Author: Lehmann, Ted

Hand, Heart, Head

People have made music for eons. The music came here from all over the world, mostly brought by the folk who made it, but also transported by more sophisticated people who knew how to read music and play instruments in a formal way. It came from Europe, Africa, the east, and was found among indigenous peoples from the start. The music we love combined many of these influences as it was nurtured and developed in the southern mountains, on farms, along the rivers, and across the plains in the hands and voices of musicians in churches, in slavery, at work, in prison, on the back porch, in the parlor on farms and small towns, and, eventually, in cities and suburbs. For the most part, it was learned by ear and taught by example, not through theory. It was a different era. Communications were primitive by contemporary standards and luxuries nearly non-existent. Bill Monroe grew up in that much more limited environment of family entertainment and relative absence of luxury and comfort. The radio was a relatively new phenomenon in a world where electricity in rural areas was still something of a novelty. Monroe created a new musical form and brilliantly used the technology of the age to spread his unique sound.

The background noise changed in the latter third of the twentieth century. Jazz, the signature music of the last century, was dieing. Elvis Presley became a signature transitional figure. And the Beatles changed everything. While the period after World War I was called the Jazz Age, rock and roll music created the ear and sensibility that has come to dominate people's music as we move into the twenty-first century. The other night we went to a small Vermont restaurant, bar, and inn to hear our son, playing with his four man rock cover band, open for a Louisiana electric bluesman named Tab Benoit. The music, although a mite loud to our aged ears, was exciting. We were happy to see young Alex (young at 40) rockin' with his friends before an audience of colleagues, alumni, and parents at the school where he teaches. Benoit was electric not only in being plugged in, but in his skill, voice, and sensibility. Perhaps more important, just before the music began, the owner of this terrific road house removed the tables and chairs. Try to imagine a bluegrass audience capable of standing, dancing, and circulating for two or three hours as a couple of bands give their all on stage. Where we see and hear bluegrass played, people literally wouldn't and couldn't stand for it.

Training in music, too, has come into very different world. While many young musicians may grow up being taken to festivals by their parents and having a variety of acoustic instruments strewn about the house that they are forbidden to pick up, thus making them irresistible, most are learning music in a quite different environment. They hear and see music on television. They are accustomed to having sound available in their ears almost constantly. The iPod or other MP3 player is ubiquitous in our society. Much of the music that forms their consciousness is directly or indirectly descended from rock and roll. They take lessons; they perform in school bands and orchestras. The more adventuresome young musicians form bands of their own and replicate the music they hear, adding their own musical ideas to it. The music grows and changes and some of it sticks while much fades and dies away.

Tomorrow we'll be heading to nearby Brattleboro, VT to see Stephen Mougin, guitarist with the Sam Bush Band, playing with Ned Luberecki, from Sirius/XM radio, on their winter tour of the northeast. Mougin is an excellent example of the modern roots, acoustic, bluegrass picker. He's a music education graduate of the University of Massachusetts and taught chorus, and General Music at the high school level in western Massachusetts. He also produced and directed school musicals while he was there while teaching private guitar lessons. It's not clear to me how this background led him to bluegrass, but in 2002 he moved to Nashville where he toured and played with bands like Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike, Jim Lauderdale, Melonie Cannon, and Randy Kohrs. He's featured on Bush's new release, “Circles Around Me.” While Mougin loves playing and singing bluegrass music, he says his interests run in wider directions, and like most creative musicians, he's dedicated to following those interests and instincts where they take him.

Chris Pandolfi, brilliant young banjo player with the Infamous Stringdusters, is one of the crop of pickers taking the music into new and, perhaps, uncharted waters. Along with Noam Pikelny and others, he is following the crusading footsteps of Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck into directions that are not clear or, necessarily, well understood by bluegrass fans. Perhaps most interesting, however, is the educational path Pandolfi chose to follow. After graduating from Dartmouth, where, I understand, he first picked up the banjo, he elected to attend the Berklee School of Music in Boston. (Please don't confuse this institution with the renowned university in northern California.) Berklee's web site proclaims, “Berklee College of Music was founded on the revolutionary principal that the best way to prepare students for careers in music is through the study and practice of contemporary music. For more than half a century, the college has evolved to reflect the state of the art of music and the music business.” It should not be surprising, therefore, that young musicians attending Berklee are immersed in new and innovative music, or that they're having an impact in every area of performance. Musicians like Pandolfi, Andy Hall (Dobro player with the Infamous Stringdusters), and Joe Walsh (mandolinist with the Gibson Brothers) have found their way into the acoustic/bluegrass world, and there are many others coming along the way as Berklee reaches out to the bluegrass world. This college of music is a hotbed of creativity, innovation, and change.

And now, look who's enrolled at Berklee on a Presidential scholarship. This year Sierra Hull has entered Berklee as a freshman while continuing to tour with her bluegrass band Sierra Hull and Highway 111. Hull, a pretty, small sprite of a girl from Byrdstown, TN, has been more than a blip on the bluegrass radar since she was about eight years old. Hull could have stayed out on the road with her band and forged a brilliant career as a bluegrass musician. Instead, she has chosen to attend one of the most challenging and innovative music schools in the nation. Her contemporary, Sarah Jarosz, has almost simultaneously enrolled at the Boston Conservatory of Music. These young women will be lighting the way in contemporary acoustic music for the next generation. Who knows what direction the music will take under their leadership?

In the end, the context in which the music develops defines the music itself. Acoustic Americana music, which includes the bluegrass music we revere, will continue to change and grow. As Sam Bush said, “The revolution continue...and it needs to.” The only question left is whether we'll decide to enter into this new and exciting world, or dig in our heals, refuse to listen or participate, and insist on walking out to return to our campers and play and sing Little Cabin Home on the Hill.

Posted:  11/20/2009

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