Bluegrass Corner

Some Great Bluegrass Concerts so Far This Year

• Special Consensus out of Chicago rocked the house in late January with one of the largest SDBS crowds ever attending its concert at the PB Baptist Church. This is one fine band delivering top notch vocals and instrumentation presenting traditional bluegrass music.

Long time band leader, ex-IBMA board chair, ex-Foundation for Bluegrass Music chair, and all around great guy Greg Cahill has led this band for decades. By the way, he is a top notch banjo player as well.

• Hawktail, hailing from Nashville, was a stunner in their first-ever San Diego performance. Held at the Del Mar Town Hall, the concert was presented by the Del Mar Foundation as part of its Bluegrass and Beyond Series, now in its 17th year. Paul Kowert, Grammy-winning bass player for the Punch Brothers; Brittany Haas, fiddle Phenom; and Guitarist Jordan Tice, with Dominic Leslie on mandolin presented some of the finest instrumental acoustic music one will ever hear. As described in the media, this band’s music is ”consequential.”

• Calvin Volrath and, a day later, Alasdair Frazer, two of the world’s top fiddlers back to back! Mr. Volrath appeared in a house concert in Del Mar as a fundraiser for the Julian Family Fiddle Camp, and Alasdair Frazer appeared with cellist Natalie Haas (yes, the older sister of Brittany) for San Diego Folk Heritage in Carlsbad. Both concerts were sublime!

• Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road. As we go to press, the excitement is building for a Febraury 23 concert by this great band in its first San Diego appearance for SDBS at the First Baptists Church of Pacific Beach. I’ll write more about how it goes next month.

Are bluegrass musicians better today than in the “good old days?” That’s a matter of opinion, so here’s mine. My criteria for judging bluegrass greatness are (1) skill on vocals and instrumentation (2) innovation—did the player leave or is he/she making a mark on the music? With these criteria in mind overall, I think musicians today are better overall on average than in the good old days on instrumentation. On vocals, I rate the old timers equal to the best of the modern era. Why? First, there are more instrumentalists now, way more, than in the ‘40s so there are more chances for greatness. Second, there are so many new and better ways to learn the music. In the 1940s a player could learn from neighbors and maybe a scratchy 78 or two. Now, players can learn from the greats worldwide over the internet, with endless teaching devices and opportunities.

As for vocals, sure singing lessons can help, but comparing the greats of yesteryear to the greats of today, we are mostly comparing raw, natural born, talent. Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, the Osbornes, and Mac Weisman all set standards for great bluegrass singing that stands with any of the best of today such as Russel Moore, John Cowan, Alison Krauss, and others. In terms of all-time great vocals, hey it’s hard to beat Patsy Cline and her voice from the ‘50s, even by Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis, or the many other great female and male vocalists of today. So I call this a tie.

As for innovation, in a way the old timers had it easier—everything was new, so everything was innovative. On the other hand, they had it harder—they were on their own without trailblazers to follow. For sure, there is unlikely to ever be a bluegrass musician as innovative and influential as Earl Scruggs. As Steve Martin said “Before Earl Scruggs, nobody played like him. After Earl Scruggs everybody tried to play like him.” Likewise, it is unlikely there will ever be another Bill Monroe, inventor of an entire genre and, by the way, he is the only musician in all three halls of fame—bluegrass, country, and rock ‘n’ roll. But there are plenty of modern innovators as well. Listen to Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, to Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, and so many others making a lasting mark on our music.

This is a fun thought exercise, with no right or wrong answers. Just note how great the music is and how lucky we are to have ready access to both the pioneers who went before and the innovators of today. Can you say Spotify or YouTube?

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