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Mid-Winter Bluegrass

As January turns to February, many people slide into the mid-winter blues. But a hale and hearty group of American music fans and music makers take up banjos against their sea of troubles and head to Nashville for mid-winter bluegrass instead. The gathering has a grand name – the Society For The Preservation of Bluegrass in America – and a weird acronym, SPBGMA, pronounced SPIG-ma. But if you’ve ever visited the ballrooms and halls and suites of the Airport Sheraton in Nashville during the event, you know what a high-energy, high-joy place and conference it is. So while we didn’t set out to design a SPBGMA show per se, the confluence of bluegrass bands in town this week made an all-bluegrass lineup almost inevitable and, as Bill Monroe used to say, powerf’l.

Let’s start with the Lonesome River Band because its staying power is remarkable, as is its fealty to the sound and feeling that launched the group a couple of decades ago with entirely different musicians. We think of bands as chemistry among specific musicians so personnel changes are always a matter of curiosity and some uncertainty. But LRB had churned over several times since 1982 without faltering. Its Past Members list is a Who’s Who of bluegrass music, including Dan Tyminski, Ronnie Bowman and Ricky Simpkins. But it has worked because since 1990, the anchor of the sound has been banjo master Sammy Shelor, who’s won every possible accolade, including the Steve Martin Banjo Prize. The LRB has released 17 albums plus a 3-CD Chronology project reviewing their distinguished career. Now they’re near the top of the national bluegrass charts once again, ironically, with a driving song of woe called “Rock Bottom” from the catalog of Ralph Stanley. For all those years of traditionalists worrying that the progressives were going to erode passion for classic bluegrass, LRB is proof that their fears were misplaced.

I never dreamed that an album by one of the first families of gospel bluegrass would give me an excuse to write about the neuroscience of instrument tuning, but let’s enjoy life’s little delights. The background: standard tuning for all Western music (arbitrarily) calls a pitch vibrating at 440 cycles per second an “A”. Yet there’s a whole body of philosophy and music theory that insists that nature’s plan is for the baseline A to be 432 cycles per second, or just a little bit lower in pitch than the A you hear every day. For reasons I have yet to fully understand, the legendary Isaacs, a family band with roots stretching back to the early 90s (when their debut album was produced by Tony Rice), arranged and recorded their new album Nature’s Symphony in A 432. And it’s hard to know if I’d have noticed something different at a conscious or subconscious level, but the recording is exceptionally warm and sonorous. The singing feels especially unforced and enveloping. Orchestral additions by the Nashville Symphony are mighty sweet too. I mean, it’s The Isaacs, including country/bluegrass star Sonya, so lovely moving voices are to be expected, but maybe they took it up a notch by taking the tuning down a notch.

It would be all but impossible to have a better World of Bluegrass than Joe Mullins did last September in Raleigh. He and his band the Radio Ramblers won an IBMA Award in the Gospel Recording category. The man himself (owner of and show host over a network of classic country and bluegrass radio stations with one of the warmest radio voices you ever heard) was named Broadcaster of the Year. His son Daniel, one of the industry’s young mover/shakers, won the award for best liner notes. And on top of all that, Joe was elevated to chairman of the IBMA itself. It couldn’t be in better hands. Mullins is a servant and steward of the music who champions and performs it with style and fealty to tradition.

And it doesn’t seem like all that long ago that we got to hang out with the Foghorn Stringband, but it’s never too often for this Oregon-based old-time outfit to come by. We just love them. They bring youthful cool and deep soul to the American fiddle and banjo tradition, and their songs pay homage (sometimes explicitly) to the great work of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. They just keep growing in profile and they’ve got some European adventures planned for 2017. I’ve written with love about Foghorn in the past, but I can’t top the words of blogging “Fiddlefreak” Stuart Mason: “They’re still the gold standard. Old-time acoustic Americana music is exploding these days, and Foghorn is leading the charge without even trying to put their mark on it. You hear Foghorn, and you know it’s Foghorn. Face it, people. There’s Foghorn–and there’s everyone else.”

I’m not saying there aren’t reasons to be gloomy in this tumultuous winter, but I can vouch for the powers of bluegrass as nature’s most potent anti-depressant.

Craig H.

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