Bands form, break up, coalesce, and disappear all the time. Talented side musicians decide they have what it takes to front a band and go off to form their own group to express their own vision of what bluegrass is. They seek a sound, a look, a musical combination to excite and energize an audience they hope they can predict accurately. From this roiling ferment of change and tradition a few bands carry on, and a few — a very few —emerge to energize audiences, to catch their ear and their loyalty, to continue a string of great bands reaching back to an earlier era where times were less complicated, and the music spoke to the heart. What does it take to succeed in this ever-changing, yet always-the-same world of music as all around us technology, taste, fashion, and possibility change, morph, and grow in new directions?
Bluegrass music has almost always found ways to express music from other genres, times, and places within the context of the four-, five-, or six-piece acoustic stringband. It takes musical imagination to see these possibilities, and to give them fresh expression. Perhaps bluegrass has found a way to reverse the “old wine in new wineskins” idea, making new music within older formats, hearkening both backward and forward at the same time. Bluegrass has always found ways to interpret songs of the previous generation(s) in interesting new ways. The genre's distinctive three-part harmonies combined with alternative tempos and virtuoso instrumental breaks force listeners to pay attention, again, to songs they knew in other formats. Meanwhile, other bands imagine forms they revere as settings for musical and poetic expressions of contemporary problems and life. These movements in time and means of transmission have rewarded artists who can imagine the music of their youthful enthusiasm translated into new metaphors and expressions to share with new adherents.
After musical imagination, the second ingredient in examining what it takes to continue to have impact over a period of time is courage. It takes courage to implement the musical ideas you imagine, to break away from the comfortable formats to find ways to express ideas echoing the ages while looking into the future. It takes courage to keep your vision forward even within a fairly elastic format. Perhaps the artists themselves don’t understand their choices as courageous, as taking the difficult and uncertain path, but all you need to do is take a look at the number of artists who choose, once they’ve made an impact and solidified their reputations, to sing their greatest hits for years and years. “And then I had a number one hit with this one ... maybe you’ll remember it.” Artists can tour for years while becoming their own best imitators. Choosing to change your sound, build on your past, and forge new ground takes courage that not all artists have.
Both Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent had secure jobs with top-notch bands when they decided to form Dailey & Vincent with a new concept that includes heavy doses of gospel music, fast-paced bluegrass, and lots of patriotism and expressions of deep faith to appeal to a much broader audience than is typically seen at bluegrass festivals and concerts. Their approach has found new crowds while, at their best, re-energizing elements of the aging bluegrass community and becoming members of country music’s iconic Grand Ole Opry. They’ve added a drum kit, a major sin in bluegrass, to their show, and a deep, resonant bass singer whose voice is essential in Southern gospel and other quarted singing. But they've remained true to other bluegrass conventions like the impish clown and killer soloists. The formula works, and the duo continually looks for ways to freshen and update their show.
Greg Cahill has fronted the band Special Consensus for what’s now approaching half a century. His band has not been a major headliner or award winner, although in 2011 he was recognized by the International Bluegrass Music Association with the coveted Distinguished Achievement Award, and his recorded tribute to John Denver received an IBMA award. Recently his album Scratch Gravel Road was nominated for a Grammy. He also served as chairman of IBMA’s Board of Directors for two terms. Cahill’s success has been based on solid musical excellence and interesting, varied music that's he's been able to fit into the format of bluegrass festivals in all parts of the country, ranging from the very traditional to the more progressive. Here’s his jazzy bluegrass version of “Blue Skies.”
And the bluegrass/country classic “Sea of Hertbreak,” written by Bob Gibson in the early 1960s.
Many bluegrass fans feel we have watched Sierra Hull grow up as a person and as a performer, like we did with Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Alison Krauss, Chris Thile, and many others before her. Some young performers drop by the wayside, while others continue to grow and develop. My wife and I first saw Hull when she was about 13 years old, appearing at MerleFest. As she reached college age, Berklee College of Music reached out to her, offering her its first Presidential Scholarship. She completed two years there, while continuing to tour nationally on the weekends and during the summers. Hull has shown enormous capacity for growth, as reflected by her most recent recording, Weighted Mind. Her mandolin playing and her singing have consistently shown the courage to risk making music that fans of her early work might not fully appreciate as she follows her artistic imagination. Here are two examples, one bluegrass classic from early in her career with her band, and the other in her duo with bassist Ethan Jodziewicz. Following where her courage and imagination take her will be a challenge and a pleasure for those who choose to accept her as she is, not as how they would like to remember her. First comes Louisa Branscomb's classic "Steel Rails" and then Hull's own composition, "Best Buy."