Hooked on Bluegrass

Ken Irwin

I grew up in and around New York City and didn't even know that country music existed. My early listening was to Peter Tripp's "Your Hits of the Week" where I listened to the top 40 every week. I liked songs like "Oh Lonesome Me" "Gone" and "Singing the Blues," but never knew that they were country, only that I liked them. I certainly never heard bluegrass while growing up, though I loved music, mostly doo-wop and early rock and roll.

In the spring of 1962 during my senior year in high school, my mother died. My father immediately became an eligible widower and friends began to invite him to dinner to meet this or that available woman. By the time graduation day rolled around, my father owed lots of these friends return invites. Dealing with them one-by-one would have taken months, so it was decided to have a graduation party for me, and all of these folks were invited. A few of my friends were invited but, as it turned out, most of those at the party were adults.

Naturally, everyone brought graduation presents. One couple had a son (Steve Price) and they asked him what to get for me. I had recently become interested in folk music ... Pete Seeger, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Odetta. Steve suggested that everyone who liked folk music should have one bluegrass record and he recommended the Greenbriar Boys album (there was only one at the time). I listened to it once and thought it was really corny. "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight," "A Whole Lot More of Jesus [and a Lot Less Rock and Roll]," "Rosie's Gone Again," "Coot from Tennessee." (Later on Steve Price wrote one of the early books on bluegrass.)

That fall, I went off to college in the Boston area, and I brought along my record player and all my records. Our upstairs friends in the dorm didn't have a record player so my roommate (and future partner at Rounder) Bill Nowlin and I ran sound wires from our record player out the window and into their radio so whenever we played music, they would hear it. For a joke, we'd play this "corny" Greenbriar Boys album at odd hours. We're the ones who got "hooked." With repeated listenings, we started really liking the music and getting over the "southern" accents. I'm not sure the upstairs dorm dwellers ever did.

Bill and I started going to concerts and coffee houses to see bluegrass. One night when we were at the now-legendary Club 47 in Cambridge, we heard some fiddle and banjo music playing on the sound system before the show started. Before leaving, we checked it out and learned it was the 37th Old Time Fiddlers' Convention from Union Grove North Carolina on Folkways ... I think I still remember the number: was it Folkways 2434? Reading the liner notes, we learned that this festival occurred each Easter weekend. The following spring, Bill and I hitch-hiked down to Union Grove and it was there - seeing the music in its natural habitat - that we both fell in love with bluegrass and old-time music.

While some of the lyrics had not resonated with us previously, as we had grown up in suburban Massachusetts and New York, hearing the music in this rural setting made it all make sense. The music was soulful. Musicians and listeners alike were having fun. There was a real sense of community and camaraderie and, even though we were not from the south and we probably looked like hippies to most of the those there, we were accepted as part of the community. The music and the love of the music were the things which brought everyone together. I was hooked on bluegrass, and all because of a graduation gift of a record I didn't even like at first.

(posted 12/17/2005)

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