Author: Evans, Bill

New England Musical Scenes
 

Late October is a great time to be on tour in the Northeast. Megan Lynch and I have been up here for about a week, performing and teaching in Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. Fall (or as they insist on saying in England, autumn) has always been my favorite time of year. In my native Virginia and elsewhere throughout the south, the season tends to reveal itself in small doses, spreading itself out between mid-September and Christmas. However, here in New England, it’s more like a riotous one act play, with all of nature changing rapidly, as the region races to winter almost in the blink of an eye.

For a long time, this part of the United States has warmly welcomed acoustic and bluegrass music. In the 1950’s and 60’s, Boston and the Northeast played an important role in the urban folk revival. Bluegrass pioneers the Lilly Brothers and Don Stover were based out of this area for decades, as was bluegrass mandolinist Joe Val. Rounder Records and Signature Sounds also make their homes in the Northeast. The Charles River Valley Boys, a group of young Boston-based musicians, set the bluegrass and folk worlds on their collective ears in the 1960’s with their recording “Beatle Country,” intimating more changes to come in bluegrass in the 1970’s. As in California, the Northeast has a strong bluegrass association, the Boston Bluegrass Union, which supports regional activity at both the professional and amateur level and there are many fine festivals in the region.

One of the biggest stories in acoustic music over the last several years has been the emergence of Boston and the Northeast as a vibrant center for a new fusion of styles that doesn’t have a name yet (or at least no one has told me!). Its practitioners are young musicians in their teens and twenties who are building upon the foundation established by their generation’s own icons - musicians such as Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Belá Fleck, Tim O’Brien, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. Combining elements of world fiddling traditions, Irish, bluegrass, classical, alternative rock and jazz, the level of virtuosity of this new generation of instrumentalists is truly mind-boggling. I count my friends the Bee Eaters (Tashina and Tristan Clarridge, Wes Corbett and Simon Chrisman, http://beeeaters.com) among this group as well as Charlie Rose and Amanda Kalwalski and California transplants Margaret Glaspy and Brittany and Natalie Haas.

The Berklee College of Music (http://berklee.edu), one of the premier music colleges in the world, has instituted an “acoustic string principal” as a performance degree choice and this has no doubt served as a magnet that has drawn many of these musicians to the Boston area. It’s the college’s largest growing major. Rounder artist Sierra Hull is currently attending Berklee and you’ll soon be hearing more from up and coming Berklee string phenoms Wes Tuttle, Jacob Jolliff, Gabe Hirshfield and Dominick Leslie. Sugar Hill mandolinist and songwriter Sarah Jarosz is attending the New England Conservatory of Music (http://necmusic.edu), located just down the block from Berklee.

A couple of hours up the road from Boston, you’ll find a second vibrant acoustic scene in Portland, Maine. Another educational center, 317 Main Street Community Music Center in nearby Yarmouth (http://www.317mainst.org/), serves as a nexus point for a regional scene that now includes fiddler Darol Anger, mandolinist Joe Walsh and guitarist Matt Arcara. Megan and I recently gave workshops at 317 Main and we found it to be a truly remarkable place that’s serving over 380 students, many of them children, weekly for individual lessons and ensemble workshops in bluegrass and Irish music (and this is in a town with only 60,000 residents!). With a professional staff of six (with health insurance!), a café and casual social spaces, 317 Main Street feels more like a community center – which is exactly what a great musical space is supposed to be! I don’t know of any other place quite like 317 Main but we need more of these kinds of centers all across the country to keep the music alive and growing.

There are also well-known instrument builders in the Northeast, including world-famous violinmaker Jon Cooper (http://www.jcooperviolinmaker.com/), guitar builder Scott Conley (http://www.conleyguitars.com) and banjo builder Will Fielding (http://www.fieldingbanjos.com/). The Vermont Instruments School of Lutherie in Post Mills (http://www.vermontinstruments.com/) is another unique center of training, with revolving workshops in guitar, mandolin, banjo and instrument repair.

I hesitate to over generalize as to why this part of the world is becoming such a hot bed for acoustic music right now, but I have a few thoughts. The emphasis on education and educational spaces not only attracts new players but also sustains a professional music community that can make a significant part of their year round income from teaching. Secondly, bluegrass exists as part of a continuum here that includes and welcomes other related kinds of music. This is essential in attracting and keeping good young musicians. There’s strength in numbers with this approach – musicians can get more work (as in more gigs and more students), audiences are potentially larger and most certainly younger, and new fusions, such as those currently being created by groups like Crooked Still, Joy Kills Sorrow and the Bee Eaters, are encouraged and given resources and room to grow and flourish.

As I write this on Tuesday, Megan and I are preparing for a benefit concert this evening at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont, where my son will be graduating this December. On Wednesday, we’ll host a master class at Berklee before performing in the evening at Boston’s oldest acoustic venue, Club Passim (formerly Club 47) with another young band of virtuosos, Broken Blossoms (http://www.myspace.com/brokenblossomsband). Then it’s back home to Nashville and Berkeley on Thursday. We hope to see you in the next few weeks at one of our own upcoming greater San Francisco Bay Area November concerts and workshops (check us out at www.beml.info).

All the best,

Bill Evans
bevans@nativeandfine.com

 
Posted:  10/30/2009



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