Hooked on Bluegrass

Dix Bruce

While I was in high school the late 1960s I began learning to play guitar. My older brother Terry was and is a guitar player with a wide range of musical tastes but the music he played that I recognized were songs by the hit folk groups of the early 1960s like Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio, etc. Of course that’s what I tried to learn first. I’d heard these songs on the radio and now my own brother was playing them around the house.

About the same time my sister Mary, who is four years older than me, began playing a lot of rock recordings. She’d put an LP on her turntable and pretty much let it play for the whole afternoon, again and again. That gave me a solid schooling in the Beatles, the Stones, the Animals, Lovin’ Spoonful, Van Morrison, and many more. I tried to plunk out some of those songs on my guitar.

Mary’s then boyfriend, Rick March, was a musician. He noticed that I liked the Lovin’ Spoonful and suggested that I might also like some of the blues and jug band musicians they’d learned from. This music was from the 1920s and I loved it immediately and tried to figure out how to play the songs. The music was similar to the folk music I’d started with but much edgier.

As I moved from high school to college, I got to where I knew a few chords and could play with other folks. Rick March continued to steer me musically to various traditional styles of music. Eventually I saw some Bill Monroe and Stanley Brothers LPs at his house and he let me listen to them. I remember the name of the Stanley’s record company making an impression on me: “Rich-R-Tone.” Sounded good! That led me to local bluegrass bands in the southern Wisconsin Area. Again I noticed the similarities with the folk music I’d been learning.

Within a year or so Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys played at the University of Wisconsin. I’d heard about Ralph from Rick but I was so new to the genre that I expected to see Ralph with his brother Carter. This was in about 1972, long after Carter’s death in 1966. However, the band was awesome: Ralph, of course, Curly Ray Cline, Roy Lee Centers, Jack Cook, and two young players, younger than me, Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs. Keith played some cross picked solos on the guitar that blew me away. Ricky played mandolin and some fiddle and sang like an angel. The whole experience hit me like a bolt out of the blue. Prior to that, I didn’t even suspect that such music existed.

It seems that a whole new local bluegrass scene coalesced around this one concert. Suddenly we were all putting together bands and performing “Sitting on Top of the World,” “Little Maggie,” “Will You Miss Me,” “The White Dove,” “Rank Strangers” and all the great songs Ralph introduced at the show. (They were all new to me!) Since a whole group of us were inspired by the same experience, our group enthusiasm was fed by each member and it grew and built quickly. I learned a hundred new songs and discovered a hundred great groups and musicians from my picking buddies. I was inspired to learn everything they knew or brought to a jam session. I always tell students to try to get into some similar type of musical community, either a band or a regular jam session. It will amplify your progress and your fun by ten fold.

From these same folks I was introduced to all sorts of different shades of bluegrass and traditional music. One told me about Doc Watson. Another really loved the music of the Country Gentlemen. The traditionalists loved Flatt & Scruggs ... old Flatt & Scruggs! The younger ones steered me to the historic LP set “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” In retrospect, hearing those recordings was as inspiring and powerful as seeing the Clinch Mountain Boys live. Here were young rock musicians, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, guys who looked like hippies, introducing a whole new generation to Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Roy Acuff, Vassar Clements, Merle Travis, and more by paying homage to them and recording WITH them. Of course I tried to learn just about all the songs. Many of them I still play to this day.

A year after hearing the Clinch Mountain Boys, Mike Seeger came to campus and introduced me (and several hundred other members of the audience) to another whole side of things. I discovered the New Lost City Ramblers and they brought me deeper into the Carter Family, not to mention Charlie Poole and so many others. I began to see old time and bluegrass music as a vast and varied canvas that seemed to never end. And it encompassed all sorts of substyles packed with passion, meaning, and humor. Real people making real music.

Hearing Vassar on the “Circle” project led me to “Old and in the Way” with David Grisman, Pete Rowan, Jerry Garcia” and “Muleskinner” with some of the same players and the great Clarence White. That led me to the slightly older recordings of the Kentucky Colonels. I was just getting deeper and deeper into it. Somewhere in there I heard the New Grass Revival and it scared the dickens out of me! It was intense and aggressive, exciting and fun.

My interest and joy in discovering the music built, gradually, steadily. I trace most of it to working through the songs and tunes with friends and learning about the fun of sharing music and playing together. More than anything else, that was the engine that made it all happen for me. I doubt that I would have learned it had it not been for my picking buddies. Now, here I am, almost forty years later, still playing, still learning, still discovering, still having a great time!

(posted 2/18/2008)

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