Each of the bluegrass instruments has a particular story that connects the world with America. The banjo might be the most weighty, arriving from Africa as a direct result of the slave trade. The double bass came from the royal parlors of Europe’s baroque period. The mandolin is perhaps the most unusual. It’s derived from the lute and has been used by troubadours, chamber groups, full-on mandolin orchestras and, most pivotally for our story today, Bill Monroe. The mandolin found its way into American folk music in the 20s and 30s because there were so many of them in circulation after a popular wave of mandolin bands in the US at the turn of the century. They made a cutting, high counterpoint to other string instruments and the human voice. With Bill Monroe and the birth of bluegrass, the mandolin became a hallmark that could kick off a song with drama, keep time like a snare drum and tenderize a ballad with lush, woody tremolo.
This week at Roots for our summer season closer, we’ve worked with one of bluegrass music’s best young musicians to bring you Mando Mania, a celebration and exposition of the diminutive but powerful eight-stringed, flouncy scrolled instrument that gave bluegrass its chop and its coppery high end shine. We’ll be featuring at least five of the top players in the world, with some surprises I feel sure.
Our curator is Casey Campbell, whose story is oh so Nashville. He literally grew up backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, because his father was a prominent fiddle player who once was a Bluegrass Boy. Casey’s mom is Marcia Campbell, Opry square dancer and beloved WSM DJ. Casey was all in, picking up the guitar and then mandolin as a kid and absorbing the mastery and mentorship of many of our city’s great mandolin players, including Ricky Skaggs, Ronnie McCoury and Mike Compton. We’ve seen Casey on our stage with the Vicki Vaughn Band and recently with his current gig, the Bryan Sutton Band. And the inspiration to stage Mando Mania came from his debut recording as a leader, a glorious collection of 13 mandolin duets with some of those aforementioned heroes and many others as well: Sam Bush, David Grisman, Roland White. It’s testimony to Casey’s talents and good will that he was able to line these up. Similarly, the masters he’s invited to be part of Wednesday night make for a mando honor roll.
Bobby Osborne is one of the most important figures in the history of bluegrass music and a certifiable Hall of Fame legend with an unbelievable 65+year career in professional music. Along with banjo player Sonny, the Osborne Brothers introduced sounds, textures and songs to the bluegrass canon that remain as influential today as they did in they did in the 60s and 70s. As Glen Duncan writes in the official bio, “he was the first person to craft a style not based on Monroe style mandolin playing. Bobby’s mandolin style reflected his love of the fiddle, and electric guitar playing of Hank Garland and Grady Martin.” Osborne recently has been hailed for his new album Original. He certainly is that.
Tim O’Brien has been a regular on MCR, performing as recently as a few weeks ago. But that’s because he’s an Americana/bluegrass star. As a mandolin player, he’s always set himself apart from Bill Monroe bluegrass orthodoxy. He plays an A style, teardrop shaped instrument instead of the more common F style made famous by Monroe. And he’s got a dancing, swinging and fluid sound that’s instantly recognizable.
We’ve never had Andy Statman on Roots before so it will be an honor to welcome him, for he’s a very different kind of mandolin pioneer. Casey Campbell told me in a recent interview that he thinks of Statman as a pure jazz musician who can nevertheless show you any lick ever recorded by Bill Monroe. He’s a distinguished Klezmer player as well who’s made a ton of breathtaking recordings on mando and clarinet. The New York based Statman is one of the most admired pure musicians in acoustic music.
As great as the mandolin is as an instrument, I was once skeptical that a solo musician could hold an audience spellbound with only those trebly eight strings. At a MCR performance in April 2014, Mike Compton proved me wrong. This nimble, passionate and bluesy Music City picker came to my notice as part of the vital Nashville Bluegrass Band, and among other honors he was called on to be part of the Soggy Bottom Boys in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Lately he’s been touring in a fantastic old timey duo with Joe Newberry. His style is rough and ready, dense and colorful and very much in the tradition of Mr. Monroe himself. Saaaa-lute!
So mando up and be with us for a season finale that will surely provide some high strung moments.