Compilation traces development of bluegrass
Fiddler Darol Anger says bluegrass-derived acoustic music is in fine shape these days. He points to such young stars as 17-year-old fiddler Brittany Haas and 25-year-old cellist Rushad Eggleston – both members of Anger’s Fiddle Ensemble, appearing tonight at the Wheeler Opera House – as evidence.Following are reviews of recent bluegrass and bluegrass-related CDs.”Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ Bluegrass: 80 Years of American Music”
compilation produced by Gregg Geller (Columbia/Legacy)”Can’t You Hear Me Callin,'” a four-CD set that traces the history of bluegrass from the 1920s to the 21st century, begins with a 1929 version of the traditional British fiddle tune “Soldier’s Joy,” as sung by Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers. The set also ends with “Soldier’s Joy,” this time a 1997 instrumental recording by Mark O’Connor.No doubt such synchronicity was planned. Still, that unbroken circle points to an unavoidable truth: bluegrass and its related acoustic forms have been held intact to a larger degree than other forms. That O’Connor’s version of “Soldier’s Joy” would be thoroughly recognizable to Gid Tanner speaks to the line of continuity that runs through 1930s Appalachian string music; Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys; the virtuosic trio of Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck and Mike Marshall; and the Dixie Chicks. Bluegrass has been taken places that early pioneers like Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and brothers Ralph and Carter Stanley could not have conceived. But the structure, melodies and singing style – the essence of bluegrass – have survived and remain the core of the music for such leading current acts as the Del McCoury Band, Alison Krauss + Union Station and Ricky Skaggs.”Can’t You Hear Me Callin'” sticks tight to that story line. There have, of course, been bluegrass offshoots like New Grass Revival, the David Grisman Quintet and others. This set ignores such trailblazing efforts, and it is a wise move. The strong thread makes “Can’t You Hear Me Callin'” one of the most cohesive, and therefore worthwhile, collections of its kind. In mapping a course from Appalachian string bands, through the bluesy influence of Bill Monroe, into the technical wizardry of Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, and onto the innovations of Alison Krauss and Mark O’Connor, it is possible for a listener to gain a discernible sense of the direction of straightforward bluegrass. Most artists get more than just one tune, allowing their sounds to sink in; such crucial contributors as Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and Jim & Jesse McReynolds are afforded plenty of time to leave their marks. The set should lay to rest any lingering notion of bluegrass as simple music for simple people: The gospel songs of Carl Story & the Rambling Mountaineers, lonesome love songs like “My Empty Arms” and “So Long, So Wrong,” and world-weary tunes like “Rank Stranger” and “The Fields Have Turned Brown” all cut deep. Bluegrass truisms like the death ballad and lonesome heart turn up over and over, but the overall quality of the material rises above cliché.
Peter Rowan & Tony Rice”You Were There For Me”produced by Rowan (Rounder)Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, both influential figures in modern acoustic music, have crossed paths for decades, and became a touring duo several years ago. On their first album, Rowan provides the songs and lead vocals, Rice contributes precise lead guitar phrasings, and the two lock together in a perfect harmony.
Subtlety is the primary ingredient: Rice, perhaps the finest guitarist in the acoustic realm, shows no need to knock anyone’s socks off, so he focuses on using eloquent, sparkling licks to support Rowan’s spare, evocative songs of loves and friendships, places and travels. The best of the album – the tale of freedom “Wild Mustang”; the gorgeous “Come Back to Old Santa Fe” – have a Western flair to the words, sound and theme. Rowan sings so soft, you can practically feel him leaning in toward the listener, making sure every word is clearly understood.Brittany Haas, “Brittany Haas”produced by Darol Anger (Oak Records)Darol Anger calls his Fiddle Ensemble mate Brittany Haas the best Appalachian fiddler there is. Haas, just 17, has time enough to show she merits such praise. For now, on her debut recording, the California lass shows she has a solid grip of the fundamentals on which to build. Haas, playing with other Ensemble members (Anger, guitarist Scott Nygaard) and her mentor Bruce Molsky, takes on the aged, Irish-derived fiddle tunes – “Streak o’ Lean, Streak o’ Fat,” “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” “Sail Away Ladies” – on which American acoustic music was built. Now that she’s done an old-school album, it will be interesting to see in which direction Haas next steps.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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