Bluegrass: A Peek In The You’unsTube Window

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I first heard bluegrass as a 12 year old in Southern California. Lester Flatt, once a leader of Flatt & Scruggs of Beverly Hillbillies fame, was on television. I pestered my Dad for a banjo after that, and he often says he got me a banjo when I was 13 and I didn’t come out of my room until I was 21.

thebluegrassalbumI figured I would put a few YouTube videos together for a little taste of the changing nature of this American art form through the years. If you want a more modern take on the music, skip to the later artists in the post. This may be part one of a series, depending on whether or not anyone is interested. For any rock-ribbed bluegrass purists out there, I am deliberately leaving off a lot of great artists due to time restrictions. If this turns into a series I will get to most of them eventually.

Flatt & Scruggs

In 1946 Bill Monroe kicked country music into high gear with his own hopped-up version.  This seminal bluegrass band had Lester Flatt on guitar and Earl Scruggs ripping the banjo. Earl literally blew people’s minds back then; I have a recording of one of the first Grand Ole Opry shows with Monroe and his new band. When Earl would play an instrumental solo, the crowd would scream and shout like they were watching Eddie Van Halen in the 1980s.

Shortnin’ Bread (banjo instrumental). One of my main banjo heroes. Watch the sense of ease in his playing and demeanor.

I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow

The Stanley Brothers

The Stanley Brothers had an edgier sound. They basically took Monroe’s music and used it to supercharge their old-time mountain music. Very soulful.

Worried Man Blues George Shuffler on lead guitar, a great old Christian gentleman and one of my early guitar heroes.

Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys

Carter Stanley, the rhythm guitarist and lead singer, passed away in the mid-sixties. Several other great singers took his place, many of them going on to their own careers. Here’s one: Keith Whitley, who turned into a major country star by the 1980s.

I Hear a Choo-Choo Coming

Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers

Larry Sparks stepped into Carter Stanley’s shoes in the mid-sixties, and went on to become a bluegrass legend. He’s one of my all-time guitar heroes, and one of the most soulful bluegrass singers ever.

A Face in the Crowd and Carter’s Blues

David Grisman

David Grisman brought a jazz sensibility to bluegrass in the seventies and eighties. This is with Tony Rice, Mark O’Connor, and Rob Wasserman – jazzed up instrumental bluegrass with no banjo.

E.M.D

Tony Rice

Tony Rice has had a career spanning over four decades, becoming synonymous with the idea of bluegrass guitar. This is from an instructional dvd he made in the early eighties. The guitar lead he plays looks deceptively simple, but anyone who’s tried to play it knows it just ain’t so. Also check out his rhythm behind his singing; his guitar jumps out between vocal lines. Tony is one of the best artists in American music; here he sings a Norman Blake song that still gives me chills after all these years.

Church Street Blues

J.D. Crowe and the New South

A few years earlier, in the early to mid 1970s, Tony had played with J.D. Crowe and the New South, along with Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas. This bluegrass supergroup redefined the music. J.D. Crowe is my other main banjo hero. Also, check out the solos on this next tune. Tony’s guitar work is stellar as usually, and J.D. busts the daylights out of it.

Nine Pound Hammer
If I could suggest one record to get, recorded with more modern techniques yet capturing the spirit of Bluegrass, it would be The Bluegrass Album, pictured up at the top of this post. Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson on mandolin, the great Bobby Hicks on fiddle, and Todd Phillips keeping the upright bass steady. That record exploded my world back in 1981.



Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


18 Comments

  1. DrewP

    Oh man, this post has made my week and it’s only Tuesday. I’ve played bluegrass since I was thirteen. One of my greatest influences has been the great Ron Block!! Thanks Ron! Keep em coming!!

  2. Micah

    This was very interesting. I love watching how genres progress as years go by. We think of bluegrass as an old time tradition, but even it has evolved over the years. I would love to see more videos.

  3. kelli

    This was so interesting, Ron! And it brought back a lot of memories. Every time I’d go over to my grandparents, there was only TV station that we watched…TNN. I was often allowed to stay up late and watch The Grand ‘Ole Opry. My grandpa would watch nothing else. Music dripped from him like honey from a hive. He had never had lessons, but he played the bass guitar with a bunch of good ‘ole boys, and I remember being astounded and what he made that guitar do!

    At home, we listened to lots of musical soundtracks and “Christian” music. But I remember something coming alive in me when I first heard bluegrass. There is a purity and rawness in bluegrass that isn’t often found in many music genres anymore. I remember experiencing that again when I came across your first cd and then AKUS many years ago.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  4. PaulH

    Truly a great way to spend a break today from work. Thank you for posting some of the greats in my favorite genre of music. Now I need to go listen to a Doyle CD.

  5. Jon W

    Nice work, Ron. The expression on Curly Ray’s face at 0:43 of “I Hear A Choo Choo Comin'” gets me every time!

  6. Sir Jonathan Andrews

    I remember going on a mission trip to West Virginia years ago and being surprised by two things. First I wasn’t looking forward to going to the local country church because I thought it would be boring. I was shocked when the pastor got up and asked if anyone had a song to share but even more shocked at the response. Several different people took turns leading us in some of the most beautiful singing I’d ever heard. The harmonies were unbelievable the guitar playing so enchanting. I think it was one of the most powerful lessons about being a genuine worshiper that God ever taught me. Second the locals took us to a small town fair one night and who should be there but Ralph Stanley. We got immersed in a different culture I’d never known. One where for an ice cream social people drop a piece of plywood on the church lawn for dancing and they break out the upright bass, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and banjo. Bluegrass culture. I love it.

  7. Nick and Susan

    I’m relatively new to Bluegrass music. But, strangely I’ve always liked it, what I mean is whenever I heard ‘country music’ there was always a certain kind that stood out to me and I’d think, ‘Yes, that’s the sort of country music I like!’.

    Only recently did I find out that the music I liked so much was actually Bluegrass (I’m from England so that’s my excuse for being so ignorant on the matter!!).

    Looking forward to watching all those videos later.

    Susan

  8. Paul Capps

    Ron, thanks for the post. As a missionary kid, I was only introduced to Bluegrass in my 30s while living in Louisville KY some years back by a friend who gave me his copy of ‘Faraway Land.’ He had a lot of bluegrass, but he chose that recording as an introduction to the genre. I understand why now – I so connected with your theological point of view in that recording. Bluegrass now takes up a significant portion of my library. We recently did a ‘Bluegrass Sunday’ at the contemporary service here at our church and played several pieces written by you including ‘A Living Prayer,’ ‘Let Me Be You,’ and ‘I’m Not Holding on to Jesus.’ We also did a piece written by Chris Thile called ‘Doubting Thomas’ which speaks deeply to me. All this to say that I appreciate this post and your humility, but modern, pure or otherwise, this list is incomplete without you (and others: all the fine AKUS folks and Nickel Creek included). But you are my Bluegrass hero. Thank you for the prophetic voice that emanates from both your words and fingers.

  9. Tyson

    Thanks, Ron. Your post turned me on to Tony Rice. Little did I know he would soon be playing live in my town. I saw him on Saturday and it was phenomenal. Rob Ickes was playing dobro with him. Out of this world.

  10. Josh Kemper

    @greendragoncoffee

    So Y’all’s Tube doesn’t work? 😉 I have to admit, I’ve only heard of half of those names, and haven’t listened to any of them.

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