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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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.