Bluegrass, like any musical genre, has its roots deep in the culture that nurtured and grew it. As it grows, it seeks to maintain those roots while remaining alert to its commercial opportunities. But like the rest of the world, emerging technologies, changing demographic factors, and popular tastes have their effects on what is seen and heard as bluegrass music. One of the continuing unique characteristics of bluegrass is its relative fidelity to the instrumentation that originally brought it to popularity, and its insistence on honoring its founders and the moment 71 years ago at the Grand Ole Opry when Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys added Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs to mix and the room went wild.
The list of musicians who cut their teeth on traditional bluegrass and later found greater success in other genres is long and distinguished. This impressive list started, of course, with musicians like Jerry Garcia, Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, and Vince Gill, who either flirted with or found riches in other musical places, where they were seen as leaving bluegrass. From a younger generation, the list includes Alison Krauss, Sierra Hull, and Chris Thile. Their bluegrass roots are undeniable and important, showing the nascence of talent in a genre where the emphasis is placed upon instrumental excellence, strong harmony singing, and versatility achieved without the heart-pounding physical effects created on audiences by the volume of rock or contemporary country. A corollary of musical migration to other, often more lucrative, genres has become the rich load of songs that have found their way back from rock and country to music to become bluegrass standards. Lets look at a few.
While Jerry Garcia had his greatest success with the Grateful Dead, his early recognition in San Francisco came through playing guitar and banjo with an emphasis on old-time, folk, and bluegrass music. While developing the associations and chops and broad musical background that became the basis for the Dead's long and still lucrative career, he played with bands like the Sleepy Hollow Hog Stompers. Here they are in 1962 playing the old-time tune, "Run Mountain."
Garcia wrote "Friend of the Devil" with John Dawson and Robert Hunter, recording it in 1970. It became a standard in Dead concerts, while being covered frequently through the years by the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and the Dave Matthews Band. It's often heard on the bluegrass stage, having become so popular that it's been printed in Bluegrass Fakebook: 150 All-Time Favorites – Includes 50 Gospel Tunes. Here it also shows up at an informal jam in Louisville, Kentucky.
Alison Krauss is currently tied for second with band leader/producer Quincy Jones as the winner of the most Grammy Awards of all time, behind only classical conductor George Solti. Her appearance on the soundtrack for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? has been credited with sparking a revival in the popularity of bluegrass and having rescued Ralph Stanley's career. Her remarkable success began with the fiddle and progressed as she attended festivals and learned the bluegrass repertoire. She connected with the members of her band Union Station at festivals and went on to achieve crossover status. However, one hears at bluegrass festivals today, “Alison's no longer bluegrass.” Perhaps the reason for this lies in the venues she plays as much as in changes in her music. Her schedule this summer has her in large amphitheaters and auditoriums in Charlotte, New York, and Philadelphia, plus many more. She's not playing festivals, though that may be largely because most of them couldn't hold the crowd she would draw or pay her price. Perhaps her rejection by the bluegrass audience has more to do with her success than with the music she plays. Her tour and recording with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and jamband Phish may contribute, too. In other words, Krauss has followed her creative instincts into new and sometimes risky musical ventures to stretch herself and widen her audience.
Vince Gill, in many ways, has followed a different arc in his relationship to bluegrass. During his long and distinguished career, he has been most noted as a country artist. He has been recognized by the Grammy Awards (20), Country Music Association (12), Academy of Country Music (4), and as a member of three halls of fame. He has sold over 26 million records and has accumulated over 50 top 40 hits. In other words, he's a big star. And he loves to play bluegrass. Several years ago, Gill was scheduled to play the Fan Fest at IBMA when it was still in Nashville. A police cordon showed up to protect him ... from a bluegrass audience. His friendliness backstage and warm interaction with the very large audience was electric, and the police were completely unnecessary. Here's a case of a still-popular country star who just plain loves bluegrass, and plays it.
What are the lessons to be learned from these examples? First, bluegrass has been enormously influential as a formative experience in the development of American music and musicians, whether in country, rock, or the jambands that are now proliferating. We see it in some punk and even hip-hop music, too, with more such interactions to come. Second, bluegrass is flexible enough to inculcate other musical influences into itself, so much that songs that didn't start out as bluegrass can become standards. The music of Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, George Jones, John Prine, and others contributes to and changes bluegrass as it continues to develop. Maybe, too, bluegrass fans should get over “that's not bluegrass” in order to embrace the influence that bluegrass and bluegrass-related music has had on other genres in other places through the years. You never know where it's headed.