegrass, but never failing to pay homage to Bill Monroe, both in discussing him and singing one of his most beloved songs, “Uncle Pen.”
Many of today's young musicians are getting a major portion of their professional training in college, either departments or schools of music. This would suggest they know principles of music that earlier players only intuited. The newer generations are capable of integrating more sophisticated musical thinking into their interpretations of the music they hear and how they choose to perform it. Even bands aligned with the more raw sound of, say, the Stanley Brothers – like the Po' Ramblin' Boys, for instance – bring greater sophistication and insight to making their music compared to what came before. Music is always additive and always changing. Here’s an example from the Po' Ramblin' Boys, one of today’s rising young traditional bands, with a song and delivery that takes us right back to the Father of Bluegrass Music.