Hooked on Bluegrass

Rita Hosking

I don’t think I knew what bluegrass was until I got a Bill Monroe tape when I was 18. I grew up in the mountains of eastern Shasta County, CA, where old time music was alive and well, and we listened to country on the record player, but, “bluegrass”?? Can you eat that?

I didn’t even know what to call the music that I grew up with, until I saw Kenny Hall perform several years ago--then I knew it was “old-time.” Bluegrass was an easy stretch to understand, there were many of the same tunes, phrasings, instruments and feelings as I’d heard the bunch of old mountain characters play in our area. One member of this group, our school cook, Pauline, decided she’d take in some girls and teach them to play and perform. We were average age 14, and we called ourselves the “Farmerettes.” Funny, since there weren’t many farmers around there, we were a logging area. We played the Burney Basin Days Parade and just about every little function/fair we could muster up in our little mountain community. I played our old washboard with Mom’s thimbles and also sang some country tunes I knew.

Years later, after an intense love affair with world folk music of all kinds, especially Middle Eastern and North African, I began listening to regular old American folk music again. Must have been having kids.

My college friends had bought me an old Gibson on which I’d started writing songs, so I started using it to write and sing about who I am—maybe I had to figure that out, as a mother. However I never had much time to do enough of it, what with a family, job, home.

All in all, my kids got a little older and my husband Sean started playing banjo. He played with wonderful friends of ours in the neighborhood, often in our living room. Being a pretty quiet person, I didn’t get involved, till I think it just about drove me crazy and I started singing. They liked it, and were encouraging. They knew a lot of bluegrass tunes, and with that country/old time background, my voice fit well. The music I started writing started sounding more grassy with that influence. Then, I heard Hazel Dickens, and my heart just about dropped to the floor. I figured if you call her bluegrass, deal me in.

In bluegrass, I’m also particularly moved by Ralph Stanley and the Stanley Brothers, whose style deemed “mountain” gets my full attention. Jeannie Stanley, Carter Stanley’s daughter and an amazing vocalist, wrote to me recently, “I like your sound. It's different. I don't like to hear females who sound like everyone else.” That kind message affirmed something in me.

Now I’ve figured it out — I’m basically doing mountain music. It’s a lot easier than saying “I write folk music that has an old-time and country background and a strong bluegrass influence.” Bluegrass got it’s name from its home. As a mountain-raised girl, I know as well as anyone else that home is where the heart, and often the music, is.

(posted 4/6/2008)

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