The Monroe Doctrine

Because it’s a family-like society with common history and reference points, bluegrass is full of inside jokes. One endlessly shared laugh among insiders stems from Bill Monroe’s reputed, reported, oft-skewed and probably true quote about music he deemed outside the bluegrass ken: “ain’t no part of nothin’.” The irony is that while we adore our founding father’s iron will and acerbic way of putting things, most of us recognize that the music he formulated invites change and that even if Mr. Monroe would not like much of the great music being made in his shadow today, that’s okay. Anyway, I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but a songwriter (Nashville’s Craig Market to be specific about it) has managed to write a commentary on bluegrass in song that rhymes “ain’t no part of nothin’” with “Monroe Doctrine,” which is just nothing but funny. Geek humor to be sure, but I’m all about it.

That song lit up our stage last night during a performance by Special Consensus, the venerable bluegrass band out of Chicago founded by banjo man Greg Cahill. It was part of a (nearly) all-bluegrass night that came on the eve of the annual Nashville throwdown by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, or “SPIGMA”. While our past bluegrass nights have been wildly eclectic, showing off that range I was talking about, last night’s acts fit into a narrower slice of the bluegrass spectrum. Special C, the Lonesome River Band, Chris Jones and Darin and Brooke Aldridge represent what I’ve called contemporary tradition. You can hear the roots and hints of the branches. It’s now, but it’s definitely bluegrass.

The Lonesome River Band was a pioneer band in this space, and while it has spun off quite a few distinguished alumni like Dan Tyminski and Ronnie Bowman, the current lineup with anchor Sammy Shelor on banjo still shines. Vocal duties are chiefly handled by the clear-toned, floating voice of Brandon Rickman, with some fantastic tenor harmony from mando man Randy Jones. They lit into their set and our show with a train song (didn’t see that coming did you?) and then upped the tempo even further with “Jack Up The Jail.” Brandon gave a nice shoutout to our front-row regular Myra and shone on the breezy “Record Time Machine.” The set-closer, a swift take on the fiddle standard “Angeline The Baker” sent the proverbial thrill up my leg when they shifted from fiddle/banjo duo to full band power. I can almost see how these guys work so hard at this year in and year out. It’s intoxicating.

The Aldridges are booking themselves as the Sweethearts of Bluegrass, and I’ll buy that. They have wonderful chemistry and they’ve backed up their natural harmonies with a strong and large band. Their stuff often has a touch of contemporary country without sacrificing any integrity, and I think that will be a secret to their success. Their songs are just different. I loved “No One Needs To Know” with its Everly Brothers-like twists and locked vocals. “Corn” was also great, reminding me of the sound that propelled Alison Krauss to massive fame. Let’s hope for the same for the sweethearts from Cherryville, NC.

Chris Jones leads a band called the Night Drivers, a name that aptly conjures up the image of hitting the highway in the dark to make it to the next show, the lifestyle all these folks just take for granted. Tall and lean and low of voice, Jones cuts an impressive figure on stage, and he and his band of fellow bluegrass practitioners and DJs kicked out an awesome set of well-chosen songs. “Final Farewell” was penned by Jones and bass player/friend-of-the-show Jon Weisberger. The wonderful “Hero In Harlan” came from the pen of Tom T. and Dixie Hall, a constant source of Nightdrivers material. The set-ender “Diesel Smoke” was a dark trucker ballad with slow lyrics and fast music.

Special Consensus opened with the Monroe Doctrine song, which became the manifesto of the night. Then a great job on “Sea of Heartbreak” a venerable jam tune and “Blue Skies,” which showed off the deep swing influence Greg Cahill has always brought to this band. But then he used to hang out with the great jazz mandolinist Jethro Burns. “Shoulda Took A Train,” another Weisberger song, set us back on the straight bluegrass highway, and “Moonshine Run” satisfied our need for speed.

Why cap all this bluegrass off with a country set by Darrell Scott? Because we can, that’s why. It was like dessert being as big a deal as the meal. The radically talented Scott brought a full band last night, which is a rare and wonderful thing. He stilled the large crowd immediately with a few deft licks on his acoustic guitar. And he roared into “No Use Living For Today,” a fantastically complex blues with tons of room for Darrell to run on the guitar, though he could run on “Chopsticks” if he set his mind to it. “Hopkinsville” was a shuffle about a Kentucky boy who comes to Nashville a hundred years ago to help build a bridge. And he gave us “Great Day To Be Alive,” his joyful, enduring hit. Last was “Still Got A Ways To Go” the final song on the new Long Ride Home album. It featured huge pianistic solos from Darrell and his impressive band and huge swings from light to dark, like the artist himself.

Jim Lauderdale assembled put together everyone for a tasty rendition of John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind” for the Loveless Jam finale. It was a nod to a guy who loved Bill Monroe and all other great music besides. And that’s our doctrine.

Craig H

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