Here’s my ‘Foreword’ to a cool new book about bluegrass

Big thanks to Nick Hutchinson for asking me to write the foreword for his new book ‘High on a Mountain: An Oral History of Jamgrass in Colorado.’ The book consists of a bunch of excellent interviews that tell the story of the evolution and growth of bluegrass, and the advent of its more modern relative: ‘jamgrass.’ Interview subjects include Sam Bush, Drew Emmitt, Béla Fleck, Tim O’brien, Peter Rowan, Paul Hoffman, Nick Forster, yours truly and many more!

You can get the book here.

FOREWORD:

Over the last twenty-five years, bluegrass has been swept into a vibrant vortex of evolution and growth, opening the door to an array of new influences, and reaching new ears in every corner of the globe. Once a niche genre of lightning-fast picking, suits, high-harmonies, tight arrangements and Southern soul, its most popular modern purveyors have traded the ties for tie-dyes and charted a new course toward the masses. A rich new lineage of artists is pushing the envelope, bending the formal structure of the music while still utilizing many of the striking attributes that put bluegrass on the map in the mid-1940s. It’s the same music, just for different times. It’s bluegrass that jams, setting in motion a magical interplay of energetic audiences, amplified instruments, and futuristic production. This popular new strain of the music is known to most as “jamgrass.”
To understand today’s bluegrass, first we have to go back in time. Since its inception, bluegrass has been home to a long list of hyper-talented, colorful characters, who were supreme innovators at their core. Bill Monroe, widely regarded as the father of bluegrass, formulated his own musical vision, bringing together blues, country music, Scottish fiddle traditions, and a bold new style of mandolin playing that crackled with energy. Earl Scruggs did something similar with the banjo, innovating a totally new way of playing the instrument with three finger picks that remains the gold standard of banjo playing to this day. These two were larger-than-life, and when they joined forces in 1945 it was the “big bang” of bluegrass. A rich new style was born, capturing people’s attention and spawning new acts of the same sound in every direction. From those storied first notes on the Grand Ole Opry in 1945, this music has always had serious mojo.

Old school bluegrass (aka “traditional bluegrass”) is a stark lesson in raw musical power, combining virtuosic musicianship with a volcanic eruption of soul and emotion. Those early influential artists played and sang with an unmistakable and striking level of commitment. They lived the music, writing countless beautiful songs that told stories of that era, all brought to life with organic, acoustic tones that speak an emotional language all their own. Bluegrass moves people—always has, always will. But while the music more than stood on its own, it never got that popular. Despite passing through the hands of endless luminary musicians along the way, earlier iterations of bluegrass were never a good fit for the mainstream. It was hard to amplify, lacked a modern sound, and didn’t win the favor of tastemakers who towered over the music industry at that time. The fanbase was small but incredibly loyal. There were glimpses of success along the way, during the folk boom of the 1960s and then again in the 1970s when musical titan Jerry Garcia brought together Old & In the Way and exposed legions of new fans to the crackling sound of the banjo and the potent draw of bluegrass. But still, no real widespread popularity. It’s hard to say if Garcia’s influence on the evolution of bluegrass is more centered around his brief time actually playing in that style in the early 1970s, or his larger influence on the music world as a whole through his time with the Grateful Dead. The Dead changed everything—the music, the business, the show, the fan culture, and more. They opened up a world of possibilities, and by the 1990s that influence caught up with bluegrass music, planting the seeds for all the vibrant growth and evolution we see today.

Leftover Salmon, The String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band were among the first to answer the call, synthesizing these different influences into an exciting new iteration of bluegrass. They were visionary bands that brought together modern production and original songs, extended group improvisation, and the haunting sounds and raw energy of acoustic bluegrass. They stuck together, built huge fanbases, and in turn started their own tidal wave of influence that seems to be cresting right now with no end in sight. They are the forefathers of jamgrass. What led up to that moment in time and that wave of evolution is another book entirely.

There are countless boundary-pushing artists and bands that brought new elements to the bluegrass sound. Bands like New Grass Revival, Hot Rize, the David Grisman Quintet, and Tony Rice are just a few that raised the bar significantly and showed us that there was uncharted territory up ahead. Salmon, Cheese and Yonder set a course, set sail and never looked back. They took us somewhere new, where the music had a profound sense of freedom, for artists and fans alike.
Alongside all this musical evolution came new visions of where live bluegrass could exist, as well as how it could look and sound. A new track was cut for acoustic bands to follow, from rock clubs to Red Rocks and everywhere in between. What followed is a musical movement that could just be getting started. There are more quality bands, events, festivals and fans than ever before. Every aspect of the music continues to grow, from songwriting and playing, to band dynamics, the integration of new instruments and influences, and of course the extended, participatory group improvisations — aka, the “jams.”
So, what is a jam anyway? We get that question a lot — how does it work and how do we know where we’re going? Most of the time we don’t, and that’s the fun part! It’s a journey, and to me it’s much bigger than the band or any conventions of musical form. It’s not just some framework for extended improvisation. It’s a state-of-mind that focuses on the present moment, and the endless possibilities of that moment when you open it up to everyone involved — players, listeners, creators and fans, all riding the momentum of the music together to somewhere exciting and new where a rejuvenating light shines for all to see. It’s the highpoint of the show, felt as much as heard, and these days it’s a huge part of what bluegrass music has become.
— Chris Pandolfi

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