published Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Dalton Roberts: Questions roll in on bluegrass


by Dalton Roberts

These questions came as a result of last week’s column on bluegrass.

Q: What’s the difference between country music and bluegrass?

A: Bluegrass is a major form of country but differs significantly from contemporary (currently popular) country.

The country market’s financial analysts made a major shift in the ’80s when the music was beamed toward the teenage demographic. Male artists signed during that transition period were young, wore tight-fitting jeans and big cowboy hats. The girls had to be pretty and look good in music videos, which took on new importance in creating the stars.

In a short period, many of the former giant entertainers in the industry were without major recording contracts and still complain because their songs are seldom played on country radio.

Q: Why have you suddenly fallen back in love with bluegrass after leaving it in your 20s?

A: It wasn’t sudden. It was a slow change in both bluegrass and contemporary music. Bluegrass kept getting better, and contemporary kept getting worse

My personal transition started when I played the Lowell (Mass.) Folk Festival. After Johnny Bellar and I finished our gig, I heard bluegrasser James King play an old Stonewall Jackson song, “Big House on the Corner (Where Love Used To Live).

It was every bit as good as Stonewall’s original recording but with bluegrass instrumentation.

I thought, “The bluegrassers see the glory of country music and are preserving it in a new format.” I did not care that a fiddle and banjo took the lead breaks instead of a steel guitar. It was in every way just as soulful as the original version.

As I listened to Mike Castleberry’s bluegrass show on Fort Oglethorpe TV, I heard more of the old country classics played bluegrass style, and I actually loved them better because they always had perfect harmony. Tight harmonies have been a centerpiece of country songs from the beginning, starting with the Carter Family. When I had bands, we always had great harmonies.

Q: When did the bluegrass sound begin?

A: Old-time mountain music bands, the closest historical sound to what we now recognize as bluegrass, have always had the basic bluegrass instruments (banjo, mandolin, fiddle, Dobro, guitar), but the most distinctive part of the sound became the Earl Scruggs three-finger banjo roll. In 1945, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys hired Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and most purists say that’s when the bluegrass sound finally came together.

You will see and hear some interesting diversions from basic bluegrass music. For example, the Osborne Brothers did a tribute to Ernest Tubb and actually used a steel guitar on the CD. Jim & Jesse and The Virginia Boys actually did an album of Chuck Berry rock tunes they titled “Berry Pickin’ in the Country.”

Bluegrass purists today are rebelling against these changes in the historical bluegrass sound. One of the top songs on the bluegrass charts today is “A Far Cry From Lester & Earl,” by Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, calling on the bluegrass troops to unite behind the traditional bluegrass sound.

Q: I’m tired of the Nashville sounds, so how could I learn about bluegrass and see if it is something I’d like to enjoy?

A: Get Comcast to add Rural TV to your service package (only $5 a month) and listen to “Reno’s Old Time Music Show.” They have a major bluegrass artist or group on every show, and within weeks you can see if bluegrass is for you.

Email Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com.

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